By Manya A. Brachear, Chicago Tribune reporter
April 8, 2012
Alice Brown remembers the moment of dread when doctors diagnosed her with cancer. She imagines her terror and despair were much like what Jesus felt when he was sentenced to die on the cross.
Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy seemed to defeat the disease. But just when she thought she had conquered death, she absorbed another blow — doctors diagnosed her friend Carol Lydecker with cancer, too. After three decades of shared memories, this was one experience that Brown wished they didn't have in common.
To cope, Brown, a stage actress and parishioner at St. James Roman Catholic Church in Arlington Heights, turned to her craft and an ancient Catholic tradition that commemorates Christ's suffering and death — the 14 Stations of the Cross.
Just as Christians believe Christ's story didn't conclude on the cross, Brown realized her journey and Lydecker's didn't end with a diagnosis. There is always the prospect of the 15th Station — the grand finale of Easter, when Christians celebrate the miracle of Christ's resurrection.
And so began Brown's latest production: a modern adaptation of the Stations for those whose lives have been touched by cancer. She enlisted Lydecker and others to help. The show was performed at churches in the Chicago area during the days of Lent.
"On Easter, we celebrate moving from darkness to light," said Brown, 55, of Arlington Heights. "We celebrate moving from despair and hopelessness to hope and new birth. That's what the message of the Stations is. There is hope for you."
Within the Stations of the Cross, a typically somber series of meditations marking each phase of Christ's journey to the cross, Brown discovered a road map for rising above pain. She found consolation that she did not suffer in solitude and grasped that she had not been forsaken after all.
"Every day, whether it's Easter, whether it's tomorrow, whether it's today, there are people to help you through this," she said.
With closely cropped silver hair and a slender frame that never stops moving, Alice Brown is such a bundle of contagious energy that it's hard to believe she was ever sick. In fact, it was difficult for her to accept the diagnosis when she first heard the word "cancer" on June 15, 2009.
Before the end of the month, she had undergone surgery to remove the lump in her breast and a half-dozen other lymph nodes. She got a second opinion and a third opinion and a fourth on what to do next, and decided to go after the cancer with vehemence.
By the following February, chemotherapy had taken her hair. Combined with 30 radiation treatments, it also had eradicated the disease. Every three months, the doctors check to make sure.
"It's OK to be on a tight leash because I know there are a lot of people looking out for me," she said.
One of those people has been her parish priest, the Rev. Bill Zavaski, a cancer survivor himself, who knew Brown had a gift. A couple of years before, she had adapted and staged a Stations of the Cross for survivors of the 1958 fire that killed 92 children and three nuns at Our Lady of the Angels School on Chicago's West Side.
Brown's two older sisters had escaped the fire. Brown, only 2 at the time, had no recollection. But when she accompanied her sister to a memorial Mass 50 years later, she witnessed the unbreakable bond that united the survivors. She also realized the overwhelming grief that haunts them still.
"I can remember sitting in the church thinking: 'This is as close as you can get to Jesus walking to his death on the cross,'" she said.
Zavaski had seen how her modern twist on the ancient devotion had soothed audiences. He encouraged her to do it again, this time drawing from her own experience with cancer.
"One advantage cancer survivors have is we never take another day for granted," he said. "That's a great gift of having to take up that cross."
"As a person going through it, I didn't think about it that way," Zavaski added. "It's so beautiful to be able to step back and reflect on it now, to approach it from a very positive standpoint."
Ancient tradition, new look
Each of Brown's stations, presented by one of five readers, echoes the voice of someone touched by cancer: the husband who lost his wife, the oncology nurse awed by her patients, a woman who loses her hair.
All of the perspectives are based on real people who have inspired Brown or injected joy into her life. Brown wrote each part with the five readers in mind, including herself and her husband, Bill. He composed the musical refrain that follows each Station.
The original Stations of the Cross date to fourth century Jerusalem, when devotions were developed to commemorate the anniversary of Christ's crucifixion on Good Friday.
For some Catholics, the Stations conjure dismal childhood memories of parents dragging them to church, trudging around the worship space and struggling to recite the prayers tied to each step of Christ's brutal death march.
But many clergy and congregants have adapted the Stations to address social causes, appeal to certain audiences, or pay tribute to a loss. Some, such as the Via Crucis, or Way of the Cross, in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, come alive as reenactments performed in period costumes.
The Rev. Edward Foley, a Capuchin priest who teaches liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union, said the ritual always held more purpose than simply retracing Christ's footsteps to the cross.
"One of the reasons why over the centuries people have contemplated the death and suffering of Jesus is to recognize that also in our own lives our suffering can be life-giving," he said.
A friend in need
Of course, it took a while for Brown to appreciate the gifts that cancer had laid on her doorstep: the unexpected kindness of acquaintances, a greater sense of purpose.
She had just begun to celebrate her recovery and breathe her first sighs of relief when her best friend Carol Lydecker, 56, complained of a mysterious pain in her hip. Within months, doctors linked it to advanced colon cancer.
Brown met Lydecker in 1979 when Lydecker choreographed a ballet for Brown's character in a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Carousel." At the first rehearsal, they plopped on the gym floor in their leotards and chatted for an hour before remembering they had work to do.
"You know how you just like someone right away?" Brown said.
At one point, the two quit their jobs and drove across the country to Oregon. They returned to Chicago when they realized there were far fewer theater jobs in Oregon. After a while, they met their husbands and pursued different paths.
Brown, an actress, raised a family in the north suburbs. Lydecker, a dancer and choreographer, lived in the west suburbs and pursued her passion. They shared the stage only once, in a community theater production of "A Chorus Line." But they never grew apart.
The day after Brown's surgery in June 2009, Lydecker drove up from Forest Park for the afternoon. When Brown debated undergoing chemotherapy, Lydecker urged her to do it because she wanted her friend to stick around a while longer.
Looking back, though, Lydecker wishes she had called more often, the way Brown does for her now. Brown believes her cancer taught her to anticipate Lydecker's needs, including the longing to perform. Within a few months, Brown began to write her version of the Stations.
"The Stations were written with her in mind and for her to be a part of it," Brown said. "Carol may not be able to do pirouettes across the stage or sing a song ever again. But she's touching people's lives and feeling like her life has meaning more now even in these simple Stations of the Cross that she can share."
Taking up their cross
While chemotherapy and radiation wiped out Lydecker's colon cancer, the cancer already had spread to her lungs. It has now spread to a lymph node that has pressed and paralyzed one of her vocal cords.
Still, Lydecker never missed a rehearsal.
"I don't get to perform anymore and reach people," Lydecker said in a raspy voice during a recent chemotherapy session with Brown by her side. "This reaches people. We're hoping people leave knowing they're not alone."
The Stations transcend the Lenten season and the Catholic Church, she said, adding that the troupe plans to perform at a United Church of Christ in June.
"While Easter comes only once a year, the reality is that people walk the cancer journey 365 days each year," Brown said.
On a recent Friday, Lydecker rose from her chair next to the altar at St. Mary of the Woods Catholic Church, lit a candle and stepped to the podium to present Brown's take on the second station — Jesus taking up his cross. Though the words reflected Brown's perspective, Lydecker identified with the script.
"The bottom line is, I didn't want to be the poster child for cancer — nobody does," she strained to tell the audience, her hoarse voice crackling. "It's just the cross we take up. Underneath our diagnosis, we're still the people we always were — looking for answers, needing positive support and praying for God's grace."
Later, Brown rose from her chair to share the ninth station — Jesus falling the third time.
"I had gotten through surgery, chemo and radiation, and before my hair even had a chance to grow back, my best friend was diagnosed with cancer," she told the audience.
"In less than a year's time, she went from being my rock and my refuge, to looking cancer in the face herself. It was just too much. My spirits hit rock bottom and I was powerless to pull myself up — until I saw my friend walk by carrying her cross. … Now, we walk together, my friend and I — hand in hand, heart to heart."
She returned to her seat beside Lydecker. They each exchanged knowing glances and reached for the other's hand.
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