Beth Carlough & Wendy Nowicki
Beth knew the bleeding meant something was wrong, but that didn’t lessen the shock of her doctor’s words.
“I went through all of the stages of grief, and I was still in denial when I told Wendy,” said Beth. She knew the stages well; Beth had helped children and their families cope with illness as the child life manager at Nemours / Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children until she retired in June 2020 — the month before receiving her diagnosis.
It was too hard to say it out loud, even to Wendy, whose eldest son is Beth’s godson and whose friendship is largely why Beth’s eldest son is alive, well, and raising a child of his own. “I thought I would blubber on the phone, and then she would be dealing with me going through this, which I knew would be so hard for her,” Beth said. So she sent Wendy a text: “I have endometrial cancer.”
Wendy typed back a one-word expletive in response.
All she wanted was to drive from her home in Newtown, Bucks County, to Beth’s in Wilmington, Del. She wanted to cry with her, and, as the weeks and months went on, to go with her to treatments, to hold her hand, to hug her hard. The COVID-19 pandemic made that impossible — especially with treatment suppressing Beth’s immune system.
Beth said she felt her friend’s support through their texts and phone calls and it really helped, but that was not enough for Wendy: “I was really struggling with how to support her, how do I make sure she feels loved. Then I remembered the story about the paper cranes.”
Japanese legend says that the person who folds 1,000 origami cranes — a senbazuru — is granted a wish, such as for the returned health and strength of a person who is sick. Wendy folded her first crane in October 2020. It took 20 minutes. Wendy’s family and other friends offered to help, but Wendy needed to fold each crane herself.
“I couldn’t touch Beth, but I would touch every one of these cranes,” she said.
The women met at Nemours in 2000 during Wendy’s interview for a child life specialist position. Beth wasn’t the manager yet. She and Wendy shared an office. Their mission was to provide emotional, social, and psychological support to children who were ill and their families. They shared in these families’ worries and hopes. There were many happy days when a child left the hospital for home, but some of the young patients were in pain. Not all of them survived.
“I was someone coming into my first child life job, and it was an intense job,” said Wendy. “Beth was someone I could rely on and go to for support and guidance. When I had an intense day, she emotionally supported me.”
Back then, Beth said, Wendy “was in her 20s, and I was in my 40s, but she is very wise and mature, and I soon felt super comfortable telling her the good, the bad, and the ugly of my life. She was truly supportive, and she is also a lot of laughs.”
In 2002, Beth went from being the therapist to the mother with the sick child: Her son, Marco, then 14, was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare liver disease. “I called Wendy because I couldn’t even think straight,” she said. Wendy used all that Beth had taught her to help Beth. Marco’s condition was managed and fairly stable for the next several years.
In 2005, Wendy and her husband welcomed the first of their four children, Maddox, Beth’s godson. Wendy left Nemours, but the women’s friendship remained strong, even though the geographical distance and Wendy’s new baby and the ones that followed made get-togethers rare.
By 2008, Marco’s health had deteriorated. The college student was placed on the liver transplant list, but so many people were ahead of him that his doctor advised the family to look for a living donor. In 2010, Marco’s doctor said he might not survive the year without a donor.
“I thought it would be me — we have the same blood type,” Beth said. But she was over 50 — too old for the surgery. She cried as she wrote a letter asking recipients for the biggest gift she could imagine — undergoing screening and, with hope, surgery to share their liver with Marco.
Beth called Wendy to tell her how hard it was to write and send that letter to her immediate family members.
“I didn’t get the letter, and I’m family,” Wendy said.
Wendy doesn’t share Marco’s blood type, but her husband, Garren, does. She showed Garren the letter and he agreed they had to try to help. About two months later, Wendy told Beth that Garren had gone through a long series of tests and so far, he was a match for Marco. Beth will always love Garren for how hard he worked to make Marco feel like sharing his liver was absolutely no big deal.
On Nov. 9, 2010, the transplant took place. Marco and Garren are both very healthy. In 2019, Marco married Taylor and had two best men: his younger brother, Jesse, and Garren.
Marco, Taylor, and the entirety of Beth’s and Wendy’s families were eagerly awaiting baby Isla when Beth learned about her cancer.
Beth, now 62, had surgery in August 2020, followed by two rounds of chemo and radiation treatments 28 weekdays in a row.
At nearly 3 a.m. on an early December morning, Wendy, now 45, reached for another colorful square of paper. She had made more than 950 cranes. Her folding time was now three minutes per bird, and she was determined to deliver this paper flock and all it symbolized to Beth before the late-December beginning of the last phase of Beth’s treatment.
The afternoon of Dec. 6, Beth got a text from Wendy. “Are you around? Can I stop by?”
Beth knew there was no way her friend, mother-of-four and resident of a town more than an hour north, was just happening by that Sunday, but she went with it.
Soon came a knock. Beth saw Wendy and her daughter, Kensie, masked yet obviously smiling at the far end of her patio, away from the big basket they had left near her door. Looking in it, Beth saw so many birds it seemed she could jump into them like a pile of leaves. She, too, knew the story of senbazuru, and knew exactly what this gift meant.
“You folded a thousand paper cranes for me?” Beth asked. She fought off the impulse to run to Wendy and hug her.
At her end of the patio, Wendy felt the same way.
For many days, Beth and her husband, Pat, would reach into the box and pull up a different batch of cranes. Beth wanted to see them all. She keeps one next to her bed while the others roost together in their basket.
“I believe in energy, and it’s really powerful energy,” she said. “This is a tangible demonstration of Wendy’s love.”
Beth completed treatment on March 9 and is now cancer-free.
Wendy has received her first dose of vaccine, and Beth is confident her bloodwork will allow her to soon do the same. The friends are hopeful their long wait for a hug is nearly over.