When the doors of the UAB parking garage elevator opened up, I saw two women looking quite lost. “Do you need help?” I asked. “We don’t know how to get to the hospital,” they replied. “Here, follow me.” UAB can be a confusing place to navigate.
They told me they were from Goodsprings, Alabama, as we walked across the bridge from the parking deck to the North Pavilion. “Listen, I worked here for seven years and still get lost,” I told them as we arrived at the information desk, where they got directions to the surgery waiting area. I had to stop there as well, because I was lost too. All of those years and I’d never been to the palliative care unit. I never thought it would be where I'd say goodbye.
Dolly Ashton O’Neal. Mom of three, grandmother of six. Co-founder of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama (BCRFA). Never-met-a-stranger former flight attendant, grassroots advocate, mover of mountains. How many times had she given directions to someone in need in these halls?
When Dolly was first diagnosed in 1994, she had three young children: Bert, Camper, and Amy. A year and a half later, after her treatment, she launched a Birmingham nonprofit to help other people diagnosed with the same unfair disease. Later, she raised money at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Lots of it.
The woman at the information desk handed me a paper map with directions to the unit. I was angry, not at her, but at the unfairness. Dolly should have had more time -- this is what I was thinking as I walked outside, holding the map. It had started to rain. The map and her directions were clear, but I couldn’t seem to focus, and turned the wrong way. I stopped to read the map, realizing I was in front of the Lurleen B. Wallace building, the home of the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. We had worked side by side there for five years, during which time I learned from her. She would talk to anyone and everyone, listening to their story and sharing hers. Sharing the story that we were so proud of -- that of the life-changing work done by researchers, and the life-changing work done by nurses, physicians, and everyone who touches a patient and his or her family. The Cancer Center is a special place.
Standing there I could almost hear Dolly's voice. "100 percent of the money you give stays right here in Alabama, at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Research saves lives." She knew the story all too well. She often spoke of the UAB research that had saved her life. In 2009, she received treatment with a drug that was funded in part by the BCRFA.
Dolly was there for me when my husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2007, and when we lost my godfather to lymphoma in 2009. Every time she was there to listen and offer words of support.
She cared about everyone's walk with cancer because she had walked this road herself. The buildings on the campus are a testament to Dolly's passion, and more than brick and mortar. Each golf tournament, each dinner, each donor called upon wasn't just about a number, it was about adding more years to lives. Adding more quality to years.
Quality is what she had. Although we hadn't worked together in ages, she was the first to volunteer to host lunches for our tight group of former colleagues -- friends. A true Southern lady, she took out her silver and china for such occasions, and shared with us her latest recipe. She knew that no occasion was too small for a little Champagne, and I'll never forget watching the last "Oprah" with her and my mom, sipping on bubbly from cups we made with Oprah's photo for the occasion.
Dolly was an event planner. Our group of friends was one of countless circles she and Bert invited into their home, including their friends, their children's friends, their children's friends' friends. This was the kind of family they built.
I stopped in front of the Hazelrig Salter Radiation Oncology Facility and the Park of Hope, for which she raised $15 million. It was where she visited with her family during her most recent recurrence. The park she once dreamt of had brought her comfort.
The Palliative Care is a place where people pass from this earth, and it was difficult to imagine Dolly as anything but filled with life, eager to ask how you were doing and to tell you about the latest event in the O'Neal family: grandbaby milestones, a trip to the Bay or to the farm.
Her family was so gracious, allowing her friends to visit in these final days. Like their mom and mother-in-law would have done, they greeted visitors with hugs, asked how we were doing. "She can hear you," they told me, and I know she could.
I told Dolly about the two women from Goodsprings I'd met in the elevator, and that the chance to help them for just a minute was a blessing. That this reminded me of her, and of all the people she had helped navigate these halls. She was always assisting someone, even when she was going through treatment herself.
Her eyes were closed, but I know she was listening. I told her about the May crowning at my son's school, and how much she would have loved to see the little girls in their smocked dresses lay flowers on the altar to honor the Virgin Mary. We shared many things, our Catholic faith being at the top of that list. And a love of Elvis. That's how we rolled. (Here she is after performing a dance routine to a Elvis song during "Dancing With The Silver Stars" in 2013.)
Dolly lived her life of grace and purpose, right to the very end. And she keeps on giving. I don't believe it's a coincidence that her final day in this world was the 20th anniversary of the BCRFA annual golf tournament. Though her physical body was in a hospital bed, I believe her spirit was with each person on that golf course, raising money to continue the work of the doctors who treated her and helped her live to see her grandchildren.
I believe Dolly was welcomed to heaven by the scores of people she helped in this lifetime. My friend Mark told me he agrees, and that he is confident that his beloved late wife, Mary Ann, is among them. "Dolly got that life is what you make of it. She got that our purpose here on this planet is to try to help each other and to do great things." He told me that he is sure Mary Ann and Dolly are organizing things in heaven.
The loss of Dolly is a profound one -- to her friends, her community, and her wonderful family. I believe the best way to honor her memory is to live how she did: with a spirit of generosity and kindness. To open our homes to our friends. To savor every bit of this life. And yes, to dance to Elvis whenever possible.
Most importantly, her legacy is to help people, wherever they are.