I could see her face long after I closed my eyes. Lauren sat cross-legged on a hammock in front of her family farm smiling for the camera. The warmth of that smile could be felt beyond the confines of the slightly faded newsprint as if she sat beside me in my own quiet contemplation of her.
Lauren was the daughter of a prominent cherry farmer in the Cherry Capital of the World, Traverse City, MI and what the photograph had captured was the announcement of her bid for Cherry Queen. The vibrant young woman appeared at once the ideal candidate for the prestigious title; she was smart, witty, beautiful, familiar with the industry. And she stood out for another reason, Lauren was undergoing chemo- and immunotherapy to treat an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).
The Grand Traverse Region has long been revered for its cherries. Lauren’s family farm is not far from the very first cherry farm in our area, planted one-hundred fifty years earlier on Old Mission peninsula and more tart cherries are grown in Traverse City than anywhere else in the world. I had lived, worked and played in the orchards growing up in cherry country. You can hardly drive down a road here without passing an orchard.
Something about Lauren’s story stayed with me for several months and when I learned of her passing in January of 2005, I felt compelled to research the cancer that had taken her life. Lauren was 21.
Within minutes I discovered NHL is one of the fastest growing cancers in the United States. Sometimes referred to as the “pesticide cancer,” NHL is according to Dr. Marion Moses of the Pesticide Education Center, “the cancer most frequently associated with pesticide exposure and one of the most studied cancers in agriculture.”
For nine months I researched the pesticide-cancer connection and on September 23rd, 2005, presented my findings at the Michigan LAND conference in Battle Creek, MI. My presentation, More than Cherries, took first place and was later published.
In the process of working on More than Cherries, I was humbled not only by Lauren’s courageous battle with cancer, but also by how many people she had inspired, how many knew her personally and the simple tragedy of it all. No one can say for sure why Lauren fell ill, but it seemed the very thing that sustained our community might also be causing us harm.
On September 26th, 2006, one year following my presentation on the correlation between NHL and agricultural practices in Northern Michigan, I was diagnosed with the very same form of lymphoma Lauren had bravely battled. My world stood still. It seemed an impossible coincidence that of the forty forms of NHL, Lauren and I were sisters of the same white cell mutation.
Within a week, a friend and mutual friend of Lauren’s family asked if I would like to speak with Lauren’s mother. We met over the phone and this began a whirlwind of support from Lauren’s family I could not have otherwise imagined. With charisma and courage to rival her daughter’s, Lauren’s mom sat with me during my first treatments (the infusions sometimes lasting 7 hours) and her father and sister sat with me for another and her aunt visited me at the last. In fact, it seemed Lauren was all around.
At first it frightened me. I didn’t believe in the supernatural. I wasn’t religious or very spiritual and yet I felt like Lauren was walking with me. At times, her smile, radiating out over time and space from that first photo, would catch me as I cradled my bald head in hands weak and shaky from the steroids. There was strength in that smile that carried me.
When I completed my treatments in February of 2007, I was inspired to take all I had learned in terms of research, courage and the support and friendship from Lauren’s family, to grow fruit without chemicals using the principles of permacutlure in my own backyard. Healing Tree Farm was born out of this sense of urgency and it is, as the paper suggested, about more than growing cherries; it’s about family, community and a way of life that sustains us on every level.
Cancer shook me to the core, but I am grateful for the experience. It truly made me a better person. And now it is time for me to do some healing, both physically and emotionally, getting back to the place I loved the most as a child; rediscovering and reclaiming the magic of the orchard.
In healing we are teaching and in teaching, there is healing.