I imagine this exchange at some point in my past. We went so many times together after that first question that I no longer remember the beginning. I totally blame Robin for my addiction to Culver's. I do remember the Culver's workers asking where my tall blonde friend was these days. "She's fighting Stage Four Appendiceal Cancer." And then asking how she's doing at later visits.
And I remember telling them yesterday that she has passed away this week.
Robin Deanna Eslinger and I became friends gradually after I began working at the Kent County Prosecutor's Office in November 2005. I don't recall our first meeting - I wish I did now - but my first impression was of kindness. That was Robin's core attribute. She was, quite simply, kind. To friends, to strangers, to opposing counsel. She was an immensely strong woman, strong in faith, in conviction, in intelligence, manners, humor, love, and kindness.
As Robin and I became friends, we began noticing odd similarities in our lives. We both grew up in "I" mid-western states - I in Indiana and she in Illinois. We were from farming communities and went to small high schools. We both played flute. We both became drum majors in high school.
Of course, we both went to law school and became prosecuting attorneys, working for Kent County.
We both played the same part in our high school productions of "Harvey" - Nurse Ruth Kelly. No, really.
And we both entered this world in a breech position with the cord wrapped around us. Me around my neck. I don't remember now how entangled my friend was but to say we didn't know which way we wanted to go isn't an understatement.
I'd joke that with all of our similarities, Robin took all of the height. She was right around 6 foot; I'm a bit above 5 foot.
As you can see ... height was NOT well distributed here.
Robin was diagnosed with (first) ovarian cancer in early September 2013. Her first major surgery was October 14, 2013, and it was only after that first cut that the doctor realized her tumors had not originated with her ovaries; instead, they had metastasized from her appendix of all useless organs. She was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer. The link really says it all ... this wasn't something that occurred because my dear friend was unhealthy. On the contrary, she was one of the healthiest individuals I knew - with the exception, perhaps, of her large love for Culver's butter burgers with the works. And unfortunately, she had the most aggressive form of the already aggressive appendiceal cancer - signet ring cells. She was stage 4.
She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy after that first surgery and then went under the knife again in February 2014. This operation went amazingly well. The surgeon removed the appendix and a small portion of her colon but was able to "hook" everything back up without her needing an endoscopy bag and he was amazed that he was only scraping dead cancer cells out of her. The chemotherapy had seemingly done its job. She still underwent the HIPEC procedure during her surgery to give her an even better chance at survival. During HIPEC, heated chemotherapy drugs are put directly into the abdomen where they can reach a maximum amount of surface cells in and around the organs. This surgery and this procedure gained my friend a remission and a return to work in July 2014.
Robin continued on a maintenance level of chemotherapy even as she returned to work. Every two weeks, she would head in to Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion where she would begin one drug and she'd leave with a little fannie pack carrying another drug that took about 46 hours to finish. She'd then go back in two days later to have the bag removed and her port flushed.
And during this time, she not only returned to work but she returned to trials and she was promoted to senior attorney near the end of 2014. Talk about taking names and kicking ass.
Also as 2014 was coming to a close, she told her doctor that she had noticed a knot, lump, ball, near her groin area. At first, the doctor was not too concerned and focused on the scans showing no new areas of cancer. Eventually, however, the spot became painful and Robin insisted that it be removed. Also near that time in spring 2015, she received scan results showing possible spots on her lungs. The spots were too small to biopsy and, with a second opinion suggesting that the spots could be an infection rather than cancer, Robin opted to have her painful groin lump removed. This required some time off of the chemotherapy, which, honestly, was a break she relished.
The results of the groin lump testing and a scan in July 2015 confirmed that the groin spot had indeed been cancer and the spots on her lungs had increased in size, further suggesting that her cancer had returned and metastasized to her lungs. My friend was not surprised. She knew how she was feeling and it made sense to her that this was one of the reasons. Where I had continued to be optimistic that the July scan would confirm that the lung spots were only an infection (if they had not grown in size), she was just as sure that it would show a return of the cancer - I say return but it of course had never truly left.
Robin began full chemotherapy once more in the hope that it would succeed in much the same way as it had in the beginning. Unfortunately, her body decided that it was DONE - thank you very much - with one of her main chemotherapy drugs and reacted rather violently. A new drug was chosen, with little success, and yet another drug was chosen. With each chemotherapy drug, Robin's body had to adjust, or try to adjust, and throughout her regimen, Robin had varying levels of nausea and diarrhea.
I say varying ... varying between "wow, this sucks" and "HOLY F*&^ WHAT IS HAPPENING!?" *
* The bad word is my take - Robin rarely cursed
While Robin's cancer was indeed returning with a vengeance, it was the nausea and diarrhea that she felt would be her demise. She was not able to get the nutrition she desperately needed.
Robin left work in January 2016 to focus on her treatment. Yet even as she continued her struggle, she was there for me at the beginning of mine. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2016. She took up the cheer-leading role immediately. Despite what was happening to her body, she cheered each bit of good news I received. My cancer was caught early. It's a well known type (breast) and survivorship is at an all-time high. I'm Stage 1 to her Stage 4. But she nevertheless hoped with me for every ease in my own treatment - that I wouldn't need chemo (I do), that it wouldn't muck up my travel plans this fall (it did). Such little gripes of mine, she wholeheartedly validated and hoped with me for every little success. Such a wonderful friend.
Such a wonderful friend, living through such a terrible disease. It had taken such a toll on her body. Robin entered into the hospital in late March due to a partial blockage in her abdominal track, and, after being told that chemotherapy and surgery were no longer options, she made the incredibly difficult decision to return home to hospice care on March 29, 2016. Her in-home hospice care only lasted roughly 12 hours.
-In this next part of my post, I'll be talking a bit about Robin's last hours. My goal is to be both respectful and honest. Please be forewarned that this could be difficult to read -
The hospice nurse - Jan - who is also one of Robin's pastors - said something that has stuck with me through this past week: "We labor to enter into this world, and we also labor to enter into the next."
Oh, how true. My beautiful friend had labored not only to come into this world over 46 years ago, but she fought tooth and nail to stay here as long as possible for herself, for her daughters, her granddaughter, her husband, her parents, siblings, friends, loved ones. She fought. She labored. And even as she returned home, knowing that medicine would no longer be a cure, she labored.
When Jan arrived, she examined Robin and knew that she was already nearing her final hours. She told us what to expect, what to look for, when and how to give her medication to ease any pain and any anxiety. She helped us dress her, make her bed, and I'm forever grateful for her help. I witnessed Robin's husband, Paul, who has watched her so closely these last few years and who had just spent days in the hospital with her, continue by her side at home. He slept a bit while friends took over but was there at the times she called out his name. He helped her stand up to get a hug, and to give hugs to her daughters. He talked to her, assuring her that she had done enough and that she deserved to rest.
I watched her daughter Brianna spend hours by her side, talking to her, telling her how much she loved her, and helping to keep Robin clean. I have no doubt whatsoever that Robin heard her and that the interaction immensely comforted her as she left this world.
I'm not going to lie. That night at the Eslingers' was one of the hardest nights of my life. No matter the medications, leaving this world is truly a labor. I found myself feeling completely inadequate at times, wishing there was something more I could do for her. She had times of complete lucidity - as when our friend Monica arrived. I told her, "Robin, Monica is here to see you," and she opened her eyes, locked onto Monica and said, "What time is it?" Talk about two friends frantically searching for a clock. INDEED - WHAT TIME IS IT!? And our friend and coworker Dan was able to coax some smiles from her as only he ever could, talking about a recent case, one on which Robin had worked before she left. I know that Robin was, and will continue to be, his mentor.
Then there were other times. Times in which, honestly, I think she was already seeing something else. There was a period in which I could have sworn she was arguing with someone. I couldn't understand exactly what she was saying but I envisioned her making a case for staying a bit longer. Can't you picture it? Robin making her argument, final argument, that she have just a bit more time here. She had things to do yet. Robin waiting for the verdict. And accepting the decision with grace (and a red nose - I swear, all the blood would rush to her nose when she received a verdict, good or bad). One final argument. Jan had also told us to expect this - that it might seem as if she is talking to someone that isn't there. And that is truly what it seemed to be to me.
In the end, after one last stand, another hug from Paul, some clean sheets, and some medication, Robin reclined back and seemed to calm down more and more. This is the time I think I'll remember the most. And cherish the most. A long time family friend, Deb, who had been there the whole night, taking care of her, was there by her side as well. We talked to Robin about resting. About it all being okay. I am so so grateful that I was able to talk to her at that moment and remind her about our discussions about what we believe happens when we die. I reminded her that I believe we all have that perfect clarity when we pass away that everything will be okay. That our loved ones, all of them, will be okay. That life is beautiful, that people are waiting for her. That her daughters will be okay, that she'll still be with them, still be watching them.
It was a blessing to be there for her last breath in this world at 4:40 a.m., March 30, 2016, and her first in the next.
My beautiful, kind friend. You took too much of your share of the cancer. You were grace personified. I'll forever miss you, until we meet again.
I expect some Culver's upon arrival. You know how I take it - a single with cheese, ketchup, mustard, and onion, fries, and a diet root beer. And a chocolate custard with Reese's peanut butter cups and hot fudge. I'll spring for yours - a single with the works, fries, and an iced tea (or more likely a full sugar Coke).
RIP Robin D. Eslinger