By Tina Ray
The Paraglide was not on my radar in 2009 when I was assigned here as a contractor through the Fayetteville Observer. Prior to my arrival, I had been an obituary and staff writer for the FO, as well as a reporter for the Sandspur, a Hope Mills, North Carolina community newspaper owned by the FO.
But, I arrived with the intent of continuing my work in journalism.
Michelle Butzgy was my onsite manager at the Paraglide. She was in charge of teaching layout and being a liaison between contract workers and the Fort Bragg Garrison Public Affairs Office. In time, I got to know Michelle as a diligent and meticulous worker.
Beyond the workplace, I got to know her as a friend.
Michelle loved fishing. She loved Chinese food. She loved good music and she loved her wife, Chris.
When her parents were ill, Michelle helped care for them until their death.
I remember vividly the day Michelle returned to the Paraglide office to tell staff that follow-up testing indicated she had breast cancer. It was a melancholy day, but I, in no way, knew how long and hard-fought her battle would be.
Shortly thereafter, I joined Michelle, Chris and other friends at a head-shaving party in a Fayetteville park. Michelle had wanted to cut her hair before chemotherapy took its ravishing toll. I recall her dad being there then, and assuring her that, without hair, she still looked beautiful.
Following were years of chemotherapy and countless trips to the hospital, as well as trips to art therapy classes. Sprinkled here and there were fishing trips to the beach.
At some point, along the journey, Michelle and Chris began a Facebook page to keep friends updated on Michelle’s progress. With the latest post about chemotherapy or accumulation of fluid around her heart, dizziness, fatigue, or a cold, we all let Michelle know that we were rooting for and praying for her.
In fact, co-workers would visit Michelle. Sandy Aubrey, former editor of the Paraglide and now my cherished friend and I would routinely visit to deliver meals or goodies from fellow staffers.
We all remained hopeful.
Until, there wasn’t any room for hope.
A few months ago, we began to face the possibility that Michelle was losing the battle. The chemotherapy had not sent the disease into remission. It had not kept cancer at bay. I’d faced such a reckoning with the loss of my aunties Flossie, Mandy and Delia and my cousin, Cindy.
I’d been here before.
Enroute to a Family wedding on May 20, Chris called to tell me that Michelle was gone. She died two days past her 50th birthday.
The years we had spent in the Paraglide office, first putting the paper together and then putting it to bed (press), came flooding back. I thought about her patience in teaching me newspaper layout, about her love for a bowl of hot noodles and a good guitar riff. I thought about how Michelle used to walk up to my desk and dance, wearing a smile as broad as the ocean she so dearly loved. I thought of how Chris would cope in an empty house, filled with memories of a life shared with her best friend and pained by memories of these last few years spent as Michelle’s caretaker, watching breast cancer confiscate their future.
And, then I thought of Sandy. How would she react to the news? Who would console her?
Chris had asked that I notify others. I called Jackie, my beloved friend and the community relations professional for Fort Bragg Garrison PAO so that she could tell government employees, including Sandy, who retired in December. I called Mark and Sharilyn, who both coincidentally now live in Texas, Hope in Alabama, Paula in Virginia, Irvin in Raeford, Kevin in Raleigh and Dawn in Fayetteville. Paula made a donation to the American Cancer Society in Michelle’s name. Shari asked for her home address to send something to Chris.
Michelle collected turtles, so at her memorial service on May 23, Chris allowed everyone to leave with a turtle in remembrance of Michelle. I chose one with blue rhinestones because Michelle loved the ocean and because blue was her favorite color. It sits on my desk.
In life, we have these moments. We have these memories.
We have these people who fill the moments and the memories. Though death comes, it cannot swipe the moments or the memories or the people who infuse them.
Michelle’s battle has been a long fight and a long goodbye. In retrospect, I am consoled by the words of Stuart Scott, the ESPN sports reporter who died of cancer in 2015.
He said, “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.”
Michelle beat cancer.