The Other Judy Birdsong

Snazell, Sarah, 1965-1999; Doppelganger

Snazell, Sarah; Doppelganger; Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/doppelganger-178168

Several years ago, sometime after the turn of the last century,[1] my wife Judy Birdsong received an invitation to a party in Houston.  Judy replied to the email, stating that the cookout sounded lovely, but she was in Charleston, SC, so doubted that she was the targeted Judy Birdsong.

A bit later, she received another invitation, this one to a PTA meeting, and once again, Judy of Charleston replied to to let the sender know she was barking up the wrong aviary.

Then, more exotically, Judy received a host of emails from Ireland, again addressed to the Houston Judy Birdsong.

As it turns out, the Judy Birdsong of Houston is the daughter of an Irish immigrant mother and Lebanese immigrant father, and one of her 70 odd Irish cousins – no, it must have been a great uncle – was commemorating his 60th year as a priest so the clan was meeting somewhere in the Old Sod to celebrate a memorial mass he was officiating.

Of course, Roman Catholicism = Guilt, so the Houston Judy emailed the Charleston Judy a message of abject apology for all the trouble she’d put her doppelgänger through, and, of course, my Judy, the Charleston Judy, said, no, no, no — it was fun!

Thus began the relationship of the two Judy Birdsongs.  In their subsequent email correspondence, they discovered, among other things, both were the mothers of sons, worked as counselors in schools, were married to fantastic husbands, . . ..[2]

Throughout these erroneous emails, the Judy Birdsongs learned bits and pieces about each other’s lives, would ask how things were going, and in essence, become e-pen-pals.

Then the email tables switched.  The Charleston Judy Birdsong discovered that she must go through a severe regiment of EPOCH chemotherapy, went wig shopping, and emailed herself some jpegs of various wigs that ended up in the mailbox of the Houston Judy Birdsong.

Statements of encouragement and promises of prayers came from Houston.

Judy went into remission, celebrated her older son’s wedding, sent the other Judy photos.

Unfortunately, Judy’s cancer came back, and via the Caring Bridge website, last week the Charleston Judy received following message from Houston Judy on hearing we were headed to the MD Anderson Cancer Center:

Judy Birdsong Moore- our Judy Birdsong story continues. You have been on my mind every single day and today I finally logged in to get an update on you. Holy Moly…..you are coming to Houston? Sweet friend, if you feel up to it (and I will follow your wishes) I would LOVE to come and see you! The 2 Judy Birdsong’s can finally meet! You can’t ask for a better place than MD Anderson….they do amazing things. Please, please give me an update when you are here. After all these years of communicating, I think it’s time for us to meet! Positive thoughts and prayers from me to you. I am back at school too and just dropped off my youngest at UT. All is well here. And HOUSTON is a wonderful place (Hot and humid but I’m sure not as beautiful as Folly).

So on Labor Day a knock on the door of our Airbnb apartment produced – you’ve guessed it – Judy Birdsong, who took us on a sight-seeing tour of Houston and to lunch where we could chow down on authentic Tex-Mex, and it was as if we’d known her our entire lives, the conversation as free and natural as it is among soul brothers and sisters.

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All in all, no matter the problems that arise – and they will, they will – the world is a marvelous place full of good, compassionate people, and Judy and I feel so very fortunate to have so many people praying, sending thoughts, and caring for us.

It’s very humbling.

Postscript: Alas, my Judy died on Mother’s Day of 2017, but our 40 years of love will live on as long as my boys and I breathe.


[1] Forgive the pretention, but I just love the mustiness of the phrase.

[2] Actually, I made up the husbands thing to complete my propensity to adhere to the time honored tradition of series of three.  A priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a a crack house . . .

Adventures at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center

md-anderson-logo

We’re staying on the fringes of a section of sprawling Houston called “the Medical Center,” our neighborhood a disjointed hodgepodge of highrises, some aesthetically interesting, others not so much so.

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View from our hotel window

However, we’re not visiting Houston to take in its architectural wonders; we’re here seeing medical wonders. Today Judy has an appointment with T-cell lymphoma guru Dr. Michelle A. Fanale, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the best in the nation. The series of buildings that constitute the Anderson complex is extensive, impressively massive, each adorned with the red-slashed cancer logo.

Our hotel, Wyndham Suites, is a mere 15-minute walk, so we hoof it through the blistering heat, sweat streaming from under my fedora. Judy has wisely ditched the wig, opting instead for a pastel aqua green headscarf that makes look like a lovely lean tropical Muslim.[1]

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As we drop into Anderson Café for breakfast, I practice my hobby of late, trying to ascertain who has cancer and who doesn’t. It’s harder than you might think. In the misnamed café (think cafeteria) I see no scarf-wearing or hatted women and only one ashen-faced fellow with the telltale baseball cap, though many people seem to have locomotion issues, and more than a few suffer severe obesity.

Once we’ve dumped our trash, we board the B elevators and shoot up to the Lymphoma/Myeloma center and have a seat and wait until Patricia, a smiling 50-something African American invites us into her office to process Judy’s admission. Patricia’s absolutely delightful, chatty, sincerely interested in us. As she goes over scads of information while Judy electronically signs permission after permission, I ask her if she’s a native Texan.

She theatrically bats her eyes. “Yes sir. Do you detect a hint of a drawl?”

She’s never been to Charleston but has been to North Carolina, where her Marine son was stationed. His wife’s from Virginia Beach, so she has been “to that beach.”

“I’m hoping you have some grandchildren,” I say.

Her eyes light up as she broadly smiles. “Eight,” And she was recently with all eight in Gatlinburg, which “was just breathtaking.”

The absolutely best news is that because Judy has met her deductible, 100% will be covered by our insurance.

“That’s the one good thing about having cancer,” Judy says.

We return to the seating area and another woman, a Latina, comes up and introduces herself as a sort of concierge. I mention that rumor has it that there’s a bar in the hospital, and she happily informs me that it’s true and that she’s glad to see I have my priorities right. She hands us her card and is off.

Once Judy has her vitals recorded, we enter the examination room where I continue to grade essays electronically. We meet our head physician’s nurse and someone shadowing her. Both are young, black, friendly but businesslike.

A brisk knock and a nurse practitioner enters, a husky young man around forty or so whom I deduce is Hawaiian because of his appearance and the fact that he greets people with “aloha.”

He has Judy give an oral history from the original discovery of the original tumor in July 2014, up through the reoccurrence in March of this year, all the way to last Thursday’s biopsy. These are painful recollections, especially the last five months.

Our next visitor is physician who has Judy sign forms giving permission to use her “fluids and tissues” for research. She’s probably about our age, short and rotund with curly black dyed hair.

“Forgive me if you can’t understand my English,” she says. “It’s Egyptian English.”

We assure her we can perfectly understand her. She asks Judy if she’s Lebanese, says she looks Lebanese, and goes on to add that even though Egypt has 7000 years of civilization, the Lebanese are more forward thinking. “They’re open,’ she says, “more progressive” – she rolls her r’s. “Now they’re just killing each other.” I mention that I hear it’s worse now that Mubarak’s gone.

“Yes,” she says. “It would be nice to have Mubarak back. It’s hard to run a country. You need to know what you’re doing.”

I mention Mr. Trump, and she smiles without comment and after a few minutes leaves us once again alone., assuring us that Dr. Fanale is a genius and that full recovery is possible. “You have to be strong,” she says. “I just had heart failure last week, and look at me. I’m strong.”

More essay grading.

Finally, Dr. Fanale arrives with a clipboard and an offered hand. She explains to us that because we don’t have a baseline PET scan to compare the latest growth that we need to have tests run tomorrow and from there decide to continue the present course of treatment (ICE with a future allo stem cell transplant) or not. She mentions several alternate options running off a list of polysyllabic drugs. She strongly suggests we have the theoretical stem cell at Anderson because they do hundreds a year and have specific knowledge of T-cell lymphoma reactions, which may differ from other cancer patient’s reactions.

“Well, I was just told you are a genius,”  Judy tells Dr. Fantale.

“I don’t know if I’m a genius,” she replies, “but I am an experienced expert in T-cell lymphomas.”

* * *

We’ll meet her again on Wednesday and discuss the results of the tests and treatment strategies.

I won’t say I left the joint upbeat, but it’s gratifying to know that several other options exist other than the one Judy has been following.  It also occurred to me that at least at MD Anderson immigration seemed to be working just fine.

Now, it’s time to snag Uber, hightail it to Kroger’s, stock up on some beer, and suffer through the Gamecock opener.


[1] As anyone who has traveled with us knows (right Beth Hudson Clifton), Judy has an aversion to taking taxis, so don’t blame me for making her walk half a mile to seek cancer treatment.