As Diane Tweed looked around her Spotsylvania County living room, her eyes alighted on a dark blue sofa and gleaming oak side tables. But her mind’s eye saw a hospital bed, oxygen tanks and a pile of plastic pill bottles.
The last vestiges of her daughter’s battle with colon cancer had been removed shortly after her death in April, but the bittersweet memories lingered in the rooms where Erin Fines spent her final months.
GREAT LOVE, HEARTACHE
In the living room, Fines snuggled with her sons, desperate to spend as much time as possible with her young boys. In the adjacent screened-in porch, Fines drank coffee with her father each morning, finding moments of peace as cancer ravaged her body.
The living room and porch held so many memories. And after Fines died, her parents and sons struggled to resume their lives.
The family wanted to remember Fines as a devoted mom who loved the beach. But the ghost of the hospital bed overshadowed those memories.
So a group of volunteers descended on the home last week and transformed the living room and porch into a place of healing and remembering.
A SCARY PROGNOSIS
The dark crescents under her eyes were easily explained. In 2011, Fines had an infant and a toddler and sleepless nights were a likely culprit.
But the inky smudges grew darker.
And stomach cramps soon hit, followed by nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and fatigue.
Fines went to the doctor, who told her to cut gluten from her diet. She began to feel better. It seemed like the 24-year-old single mom had been suffering from gluten intolerance.
The symptoms returned. Fines grew sicker. She went to the emergency room, where doctors told her she had the flu.
She rested, as prescribed. But she didn’t get better.
She went to another doctor, received another diagnosis, tried another treatment.
Fines went to the emergency department at Mary Washington Hospital, where a doctor admitted her to the hospital and ordered more tests.
When doctors gave Fines the news, she didn’t know what “Stage 4 Colon Cancer” meant exactly.
But her mother did.
“I’ll never forget that feeling, it was indescribable,” Tweed said. “She asked me, ‘What does that mean?’ I didn’t want to tell her but I had to.”
MEMORIES BY THE SEA
By the time doctors discovered the colon cancer, it was too late. Fines had a rare condition called familial adenomatous polyposis, where patients develop many benign tumors in the colon. Undetected, these polyps often turn cancerous.
She was much younger than the typical colon cancer patient, even among those who have FAP. So it never occurred to Fines to request a colonoscopy during the two years she suffered from intestinal distress.
“I regret that now,” Tweed said. “I wish she’d asked for a second opinion, but you just don’t think about it when you’re that young.”
Fines threw herself into fighting cancer, determined to live as long as she could, so she could see her sons grow.
To build memories, she took her sons to the beach last summer. She was just ending a round of aggressive chemotherapy. Since childhood, Fines had loved the ocean. She and her parents and sons often went twice each summer, to Myrtle Beach, S.C., and to Nags Head in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
She thought she could handle one trip, and the family settled on Nags Head because it involved a shorter journey.
The family’s church got together to help with the trip’s expenses, and the nurses on the palliative care unit at Mary Washington Hospital prepared the beach paraphernalia—sand buckets and spades, bathing suits, sunscreen, towels and more. They surprised their patient with a luau sendoff and a bevy of gifts.
“That week she was down there, she felt great, which was rare then,” said Fines’ sister, Elizabeth Newton.
When Fines returned from the beach, doctors delivered the news: The chemo wasn’t working.
Doctors put her on a new regimen, a protocol developed for breast cancer. Genetic testing suggested this round could help Fines.
She was willing to try anything that would prolong her days with her sons.
“She is the most courageous person, she has fought so hard for her boys,” Newton said while her sister was in the palliative care unit at Mary Washington.
Fines wanted more time with Matthew and Jack, now 8 and 5. She really hoped to bring Jack—a true Mickey Mouse fan—to Disney World.
“She would say, ‘I can’t wait to see him meet Mickey, can you imagine?’” Tweed said.
She was determined to do two things with whatever time she had left—bring the boys to Disney and spread the word that young adults can get colon cancer.
“She wanted to prevent this from happening to other people,” Tweed said. “If just one person’s life could be saved, she would be happy.”
In December, more bad news came: This chemo wasn’t helping, either. Fines had grown pale and frail, and the ubiquitous dark circles had grown. She signed on with hospice.
Fines lived with her parents and her sons, and she moved into the living room, where she could be closer to the front porch and could have more room to visit with friends and family.
She slept in a hospital bed against the wall. Her pill bottles lined the side tables.
But she made good memories in the room—reading stories to her sons. When Joni Kanazawa, who runs the local charity Ellie’s Elves, learned about the family, she had meals delivered so Tweed could spend more time taking care of her daughter and grandsons.
One afternoon, Kanazawa brought nail polish, hors d’oeuvres and margaritas. She gave Fines a pedicure and the women shared snacks and sipped margaritas.
“They had the biggest kick, they were just laughing and laughing,” Tweed said.
Newton and her husband planned a benefit in early April, to raise money for the medical bills. Fines was determined to go. She wanted to thank the people who were helping her—and she wanted a night out.
She happily applied makeup and put on her wig. On the way to the benefit, Fines cracked the car window to feel the breeze.
She looked around the room and saw so many people devoted to helping her family.
Twenty minutes after she arrived, Fines had a seizure. She was rushed to the hospital.
She knew she wouldn’t leave the hospital. She asked her sister, “Promise me you’ll take my boys to the beach this summer.”
Four days later, Fines died.
CREATING HEALING SPACE
Her mother moved the hospital bed out of the room, packed up the pill bottles and the oxygen tank.
But it was hard to move on.
The phantom bed loomed large.
The family held a Mickey Mouse birthday party for Jack, who turned 5 shortly after his mother’s death. They enrolled the boys in summer camp, planned a family trip to visit relatives in Tennessee.
Diane and her husband, Jack, wanted to plant flowers in the front yard, to repair some issues in the bathroom. But it was hard to find the motivation.
The world seemed colorless—except for the butterflies they repeatedly noticed. Whenever Tweed or Newton visited Fines’ grave, they spotted one. And often, throughout the day, a pair of colorful wings floated by.
Jack often asked for his mother. Matthew woke up several times every night.
The family felt lost.
Kanazawa talked with Newton, suggested a fresh coat of paint in the room where the hospital bed once sat.
“Yeah, some fresh paint would be nice,” Newton replied.
Kanazawa rounded up 42 volunteers and donations of paint, beach decor, furniture, draperies and more. When the Tweeds took their grandsons to Tennessee for a week, the crew moved in to renovated the living room, bathroom and front porch.
Many have regularly helped Ellie’s Elves in its mission to help families touched by cancer and other crises. But for some new volunteers, the project was personal. Paul Edmonds renovated the bathroom during the weeklong service project. His sister has colon cancer. And Sam Cox, who recently lost two family members to cancer, helped with some electrical work.
“It was really amazing to see all of our elves, who come from all different backgrounds and experiences, come together for a local family who is struggling with loss,” Kanazawa said.
Newton sanded and stained the swing where her sister sipped coffee with their father.
“When I dream of her now, we’re little girls on that swing,” she said.
The volunteers toiled throughout the week, envisioning the moment of the big reveal, which happened Saturday.
As the Tweeds pulled into the driveway, they saw changes right away: A freshly mowed yard, new flower beds in front of the house—a butterfly bush planted in the corner.
They walked into the front porch, where the walls had been painted a soft gray and the ceiling a sky blue. Through the front door, they walked into a living room painted a soft aqua.
The beach theme was carried into the bathroom and no detail had been spared—from empty glass bottles wrapped with twine to framed seashell prints to a cherished photo of Fines and her boys at the beach.
Tweed looked around in amazement. But she couldn’t help shedding tears—in sadness for missing her daughter and in joy for all those who reached out to her family.
The boys also stared in wonder. Jack said, “Oh, this is pretty. Where’s Mommy?”
The adults paused for a moment before explaining, again, that Mommy was in heaven and that she couldn’t come back.
The grief was still nearly as fresh as the last coat of “Mystic Sea” paint, Tweed knew. But surrounded by soothing blue hues and sea shells, she also knew that those Fines left behind now had a space for healing.
Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973