Peggy McGuinness was just 23 years old in the year 2000 when her mother Anne McGuinness was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. Peggy remembers so clearly how her mom waited an entire day to break the news to her. Peggy, fresh out of college with her first real job, had just bought her first new car. Though her mother had learned of her diagnosis on the same day, she waited 24 hours to share her news because she did not want to ruin Peggy’s “New Car Day”. This kind of selflessness was typical for Anne McGuinness, who was always so focused on caring for her loved ones.
Anne had been experiencing some internal abdominal pain for a while but she had put off going to the doctor. She had just lost her own mother and she had assumed that her pains were from stress. Eventually her symptoms became so bad that she was forced to go to the doctor. The entire McGuiness family was shocked to learn that Anne had Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer.
The McGuinness family was never given a sense of hope by the medical community. The doctors indicated that there was really nothing they could do to save Anne’s life. Anne did try some chemotherapy, but derived little benefit from the treatments. The dedicated sixth-grade history teacher limited her pain medications so that she could remain clear-headed enough to stay in the classroom she loved. Just a year after her diagnosis, Anne McGuinness passed away, leaving behind her husband, Bernard, and their seven children.
Peggy had never heard of Pancreatic Cancer prior to her mother’s diagnosis. She certainly had no idea that the prognosis was so poor. To lose her mom in such a short period of time was devastating. Though they only had one final year together, Peggy focuses on the good that came out of that time. Peggy says, “The last year, as terrible as it was, was wonderful in many ways.” Peggy remembers how her entire family savored each day and every special moment that they had with one another.
Peggy remembers how her mom was able to celebrate one more birthday and one more of each holiday with everyone in the family. Peggy says, “Even though it was a tough year, it was the best in many ways. Every celebration was just the best with my mom. She was so sweet and positive.” They savored each of those days, hoping for a good outcome, but knowing they would likely be the last celebrations they would enjoy with Anne.
During that final year, Anne wrote everyone a letter to say good-bye. She knew that her prognosis was not good, but she dealt with it as best as she could. She kept busy, continued teaching, and she told everyone how much they meant to her. Anne McGuinness did not allow cancer to dictate how she would live. She made sure that she lived her final year on her own terms.
The death of a loved one is an event that can either tear families apart or bring them together. In the aftermath of Anne’s passing, Peggy and her immediately older sister Roisin and her younger sister Deirdre became closer and leaned upon one another for support. The three women still enjoy a very close bond that was forged out of a most difficult period in their young lives. Deirdre was only 16 when Anne was diagnosed. Though Peggy and Roisin were both young, they knew that Deirdre was still at a very impressionable age. They wanted to take their little sister under their wing and fill the maternal role to the best of their ability. Peggy and Roisin helped get Deirdre settled in at college. Peggy marvels at how her little sister has grown into a strong woman despite the challenges she faced at such a young age.
About 18 months after losing her mother, Peggy moved to London. It was a hard to move so far away from the family she loved, but it was something she had long wanted to do. The move proved to be rewarding but was also challenging in ways she had not expected. She tried to go places and do things that her mom would have enjoyed. She was excited about her experiences in London, but missed being able to call her mom to share her joy.
Peggy took up competitive rowing when she was in London. She remembers how after qualifying for one significant race, a friend asked, “Did you call your parents?” Peggy remembers the pain she experienced over the realization that she could not share the news with her mom. Having both parents alive and well was something that her peers took for granted. Rather than explaining her loss, Peggy brushed it off by saying, “No, I did not get a chance to call them yet.” She continues, “It was awful to lose her and not to have her presence. I was 23, and at a turning point in my life. I lost my sounding board.”
During her time in London, Peggy completed her first triathlon for a small Pancreatic Cancer charity. Not many people knew about her mom. By working with the charity, Peggy discovered that sharing her mom’s story felt very empowering and rewarding.
When Peggy returned to New York City, she found that keeping up with competitive rowing was too difficult. So, she turned to running as a physical outlet for the stressors of life. Peggy started off by running a 10K and then eventually entered a race series which culminated with a half-marathon. Peggy feels that the half-marathon is her favorite distance, but she has grown to like the full marathon more as she has learned to prepare and train at a more optimal level.
In 2013, Peggy ran the Marine Corps Marathon for Project Purple. She loves the grass-roots nature of Project Purple and felt that attending the team dinner and running with the team was a very special experience. Peggy enjoyed knowing that she was running for a reason, and she could feel her mom looking down upon her through her race that day. Peggy had started off running with a pace group, but lost them when she stopped to use the restroom. However, she eventually caught up to and then passed the pace group. When Peggy saw her sister and friends on the course in their purple shirts, she was filled with a sense of happiness.
The pain of not having her beloved mother has lessened over time, but has never disappeared. Peggy explains, “The loss of my mother has not necessarily gotten easier over time, but it has gotten farther away.” It is simply a fact of her adult life that she has had to come to terms with and accept over time. Still, there is not a day that goes by where she does not wonder in what ways her life might be different if her mother, her confidante and sounding board, were still alive. Peggy says, “The hardest thing is the knowledge that when I get married, my spouse won’t know my mom. My children will not grow up knowing her.” This April, Peggy is looking forward to toeing the line at the Boston Marathon as part of the Project Purple team. Anne was born and raised in Boston. Peggy feels that this race will be a truly special way to honor the mother she lost far too early in life.
Please visit Peggy’s crowdrise site and support her efforts at the Boston Marathon this April!