Some people name buildings to leave a legacy. Some plant gardens.
Destry Ramey writes books. On her 3rd bout of cancer, she decided to convey a message to her son through the eyes of 2 pug dogs. With each succeeding health challenge, she wrote another children’s book. Her 4th, The Brown Paper Bag, just won an honorable mention in the LA Times Festival of Books.
A retired pediatric nurse practitioner, Destry was widowed at 31 when her husband died in a climbing accident. 3 years later, she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. Son Chris was 9. Destry was told she wouldn’t make her son’s 10th birthday.
“I didn’t want anyone else raising my son,” she says. She submitted to a radical mastectomy, radiation and 18 months of chemo. She made Chris’ birthday and many more. Chris has reached his 40th.
It hasn’t been easy.
Destry’s sister, Tricia Tooman, died of breast cancer at 42. Sister Cheryl Lehman tested positive for the BRCA 1 gene, rendering her susceptible to cancer. Testing proved Destry, too, had the gene.
After her first ordeal, Destry, of Pismo Beach, CA, remained cancer-free for 2006-10. In 2007, she self-published her first book, What About Me? That book what would become the first volume in The Adventures of Hunter and Ramona Pug Series, inspired by son Chris’ pugs. The message: follow your heart and your dream will come true. Destry’s second book, in 2009, Why Am I Dark? deals with cultural diversity through the eyes of a black pug.
Chris, a life coach, has “interrupted his life many times” to be his mom’s caregiver. “He’s been my rock, though I wish he hadn’t had to be.” He’s also her adventure cohort. They’ve taken long trips to dozens of countries including Ecuador, China, Greece and Africa.
Rwanda, Destry says, was “life changing.” A female gorilla came up and stared into her eyes, then nudged Chris with her elbow, then tried to steal her hat (which was tied on). There, because of her medical background, Destry counseled the chief of a small village. Visiting mountain gorillas in Uganda led to Destry and Chris’s sponsoring 2 Ugandan boys, one of whom is in his 4th year of law school in Kampala.
Their Africa travels inspired Destry’s 3rd book, about Chris’s ADHD pug, Kippy’s African Adventure. Message from mom to son (both also ADHD): Think before you act. Everything you do impacts you and others.
A scan in 2010 showed an 8 centimenter ovarian tumor, involving several organs. Destry received Hypothermia Chemotherapy Perfusion (highly concentrated chemo delivered directly to the abdomen during surgery). Doctors rebuilt some organs, replaced her ureter, and sewed her back up. Complications resulted in 8 abdominal surgeries that year and several months in the hospital.
“I was determined to live,” Destry says. Her doctors said they’d never before seen a patient wear out wheels of a walker.
When Destry finally left the hospital, Chris surprised her with an outing. First: lunch at the Beverly Hilton. Then, knowing his mom’s love for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Chris took her shopping. In a private room at Tiffany’s, Destry was shown several pieces of jewelry Chris had pre-selected. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she chose an 18k gold and diamond bangle bracelet. She wears it every day. “It signifies the Circle of Love and reminds me I’m blessed by my amazing son and by each new day I’m given.”
But too many of us know cancer can be a relentless adversary. The next 2 years: more surgery, radiation and chemo. Still, Destry made it to another birthday. To celebrate, she and Chris visited Eastern Europe and Greece. In Ukraine, they were surprised to learn they had Jewish ancestors. So they added another destination: Israel.
3 years ago, Chris noticed a man throw a paper bag from a car window. When the bag moved, Chris opened it. Inside: a 4 lb. puppy resembling a miniature German Shepherd. He took her to a shelter but promised to find her a home. When he suggested his mom adopt her, Destry protested she was in hospitals too often and wanted to travel when able.
Destry relented when she met the puppy she named Feather. “My mother and grandmother both said whenever I found a feather, it meant an angel was nearby, watching over me.” Feather now qualifies as a medical service dog. Destry credits Feather with detecting her latest cancer. She kept licking her in the same area where scanning machines later located tumors.
Of all their mother/son travels, Chris’ highlight took place in Vienna at the Schonbrunn Palace, home to the Habsburg dynasty since the mid-1500s. In the grand imperial ballroom where generations of royalty were entertained and where Mozart first performed for the Empress, Chris asked his mother to dance. Ignoring the tourists around them, Chris began to hum, took his mom in his arms, and they waltzed.
Chris is a life coach and friend of my son. Recently, David flew Chris to Florida for a 2 day retreat, and we both worked with him. Our sessions were insightful and energizing. And free of 7, 5 & 3 year olds clamoring for Daddy’s attention. (Truth is, to spend grown-up time with either of my sons, I’d collect garbage.)
In one of our sessions, Chris left the room to take his mother’s call. When he walked back in, his face told the story. The news wasn’t good.
But Destry, a marvel of resilience, rallied. The Brown Paper Bag tells Feather’s story. Message: The most amazing treasures come from the least likely places. The day after receiving tough medical news, Destry accepted her award from the LA Times. She found a little black dress for Feather to wear to the ceremony. When jeweler friends heard about Feather’s costume, they insisted she needed pearls and loaned her some.
David and I insisted Chris leave ahead of schedule, to be with his mom. He switched to an ungodly early flight and surprised Destry at the ceremony. In concluding her remarks, Destry said, “Who would think a brown paper bag could change your life?” Then she blew a whistle and her award-winning protagonist came running down the aisle. In Destry’s rush to make the 5 hour drive to LA, she forgot her outfit and was forced to accept her honor wearing travel jeans. She says, “At least Feather was well-dressed.”
Meanwhile, Destry soldiers on. Doctors have ruled out any more conventional medical treatment. Destry learned about the Biomedical Clinic in Tiajuana, Mexico, near Chris’ home in Playas de Tijuana. There she’s undergoing holistic treatment with IV vitamins and herbs to destroy tumors, increase her alkalinity and boost her immune system. “I’m feeling well,” she says. “I’ve gotten good at beating cancer.”
God bless, my new friend. Thanks for sharing your remarkable story. May your life abound with feathers.