Monday, March 5, 2012


January 19, 2012 is a day I will never forget. Earlier that day I remembered that it was my Uncle Mike's birthday, a dear uncle who tragically died in a car crash in his mid 30s. I specifically remember thinking just how sad it was that he died so young and when my cousins were so young as teenagers. 

Later that evening, my world was shattered when I received a call from my mom who told me that my sister, Tonya, received the devastating news that her cancer was in no other treatments options. Her breast cancer battle started June 2010 at the age of 39 and was followed with months of chemo, radiation and now I'm hearing from my mom that there's nothing more that they can do. The doctor more or less said chemo would only shorten her life and she needed to go and be with her family. 

I couldn't drive to her house quick enough and I ran to her and couldn't let go. I will never forget what she said through her tears, "I'm sorry, I tried so hard to fight." The days that followed = me an absolute wreck.

All that I could think of was everything she meant to me and everything I still needed her for.  

I spent the next month driving back and forth as much as I possibly could with her living nearly an hour away. Tonya would text me often and I would ask about her pain and always her answer was that the pain was nearly unbearable. I can't tell you how excruciating it is to hear someone you love so much tell you how much pain they're in and there's nothing you can do to help. 

On February 25, 2012 my beautiful sister lost her battle but was quite the fighter. She is the mother of three beautiful and smart girls that are 16, 13, and 11. The night before, my two youngest nieces spent the night with me and as we were cooking breakfast, I got the call that she was going and going fast. We flew as fast as we could while my sister fought for every breath in her last moments. She was surrounded by family holding hands, embracing each other as we cried and prayed over her. There is no doubt in my mind that she was holding on to see her girls and her family and hear from all of us that as much as it pained us, that we were going to be alright and it was okay to let go. 

I've never had a harder day in my life than that day. While I feel like it was a blessing to be there with her and tell her that I love her, the image of her in those last moments is absolutely haunting me and one I cannot get out of my mind every time I close my eyes. 

I spoke at Tonya's memorial service and was a ball of nerves. It took me about 5 minutes, or so it seemed, before I started my eulogy about her but I knew that no one would understand a word if I went into my ugly cry, and boy was I ever so close. 

Here are the words that I shared that day:

I recently read an article about a professor along with a group of researchers carried out a study that said that having a sister helped to promote good mental health. 

He said, "Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families. However, brothers seem to have the alternative effect. (Sorry, Bo, no offense) Emotional expression is fundamental to good psychological health and having sisters promotes this in families." 

I truly believe that your sister is your first best friend. Being that Tonya was 8 years older than me, in more ways also made her my second mother. She experienced things ahead of me and her experience and wisdom was often the topic of long phone conversations. 

Growing up, I was her shadow. I was completely her tag-along and was there even in those years where little sisters were “uncool” and normally cramping a teenager’s style. She couldn’t even get rid of me if she tried. I even tagged along in the summers to her work when she was a nanny. I’ve lost count how many times she gave me rides to volleyball games, work, and even dances when I was too embarrassed to have Mom and Dad drive me. I completely idolized her. I remember crying and telling my mom that I wanted “yellow” hair like Tonya when we were younger. I was always so envious of her thick beautiful hair. 

She was my “person” who didn’t hold back and told me the brutal honest truth like, “Andrea, what are you thinking wearing that white eye shadow” and “Sweetie, you really need to wax your lip.” Every person needs a “Tonya” to tell it to you straight. 

 If there ever were a pair of polar opposite sisters, it was Tonya and me. There were days that I wasn’t so sure she promoted good mental health but now looking back, those arguments and differences of opinion brought us closer. Tonya was fiery, spunky, and sassy but that seemed to be in my favor because most times I was not on the receiving end of it. She witnessed my worst and best and loved me anyway. She was the type that came to spend the night while my newborn son was hooked up to a machine for jaundice just so Justin and I could get more than an hour of sleep. She had many duties as a sister. She was also my mother, my cook, my chauffeur, my caregiver, my defense attorney (she saved my bottom from many a spankins), my personal press agent, my cheerleader and most often my shrink.

I remember when she had her girls and they felt like they were my own children. My sister could make some beautiful babies that was for sure. 

 When I became a mother, a closer bond began and I understood her more than ever.  We both love being a mother more than anything but Tonya was the one person I could count on to talk to about it when it got to be too hard to handle. She wouldn’t sugarcoat anything and would validate me that it was ok to feel that way. With the birth of every child we’ve been in the waiting room for each other. The best way she showed me her love was by loving my children. 

And my children loved her so much. When Tonya lost her hair, I gave Nolan a talk that Aunt Tonya was going to look different on our way to visit her. He asked me, “Is her name still Tonya? Did her voice change? So in his 4 year old mind, he was convinced that Tonya was a man since men are the only people that he’s seen bald. And when it came to my children, she was more grandmotherly and went immediately to defending them anytime I told her a story about some hair-pulling moment with them.

When Tonya first told me about finding the lump, it was one of those, “You better get that checked out” conversations. I cannot describe the 20 months after that that were filled with countless appointments, treatments, medications, hair loss, and pain. And here we find ourselves with her no longer in pain but yet our pain is so intense. Not the same blinding rush of pain she had during her days with cancer but the pain that feels like a part of us died because you can’t live very long without a heart and our hearts are completely broken.

The hardest part of this is speaking of her in the past tense. Saying I “had” a sister rather than “have” feels like I just swallowed box full of nails as I try to form that one word. 

I’m not a professor and I don’t have research to back it up but I didn’t need a study to tell me that my sister promoted my psychological health. Let us all remember Tonya, not as a woman battling cancer, but as that fiery, spunky, and loving woman that will live on in all of us. 


Tonya's middle name, Vanesse, means butterfly. We had a butterfly release service at our church to symbolize so many things about her new journey as an angel and free of cancer. The service was absolutely uplifting and very therapeutic. Her beautiful and brave girls whispered prayers into the envelopes that carried the butterflies and released them.

After I said my prayer and released my butterfly, it lingered on my finger. It was exactly what I needed to know that she's still with me.  

She did the exact same thing for mom on her shirt sleeve and I'm so sure it was her way of saying, "Everything's going to be ok."

And so now the journey of healing begins and the best way I can describe it is looking at a huge mountain that seems impossible to climb and knowing that it's going to be so painful and you're going to fall down again, but the only way up is taking it one step at a time. 

The memories are seriously everywhere. Right now they are so painful but I know that one day, those memories will be such a source of joy.  I know she's with me, I feel her but I miss her like crazy. 

I love you Tonya. 

Love your Anna Banana 


  1. I am so so so sorry to hear about your sister. I am going through something similar right now with my Aunt (a woman that has played a huge part in my life). She only has a couple months left according to her doctors due to pancreatic cancer. It is unbearably hard to watch her be in pain and know there is nothing I can do to help. I'm dreading the day that I get that call like you did telling me that she is passing. Tears are flowing while I think about the pain your family is feeling right now. I want you to know that I am sending prayers and good thoughts your way.

  2. You are such a tender and heart felt writer. Thank you for sharing this. I found writing my mother's eulogy to be incredibly difficult. So loving and well said.

  3. I am so deeply sorry to hear about your sister. You are such a strong woman, and such a beautiful writer, had me in tears... completely lost it though seeing your nieces whispering their secrets... and that butterfly release, wow... so beautiful.

  4. Wonderful! Thank you for sharing this with us! I love you so much.

  5. That brought tears to my so sorry for your loss.

  6. My sweet daughter is also suffering from TNBC ... we thought all was well until her first scan after treatment. She now has liver and lung cancer. I so pray that we have her for a very long time!! I can see both of my daughters in you and your sister! They are so very close - yet so different, They are also 8 years apart with the youngest having cancer...
    I send my most heartfelt sympathy to you and yours *especially her babies*
    Shirley Ridge, member of TNBC forum.

  7. I am sat in tears as I read this.. I am so so sorry for your loss.. *hugs* xx

  8. Andrea,
    Beautifully written. Words can not express how sorry I am for your loss. Have peace that she's no longer suffering.


  9. Andrea, I am deeply sorry for your loss. A sister is such a precious gift. I hung on every word you wrote here. I completely and sincerely admire your courageous way in which you celebrate Tonya, and the faith you hold, knowing she is still with you...all of you. You are both so beautiful and really favor each other. :) I pray you and your family continue on His path and continue to heal. :) Yomaida

  10. Excuse me while I've gone into an ugly cry myself and my husband is looking at me as though I'm nuts. I never met Tonya, but felt as though I had from following your family through your blog and Facebook. Her girls are gorgeous and the love that all of you shared has been clearly evident. Know that I had prayed for your family since her diagnosis and have continued. I had hoped and prayed for a different outcome. I pray that God would continue to reveal His love and mercy to your whole family.

  11. My heart is about to explode and I look like a mess as the tears flow. I stopped by to check in today I began reading back through your post. Your loss breaks my heart and makes me cling to my sister a little more than I already.
    As you continue to grieve I pray the God of all comfort will embrace you in a way that only He can.



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