Her mom appears to her, Christine DiPippo is certain, whenever she needs her most. Soars from heaven on gossamer wings when her daughter's emotions are blue as the sky above. Soars down when spirits or celebratory glasses need lifting.
There was that day, a week or so after Angela Mulhern died far too soon at age 58 from inoperable pancreatic cancer in 2006, when the family went to visit her at the cemetery. They first stopped by her father's grave, and a cardinal swooped down and perched on his headstone, a beautiful blotch of crimson cutting through the sadness. Some people saw a bird. DiPippo knew better; her heart told her so.
Then in March 2014, at DiPippo's brother Brian's wedding on the beach in Charleston, South Carolina, another sign. As the ceremony was about to begin, a cardinal came flying out of nearby brush and perched on a bush near the family. The family broke into tears. Another cardinal. Coincidence was not a possibility.
"I'm convinced the cardinal is mom giving us a sign she's still with us," said DiPippo, a Lansdale resident.
"I need to believe that," she continued.
That some may not share DiPippo's view doesn't matter; she believes it, and it soothes her soul. As she says, she believes because she has to believe. The pain of having lost her mother cuts far too deep to believe the world is devoid of such spiritual magic.
Mulhern died almost one year to the day she was diagnosed with a cancer that's a heavyweight killer. One minute, the family was planning an end-of-the-summer vacation to Ocean City, Maryland, the next they were scraping their guts off the floor of a doctor's office after being told the grave news.
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"Hearing that diagnosis takes your breath away," said DiPippo, who on Saturday participated for the ninth year in the PurpleStride Philadelphia 5K run/walk to raise awareness and funding in the fight against pancreatic cancer. "It turns your world upside down. I didn't know much about pancreatic cancer, but I learned about it right away.
"Unfortunately, mom wasn't a candidate for surgery because the tumor was wrapped around a major artery. She had chemo and radiation to shrink the tumor, and from September when she was diagnosed until March the next year, you'd never know mom was sick. As we planned for my sister's wedding that April, mom would tell her doctor, 'I don't want chemo now because I have to look good for my daughter's wedding.' That was mom, always thinking about us, not herself.
"But shortly after the wedding, mom went downhill. She went to hospice care, and then to the hospital, and that fall she was gone. I was in a fog for a year."
So again during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, DiPippo honors her mother by walking. Saturday, she walked in the PurpleStride with her sons, Nick and Greg, and daughter, Gianna. In the past she's walked with friends and family members, including husband, Greg, an attorney and 1994 graduate of Central Bucks West. She walks to be around those who feel the gnawing pain of loss and to support those whose emotions teeter on rickety knees. She walks to put a dent in the disturbing reality that pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related death in America, and that a stunning 94 percent of pancreatic cancer patients will die within five years of diagnosis.
DiPippo walks not only for her mother, but now for her paternal aunt, Ann Marie Mulhern Clark, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just before Easter and is in hospice care. This year, and with much regret, she will add her aunt's name to her team walk name: Angela and Annie's Angels.
"One day you're totally healthy, or so you think," DiPippo said. "Then all of a sudden you get a phone call. You never know how much time you have left."
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