June 26, 2009, Vol. 7 Issue 8
One of the greatest gifts of my move to Portland in 1998, was meeting Fern Carness. From the beginning, our relationship was based on friendship as well as our mutual professional interests in speaking and women’s health. Fern took me under her wing immediately, inviting me over for Sunday night dinners and walks in Tryon Creek Park, a beautiful forest just across the street from her house. We’d knock off a few issues as we hiked the hills, and, along the way, we almost always ran into someone Fern knew.
The first time I saw her speak, I told her she needed to get out from behind the podium — so we could see her. I don’t think I ever saw her behind a podium again. I can’t take credit, however, for the powerful closing she developed for her talks. Along with her granddaughter, Kiley, she learned American Sign language. She loved doing it so much that she took it into her programs, always closing her talks wiith signing to an inspirational song, like Jana Stanfield’s “If I Were Brave,” and most recently, “For Good,” from the musical, Wicked. To see Fern sign, was to see her entire mind, body and spirit engaged, and overwhelmingly, she moved her audiences to tears.
On June 13, we lost this champion for women’s health to breast cancer at age 58. Since her first diagnosis 17 years ago, she determinedly showed breast cancer her indomitable spirit, feistiness, strength and bravado, while giving her family, career and life her all. And, in everything, her ever-present sharp wit and sense of humor soothed the rough spots for herself and those who surrounded her. She was an inspiration, a leader, and a friend to hundreds, if not thousands of survivors. From her participation with the Pink Phoenix dragon boat team to her humorous and spicey talks; from the hallways of the National Wellness Conference dorms, to the hallways of breast cancer conferences; from the dressing rooms in her store, Just Like A Woman, to the chemo chair, Fern was always making friends and helping others.
I dedicate this issue to my friend, Fern.
Fern Carness, RN, MPH
Keynote from Heaven
To know Fern, was to know her love for her family — Husband of 40 years, Al, sons, Brian and Scott, granddaughters Kiley and Taylor, sister, Ann and nephew, Alexander. Fern was all about holidays – her favorite was Thanksgiving. And sewing — Halloween costumes, quilts, quilts, quilts — gorgeous colorful, creative quilts — and homemade gifts. Her warm and generous hospitality and homemade meals were renowned among friends.
She was passionate about health and wellness. Fern was an accomplished nurse, health educator, professional speaker, business owner, author, and advocate for women’s health. As an RN, she knew the medical profession, and one of her most memorable lines was, “Doctor, you are the second opinion. My opinion was first. I count here.” And her message to women, “Remember, nobody knows your body like you do, listen to the whisper. Nobody cares about your health as much as you do. Get informed and be your own first opinion.”
Her focus on wellness started when she was working as a nurse with open-heart surgery and post-operative trauma patients in the ICU. Fern observed something she thought should not be routine: the return of the repeat offenders. What about prevention? What about health promotion? What about behavior change? It was then that Fern began to integrate her clinical skills and business background with her uninhibited gift for gab. She began to design and implement programs for women to take charge of their health.
She was a sharp, entrepreneurial businesswoman, founding four successful healthcare-related businesses. Most recently, she was co-owner of Just Like A Woman, Inc., a specialty lingerie store that blends a retail experience with women’s health. It was inspired by her horrifying post-mastectomy shopping experiences. At her store, women feel, as they should, just like a woman, no matter what their condition.
As I live nearby, I had the privilege of visiting Fern once or twice a week in these last few months. One day we were sitting in the family room, and she was talking about dying. She said she wished she could give a keynote about dying, not the one she did at the breast cancer issues conference over a year ago — that was about living with breast cancer in its end stages. No, she was writing one in her head that she knew she would never deliver, because she knew that her professional work was done, and this was time for her own contemplation, and to be with friends and family. In so many ways, this epitomizes our Fern, always creating and sharing her experience.
Everyone who visited got to see Taylor’s Memory Quilt — Taylor is Kiley’s sister, Fern’s second granddaughter. Fern was sooooooo proud of this quilt and rightly so. It is absolutely gorgeous, and I cannot do it justice in describing it, but it features fabrics from Taylor’s quilts and Halloween costumes, each in the shape of a dress form in every block. The colors, patterns, textures — all so different — yet Fern had united them in a cohesive design.
In Changes Along the Path, the third in the Wise Women Speak anthology books Fern co-produced, I was struck by her words, in the chapter, “Memories: The Fabric of Your Life.” This story, feels to me, like one she would include in a “A Keynote from Heaven.”
Memories: The Fabrics of Your Life
With the birth of her first grandchild, Kiley, on Dec. 7, 1994, Fern had an awakening. She had made Kiley a baby quilt and barely finished it while sitting in the waiting room, hand tying it as her mother’s labor was in process.
“I was profoundly struck with my current reality. I had been diagnosed with very aggressive stage III breast cancer just eighteen months before and had recently recovered from my mastectomy and twelve rounds of chemotherapy. I was deeply afraid I would not live to see her grow up. What disturbed me the most at this moment was what ‘they’ would tell Kiley about Grandma Fern. Who am I?
“Oh yes, I am sure my sons would tell her about me as best sons can. My husband would answer the questions she might ask. And of course my sister would tell her tales of me, too. But not one of them really knows me. Not the ‘me’ that I know. The ‘me’ that loves to dance. The ‘me’ that gets excited by vibrant colors. Who knows how important reading books had been to my childhood survival? Do they know why I most admire Rachel Carson? Or that cooking is my way to relax. Who knows how much I believe in the power of silly laughter to heal my soul? Who knows how easily I could be hurt by a look or a word and yet how tough I am when put to the test? Who would tell Kiley about the real me?
“A profound ‘aha.’ I would. I would show myself, my whole self, to Kiley. But how?”
And so Fern began the concept of building memories. She decided not to buy Kiley things and not to shower her with material gifts. Rather, they would create memories. They went places like the Tulip Festival (‘two-lips’ she’d say), baked cookies, stuffed turkey with their bare hands, took photos and sang silly songs while driving from Seattle to Portland. They took summer trips to Wisconsin, learned sign language and Fern sent postcards from her business trips over the years.
The memories accumulated, but she felt there had to be a way to tie it altogether to keep the pieces from being lost.
“I needed to weave the story of our lives into an enduring pattern. I began to focus on creating a very special object because I already had all the pieces I needed. All I had to do was put them in their place in a pattern. A quilt.
“My memory-building mission began with the first baby quilt. I put away the scraps in a sewing bin labeled ‘Kiley’s First Quilt, 1994.’ Then came remnants from the long list of Halloween costumes I had made for her. Tinki Winki, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy, and the Poodle Skirt. And, of course, the now famous monogrammed pillow-case-of-the-month project. Each time, saving the scraps and labeling them for the memory quilt.”
And Fern did the same for Taylor, and nephew, Alexander — planning, creating, sewing each quilt and Halloween costume, and carefully saving the remnants.
“As I sit for hours sewing with their photos in my head, I search my soul — spinning to the rhythm of the sewing machine. With each new costume, I become more clear about the purpose of my life. You see, it is all about love — the love we give and the love we receive. It is my hope that each time they dress up in these costumes, lay their heads on new pillowcases for the month, or get tucked in under a snuggly quilt, they know they are loved. They see the sense of whimsy in the silly fabric choices and they experience the durability of the fabric to weather time. My breast cancer and my grandkids have changed my life in the most wonderful ways.
“Each year for Christmas I receive a photo of the three kids dressed for Halloween. These photos are my most cherished gift. The memories I have created for them, in turn, have created more for me. Interesting isn’t it, that when you give the best of yourself, you get the best in return? By the way, when I am long gone and anyone wants to know who was Grandma Fern, just ask them, they know.”
You are welcome to read and sign the guestbook at http://www.oregonlive.com/obits
As Fern’s Sherpa from her expedition to Nepal said, “We are full of tears, in our eyes and in our hearts.”
Missing her and loving her, her legacy and memories live with us and through us.
PLEASE NOTE: The information shared in this e-news is designed to help you make informed decisions about speakers and the programs they offer. It is not intended as a substitute for any treatment prescribed by a doctor. If you suspect you have a medical problem, seek competent medical help.