At the end of each day, Patti Varney and her mother, Linda Woods, high-fived each other and recited what they called their mantra: “We survived.”
Patti, 30, was battling colon cancer. Linda, 60, was fighting ovarian cancer. They endured surgeries together, toughed their way through chemotherapy treatments together — sometimes on the same day — and planned Patti’s wedding together.
“All our thoughts,” Patti wrote last February in her blog, were about “cancer, life, death, and weddings.”
Linda died Sept. 24 at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Patti died seven weeks later, on Nov. 11, at her home in San Francisco. Their deaths were confirmed by their family.
By all accounts, the mother and daughter were exceptionally close, even before cancer brought them closer. A Navy wife and former Navy nurse, Linda looked after Patti; her sister, Lisa; her brother, Jacob; and her half-brother, Jaime, during their father’s long deployments at sea.
Linda had been a college cheerleader and helped Patti practice when she joined the cheerleading squad at West Springfield High School. While raising her children, Linda built a small business that offered training programs for medical practitioners. During summer vacations, she sometimes loaded the kids into a conversion van and took them around the country for her seminars.
Patti, too, developed an interest in business and went to the University of Virginia to study commerce. She was partway through a graduate program when her disease was diagnosed in the fall of 2008. For some time, her family said, her colon cancer symptoms were mistaken for an eating disorder.
With major surgery and chemotherapy, Patti beat the disease into remission and returned to graduate school the next year. She met her future husband, Eric Varney, received her master’s degree from U-Va. and returned to Northern Virginia to work as a business analyst for the defense contractor Northrop Grumman.
In the winter of 2011, Linda began to feel short of breath and went to the doctor, never anticipating how sick she was. She learned on her 59th birthday that she had ovarian cancer. “We surely are on a physical, emotional, and spiritual roller coaster,” she wrote in her journal that day.
Linda began a chemo regimen, but she and Patti did not let cancer dominate their lives. Weeks after Linda’s diagnosis, Patti’s boyfriend whisked her off on a surprise trip to Paris and proposed to her. Mother and daughter began planning Patti’s dream wedding.
Midway through the planning, and with Linda still in the throes of chemo, Patti began to develop pain in her elbow. Linda took her to the doctor. When she heard the results of her daughter’s scans, she fainted, Jacob recalled. Patti’s colon cancer had returned and metastasized to her bones and lungs.
Jacob became a primary caregiver to his mother and sister. He calls them “my girls.”
“My mom and I still felt awful,” Patti wrote on Sept. 5, 2011, after difficult chemo treatments for both of them. “I think the most productive thing I did was pick out bridesmaid dresses and turn oxygen into carbon dioxide.”
But, she continued, “we survived. . . . We may have worse weeks, we’ll hopefully have better ones, but we keep fighting the good fight. Because we’re survivors and this is what we do.”
Diane Lamb, one of Linda’s longtime friends, sometimes took wedding books to the hospital so that Patti could pick out favors and finalize other details. One of her bridesmaids, Kelly Shields, was planning her own wedding at the same time and recalled how, despite her illness, Patti developed the usual “bridal neuroses.” The friends would talk about Patti’s treatment, and then move on to what flowers they had chosen.
On April 7, 2012, Patti and Eric were married at the U-Va. chapel. Linda had been in the hospital in the days leading up to the wedding but managed to be released a few hours before the rehearsal dinner.
Patti had told Eric that she wanted two things on her wedding day: to marry him, and to have her mother there to see it happen. “She got both of them,” Eric said.
Patti and Eric honeymooned in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. About a week after they returned, she learned that the cancer had metastasized to her brain. After another surgery, she moved with Eric to San Francisco. She wanted, her sister Lisa Kovacevic said, to “start the life that she always dreamed of with her husband.”
Three weeks after the move, Patti’s new doctors in California told her that her cancer was terminal and that she had two weeks to two months to live. She and Eric flew back to Virginia to tell her parents. Linda continued to decline, and so did Patti — so much that she was not able to attend her mother’s funeral.
Linda Ann DeNearing was born Feb. 20, 1952, in Lyons, N.Y. She received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh in 1973 and married three years later. In 1991, she received a master’s degree, also in nursing, from George Mason University.
The Woodses spent the early years of their marriage in California. Linda gave birth to Patricia Clara Woods in San Diego on July 29, 1982, while her husband was at sea. Since the late 1980s, the family had lived in Springfield.
Patti received a bachelor’s degree from U-Va. in 2005 and a master’s degree in 2010.
Survivors include their husband and father, retired Navy Capt. Jim Woods of Springfield; Patti’s husband, Eric Varney of San Francisco; their daughter and sister, Lisa Kovacevic of Eugene, Ore.; their son and brother, Jacob Woods of Springfield; their stepson and half-brother, Jaime Woods of Manassas; their mother and grandmother, Clara DeNearing of Marion, N.Y.; Linda’s brother; and her five grandchildren.
Once, the day before a chemo treatment, Patti reflected in a blog post on the misfortune of her diagnosis.
When I’m feeling sorry for myself, she wrote, instead of lamenting “why me?”, I’m trying to ask myself “why not me?” Who would I wish this on if it wasn’t me? (hint: the answer is no one.)
Linda responded in a comment, asking her daughter: But why both of us?
I guess the answer is the same, she wrote — why not? Are we so privileged that every day should be blissful and happy? Is anyone?