Every year, for one weekend in August, the air above the Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston, Maine becomes adorned with dozens of hot-air balloons, flashing their jewel-bright colors and sporting names that range from "Waddles the SnoBird" to "Serendipity."
The Great Falls Balloon Festival is a time for the community to come together and support local non-profits. The event draws 100,000 visitors each year—none more eager to take part in the festivities than Mary Dempsey and her mother, Amanda.
But in 1997, the weekend that the Dempsey family had set aside for celebration was forever tarnished when Amanda received a devastating diagnosis: ovarian cancer. "From that day forward, life changed forever," says Mary. "It was like a door was slammed in my face. When I opened the door, all I saw was fog. We quickly had to choose the right path."
Armed with a health care background that spanned several decades, Mary became the obvious choice to take up the caregiver mantle for her mother. Her brother, actor Patrick Dempsey (known for his role as Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd on the medical drama Grey's Anatomy) and sister, Alicia, put their faith in Mary's experience to secure the best care and quality of life for their mother. "It brought comfort to my mom and siblings knowing that I had a pulse on everything from day one. I was able quickly navigate the situation and get the answers, as well as options for the family to discuss."
Mary became the clan's medical translator, using her skills to decipher doctor-speak for Amanda so that her mother could make informed choices about treatment. But Mary would never let her mother abdicate the decision-making process, even though Amanda at times wanted to. "She would gently look at me with her beautiful blue eyes saying ‘Is this right?' My response was always ‘Mom, it's your answer, therefore it's the right choice.'"
Different days, different strengths
Amanda's cancer battle spanned nearly two decades and a dozen relapses. It was a capricious journey that tested the mettle of both women, and the family as a whole.
"Being a caregiver is a full-time position. I would never let my hair down. Always available and on call to go as needed, with my phone by my side," says Mary, who watched her mother handle multiple relapses with a mixture of pain and awe. "It was so difficult to hear and watch. Mom was very strong and fortunately taught me strength at an early age. Being able to watch her quickly recover and fight—one day at a time—to rise above cancer was so rewarding."
The term "fight" is the ideal distillation of the essence of Amanda's journey. Mary describes the joy of watching her mother "beat up cancer" on her good days and adopt a mantra of "one foot in front of the other" when threatened with the bad. The mother-daughter duo chased down countless clinical trials over the years, attempting to gain access. Despite being denied entry on multiple occasions, they persisted in their pursuit.
Mary confesses that there were times when she was plagued by the double-edged nature of her medical knowledge base. "I was never afraid to politely speak up for Mom, when necessary," she says. "But having medical knowledge can be good and bad; you know just enough, which can be hard."
Cancer curse to community gift
Ten years into Amanda's battle, the Dempsey's came up with a way to share her quiet strength with other families who'd been affected by cancer.
The Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing, located in the family's hometown of Lewiston, was born from the synthesis of Mary's medical know-how, and Patrick's vision and financial backing.
Since it opened in 2008, the Center has provided a range of support services to cancer patients and their caregivers, free of charge. Health and wellness services including oncology counseling, youth and family support programs, nutrition and exercise consultations, yoga, Tai Chi, mindfulness meditation, massage and Reiki are all offered on an ongoing basis. The facility also boasts a library packed with educational DVDs and books, as well as a beautiful Healing Garden that was recently re-named in Amanda's honor.
"We took Mom's cancer diagnosis and made it a ‘gift' to the community," Mary says. "Patrick, after seeing what I could do as one person for our mother, made us realize the possibilities of what we could do with a whole team of dedicated individuals. The vision was huge, but made possible with passion, hard work, and of course Patrick helping with financial support to get us started."
Once the Center was up and running, each Dempsey infused the endeavor with an offering that reflected his or her unique gifts.
Amanda volunteered constantly—sewing blankets to give to the patients, keeping the facilities neat and tidy, even bringing apples and homemade jam to the Center on a regular basis. Mary assumed the role of Assistant Director of the Center and Patrick developed a way to ensure that the Center's services could remain free for the families: The Dempsey Challenge, an annual run, walk, cycle event that takes place each fall in Lewiston.
Equal parts festival and fitness, the Challenge has its roots in the Center's belief that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is key to cancer prevention and coping with the disease. Survivors are celebrated with a special walk, led by Amanda, Mary, Patrick, Alicia and other Dempsey family members.
This year's Dempsey Challenge, set to take place on September 27th and 28th, will have a slightly different tenor. Amanda passed away in March, leaving a void that is sure to be felt by every participant. "She was a role model to many, even those who'd never met her," says Mary, who admits that her personal grief journey is still ongoing, "Some days are good, and others I feel like I have tripped in a pothole."
But Mary continues on as her mother would have, putting one foot in front of the other and channeling Amanda's essence into efforts to enrich the lives of cancer patients and their families. She also advocates for increased funding for cancer research, a role that recently had her testifying before a U.S. Senate Committee on Aging. Her goal is to keep growing the Center and continue offering no-cost assistance to those affected by cancer "as long as we are needed"—the hopeful implication being that cancer will one day be eradicated, rendering the very notion of a cancer support center obsolete.
In the meantime, Mary's message to her fellow family caregivers is: "Practice patience, kindness, love and support from the heart. You will need to make good use of your ears, your shoulders and your heart. And remember to stop and re-charge your own batteries once a day—even if it's only for five minutes."
This past year, just prior to one of her final chemotherapy treatments, Amanda was finally able to cross "take a ride in a hot air balloon" off of her bucket list.
In light of their journey together, Amanda and Mary's annual pilgrimage to the balloon festival takes on a deeper meaning—the unrelenting heavenward ascension of the flamboyant inflatables echoing the strength of two women with identical powder blue eyes, gentle smiles and indomitably caring spirits.