On the day Lisa DiGiovanni found out her sister was going to start hospice care, she couldn’t stop thinking: I am such a jerk.
It’d been an emotional nine months. In February 2011, Lisa’s younger sister, Lori Stilley, had told family and friends that she’d been diagnosed with bladder cancer. Less than two weeks later, she revealed it had spread into the surrounding tissue, earning the dire diagnosis of “Stage III.” By the end of May, she told everyone that despite chemo and radiation, the cancer had reached “end stage.” “I have fully processed the notion that I am ‘terminal,’” Lori wrote on Facebook, where she’d eloquently journaled the details of her illness. Once she stopped treatments, the doctors expected “it would probably be a matter of weeks.”
Lori was 39, divorced and out of work. She had no health insurance. And she was also a single mom. Kylie was 11. Jack was just five.
Lisa was beside herself, worrying about what would happen to her niece and nephew when their mother died. She would wake up in the middle of the night, sobbing about how unfair it was. She hadn’t always had a great relationship with her sister over the years. But the realization that she was going to lose her only sibling made Lisa forget all that.
I don’t want to have any regrets, she thought. None at all. She organized a t-shirt fund-raiser for “Proud Members of Lori’s Team,” raising more than $3,000 for Lori; planned a dream wedding for Lori and her fiancé in just nine days; helped organize a beef-and-beer to benefit Lori’s kids, which raised another $5,200.
Hundreds of people rallied to help. They gave cash and gift cards, threw fund-raisers at local bars. They arrived at Lori’s South Jersey home in Delran with enough groceries to stock the pantry. (One woman brought dinner every Thursday for months.) Soon, Lori had 360 people following her on her “Team Lori Rocks” Facebook page.
“People were living it with Lori,” Lisa says now, sitting in her dining room in Gibbsboro. She pulls out a thick folder, stuffed with the emails, the bank statements, the letters, all of those Facebook posts documenting the past year. “People were saying, ‘That’s what my mom went through.’ It was kind of cathartic for them … to be able to help.”
Lori’s story didn’t always add up. Why, for instance, did she insist on going to her chemo treatments at Cooper Hospital alone? Why wasn’t her hair falling out? Why didn’t she look … sick?
“Who would lie about having cancer?” Lisa’s husband Mike would say when Lisa dared pose such queries. She couldn’t stop wondering, though: What did it mean? That maybe … Lori … didn’t … ?
Lisa couldn’t say it out loud. What if she was wrong? Believing her sister was dying from cancer was actually more bearable than the alternative. Whenever something came up that made her doubt the severity of Lori’s illness—whenever something didn’t quite track—the story would take a devastating turn.
Like on October 28, 2011, almost nine months after the whole ordeal had begun, when Lori posted to Facebook: “Starting the morphine drip mid next week.” Oh my God, Lisa thought. How could I have questioned her? My sister is starting hospice. My sister is about to die.
I am such a jerk.