Back on April 13, 2011—about a month after Lori Stilley publicly announced on Facebook that she had cancer, the day after she posted about how she had started writing letters to her daughter for every milestone in her life that Lori knew she’d miss and how she and her fiancé, Bill Stilley, had discussed which photos she wanted to be buried with—Lori and her sister were talking on the phone.
“All I want to do is to marry Bill and turn 40,” Lisa recalls Lori telling her.
“Well, I can’t get October here faster,” Lisa replied, referring to Lori’s birthday, “but I can plan a wedding.”
Growing up in Delran, Lisa had always tried to watch her little sister’s back. Soft-spoken and reserved, she often played the role of her sister’s protector, even though she always suspected Lori was their parents’ favorite—the witty, smart, outgoing one, the one who loved to be the center of attention. But this certainly wasn’t the time to squeeze sour grapes. A few hours after hanging up with Lori, Lisa found someone who could marry Lori and Bill and texted her sister: “We’re good for the 23rd.”
As Lori later described it on Facebook, she read the text message, then leaned over to a woman in the chemo chair next to her and asked what today’s date was.
“The 13th,” the woman told her.
“The 13th?” That left only nine days for planning! Lori’s enthusiasm, she confessed in the post, quickly deflated. She turned back to the woman and asked, “How do I do this to the person I love most? How … do I exchange vows when my outcome is so uncertain and [I] could possibly only be around briefly?”
No matter. When the inner circle of “Team Lori Rocks” got wind of a wedding in the works, they pulled together. One high-school acquaintance phoned the Moorestown Community House, a gorgeous, stately manse with a stunning wood-paneled ballroom, and explained Lori’s situation.
The owner offered the space at a discount—just $500—which the friend paid. She also negotiated a reduced rate with a caterer, mostly paid for by Bill’s boss. Another friend donated the cake and centerpieces. Other friends came through to photograph and film the wedding. Bill’s sister took care of the DJ.
The weekend before the wedding, Lisa drove Lori to David’s Bridal in Maple Shade. Lori shuffled into the store carefully, leaning hard on her sister’s arm. By that point, her pain was “tremendous,” she wrote, sometimes forcing her to double over and cry out.
Lori had been in pain for a long time, even before the cancer. A year and a half earlier, she’d suffered a stroke that she said left her in such excruciating pain and caused such debilitating neurological issues and memory loss that she needed to quit her job as a crisis counselor at Kennedy and Our Lady of Lourdes hospitals. For months, she and Bill, whom she lived with, had been waiting for disability payments to come through. Money was tight. The $250 for the wedding dress would need to be withdrawn from the bank account where they’d been depositing proceeds from the t-shirt fund-raiser. That account was in Lisa’s name, because Lori had told Lisa that she’d once defaulted on a loan; any assets in Lori’s name would be garnished. But Lori had an ATM card for the account. The pin number was the sisters’ birth months.
When the ladies working at David’s Bridal heard Lori’s story, they all broke into tears.
“I didn’t even think she’d make it to the wedding,” says one friend, who’d been reading Lori’s ominous pre-wedding posts. While treatment—paid for by charity care, Lori told Lisa—had reduced the number of tumors from “almost a dozen” to nine, Lori wrote that there was “no real success.”
When Lori stepped up on the bridal salon pedestal, her image reflected in all of the mirrors surrounding her, Lisa steadied herself for the worst. Lori was already pale. Today, she didn’t even have makeup on. Wouldn’t her wan skin just disappear in that white dress? It was a beautiful dress, satin and strapless, with delicate beading. But, surprisingly, Lori looked beautiful in it.
“I was looking at her,” Lisa says, “and I thought, How can she be this sick and not look sick?”
“Oh my God. I can’t believe this is going to be here,” Lisa remembers Lori complaining immediately, pointing at the large bandage on her left forearm. It covered the PICC line into her vein for the “absolute hell” of the three-hour chemo treatments she wrote she was still getting, plus chemo injected directly into her bladder, which she wrote felt like “pure acid” whenever she went to the bathroom. “You’re going to be able to see it!” she moaned.
On Saturday, April 23, 2011, Lori held the wooden railing as she descended the staircase toward the ballroom at the Moorestown Community House, her train snaking down behind her. Most of the 70 or so guests cried as Bill’s sister read a story of how the two got engaged the year before in Times Square.
For that brief moment, the occasion felt almost hopeful. Later, during the reception, Lori’s then-five-year-old son Jack took the DJ’s microphone. Everyone fell silent. Lori hadn’t yet told her children that she was dying, but they knew their mother was very sick. Ever since her stroke, Jack would run to get his mom her bottle of Dilaudid pills when he noticed her pain getting bad.
Jack whispered into the mic: “My mommy … ” And then he started bawling. The whole room fell apart.
And yet guests kept making the same observation to Bill. “If you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t even think she was sick,” they said.
And though it was there for everyone to see, no one paid much attention to that awful, unsightly chemo bandage Lori had been so concerned about. Caught up in the emotion of the wedding, Lisa says, no one noticed the bandage on her sister’s right arm.
Her other arm.