Within weeks of the wedding, Lori wrote that her liver and kidneys had started to fail. Her doctors, she explained, decided to stop some of her treatments until her blood levels showed improvement. Unfortunately, they did not. “It will take a miracle—literally—for these doctors to OK starting treatment again,” Lori wrote. “Nothing short of a miracle.”
A couple weeks later, on May 29th, Lori announced the worst news yet: “I am ‘terminal.’”
That word—terminal—obliterated Lisa’s suspicions. She secretly called Lori’s first husband, Brian, to make sure he knew how serious it was. Lisa was sure that Jack—Lori’s son from a subsequent relationship—would go to live with his dad, but the divorce from Brian had been ugly. (Lori had posted before her wedding, “I DO NOT want to die with my ex-husband’s name!!! LOL”.) Still, Lisa thought he needed to know, since it was unclear where Kylie, their daughter, would be going to live when Lori passed.
“I had the hardest conversation of my life tonight when my 11-year-old daughter sat on my lap sobbing telling me she is proud to be my daughter and doesn’t know what she will do without me,” Lori posted in mid-May. “No parent should ever have to have this type of conversation … no 11-year-old should either. But yet, here we are.”
Thus began the lasts. There was the last trip to Disney with Bill and the kids (paid for, Lisa says, by a retroactive disability check that finally came in). Then, at the American Legion in Gibbsboro, there was the last beef-and-beer fund-raiser, to build a trust for Lori’s kids. (Lori considered it “a farewell party for myself.”) More than 130 people came and raised $5,200. A week later, Lori posted that “90 percent of the people in that room will not see me again.”
Finally, there was the last vacation down the Shore. Lori’s family, Lisa’s clan and the sisters’ parents, Dottie and John Oppmann, all packed into a three-bedroom condo in Ocean City in mid-July. As Lisa remembers the vacation, Lori brought her wheelchair, plus a case of the guanabana juice she’d been drinking since she saw on Dr. Oz that it supposedly kills cancer cells. The first night, she and Bill went to bed early.
Then Kylie started sobbing. “This is my last vacation with my mommy,” she bawled. “I don’t have much longer with my mommy.”
Lisa knocked gently on Lori’s bedroom door: “Hey Lor, Kylie’s really, really upset.”
“Tell her to go to sleep,” Lori replied.
Tell her to go to sleep?
Lisa figured Lori hadn’t heard her. She stayed at the door. “She knows this is her last vacation with you,” she said. “She’s afraid she’s going to lose you.”
“Just tell her to go to sleep,” Lori repeated.
Lisa froze outside the door, unable to move. She can’t walk one room over and give her daughter a hug? Lisa thought. Really?
That, Lisa says now, “is exactly the moment I knew: Something is not right.” From then on, Lisa noted everything that happened that she thought seemed “off”—Bill spending $800 to rent a plane that flew an “I Love Lori Stilley!” banner over the shoreline; Lisa wheeling Lori to the bathroom on the Boardwalk one night and not hearing even a peep of pain as she peed; Lori describing how she and Bill had sex in the shower; everyone watching Lori jump out of her wheelchair one night … to country line-dance.
“When she got up and danced,” Lisa says, “Mike and I just looked at each other.”
“She wasn’t struggling at all,” Mike adds.
After they got back home, Lisa backed off. She didn’t drop by Lori’s house as often as she had been; she quit posting so much on Lori’s Facebook wall. “I was uncomfortable,” she says. “Nothing made sense.”
Others began to raise eyebrows, too.
“She didn’t ever post anything medical on Facebook. She wasn’t writing the minutiae, the technical terminology that people dealing with cancer use,” says one of Lori’s childhood friends who followed the saga.
“When people dropped off food, she’d divulge information that wasn’t asked for. Like, you’d hand her a pie and she’d say, ‘My hair isn’t falling out because … ’ or ‘My teeth are falling out, but only the ones in the back,’” remembers a relative.
“When my mother saw a photo of Lori from her wedding, she said, ‘That girl doesn’t have cancer,’” says a high-school acquaintance of Lori’s. “And I said back, ‘That’s a horrible thing to say! Who would fake cancer?’”
Lori got wind of some of this. On July 29th she posted online what she’d heard—rumblings about “where the money was going” and that people were “even questioning the validity of my situation.” Her Facebook posse jumped to her defense, calling the doubters “idiots,” “assholes,” “losers” and “stupid people.”
“I’d rather you be a healthy con artist who can watch her kids grow,” wrote one member of “Team Lori,” “than a gravely ill, loving mother, fighting this battle.”
When Bill wheeled Lori through the door of the Knights of Columbus in Delran on October 22nd, she thought they’d come to celebrate Lisa and Mike’s 17th wedding anniversary. Then she heard it: “Surprise!”
In April, Lori had told Lisa she wanted to stay alive long enough to get married and turn 40. Now, she would accomplish both. Lori covered her mouth with her hand as she surveyed the scene—125 guests, a giant cake with yellow flowers, a “This is Your Life” montage propped on the dessert table. Her friends anointed her with a lei and a silver crown with a glittery “40” glued to the front.
A few days after the party, Bill posted a thank-you on Facebook to everyone who came out. “The love projected by this group and her friends and family gave her the energy to get out of her wheelchair and socialize with everyone. She was SO HAPPY!”
Except, it wasn’t the getting out of the wheelchair that people had noticed. It was the fact that once she did, she didn’t sit back down.
For three hours.
“People were saying she was dancing and drinking,” says a friend who, around that time, had started checking Lori’s Facebook page first thing every morning, expecting to find news that she’d died. “I was like, ‘What?’”
Six days later, though, that news seemed imminent.
“Worst word in the English language: hospice,” Lori wrote. “Starting the morphine drip mid next week. Heart is heavy … faith is on double-time.”
Oh my God, Lisa thought when Lori called to tell her. I am such a jerk. “I started backpedaling,” Lisa says.
She logged onto the CaringBridge website, where she’d been updating a journal about Lori’s condition for people who didn’t have Facebook accounts. It had been quite a while since she’d written an entry. But now, with the situation very real and very grim, Lisa cried so hard she could barely see the screen as she typed: “Hold Lori close to your heart and in your prayers.”
On November 1st, the night before hospice would take over Lori’s care, Lisa’s 14-year-old daughter Brooke had a field hockey playoff game. Brooke’s coach had asked the girls to dedicate their game to someone. Brooke chose her Aunt Lori. “I knew she wasn’t going to be able to come to the game,” Brooke says. “But I was really emotional. The whole team was emotional.”
During the first half of the game, Brooke heard everyone yelling her name.
“Look!” her coach yelled, then pointed to the sidelines. There, in her wheelchair, was Aunt Lori.
After the game—Brooke’s team won—her teammates met in the center of the field and, with their arms hooked over each other’s shoulders, walked en masse to Lori’s wheelchair. Brooke fell into Lori’s outstretched arms and wept. The rest of the team surrounded them, leaning in for a giant hug. There wasn’t a dry eye in the bleachers.
Lisa didn’t sleep that night. She’d offered to take off work the next day and wait with Lori for the hospice workers to come, but her sister refused.
“We just want to do it alone,” Lisa remembers Lori saying. Lisa felt helpless. She set up a Facebook page as a virtual prayer circle, asking everyone who joined to observe a moment of silence around the time Samaritan Hospice was scheduled to arrive at Lori’s. Others organized prayer vigils of their own. Friends switched their Facebook profile photos to a headshot of Lori, smiling, with a caption in red letters: “Team Lori Rocks.”
Lisa was sitting at her desk that morning at Sun National Bank, picturing Lori getting hooked up to an IV, when her phone beeped. It was a text from Lori: “Did you see my status?”
Lisa logged on to Facebook. Lori had written about the field hockey game, about how proud she was of Brooke.
Lisa’s phone beeped again. Another text from Lori: “25 likes in two minutes.”
A few minutes later, another beep, another text: “38 likes in four minutes.” Then another text. And another.
“I find this really weird,” Lisa said aloud to a colleague. She showed her Lori’s texts.
“Oh,” the friend assured her, “it’s got to be just a distraction.”
Of course, Lisa thought. A distraction. That very day, Lori was releasing an e-book she’d written: I’Mpossible: How a Facebook Group Loved Me Through Bladder Cancer. Mostly a collection of her Facebook posts, it also had a special section at the end called “Love Letters to Lori,” where she included goodbye letters she’d asked friends and family to write to her.
At the stroke of eleven, Lisa texted Lori that she loved her, told her not to be scared and to accept help and focus on no longer being in pain.
Lori responded by continuing to update Lisa with how many “likes” her Facebook post about Brooke’s game was getting, and wrote, out of the blue, that for the first time in months she actually wasn’t in any pain.
What does that mean? Lisa texted back.
Lori responded that it was a known phenomenon for dying cancer patients to have tissue die and their pain disappear.
Finally, at 12:20, Lori texted Lisa again, calmly informing her that hospice had left without putting her on a drip, because her blood pressure was normal.
Lisa felt like all the blood in her veins had poured out through her toes. Her entire body went cold. All she could see in her mind was that team of girls, crying, walking across the field to comfort her dying sister.
Lisa immediately called her husband. “Don’t say a word,” she told him when he picked up, “but this whole thing was made up.”