Lori Bills woke to a dreary day and a sky full of clouds. She had never been a big fan of fall — autumn was her daughter, Heather’s favorite season and Heather was gone now. Lori was simply going through the motions. As she gazed outside, a bright ray of sun suddenly broke through the clouds to shine down on a distant hill. Lori had no doubt it was Heather saying, “Come on mom!” So, as in years past, Lori packed up the family and headed to Naples to enjoy what turned out to be a beautiful fall day.
Heather Bills was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma just before her 20th birthday. For the next 10 years, with her family beside her, Heather fought the disease, facing several recurrences, a stem cell transplant, bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy, radiation treatments and graft-vs-host disease (GvHD). Her initial prognosis had been promising — Hodgkin’s Lymphoma was “totally treatable and totally curable.” But Lori says Heather’s was an odd case and unbeknownst to them a difficult road full of obstacles lay ahead.
“She fought it,” Lori said. “She fought hard all the time. The ‘monster’ as she called it was never going to get her.”
Then on Monday, Oct. 15, 2012, Heather lost her battle with cancer at the age of 29.
But what Heather never lost was her spirit, her sense of humor and a giving nature that touched every person who met her.
Heather always did wacky things with her hair, Lori said. Bald never bothered her and she was always experimenting with different looks. The last time Heather had her head shaved Lori was handling the razor — she cried the entire time.
“I think for me it made it all...so real,” Lori said. “There were times when I cried and she didn’t because she was trying to stay strong for me.”
But Heather never let her mom stay down for long. Instead she lived every day making memories that friends and family won’t ever forget.
At her last birthday party, Heather arrived dressed in black with a veil, mourning “Twilight” character Edward’s pending nuptials in the latest movie release.
Lori said her daughter always remained positive, sustained by her faith in God.
Despite her struggle with cancer, Heather enrolled at Finger Lakes Community College, was on the dean’s list every semester and graduated in 2009 with high honors.
“She had some health setbacks and had to postpone, but it was her desire to be a junior high counselor,” Lori said. “She loved school. Once she said if she could make a career out of being a student she would.”
It was in college Heather met Debra Hawbecker. An eccentric English teacher and struggles with illness brought the two young women together.
Page 2 of 4 - “We connected really strongly, especially in the beginning,” Debra said. “Some days we didn’t have the energy to climb the stairs. That’s something most students wouldn’t understand.”
Their friendship blossomed via Facebook and occasional visits by Debra to Heather’s house. Sometimes it would be weeks before they would talk again.
“I’d be so terrified she’d be upset and then she’d welcome me with open arms,” Debra said. “She’d make sure I was okay and we’d sit and talk. She was my maid of honor. She was always a very, very special woman.”
Heather always thought of herself as normal, Lori said, she never consciously thought of herself as sick. She was in awe of the community support she received when her story first went public. Once she wrote to Lizzie Spencer, Lori said, to offer her words of strength and encouragement and to tell her what an incredible community they lived in.
And Heather was always thinking of ways to give back to her community. In 2010, she held the Prom in the Park in Aqueduct Park. The event, themed “The time of your life”, was open to the community to just come and have fun, Lori said. The event included a Zumba fundraiser and bone marrow drive, and Heather hired a photographer for people to have their prom pictures taken. The event was paid for entirely by Heather.
“She always told me ten percent of what I get, I’m giving back to somebody else,” Lori said. “Heather always worried about everybody else. She never put herself first, no matter what.”
Highly susceptible to germs and illness, Heather had to give up her job as a manager at McDonald’s and go on disability. With every check she received she went to her church pastor to inquire if there was someone who could use a little bit of help before handing over 10 percent of her check. Lori said Heather never told a soul who she gave the money to, but in her journals, Heather kept track of a list of people she was praying for. Lori knew these were the people Heather had helped.
That was who Heather was — always giving all that she had to others.
“She never thought she reached one person,” Lori said, having read those words in Heather’s journal. “That blew me away. She has touched so many people.”
When the chips were down, she was sharing words of encouragement, adding her strength to whoever might be in need of some to supplement their own. In that spirit of giving, Debra created Heather’s Hopes.
Debra said Heather had lost a lot of mobility in her neck and she talked about wanting to get a smaller car to give herself some freedom. Debra said she would have bought Heather a car if she could, but why not see if Heather’s friends would help.
Page 3 of 4 - “I literally went through Heather’s friends on Facebook and started sending out mass messages,” Debra said.
She got all kinds of responses and some of Heather’s closest friends, Becky Herko and Shannon Farrell, really stepped up. Together they collected enough money to buy an older model Volkswagon Beetle and surprised her one night at the Olive Garden after dinner.
“I made up a for sale sign and put it in the back of the car,” Debra said. “It said something like, ‘For more info, call H.B., 1-800-your-car’.”
Heather was certainly surprised and Debra said they videotaped the whole thing. Heather appropriately named her new car “Cricket.”
It was then Heather’s Hopes Facebook page made it’s official debut.
Together, Heather’s friends raised money through fundraisers to send the Bills family on a trip to Maine.
Debra said it all started out that the money would go to Heather and they considered using the money for a second trip to Maine to spread Heather’s ashes. But now that she was gone, Debra said she knew Heather wouldn’t approve.
“Heather would give so much for everyone else,” Debra said. “She’d be shaking her head. She wouldn’t want people giving her money.”
So now Heather’s Hopes will raise money for others with 20 percent of the money raised going to Livestrong through the YMCA. The program is designed to help cancer survivors and those living with cancer to build their strength physically and mentally. Another 20 percent will go to a woman facing a dire prognosis and her family to send them on a trip that will allow them to forget about cancer for a little while, Debra said.
“We want to keep Heather’s giving spirit alive,” Debra said. “She gave so much, whether it was time, or money or prayers — she gave.”
To raise the money, Heather’s Hopes is selling bracelets and raffling off Baskets of Hope — each containing items that will offer hope and put a smile on people’s faces, Debra said.
“The bracelets read ‘Cancer sucks but there’s always hope’ because Heather always had hope even if it was for someone else,” Debra said. “We want to bring people some hope.”
Heather’s Hopes is a Godsend for Lori because it continues what Heather wanted and what she was all about even after her death.
Lori will remember her daughter for her strength, her sense of humor, her determination and her courage. She wants others to remember her daughter as a symbol of hope.
“You can beat all the odds,” she said. “Heather is proof of that. I don’t think I could have gone through half of what she went through in the spirit she went through it.”
Page 4 of 4 - A flood of sympathy cards is proof for Lori of the positive impact Heather had on so many people. The cards share stories of how Heather inspired them to keep going.
And now Lori is taking hold of her daughter’s strength, determination and courage to continue on without her.
“Everything’s special and that’s what I’ve been fixing on lately — fond, fond memories,” Lori said. “I stay strong for Heather. I told her I was going to be okay, so I have to stay strong.”