Remembering Heidi: 'You would have loved her too'

Courtesy Stacy Steponate Greenberg

Wendy Gardiner, from left, Heidi Armitage, Jane Green and Stacy Steponate Greenberg pose for this 2009 photo.

Sometimes in life we have out-of-body experiences. All of this has been one for me. My name is Stacy Steponate Greenberg. Many of you know my husband, the smaller of the two Mikes from "Mike & Mike in the Morning." I have worked all of my adult life in marketing, mostly for luxury hotels. Mike and I have two kids and a happy life. This is the story of one of the unhappiest times we have shared. And of how our friend Heidi, for whom Mike's book "All You Could Ask For" was written, has brought us together in a way we never imagined, even though she has been gone for more than three years.

"Something's wrong."

I'm not clairvoyant. I don't know whether I believe anyone is, but even if they are, I am certainly not. So I can't really explain how I knew, with such certainty, before Heidi told me.

Maybe it's because she loved Aspen so much that she would never have missed a moment, much less a day or a week, of her ski vacation. So when we had been there for a couple days and I had not heard from her, I developed a sinking feeling in my stomach. This was our special time together and she was supposed to have arrived the day after we did. I had left her two messages.

We were in the car, driving home from a day of skiing at Buttermilk. The kids were in the back, exhausted. Mike was driving. I was worried.

"Something's wrong," I said, again.

"What?" he asked.

"With Heidi," I said, with no idea how right I was.

Heidi and I met on the first day we took our kids to school. Her son and my daughter were 2, and she and I were pregnant. And, as Mike wrote in the book: Two hugely pregnant women tend to seek each other out. Although, in truth, Heidi wasn't huge. Not at all. Heidi looked like a skinny woman who swallowed a basketball. I, meanwhile, looked like I belonged in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. But the point was well-taken aside from that -- we did seek each other out and quickly became the best of friends.

Courtesy Stacy Steponate Greenberg

Mike Greenberg and his daughter Nikki pose with Heidi Armitage and her son Walker during a 2004 ski vacation in Aspen.

I want to tell you so much about Heidi, but I have no idea where to begin. She was the truest friend you could have -- she never judged, she listened, she laughed, she supported. Her husband worked late nights; mine went to sleep hours before I did. So many, many nights we would be on the phone for hours, just chatting. It's impossible to quantify the value of chatting late at night on the phone. To me, it is invaluable. I could tell her anything, she could tell me anything. She was my confidante, my good friend. I loved her.

Our best times together were in Aspen. Heidi was a beautiful skier and she loved it, and as good as she was, she also was patient enough to ski with me. I am not on her level. In fact, my own family refuses to ski with me because I am so slow. And none of them are on Heidi's level, either. But she was always happy to hang back with me. Mostly so we could gab on the chairlift.

Late in 2008, Heidi began to complain about pain in her back. She was concerned but not scared. Mostly she was worried that whatever it was (disk problem? pulled muscle?) would interfere with her ski season. She visited doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists, all to no avail. Then the chiropractor recommended she get an MRI. So she did.

I wasn't with her when she received the news. I can't imagine what it would be like to be told you have Stage 4 breast cancer that has spread to your bones. I hope I never know. I wish no one ever had to know. But that's what she was told, early in 2009.

So then it was a few weeks later, and I hadn't heard from her, and I knew something was wrong. When I got the email from her I was devastated, but I wasn't surprised. We were in Aspen, Heidi wasn't. And she never would be again.

I left my job in the corporate world right after Heidi was diagnosed. Those two were not connected to each other; I left because the demands on my time and Mike's were becoming impossible to manage and neither of us wanted our kids to be raised by babysitters. So I made the difficult decision to leave a job I loved for something more important. Or, as it turned out, two things.

Courtesy Stacy Steponate Greenberg

The Angels -- along with Heidi's father -- always tried to make Heidi laugh during her chemo treatments.

Because I had the time, I became Heidi's health advocate. Along with two other dear friends, Jane Green and Wendy Gardiner, I was with her every day. Literally, every single day. We took her to doctor's appointments, made her laugh during chemotherapy treatments. When she needed a spinal tap, I held her hands. When she needed another, I did it again. It wasn't just me. Jane and Wendy were there too, just as much. Mike called us "Heidi's Angels," after the TV show "Charlie's Angels." Heidi loved the name. She started to call us that, too.

During that summer, she was determined to live. And for Heidi, living meant being outside, doing sports. She was a great athlete. She probably couldn't have named a single player in the NBA or NFL, but she participated in sports every chance she had. In the winter, that meant skiing. In the summer, at her beloved cottage in her native Canada, that meant canoeing and hiking and swimming. She went to Canada with her kids that summer. Nothing was going to keep her from doing that.

It was in Canada that the headaches began, so severe she had to be hospitalized. The pain cut her summer in Canada short -- she had to come home to be examined by the doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. The news was horrifying. The cancer had spread to her brain. The treatments became more intense, the days harder, the chances lesser. But, through it all, Heidi never lost her sparkle.

The day I will always remember best was when they told us she needed to remain at MSK. She begged me to run out and shop for her. She needed sleeping clothes.

"Stace," she said to me, "I should still look hot, even in a hospital bed."

She had lost her hair by then and much of her strength, but she never lost her sense of humor. She never stopped being Heidi.

Courtesy Stacy Steponate Greenberg.

Stacy Steponate Greenberg visits a mountain memorial to her friend Heidi Armitage in Aspen last month.

Her courageous battle ended quietly on Sept. 30, 2009, at home, with her family around her. I had been saying goodbye every day that week, because we knew it was close. She was not responsive, but I knew she could hear me. She could hear me promise to make sure Adam didn't forget the kids' coats at soccer practice, promise to keep pushing myself to ski better, promise to always remember her and love her. The phone rang that day and it was Adam. "It happened," was all he said. As much as I thought I would have been prepared, I wasn't.

None of the women in Mike's book are Heidi, but in some ways all of them are. They are strong women, facing their mortality in their own individual ways. I may not agree with all of them -- you may not either if you read it. But I respect that they are strong women, and they make their own decisions. Heidi was that way. She lived on her terms, and she died that way, too.

In conjunction with the release of "All You Could Ask For," Mike and I have created a foundation called "Heidi's Angels," through which 100 percent of our proceeds will be donated to The V Foundation for Cancer Research in memory of an athlete, a mother, a wife and the kind of friend who knows your secrets and your fears and makes you feel better about them and about yourself. It is the least I can do to repay Heidi for all she taught me, in sickness and in health. The journey we took together was among the most meaningful experiences of my life. I only wish you could have known her. You would have loved her, too.

For more on "All You Could Ask for," visit AllYouCouldAskFor.com and follow Mike Greenberg on Twitter (@ESPNGreeny); Stacy Greenberg (@StacyGSG) and William Morrow Books (@WmMorrowBks). All of the author's proceeds from AYCAF will go to The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

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