90 Pounds of Breathing Heart: At Your Service

Aspiro, ergo juvo. This phrase so thoroughly describes Dolores McKay, it might as well be tattooed on her body. I breathe, therefore I serve. She’s a walking miracle for many reasons, including weighing in at only ninety pounds, despite having a heart of solid gold. We hadn’t met or spoken in months, but when she learned I was about to leave my job of 16 years, she was one of the first people to call and ask how she could help. If Dolores were a taxi, she would always be on duty– even when she was parked at the depot. Wherever she goes, so goes her heart, extending to everyone around her, alert for the Dispatcher’s call, ready to shine her light and pay it forward. Which explains how she ended up comforting the guy receiving chemo in the chair next to her.

Posted by Dolores on her Facebook profile, on Monday, November 7, 2011:

“With matching IVs, Scotty and I sat side by side for a couple of hours. I’d never met Scotty before, but I was well acquainted with the expression of despair in his eyes. I walked into the chemo area knowing an army of LOVE & LIGHT accompanied me. Scotty, felt alone. I shook in pain from the IV for a minute and Scotty noticed. To lighten things up, I asked Scotty why they hadn’t figured out how to bake chemo meds into brownies – that would really liven up this party. Scotty and I talked for 2 hours. Somewhere along the way, I found myself holding his hand and noticed his look of despair turned into an expression of peace. I’m home now. Tired. Achy. Nauseous. And I feel extraordinary in my soul. It was a fantastic day.”

The world is full of remarkable women, and Dolores has earned her place among them. Possessed with fierce determination, incredible courage and tremendous depth of character, she’s packaged in a stunning, petite exterior that often leads people to form snap judgments about her. Woe to those misguided souls! While her gracious presence captivates everyone else, those who underestimate her will likely receive the charming wrath of her Amazonian wit. She personifies the over-hyped word ‘unique’ in all respects: her exquisite attention to detail; her decisively chosen words; her precise articulation, her fashion sense; the way she moves. Debate team, teen model, science and math geek, nutritional adviser, fitness coaching, luxury hotels, the legal arena… her life experiences encompass so many varied worlds the sum total adds up to an entirely new level of unique.

I’ve had a “professional crush” on Dolores for years. I knew of and admired her from afar while working at The Royal Palms in 1996, but only during the past few years have I had the honor to really know her. To know her is to be truly in awe of her. To learn of the fears she has faced and challenges she has surmounted, is to be humbled and inspired. She has scaled scary peaks and climbed out of deep ravines, always holding her head high and staying classy.

A first-generation American and self-made, local businesswoman for more than two decades, Dolores was already no stranger to adversity when she became seriously ill a few years ago with a vicious auto-immune condition. Seriously as in, she nearly died. After undergoing every imaginable treatment, it was chemotherapy that finally saved her and helped her beat back this insidious disease.

Illness, like most misfortunes, is a curious thing. Family and others closest to you who should rally around and champion you, may often do the exact opposite. Business associates and clients may run scared, even while you continue to deliver on your promises without faltering. Whether it’s simply their inability to cope, or fear at the prospect of their own mortality, the sad reality is it leaves a physically weakened person at a loss for support during that most vulnerable time –when he or she may not have much time left.

Dolores was enthusiastically writing a book about the hotel industry when she fell ill, but a friend’s passing comment gave her pause and made her question if this was the book she should  be writing. Was there perhaps something even more important she needed to get down on paper first? Indeed, there was.

Battling for her health, marriage, career, and sanity, this mother of three had considerable time to reflect on all she would miss if she didn’t make it. She imagined missing her children’s teenage and adolescent years, being unable to share in their college experiences, never dancing at their weddings, and especially, the potential tragedy of not meeting her future grandchildren, and not being there to help guide their  lives with the wisdom only a grandmother can provide.

Stubbornly determined to live, not only did Dolores beat her death sentence, she was compelled to write a series of letters to Rosalind, Henry, and Paulina (or whatever her children end up naming them), in the event she proved to be an ordinary frail human and not  make it. Those letters evolved into the book Fuddle Cup, and that book is her gift to the world, just as the joy of working with and learning from her was a gift to the  hundreds of hospitality colleagues and employees whose lives she has touched over the years. So far, I’ve read it twice, and I am honored to help her promote it. Fuddle Cup is her engaging and timeless perspective on how to fill, balance and sip from one’s cup of life, in order to truly live that life to the utmost, while not sloshing and spilling on ourselves and those around us in the process. [click here to read an excerpt]

But life is messy at times. Unexpected bumps in our road inevitably cause our cup to tilt and our ‘stuff’ to spill about. Once again, at a critical time in her professional life, Dolores is challenged anew to fight for her survival. Despite speaking engagements and book signings that are scheduled, and her eagerness to charge full speed ahead, her physical body defies her. Rather than hide and wallow in pity, she has chosen to be ruthlessly honest and relentlessly commit to using her vulnerability to fuel her recovery while reaching as many others as possible who are struggling with their own issues: to give them hope and courage, to share all she has learned that ‘works’ to get her through and not merely survive, but to thrive, living every day joyfully, magnanimously, regardless of circumstances.

For many who battle chronic illness, life separates into two distinct eras, everything before the sickness, and the new normal one adjusts to after. Dolores may be more fragile than ever, but she’s still larger than life. She lives and gives passionately, with a servant’s heart. It’s the only way she knows how to live, given her heritage, hospitality upbringing, and her career. The words no, can’t and impossible do not exist in her vocabulary. Letting anyone down is simply not an option. She lives and breathes service, whether she’s delivering an outrageous hotel experience, a practical lesson, or a heartfelt message.

Chemotherapy on Monday, public speaking on Friday. No big deal, she’s got this. Because Dolores McKay is one of those rare and extraordinary individuals who not only takes everything in stride, but sees any setback –even the possibility of imminently dying– as a direct, personal challenge. Powerful pharmaceutical drugs have assaulted this tiny dynamo’s body in the past few days, but Dolores is determined to tell her story at Arizona Storytellers this Friday night. Most people, learning they are dangerously ill on Friday and must undergo chemo on Monday, would probably cancel the speaking engagement scheduled a few days later. But a woman with centuries-old gypsy blood in her veins, takes such a distressing turn of events and says, “Hah! I’ll be fine by Friday. No way will I miss speaking at charity event, on 11-11-11 of all dates. No way!”

As one of her most devoted fans, I’ll be excited to see her on stage offering up pearls of wisdom and hope. Bet there will be a ‘Scotty’ in the room who truly needs them.

About ciaomari

Food is in my blood! My Sicilian ancestors were lemon & grape farmers, bakers & grocers. I grew up gardening, canning, fishing & berry-picking. Choosing, preparing & serving food make my heart sing. I live to feed and care for people, at home & work. Food = love! I'm an irrepressibly enthusiastic & infinitely curious East Coast Renaissance woman transplanted to the Southwest desert: beverage geek, food nerd, herb gardener, historian, hospitality pro, musician, nature lover, ordained minister, photographer, polyglot, reader, re-user, recycler, soul therapist, writer & voyager. Admiring beauty, observing details, spreading joy, living mindfully, reading voraciously, writing from the heart, loving passionately... these are a few of my priorities. Thank you for visiting and sharing yourself with me as well.
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6 Responses to 90 Pounds of Breathing Heart: At Your Service

  1. Wow! What an incredible woman! Thank you so much for sharing her story.

  2. A nice tribute Mari! Thanks for sharing a peak at the trials and tribulations that Dolores has endured. She is an amazing woman.

  3. Shinae Nae says:

    Wow, Mari. What a lovely and loving tribute to your friend. I would be so proud, glad and blessed to know someone like Dolores and to have a friend like you. You speak so kindaly and generously of the people in your life. What a gift you both are to those privileged to know you.

    • ciaomari says:

      Aw Shinae, that is so very touching, I’m trying to type through tears. I just speak from my heart. Thank you so much for reading and your sweet comments. PS You *do* have a friend ‘like’ me. :-D …and I feel certain we will meet someday! . xo

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