I’ve never had to find an excuse to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I come from a large Irish family where there is predominance of red hair, pale skin and Guinness lovers. And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that I was born on the day adored by Irish and non-Irish alike. I am a St. Patrick’s Day baby, arguably the best day to celebrate a birthday. Yes- I am Irish through and through, and wearing green isn’t a bandwagon I jump on once a year- it’s a birthright.
Eight years ago, the color green became significant to me in an unexpected way. In May 2007, I met the man who would eventually become my fiancé after just 10 months of dating. Dan Waeger is impossible to describe in just a few short paragraphs. He lived life with the wisdom of an old man and the wide-eyed wonder of a child. His energy and smile were infectious. He was the type of person that you could spend a few hours with, and leave happier and more inspired. When we first met, he casually mentioned that he was a cancer survivor. It was hard to believe- he was 24, and we were standing in a bar after playing football in a social sports league. He certainly didn’t look or act like he was living with cancer. As we started dating, I learned that not only did he have cancer, he had stage IV lung cancer and had been in treatment since he was 22. Dan didn’t look sick, and was the most “happy go lucky” person I’d ever known.
As the weeks went by, I would accompany Dan to treatments and hang out during recovery. It was easy to see he was a passionate cancer advocate and survivor who strived to make a difference for others living with cancer, both through his job as development director for the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship and through the National Collegiate Cancer Foundation, the organization he founded to help young adults with cancer pursue education. In addition, he found time to advocate for the Lung Cancer Alliance and spend hours on the phone mentoring others living with lung cancer.
We made weekend road trips to Livestrong events and public speaking engagements. When I asked Dan why he spent so much time devoted to cancer advocacy, he replied “Almost immediately after I was diagnosed, I realized that I would spend a great deal of time thinking about cancer. And I didn’t want to just sit around and think about it. I want to do something about it.” And even though cancer was second nature early on in our time together, our life never revolved around it. We had fun and laughs wherever we went, and pretty soon, we were together every day.
Falling in love with Dan was the easiestthing I’ve ever done. And he certainly swept me off my feet with each romantic and silly gesture. When it came to love, Dan was over the top. When he proposed, he took me on an all-day scavenger hunt to all of the places that held significance in our relationship- the bar where we first met, the park we played Frisbee after our first date because neither one of us wanted to go home, to church to pray for a long life together. Each stop also had a small gift. And one of those gifts was a green bracelet with the words “Waeger Will Win”.
Dan’s friends had the bracelets made when he was first diagnosed. The phrase he had used to trash talk during any competitive event and especially on the golf course soon became his mantra as a survivor- Waeger Will Win. When we first met, I asked about the bracelet. After giving me the backstory, Dan asked if I wanted one. At the time, I felt it was reserved for his close friends and family, and not someone he had just met. But as the months went on, I really wanted to wear that green bracelet! And so on the day that he proposed- 3 days after St. Patrick’s Day and my birthday- I finally got the best piece of green I will ever wear. My own Waeger Will Win bracelet. I joked that I knew Dan was the one because he loved the color green, and that qualified him to marry a girl born on St. Patrick’s Day.
Tragically, we found out that Dan’s cancer spread just three months after we were engaged. And even though treatment options were slim, Dan continued to face each setback with his “Will Win” attitude. He continued to go to work, run his foundation, advocate for other survivors, hang out with friends and even try to run a 5k. And he never once felt sorry for himself. He never got angry if someone asked if he got lung cancer because he smoked. Rather, he used those comments to educate people about the stigmas associated with the disease. He continued to live life every day. We continued to plan our wedding, celebrate holidays and take a vacation.
Dan and I were never able to get married. He passed away March 16, 2009, the day before my birthday and 12 days before our wedding day. Looking back, I don’t think either of us felt we really needed the piece of paper to prove our commitment. Some people think it is a blessing that Dan didn’t pass on my birthday. But I don’t think I’ll ever look at St. Patrick’s Day the same.
He still lets me know I am loved. Each year on my birthday, Dan still sends me flowers. I long since took off my engagement ring and have moved forward in life with yet another amazing man who stands by me as I serve as a cancer advocate, caregiver mentor and run Dan’s foundation. But I still wear my green Waeger Will Win bracelet- seven years strong as of March 20th. Where the green once meant St. Patrick’s Day to me, it now means so much more.