On Jan. 23, doctors told 26-year-old Meredith Legg Stapleton she had a month to live. She allowed herself a moment to be sad, and to cry, and to comfort her husband, Christopher, because of course she had to be the strong one since, as Christopher says through laughter and tears, "That is just Meredith."
Then she prayed for two things: she wanted to see enough snow to build a snowman, and she wanted to live long enough to attend the North Carolina-Duke game on Feb. 12.
Meredith had recently seen the movie "Frozen." As you know if you have kids, the signature song from that movie includes the line, "Do you want to build a snowman?" And watching that movie, Meredith thought that, in fact, she really did want to build a snowman. But she lived in Huntersville, N.C., and what are the chances of a measurable January and February snowfall that includes enough accumulation to build a really good snowman?
On Feb. 12, it snowed more than half a foot in Huntersville. Meredith built a snowman with her sister and her brother-in-law and her nieces and nephew, and they named it Olaf.
The precipitation was great for building a snowman but not so great for driving two and a half hours to a basketball game, even if it was a Carolina-Duke basketball game. Meredith had received two tickets as a Christmas gift from friends, James and Laurel Brooks. It would be her first Carolina-Duke game since the 2005 contest at the Smith Center -- as you can see, Meredith only goes to Carolina-Duke games if they are epic, because that is just how she does things.
She had grown up as a hardcore Tar Heel basketball fan, and was also an accomplished basketball player herself. She is South Carolina Aiken's all-time leading scorer and is in the school's hall of fame. But she never stopped loving the Tar Heels, and she never stopped watching every game.
"I'm that person you watch the game with who is always yelling at the screen," she said on Friday. "To me, it's a lifestyle. It's like I was born with it. I have loved Carolina basketball ever since I can remember."
Six days after her Tar Heels won the national title in 2009, she was diagnosed with a very rare ocular melanoma. Doctors realized it had metastasized in 2010, which started three years worth of treatments. Some were conventional and some were experimental. Some were nearby and some were up and down the East Coast.
And yet USC Aiken's all-time leading free-throw percentage record holder (88.2 percent, not that she would volunteer it) refused to stop setting records. At the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, no one -- man or woman -- has ever taken more bags of treatment than Meredith Legg Stapleton.
Her toughness could mask the pain she was enduring. Sometimes it was the little things. The swelling in her feet made it difficult for her to put her shoes on, and Christopher often had to help her. He didn't mind. "She's just the most beautiful woman, and she always has been," he says.
But sometimes it was the big things. During the past month, there has been so much pain, mostly in her abdomen and her back. During the day, Meredith was on a pain pump -- in typical Meredith fashion, she carried the pump in a purse-type bag that was very close to Carolina blue -- but at night sometimes even the pump didn't help. A typical night often saw her hunched over on the edge of the bed, rocking back and forth to try and make the pain go away, while Christopher rubbed her back. He estimates she did not sleep a full night at any point in the last month.
At around five or six in the morning, she might be able to fall back asleep, and on a good day she might sleep until 8 a.m. And then she would live another day, usually one in which at some point she would say, as she did on Friday, "I have a great life. God has been preparing me for this for five years. I've lived my life the way I've wanted to. Cancer doesn't define me at all."
Cancer hasn't defined the past month, either. First, as soon as she was referred to Hospice, she made a rule: no one enters her room while crying. Sometimes the tears come during a visit, but no one enters crying. That's just the rule. "I don't want to see you with tears," she said. "I want to see you with a big smile."
Meredith and Christopher, who has worked from home, tried to have a normal life. They walked their dog. In recent days and weeks, when she's been unable to get outside, they watched movies. They sat and watched the ducks on the lake. Sometimes they just sat on the floor and held hands, and that was enough.
"We've said some things we have always wanted to say but never really said," Christopher says. "Mostly, we've just been together. She just likes me being around. I don't feel like I have to do much other than just be there. I want her to know that she'll always be in my heart and I'll be in hers. That's the worst part, thinking about being apart."
They have not talked about the being apart as much as they have enjoyed being together. There is too much to do.
Her parents, Basil and Robin Legg, have been an essential part of her support team. Basil did endless research on treatment options, trying to strike the unfathomable balance between how much Meredith's body could take and trying to save his daughter's life. Robin has basically lived in Huntersville for the past month. On one recent day, the mother-daughter duo went together to pick out Meredith's gravesite, an unimaginable trip for any parent.
Robin sobbed. Meredith consoled her.
"When the doctors had the talk with me, I wasn't scared or nervous," Meredith said. "I just wanted to make sure I lived it out and lived it up. I had two goals: I wanted to get to the Carolina-Duke game, and I wanted to make it to my 27th birthday on March 4."
Right, the game. Meredith says she "almost fainted" on Dec. 21 when she opened the envelope that contained the tickets. When doctors referred her to Hospice on Jan. 23, her family quietly returned the tickets so someone else could use them. As soon as she found out, she demanded them back. She wanted to see them and hold them and have a tangible goal. She was going to the Carolina-Duke game, and no matter what anybody with a stethoscope said, she was going to the Carolina-Duke game. The tickets were returned to her. She kept them where she could see them.
But the snow that spawned Olaf in Huntersville on Feb. 12 also made it impossible to drive to the Smith Center. As soon as the game was postponed, however, there was some hope -- maybe she could still make it.
When the rescheduled date was set for Feb. 20, she began scheduling the appropriate doctor's appointments and procedures to give her the best chance of being one of those 21,750 people inside the Smith Center.
She had experienced some bloody noses, and was looking a little pale, so on Feb. 19, she had a seven-hour blood transfusion. On Feb. 20, eight hours before tipoff, she visited UNC Hospital and had nine pounds of fluid drained from her abdomen.
"We have to get this done in time," she told the nurse, "because I'm going to the game."
She painted her fingernails Carolina blue with just a little sparkle. She put on a Carolina blue shawl. Robin helped paint her toenails Carolina blue. She wore her boots, because they looked the best, darn it, even though her feet were swollen and they weren't very comfortable. And that was it. Nails done, shawl ready, boots on and fluid drained, Meredith was ready for the game.
She sat in the front row of section 125. Her family had secured two tickets there and two tickets across the court, so they split up. In the first half, Christopher sat across from her, and as the rest of the arena obsessed over every dribble and every shot, and as the entire country watched the game on ESPN, he was six rows away from the action and found that he could not take his eyes off his wife.
"The players were running up and down the court, and I just watched her for about two minutes straight," he says. "I was so amazed by how beautiful she was, and how elegant and at peace she looked. People were screaming and jumping and I would clap because everyone else was clapping, but then I would go back to her. It was two of the most beautiful minutes I have ever had. I'm going to keep those moments in my head forever."
Cancer is relentless. By halftime, Meredith was getting warm, a dangerous situation in her condition. Her pain was intensifying, and she went to the bathroom, where she asked her mother for all of her pain pills. She was not leaving, because this was Carolina-Duke and this was the goal she had set. In the middle of all the pain, she met Phil Ford, and when she is retelling the story the next day, she totally leaves out any mention of the pain or the pills, but she does exclaim, "I got a kiss from Phil Ford!"
Her family assisted her to the visiting tunnel, where Smith Center operations assistant Curt Brossman and event staffer Doug Daniel secured some ice. It was cooling, but it was also messy, and once the second half started, Daniel went to the Carolina bench and retrieved a towel from equipment manager Shane Parrish to help ease the process.
That seemed to help both Meredith's physical and mental well-being. She and her family stayed in the tunnel for the first eight minutes of the second half, with Daniel cracking the curtain that covers the tunnel just enough for them to be able to see the action on the video board and feel the crowd.
It was striking. Out there were 20,000 people and a game that felt like life and death. And in here, in the tunnel, was...life. Just life. That is what Meredith would be sure to tell you.
"Please let me take you home," Christopher said. They did not have to stay for this basketball game. They could go home and be in pain in private.
She gave him a look that every husband has seen from every wife. "No," she said firmly, and he did not ask again.
At the 12-minute mark, she was ready to return to her seat. Carolina was down by six points but it felt like they might be making a run, and this was the Carolina-Duke game.
"You can watch it on TV," she said on Friday, "but nothing is as great as the experience of being there with the sights and the sounds and the loud noises. I get chills just talking about it."
At one point during the second half, after she had returned to her seat, she looked at Christopher, who had switched seats and was sitting next to her. She was smiling, and she half-yelled, "Can you believe how loud this is?"
You know what happened in the game. Then the students rushed the court and Meredith and her family sat there, taking it all in. They laughed when the PA blared "Jump Around" and they sang when the band played the alma mater. They were happy. Really, truly happy.
It was a good night, but it was to be followed by some very difficult days. On Friday at lunch, Christopher had said, "Here lately, it feels like she is doing better," and Meredith laughed and carried on a normal conversation. But Christopher also knew this: "What we've seen is that she can look great and feel great, and the next day she can barely pick her head up."
On the way home to Huntersville on Friday, the pain increased. Saturday was worse. Sunday, her kidneys began to shut down and eventually, she went into a coma.
Through the weekend, though, those who love her said she talked mostly of one thing and one thing only -- her Thursday in Chapel Hill, of being part of those 21,750 people who saw something they will remember for as long as they can remember.
After the game, Dick Vitale introduced himself to Meredith. Jay Bilas stopped by and gave her his handwritten broadcast notes. Eric Montross visited with the family for an extended period of time. As Meredith and her family left the building, they ran into North Carolina freshman Isaiah Hicks, and she took a photo with him.
When they left the Smith Center, it was a perfect Chapel Hill night. There were shouts echoing back and forth across campus. When the wind blew just right, it carried the sounds of the students celebrating on Franklin Street.
That wind blew across Meredith's face, and she stopped. Christopher watched her and knew she was absorbing every detail of the evening. But before he could ask her what she was thinking, she told him.
"This feels," she said, "so good."