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Kevin Cullen

Love, and a dose of defiance

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By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / April 3, 2011

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Meg Beatty Coyne was driving around West Roxbury when a cop pulled her over.

She didn’t know if she was speeding or hadn’t come to a full stop at a stop sign or whatever. All she knew was that the ticket he was about to give her was pointless.

“You can write me up,’’ she said, “but I won’t pay it.’’

The cop leaned over.

“And why’s that?’’ the cop asked.

“Look,’’ Meg said, “I’ve got seven kids, a bunch of tuitions, and terminal cancer. Do you really think I’m going to pay this?’’

The cop put his pen away, folded the ticket book back up, and slipped it into his pocket.

“Go home and do not drive this car again,’’ he said.

She promised she would, but she didn’t go home, and she’s still driving. Meg Beatty always lived life on her own terms. She isn’t about to stop now.

“I got my death sentence in July,’’ she said, sitting in the waiting area at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “But I don’t accept it.’’

She is 44 years old, married to a guy who works for the T, mother to a brood: Sinead, 20; Sean, 19; Adrienne, 17; Alison, 14; Christopher, 11; Mary Kate, 8; and Patrick, 5.

“My eighth was Joseph,’’ she said. “Joseph died the day he was born. It was Mother’s Day.’’

She named him after her dad, Joe Beatty, a great man who ran the Laborers Union local and put more people to work than any politician. Working men got decent pensions because of Beatty, but he only got to cash two of his retirement checks before he died.

When they were kids, Meg and her sister Mary watched “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,’’ and vowed never to be mean to each other. After Mary was killed along with two of her kids in a car accident in 1997, Meg helped raise Mary’s two other kids, who survived the crash.

When her mother, Margaret, got ovarian cancer, Meg wondered if her family was star-crossed. Her mother recovered, but Meg still wonders.

“We’re like the Kennedys,’’ she said, “without the money.’’

Last year, Meg was at a time at Florian Hall and had trouble swallowing some roast beef.

It felt like something was stuck in her throat.

She went in for a test, and they knocked her out. When she woke up, a doctor was holding her hand. The doctor had tears in her eyes.

“You’re very sick,’’ the doctor said.

“I’m fine,’’ Meg replied.

They said she had Stage 4 esophageal cancer and gave her seven to 10 months. That was eight months ago.

We are on the sixth floor at Dana-Farber, and Meg is in a chair, the chemo flowing from an IV, and she can see for miles, far over the Jamaicaway, to where she grew up.

“I grew up on Perham Street in West Roxbury, and nothing bad ever happened,’’ she said. “Nobody died. Nobody got old.’’

She remembers the first time something bad happened. She was a kid, and her cousin, Marty Walsh, had leukemia. A priest gave him last rites. Meg went to the hospital and stared at her cousin and wondered how a 7-year-old boy could die.

Except he didn’t. Walsh survived, and now he’s a state representative from Dorchester. Meg carries the Rosary beads that Walsh had when he was the dying kid who lived.

She believes in medicine and miracles. She believes, against everything the doctors tell her, that she can beat this, that she will beat this.

She is looking out the window, toward Mission Hill, and said, almost to herself, “Who’s going to take care of Patrick?’’

Meg has worked in medicine, in hospice care, for 20 years, helping people die with dignity, in their own homes, in their own beds. Now she’s on the other side, but she’s fighting — the cancer, the idea of dying, the finality of mortality.

When a doctor told her to get her affairs in order, she replied, “Get my affairs in order? I can’t even get my laundry in order.’’

She goes to the healing Mass at Mission Church on the last Sunday of each month. She goes to Dana-Farber for chemo every other week. Medicine and miracles.

Her oldest, Sinead, got a leave from the Air Force to come home. Her second-oldest, Sean, didn’t have that option. He’s in the Army and shipped out to Afghanistan after Christmas.

“We talk every Sunday, 20 minutes,’’ Meg said. “I won’t cry on the phone with him.’’

Meg’s give-the-finger-to-cancer attitude so impressed people at Dana-Farber that they had her talk to a group of Harvard Medical School students.

Sinead went along and was scandalized when Meg told the prospective doctors that her daughter was single and available.

We are in the kitchen of Meg’s mother’s house on Perham Street.

The kids are having breakfast and heading out for school, and Patrick is eating cereal.

Meg’s husband, Peadar, bleary-eyed from the overnight shift he switched to after her diagnosis, is the shuttle driver.

It is here, watching Meg mother her kids, that you see her legacy and why she has no intention of leaving a legacy so soon.

The doctors tell Meg she’s going to die, and she tells them she can’t, she won’t.

The strongest drug in the world is motherhood.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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