For more than a month I’ve chased this post – a piece about three teammates, two women and a dog – whom I have partnered in search sectors for almost ten years. Cindi, Ellen, and Cindi’s search dog Belle have eluded my every effort to write about them. I’m okay drafting about their search work: the hard climbs and slippery ravines, the stamina that comes out of nowhere on long searches in difficult weather, the fearless jump that we all remember, the search dog leaping out from a second-floor landing in pursuit of a thin strand of scent from yards away. These are the colleagues I know, working across familiar ground, and I am comfortable writing about them in the field.
But in 2008 and 2009, just months apart, all three were diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer. I don’t have words enough to show how much they taught us during that fighting time. We teammates came to it all second-hand, of course, when they’d found the lumps or got the hard phone calls after days of waiting, and they sent us emails and later, when they could bear it, stood among us in a state of eclipse, Belle alone unknowing about the pitched battle going on inside her. (Or not. Perhaps dogs are wiser in these matters than we know.) We told them we were there for them, and we were, but behind every update from Cindi or Ellen that spelled out treatment and uncertain prognosis was perhaps a condition of soul impossible for those of us outside to understand – the bottomless fear, the sense of betrayal that must come when one’s own body raises up an enemy.
Belle had surgery. Cindi had surgery, then chemotherapy, then radiation. Ellen had chemo so aggressive it almost killed her, then surgery and radiation to follow. As they were able, all three continued to work search during the process, shrugging away their own shadows, the women laughing wryly about lost hair.
Our team has an attendance requirement, and though every consideration was given for her illness, against all expectations Cindi maintained attendance. She and Belle trained and worked in 100-degree days, post-surgery. More resolute than foolhardy, Cindi was smart, but still she was out there. She watched her dog’s signals, metered their strength, did not deploy when her own body, or Belle’s, demanded it. Ellen took on roles she could manage when she could no longer feel her feet, a side effect of chemotherapy, working an eight-hour search in heavy rain just a week before her own surgery. She returned to the team three weeks after that operation, too weak to run in the field but strong enough to work in the command post.
I know there were terrible days for the three of them, perhaps some of those days shared with us. We watched them go white sometimes, or tremble a little when they got in their cars to leave. It was difficult, loving them and admiring them and wishing, as millions of other loving bystanders wish, that we could somehow intercede and take this all away.
But good news was coming. About the time that Ellen’s surgeon and oncologist pronounced a conditional all-clear, Cindi and Belle, too, were given word that they appeared to have beaten the cancer. It was time to celebrate, which we did as a group with high-fives and backslaps, and which they did, I’m sure, quite privately.
It was also time for me to begin a three-month career of deceit.
During the period of her treatment, Ellen had begun watching Ace of Cakes on the Food Network. A professional pilot, she had, on a whim, decided to widen her skill set and go to pastry school the year before. The cancer diagnosis landed mid-semester spring 2009, forcing her to drop out altogether when treatment protocol conflicted with her scheduled classes. Reeling from the early days of chemotherapy and unable to taste much food, she was still able to watch the staff of Charm City Cakes, Baltimore, and appreciate their skill, creativity, and occasional perverse sense of humor. She appreciated the community engagement there, too — the charity events, the episodes featuring Make a Wish recipients learning how to pipe icing. Ellen watched the new episodes. She watched the re-runs. She began using words like gum paste and fondant in telephone conversations. Once she said “Dragée,” and she seemed to know what it meant. I had to look it up.
I formed a plan. Knowing that Scent of the Missing would release in 2010 and that some kind of book release party would probably happen, I told Ellen that if she’d beat this cancer, I’d order a cake from Charm City Cakes for the spring 2010 book party, and she could go with me for the design consult and choose the flavor. We’ll go to Baltimore in November, I said. Claim the victory. Make a weekend of it.
“Right,” she said. “I’ll get right on it.” She grinned, but in summer 2009 Ellen often struggled just to stand. I privately wondered how hard a thing I was asking her to do.
I emailed the extremely competent Mary Alice at Charm City Cakes (no stranger to secrets and surprise cakes, she) and explained the situation, that while it must appear we were coming for a design consult/cake tasting for a book party cake, in reality I wanted CCC to make a cake for my teammates. We talked over the design: the cake would be an aerobatic plane Ellen had flown in the early 90s, with Ellen’s Pomeranian flying the plane and Cindi’s search dog, Belle, wing-walking on it. The plane’s registration number would be Ellen and Cindi’s initials, plus the numeral 1. It would tow a banner and a string of moonflowers that had bloomed the day Ellen’s oncologist called with good news. And the banner, a message for all three of them, would read CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF.
Ordering the cake was the easy part. But now I had to lie. A lot. Made secret plane reservations. Exchanged a number of furtive emails with Charm City Cakes. Ran out of buildings a few times, cell phone clapped to my ear, pretending I’d just received an important call from my publisher!
While Ellen was gearing up the strength to go to Baltimore for a tasting for the “book cake,” I was asking Cindi to fly to Baltimore in secret and be there to surprise Ellen, a so-called “happy almost-end-of-treatment party.” Thoughtful Cindi, whose own battle had been difficult, cheerfully agreed to be a part of Ellen’s surprise, not knowing that the coming cake would ultimately be a tribute to her, too. None of this strategy could have been managed without the splendid co-conspiracy of Cindi’s husband John and Susan, a friend to us all, who smoothed over the rough edges, jumping in with a quick word or a change of subject when my own conniving faltered.
So many elaborate schemes fail, or fail to be as wonderful as hoped-for, but this was not one of those schemes. On the trailing edge of a November hurricane, Ellen and I arrived in Baltimore on time, and in worse weather later, Susan and Cindi did, too. The universe was particularly with us, it seemed, when a production assistant from Ace of Cakes called ten minutes before we were supposed to be at CCC on Friday the 13th, and Ellen was miraculously not at the table when the call came in.
When we entered Charm City Cakes, Ellen was looking to taste flavor samples. She did not expect her friends to come walking through a door. She did not expect a cake. Neither did Cindi know, until the moment she saw a gum paste Belle on the little airplane’s wing, that the celebration was for the three of them. And it was all caught on camera, a whole fleet of cameras and microphones leaning toward them at the moment of surprise.
Many thanks to Chef Duff Goldman, Mary Alice Fallon Yeskey, Adam Goldstein, Anna Ellison, Mary Smith, and Ben Turner, who all worked on the cake, I believe, and to the staff of Charm City Cakes and the crew of Ace of Cakes for their talent and collective kindness. Thank you for helping me honor my teammates — two women and a search dog, survivors all — and for making a proper cake to celebrate the mighty hat trick they somehow managed.
Ace of Cakes, “Dog Day Afternoon,” premiered March 11th, 2010 10 PM Eastern / 9 Central
March 16th, 3 AM / 2 Central
March 16th, 8 PM / 7 Central
Episode may repeat intermittently across 2010.