This March marked four years since the passing of my friend, Stephanie Jurnovoy Palmieri. A wife and mother of three young children, Steph lost her battle with breast cancer after only eighteen months.

So many of life's most difficult challenges pass us by with little mention. Other tragedies are ignored because they are too painful to discuss. In memory of Steph and in honor of her family, I'd like to recount my personal memories of our last exchanges together and bring attention to the incredible gift Steph gave me during her last year and a half in this world.

Steph was very clear that she was in for the fight of her life When Steph was first diagnosed with an extremely aggressive strain of cancer, all of her friends and family were obviously devastated. The immediate first course of action was a radical mastectomy. This was followed by very aggressive chemotherapy and lastly, radiation. I can remember visiting her in the hospital immediately following her surgery. We just stared at each other thinking how bizarre the whole situation was. It was surreal, and we both felt like it was happening to someone else.

Steph and I had grown up together, and sitting in her hospital room at age thirty-five we felt the same as we had at sixteen. We often enjoyed philosophical conversations, addressing "light" topics such as "the meaning of life" and "our purpose in this world." The pending situation and the journey that was ahead of us certainly offered much material for analysis. Steph was very clear at that moment that she was in for the fight of her life, and I was equally clear that I intended to be by her side every step of the way. That was how the journey began- with a commitment to get through whatever the cancer brought her way.

Never lost on either of us was the fact that, after years of trying to analyze life on our own, and only months before her diagnosis, we had finally begun studying Torah. Having a framework of faith in which to view this tragedy was particularly helpful for me as I took on the role of companion and confidant- and tried to also offer spiritual support. I felt that I was better prepared for what lay ahead. Torah learning had also brought me a community of friends and rabbis to support and guide me through the challenges that became inevitable.

Believe it or not, Steph began chemotherapy with lots of laughter. While the side effects of the chemo were no laughing matter, we managed to make the most of the days when Steph felt well.

Steph began chemo with lots of laughterIn order to take some control of her life, Steph made the decision to shave her head rather then wait and watch her hair fall out slowly. First, we went wig shopping. We joked that we couldn't believe she was actually going to be wearing a sheitel (many Orthodox women choose to cover their hair with a wig, referred to by the Yiddish term sheitel) We laughed till we cried as Steph tried on wigs that varied from short, cropped styles, to Lady Godiva look-a-likes.

When she actually cut her hair off, we were in a small private room. It was just me and her (and the hairdresser). I was so overwhelmed with emotion because Steph had let me share this incredibly intimate moment with her. The reality of it all actually made me lightheaded. It was the first of many times that Steph was able to allow me to give her unconditional support, and to really receive what I was trying to offer. Her ability to take gave me a gift beyond anything I had ever imagined I could receive.

As the months passed, we developed a companionable routine. She made it through three months of chemo as well as six weeks of radiation. She was looking forward to getting back to 'normal', and we had resumed a schedule of Torah classes, lunches and activities with the kids. Then came her headaches.

Her ability to take gave me a gift Only six months after her original diagnosis, Steph's cancer had metastasized to her brain. The prognosis was not good, and it seemed Steph was paralyzed with fear and uncertainty. Gone was the sound of her laughter. At times it seemed that her pain would swallow her up; but I promised her that I would not give up my commitment to see her through this journey.

I became more rooted in my determination to offer some words that would give Steph any comfort. Steph was always there to welcome me with open arms. Again and again, we exchanged moments of pure, unconditional giving. Whatever I could do for her, I did. The smallest things, like making her lunch or getting her soft pretzels, became more important than moving mountains. The more I was privileged to give, the more I was capable of giving. It was as if the flood gates of my heart had opened up and nothing could close them.

In Hebrew, the word for love is ahava. The root of this word, hav, means to give. It is so clear that the more you give to someone, the more love you feel for them. What a beautiful lesson I was learning from this precious friend. I was able to tell her that as much as she appreciated my help, even more so did I appreciate what she was giving me. I was able to tell her that when I was with her, she gave me strength- that in the end, the receiver had become the giver. She was so happy to know that as helpless as she felt in those final months, her life still had meaning. She was still making a difference.

As it became more obvious that Steph's days were few, we had less opportunity to share these special moments. In the end, there was very little I could do and a feeling of resignation finally settled in. I knew the journey I committed to with her was over. I knew life would never be the same for anyone involved in that experience.

I wish Steph was with us today to share her love and her smile with her friends and family. As she is not, the very least I can do is share her legacy with those left behind. I am profoundly changed by my experience with Steph. My journey with Steph was a blessing- an unconditional gift given in the most unexpected time and place.

Life is constantly giving us opportunities for learning and for growth- we need only be ready and open to receive them.