SHE WAS almost unrecognisable late that Tuesday morning at the Stortford Lodge PostShop in Hastings.
Draped in a white cotton boho summer dress, Debbie Shaw cut a striking figure against the backdrop of a typically blue sky last month.
"Wow, you look great, Debbie. I didn't recognise you there for a minute," I said of the woman who did aerobic classes with me more than a decade ago.
Her radiant smile screamed yes to anyone who cared but what she said next came like a stinging slap across the face, leaving me tongue-tied and groping for anything to break the ice in what seemed like eternity.
"Thank you, I feel great but I have only a few more days left to live," Shaw said, the luminosity not deserting her face for a second but the welling of an errant tear caught in the cleavage of an eye perhaps the only tell-tale sign of a modicum of melancholy.
A hug amid a ritual exchange of pleasantries later, the 52-year-old orthopaedic nurse from Hawke's Bay Hospital agreed to an interview the week before the annual Hastings Half Marathon at Havelock North tomorrow although she wasn't convinced her life story was that interesting.
"Life goes on. I still have to pay my bills," a petite Shaw said, clutching her electricity bill as she shuffled towards the PostShop queue.
She has cholangiocarcinoma of the posterior gallbladder, a diagnosis that came through from a panel of medical specialists in Auckland on a day (March 8) vividly etched on her mind.
"My gallbladder should be the size of a walnut but it's this big and growing," she reveals later this week at a cafe, clenching her fist to indicate the swelling.
It's inoperable, no chemotherapy is required and all she has is a stent to manage the symptoms.
"I had a stent put in because I was looking like Marge Simpson," she says, showing a family photo that makes her stick out because of an orange tinge.
"The boys [her three sons] were going to get me a blue wig," she says with a grin.
Nurse became patient for four days in a hospital bed and her reaction on discovering she was up against a rare and aggressive form of cancer was summed up in a four-letter word starting with "f" she hopes her mother, Jean Parnell, 82, of Upper Hutt, won't ever find out.
"I had picked up an extra shift that day and I was walking 16km," she says, revealing her initial plans to walk a marathon this year.
Her specialist, Grant Broadhurst, is loath to put a time on her life but it's in the vicinity of 4-5 months.
"I've had six weeks already so I'm almost halfway there."
Shaw's research reveals weight can cause stress to the gallbladder cells which were spotted too late.
"I was fat (97kg). I loathe and detest being that."
Not exercising and eating led to the blowout. It led to often asking herself if she wanted to eat something could she work it off.
Obesity, she feels, is a vicious cycle laced with paranoia where going out isn't an option.
In a life of a recluse the feeling of others watching what you're eating and how much is always ever present.
"I look much more my age now than when I was fat," she says, reconciling her hastened mortality with the comfort of feeling fitter than if she were overweight.
"The world is great. I was in a very good head space when I got my diagnosis.
"I don't pussyfoot around fat now that I'm dying. I simply don't have time for that."
The mother of three boys - Blair, 28, Hamish, 25, and Alex, 20 - started losing kilos about 18 months ago.
She is the indomitable figure who strides out of her home every day, wired to a selection of sounds emanating from her iPod, ready to greet the world.
She is highly suspicious she has earned some sort of nickname - like the "Milk Bottle Man", the "Funny Hat Man", "Forrest Gump" or "Annie" who have become synonymous as serial walkers in the city.
"I sometimes wonder what they are calling me out there," she says with a laugh, adding motorists, including a police patrol car, have stopped to ask her how many kilometres she's covered any given day.
The woman, who walked the 28km Mega Mitre 10 event last November in 3h 44m, does on the average 2h 20m in training alone.
It started with a walk around the hospital block and then two and before she knew the woman who failed as a gym bunny after two years evolved into an energiser bunny.
"In the last 20 months I've just had a ball," she says, looking forward to walking with a few friends who have entered the Hastings Half Marathon, luring 400 competitors as well as offering a fun run/walk 10km and 5km sections.
Some of them thought she was crazy to walk tomorrow to which she replied: "Why not?"
She has thrown an invite to friends to walk with her, "even one or two steps" tomorrow.
"My utopia is having a fun day on Sunday and we'll all be having a picnic at Anderson Park after the prize giving is over.
"There'll be a lot of laughter. Why save it for a funeral?"
Shaw dreads the thought of having to reach out for a wheelchair tomorrow to complete the 21.1km distance but friend Sandy Anderson, of Hastings, has agreed to ride in it while she pushes. She realises it's no longer a solo event so, although competitive, her time won't reflect any personal bests because it'll be about enjoying the company of friends and family.
Since starting her walk, her daily attire has also evolved to reflect her attitude and a somewhat latent constitution.
"I used to wear muted, absorbent, background colours but since working on my fitness I've been wearing bold, vibrant colours," she says, her sunset orange-and-black ensemble blending nicely into the black leather chaise lounge at the café.
Born in Upper Hutt, Shaw moved up to the Bay in November, 1987, with husband Mike, who she separated from 15 months ago after 31 years of marriage.
"I haven't been able to date. The last time I did that was when I was 18 years old on my first date so I haven't an idea how to flirt again."
Her profession, no doubt, has prepared her well for the inevitable in the game of life.
Most of her patients were "broken, not sick" so she thrived in cajoling or resorting to "strong instruction" to bring them to speed.
Turfed out of hospital in 1979 as a trainee, Shaw graduated with her nursing degree in 2002 after four years in transit as a dentist's assistant.
Now some of her former patients have visited her and sent her gifts but she's mindful the nursing fraternity frowns on such associations post-care.
"I've met many patients and people in my life so without them I would've been poorer for it because they've shown me a sense of grace and dignity."
Working at Bay hospital has stopped because she doesn't want to be a distraction to her colleagues.
"It's an amazing job - more than a job, actually. I would never forgive myself if someone was harmed in any way while I was working at the hospital."
The staff has been great to her although she accepts she's one of their own.
"I'd like to think they give that sort of warmth and care to everyone."
In her life now, there's no negativity. It's an open-door policy where people walk in and out of her home where she sometimes says the most outrageous things.
African American civil rights activist, poet and author Maya Angelou inspires her immensely since son Alex gave her one of her "wisdom" books as a Christmas gift.
She produces her electronic tablet to show the 77-year-old's photo before scrolling to a close-up of her words of wisdom.
"She says life's about living, not making a living."
Shaw prefers to live her remaining days based on the analogy of a Bay friend who successfully defeated cancer.
In a nutshell, she's on a hypothetical bus ride on a journey from a known place to an unknown one.
She can holler at the driver about the mystery destination and give the bus conductor a tough time about the fare or she can simply enjoy the ride.
"Any bugger who dares to sing Kumbaya in my journey will be off my bus pretty quick."
That extends to her three boys, her greatest treasures in the world.
She didn't take kindly to one of them playing a mournful tune in the car the other day.
"Yes I'm dying but I'm also living."
Shaw considers herself lucky and blessed to employ her nursing prowess to map out her remaining days with her family and friends.
"People who die in car crashes and have heart attacks don't get that."
She has no qualms about gifting her "relatively young body" to the medical fraternity for research but her family prefers it to be isolated to the suspect organ.
"If it's rare, why not let them play with it," she says, adding she has left a message at Auckland University's medical foundation for research.
She's laughed a lot and, as Angelou would recommend, exchanged countless bear hugs.
Plans to go on a cruise to Alaska with her mother next month have been scuttled.
"She's not well and I'm not well enough to push her around in a wheelchair."
Shaw has opted to have quality time with her sons rather than accept her mother's offer of a trip to Paris.
Attending son Hamish's Air Force graduation is on the agenda as she insists he undergoes a final selection training this weekend in Woodburn, Blenheim, rather than join her in the half marathon.
"Come hell or high water I'd get myself down there," she says of the mechanical engineering graduate from Auckland University who joined the force because he wants to "give something back to his country".
She wants her sons to follow their dreams.
"If they crash and burn along the way then we'll deal with it," says Shaw, mindful eldest son Blair, a talented amateur golfer, has grappled with his share of ADHD demons as a child and will have to be on top of it as an adult.
Finding traction at the Cancer Society for some support and balances are also vital for Shaw because that'll give her acquaintances a modicum of closure. "The day I die is when the grieving stops."
She hasn't given up the idea of completing a marathon walk in Wellington on June 23.
"It's a little later but miracles happen. We'll see."