Mary didn't expect to survive the surgery — yet she did. She needed several more operations in the next week to clean out the wound, and powerful antibiotics to resolve the infection.
I made plans to visit, but she said not to come, that she'd soon get out and come to Southern California.
But on Jan. 2, she had a stroke, which took her sight. On Jan. 4, she had another one, which left her paralyzed on the left side. By the time I saw her, she'd lost most of her ability to speak. Doctors told her that she was terminal, that she wouldn't survive another surgery, and that the cancer was growing again.
Although she could barely string three or four words together, she summoned the will to tell her daughter, "Erika, I love you so much. I'm going to take care of you."
"Mom, we're going to take care of you," Erika replied. "You're the one who's in that hospital bed."
Mary went for hospice care to Sedona, Ariz., where her many friends teamed up to care for her, sit with her, read cards and letters to her. One was from her mother, 90 and too fragile to travel from Iowa to her daughter's bedside.
Sedona's annual film festival in February included a documentary: "When Cancer Returns 8x: The Mary Schnack Story."
The filmmaker, Karen Frye of Phoenix, had begun documenting Mary's struggle in 2010. As the premiere approached, Mary insisted they have a film party.
Erika left the room as the screening began. "I don't want to see it," she said.
But she could hear — and on the film, she heard Mary laugh. Erika came running back into the room, pointed at the screen and said, "That's my mom! That's my mom!"
The next day, Mary slowed down.
"Monday evening found just myself and my husband in the bedroom with Mary," wrote her friend and primary caregiver, Bobbie Surber. "I was holding her hand when all of a sudden for the very first time Mary was not holding my hand in return. I just knew she was leaving us.
"As we both told her how much we loved her, how much she meant to so many around the world and how we would all care for Erika, Mary started to slow her breathing. We said the Lord's Prayer and before we knew it, Mary had passed. … Mary left this world knowing she was deeply loved."
One of Mary's friends left this note on Mary's Facebook page the next night:
"Mary, I just went to the Surbers' house to take them some eggplant parmigiana. No one answered so I let myself in, put the platter in the fridge and went to kiss you goodnight and tell you I'd be there tomorrow night to read to you.
"I had not checked my emails. The bed was empty and Erika courageously told me you were gone. I am writing here to send you my love and that kiss goodnight. … Safe journey back home."
Mary died on Feb. 20, 2012, at 55.
Last Christmas, someone named a star for Lindsey. Her parents wondered who had been so thoughtful. They asked relatives. They asked around town. They asked at the church. We posted a query on Lindsey's memorial Facebook page. No one came forward.
The other night, as I told my brother about Mary's death, I wondered: Did Mary name that star? It was exactly the sort of thing she'd do.
Now I'll never know.
I do know that when I look at the stars, I'll see Lindsey and Mary together.