Her Sister's Keeper

by Judith Warner
Photograph: Photo: Dean Kaufman

New in town, Brinker joined an executive training program at Neiman Marcus, later worked in public relations and briefly hosted a radio show. She married, had Eric, got divorced and then, still reeling from Suzy’s death, met Norman, one of the rare human beings whose energy and drive seemed to match hers. Almost 16 years her elder, Norman had traveled far from his humble beginnings, becoming a member of the U.S. Olympic equestrian team and later making a sizable fortune in the restaurant business.

Norman saw Nancy through her own bout with breast cancer in 1984. The treatment—four rounds of chemotherapy and a mastectomy—ended her chances of having any more children. Even so, she says, “I always consider myself extremely lucky, extremely blessed.” Then, in 1993, Norman suffered a near fatal polo accident and serious brain trauma. He eventually recovered, but the couple divorced seven years later. Brinker still cannot speak about him without visible pain. “This wasn’t a divorce. It was a death,” she says. “He felt he was holding me back. And he wasn’t. I would have stayed with him. And I think that because somewhere deep inside he knew that, he made it almost impossible for me to stay.”

Valentine, who watched Nancy painstakingly nurse her husband back to health after his accident, is still moved to tears when she thinks about the moments of hope and despair they shared during his long weeks in a coma and his months of recovery. But she prefers to remember happier times, such as when Norman met Nancy in November 1980 and instantly fell in love. “Their first date was over Thanksgiving, and they were married on Valentine’s Day. It was that immediate and that deep,” she recalls. “Nancy is smart as a whip, and he is too, and I think he enjoyed her intellect as well as her humor and that she was grounded. They were a great match.”

With Norman’s encouragement and early financial backing, Nancy threw herself into building up the Komen organization. Her first event was an all-women’s polo match in Dallas. Fundraising lunches and the now-signature walks followed. She gave a public face to a very private disease, telling the story of her promise to Suzy. George and Laura Bush were enthusiastic early supporters; Laura, as Brinker’s “invitation chair,” addressed envelopes for various lunches and dinners during the 1980s. A friendship developed, and the Brinkers became major Bush donors and fund raisers in Texas.

As head of Komen, Brinker first set out to change the public’s attitudes toward breast cancer. Thirty years ago, the disease was still so stigmatized that friends in Peoria, seeing Suzy at the supermarket, would duck down separate aisles to avoid her because they feared that her illness was contagious. On one occasion, a bra manufacturer in New York had Brinker escorted from the building when she attempted to persuade the company’s board to put a breast cancer-awareness hangtag on their lingerie. To this day, when in New York, she points to the corner in the Garment District where she stood and cried.

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