Michele Baldwin: Cancer Fighter Found Peace on Water - Albuquerque Journal

Michele Baldwin: Cancer Fighter Found Peace on Water

Michele Baldwin loved being on water, her father said. She could swim in frigid ocean waves longer than anyone else in the family, and her final adventure was a 700-mile trip down a sacred river in India.

Friends describe her as someone who flowed easily from adventure to adventure and whose presence was powerful. “If you went into Shelly’s home or you were in her company and she wanted you there, it was like being ushered into a sacred space,” said Denise Young, who had been Baldwin’s friend for 20 years.

Balwin died Feb. 5 at her home in Albuquerque from complications of cervical cancer. She was 45.

She gave her parents a fair share of trouble as a girl in Virginia and later when the family moved to Albuquerque, Ken Frazier said. But her personality was always gentle, friendly and adventurous.

Baldwin found Buddhism 24 years ago, on a six-month trip to India she financed by shining shoes at Albuquerque country western bars.

Buddhism came naturally to Baldwin, said friend Lisa Guerin, who knew her since childhood in Virginia.

Baldwin married Carter Grotbeck in 1990, with whom she had two children, Tenzin Skylar and Lexx Kailash.

She later divorced and then married Jauquin Baldwin, and had daughter Audrey Tigerlily before moving to Colorado. She returned to Albuquerque in 2009 to work as a paramedic.

She had a habit of changing her hair often, sometimes depending on travel plans. In Morocco, Spain and France, she went with black. On her last trip to India, she was bright blond.

In 2009, she had her first bout of cervical cancer, undergoing surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments while she worked as a paramedic.

Her cancer faded, then returned, and faded once more. In 2011, the cancer returned a third time, with no options for treatment.

She went to California, where Guerin lives. There she learned to standup paddleboard, which looks like paddling atop a wide surfboard, and hatched a plan to do so down the Ganges River (called “Ganga” in India), a 700-mile journey on a sacred but heavily polluted waterway.

Many had reservations about something so strenuous, so far away from her friends and children. “I just said, ‘You can do it,’ ” Guerin remembers. “How can you not do it?”

It was difficult — she needed to plan quickly, relying on outdated maps and spotty communication — but Baldwin needed to do it, her mother, Ruth Frazier, said, because being on the water prepared her for death.

She chronicled the whole journey on her website, starryganga.com, and in several media profiles including an Albuquerque Journal UpFront column. She did it, she said, to raise awareness for HPV vaccines and women’s health.

Without a hint of self-pity, Baldwin told the world that her death was preventable, but for her own mistake of not going in for recommended women’s health checkups.

Almost as soon as she returned to Albuquerque, her condition worsened. She asked her three closest friends — Guerin, Young and Jackie Kypta — to help her remain in her apartment in Albuquerque.

It was trying for some friends, many of whom wanted one more glimpse of her wit and hard-earned wisdom, but she guarded the space she needed to come to peace.

“It was so painful seeing her, or any human being, in that much pain,” Young said, “but the way she handled it was so graceful.”

She was cremated in an open-air funeral pyre in Colorado during a Buddhist ceremony.

Ruth Frazier said her knees buckled on the way to the ceremony, and, she said, “my sorrow was as big as a reservoir.”

“The cremation, it was so visible, it was so tangible. You realize in a very brief period of time, the body can absolutely go back into the elements,” she said. “We could all feel Michele was released, and was back in the elements. It was joyful. Absolutely joyful.”

Guerin said Baldwin often said in her final weeks that those who loved her would find her again if they did the things they loved to do. After her friend’s death, Guerin bought a standup paddleboard, for the water near her California home. She went out, most recently, on Sunday.

“I lost my balance, and instead of gripping the board, I jumped in, like Michele would do,” Guerin said.
— This article appeared on page C3 of the Albuquerque Journal

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