TARPON SPRINGS – Around her wrist, Gertrude “Dolly” Zukin wears a dainty gold bracelet with five hearts: each with a name and a date.
It’s a heart for each of her siblings, Sam, Lillian, Norma, Sophie and herself, with their birthdays on the back. When their mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, when the dementia got worse, each sibling would take turns sitting with her and going through the bracelet: These are your children. Don’t forget us.
Sophie got the bracelet after her mother died. In August 2011, she passed the bracelet on to Dolly just days before Sophie died of cancer, a cancer that had worked its way slowly through the Zukin family.
Dolly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976. In 1998, a doctor told the family that Lillian’s esophageal cancer changed the conversation to “quality of time, not quantity.” Norma went into the hospital for surgery a day before Sophie died.
Dolly went through 14 months of chemotherapy in Norwalk, Connecticut, on her own, with just the support of her family by her side. Norma, who had both chemotherapy and radiation, was visited by service dogs throughout her treatment. But it was Lillian’s companion who urged Dolly into action: a teddy bear.
Sojourn Bear Inc., an organization founded by Seminole resident and cancer survivor Jan Burlew, provides handmade teddy bears to adult cancer patients around the country. Volunteers, most of whom are cancer survivors themselves, stitch bears from donated fabrics, stuff them with polyester fiber and sew on clothes, eyes, noses and name tags. Then, they’re distributed.
“We've learned that hugging is the perfect cure for whatever ails you,” reads the Sojourn Bear website. “At least if it doesn't make you well, just seeing or hugging a teddy invokes a feeling of warmth, security and whimsy in the hearts of all ages.”
Lillian’s bear, Walker, named after Chuck Norris’ character in Walker, Texas Ranger, sits on her old bed in the house she shared with Dolly and Sophie in the Tarpon Glen mobile home park in Tarpon Springs. But he’s not alone: hundreds of Sojourn bears fill Dolly’s house.
They cover the spare bedrooms, the couch, the living room and hallways. Scraps of lace and puffs of polyester hide in drawers. And once a month, on the second Sunday, a dozen women, who call themselves the Sisterhood of the Sunshine Survivors, crowd into her home to assemble the bears.
“We all really became gung-ho when Sophie died,” Dolly said. “We’re doing it in her memory.”
Dolly doesn’t sew – she can embroider, she specified, but not sew – so she hosts the factory, as she calls it. And she drives.
At the beginning of each month, Dolly delivers 16 bears to Florida Cancer Affiliates in New Port Richey. A few weeks later, she brings 16 bears to the Florida Cancer Specialists in Clearwater. Eight bears go to Ladies First Choice in Clearwater and the Florida Cancer Specialists in Largo.
“It doesn’t matter sex and it doesn’t matter age,” Dolly said. “You have to go around and around the parking lot because there are just so many people.”
With four bears per bag, Dolly enters through the chemotherapy room. Sometimes she’s greeted by a patient who’s received a bear before. But most often, it’s someone with a simple question: what are the bears?
They’re Bikini Bears and UPS drivers. Angels and magicians.
“Special bears,” Dolly said, “for special people.”