Belle Strong

Belle Strong cropped

By Leighann Sturgin

After a respectful ‘moment’ of blog silence, it’s only fitting this blog entry should be in honor of our beloved Belle. She and I developed a relationship while writing for this blog together over the last 9 months. She was an amazing, honest, genuine, person with an infectious smile and delicious laugh. She didn’t bother with fluff, she knew there was no time for it.

I’d read many of her stories on The Colon Club blog but the 2015 Colondar 2.0 photo shoot was the first time I’d met lead staff writer Belle Piazza.  As soon as I’d arrived, at the Five Star Retreat, writer Doug Dallman said something like ‘We’ll be talking later, I’m writing your story.’ The next day when I was summoned to “wardrobe”, where the entire staff is assembled to observe as a series of outfits and accessories are tried and discussed for each model’s shoot. Belle says she wants to write my story. She and Doug enter a friendly negotiation, as if I’m not standing right there in front of them, they trade models and now Belle is supposed to write my story. Later that day Belle came to me after rereading my Colondar application and said she really doesn’t think she can write my story better than I’ve already written. My story is discussed amongst the writers and a few other staff members. They asked me what I thought. Although, I appreciated their enthusiasm for my writing, I thought it would be weird if I was the only model in the magazine who wrote their own story.  I don’t know how they came to the decision but in the end, the staff decided Angie Laroche (Stage IV Survivor – 2011 Colondar) would write my story.

While on one of our hikes on the beautiful Five Star Retreat property, Belle and I were lagging behind the rest of the group. We were the two slow pokes of the group.  Belle told me she really appreciated my writing. She asked if I would be interested in contributing to the The Colon Club blog as a guest writer. I, of course, said “Yes, I’d be honored.” Her hope was that writing for the blog would give me the opportunity to prove myself, as a writer, to the Colondar Staff and The Colon Club Board of Directors. Belle said blogging would be make it easier for the board to approve my joining the 2016 Colondar 2.0 staff as a writer.  I was flattered. I was ecstatic. I like to write, I’ve been journaling for over 10 years, and it’s therapeutic for me. I write what’s on my heart.  Sometimes I write my prayers. I don’t write for attention from others, I do it to get something off my mind. When I’m angry or sad, I write. It makes me feel better. I write often about what I’m thankful for, so I can read it when I’m having a bad day.  Most of my writing happens between midnight and 4 am. When I lay down at night and my mind won’t stop racing, I get up and write whatever is on my mind. I can’t sleep until I get it out. It’s like an itch. I have to scratch it. Who can sleep with an itch?

Belle and I talked about it at great length during the rest of the photo shoot. We discussed topics I’d write about and the parameters under which I’d write. I was to write and send my articles to her for editing, then she posted them to The Colon Club website. A few, she rejected. At least one she asked me to rewrite. She asked me to clarify things sometimes, helped me with transitions and pointed out the occasional grammatical error. She encouraged me. She was my sounding board. She made me a better writer. We conversed via email and over the phone. Sometimes she emailed me her articles, I became her sounding board. After writing a few entries for the blog, Belle asked me to become a regular contributor. I didn’t realize at the time what she was doing.

Toward the end of our time at Five Star, I found out Belle’s health was not as it appeared. All of us survivors have heard at one time or another, “You don’t look sick.” I knew she was stage IV but I didn’t know her situation. Belle looked great. She traveled from Portland to Nashville. She took hundreds of photographs. She was dancing, singing Karaoke, hiking, eating, drinking, laughing and thoroughly enjoying time with her Colondar family.  She was living life. She was happy. No one would have guessed her doctors had already told her chemo isn’t working anymore.

I didn’t know until she was in hospice care that she had pulled aside each of her Colondar staff friends individually to tell them what they meant to her. She was, essentially, telling them goodbye. She knew she wouldn’t be back for the 2016 photo shoot.  With some she discussed her hopes for their future and asked them to make her promises. Private things, that were important to her. While spending time with some of the Colondar staff at, Miss September 2015, Christy Schmieler’s funeral, I realized this is what she did with me. She handpicked me. She believed in me. She guided and mentored me as a writer. She wanted me to take over The Colon Club Blog and her spot as lead writer on the Colondar 2.0 staff. I have accepted the challenge with great respect for Belle and her legacy. I so appreciate the opportunity she as afforded me. I hope I can live up to her expectations. I pray I make her and the rest of The Colon Club, its Board of Directors and the Colondar 2.0 staff proud.

Belle has blessed us with two more blogs, written before she finished the race, which I will post in the next couple weeks.