Erika Buschmann Lynam was an artist and a mother of three who had recently found love again. But melanoma returned with a vengeance this past summer, taking her life in a matter of months. She was 43.
Lynam fought fiercely and optimistically until the end, which came on Dec. 6. Her parents, brother, five sisters and just about everyone at St. Mary Catholic Church in Mobile’s Midtown area had rallied around her. Their slogan was “One Family, One Fight.”
“Her true passion was painting,” said her sister, Emily McCarron of Mobile. “All she wanted to do was do that full time and support her kids that way.”
Her family said that painting had always come easy for her. Lynam took art during her high school years at McGill-Toolen. In college, she began experimenting with new kinds of paint media. In time, her art graced frames, canvases, household knickknacks, even boxer shorts for girls.
Her large floral paintings hang on several family members’ walls. “She painted a topiary for me,” recalled McCarron, adding that her perfectionist sister was never completely satisfied with it. “She told me, ‘I’ll get this back after the party.”
‘Made me feel at home’
Lynam was the second child and the first daughter in a large, blonde-haired Catholic family. Born in Missouri, she spent most of her life in Mobile. Barbara Buschmann described her daughter as quiet and so helpful that she potty-trained her younger sister. She was also athletic, learning cartwheels at a very young age. “She never walked through the house after that,” Buschmann said. “It was cartwheels.”
She took to basketball at McGill, playing as a freshman on the school’s Lady Jackets team.
Buschmann said she has received cards from people telling of times that her daughter reached out to welcome them. One writer described going to McGill for the very first time: “Erika was the first one who sat and talked with me and made me feel at home.”
After graduating from McGill in 1988, Lynam attended Loyola University in New Orleans but came back to Mobile, when she enrolled at the University of South Alabama. She wed and moved to Florence, where she finished a degree in finance at the University of North Alabama.
The marriage produced three children — Courtney, now 17, Anna Grace, 13 and John Allen, 10. But a divorce in 2007 took its toll on Lynam both emotionally and financially, her family said.
In recent years, Lynam had begun an online business featuring her art. She had fallen in love with Billy Dolan Jr., the older brother of a family friend, and she had signed a lease on the house she was living in — located in the “Buschmann Compound” in Midtown — when she started having trouble breathing.
‘Whole other ballgame’
She’d had a cancerous mole removed from her right arm six years ago, and couldn’t imagine that melanoma might come racing back and metastasize.
“She didn’t realize melanoma was a whole other ballgame,” said younger sister Gretchen Adams.
The lawyer whom Lyman worked for insisted that she get a chest x-ray. Soon there was a CT scan, a PET scan and liver biopsy.
“There were lesions in the liver. The lung was involved. Pretty much in the month of July, we found that it was in the brain, bones, lungs and liver,” Buschmann said.
The next month, Lynam began radiation treatment.
Compounding the worries was a lack of insurance. Friends in the parish organized a huge fundraiser, and her family created a Facebook page titled “Fight for Pheebs,” after the nickname “Phoebe Grace,” given to her in infancy by her father, Bruce.
The fundraiser drew 1,000 people and brought in enough money to send Lynam to Grand Cayman island for special treatment — immunotherapy using a vaccine developed from her own cancer cells.
By the time she could get the vaccine in the fall, she was exhausted and in constant pain. But she was staying positive, her mother said: “She believed she would be the recipient of that miracle.”
One day, she and her sisters and a cousin came up with the idea of enjoying a girls’ weekend in Orange Beach. They rented a 2,500-square-foot condo at Turquoise Place that was equipped with a hot tub on the balcony and a fireplace. Lynam pulled a chaise lounge in front of the fireplace for sleeping.
By then, Lynam had lost her hair. “We all wore scarves to dinner,” McCarron said. “We had the best time.”
In December, her condition worsened. A tumor that had started out at 3 centimeters had grown to 9. “It was like a small grapefruit pressing on her heart,” Adams said.
The hospital admitted her on a Tuesday. When her children came, she greeted them with a huge smile, but she later told Dolan: “I just want to go home.” A priest from St. Mary’s gave her last rites.
Lynam was able to make it home, where the family gathered around her in the living room, bathed in the lights from the Christmas tree and a single lamp. They spent the night keeping vigil, leaving her favorite movies running on the DVD player, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “Home Alone.”
Early on Friday morning, Lynam opened her eyes wide in a “peaceful and smiling” expression, her mother said. Then she was gone.
“I truly believe she saw God or some angel that said, ‘Erika, it’s time to go,” Buschmann said.
When the ambulance came to take her away, Adams made a request to the driver. It had been a family tradition, back in Missouri, to give an extra goodbye with the horn.
The ambulance driver pulled away and sounded it twice.
“‘I’m headed home,’” Adams said, with tears in her eyes. “Beep, beep.”