Layne Neumann's deep, gravelly voice cracked with emotion.
"How much does it cost to put a story in the paper?'' she asked. "A card doesn't get it. They deserve more for what they did for me.''
She wanted so badly to thank everyone, even if that meant detailing an addiction that causes her shame.
"I want to quit,'' she said softly. "I can't.''
Even when she was pregnant. Even now, as she hopes the tumor in her left lung continues to shrink.
She can't put down her Doral Ultra Light cigarettes, her brand of choice for the last 19 years. She switched from Salem Menthols because she thought it would be easier to quit something called "Ultra Light.''
As we talked on the phone, she laughed at the thought, which caused her to cough.
Odds were strong that Layne Neumann would be a smoker. She was born 51 years ago in Greensboro, N.C., the heart of tobacco land. Her parents smoked. Her sisters smoked. So did all her friends. She started at age 13.
She moved to western Pasco County in 1985 and worked at restaurants, including Stacy's Homestyle Buffet, where she met her husband, Paul, now the food service manager at Ridgewood High School. They've been married 20 years and have four children, three still at home.
It was for daughter Caryn, 13, that Mrs. Neumann got involved in Girl Scouts as an assistant troop leader — which is also how she came to call me.
When doctors discovered a baseball-size tumor in December, they immediately zapped it with every weapon in their arsenal. It stripped Mrs. Neumann's strength and left her bed-ridden. The family needed help, and one of the girls in Girl Scout Troop 516, Nikole Roberts, had a brilliant idea.
Two years earlier, as a student at Fox Hollow Elementary, Nikole witnessed fourth-grade teacher Melissa Jarvis battling breast cancer. As she endured treatments, teams of teachers organized dinner for her family each night.
We can do that for Mrs. Neumann, reasoned Nikole, whose mother Kathi Roberts is troop leader. Nikole, 11, now a straight-A student at River Ridge Middle School, drafted a letter to all the parents of her troop and Brownie Troop 828.
In pencil on lined notebook paper with three holes punched down the left side, Nikole described the chemo schedule. She wrote how much everyone loves Mrs. Neumann.
"I know she will think this is a really big deal,'' Nikole wrote, "but it's really not if we all work together. Thank you for listening to me and I hope even one small kid can make a difference.''
Every night for the next seven weeks, the scouts and their parents delivered dinner to the Neumanns, including Caryn, Gary, 16, and Scott, 18, who is about to graduate from Ridgewood High and enter the Marines.
Tuesday evening, the scouts met for the final time this school year in the fellowship hall at St. Mark's Presbyterian Church. Everybody brought a covered dish. After the Pledge of Allegiance, the girls stood around the flag and Mrs. Neumann, frail and 40 pounds lighter since December, handed over a sealed envelope with a card inside expressing her thanks.
"It's not enough,'' she kept saying, eyes wet.
Melissa Jarvis, the Fox Hollow teacher who on June 6 will celebrate a second cancer-free year, embraced her for what seemed like five minutes. The two women stared into each other's eyes and talked of their battles and their bond.
One is a cancer survivor. One still fights. Both hope.
And 20 little girls stand witness to some tough lessons of life.
Bill Stevens is the North Suncoast Editor. You can reach him at (727) 869-6250 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.