Natalie Hecker and Stephanie Soderling lived two houses apart for years, but differing ages and circumstances kept them on different paths. Natalie, 39, was married and the mother of two daughters, working as director of an adult day program. Stephanie, 23, was a student at Prior Lake High School who went on to St. Cloud State University to major in science education.
In June 2014, their paths converged. Stephanie, home after graduating from college, knew that Natalie was battling brain cancer. When she heard that Natalie’s occupational therapy appointments were on Mondays, she jumped in to watch Natalie’s then-4-year-old, Bella.
Stephanie and Bella got along famously, especially around their shared love of animals, until, as Bella jokes, her mother “stole” her best friend. Natalie happily confesses. “One day, I called Stephanie and I said, ‘I don’t know if this is weird to ask of the babysitter, but I really want to go to Cherry Berry [a yogurt bar]. Do you want to go?’ ”
Natalie and Stephanie became “like two high school friends,” Stephanie says. Often, they take Bella, now 6, and sister Sophie, 12, to the Waterpark of America, a museum or the zoo. When the girls are away, the two women plan grown-up dinners out. “She makes me laugh,” Natalie says of Stephanie, a middle school science teacher. “I never know if that’s a good thing or not!” Stephanie replies.
It is a very good thing.
In May 2012, Natalie picked up Bella after work, made dinner, and headed to a nearby store to make a return. Holding onto the cart, she began talking in gibberish. She’d suffered a grand mal seizure. Her phone was locked so the emergency crew couldn’t immediately reach her husband, Kent, a full-time member of the Army National Guard.
The CT scan found a cancerous mass on the left side of her brain. She had surgery, followed by 18 months of chemotherapy and radiation. The former “queen of multi-tasking” had to quit the job she loved. She tires easily and still has tiny seizures, so she doles out time judiciously to her family and housework — and a special friend.
Natalie and Stephanie returned in August from a week in Colorado, where they attended a Brandi Carlile concert, visited the Garden of the Gods and hiked four miles. “Spending a week with her opened my eyes to what she’s dealing with,” Stephanie says. “There are things I do with you that I wouldn’t do with anyone else,” she tells Natalie, “because I like watching you go out of your comfort zone.”