Grace White is no stranger to adversity.
As a single mother, she raised her daughter, held down a full-time job as a paralegal and faced all of life's challenges as they came along. After divorce from "What's-his-name," when middle-age approached, she decided she wouldn't go through the typical crisis that most mid-lifers go through. She took a route that eventually made her quite familiar to many residents in Lockeford and Lodi.
White became a stand-up comic.
Through the ensuing years, White built her routine and reputation telling jokes as "that Old Hippie Chick," and began producing the successful "Women Who Kick Comedy Butt" all-female comedy show. The bookings picked up, including regular stints at Vino Piazza. She told jokes about growing older and her grandson's peeing habits. She was getting busier all the time, which wasn't a problem for a woman whose main priorities are family and work.
But the 57-year-old White started having a hard time keeping up with her comic colleagues. Work was becoming more difficult. So she made a point of going to the doctor. Tests were run, and the waiting began.
White was in the middle of the grocery store with her grandson when the doctor called her.
The diagnosis was lung cancer.
A steady climb
It was an open mic night at a Nevada City upscale eatery called "Creekside" where White made her stand-up debut.
"I went in with my 'jokes,' and I did pretty well considering I didn't know what I was doing," White said.
White quickly got over the jitters and was booked for her first real show, though she admits she doesn't quite remember how it happened. She was soon doing regular Friday and Saturday comedy stints with a fellow comedian.
From there, she starting bringing the talent together and booking the gigs.
The comedy world was not particularly receptive to female comics eight years ago when White entered the business, especially female comics who performed only PG-13 material ("My daughter recently got a tattoo above her butt. She said she wanted it lower. I said, 'don't worry, it will be.'"), but that gave White even more incentive to create a venue that would give her fellow comediennes a steady job.
It wasn't uncommon for producers to tell her that they already had a woman on the bill, even though they had five men.
"It's hard for a woman to get stage time," White said, "It's especially hard for an older woman to get stage time."
With a keen mind for the business-side of comedy, White created and expanded Women Who Kick Comedy Butt into a regularly sought-after show.
In 2003, White connected with Karyn Lichtfield, who owns Vino Piazza and Olde Lockeford Winery with husband Don.
The comedienne and the winemaker connected, became fast friends, and the show has been regularly sold out ever since.
Even though she hails from Colfax - a small, quiet mountain community northeast of Auburn - White calls the wine plaza home for Women Who Kick Comedy Butt. Fans from Lodi, Lockeford and the surrounding areas have claimed White as their own funny girl.
Her career accelerated with a recent show sponsored by Nike and an offer for a talk show.
It seemed nothing less than a freight train could stop her … or at least slow her down.
'I couldn't put my mind around it'
As a young girl growing up on the beach in San Diego, Grace White would go surfing and skateboarding on boards that she made herself. Hanging out at her aunt and uncle's surf shop, she learned to make boards and she learned the skill of surfing.
Years later, as a single mom, White raised her daughter, Alisa Cook, with the same strength and a love for life that Cook mirrors in her own personality.
"She was always silly and I would laugh at everything," Cook said at their modestly decorated two-story home, nestled in the hills of Colfax. "Because of her, I was the kid that would laugh at every joke in the movies, even when no one else was laughing."
The day White found out that she had cancer during the first week of November, the doctors also told her that she wouldn't be working.
"I thought, 'OK, after these couple of shows, I won't work,'" White said. "They said, 'No. No more work.'"
Tears began to fill her eyes.
"I couldn't put my mind around it because that's the most important thing - my family, my work - in my life."
Still, that didn't stop White from doing what she loved. During the night, when everyone else in the house was asleep, she would get up and work, whether on writing or coordinating shows.
White would work for hours at night and stay up all day. The lack of rest and a reaction to the narcotic painkillers - morphine and oxycodone - sent her to the emergency room three times throwing up blood. Cook became the disciplinarian and started making sure her mother gets her much-needed sleep.
But she's not only the disciplinarian, Cook is also the caretaker, the scheduler, the correspondent. She's helped White in letting friends and family know that White is sick. She's taken her mother to various doctor appointments and she makes sure that she gets her medication.
The most recent appointment was a biopsy that would let them know exactly what they were dealing with. The results were less than encouraging.
White has stage four non-small cell adenocarcinoma lung cancer. The tumor has metastasized and attached to White's spine, damaging a vertebra.
The cancer is inoperable, and White's doctor said the odds of her living longer than a year-and-a-half are not good.
"I love my mom," Cook said. "Just the thought of living without her is very difficult."
Yet White's irrepressible spirit still shines through. She has opted to go through the most aggressive chemotherapy available.
The doctor will keep an eye on how the tumor reacts to the treatment and make sure the tumor doesn't move into other areas of the body.
Though treatment won't come without its price. White will deal with sickness from the treatment that can leave cancer patients weak and nauseous among other things.
The cost is another factor. White, being a working comic, had no health insurance.
"Who knew cancer was so expensive," White joked.
To say the stand-up comedy community is close-knit is an understatement. A more accurate term could be welded together.
Women involved with White in one way or another, whether through Women Who Kick Comedy Butt, or through various shows are coming to the rescue.
Where: Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Club, 157 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
When: Dec. 19
Information: (408) 739-0921
Vino Piazza Benefit for Grace White
Where: Vino Piazza, 12470 Locke Road, Lockeford
When: Jan. 19
Pepper Bellys Benefit for Grace White
Where: Pepper Bellys Comedy and Variety Theatre, 849 Texas St., Fairfield
When: Jan. 24
Information: (707) 422-SHOW
Grace Fraga, a Los Angeles-based comedienne is producing benefit comedy shows, with all proceeds going to help pay for White's medical expenses.
Fraga originally met White backstage after doing a gig at the Comedy Store in L.A.
"She kept saying, 'my name is Grace,'" Fraga said. "And I was like, 'how do you know my name?' It was a classic blonde moment. We hit it off, and a week later she hired me for a gig in Reno."
Fraga likens White to a sage, saying that she is always able to dispense the best advice on life, love and career.
"One time, Grace (Fraga) asked me if she should work with someone who is a creep and undependable," White said. "I said that that's a hint of who that person is, and dependability is important in this business, so, no, don't work with the person.
"Then she asked me about love," White continued. "You're asking me? My record speaks for itself!"
Fraga noticed about a month ago that White was coughing, losing weight and not eating. Fraga was concerned, but didn't think it could be anything too serious.
Since Fraga lost her father to lung cancer five years ago, she knew she had to do whatever she could and started putting together benefit shows.
Gayla Johnson, another L.A.-based comic, says she owes a great deal of her inspiration to White.
"She's always, 'can can can.' She's finding a way to realize her dreams," Johnson said.
Johnson first met White when White contacted her to do a Women Who Kick Comedy Butt show in Lockeford. After researching the show and talking to other comics about it, she said she had to find out what "Vino Pizza" was first-hand. She agreed to do the show.
When the two met, Johnson described White as being bountiful and full of energy, filled with mile-a-minute conversation.
Johnson has made it a point to try and perform at as many benefits for White as she can.
Web sites have been set up as well to accept donations for White.
Though she faces a challenge like none she's faced before, Grace White is determined to fight it and beat it.
"There is so much I want to do," White said looking out the window of her mountain home. "I want to go to Paris, sit in a cafe and watch the people there. I want more time with my grandchildren."