Of Angels on Earth and Nazi Prison Guards:
The worst word in the English language is not “death”, “disease”, or “heartbreak.” It’s not “loneliness”, “murder”, “evil”, “divorce”, or “separation.” It’s not even “cancer”, because that can sometimes be sent into remission for many, many years. The worst word in the English language is, rightfully so, a word that’s so cumbersome to pronounce that most people who refer to it do so by its abbreviated version. The worst word in the English language is “metastasize”, which is what cancer does when it moves out of its host organ or point of origin, and it is commonly referred to by health care professionals as “mets.”
In 2003, during Thanksgiving week, my only sister found out that she had breast cancer, cancer that had become stage 4, or metastatic. I believe that she was given 2-10 years at that time, as an estimated time line. She was in her upper 40s, divorced mother of 2, and already depressed before the diagnosis. Playing the blame game really doesn’t do anyone any good, but she had a family history of breast cancer. Our mother had had one breast removed in the late 1950s, when I was 2 years old, then another removed about 33 years later. She lived to be 94 and held all her grandchildren in her lap. Paperwork that I found among my sister’s things included doctor’s notes from those first visits which stated that she hadn’t had a mammogram in 5 years.
My sister did do all the right things after that–radiation, chemotherapy, hormone suppression, and all the awful, horrible things one has to do to try to remedy the side effects of the treatments. She even went to New York City to Sloan-Kettering for a second opinion. But in 2006 she found out it had moved into her liver. She lived several hours away, so didn’t have any family as support system, just a couple good friends, one from work and one neighbor, and some others who weren’t as close, but who helped out when they could. Her co-workers all chipped in to get her and my niece and nephew Broadway tickets when they were in NYC. But the evil little sneaky cancer cells just kept taking her over.
In June 2007, my sister slipped in her house and broke her ankle; she was basically bedridden after that. Her kids had to mostly fend for themselves. Our parents were too old, my mom had Alzheimer’s, my brother and I couldn’t afford to leave our jobs and family, and, really, our sister wasn’t letting on how sick she really was, plus I think she was in denial. She was too tired to make it “home” in August like she and the kids would do every year, so I called to see if she minded if I come to visit one weekend, assuring her that I’d stay in a motel, so as not to be a burden. I got to her town Friday and basically just went to bed. I don’t remember if I called that night, but she often didn’t answer her phone, so I wouldn’t have thought much of it anyway. It concerned me that I couldn’t reach her on Saturday, the 1st, though, since she knew I was coming. So, early that afternoon, I went to their house. No one was home, no note or anything, so I grew more concerned. I found a softball roster on their fridge that gave me the home address of my niece’s best friend’s mom, who was also my sister’s neighbor friend. I went 3 doors down and introduced myself. That’s when I found out that Cindy was in the hospital and “she’s dying, you know.” I found out then what’s it like to be not-at-all surprised, yet totally devastated at the same time.
Thus began my 7 days of part-time vigil-holder, part-time fill-in parent, liar (for a couple days to the kids), phone call maker, etc. Very little of it accomplished anything. I should have spent more time at my sister’s side, but she wanted me to give the kids as “normal” a time as possible; they were all she cared about, ever. She wanted me to take my niece shopping for groceries and treats, so we did. I was trying to lighten the mood by telling my niece, “well, we’ve got all the basic food groups covered, there’s the pizza group, the soda group, the cookie group, the potato-chip group, etc.” I told my sister this that evening and she asked “was she giggling?”–that’s all she cared about. I assured her that, yes, she was giggling. She is an extremely bright child who had asked me that afternoon, “when’s Mom coming home?”; I lied and said I wasn’t sure. I’m pretty sure she knew it was a lie but chose not to believe that fact.
A couple good things came out of that awful week; I became good friends with my sister’s friends and I met some people who are undoubtedly, “angels on Earth”; I’m talking about oncology (cancer) nurses. I asked one why she was an oncology nurse, did they all have to “serve time” there or something, and she answered that it’s what she always wanted to do. I think my mouth literally fell open at that. Obviously, some people in that profession are just doing their jobs, some are probably burned out by, or somewhat oblivious to, the suffering and dying, but I think most of them are truly angels among us.
Assuming, for a minute, that the world is right, ever, and I go before my child does, I believe that the worst thing I’ll ever have to do is, sooner or later, tell her that “your Daddy” (or hopefully, “your old Dad”) isn’t going to be around much longer.” The second worst thing, then, that I should ever have to do is something that no one should ever have to do. I will always remember the day I took my niece and nephew on that awful elevator ride to the 10th floor of Rapid City Regional. After seeing how quickly my sister was seeming to fade, and discussing it with her bank friend, I had given Cindy the ultimatum that she tells them that day or I do. She had already decided that, of course. So I told them to make sure they were home at a certain time, we hopped in my car, and went over to take that awful ride. I felt like a Nazi prison guard, taking them and all their hopes and dreams to her room so that my sister could crush them by telling them she was dying. She sent me out of the room to tell them; I could have heard their “No, Mom!” screams from the lobby, I think. She died 4 days later.
On the way up in the elevator with the kids that day, I was cracking some dumb jokes to try to keep from giving away to them, with what I was really feeling, any indicator of what their mom was going to tell them. I will go to my grave not really knowing if I did that more for their sake or for mine.