I had known since November that my sister’s cancer had spread, but she had not uttered the word “terminal.” The fact was there, behind her matter-of-fact reports of scan results and symptoms. Though it pushed itself at me, somehow my mind deflected the word, refusing to allow it to stick. After all, in many ways Martha seemed unchanged. We still laughed about the latest family happenings and sympathized with each other’s concerns. Admittedly, she did sound sort of tired, and she often had trouble thinking of the words she wanted to use. That was from the lesions on her brain stem, she said. The cancer also caused occasional panic attacks and confusion.
Still I could not accept the idea that she would not overcome this illness as she had overcome so many challenges in life. That simply could not be.
Oh, but it could. Early in March, my niece called to let me know that her mom was in the hospital. She had been admitted with panic attacks, and had decided to discontinue chemotherapy and go into a hospice. I spoke with Martha by phone the next day, and she was as calm as ever. She said she didn’t feel up to seeing our other family members, and gave me messages for them. We cried on the phone and poured love into each other’s hearts.
I went to see her a couple of days after she was settled in the hospice, and felt shocked at her decline. She moved and spoke in slow motion, and did not seem to focus on anything. Her last ten days or so found her increasingly withdrawn and confused, finally just sleeping nearly all the time. I went to sit with her, wishing I could tell her all about my latest work or run some ideas by her. A writer herself, she had always been my best supporter. I felt disappointed, almost hurt, that she was no longer able to care or respond.
One day as I sat with Martha, I thought about that detachment, common with a terminal illness but in her case magnified by the cancer attacking her brain. As she faced the hugeness of eternity, it was only natural for the most legitimate concerns of her earthly life — her work, the plans we had made together, daily routines, even our relationships with other people and her illness itself — to fade into insignificance. I tried to create a picture of our different viewpoints as the things I still cared most about simply stopped registering with her.
Physically, she was sinking into oblivion. But I knew that, in another dimension, her spirit would continue to live. The analogy of one child, outgrowing childhood before her friends do, seemed the best way for me to express the transition from both our perspectives.
Several of you commented that the post was “beautiful,” and I deeply appreciate that. But the darker side — the pain and struggle my sister went through, and our own struggle to deal with her cancer and the coming separation — nothing can make that beautiful. So I just left it out. I did not intend to romanticize terminal illness, just to isolate and preserve the concept that the person who dies will go on to live apart from us. It is the logical next step after his or her time on earth is done. And for the believer in Jesus, that life will be full of beauty, joy and adventure that we cannot imagine from this side. And I will one day join her again.
Cancer is ugly, but my sister was beautiful.
Just being around her was beautiful.
Thanks for reading, but above all, thanks for caring.
PS: Today I am linking up with my Soli Deo Gloria sisters. I so appreciate their coming alongside me with comfort and understanding.