Tuesday, January 10, 2012

News One Never Wants to Hear

A few weeks ago, I received a chilling note from my sister-in-law, Erin, Willie's wife. The note began with the words, "I am sorry to tell you that your brother is likely to become a widower soon." That was certainly not your traditional greeting, and Erin had definitely grabbed my attention. I thought that perhaps Erin was being melodramatic, but, no, that was not the case. Erin went on to say that during a routine examination, the doctor had found a mass in her lung and wanted to see if he could remove it with surgery.

To make a long story short, he could not remove it. It was too close to the artery. He wondered what more there was, and what else was going on, but he was only a general surgeon. So, he sent Erin to an oncologist. Since then, we have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, hoping that the news, assumed to be bad, would be at least tolerable. Maybe it was not cancer but just a growth. Maybe it was something that could be shrunk with chemo.

On Friday, the news arrived: Stage IV lung cancer, both lungs. While it is not a death sentence, it is frighteningly close. Less than 10% survive. Still, obviously, one hopes to be in that 10%.

So now what? That decision has to be Erin's. The choices appear to be heavy chemo, light chemo, and nothing (just let nature take its course). Whatever she chooses, we, her family, will support.

Years ago, my former secretary was living near and working on a military installation close to the medical center to which I had rushed Doah when I stole him from the hospital in our home town. Having arrived in a distant city and needing to be near Doah, I took a job at the military installation, where my former secretary, Dee, was working. When the hospital released Doah, I needed a place to stay with him; the place I was in would not allow him. Most places did not want to deal with the special medical equipment that Doah needed. Dee learned about this and offered us a bedroom at her house. She was alone because her husband of many years had left her. She welcomed company. And so Doah and I got to know her children and grandchildren, and they got to know us. We became one large family and stayed in touch for years and years until Dee developed a brain tumor.

Like Erin, Dee learned about the tumor when it was already at stage IV. She made a very surprising decision. Rather than going immediately for treatment, she decided to take 6 weeks and visit all her relatives across the country, people she had not seen in years. Living in Massachusetts, she had quite a lot of territory to cover, having relatives in Virginia, Texas, and the Midwest. I was delighted that she included our family among her relatives. Her last stop was at our home in California. She stayed with us for a week, mostly reminiscing since she was too weak to do much sightseeing although we did make it to the wharf and a few other gentle spots. Upon return, her doctor operated on her brain tumor. Dee did not survive the surgery. Somehow, though, it was an amazing end to a life. How many of us get to say good-bye to all those we love? When Dee left my home, she was ready to leave this life, peaceful about whatever alternative presented itself from the brain surgery.

How we die is probably as important as how we live. At some point, we all have to face our own mortality. Clearly, it is not easy. Although we do not yet know what Erin will choose to do, or whether she will beat the odds (we certainly hope God will intervene; sometimes God does do that and has done that very frequently with our family), we want to send Willie and her on a directed spiritual retreat to help her make her choices in a peaceful, beach location and with the help of nuns trained in guiding people in such circumstances. How wonderful that such places exist!

Stay tuned! I will try to provide periodic updates. In the interim, as you feel moved to do, would you please pray for Erin and, if you can, light a candle for her? And if you have experienced this in your family, please share what you have done to support the person struggling with both the news and the medical condition.

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