To Everything, There Is a Season
“I just love the spring!” Sue proclaimed, arms outstretched, reaching for the sky. “It makes me feel so alive!”
She gathered her bathrobe around her and walked past her April calendar and her cheerful “Why Do When You Can Overdo” sign in her kitchen. Outside, the warblers and goldfinches were gathered at her many bird feeders, pausing for respite during their annual migration. The frogs had already brought in the new day with their guttural songs, toning like Tibetan monks to praise the morning. She walked past the bird and prairie wildflower books lying open on the kitchen table and the bookshelves brimming with classics, novels, and stargazing books and headed back to her comfy living room chair to gaze out on the landscape toward the lake.
By mid-May, sister Sue would join the Great Migration.
Like a summer thunderstorm in the Midwest, sometimes there is little warning.
To those paying attention, there may be a distant rumble of thunder. Then the wind will switch, the temperature will drop, and soon, a relentless curtain of rain appears, drenching all in its wake. You can panic and try to lash down the kayak and bring in the lawn chairs. Or you can wait it out, realizing there are things beyond our control.
Sue had left a phone message asking my husband, Tom, and me to call that night after we tucked our son into bed.
Both Sue and Kevin got on the phone. Something was very wrong.
The wind started to shift.
Sue cleared her voice. She said that a biopsy had revealed she had breast cancer.
The torrent was fast approaching.
My heart was pounding. “The surgeon thinks I should have a mastectomy right away,” Sue said. “I would like everyone to please be with me at the hospital.” Sue never asked others to do things for her. Of course, we would be there.
I dashed out into the storm to tie everything down. The waves were rolling over the dock, and it was getting slippery. Suddenly, a crack of lightning pierced the sky. I had to do something. A gust of wind hurled a life jacket off the boat and into the water. I reached down, and a whitecap snatched it away from my grasp. Why, oh, why?
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop looking for more information on breast cancer. How could this be? It only happens in TV shows. Sue had done all the health things she was supposed to do—had her checkups and mammograms. She was smart and well-read.
“Shouldn’t you get a second opinion? Do you need the mastectomy?”
“I just want to be rid of this,” my dear sister said.
How can this be happening?
Storms, crises, and tragedies are inevitable for us all.
So how do we make it through those times when we feel our hearts breaking?
We Can Show Up
Show up for your loved ones. Be there in mind and body. Be there, even knowing it will hurt, because who wants to see a loved one suffer? But know that it will make a difference. Showing up means being there throughout the inevitable roller coaster of life.
As a family, we didn’t have a tradition of openly demonstrating our emotional support for one another. Oh, we would hug, kiss, and gather for important holidays and events. But if we were hurting, we would walk that path on our own, like a Native American elder walking away solo to her deathbed. My sisters and their families lived in different cities, so when Sue asked us all to be there for her breast cancer surgery, it was nothing short of a miracle that everyone was there. We all just showed up in that hospital room.
Sue said she would lead the prayer. We all bowed our heads and remained quiet. She will be okay, I thought. She is my big sister.
The nurse came to take her to surgery, and there was a jumble of hugs and kisses. Prayers. And waiting. And prayers and waiting and waiting some more. My mom had quit smoking, so cigarettes were no longer a solace. Out came the tiny chocolate bars and then a book for diversion.
After an eternity in the waiting room, the surgeon opened the door, glanced at everyone, and asked Kevin to step into the hallway. The surgeon felt things went well, Kevin later told all of us. She had removed Sue’s entire left breast and felt confident that it was an early-stage tumor. Chances for a long life multiply if there is early detection.
We all breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The Waiting Rooms
Our next goal was to get Sue home and comfortable and keep her free of infection and lymphedema. She was a great patient. She had done lots of research and followed the American Cancer Society’s Reach for Recovery aftercare instructions.
We all tried to focus on her care rather than worrying about the upcoming pathology report.
Five long days later, Sue received the results. The pathology report showed that the tumor was twice as large as initially estimated. In addition, cancer was in eight of eleven lymph nodes tested. That meant cancer had advanced elsewhere in her body.
Shock and disbelief.
We were told that her cancer stage would be determined by how far the tumor had permeated. However, that would require more tests. And Sue needed to heal from the surgery before tests could be done.
Sue didn’t talk about how it had felt to lose her breast. Instead, she focused on recovery and suggested we all do that too. It was painful and exhausting to recover from the surgery, but Sue didn’t complain. She had always been physically strong. Sue amazed us as teenagers when she waterskied around the entire lake while the rest of us dropped after a few crisscrosses over the boat wake. She hopped on her bike after school and took thirty-mile trips before supper.
Sue would be okay. She had always been tough.
I tried to corral my mind if it started to slip into what-if questions. I focused on learning more about breast cancer since we had no family history. Reliable, user-friendly information was not widespread on the internet; there was no Google then. It took going to the library and bookstores and talking with medical professionals.
Sue already had some resources because she felt it was important to know about her health. We worried Mom could get lung cancer from smoking, but our family had no cancer history. As I learned more about breast cancer, lots of questions surfaced. Why hadn’t a biopsy been done after Sue repeatedly expressed concerns? Why hadn’t other tests been done before a significant disfiguring surgery like a mastectomy? I had lots of questions.
I wanted to support my sister and thank the surgeon, so I tagged along to her follow-up appointment. I thought it was odd the surgeon didn’t make eye contact with me even though I introduced myself and said thanks when we shook hands. She quickly looked at Sue’s incision and wrapped up the brief meeting with the assurance that Sue was stage 2 at most. We both thanked her for her care.
I headed back home. Time was passing. We tried to go about our daily lives while waiting until Sue had healed enough to have further tests to determine the stage. The stage, 0–4, reflects how far cancer has spread and helps the oncologist assess treatment. There are charts and diagrams to correlate the stage and prognosis, but I avoided them. My sister didn’t fit any charts.
More time passed. Sue went in for the tests. More waiting.
And then the phone call. It was Sue and Kevin, not just Sue.
I could sense fast-moving black clouds starting to gather, like a Midwestern storm front suddenly appearing out of nowhere. “It’s stage four,” Sue said quietly.
It was like a swirling, churning mass of black clouds suddenly dropping out of the sky and onto the ground. This spiraling twister randomly leveled houses, downed power lines, and ripped trees out by their roots. Our lives were changed forever.