The Circle of Life: Not a Disney Movie

(Reposted from somewhere else, sometime else. I guess I’m thinking of her because it’s almost the anniversary of her death. I’m also sick and can’t think straight enough to write a new post. )

On a cold day in April, my daughter and I traveled by car to Minnesota to visit my ailing sister-in-law, Lesley, my daughter’s aunt and my husband’s only sister. Lesley learned just two months before that she had a brain tumor. By the time they got her into surgery, it was worse than the doctors had originally suspected. The tumor was removed, all right, but when she awoke, Lesley had lost the feeling on her right side and was also blind on that side. The prognosis wasn’t good; chemo was scheduled, but it wasn’t to cure her, only to prolong her life.

My husband and daughter had made a trip back in February to see her right after the surgery. It was not a fun time. Lesley was 51, only a few months older than I am. She was possibly one of the most vibrant and hyperactive people you’d ever want to meet. Whirling dervish comes to mind as a description. She would talk a mile a minute, and always had too many things to do. She had her own business, managed her husband’s business, tended to three Dobermans and two homes. To see her reduced to the remnants of cancer wasn’t pleasant for anyone.

My daughter did not want to make the car trip again. First of all, she was bemoaning the fact that it was technically her spring break and all her friends were in sunny Florida. She also was extremely close to her aunt, as they shared a godparent-godchild relationship. She cried a lot during the February visit and didn’t want to be that sad again. Being sixteen, she also flat out told me that she didn’t think she could endure eleven hours in the car with me.

Before I started working in my husband’s business, I would take the kids on long road trips every summer. We’d be gone for three or four weeks, traveling the western US in the minivan. I thought they both enjoyed it, and tried to make things interesting and educational. So when she said she didn’t want to travel with me, I was a little apprehensive as well. Besides that, she was teen-aged and was in the full throes of “I hate mom” mode.

We started out a little late that morning and met with rush hour traffic. My daughter hadn’t slept the night before and was cranky. She tried to bait me into an argument with snide comments on my driving. Being 16, she knew all the rules that I was breaking. Wisely, I didn’t take the bait. By the time we reached Ann Arbor, she decided to do a 180 and spent the next two and a half hours going over the events of the previous summer’s band trip to Europe. This was in blow-by-blow detail, including the intimate flirtations between the band members, her conductor’s inappropriate and bipolar behavior, French cheese and how it stinks, her sometimes-dysfunctional host families, and getting drunk in Luxembourg with people she didn’t know. I can’t believe it even now, but she managed to survive.

To be polite, I would interject with a question here and there, trying to sound like I was interested. (I was interested, but I had already heard this story back in July, when she related the gory details on the return trip home from Chicago.) Eventually, she tired of her summertime recollections and started to sing, and continued to sing for another four hours, non-stop.

This would not be so bad if she was singing ballads or something vaguely harmonic, but she spent those four hours rapping to Ludicris and Fergie. The sad thing is that my daughter really can sing; she’d been taking voice lessons and when she really lets go, she’s as good as any professional out there. She started to dance in her seat as well, doing the “pop, rock and roll,” and started gyrating and waving her hands about, as well as she could do in the confines of a Toyota Prius.

In between all this commotion, and just on the north side of Chicago, I received a phone call from my husband telling me that his sister had taken a turn for the worse. They didn’t think she would last the day. Should I turn around and come home? I was already almost half way there. I tried to hurry without getting a ticket for speeding. My daughter, who had been listening to my side of the conversation, fell silent during the call but not for long. She acquiesced and started putting in CDs from the 70s and 80s-ones she had stolen from me! These included ABBA and Cyndi Lauper. Then she tried to get me to sing with her.

I was not in the singing mood. I was thinking of more serious stuff, like dying too young.

Eventually, I fell under her spell and started to sing along to Cyndi. Back in the day of our three-week road trips, I would make my kids listen to MY music, which back then was oldies and Shania Twain, and sang at the top of my lungs to all the songs. These days, I listen to classical music or talk radio. I haven’t karaoked in years. My singing voice is way out of whack. It was good to sing. Singing kept our minds off of our inevitable destination.

Finally, our destination came into sight. It had been many years since I had last driven toward St. Paul on I-94, and the city looked bigger. By this time, we were in the midst the evening rush hour, and the Spaghetti Bowl was choked with traffic. We drove straight to the house as soon as we arrived in town.

When we entered the house, the scene was worse than I expected. The living room was made into a makeshift hospital room. Lesley had begun to fall into a coma only the previous afternoon. Before that, she had been lucid and speaking. It was amazing how quickly her condition deteriorated. There she was in her hospital bed, her once tall and lanky body now crumpled in a half fetal position. She was struggling to breathe, bald, much thinner than usual, and her eyes were wide open and darting about. All of her life, she had been plagued with psoriasis, but for some strange reason, her skin was perfect, clear and translucent. It seemed soft and fragile, like the leaves of phyllo dough.

We entered the room respectfully and spoke in hushed tones to my brother-in-law, whose eyes were red from too much crying. On the other hand, there was something weirdly polarizing about my 16-year-old, a young girl so obviously full of life, who just hours before was be-bopping in the car, and now she was here in this solemn room, visiting her aunt, who was on the cusp of death.

Though in a coma, I was sure Lesley could still feel and hear. Isn’t that what the doctors tell you? That they can still see and hear? I took her hand, which was blazing hot with fever, and calmly told her we were there. I positioned my face close to hers and stroked her arm as I spoke. My daughter could not bring herself to come close. She started to sob and could only sit in a nearby chair, tissues in hand.

I didn’t really fault my daughter for her resistance to say a final goodbye to her aunt, although I wish she had said something to her, at the very least. I’ve seen death close up several times, and it’s no prettier with each occurrence. As for myself, I am kicking myself all over because I was unable to make the first trip back to Minnesota in February. I could have seen her then, when she still had some of her faculties. I could have had a serious heart to heart with her when she could still understand me. Now I could only tell the shell of her body what I felt and hoped that she was listening.

(Just after writing this paragraph, I received a call from my brother-in-law. Lesley’s struggle was over.)

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5 Responses

  1. (((Pan))) I remember reading this before. It’s still heart wrenching.

    Feel better soon.

  2. Interesting thing…as I sat here reading this, the TV was on. What was on? Diane Sawyer’s interview with Randy Pausch, the professor who gave his “last lecture” in September of last year. That interview with the combination of your post was quite sobering.

    I do remember this before. I needed it again, now.

    Thank you.

    I hope you feel better soon. I’m sick in bed, too.

  3. It sucks to be sick, doesn’t it? But it sucks worse to have cancer.

  4. Pande,

    I’ve been a Doc for many years. Watching folks go through it is harder than it was when I was young, ’cause I’ve gotten to know them so well.

    Hospice has injected some dignity into the process, but it is still difficult.

    Sometimes people tell me they want a natural death. My response is that is sort of like natural childbirth- it sounds romantic till you get in the middle of it. I’ve never done the childbirth thing, but my wife did, so as for me I’ll take whatever medicine and Hospice can do for me when the time comes.

    I hope she had peace, comfort, and dignity.

    Dr. B

  5. Thanks, Doc. I think she did!

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