My brother and sister-in-law, after living their entire lives in one city, retired to Arizona two months ago. They planned to enjoy the climate, mountains and people; vacation in San Diego; visit friends in Los Angeles; explore the West and experience our country’s wonderful national parks. In the end, only moving to Arizona would come to pass.
As they drove into their new neighborhood, just outside Tucson, my sister-in-law began complaining of terrible stomach pain. An emergency room visit ensued. Gall bladder issues were the culprit. A stint was put in. Two days later, the moving truck arrived and she got busy unpacking, unwrapping, and putting away. Her pain persisted.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just a few weeks later, my sister-in-law started on chemo the very next morning following her initial appointment with the oncologist. There were no mountains of reasonable doubt to transverse. We all knew, but didn’t say, what was baked into the diagnosis: a death sentence.
We asked my brother the obvious question, “How long?”
My brother answered, “Six months without chemo. One year with.”
It was a toxic stew of circumstances any way you swiveled the rubric cube: New town. Thousands of miles from family. Devastating diagnosis.
Our family dug in. We called each other often, texted throughout the day and dialogued about how we could make her remaining time and my brother’s remaining time with her as pleasant and as least stressful as possible.
After the diagnosis, I had been in close contact with my brother daily, but kept putting off calling my sister-in-law. What do you say to someone who has just been delivered such bad news? One morning, consumed with guilt over my shameless procrastination, I decide to make the leap, figuring if I could just get over the initial call, subsequent ones would go more smoothly.
She answered the phone after a few rings. “Karen,” I said softly, “it’s Iris.”
“Hi, Iris,” she said calmly.
I took a deep breath and hoped that what I said next wouldn’t come across as totally crass, but would serve as an ice breaker – which is what I intended.
“Karen, you will just do anything to get attention!” I yelled out. “And this is a topper.”
There was silence.
And more silence.
Then I heard her familiar throaty laugh. “Oh Iris, only you could come up with that!”
And I knew it was going to be okay between us. How could it not? She was a well melded trifecta of brains, spunk and practicality. A staunch advocate for my brother and a loyal, non-judgmental family member to all of us.
I started immediately knitting a prayer shawl for her in purple and red. I finished it right before Thanksgiving and left it on my dining room table. I planned to mail it to her when I got back from my Thanksgiving travels.
My son, Sam, came up with the idea to send a Netflix gift card for a full year of TV watching to his aunt from him and his brothers. He planned to send it when he got back from his Thanksgiving travels too.
My sister-in-law went out shopping the day before Thanksgiving. And even though clumps of hair had begun to fall out when she was brushing, she was feeling fine. Thanksgiving was spent with some new friends. Friday, she tackled more unopened boxes in the morning and spent the afternoon reading out on their back patio – soaking in the sunshine and gazing at the panoramic view of the Santa Rita Mountains.
Saturday afternoon – following Thanksgiving – the first text came through from my brother: Today has not been good for Karen. Dizziness. Weakness. Jaundice back. We will be calling the doctor on Monday.
Saturday evening: In the hospital: Severe pain. She’s having an acute heart attack. Very serious.
Saturday night: Just spoke with the cardiologist. The good news is that it’s not the heart. It’s doing the best it can. The problem is blood. She has 30% of the blood she should have. In ICU. Getting a transfusion.
Sunday – 1am: Giving her another transfusion. It’s touch and go. She is very weak. Giving her a third transfusion. The doc thinks the blood loss is somewhere in the gastrointestinal area, but can’t give her another scope until she is stabilized.
Sunday – 4:21am: On full life support. Continues to bleed. Blood pressure is 60/22.
Sunday – 5:33am: Blood pressure is 45/14.
Sunday – 6:40am: She’s gone.
It just reinforces what we all know, but seldom acknowledge: We plan. G-d laughs.
Iris Ruth Pastor