Coping with cancer became part of our Catholic DNA.
I can not adequately go into the depths of suffering that followed. I can only say that there were estimated dates that came and went. There were feeding tubes and catheters. And there were fevers and infections and pneumonia. But even as all these passed and we watched May evaporate before us, there was no death. Death would not come for her. And this was the hardest part. Death would not come. My brother summed it best when I desperately asked him what we could do? "There is nothing," he said. "We can only watch as it all burns down." And so we did. And every day seemed to be a new, wretched low.
The nadir of this tragedy finally came at the beginning of last year. And that’s when I received the phone call. It was one of those 3:00 a.m. calls when the tone on the other side of the line immediately suggests dour news. I knew immediately that death had finally come. And it did.
It took my mother.
Lessons of my mother
As awful as this sounds, the sudden death of my mother was actually a relief to our family, who were so engulfed in the pain and suffering of my sister. Though we were heartbroken, we were content knowing that she did not live long enough to bury her oldest daughter. It also provided a clear perspective on how to carry forward with our lives. My mother had lived every day like it was her last. She loved every day like it was her last. And she was grateful for every day as if it was her last. Though none of us had the chance to say good bye to her, there was no need. My mother ended every conversation with "I love you." She left nothing unsaid.
With May however, it seemed like everything needed to be said. We all wanted to connect with her so badly, but she didn’t want to let anyone in. And even though we suffered with her, she would not allow us to share her suffering. So as the end neared, we were often shooed away, closed off, left out. This left me particularly embittered. For my entire life, May had been my greatest advocate and confidant, and just I needed her the most, I was losing her. So instead of growing closer to her during her last months of suffering, it seemed we had actually grown apart. And while neither of us ever said anything, the disconnect was something that lingered in the air between us when we were together.
It has been said that the price of love is often suffering. But the power of love is something altogether different. It has the ability to heal all inevitable wounds left behind by suffering — through Christ. My mother was right. She usually was. Each of us who loved May could find the meaning of our own suffering. But to do this, we would not have to fight or fix all the wounds that were building around us. Instead, we would have to do the opposite. We would have to embrace them. And to do this we could not feel slighted by the way May chose to deal with her illness. She was on her own journey. And we would have to love her the way that she was in the end, not how we wanted her to be. After all, the cancer was her’s. It did not belong to us.
End of life
We took shifts watching my sister die. I had the early hours, from about 8:00 a.m. to noon. My brothers, sister and close relatives would take turns throughout the afternoon and May’s husband and kids came at night and stayed with her through the morning. As the end neared, my sister finally acquiesced to the powerful dosages of liquid morphine offered her. But even then, she experienced what the doctors at hospice described as "breakthrough pain." Compounding her suffering was the length of it. Esophageal cancer is notoriously slow-moving. And because May’s heart was still young and strong, she was able to live much longer than was estimated. But this made it all the more heartbreaking. Her one-time beautiful face, sallow and broken. The sinewy frame of her youth now almost diaphanous in its thinness. And that non-stop, sweet voice of hers reduced to silence.
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