This is Part 2 of yesterday’s post:
The results came back…breast cancer.
I remember thinking that I have not seen my daughter or other family members in 15 months and now I have to tell them that I have cancer. I shared it with one of my best friends from the military first; it was then that she told me my favorite sister had also been diagnosed while I was overseas. She had demanded that no one including my mother tell me since I was in a combat zone and my mind needed to be on what I was doing. I was furious with her because my mother had done the same thing when I was in college; she was diagnosed with lung cancer and did not want me to drop out and come home; here we go history repeating itself. I could not say the words outright to my mother.
She was watching TV, the Kobe Bryant trial; funny how your mind remembers irrelevant things, I asked her if would she mind if I turned the TV down? She said “no” I handed her the books that the Oncologist had given me. She looked so sad and said that she already knew; apparently, she and my sister knew the signs. I think that I was in denial, my mantra was: ”I do not have time for this and it is not on my checklist, I have things to do.” My first surgery in July 2004 was a lumpectomy. I thought that I was good to go.
My mother thought that it would be nice to join some friends at their vacation home in The Outer Banks of North Carolina; she, Eboni and I took a nice leisurely drive down and had a wonderful time. We were so carefree, although she would not let me (I was 44 mind you) drive a jetski. We were preparing to come back to Maryland when she said that she wanted to go visit her hometown in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I thought what a wonderful vacation, from the beach to the mountains. If I had only known what the next several months would bring! We returned to Maryland to more bad news. I needed to have the right breast removed as soon as possible, the cell walls were dirty, so in August 2004 I had the right breast removed.
My chemotherapy would start soon after and that is when I started journaling. My Psychologist suggested it. I still was not taking this disease seriously. I guess I was in denial. In my mind: God you know that I have to take care of Eboni, so this has to be a mistake. I had a grandmother, Mama Midget, who wrote in her journal all of the time. The chemotherapy made me so sick and put me in a wheelchair at one time. According to my journal on December 3, 2004, I was sitting in my bed and asked GOD if he would please take me right then because I could not stand the pain any longer. On Dec 8th, I received news that I did not need chemo any longer. What a difference five days made.
Christmas was tiring; although nice. I got on the train and went home to NY to visit my daughter (my parents were taking care of her) and other family and friends. January 2005, more bad news, the left breast needed to be removed along with my ovaries. The surgery was scheduled for Feb 2005; my mother and daughter came down to be with me. The pain from the surgery was unbearable for some reason coming out of recovery; the morphine pump was not working, I remembered reaching out and calling “mommy” to my mother who was walking beside the gurney, along with one of my friends. I was trying to tell them that I was in pain. I was in the hospital for a week before they let me come home.
My mother was with me every day. I saw her sitting on my stairs one day and asked her what was wrong, she said that she did not feel well and was cold. I thanked her for staying with me; however, she needed to go home and see her doctor. My last vivid memory of her in my home is sitting by my bed and holding my hand; I was crying because I had a migraine that felt like my head was splitting open and I could not mix the narcotics. In March my colon shut down. I did not know what was going on except that I was vomiting through my nose; I called my mother to ask if it was normal? She said “no” and to get to the hospital. I went back to the hospital the next day and was admitted for several days. I was so tired of doctors, hospitals, pain and the side effects from the chemotherapy, to include losing ALL of my body hair, from head to toe.
A few weeks went by and I had a strong desire to go home. I called my mother on a Tuesday and she said “no” you are too weak. We argued and I said that I was coming anyway after my doctor’s appointment that week. On Thursday I received a phone call from my father telling me that my mother was in ICU. I told him that I would be there by 9:00 Saturday morning on the train. I knew that I could not drive. I caught the early train Saturday morning. I just knew that I would be there by 9:08 and that I could walk the two blocks to the hospital.
Well, the universe was conspiring against me. All of a sudden the train stops with a squealing of the brakes. A Wild Turkey has flown into the engineer’s compartment and busted the front window of the train. The engineer was fine: however, the turkey died and there were blood and feathers all over the compartment.
All of the passengers had to be offloaded by the side of the tracks until another engine could be brought on the tracks. I remember thinking to myself, “this cannot be happening and this must be what the exodus out of Egypt looked like“. I finally got home to NY and to the hospital. My father stopped me at the door to my mother’s room and told me to prepare myself; that she did not look like the mother I knew. I walked into her room and was in shock; I could literally see the bones through her skin. I wondered “how” someone could deteriorate so much in two months. She needed open heart surgery which she had agreed too. She would have to be moved to another hospital; I rode with her in the ambulance and she wanted to know if we were still going to Italy. I told her that if she just got better we could go anywhere that she liked. During this time after a series of medical tests to prepare for the surgery; a duodenum ulcer burst. She had to have emergency surgery for that. When the doctors came out of the operating room, they informed us that the surgery had been successful; however, she was too weak for the heart surgery. Their exact words were “she has lost a lot of blood, we are not going to put her or this family through this; we know that we will lose her on the table.” When she came too for awhile the entire family was there. From the moment my mother entered that hospital she was never alone.
My sister, who was also diagnosed with cancer a year before I was, she and I took turns staying with her overnight while my father worked and took care of my daughter and nephew. The staff would make us leave for an hour to give her rest. I still remember the last conversation I had with her. She told me that she knew I was angry with her that we could not do the things we used to do, museums, restaurants, going to Hudson Park to eat our lunch and just talk and shopping at her favorite store, Lord and Taylors.
She said that she understood how I felt because when her mother became ill before she passed away, she had the same feelings. I told her that I just wanted my “old” mother back, I would buy her anything and take her any place. She just looked at me and said “she can’t come back this time” I said you can beat this. You beat cancer’s butt four times.” She just smiled, she had a beautiful smile. I took her hand looked in her eyes and said: “Do you know how much I love you?” She just smiled. That was the last conversation we had. My mother passed away the next day. I was holding her hand, turned away for a second to say something to my sister, when I turned back, I was not sure that she was gone. I remember that my father and daughter had just left the hospital room and we had to call them back.
My daughter is small, 5’1; so the sound that came out of her had to come from her soul. I could not comfort her. It was my 13-year-old nephew that had the presence of mind to wrap his arms around her. I held it together and told everyone to say their goodbyes. I told my father to take my daughter home and that I would ride with one of my brothers. Once everyone left I climbed up onto the bed with my mother and started stroking her hair and talking to her about our trip to Italy and other parts of Europe. The nurses came in and tried to get me to leave, I told them that I could not leave her by herself. I heard someone come into the room and looked up. It was my youngest brother; he told me that he had a feeling I was not going to leave.
I found out from friends two years after my mother had passed that she had asked them to look after me. That she would be able to get me through the first operations; however, she would not be there to see me through. During my second operation, my youngest sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were both having operations on the same day. Three sisters with breast cancer at the same time in three different states; No parent should have to deal with that. How do you decide which child to go to? My journey was a long one with several health issues. I thought it was going to be a sprint; however, it has been a marathon. My mother made it look so easy. It wasn’t.
Looking back through my journal brought back so many memories. I was really in a dark place for a long time. I thought there would be some light in all of this darkness. There were some “sunny” days. Of course, life was just giving me a slight break. During this time I experienced the death of friends; one from cancer, I was in her hospital room reading to her when I had to leave for what I thought would be no longer than about an hour for some blood work. The test took longer than I thought; on my way back to her room, my cell phone rang, it was one of my friends who asked where I was. I told her that I was on my way back to Marcia’s room. She told me that Marcia had passed away while I was waiting on my test. Two grandmothers; including Mama Midget an uncle, an aunt and a first cousin also passed away, three from cancer.
About three years ago, family and friends noticed that Eboni’s persona was changing. She was becoming withdrawn, and was not really interacting with anyone and was losing interest in her music, dancing, and computer. I took her to her doctor, who wanted to check her thyroid and hearing. She was diagnosed with hypothyroidism and a slight hearing loss. No problem, these are things that can be fixed. She continued to withdraw, her doctor recommended that she see a psychiatrist, maybe she is depressed about something. She saw the psychiatrist for about six months, and was on all of the different antidepressant medications; no change. Finally, her psychiatrist recommended that she see a neurologist because she was not responding to the medications.
Thank God for the military and my medical benefits. She sees a wonderful neurologist and has had a series of tests done. When I was given her diagnosis, I was in a state of shock. My “baby” was in the predementia stage. She is just a baby, only 34, how can that be?? I don’t know if I cried, I am not a crier; however, I think something just froze up in me. I asked myself those questions that I am sure other people do when they are being tested: “Why me?” “What did I do?” “I am a good person” “I try to be a blessing to other” “I do not bother anyone” etc…etc…etc I remember being in so much pain, that I walked into the chapel at the hospital, called my youngest brother and told him that I just wanted to die. I do not remember what his response was. I do remember my mother saying to me one time “If you think that God does not have a sense of humor, try making plans for your life” She also used to say “This Too Shall Pass.” So I took a deep life sigh and said I will figure this out.
My sister Loretta was a tremendous help with Eboni. She worked with stroke patients on a rehabilitation at Burke Rehabilitation Center. She would play games with her, like Operation, take her walks to give me a break, act silly, send her cards in the mail with money and long notes, all of the silly loving things that aunts do.
Eboni used to say, “Aunt Retta talks a lot” and she was right. My sister never met strangers and believed that everyone had some good in them; she never met strangers. It used to be exasperating going places with her because she always had to stop and talk to people. We used to tease her that she was going to be late for her own funeral because she was still going to be talking. Retta loved church and her job. I would always think what a blessing to have a job that you truly love. The only things she would be on time for was church and work. The last time I saw my sister was June 2016.
Eboni and I had gone home to New York for Father’s Day. Loretta, Eboni and I decided to play tourist with my dad around New York City. We did the tour bus and had dinner in Times Square, it was such a good day. The next day we took my dad out to brunch with other family members. Loretta, Eboni and I decided to take a walk down to Hudson Park on the Long Island Sound, it was my mom’s and Retta’s favorite place. We had such a beautiful time; of course, she started talking to someone that she did not know. Apparently, the girl was pregnant and missing her mother who had passed away. By the time Retta finished talking to and comforting her, the girl was smiling. When Loretta took us to the train station the next day, she asked if we could stay longer, both Eboni and I had appointments so we had to leave. I told her that we would be back in September for one of my aunt’s 65th birthday party and one year anniversary from breast cancer. We already had our pink dresses for the party. We hugged each other and said, I love you. We always ended our conversations that way. I spoke to her several more times during the following weeks.
I will never forget the night time phone call on the 17th of July 2016.
I had just finished speaking to one friend at 10:20, who had called to tell me that another friend had just been put into hospice. I thought to myself, but I just saw her two months ago, we both had hospital appointments; we decided that we would go to hospice and see her the next evening. The next phone call came in at 11:45. There was so much crying on the other end. I knew from caller Id, who it was; I just could not understand what was being said. One of my cousins was calling to tell me that our family home was on fire. I started making phone calls to Loretta. I reached a cousin who lives near me by mistake. I could tell that I had awakened him. I do not know how that happened, she had a NY number and this was a Connecticut number.
I kept calling her and leaving messages to call me. The next phone call came in at 3:35 am from another cousin telling me that the house was on fire, I knew this, and that they could not find my sister. At this point in time, the fire was being posted on Facebook and reported by the local news channels. I was still calling her number. I received the news that my nephew and father had escaped, although they were injured, they had to climb out of a third-floor window onto a burning roof, jump down to the second-floor roof and climb down a tree. My father fell and was injured internally, he was also burned and had to have a skin graft, his kidneys were injured in the fall and he was already on chemotherapy for multiple myeloma.
My nephew sustained third-degree burns to the soles of his feet and arms. The most devastating phone call came at 5:35, my youngest brother called and said three words “it’s not good.” I said, “what do you mean” that is when he told me “they found sis’s body.” I remember screaming and throwing the phone. I heard him say, I am on my way. The next few hours went by in a blur. Friends and family were over, I remember him just holding me and rocking me while I cried. My friends took over from there. My hands shake when I think about it. According to the firemen, they found her in her bed, she died in her sleep. Her death certificate read death by flames and carbon monoxide. I remember just yelling at God “how could this happen?” she was in church this morning, at work this evening and now she is dead. There would be no goodbyes, no last look into the eyes letting her know how much she was loved.
Loretta had sat with me when I wrote my mother’s obituary; my dad and other siblings were not in any shape to do it; she took care of me when I was going through my cancer treatments, although she was only a year away from her diagnosis, she gave me a break from being a 24-7 caretaker when I needed it.
Loretta was the nurturer and caregiver. She was the one that visited everyone in the nursing homes and if you were with her she dragged you along also. Her death, the loss of the family home for 50 years and the injuries to my dad and nephew left no one in shape to work on the obituary except for myself. Whenever I asked, everyone said whatever you want to write. She died in July; however, we had to wait until September for my father to get out of the hospital and for both he and my nephew to be capable of wearing shoes for her Memorial Service. It was my father’s wish. I feel like the last 12 years I have spent being angry. I still get ready to pick up the phone and call her when I am going into my garden. Her number is still in my contact, sometimes I want to call it and see if anyone answers.
I still have my mother’s number on my phone and she has been gone 12 years now. There used to be three sets of sisters; they were all cousins. Three of them are gone. The three remaining sisters have other siblings; however, it is not the same. The three sets of sister’s names were always called in pairs; Robynn & Retta, Toni & Gloria, Brenda & Belinda. My cousin Toni thinks of Gloria as being on a long vacation, she had to have a closed casket funeral. I do not know what I think. Loretta always wanted to be cremated at her ashes scattered on the outgoing tide and that is what we did; however, it took us a year to set her remains free. I just do not know when the anger would go away. We were brought up in church and that is where Retta spent the morning that she died; however, it has been extremely hard for me to go back. My last entry in my journal was 21 July 2015 and nothing has changed.