Sunday, April 12, 2009

Chocolate Bunnies

Life is too short for holding grudges, for unkindness, for ill-will, for being mean. Life is just too short for - well, life's too short, and then you die.

Jim's sister, two years older than I am, has been diagnosed with a second form of blood cancer, in addition to the leukemia whose recurrence was diagnosed in November. It's not just "leukemia" - there are different types, and Jim's mom mentioned the name, but I don't remember what it was. She was cured a couple of years ago, after receiving a bone marrow transplant from Jim's stem cells. But cancer, like the cat, came back. She's far too weakened from double pneumonia (a little "oops" from her chemotherapy) for them to treat the new problem. It's not likely she has much time.

So Jim's family gathered in Houston for Easter, and I went with Jim and my daughters to see Debby. She was the one who introduced us in the first place. I used to work with her, at Sematech, in the 1990's. Cute girl, outgoing, exubuerant, lots of pretty, curly, dark hair, but she was in a lousy situation: waiting for a lease to expire, she was still living with a guy who had broken up with her, so the juxtaposition of our situation on hers is a little ironic, maybe. Short as it may be, life abounds with odd little coincidences. Jim's family has not been told we have been (to all intents and purposes) separated for years now, though obviously they've noticed I never show up for Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or other family gatherings. They were surprised to see me for Easter.

Unmercifully, her brain remains clear and alert, though her physical body has become a liability. She can't speak, because she had a tracheostomy to get her through the pneumonia. Her skin is dry, flaking, blistering. She can barely use her hands: they are weak, and shake uncontrollably. She uses a suction tube frequently to remove bile from her mouth. She's in diapers. There are tubes into her nose, her throat, and her arms. But when Jim bumbles into the room, knocking over the box of surgical masks by the door and blowing into his gloves in a ridiculously futile effort to get them comfortably onto his hands, she laughs.

Her 9-year-old daughter hasn't been told that her mom won't be getting better and coming home this time. Debby asked her next younger sister to break the news. Of course, the little girl knows - people know things. This is one reason it's always better to be honest. She refuses to go to the hospital to visit, and it's not hard to understand.

Visiting is hard. It's hard to act normal, to talk cheerfully in a surgical mask and latex gloves, to someone who looks like a caricature of the someone you once went out clubbing with. But it's stupid to talk about little else besides the amusing fart noises you can make with the gloves. So I talk about the kids playing in mud puddles after the freaky Easter morning rainstorm, or about how once I was forced to sit through Oprah and Oprah brought a puppy on her show and proved herself to be, beyond question, the single most annoying human being on the face of the earth. Occasionally Debby tries to join in the conversation and I can't understand her. Cracking a joke? Asking for her blanket? Needing the nurse? Debby is frustrated.

But goodbye is the awful part. I do understand when Debby mouths, "You can go, you don't have to stay." It's late and we have to drive back to Austin. How horrible to leave her there to the nurses and to the sad little thing her life has become. No one deserves this, no one. Debby was a demanding patient from the very first, before she really got sick, tending to overstate her pain and even - to use her own phrase - "playing the leukemia card" to get her way, and the nurses know this. So now, they take their time answering the frequent summons from her call button, and are a bit brusque when they deal with her. I feel like shaking them.

We say goodbye and she cries, and Katie and I cry though we've been trying really hard to project good cheer. "I love you so much, I love you so much," she is whispering. We tell her we love her, and blow kisses - you can't touch her - and leave, stripping off our gloves and masks, to reenter the normal world outside the hospital doors where the bright afternoon sun is setting, where Debby can't go. Driving back to Austin, I glanced at the speedometer several times to find I was pegging ninety. I get to leave.

Life's too short. But knowing that isn't enough.

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At April 13, 2009 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ohh Elizabeth, I am so sorry.
Damn Cancer!! I hope you are doing okay and I hope Debby doesn't suffer too much.


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