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Strong side

May 13, 2011

Several Thursdays ago, I flew to Washington to see my sister Rachel. She and our Aunt Beth met me at the airport; we traded updates on friends, cousins and great-aunts, shared noodles over lunch at a Vietnamese place, then shopped in a cute, quirky gift shop that carries assemble-yourself paper robots and sandwich-shaped lunch tins (and those are just the things I bought!). It was a great kickoff to my four-day visit, which we went on to spend mostly on cherry blossoms, good food and late-night movies on demand.

But first, an afternoon appointment at Georgetown University Hospital.

For chemotherapy orientation.

It was March,  Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Or in my case this year, your 26-year-old sister has stage three colon cancer awareness month.

I spent most of it – and much of the time since – in a place near disbelief, asking myself over and over, Did that really just happen? It’s what I wondered when I called her on a Monday after work and she answered from the hospital; when my mother, on the phone with a doctor 1200 miles away, held her hand over the receiver and repeated his best guess; when the diagnosis confirmed it; when, on that Thursday two weeks later, we sat in a small waiting room and read along as a nurse led us through a booklet entitled “Chemotherapy and You.”

Yes, it really did.

I went into Rachel’s chemotherapy orientation intending to hold onto my sense of humor, which is what I use to medicate most difficult situations. We’d both been doing our best to apply sarcasm, buoyancy, fact, distraction and normalcy in just the right doses, but I think I ended up somewhere between acceptance, confidence, and the desperate, frenzied enthusiasm that engulfed our new student orientation in college, which culminated with a theatrical anti-drug interpretive dance to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” (That also really happened.)

At the hospital complex, we deposited the car in a cold maze of a parking garage and made our way to a very small waiting room, whose only other visitor was a very old, very drowsy person who may or may not have intended to be an orientation attendee. Before the oncology nurse got started, we heard from a woman who led a hospital arts program which, though well-meaning and probably wonderful, sounded depressingly like a community service project and was distinctly incongruent with my sister’s age and interests in a way that institutionalized her illness and distressed us. Being invited to imagine Rachel, sitting in the chemo chair and asking to work with a bead artist, brought us to tears. We were actually eager for the transition to infusions and side effects, to flip through our introduction to chemotherapy and her.

What also really happened: Family and friends rallied, lining up to visit her in the hospital and sending fabulous gifts. She recovered from a big surgery with remarkable speed, ready less than two weeks later to drive around the city and walk around the Tidal Basin in the wind and the cold. On my last day in D.C., I went with her to work on her first day back at the office. When we said our goodbyes in the lobby of her building, under the brusque supervision of stern security guards, my sister was the one assuring me she’d be fine. Heading on to the airport after  was easily the hardest part of the trip, which was otherwise just good and fun.

Sure, we spent some time with the booklet,, her pathology report and postponed wedding plans. But we spent more playing word games, drinking milkshakes, watching movies and the NCAA tournament, and buttoning up against the chill to admire the pink and white and green promise of early spring.

My memories of the visit are not full of worry and illness but of triumphant underdogs and pretty flowers, and they’ve buoyed me through a spring that would otherwise have felt weighed down by my powerlessness. As the world shook and swirled and swelled around us, and my toddler learned the word “tsunami” and the face of Qaddafi, we walked along with an ordinary, everyday sort of hope – not the brittle hopefulness of fear disguised, but the simple hope that exists in having expectations and making plans.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2011 12:10 pm

    Wow. I wondered where you’d been. Lots of positive vibes going the way of you, your sister and your family. Beautifully written and beautiful photos.

  2. May 13, 2011 12:13 pm

    Wow. Just…wow. This is such a multi-layered piece, and you write about tough things and cherished things with such a light and beautiful hand.

    I’m thinking of your family. How wonderful that you got to be there for your sister like that. I, too, tend to use humor as a buffer; I’ve spent many days cackling and cracking jokes in waiting rooms. That opportunity for laughter is truly a gift.

  3. May 13, 2011 12:24 pm

    I’ve been MIA from blogland for quite some time. What a post to come back to. The bittersweet in your words resonates with all of us, methinks. How we stand up in the face of our challenges. And how we covet the small things–the milkshakes–and the time spent doing exactly what we should be doing, and exactly what is most important.

    I’m thinking of you, and your sister, and sending out prayers and wishes for health and hope and ease.

  4. May 13, 2011 2:30 pm

    I remember going to a few of my mom’s chemotherapy appointment when she was fighting breast cancer. I tried my best to smile through, even as a young teenager, but it was hard. She’s now been in remission for close to 20 years. And while writing that really made me feel old, it’s also a beautiful, wonderful thing. Cancer can be fought and won. I send your sister so many positive thoughts of hope and health.

  5. May 13, 2011 4:31 pm

    I don’t think I could do anything but cry, at least at first and probably for a long while after. What strength you and Rachel have. I hope her chemo is going well and killing all the things it needs to kill. I think those cherry blossoms are a perfect metaphor … beautiful and resilient even in the midst of bitter cold. I’m thinking of both of you!

  6. May 13, 2011 5:18 pm

    I read this post first thing this morning. And it has stayed with me as I dropped my daughter at school.
    I too was wondering where you were and wished I had reached out to check on you. My apologies for not doing so.
    The hope in this post radiates. I’m thinking of you, your sister and your family. Sending hugs, positive vibes, and strength. xoxo

  7. May 13, 2011 7:19 pm

    I love the pictures Leslie. They are very bright and hopeful. I know what you are going through can’t be easy. I honestly can’t imagine what you must be feeling. Just know that I am here for you in any way that you need me. I will see you on Sunday and we will have a great evening. Feel free to come over and hold and be with Harper whenever you need to. I think she makes you happy as only a little baby can. They are sweet and innocent and full of life – and that is what you need right now. Young, happy life.

    P.S. I saw that same “total eclipse of the heart” performance. Very amusingly awful. Do they still do that? I sure hope not.

  8. May 14, 2011 4:50 am

    Oh, lady. I know some of this due to lots of time spent beside my sister as she prepares for dialysis … but it’s different and more intense and definitely much scarier when facing cancer. At least dialysis can go on for years. My prayers are with you and your family. From one set of sisters to another: You have our hearts.

  9. May 15, 2011 12:24 am

    Please know that your sister and your entire family are in my prayers.

  10. Susan permalink
    May 15, 2011 5:56 am

    Leslie, thanks for allowing us to share in your hope. Love you. Sus

  11. May 15, 2011 9:12 pm

    Leslie – what a beautiful post. You are all in our thoughts and prayers daily.

  12. May 16, 2011 3:13 am

    You write this with such poise. Thoughts and prayers to your sister and family.

  13. May 16, 2011 3:19 am

    Oh my goodness, Leslie. What a shock it must have been to get that news. All good wishes and prayers to Rachel and your family.

  14. May 17, 2011 1:28 am

    Oh, honey. I am so very sorry for you, your sister, and your family. I am speechless. Sending many hugs, prayers, and whatever else you need.

  15. May 17, 2011 1:16 pm

    Leslie, I can’t imagine what you and your family, especially Rachel, must be going through. I’ve wondered about you and missed you in the blogosphere – please know that I’m thinking of you and your sister.

    This beautiful post exudes love, hope and faith in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and I wish all of you that and more. xoxo

  16. May 17, 2011 1:32 pm

    Oh sweetie… I’ve hit “Mark all as read” in my reader too often recently… and I missed this last week. Sending you and yours love and prayers.

  17. May 18, 2011 11:01 am

    Oh Leslie, I am so so sorry, for all of this, for the heartache you must be struggling with, a heartache I know only too well. But I see the optimism and the love between the lines of this post and I think that is a wonderful thing. You are brave to share this with all of us, know that we are all of us here for you. I’m saying a prayer right now.

  18. June 11, 2011 1:31 pm

    What a beautiful post. I’ll be thinking of you and your sister, and hoping the beautiful flowers are a metaphor for her recovery.

  19. jenngator222 permalink
    June 30, 2011 1:15 pm

    Don’t know you, but thinking about you. You haven’t written in a while. . .

  20. November 8, 2011 2:39 pm

    I know it’s been a while, but I just wanted to let you know that your words popped into my mind this morning and I sent up a wish of love for your family. Hope to see you around the web.

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