Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Goodbye

Audrey just before port surgery a few months ago.
My family has had a rather rough year, but the last few weeks have been absolutely crazy. Saturday, we said goodbye to the matriarch of the family, my 94-yr-old great aunt, Blanche, who died a few days after suffering a massive stroke. In four days, we will do it again for my Blanche's youngest daughter, Audrey. She died on Christmas Day from cancer metastasis.

My Aunt Audrey was diagnosed with breast cancer almost a year to the day before I was. Like me, she'd had a history of breast cysts and, like me, she was diagnosed relatively early and received radiation. While I opted for a bilateral mastectomy, she'd had a lumpectomy instead.

Ten years later, she had a new primary - a stomach tumor that made its presence known when my aunt started having extreme fatigue and anemia. She was diagnosed Stage IV from the beginning and shortly after, a spread to her liver and pancreas were discovered.

Cancer is a mean, evil, bird-flipping witch. Through the neuropathy-inducing chemo and regular blood transfusions, the tumor never even simmered down. It just continued to wreck havoc on first her digestive system and then the rest of her body. Because her stomach was so damaged, eventually a feeding tube was inserted. She lost a ton of weight, spent many days and nights in the hospital before the doctors declared that she'd exhausted all of her treatment options and suggested the family call Hospice.

Still, the flood of people who came to see her never stopped. And on days when she seemed the furthest away, any familiar co-worker, church member or neighbor's face in the doorway made her brighten up in ways that can't even be explained.

The view from her window the day she passed.
My son and I stopped by last Sunday and she talked to us a bit, asking him if he had any money (knowing he's in college, she always asked him the same question when she saw him) and me if I'd cut my hair (like she did almost every time she greeted me). Then she told me "If I'm here on Thursday…" before her voice sort of trailed off. I know she said more, but it didn't register. It felt like I'd been doused with a bucket of cold water.

When we stopped by on Christmas Eve, she was practically catatonic. Her breathing was very labored and her heart-rate was extremely rapid. I knew it would be the last time I would be able to see and talk to her. While I was sitting at her bedside, I saw a little phrase printed on the pajamas she was wearing: "The day is done." Twelve hours later, her day ended. Her daughter-in-law who was next to her said that she just stopped breathing. She would have been 66 in February.

Audrey and her oldest son, Melvin Jr  (Mick).
Hers was the sixth obituary for a family member I'd help put together. It never gets easier - and not just because high school graduation dates and how long a specific company was worked for get forgotten, but because it is just so bloody hard to sum up someone's life in a few paragraphs. Everyone has bits of extraordinary in their lives. It is very difficult to drop a sentence about a childhood or another about a career without making their life read like an anecdote. It seems that no matter how beautiful the prose, the words that paint the picture of who the person was to those who may only have known her during one brief part of it always ring hollow. And it is hard not to wonder what they may have wanted you to include or take out.

My aunt was a mother, a teacher, a devoted church member, a musician, a civil rights activist, a wife, a woman with amazing legs who had no problem telling it like it was, a person who cared about others almost as much as she cared about herself - and then some. And I'm sure there are things she did, thought about, wished for, planned to do and felt deeply about that we, her family and friends, never even knew about.

Every once in a while, she'd call me "Miss Militant" mostly because of my views on women in society and things like the terrible connotation of "good" hair in the Black community. Even before I first started teaching as an adjunct, she was the one person who called me "Professor." One of my biggest cheerleaders, she always made me feel extremely special and like I could do anything on the planet if I wanted to badly enough. "Nothing surprises me anymore. Nothing at all," she told me once. I don't even remember what we were talking about, but I do remember how surprised I was that my fabulous aunt was so, well, jaded.

She and my mom, Maxine, grew up as sisters. They were the children of two sisters, but my grandmother had left their tiny North Carolina town - and her daughter - behind to find a job in the big city (New York City, that is). My mom was one of nine kids Aunt Blanche and her mother, my great-grandma Pearlie, raised together in the Jim Crow-era south. My mom considered all of her cousins siblings, and I always considered Blanche my third grandmother.

Melvin and Audrey say "I Do!"
A few years back, I interviewed Audrey and her hubby, Melvin, for a relationship article I was writing. At the time, they'd been married for over 40 years, but the interview revealed how they met: when my uncle dared his friend to smack Audrey on the butt while they were all in an elevator together. When his friend accepted the dare, Audrey thought it was Melvin who'd gotten so friendly with his hands - and she smacked him. He tried to tell her it was his friend who had goosed her, but she barely let him get a word in edgewise. As fate would have it, they were going to the same place: the apartment of my Aunt Paulette - who was married to Melvin's friend, Lonnie. There are no accidents, I suppose…

A photo and card left on her dresser Christmas morning.
As her immediate family is overwhelmed with the shear amount of things that have to be done, I offered to help put together a board of photos for  Audrey's viewing/wake and funeral. As much of my family is staying in town between the two services, we had a blast looking through Audrey's photo albums and seeing pictures of her - and us - after Blanche's service. We found some of Audrey doing "circle time" with the pre-schoolers she taught. We found some of her in a beautiful, little black dress, playfully showing a little leg for the camera. We found some of her pregnant and on bed rest with her youngest, Courtney. We spent lots of time huddled around Audrey's dining room table laughing about times that seemed like they happened just yesterday.

But a few yesterdays ago, she was here with us - then on Saturday, she wasn't. All of my family is feeling her absence this week. All of us are dreading the difficulty that will be Friday's service. All of us are hating cancer very much right now.

We already  miss you, auntie...

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Farmageddon 2013

Sampson, Susan, Bren, Me, Amy, Linda, Layne, Ann,
Rosemary, Tricia, Leslie, Glenna and Sandy
Last weekend was one of the best I'd spent with friends in a long time. I traveled to a horse farm outside of Baltimore to hang with 11 women I'd "met" on an Internet message board for breast cancer survivors. Before the trip, I'd only met two of them in person.

We came from different parts of the US and Canada. Some of us are urban dwellers while others of us are suburbanites. Most of us are done with active treatment while some of us are not. We are married, divorced and single - with children and without. We all share an affinity for liberal politics and chocolate - but were it not for breast cancer, we probably would never have met each other.

Much of our time together was spent taking pictures, eating and chatting. We talked to each other and we talked via phone, FaceTime and Skype with those in our little group who were unable to join us physically. We also talked a lot about the Zimmerman verdict, the messy art of eating steamed crabs and why tequila is sometimes a very necessary way to bond with sister-friends. Once in a while, a treatment or diagnosis story found its way into the conversation, but it wasn't a real focal point.

The trip was planned for months before we actually got together, and in the interim between all the "Hey, we should get together soon!" and the "What time should we plan to arrive?" talk, our host-to-be got some not-so-good news regarding a cancer progression. While we wondered if it was a good idea to still have our pow-wow or not, our host and her family insisted that we come to enjoy each other's company and take our sister's mind off the news, if only for a weekend. Hence the tequila.

This weekend, after digesting more bad news from our host, another of our sisters and yet another sister's husband, we all seem to be trying to hold on to the energy and serenity our time together created. I can't speak for the rest of the group, but I know I'm having a really hard time with that.

Hearing about anyone having to go another round with this beast is so very disheartening - but when it's someone you know and love, it's much worse. It's hard not to feel totally helpless and ineffective when cancer rears its ugly head again and treatment options and their side-effects start being discussed. For me, not screaming and throwing things has proven to be tough, as has not think of exactly how lives will be altered from the news. Tough to forget that the sneaky bitch that is cancer can reach out and grab any of us again - because it has.

Knowing full well that sugar-coated crap is still just as shitty, I didn't really think we'd be saying "Cheese!" when we posed for group photos. On the count of three, we yelled "Fuck Cancer!" instead.

Fuck cancer, indeed.