It’s been some time since I have posted here. I’ve written a couple of posts, but I’ve kept them private, for my eyes only, telling myself that they weren’t quite ready for public consumption. Now I believe that it was more that I wasn’t quite ready to share them. I’m still not ready, so for now they’ll remain private.
John Lennon once said that “Life happens when you’re busy making other plans”, and in some mystical union with the cosmos, I suppose that’s what happened to my family and me this summer. It’s one we won’t soon forget, and it isn’t over. In thinking of that quote often this summer, I realized that though John Lennon might have meant differently, I believe it is God who happens while we’re making our other plans. After all, is God not the creator of our lives? God happens by making His presence known.
In early June my younger sister, my only sibling, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Alarmed doesn’t begin to describe our reaction. She lives about two and a half hours down Interstate 10 from me, so not far enough to keep me from being with her for the surgery. In fact, I’d already been with her for a previous surgery about 18 months before, though that one had nothing to do with cancer. But, as Lennon famously said, plans sometimes don’t necessarily work out.
One of our daughters and her husband with their three children, 9 years old and under, currently live in Malaysia. They visit every summer and at Christmas. We live our days looking forward to these visits, and their arrivals in Houston are grandly anticipated for months by the whole extended family. My husband and I, the grandparents, always, always meet them at the airport. There’s nothing quite like seeing a grandchild run to your arms with a delighted smile on her/his face (yes, just like in the movies) in an international air terminal. It’s addictive. It’s a natural high some people will never experience, and that’s okay. The lows that are the flip side of that high, the heart-ache of the great distance that separates us for most of the year, balances that high all too well. This time the arrival was the exact day of my sister’s surgery. That airport and my sister’s hospital are almost eqidistance from us, in opposite directions. This time I was not able to be with my sister on the day of her surgery.
A wonderful chaos soon enveloped our house and lives, the familiar atmosphere of having our precious visitors from Malaysia, even if somewhat subdued by what was going on down the highway with my sister. I checked on her often by media or phone. She was recovering and waiting for her chemotherapy to begin on August 5. That date was, oddly, the birthday of my older daughter, the one who thankfully chose to live nearby with her family, so it was a date I wouldn’t forget. We were caught up in the swirl of activities that always surround the summer visits, and though I was appropriately concerned about my sister, I was busy entertaining my long-awaited visitors.
July 31 was the date of departure back to Malaysia for my younger daughter and her children. As typical of these summer visits that last about five weeks, the first three weeks or so we’re blissful in our happiness of being together and sharing days and nights. We’re caught up in each other’s company enough to ignore the calendar pages that I tear off each morning. The last two weeks are characteristically somewhat less jubilant as reality sets in, and the last few days leading up to their departure is a play in which we pretend to be as happy as when they arrived, while inside we’re all dreading the date that the plane will take off and fly them back across the world.
One week before the departure, which was to be on a Thursday, my daughter noticed a lump in her breast. She was concerned, but I was almost, almost (but not quite) sure that it was a fibrous cyst. Many women have fibrous cysts, so I felt that was the easy explanation. Besides, my daughter is only 36. I quickly slipped into denial that it could be anything else. Thankfully, she contacted the OBGYN who had delivered her first two children here, and on the Monday of the very week she was to depart on Thursday, I found myself sitting in one of the local hospitals while my daughter had a mammogram and ultrasound on that breast. Those were done mid-morning. Fifteen minutes after the mammogram, the OBGYN called to say she’d already heard from the hospital, and my daughter had an appointment with a surgeon for that same day at one p.m. Have I already used the word alarmed? Yes. The feeling was there again. There was something suspicious on the mammogram films. A detached feeling of surrealism began to creep into my consciousness along with the fear both my daughter and I were experiencing.
We saw the surgeon at one p.m., dutifully carrying the films from the hospital as told. After the examination, he explained that she was scheduled for a biopsy the next morning, two days before her departure home. So the next morning her older sister and I sat, waited, and worried at the hospital while my younger daughter had the biopsy, and not the needle kind. No, we waited for over two and a half hours as her breast was probed extensively. She bled the rest of the afternoon into evening. Upon leaving the hospital she was told that the pathology results on the tissue would be ready either late Wednesday or early Thursday, the very day of her planned departure. Still, the doctor wanted to see her Wednesday morning to check her breast.
Wednesday morning, the very next day, she returned to the doctor’s office. He checked her breast and asked what she planned to do for the rest of that day, the day before her planned departure. When she answered that she was planning to pack as though her results would be good, and nothing would prevent her from leaving on Thursday, he felt compelled to tell her the results of the biopsy, although the results were to come from the surgeon, not this doctor. Compassion couldn’t let him send her away to pack for a trip she wouldn’t take.
Meanwhile, my sister was awaiting her chemotherapy with the dread that all who have done it know too well and that was now less than a week away.
That visit to the doctor, the one where he told my daughter the results, was the only one when I had not accompanied her, and that was simply because I had the children. Also, we were so certain that she couldn’t possibly get results that quickly. We’d been told emphatically the results would not be ready until that afternoon if not the next morning. Plus, we told ourselves, the results wouldn’t come from that doctor anyway. Here we go with life happening in the midst of our plans. She called me from the parking lot of the hospital to give me the news, trying to say it indirectly, under the guise of checking on her children. A mother can read her child’s voice no matter how old the child. It was the day before the departure of my daughter and her children back to Malaysia.
Needless to say, that flight was cancelled. The next morning we saw the surgeon, thinking we’d be setting the date for her surgery. By now, of course, her husband was aware of everything and searching flights to get him from Kuala Lumpur to Houston, Texas as soon as possible. From Houston he would drive to us, the two plus hours it takes. After some discussion, the surgeon here suggested that Leisha, my daughter, have her surgery done at MD Anderson in Houston, the premiere cancer hospital in the world, and (again) only a bit more than a couple of hours down the highway from us. Unfortunately, we – as all patients and their families everywhere – are at the mercy of the timetable of the hospital and its doctors. That visit to the surgeon here was on July 31. Her first appointment at M.D. Anderson is August 12. We wait. Right now, as I type this piece, I am waiting.
Once husband arrived, and we were (and are) here waiting for that appointment in Houston, wanting to tear those calendar pages faster than the days will pass, my sister’s chemo started. On my older daughter’s birthday. Yes, it’s a summer we won’t soon – or ever – forget. This time I was there with her. She is weak, nauseated, and everything else you who know of it would expect from those chemicals invading her already weakened body.
Now it is Saturday morning, the one before the Tuesday that my daughter will meet with those folks at MD Anderson. It’s early. The house sleeps, but I don’t. My sister, some miles down the interstate, stirs in her sleep from the nausea and other side effects that accompany the invasion of her blood stream by foreign and toxic liquids. And a cancer sits in the breast of my younger child, her niece, my 36-year-old baby. Now it sits, but soon it will be removed by the practiced and steady hand of a surgeon. Not soon enough for me. Not soon enough for any of us. My daughter lives with equal dread of the cancer and the coming surgery.
Yes, “life happens when you’re busy making other plans”, it happens all the time. It happens every day. Some days it’s simply more obvious. My sister certainly didn’t plan to spend the last several months feeling ill, having colon surgery, and now looking ahead to months of treatment for it. My daughter thought that on this date, August 9, she’d be back in Malaysia over a week, getting her children ready for their new school year. Instead, my sweet babies sleep upstairs as I type this piece, far from their home half-way around the world, but near the people who love them and can nurture them through their mother’s illness and recovery.
So, yes, I suppose we can say that life happens while we’re making other plans. Truly, God (life) certainly happens. With all due respect to John Lennon, He is what happens while we’re making those plans. He already knows His plan, and mercifully, His supersedes ours. My sister moved to Baton Rouge three years ago. More than once she’s questioned that decision. Had she been here when her cancer showed itself, she might have gone to Houston as my daughter will, or she might have chosen to have treatment here. It’s certainly more convenient to stay here, and she was already feeling sick and weak. Now, in Baton Rouge, she is a patient at the Cancer Center there, one that is building its reputation and soon will be a major destination for cancer patients in that area of the South. She is in good hands. Had my daughter found the lump in her breast one week later, only one week (or perhaps, even worse, on the flight back), she’d now be in Malaysia. She would be facing the decision to come back home where the premiere cancer hospital sits two plus hours away from her parents, or staying there where the expertise of those doctors is unknown to any of us, and her family is half-way around the world.
Is cancer a God thing? I don’t believe necessarily so. Is it a way He shows His glory? His omnipotence? His power? I like to think so. Absolutely. His love and glory will shine through these two illnesses. We must do the hard part of practicing patience and keeping the faith. John Lennon’s quote means, of course, that we’re not really in control of our lives. God has known that since the beginning of time. He gave us free will, but he also can step in and rescue us from ourselves. I will try my hardest to remember that He also calms His children when he places them in the midst of a storm. We are having a stormy summer. We await the calm.