Sometimes It All Comes Down to ChapStick…Remembering Cindy

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The sister-friends, left to right, me, Terry, and Cindy

The room was dim. A little light filtered in from the hall, mixed with the noise of activity that suggested there was still a world out there, but it all seemed a million miles away. The room itself was quiet. Deafeningly quiet. I just kept my eyes focused on my sister. She kept her eyes focused straight ahead…somewhere else. Somewhere seemingly far away.

I had volunteered to stay the night with Cindy. Not so much out of strength or some sense of duty, but more because if I left, I would have no idea what to do with myself. Everything would just seem out of place, out of sync. At this moment, in this situation, everything that mattered to me was lying in the hospital bed next to my chair. She was right there, and yet I still couldn’t reach her.

The doctor’s words from earlier in the day were still bouncing around inside my head. I couldn’t remember the whole one-sided conversation, only specific points.

“It has spread.”
“Liver.”
“Happened very fast.”
“Aggressive.”
“No, there’s nothing.”
“I’m so very sorry.”
“Maybe two days, maybe two weeks, it’s hard to say.”
“We’ll keep her comfortable.”

Though I remained silent, in my mind I was begging the doctor to do something. There had to be something. But no. There was nothing. Nothing but this exact moment when the world seemed to simply stop revolving, all of the color drained away, and everything turned to shades of gray.

Then the voice inside my head started screaming. How can this be? How can this happen? Didn’t we say she was winning this battle? Wasn’t that just a month ago? My sister was going to be a breast cancer survivor. We were so sure of it. She was fine one minute and then…then there was this. My mind just couldn’t make sense of any of it.

After the doctor left, I remember seeing my sister’s boyfriend, Mickey, sitting by her on the bed, talking to her so very gently, so calmly. He knew exactly what to say. Though disease had robbed my sister of the ability to talk easily, she was fully aware of everything the doctor had said. Mickey knew exactly what her eyes were saying and he knew how to answer her unspoken questions. His connection with her was profound.

My sister Terry and I slipped away from the room and hid in separate corners of the hospital to make phone calls. Phone calls we desperately did not want to make. Trying to find the right words, knowing there were no right words. Then we went together to my parent’s house to deliver the news, in person, that no parent should ever have to hear; to inflict pain no parent should ever have to know.

Looking back, I remember all of these moments not as a participant, but rather as a third party looking in. I was hovering in the cloud of confusion that swirled above my dear, struggling family. I was detached, yet desperate to engage. Desperate for a moment of connection and understanding. Any moment.

And so when everyone gathered in the hall of the hospital, caught in the ultimate “what now” moment, I found myself immediately volunteering to stay the night with Cindy. I would stay to keep an eye on things. I would make sure Cindy was as comfortable as possible. I would be there to call the others if there was any urgent need. There was an unspoken agreement between us that Cindy would not spend one moment alone.

So I sat. I watched. I listened. The cold, dim room offered little in the form of physical comfort for me, but that somehow seemed appropriate. I desperately wanted to hold my sister’s hand. To stroke her arm. But her hands and arms were swollen…edema caused by the liver that was betraying her…by the demon known as cancer. Physical contact seemed very uncomfortable for her.

So, in the quiet of the room, I sat while my mind raced. They say that when someone is dying the movie of their life plays in their mind…flashes before their eyes. Cindy’s life—the parts I had shared—was playing out in my mind. The oldest of three girls, Cindy was our trailblazer. The one who taught our  parents to be parents. The one who left the nest first. The one who had figured out so much on her own, and then thankfully shared her knowledge with Terry and me.

She was my shoulder, when I needed one. She was my sounding board when I was unsure. She was ready to celebrate every little triumph with me. And now she needed me. She needed me and I had no idea what to do.

My frantic mind searched for some grand gesture. Some way to make this whole mess right. Where were my super-human powers? Why couldn’t I do something to make this go away; to rewind the clock and give her much earlier warning of the storm to come? Irrationality…you did me no favors that night.

So, doing the only thing I knew to do, I watched her very carefully. If she moaned or seemed restless, if her heart rate escalated, I ran to have the nurse come check on her, to administer more pain medicine. I smoothed her sheets, careful not to touch her sensitive limbs. I talked to her softy. I shared stories of times when we had laughed, of times when we had been silly young girls. I prayed. I prayed a lot.

Then, as I studied her, I noticed that she kept trying to wet her lips…running her tongue over them and rubbing them together. Over and over.

chapstickThat’s when it hit me. You know the feeling when you’re sick? You’re a little dehydrated, you’re breathing through your mouth. Your lips become so dry, so uncomfortable.

And in that instant I finally knew the one meaningful thing I could actually do for my Cindy. The one little thing that I could provide to give her comfort, to let her know that I was with her. I dug in the side pocket of my purse and found my tube of ChapStick.

“Cindy,” I said softly so as not to startle her, “I’m going to put some ChapStick on your lips. It’s going to feel good.”

I gently rubbed the balm on her tender, chapped lips. Slowly, as she rubbed them together, her eyes shifted to look directly into mine and we had our moment of beautiful clarity, of connection.

With great determination, her voice reached through the fog to whisper, “I love you.”

“I love you too, Cindy.”

Nothing more needed to be said. Everything had poured out in a simple eight word exchange.

As she drifted back to that place inside herself, I spoke quiet promises to her. I promised her that Terry and I would take care of our aging parents. I promised her that we would always be there for her two children, young adults now, but still not quite ready to be without their mother. Never ready. I promised her that I would remember her with smiles, laughter, and that I would perform her patented silly dance for future generations to enjoy.  I promised her that we would still talk every single day. I promised her.

Night finally surrendered to a gray dawn. We moved Cindy away from the institutional setting of the hospital and into the warm embrace of an in-patient hospice called Clarehouse. Clarehouse was our safe haven, the place that allowed beautiful colors to return to our world. It was a blessing that deserves, and will get, a story of its own someday.

In this warm, safe, beautiful place, surrounded by her family, my Cindy left this life quietly and peacefully. The ultimate educator, she gave me one more lesson that day—that there is beauty in everything; in new life, in life well lived, and even in life’s end.

After the nurses had taken care of Cindy’s body, I slipped back into the room alone, needing just a moment more. I looked at her face, carefully positioned by the nurses into an expression that was pleasant, but not one of her expressions. This body was no longer my Cindy. She was gone. She was really gone.

Then I saw the tube of ChapStick, still sitting on the bedside table. Upon seeing that reminder of our final shared moment, my heart filled with all of the memories and love this woman, my dear sister-friend, had ever given me. My Cindy came rushing back.

And so, with tears that were a mixture of grief and gratitude tracing paths down my cheeks, I slid the ChapStick into my pocket as I also tucked my sister’s spirit safely inside my heart.

My amazing sister Cindy passed away nine years ago on Memorial Day weekend. She was the age I am now. I do not remember my sister with feelings of sorrow. She would hate that. Cindy was a positive, spirited, fun-loving woman. Any tears that come are just reminders of how much I miss her, but do not define my memories of her. I celebrate Cindy with pure, unabashedly silly joy. I still have the tube of lip balm that gave us our final connection. Thank you Cindy, for giving me that last great lesson: Sometimes the most meaningful moments in life, in relationships, don’t come in the form of save-the-day acts of heroism or over-the-top grand gestures. Sometimes the most meaningful, beautiful moments are brought about by something as simple as a tube of Chapstick.

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Ostriches, Beaches, and Boobs.

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Cindy loved daisies. Simple, lovely daisies. I love them too.

With a title like that, how can you NOT read this post? Well, it’s not directly about ostriches, or beaches. It is, however, about my sister, about being smart, and yes, about boobs. You may now make the choice to read on…or not.

Still here? Good for you.

Let’s start by introducing you to my oldest sister, Cindy. I learned a lot from Cindy. That’s what big sisters are for, right? They teach by example. They blaze the trail for younger siblings.

My sister was nine years my senior, so during my early conscious childhood, I just remember torturing her. A lot.

Seven-year-old Nancy had that perfect timing that could destroy a sister’s first good night kiss with a new beau. This was the same little Nancy who would do cartwheels through the living room as teen-aged Cindy attempted to entertain friends. I was the annoying kid sister who could get Cindy’s boyfriend completely engrossed in playing Etch-A-Sketch with me (our early form of video games) instead of paying attention to his girlfriend.

Baaaaad Nancy. Naughty little sister.

But you know what? She still loved me. Somehow she still did.

I think my middle sister, Terry, dodged a lot of this stuff. I was a bit older when she started dating. Perhaps I showed mercy. Perhaps she would disagree. That, I am sure, is another story.

Cindy helped me with my homework. Cindy was often my built-in babysitter. Cindy taught me how to silly dance—and went on to teach the same mad skill to her own kids. Cindy helped me learn how to file my first income tax returns. She taught me about being quick to smile.

Cindy showed me how to have grace in difficult times. She showed me about strength, about believing in yourself, about finding your personal best and pushing even that benchmark. Most importantly, Cindy taught me that fear is a pretty useless emotion. She taught me that burying your head in the sand in the hopes that adversity might just go away—well, that’s just not an effective action plan at all.

Cindy always met life head-on. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer she put fear in its place and faced her disease intelligently, with determination and good humor. When she and I went wig shopping prior to her first round of chemo, she joked about it being the perfect opportunity to sport the short hair style she had been too chicken to try out “in real life.” We both tried on wigs. We tried on every style and color in the shop. We laughed ourselves silly—the absolute best medicine of all.

I’m not going to share more of that specific journey in this post. It’s a story for another time. However, this post is about loving Cindy, losing her, and then realizing that I never  really lost her her at all. She is still teaching me. She still finds ways to talk to me when I need her the most.

So we all know that if you have had a direct relative diagnosed with breast cancer, your personal risk of developing the disease ratchets up. Add in other relatives that suffered different, but significant forms of cancer and that personal risk factor just keeps climbing. Oh yeah, and if you forget to have kids, like I did, guess what? Increased risk factor.

I am not one to focus on negatives. I can’t. I’ll make myself crazy if I do and what’s the point in reminding myself every single day of what could happen? I could get trampled by the 800-pound hog living in my barn, but I’m not planning on it. I’m also not planning to get cancer. In fact, thanks to lessons from Cindy, I’m pretty darn devoted to making damn sure I stay on top of my big C risk factors.

I go to all of the appropriate check-ups with great dedication–gynecologist for some parts, mammogram for the girls (Raquel and Lolita…if you have read some of my previous posts you know I do name everything), dermatologist for my skin, primary care physician for all of the left-over parts. I even experienced the joy of the colonoscopy at the appropriate age (it’s not so bad people, there are very happy you-won’t-remember-a-thing drugs involved…suck it up and go get yours when you turn 50).

Beyond a couple of spots the dermatologist resolved with that freezy spray stuff (thank you to everyone 30 some-odd years ago who gave this fair-skinned, freckled girl the idea that she could actually tan), I’m healthy as an 800 pound hog. All tests have always come back clean and happy. Until last July, that is.

I got the call that my mammogram showed something and they needed me to come back for a breast ultrasound. I was assured that it was probably nothing. Words like fibroid and cyst were tossed around. We were just playing it safe. Ok. I’m all about playing it safe.

I will tell you this, get diagnosed with a breast mass and suddenly it seems that everyone wants to feel you up. Seriously, to this day when I walk into any doctor’s office I just immediately strip from the waist up. I will say my dentist was a tad shocked by this behavior.

Ok, back to July. Questionable mammogram led to an ultrasound. Questionable ultrasound led to a breast MRI. Breast MRI garnered “everything looks fine” results. Seriously? After going through all of that, I get a little pat on the hand and a let’s-do-this-party-all-over-again-next-year report? There truly was not much detail offered beyond that—and I still had a lot of questions swirling around in my brain.

For a bit there, I admittedly took the good news and just ran with it. I stuck my head firmly in the warm sand and celebrated. Woo hoo! Everything looked fine. Fine. Fine is a perfectly good word, right?

But the mass was still there. And really, what did “fine” actually mean? Fine as in that lump is nothing at all and never will be? Fine as in you’re fine for now…let’s see if it turns into something next year? And if it’s fine…why do we have to do the whole MRI thing again?
So here’s the deal—no one could really define “fine” for me.

Meanwhile I was getting bombarded with pink ribbon messages. The Race for the Cure. Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The Turn Tulsa Pink Campaign.

A loyal patron of my dog care business started chemo. There were two dear friends I’ve never actually met who bravely detailed their diagnoses and subsequent treatments for breast malignancies in beautifully honest blog posts.

Then there was the reporter on Good Morning America who documented her first routine mammogram on air. She stepped into a mobile unit and emerged moments later in triumphant “it was no big deal” glee, only to later find that she did indeed have breast cancer.

For goodness sake, even Angelina Jolie shared the news that she had an elective double mastectomy after genetic testing revealed that she had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer in her lifetime.

It was as if breast cancer awareness had decided to smack me in the face at every turn. Or was it that my sister still had something to teach me? Ah yes. Leave it to my dear, determined sister to reach repeatedly from the great beyond to yank my head right out of the sand.

I heard you sister, and you were right, “fine” was just not good enough.

Long story shortened, I found a new primary care doctor who LISTENED to my concerns. He referred me to a wonderful breast specialist and guess what? She LISTENED to my concerns. She reviewed my case. She looked at my family history (one that goes beyond just my sister…my dad, my aunt, my uncle…and yes, other types of cancer in your family DO factor in). She reviewed all of my films and test results.

Then, after doing her own ultrasound on the mass, she decided that we needed to do a little more than just “wait and see.” Hallelujah! Proactive finally won out over reactive.

On my first visit she decided to perform a needle biopsy on the mass in Raquel—I didn’t even have time to get nervous about that one. A needle inserted in the breast—sound scary? Painful? Well, it’s neither. Beyond a tiny sting as they numbed Raquel’s right side, there was nothing. Yes, we knocked a bit of the sand out of my ear with that one.

As I was lying there on my side trying very hard to keep my active mind calm, the doctor asked if I could see the screen. I did not actually have a clear view of the monitor and even if I had, who really, besides doctors and radiologists, can make heads or tails out of anything in that grainy image? Seriously, when someone shows me the ultrasound of their baby, I kind of just make the appropriate cooing sounds, but I really just see a blobby grey shadow.

Anyhow, Dr. Smith informed me that in that very moment, there was actually nothing to see. Nothing? Yes, nothing. When she inserted the needle into the mass it deflated. She likened it to piercing a water balloon. It just went away.

I am here to tell you that I don’t know when I have ever heard more beautiful words than “It’s completely gone.” Well, I’m going to still give the nod to the first “I love you” from my sweetie, but “it’s completely gone” is a definite close second.

We sent the fluid from the mass-no-more off to the lab to be sure all was truly well, and as the doctor suspected, it came back clean. I believe the technical, medical term she used was “nasty old cyst.” That’s Latin for nasty old cyst.

Based on my family history and the fact that Raquel and Lolita are dense (the girls were initially offended by that description, but they got over it), we decided to pursue genetic testing to see exactly what my risk factor looks like so we can better plan for my ongoing health. Trust me, if I have that crazy gene that puts my risk factor off the charts, the girls and I will get a divorce. If fake boobs are good enough for Angelina, they’re good enough for me.

And so I knocked the sand out of my other ear with that resolution.

For now, I am basking in the joy of a very good outcome. “Fine” has been defined. I have a wonderful new doctor who is as committed to the health and well-being of my girls as I am. Raquel and Lolita are doing great. They don’t have to have any further testing or public exposure until next July. Oh sure, there’s always a chance I’ll decide to rush to New Orleans for Mardi Gras to participate in the old “hey lady show me your tits” tradition for some beads, but I’d say that is highly, highly, definitely unlikely.

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Did I mention my tattoo?

I will close by telling you that the FIRST person I talked to after hearing that the girls are a-ok was my sister Cindy. I called right out to her and shared the news, though I suspect she was right by my side through the whole ordeal.

Thanks, sister-friend. Thanks once again.