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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Warrior Queen

Almost 2 years ago, I had planned on starting a blog. It had a very specific purpose. I was going to write about my beautiful sister and my memories of our lives together. In my sorrow over her death, I couldn't deal with it. The pain was too deep.

And then, I just never got around to it.

And then, I decided that it just wasn't something I wanted to do. I do have a journal that I write in about her sometimes, but putting it online just wasn't something I felt like doing.

But I cannot let this blog pass without mentioning her. She is my hero, after all.

I have to address the Queen aspect of her first. I've mentioned it before. I'm not even sure how it all got started, but one day, she showed me this Mary Engelbreit picture and said, "This is me." As the years went on, the queen references continued. Being the younger sister, sibling rivalry is always there - even when it is just mild. I have to admit, her claims of being queen irritated me at times. And then, she introduced me to this. Considering that at the time, I did actually have red hair, I was very content with that idea.

One day, near Pirate Munchkin's 3rd birthday, a package arrived in the mail. I figured it was just a birthday present from the doting aunt. I opened the box, and inside was a very pretty little present, wrapped in green paper with a green and white polka-dot ribbon. I was about to set it aside for the birthday when I noticed the card on it had a note on the outside that said "Now why would your sister be sending you a present?" Oh! It's for ME! I opened the envelope. The card had two women on the front wearing little tiaras. Inside, she had written "because you needed it!" I opened the present, and immediately started giggling! Yep! I DID need it! It was a tiara! Just for me!

I wear it when I do the laundry.

My sister was VERY smart. She was a National Merit Scholar, and she chose a career in teaching. To my amazement, she actually ENJOYED teaching junior high! What kind of crazy person actually WANTS to spend their day with 7th and 8th graders? But she did. She loved teaching. She loved her students, and was always full of entertaining stories. I loved when she would read me papers her students had written.

She definitely had some challenges in life. I married first while she struggled through numerous interesting relationships. Eventually (thanks to the wonderful internet) she met a great - and VERY tall - man. They were married a year later. They immediately started working on a family - with no luck. We struggled through several years of infertility together (during this time, our dad joked that we were conspiring against him so he couldn't have grandkids! Thanks Dad). Eventually, the ex and I were able to adopt Pirate Munchkin. Her adoring aunt came for a visit in the summer of 2006. You can read her description of the trip here and here. (There is also a funny mention about me having an internet phobia back then - completely true!)

She had a cold at the time.

She'd had a LOT of colds in that time frame.

Turns out they weren't just colds.

A few days before Christmas 2006, we were on the phone, and she mentioned that she wasn't feeling well. She was concerned because she didn't have very much energy. She would get tired and have to rest halfway up the stairs in her own house. The next day, they were supposed to be getting on a plane to spend Christmas with her in-laws. Instead, they went to the hospital. The diagnosis was pneumonia. But an x-ray showed something in her lungs. Kind of scary, but an internet search found a certain kind of pneumonia that has a mass in the lungs. A biopsy was ordered, but the lab was closed for Christmas. No big hurry, it could wait. Christmas in the hospital isn't much fun, but she was a trooper and made the most of it.

December 28th, 2006. I was cleaning the litter box. I had my cell phone in my pocket when my Mom called. The lab results were in. My sister had cancer. She was 33.

The next 18 months were kind of a blur. She had a very rare cancer, and it was Stage 4. She was a guinea pig - lots of different kinds of drugs and medications - experimental stuff. She was constantly tormented by side effects. The chemo made her hair come in strangely. She had started going gray as a teenager, and one of the bouts of chemo had made only the dark hairs fall out. When they started growing back, the white hairs were about a half inch longer than the dark ones - made for an interesting effect. Eventually, the cancer started to spread.

The hardest part for her was having to stop teaching. Her students were her life. Since she wasn't able to have children of her own, those kids were everything to her. She was bored at home. Eventually, she was able to go back. Her fellow teachers were very good to keep track of her and send her home when she was too sick.

And then things started looking up. The main tumor was getting smaller. She flew to Houston to meet with a specialist at the cancer center there. She was told that the medications she was using were working well, and that she could continue to take them for years. Years! A doctor had actually used the word YEARS in regards to her cancer. She was told that while her cancer was incurable, it was manageable.

About a month after that, she developed a strange rash. We found out later that it was another type of cancer - marking three seperate areas of her body that were infected.

Friday, May 23rd, 2008, the other teachers made her leave the school. She was very pale and was struggling to get enough air. She had a doctor's appointment already set up for that day. When she got there, they immediately had her admitted to the hospital. I talked to her every day to check on her. Then, I got a phone call early in the morning on Tuesday the 27th. I needed to get on a plane. Many frantic phone calls, my mother took care of the plane tickets for me, Surfer Pirate delivered me to the airport (where I learned that buying a one-way ticket the day of the flight automatically flags you with airport security for an extended search). My biggest fear was that something would happen while I was in the air when I had to have my phone turned off.

I finally made it to the hospital where I sat beside her and held her hand. By this point, the doctors had put her into a sort of drug induced coma to keep her from suffering through the pain. There was nothing else that could be done. As the machines were turned off, I continued to hold her hand and talk to her. After a kiss goodbye from her sweet husband, she passed peacefully to the next world.

Through it all, she fought. She was a warrior. She refused to let cancer stop her from living her life. I eventually learned that she had specifically requested not to be told what her "timeline" was - the "you have ___ much time to live" diagnosis. She didn't want to be held back by that. Turns out, the doctors originally gave her 6 months. She pushed herself and fought her way to 18 months! Even at the very end, her poor, tired body was still fighting.

Her request for her funeral was true to form for her. My shoe-loving sister requested that everyone at her funeral needed to wear their favorite shoes. Her online friends who couldn't attend it put together a collage of pictures of them wearing their favorite shoes that day - in her honor.

One day, if I am blessed with another daughter, I will name her after my dear sister - the warrior.


Kate said...

Hugs big time. I have 3 sisters and I don't know what I would do if I ever lost one of them. :) You are a wonderful sister and she is lucky to have you.

MTGrace said...

We were pretty lucky to have each other.

I especially appreciate that she waited for me. :) She went an hour after I arrived.

Anne said...

this is really beautiful...i can't see the keyboard through my tears. my dad died of lung cancer (he was a smoker) and this reminded me so much of all of us coming home to be with him for his last day. i am really proud of you for making it through all of this. thank you so much for sharing this with me.