I like to think of myself as an empathetic person. I’m a good listener, a good friend, and quite sympathetic. Well, that is not true. I realized now that I was not all those lovely things for my sister-in-law, Kim, when she was diagnosed with cancer.
Medical websites had her convinced she had five years before she would die from breast cancer. She calculated that she would die at the age of fifty.
“Anne, this cancer is going to kill me. It will spread to my bones, then to my brain.” Her voice quivered. “Kim, stop talking like that. You’ll get chemo and radiation and you’ll beat this. You have to be more positive,“ I preached. I didn’t listen to her fears.
“No! No! I won’t beat it. I am going to die while my daughters are in high school. You and my brother have to promise to be there for them. This is so important to me. I can’t stop worrying until I know you’ll be there for them.”
“Kim, of course we’ll be there, but you are not going to die. You’ll beat this. What does your doctor say?” “I told him I don’t want to know, but I am telling you. I am dying.” Never in my wildest dreams did I think she could be right. I didn’t listen, once again.
Kim and I had always been close. We were like sisters for years and then we had a kerfuffle over the simplest thing…a pig roast! We were planning a catered picnic for her parents twenty fifth anniversary surprise. When Kim asked how we’d get them to drive to our house two and half hours away, I said, “Easy,” I said, “I’ll just have Scott say he’s having a surprise party for my birthday.”
“Oh they won’t come for your birthday. They ‘ll come for something for the kids.” I decided I shouldn’t be the one hosting the party. I had hurt feelings, but I told Kim I didn’t want it to affect our relationship, but it did.
Years later, my mother-in-law had breast cancer and had a mastectomy. After the surgery, she never mentioned the word cancer again. When Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer, she also had a mastectomy. She didn’t handle things like her mom. She sunk into a deep depression. The doctors told her she had a 95% cure rate. Kim fell into the 5% with cancer statistics. A few years later, the cancer resurfaced. There was cancerous growth near her spine that needed to be radiated. When that happened, her legs became paralyzed shortly after the surgery.
Within the same few years, Scott and his mom had an argument. It was just a simple disagreement. We were in the dog house. This wasn’t unusual. We had a family joke that her dog house had a revolving door. Every family member has been there. This time she didn’t talk to us for years. My in-laws had built an addition on Kim’s house and they all lived together now. The initial plan was they would be taken care of as they aged. A complete twist of fate changed that.
I’d been missing Kim, but dreaded the silent treatment from my mother-in-law. “I miss your sister. It’s time to visit.” “Are you serious? My mother is there!” he moaned. “Yes, she is and we’re going tomorrow.” We made the two hour trip much trepidation. We had no idea what awaited us.
Well, no worries! Everyone was delightful…. It was bizarre, but delightful. I sat next to Kim and hugged her as soon as I saw her. I had missed so much time with her over something so senseless. Her hair was cut short and highlighted. She looked healthy except for the braces on her legs. She was perched on the love seat with her walker nearby. She wore black orthopedic shoes with white plastic supports. Metal supports were fitted into her shoes. At one point she wanted to go to the bathroom. “Turn your heads,” she told us. “I don’t want anyone to see me walk.” She could barely get off the sofa and once she got the walker in place, she wobbled through the kitchen. “I have to will my legs to move and it’s really slowing me down,” she said. It was heart wrenching to watch her struggle with the walker.
When she came back and got settled, she leaned over and whispered, “I have to wear adult diapers now. It is awful.” Then she changed the subject to her new short hairstyle. It was like old times. I was fluffing the back of her hair feeling the cut. We laughed and joked. She didn’t look, or act, like a person who was dying.
I called her a few days later and she sobbed into the phone. “I just want to unzip myself out of this body. I can’t even go in the store with my daughter to buy a prom dress. Karin had to model for me at the window. I had to watch from the handicapped parking spot. All of the other moms were walking in with their girls. I can’t even buy a prom dress, Anne.” She was crying so hard I could barely understand her words. She smiled when Karin got back to the car, but her sunglasses were hiding her tears. In a few years her youngest daughter, Aubrey, would need a prom dress. She said, “I might not be alive then.” Again, I didn’t listen.
If I could buy those years back, I’d do things so differently. I’d sit with her and we’d drink tea and I’d hold her while she cried. I’d listen and let her talk about ow scared she was. I’d never let her go. I would ease her worries. Her biggest sadness was that her daughters wouldn’t have a mom. She’d miss their graduations. Her chair would be empty at their weddings. She’d never hold her grandchildren.
Her final weekend we got a call from her husband on Friday night. She had fallen at home. She actually said, “Oh my God! I’m dying!” Her mom told her to stop talking like that. She was taken by ambulance to the hospital. We‘d moved to Florida by then. We booked the first flight out the next morning. We were getting our rental car when he called us. We were too late. We sat in the sedan in disbelief.
She knew. She knew. She knew. And I didn’t listen.
My heart was so heavy. I didn’t listen and she knew. My only one, small consolation, is that I’d told her, “One of my biggest blessings is that we made amends. I missed you in my life.” There was silence then she sniffled and said, “Awww, that’s sweet. I missed you too.” We both cried.
After she passed I prayed I’d find a way to somehow make amends. Finally my prayers were answered. Scott and I volunteered at the VA Hospital, on the Hospice floor. During our training we learned how important it is to listen to people who are dying. Letting them talk is uncomfortable for us, but so healing for them. I thought of my deaf ears with Kim immediately.
I learned to listen. I got certified in Healing Touch energy and one day I was asked to see a patient named Molly. She was terminal and fifty years old. She was moisturizing her bald head when I first met her. Since she had no visitors, I adopted her as family. I did everything for her that I wished I had done for Kim. I brought her dinners and desserts. We talked for hours on end. She told me about her three unborn children in Heaven. Once she said, “Anne, you’re mothering me.” I laughed and said, “No I’m not. I’m sistering you.” We both laughed.
I told her about Kim and my regrets. She said she understood what Kim meant. “There aren’t many people who want to hear the really sad stuff. It’s really hard to keep it all to yourself . It’s a very lonely feeling,” she told me. “You must have been close with her for her to tell you all those feelings.” I shook my head no. “I didn’t hear her,” I told Molly. Tears were running down my cheeks. Molly said, “I bet she knows you’re sorry. I’m sure she’s forgiven you. I’ll tell her personally when I get up there,” she promised.
I still have trouble believing she’s gone. I talk to her all the time. I just can’t get past that block in my heart that I was so deaf to her. Sometimes I think I can hear her laughing along with us. I miss her so much. Every morning an orange butterfly walks with me when I walk our dogs. I like to think that’s her sign that she’s still near us. I tell her every morning that I love her.
I sure hope she’s listening.