Last year, I entered Real Simple magazine’s fourth annual Life Lessons Essay Contest. The question was: “When did you first understand the meaning of love?” Just last night, I read the winning entry published in the April 2012 issue of the magazine. It was a great story, and it brought tears to my eyes.
It also reminded me that I had not yet shared my own story with anyone, besides a couple friends who provided feedback while I was writing it. So, today, I’m posting another special feature article rather than one of my “usual” posts. I hope it touches your heart, makes you think, and maybe even inspires you to reach out to someone in pain or re-connect with a family member.
I knelt on the bathroom floor, holding Gabrielle’s hair back as she sobbed and threw up; my body shook, but not from the cold tiles. My baby sister had just told me that she was tired of being sick, tired of hurting so much, tired of everything. She wanted to give up. But I couldn’t let that happen. She was only 22, and her 3-year-old daughter, Ashley, needed her.
I clutched my personal heartache close as I watched her suffer. She didn’t need to know about my pain. Not right now. Not when, more than anything else, I had to convince her that life was good and worth fighting for. I prayed a frantic but silent prayer—please God, help me help her.
In the prior year, after a divorce left her with a scarred heart, Gabrielle had been diagnosed with cervical cancer. She underwent surgery and then attempted to move on with her life. As Gabrielle recovered and adjusted to her role as single mother, we all thought everything was on an upswing for her, and we were thankful.
Meanwhile, back at my house: after 11 years of marriage, my husband and I continued to drift apart; we were just so different; we loved each other, but were no longer “in love.” Pick your cliché; the truth was, I felt trapped and unhappy. We rarely spent time together anymore, and neither of us really knew what we wanted in life, or how to communicate, be honest with ourselves, or take action. On top of that, the Lab we got as a puppy shortly after our wedding was not well. I struggled to keep my emotions in check and my life under control as I went to work every day, pretending like nothing was wrong.
But I wasn’t the only one pretending. Gabrielle had been keeping her own secrets. She finally admitted to Elizabeth, another sister, that the cancer was not gone; in fact, it had spread to her uterus and her liver. She had also started chemotherapy treatment without telling anyone.
Everything I researched seemed to emphasize the dangers of chemo. In fact, a lot of people get sicker faster when they are on chemo, and that was exactly what was happening to my sister. Her immune system was wiped out; she began losing weight and became very tired and run down. In her last conversation with her doctors, they had told Gabrielle there was nothing more they could do for her except try to make her “as comfortable as possible.” They gave her a year to live. That’s when she finally decided to share the news with the family, which led up to our bathroom moment.
I watched my sister go through another round of dry heaves. There was nothing left inside of her. Or me. Oh, I was physically healthy at the time, but with Gabrielle’s illness and the painful disconnect in my marriage, I was drained. At home, it felt like we had both checked out already. The only connection we shared at this point was grief over our dying dog.
But I couldn’t deal with my personal issues right now. I had to be strong. I had to come up with a plan to save Gabrielle’s life.
You know, up until that time, I don’t think I had ever appreciated my family quite so much. Growing up with five sisters and one brother was often challenging with limited space, limited funds, unlimited arguing. I used to wish I was an only child. But as my sister lay there beside me, curled up on the floor, I allowed the despair over my own personal loss to mingle with the anguish I felt for her, and I wept.
Then, just like in the Christmas story about the Grinch, I felt my heart swell several sizes with love—real love, not heightened feelings based on hormones and chemistry and starry-eyed dreams of a perfect future, but a true heart connection. Something that had been sadly lacking in my marriage. At that moment, I would have willingly given up my life to give Gabrielle a second chance. But that obviously wasn’t in God’s plan.
So, the first step in my plan was to temporarily get Gabrielle out of Florida, to a place where she could rest and receive special care. The obvious choice—Aunt Robin’s. Robin was living in California at the time, so she sent plane tickets for Gabrielle and my grandmother to come out for a visit. It was a good spot for a stress-free getaway. Plus our aunt is a natural nurturer, so it only made sense. Her main goal was to try to help Gabrielle see that she could still find joy in life if she didn’t give up.
While Gabrielle was out of town, and little Ashley spent time with other family members, I began researching treatment programs. I met with a doctor who focused on treating the whole body, not individual parts or symptoms. The way he explained it made sense: over several weeks, through nutritional changes as well some complementary therapies, the acidic atmosphere that cancer survives and thrives in is neutralized, and a more alkaline and healthy environment is created in the body. I was sold. But now to convince Gabrielle.
An update from Robin provided a glimmer of hope. Gabrielle had gone horseback riding, and her spirits had improved tremendously. She was eating fairly well and actually joking around a bit. Robin told me that Gabrielle was concerned about coming back and having everyone tell her what she should do. So, we agreed that I would be the family spokesperson.
I worked with the rest of the family to figure out a schedule. We made arrangements for who would take Gabrielle to the doctor’s office each day for treatment, who would watch Ashley, who could help financially, etc. Just making a plan gave me a more positive outlook, and it really pulled our already-close family even closer together. When Gabrielle came back, I was happy to find her receptive to our ideas.
Mondays were my days to take Gabrielle to the doctor. Thankfully, the company where I worked was flexible and understanding about my hours during that time. And I chose to ignore my personal heartache and focus on my sister’s health and happiness.
The first visit was fairly easy. We just sat and talked for a few hours while she got an IV drip. I think we developed an even closer bond during that time. The nurses said there were only a few potential side effects, but Gabrielle experienced them all—nausea, loose stool, and later trouble with her IV pic line, which had to be replaced.
Gradually, things got worse. On some days, Gabrielle felt so sick that she couldn’t get out of bed. I got a call one morning from my mom. Gabrielle wouldn’t get up. I left work and spent quite a bit of time convincing her that it was important for her to keep her appointment. She finally went with me.
The worst thing about talking Gabrielle into continuing with her treatments was my own doubts and fears that began to emerge. What if this wasn’t helping her? What if she got worse and it was my fault? Every time I thought of this, my breath caught in my throat and my heart pounded wildly as I blinked away the tears. That just can’t happen! I had to believe that she would get better; I had to believe in something at this point. I couldn’t give up.
Thankfully, despite my concerns, after the treatment plus some added nutritional support through supplements and natural juices, and special home care from our oldest sister, Theresa, Gabrielle began to slowly get better. I think several other factors helped in the healing process: Gabrielle realized that life still held moments of joy and possibility. And we both figured out that it’s important to learn to love yourself first and determine what you want out of life before you can really commit and communicate to building a lasting relationship with someone else.
I also discovered the importance of working in community, being there for one another, not trying to take on the world alone. You know, we’re all interconnected in some way — like pieces of a puzzle. And life just seems to make so much more sense when we look at the big picture and find our place in it.
The happy ending to this story? It has been 14 years since Gabrielle was given one year to live, plus she finally found her soul mate, and they were married just last month.
Me? My dog passed away and my divorce happened shortly after, as it needed to so we could both move on. I not only survived, but I’m now remarried … this time to my true heart connection.
The missing piece to my life puzzle has been put in place, and love is the glue that holds us together.
Disclaimer: I don’t have the best of memories, so I may not have all of the details/facts of the events right, but the story and the emotions are true and real.