Monday, November 5, 2012

Death, There Is Your Sting

My head hurts. My heart hurts.

I have just come back from the hospital where my sister-in-law, Kathy Morris Weckerly, is dying.

Cancer is killing her. Or the chemo designed to fight the cancer. Doesn't matter, really. The cause won't change the outcome, which is that, at age 54, after dealing with this enemy since her 20s, she will lose this battle.

Kathy has been hospitalized since the end of September, put there originally by fluid that accumulated in her lungs. Barely one month prior, we were together in Ocean City, NJ, where she fared well, despite needing to take a nap or two during the day.

Isn't that what being at the shore is all about anyway?

Eight weeks afterward, neither Ocean City nor Kathy are the sameHow quickly things change.

Kathy came into our lives at a time when it seemed we all needed her. My brother had a rocky first marriage. We didn't care for his first wife much -- less so when she left him, taking every possession they co-owned. He arrived home from work one day and knew that the relationship was over when he found the house completely emptied, save for a lawn chair and a disconnected phone cord.

Hell apparently hath no fury like a moving man's daughter's scorn.

Paul was down and out. His fractured relationship with my parents -- born of rebellious teen years -- had caused rifts that had never quite healed. So it wasn't as if he were going to become a baby-boomerang, an adult child moving back in with mom and dad, thanks to economic setbacks.

Into this brokenness, Kathy wandered. I believe they met in a bar or something, and she could see from early on that he was at the bottom of a very deep well. Patiently, subtly, cautiously, she led him out. He rebuilt his life, starting on the inside. When sufficiently bolstered, he began rebuilding bridges on the outside.

Eventually, Kathy brought him back into the fold of our family. Best, it was a two-for-one deal, for with him came her.

Her last hurdle was to convince him to get married, a convention he had sworn off years ago. This iceberg, too, melted under her warm smile, quick laugh, and openness.

Kathy embraced all of us, warts and all. She ingratiated herself to my parents, to Eileen and me, and eventually to our kids.

Even our pets loved her. She often told the story of her first dinner with her soon-to-be in-laws. Kathy learned quickly that for the most part, where my Dad went, so, too did his dog, Murphy, a thoroughly lovable, floppy-eared, mildly disobedient Basset Hound.

During that dinner, Dad lost track of Murphy. Kathy soon found him: He was half-standing on a kitchen chair, devouring an entire pound of butter she had left in the open.

Didn't bother her. She laughed then and continued to laugh about that incident.

Our kids came along. They adored her, too. She was unable to have children on her own, but that didn't slow her from being the best aunt a trio of nieces could ask for.

Medically, Kathy was a continual yin and yang. Some days good. Some days worrisome. Never to burden anyone with her issues, she downplayed everything. "I'm okay," she'd comment. "They're watching x, y, or z, but I'm not too concerned about it."

She helped immeasurably when we were forced to bid my Dad goodbye.

She then shouldered much responsibility with my mother's needs, as Mom tried -- and ultimately failed -- to live alone. Through this trying time, Kathy was the perfect blend of pragmatism and humor; she either knew exactly what to do to solve a difficulty, or she knew the exact comment that would cause a chuckle and break the tension.

She was there 100% when Mom left us, too.

Family was crucial to Kathy. No bother was a bother if it involved family. And she was abundant with family. Her birth mother passed away when she was quite young. Overwhelmed, presumably, he father almost allowed the family to crack apart, but he eventually remarried and things stabilized. 

Then along came my brother Paul and our crew.

She made time for all, attending each birthday party, Christmas dinner, Confirmation, dance recital, and Communion along the way.

It was only this past April that she slowed down. The cancer getting active throughout her body, and the chemo she fought so hard to avoid all her life finally became a necessity.

The effects were swift and drastic. Unable to manage her work, she went on medical leave. She continued doing her best through the summer, feeling well enough to join us at the beach. Beyond that, she and Paul were planning an Aruba trip in October, and we all crossed fingers that she would be well enough to go.

She wasn't. Her kidney performance got shaky. A lung collapsed. She was just on the verge of recovering from these two setbacks when the bottom dropped out.

Scans and tests confirmed the worst. The cancer was back, it was spreading, and it was proving to be as stubborn as hell.

This past weekend, her blood pressure plummeted, the result of internal bleeding. Her doctors examined her through an endoscope to see if there were some way of stemming the tide, perhaps surgically. But there was none. The cancer -- or the chemo -- was leading to a wholesale breakdown of the structures within her organs, causing massive bleeding.

Bowels. Liver. Pancreas. Spleen. Lung. Brain. All teeming with a wildfire that could not be controlled.

It is only a matter of time before she escapes the confines of her failing body. At that moment, her bright spirit will soar onward. We wept over the initial news, and I am sure that when the final result is confirmed, we will weep again.

One more loss in a series of losses; one more exit from our lives in short proximity to the other exits from our lives. So arbitrary. So unfair.

I comfort myself with a few thoughts, though: My stint of unemployment provided  opportunities to visit her during times that I would otherwise be chained to a desk. During one of those visits -- it was just she and I -- I thanked her. I thanked her for bringing my brother back to us. I told her that my parents would forever hold her in their hearts because of the manner in which she helped heal that rift.

She nodded. She understood. It probably didn't have to be vocalized, such was the power of her insight into family dynamics. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that I was able to say something so heartfelt and full of gratitude.

I also find peace in knowing that there are legions of loved ones waiting her arrival. My parents are among them.

And another soul...

A certain thoroughly lovable, floppy eared, mildly-disobedient, butter-eating Basset Hound.

Godspeed, Kathy. We love you. We will miss you. And we are richer for having known you.

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