One Year Ago…

POSTED BY JESSE

I have a sinking feeling that this blog is about to take a brief detour to Tears-ville in the next few weeks.

But fear not, loyal readers, there are still plenty of good vibes in the Tanner household. There were smiles in the house the day before Lisa passed away, there was laughter the day after. This is still one of the happiest, most upbeat families I have ever seen and we will not be wearing black and mournfully reflecting the entire month of February. Not in real life, and not on this blog.

In fact, last night Michelle and Stephanie had me cracking up. They have fallen right in line with the family tradition of altering the words to songs for funny usages, and as we listened to Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” Michelle started singing the lyrics we had made up in the airport on our last family trip:

I gotta feeling…that this flight’s gonna be a good flight

This flight’s gonna be a good flight

This flight’s gonna be a good, good flight

Then as she raced from the car to the house, Michelle created a new one, this time to Travie McCoy’s “Billionare”:

I gotta go pee-pee, so freakin’ bad…

She is hilarious.

BUT…I do feel like the mood in the house is growing a bit more somber as February 24th approaches, and it’s only understandable.

As Danny already eloquently pointed out, we are approaching the one year anniversary of Lisa’s passing. I don’t begin to compare what this will mean to me to what he feels, but certainly it will be on all of our minds.

This also means we have arrived at the (infinitely less significant) one year anniversary of me admitting that there was at least a chance Lisa was not going to beat colon cancer and that I might lose her.

Let me back up. Around my junior year of high school my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m happy to say she’s still with us and healthy. At the time, I believe the rest of the family (mainly Mom, my Dad, and Lisa, since Sallie was at college) made a concerted effort not to conceal, but to downplay the potential severity that cancer brings. It was partly the “be optimistic, why would you want to be anything else?” that Lisa insisted that she and others adopt through her own battle years later. But I think it was also because I was a happy, busy, involved high school student, and they didn’t want that to change. I was the baby, so they babied me.

I feel horrible admitting this, but the only thing I really remember about Mom’s breast cancer is that Dad and I did a terrible job of lying when Mom first tried to cope with losing her hair (we weren’t ugly, we just said, “It looks different, but it seems fine to me.” And it did. Neither of us are strikingly handsome, so how ours or anybody’s hair looked had never been too important to us.  She definitely needed a female to remark how cute her new short ‘do was. Oops.) and that we ate like kings on Fridays. Mom would schedule chemo sessions for Fridays so she could rest the weekend and be back on her feet for Monday, so friends and neighbors would bring us delicious dishes every Friday.

That’s it. That’s what I remember from my Mom’s body being attacked from the inside. Later I would hear details about Lisa coming over to change sheets or clean up vomit, things I never saw. But I know this for a fact: be it teenage naivete or willful ignorance, I never once believed my mother was in danger of dying from cancer, even when her best friend (who was going through a much more serious cancer at the time) passed away from it. I don’t know…I just didn’t think it could happen to me. And I was right! That time.

Fast forward to September 2009. I remember standing in my bedroom in Washington, D.C. listening to my mother tell me that Lisa had colon cancer. I could tell in her voice she was scared and very concerned, and I felt bad that I didn’t instantly break down into tears. But, at the time, I was simply not able to comprehend what it might mean. I thought, “We’ve seen this before” and I believe I asked Mom something like, “So what happens? Surgery? Some chemo?” Again, I hate to sound flippant, but I truly figured the doctors would have a plan, Lisa would follow it, and everything would be ok. It’d make for a shitty year (pardon my language), but it certainly wouldn’t mean the end of anything.

Later that day, one of my D.C. roommates, Robbie, was the first person I saw and I told him the news. I did break down into tears that time, and he gave me a big hug–a rare thing in my world. I felt awful for what it meant for Lisa and Danny and the girls, but, much like with my Mom’s cancer, I still don’t think I felt fear that we would lose her. I know I didn’t.

And that was my attitude throughout the Fall of 2009. I may have called the Tanners or visited Raleigh one or two more times than I might have normally. Lisa would tell me funny stories about this “damn port” they had stuck in her shoulder. I’d see pictures on Facebook of people at church all wearing fanny packs like the one Lisa carried her chemo in to show support. But day to day, Lisa’s cancer did not haunt me. Whether it was denial, or going off my only other experience of cancer in the family, or whatever, my life went on.

That Christmas I arrived at the Tanner house after leaving D.C. with a friend at 8 p.m. on Christmas Eve, so I literally got in on Christmas morning. Lisa had just had her surgery to…well, I’m not even sure what they did, but it was a big surgery. She was in the living room as I walked in, adjusting and re-adjusting pillows, trying in vain to find a comfortable position to sit in. She was in pain and hobbled from the operation, but it had only taken place a few days earlier, so this did not seem like something abnormal. I left the day after Christmas and her condition had not improved greatly, but I was told this was “major surgery” so I don’t think I left with any concern. I figured in two weeks she’d be starting the next round of chemo as planned. By summer, or maybe even before, she’d be back to normal!

Then the reports came. She was not improving. The pain in her back was excruciating. They may have found cancerous cells in other parts of the body. Two weeks into 2010 I got a call from Sallie. She explained some over-my-head science stuff. I was walking in the back alley of a mall in Bethesda. Sallie told me very directly: Lisa is going to die from this. I calmly told her I regretted not having a baseball bat in my hand to swing at some breakable items. But I also knew I wasn’t convinced. I don’t think I questioned her on the phone, but in my head I thought, “Well, sure, based on the numbers game and percentages and all that, I’m sure things don’t look good. But nothing is certain. Good news could still come.”

I did, for the first time, begin to think that I should perhaps find some more time to be in Raleigh. Hate me for it or not, my philosophy up until that point had been “if you act like it’s a big deal, it becomes a big deal; if you act normal, like it’s no big deal, like life is going to go on, then life WILL go on.” In sports I see people do this all the time: rationalize and justify things they do (like switching seats, or not taking bathroom breaks while their team is winning) as actually having an affect on players they are watching through a television screen. I mock these people, and yet I had done the same thing, believing my attitude towards the cancer would somehow make it go away.

I made a trip to Raleigh at a time when Lisa was spending many of her nights in the hospital due to her back pain and other unwelcome discoveries. Danny was staying there many nights with her, fearing that if something happened when he wasn’t there he would never forgive myself. Though I ‘m sure it was only because he was completely worn down and exhausted, I was honored that he allowed me to stay a night (and later, more nights) in his place so that he could go home and be with the girls and crash.

I had fully expected Lisa to be on her feet at this point, only taking brief pauses to recover from chemotherapy sessions. What I found was almost a total shock. To my surprise, Sallie had not been mistaken. Cancer had obviously not gotten the memo that I was treating this casually, and that it was supposed to spend its time with Lisa and move on. My sister was not only not getting better, she was looking much worse. The only comparison I could draw was my lively (and portly) grandmother, who was a complete shell of her normal self in her later years. Everyone else had been right and I was wrong. Lisa was dying.

One year ago, I sent the following email to a circle of friends:

I am bedside with my oldest sister in Duke Hospital. The nurses are not nearly as cute as I have seen on TV shows. We have successfully convinced Danny that a hot shower and long sleep in his own bed are not only long overdue but also very necessary–once home, he no doubt fought to stay awake as long he could tonight since he was planning on having a movie night in bed with two of his three daughters (DJ’s at the beach with friends). Lisa talked to them via cell a little while ago, then Sallie called to get her info update from Boston. I told her I was holding it down like a pro and that the nurses even let me scrub up and help change the sheets, so I must exude a a natual aura of medical know-how.

First, on Lisa: I have attached Danny’s latest update below, and as I’m often worried about getting a medical detail wrong and passing on misinformation, I will let his words explain the events of the past few days. The last paragraph he wrote may be the most revealing–while the latest news was not necessarily accompanied with new percentages or timetables or anything conclusive at this point, it has dealt a blow to our mental outlook. I think at times Lisa believes that such intense pain could only signify that her body was turning against her at an accelerated rate. I do think she has plenty of the same attitude in her that she displayed so admirably throughout the fall in facing cancer, but right now can only think about how bad her back hurts.

As for me (I feel selfish including, but people tend to ask if I don’t)….I am very sad for my sister and for Danny and for their girls. I remain hopeful that we will have positive updates and better days–a friend reminded me that these things are always a roller coaster–but the past few days have been a flood of negative thoughts, and it has been tough to think about the Tanner family without tears welling up. It also feels very strange to see my sister so weak and in pain. It felt awkward helping her change clothes, not because of the changing, but because I can’t recall having helped her do anything. As most know, I am very much the baby of my family (and often act my part quite well!)–as I mentioned to someone today, the age spread between us was big enough that Lisa is truly the only babysitter I have a memory of. She took me to my first Carolina basketball game. She was/is my person to call when I messed up kind of big (I have a couple times). I think I expected to come here tonight to stay with and take care of her, only to have her check in on me, ask me how I’m doing, etc since she knows that I’m dealing with some tough stuff right now (nevermind that the tough stuff is HER).

I have bounced around the Triangle the past couple days and seen a number of people–thanks to all for the minutes and hours of your time to talk about Lisa or not, depending on how I was feeling. Like Lisa has been throughout this process, I am continually reminded of how lucky we are to have so many supportive friends, and I feel for the folks/families that have to face this type of thing every day without nearly as much support. Again, thanks.

Pray if you got ’em.

H

It took hours to write, because if I wasn’t crying, I was helping Lisa go to the bathroom or massaging her back (oh, what I would give to massage her back right now! I am, however, still crying. Less fun.) Though I was not even close to being ready to throw in the towel, I will remember this night as the first one I was ready to admit that things might not work out that way I assumed they would

Let me finish with a clear distinction: there are thing I wish I had done differently in the last year of my sister’s life, leading right up to her final days. But I do not have regrets. I fear that some day the girls will home in on an argument or an unkind word they may have had with Lisa and it causes them great anguish. I hope it never happens, because they don’t deserve it. I will lead the charge in letting them know that their mother would not have had them do one single thing differently. I can lead that charge honestly and genuinely because I feel that way about myself as well. We cannot look back after losing loved ones and trouble ourselves with things we could have done to make their road, or our own, “easier” or “better”.

As we lead up to this miserable (because we lost her) and wonderful (because we will celebrate her life) commemoration, I am certain we’ll all do some reflecting. Even as I write now I pause and think, “Was it really only a year ago that I sat beside her in the hospital while she told me to stop being funny because laughing made her back hurt?”

But I don’t regret not being more worried or aware of her true condition than I was. I don’t question (nor would I accept anyone else questioning) my actions throughout the course of her illness any more than I don’t like to accept “credit” for whatever help I give then Tanner family now. In both instances, I acted like Lisa’s brother the best way I knew how, and I’d prefer to take no credit, or blame, for that.

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7 Comments

  1. Debra Hertz

     /  January 27, 2011

    I remember that email, and I remember the email you sent after Lisa died. It was the saddest moment of 2010. We lost a real gem 11 months and 3 days ago.

    Reply
    • We were not all that bummed to wave goodbye to 2010, that’s for sure. February 2011 is not going to be a house fave either. Here’s to March!

      Reply
  2. Wayne

     /  January 27, 2011

    Not that you have anything to regret for not having done, you’ve more than covered any bases you might have missed in this last year. What would we have done without you? Thank you for coming through. My fondest family memories as a child revolve around aunts and uncles–especially young single ones. You are giving the girls memories like no one else could.

    Reply
  3. Helen LaVere

     /  January 27, 2011

    Wish I had an Uncle Jesse!

    Reply
  4. Barbara Rogers

     /  January 27, 2011

    God bless you, Uncle Jesse!!! What an amazing uncle and brother-in-law you are! You have “come through” for Lisa’s family in a way that most people can only hope they would! God bless you!

    Reply
  5. Lynn Moss

     /  January 28, 2011

    God bless you, Uncle Jesse!

    Reply
  6. You are a miracle.
    God bless you.

    Reply

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