Stupid Cancer


On a snowy day last week, mom-in-law Ivalene checked into the emergency room – quite yellow. In the process of correcting her outrageous skin color, pancreatic cancer was discovered.

From her hospital bed, mom-in-law has been reminiscing. One of the stories she loves to tell is how she met her husband, Jack, when he was home on leave from the Marines and how they spent only a few days together before he left for the west coast and how they wrote and after a few hand-written exchanges he proposed in a letter and then returned to Arkansas to marry his bride.

The newlyweds boarded a train for a three-day cross-country trip back to Washington State, sitting up the entire way. They first moved in with Jack’s parents until one day, while out on a drive, Ivalene spied a little shack and said, “We can live there.”

Ivalene and Jack in November, 1946

Ivalene made a home out of the little shack in the woods without electricity or running water, which gives you a hint as to where the bathroom facilities were located. They were quite content living alone together.

Eventually Jack and Ivalene had four sons and a daughter – Hubby being the cream of the crop, a fact which I remind my three brothers-in-law of from time to time (I am their favorite sister-in-law for doing this).

Jack started a business, and after several years of hard work and sweat and steadfast determination, the couple semi-retired to a ranch in northern California where dad-in-law had to buzz the cows in his small airplane to clear the airstrip before he could land. They were quite happy together for several years until Jack died of a heart attack at age 53.

I remember spending weekends at the family ranch with all the siblings and grandchildren and Jack would pull Ivalene down to his lap and she would protest, “Oh, Jack!” and throw her head back and laugh, still a young-married couple after so many years of marriage.

* * *

Once mom-in-law’s cancer news was out, family converged on her hospital room, which was the laughter-filled story-telling noisy room. “This is why we put you at the end of the hall,” quipped one nurse.

During one of our girl parties, I snapped (tapped) this four generation photo: one mom-in-law, one sis-in-law, three of my nieces and one great-niece. Beautiful women inside and out, all.

As for our joyous noise and copious amounts of story-telling, we’ve not been celebrating the news of mom-in-law’s cancer; we’ve been celebrating life and family and come-togetherness and the hope of seeing loved ones who have gone on before us.

The doctor asked my mother-in-law if she wanted to fight this cancer. Ivalene’s immediate response was, “Oh, my goodness no! I’m 80-something … how old am I? Oh dear, 89-years-old?! That’s old!” And then she threw her head back and laughed her contagious joyful bubbly laugh. “No,” she said, “I’ve had a long full life.”

Mom-in-law is dozing nearby as I write this and as we wait for test results. I thought I would get to take her home Thursday, but that didn’t happen. Maybe Friday, but she was feeling worse on Friday, which meant more blood work and a chest X-ray, which wasn’t detailed enough and so a CT scan was ordered, which meant a cocktail mix of 7-Up and contrast dye to get down. The medical professionals were simply making sure there were no hidden pockets of infection before sending her home. And then a clean scan and a green light to exit the hospital room where mom-in-law had been camped over a week.

I’ve been here before. Hearing terminal cancer news, hanging out for hours and days in a hospital room, waiting for test results, transporting a loved one home for convalescence – did this remind me of my cancer caregiving days with Hubby? Of course, of course it takes me back to a bittersweet place.

These words from Shauna Niequist describe best how I feel:

“Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness.”

So, while sadness and laughter and love and heaviness and joy all bubble up in a large cauldron somewhere in the general vicinity of my heart, there is the reminder that this earth isn’t our final destination and there are some pretty amazing people in heaven waiting to greet our homecoming.

Mom-in-law’s homegoing may be sooner than we want, but it will be a sweet reunion with her husband, Jack; with her son Gary (my Hubby) who died of prostate cancer; with her mother who died of leukemia; and two of her sisters and a niece who all died of breast cancer.

And now pancreatic cancer is trying to claim my mom-in-law.

But she has been laughing in its face – that beautiful indomitable dazzling vibrant extraordinary infectious effervescent head-thrown-back laugh.

Take that, stupid cancer.