A much-loved song by Sara Barellies about the courage of speaking up resonated with me but never more so than when my sister was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Like other cancers, AML can be indiscriminant in those it chooses. One day, no AML, the next day an ominous uncertainty lingering; for my sister it spanned almost three years. This lyric was the essence, the cornerstone of my sister’s odyssey with an unwanted giant: “Show me how big your brave is.” How do we ever really know how big our brave is unless the slings and arrows of life pierce or graze us? I bore witness to a ceaseless barrage of a warrior’s pain. I watched how she engaged and tamed it; a puddle of malicious intention left on the floor of her hospital room- no match for her power.
Hearing she had cancer, a disease that had threatened then taken the life of our mother could have paralyzed my sister, Geri, with fear. The message sent from her stored cell memory- a knee-jerk imagining of the worst end result accompanying the doctor’s diagnosis. When I walked into Geri’s hospital room for the first time after the news, she was propped in her bed chatting with a close friend; her healthy looking body, blonde highlights and voice steady in the throes of conversation. I had to stifle the urge to say, ‘this is a cruel joke, let’s get outta here.’ In days that followed, I recall my successful family law attorney sister, sitting with her lap top on a tray table moments before the anticipated searing pain of a bone marrow biopsy. She checked in with clients despite the intrusion about to enter her body. No matter the source of the invasion, Geri’s Brave would not take a bow. It stood firm, proud, and uncompromised.
Weeks, then months at a time in the hospital threatened to break my sister’s verve and wit; and at times her will to endure the next challenge, but instead of railing against this new culture she had inhabited, she made peace with it. She was poked, prodded, infused, transfused day or night. The unexpected transformed into normalcy; she rarely complained unless she felt her dignity was at stake. The figurative gloves always stayed on; after all, she was in the ring, the fight of her life- she never blurred the line of accepting condescension for her cooperation.
Sometimes Brave looked like shared tears of laughter with a sister when the nightmare loomed the largest; it meant maintaining her own voice. No amount of drug therapy, procedures, including two stem cell transplants, or endless waiting, could diminish the will of her mission to live. Haze due to side effects of medication, dehydration and pain bullied her sharp memory, presence, and induced fatigue, but her essential essence remained.
Life became a revolving door of cancer leaving and resurging, clean bone marrow shimmering then crowded with blast cells. Agonizingly, a stem cell transplant of healthy blood from her son, Sam, didn’t graft, so hell became watching a sea of healing possibilities dwindle to a pond, then a pool. Another transplant, followed by other experimental treatments, stretched the scope of just how brave a human being could be. When she imagined out loud whether she would witness the high school graduation of her only child, she did so when she felt pretty good overall. The hoped for healthy body soon began to rage with a swell of bad cells and the tidal wave gained unwelcome momentum. No dance seemed to be fast enough to evade and eradicate the monstrous intruder. If wellness was the destination, time was the golden ticket we no longer had.
Things happened. When Geri developed a blood clot on her brain, surgery became necessary or her suffering of excruciating headaches and worse would ensue, and the medical team felt despite the stage of her leukemia, she could survive. My sister and I used to have a phrase for the most surreal moments in life. “Excuse me, is this a play?” When I walked into her hospital cove, after her brain surgery, the large staples in her skull assaulting in their size, placement and texture, I felt like a tiny ant in the presence of her Brave. No stage, no curtain call, no actors. Geri survived yet another trial threaded with gravitas that had no means of measure, but it was the unrelenting will on her face and the aura all around her that I saw when I entered her that room that day. Cancer started a war but could not steal the intention of her sovereign soul.