Those of you who know me will have noticed a series of Facebook posts this week concerning my sister Kelly. Among those posts were shameless requests for ehugs and pleasant distractions to lift her spirits. I’m certain at least a few folks who saw my posts tut-tutted over my whore-like pleas for attention. And I don’t care.
Almost two weeks ago I received a text from my sister. She was in the hospital. The fatigue that she had assumed was due to stress and a lack of sleep, was actually a dangerously low level of hemoglobin. What happened next left my head spinning. Blood transfusions, a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia, talk of issues with her bone marrow, an ambulance ride off the island to the only leukemia specialty ward in the province, tests, tests, and more tests, and then chemotherapy. I finished off my only pressing commitment in Nelson, loaded up the truck, and Prez and I headed to the coast. I’ve been visiting her every day, but for one, since I arrived.
I’ve been down this road before, with my mother, but this time I’ve decided to travel differently.
I am a fan of stoicism. I grew up with a father who worked in a steel mill before there were such luxuries as hearing protection, steel-toed boots, and safety goggles. In his world, you didn’t complain about life’s little inconveniences—tinnitus, burns, the occasional smashed toe—you were simply thankful to have a good paying job and a roof over your head. And pity? Who has time for that?
I married a man who once informed me hours after getting stung by a poisonous insect that his leg had gone numb right up to his hip and he had honestly thought for a moment that it might continue, and he might die. When I asked him why he had not thought to inform me of this while it was happening, (we were snorkeling), he said, “Well, we were too far away from a hospital to do anything and I figured if I have to die it might as well happen while I was doing something I enjoy.”
As for me, I have written of my Spock brain tendencies which have only recently been sabotaged by those damn female hormones. More than one person in my life has not-jokingly referred to me as emotionless because (pre-peri menopause) I was not known to shed tears over just about anything…at least not in front of other people.
When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I was a rock. My job, I thought, was to be steady and logical. I pointed her toward a support group and attended the first meeting, but that’s about as touchy-feely as I allowed myself to be. We would get through this with good old Marrington stoicism. Even after her death, I believed I had done all I could do.
For years I looked disparagingly upon those who could not contain their public emotions or sent out cries for help, but almost a decade ago two special friends shifted my thinking.
For those of you who never had the pleasure of meeting my friend Big Wave Dave, he faced down a fairly dismal stage four cancer diagnosis and managed to squeeze out several more happy years than the doctors predicted. He was very clear that one of the big factors in his success was the army of friends, family, and well-wishers of all description who cheered him on. But that army would not have existed in such force if it were not for his wife, the remarkable Liz.
You see, Dave had originally wanted to keep his diagnosis quiet. Like many people, I’m sure he did not want his condition to be a burden on others, did not want pity, and felt he could handle the challenge on his own. Liz, wisely, put the kibosh on that idea. Even if Dave had been capable of dealing with the cancer solo, she knew she was not. Together, they broke the news to friends and family, in person, by phone, and email. I will never forget that day. Most of all, I will never forget how honoured we were to be included in the news and how eager we were to offer any kind of support that we could. It wasn’t pity we felt but love.
After witnessing the tsunami of friendship that carried Dave through those difficult years, I realized that maybe stoicism ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Slowly, I have tried to open up, to ask for help when I need it, and admit to vulnerability. I even—gasp—cry in front of people now and then.
The hormones might be helping with that.
So, when my sister ended up in the hospital, sick, scared, and alone, I decided that without violating her privacy I would try to recruit my own army of well wishers to bring a smile to her face while she waited for test results. I put out the call for smile generators on Facebook. My friends answered that call and how. Funny videos, photos of shaved llamas and funny cats, messages full of love and cheer flooded in, often from people who had never even met Kelly. Just as I had hoped, her spirits were lifted and a terrible time was made a little less terrible.
I continue to post updates and to thank those who have been there for my sister, and for me. As long as she has to go through this ordeal, I want her to know that a whole bunch of people are out there just waiting to help.
And those folks tut-tutting about my oversharing? Well, they can just keep tut-tutting. I’ll be riding the tsunami.