I’ll always be able to recall the very moment I turned 39. I was at a stoplight in downtown Ithaca, following a hideous and frantic three and a half hour drive from Vermont (a drive that really should take 4 hours, but I got lucky with almost no traffic… or traffic cops). I glanced at the dashboard clock.
A few minutes later, I parked my car at Cayuga Medical Center and ran into the Emergency Room, where a triage nurse pointed me in the right direction. I took an elevator to the third floor, got lost, and then finally stumbled into the correct wing.
My sister-in-law had just come out of emergency surgery and was sleeping in her room. Scott, my brother Steve, and two friends were pacing the hallway. I hugged Scott and then Steve — something I’d desperately needed since I picked up a phone call while dressing for my great aunt’s 80th birthday party and got the news.
I walked into Elizabeth’s room and gave her soft hug, careful not to hit any of the wires or tubes connected to her body. I kissed her on the cheek. She rolled her face towards me, opened her eyes a bit and whispered, “Happy Birthday. I ruined it. I am so sorry.”
I’ve thought about that moment thousands of times in the past 2 weeks, and still, my eyes fill with tears. My birthday didn’t matter. All I wanted was to make all of this go away for her. And yet, that’s the kind of person she is — minutes after coming out of surgery, still incredibly drugged on anesthesia and morphine, she put me and my feelings ahead of her own.
From that moment on, and for the next 12 days, things are fuzzy. Time stopped and the days and the nights ran together. I know I moved into my brother’s place for at least four nights, but I only remember waking up there one morning — the first — and that’s because I tried to do farm chores so he could sleep and nearly got taken out by 50 hangry (hungry + angry) ducks and the two overly protective geese. The other mornings are a blur of coffee and long cries. I know that a friend and I split up the long list of people to call when we finally got the diagnosis of cancer, but I can’t tell you what day that was or who I talked to.
It felt like we took a giant inhale that first day and could not start to let it out until 6 days later, when we finally got to bring Elizabeth home.
That chapter was a hard one, but even worse is that it’s not the end of the story. A port went in last week, chemo starts this week, and there are countless more pokes and scans and meds to come. This journey will be a long one.
But it’s not a nightmare. Other people call it that, and I just can’t.
I can’t call it a nightmare when I got to strengthen the bond I share with Elizabeth. It was already a bond that transcended the term “sister-in-law,” and now we definitely don’t need the extra qualifying words. She’s my sister.
I can’t call it a nightmare when I got to be there for Steve. I mean really be there, in the ways that are fundamental to my understanding of what it means to be a sister.
I can’t call it a nightmare when my faith in humanity was renewed. From gourmet food that appeared for our family, to genuine and heartfelt messages of support, to donors who gave to the GoFundMe campaign — so many people gave so much, and then asked if they could do more. It humbles me, and I have questioned whether I am as good of a person as the people who embrace us.
I can’t call it a nightmare when I got to experience my family at its best. We’re already incredibly tight-knit. But now, I feel a sense of closeness to Scott, my parents, and Steve and Elizabeth that I’m not sure I knew was possible.
I can’t call it a nightmare when I experienced such support from my community. Steve and Elizabeth’s friends and loved ones cared for us in ways that stunned us at times, but there were also people who reached out to care for me. Many of them barely know Steve or Elizabeth, or have never even met them. I received heartfelt emails, funny photos, and gifts that lifted my spirits. My work colleagues made it so I didn’t even have to think about my professional life for 10 days. My closest friends were there to listen, support and make me laugh — or kidnap me for an hour of raspberry picking.
I can’t call it a nightmare when so many moments like this ripped me from reality and reminded me of all the beauty there is in the world:
I can’t call it a nightmare when there were so many belly-aching laughs. That’s one thing that my family does right — we can poke fun of ourselves, each other and the weirdness of life. Case in point: on discharge day, we weren’t sure we would be able to find a bed that Elizabeth would be able to use at home. A few hours later, we had four beds — including two hospital beds! — all of which had been assembled and set up and then disassembled and removed (well, except for one, obviously).
Not calling it a nightmare doesn’t diminish the tragedy of the situation, or how scary it all is. It doesn’t erase the fact that Elizabeth and Steve’s lives have changed forever in ways big and small. But there is so much good, so much love, so much support surrounding them and our family. And for that, I’m grateful.