Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A death in the family

Today is Halloween.
It is a day to laugh at death.

I am acquainted with death,
for it has visited my household.

I do not laugh at death,
but neither do I fear it.

It was April 2002, the week before Nancy’s 50th birthday.
We had reserved a cabin in east Tennessee for her birthday weekend.
We had tickets to “Stomp” at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville.

But she had been feeling weak, faint upon arising from sitting down and out of breath with the slightest exertion.
She had a number of bruises.
A routine eye exam showed some broken blood vessels in her retinas, which the optometrist attributed to high blood pressure.
But her blood pressure had been under control for years with medication.

So we decided it was time for a physical exam to find out what was wrong.
Her doctor examined her and found nothing obviously wrong.
Blood was drawn and sent off for analysis.

The next morning my office phone rang.
It was Nancy.
The doctor’s office had received the results of her blood tests.
The doctor said, “Go immediately to the hospital.”
Her platelet count was 17 thousand (normal is 150 thousand to 400 thousand).

I went home immediately.
We packed an overnight bag and drove directly to St. Thomas Hospital.

The Japanese cherry tree in our front garden was just starting to bloom.
The birds were singing.
Spring was in the air.

That afternoon she endured the first of five bone marrow biopsies.
It is not a pleasant procedure.
The doctor inserts a long needle deep into the hip to extract bone marrow.
It was her fiftieth birthday.
The next day the oncologist shared the bad news: She had Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML), which is one of the deadliest forms of leukemia. She would die within weeks if chemotherapy was not started immediately.

Thus began a long and difficult journey, the last one we would take.

After 102 days in the hospital and three rounds of chemotherapy, she finally achieved remission.
I spent those nights on a narrow, uncomfortable cot beside her bed.

But we made a living room out of her hospital room.
I brought items from home, including VCR, stereo, boom box and CDs;
rented movies for her to watch;
got take-out from nearby restaurants to give her a break from hospital food.

Remission was finally achieved after three rounds of chemo.
Then six months of “normal” life.
A vacation to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
A visit to her first great-niece in Kokomo, IN
She sang “His Eye is on The Sparrow” at church for Thanksgiving
with me accompanying her on piano.

Her monthly blood tests were normal until March 21, 2003.

Then we heard the doctor utter the dreaded word, Relapse.

She was tired.
The doctors said her chances were slim.
So we went home to await death.

Spring was in the air once again.
The cherry tree was blooming once again.
The birds sang once again.

I sipped my morning coffee on the front porch,
listening to the birds
along with the sounds of Nancy’s breathing through the baby monitor.

Death came at 6:15 p.m. on April 28, 2003, eleven days after her fifty-first birthday.

What did I learn?

Life is short,
so you’d better enjoy it while you can.

Blood saves lives, so donate if you are healthy.
Nancy used 153 units of blood (100 units of red cells and 53 units of platelets) during her treatment.

Love conquers all.
Although death defeated Nancy’s body, it did not defeat our love.

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