Monday, July 1, 2013

On Cancer and Miracles

At the age of four my family moved from Pomona, CA to Colton, CA.  We moved into a lovely home on the end of a cul-de-sac.  It had hardwood floors, an enormous fireplace, a dining room, and a huge garage where I set up my train set.

There were two reasons that we moved to Colton.  One was because my Papa had gotten a civilian job working at Norton Air Force Base.  The other was because my beloved Aunt Luana had cancer of the brain.  (Aunt Luana wasn't really my Mother's sister.  She was my Mother's first cousin, but they were as close as any sisters.)

Aunt Luana and Uncle Pat had five children.  The oldest at four years of age, came home from playing at a friend's to find her Mama unconscious on the floor.  Desperate, tiny Christeen ran to the neighbors for help.

Soon an ambulance came to take away Aunt Luana.  What about Christine, and the rest of the kids?  Somehow neighbors and church members reached out that day.

That was reason two for our move. (I don't know for certain the priority order of their choice, I just know that I addressed the choices in that order).  Reason two is that it was a long drive everyday for Mama to come to their home and clean, or care for the children.  It was a long drive to take Papa to work, so that she could keep the car and then pick him back up in the evening and make the long drive home.  They did this for quite a while.

A wonderful lady named Clara came to work for the Patterson family.  She used to laugh (she had a magical laugh) and say to my Mama, "I'm Clara, you're Sarah, we're twins."  At the time my young sensibilities missed the fact that Clara's skin was a deep rich brown, while Mama's was a light white.  In other words they didn't look very twin-like.

Clara and Sarah became an indefatigable team.  They held Luana's tongue down as she struggled with seizures.  (That was the medical idea at the time, hold the tongue down with a spoon so that the seizure patient can't swallow her tongue.)  I witnessed one of her seizures.  I wish I could forget that sight...but it was so attached to emotion that some fifty plus years later I still can see it vividly.

The doctors did exploratory surgery.  If you remember the time when doctor's invaded the human body on "fishing expeditions" you are probably older than 40.  In a time before CT scans or MRI's, ultrasounds, or echocardiagrams, the only diagnostic tool was x-ray and it did not show soft tissue disease with great clarity.  So the answer was to open a person up and look under the hood, so to speak.

When they opened Luana's skull there was an extremely grim prognosis.  The tumor had invaded most of her brain.  It was inoperable.  All that they could do was to leave a small part of her skull open. This was done so that as the tumor grew further it could expand through that space and help alleviate the horrible headaches that they knew she would suffer.

Aunt Luana and Uncle Pat had five children five years of age and under.  There was Chris at 4, Rex and Reid, twins at 3, Dee somewhere around 2, and then there was baby Becky 6 months old.

Mama had three children of her own.  One of them was special needs.  (That was me, with severe allergy asthma...there were no medications to treat my asthma with.  I would be put on oxygen until the attack subsided).  My attacks happened most often during the night, and off we would go to the nearest clinic or hospital to get me on oxygen.

Now Mama and Papa took in five more children, one a baby of 6 months.  Carla and Howard (my siblings) were old enough to help a bit.  Dee adopted Howard as his "cool" big brother.  I have fond memories of Dee trailing after Howard like a precious family pet.  I remember it as being a chaotic time, but one filled with love and service.

I adored having a "twin sister."  Chris and I were only born a couple of days apart.  She was blond, blue-eyed, gorgeous, and I was strawberry blond, hazel eyed, and a little awkward.  I loved Chris with an adoring love.  Fifty years later she's still gorgeous blue-eyed, blond haired, and I'm still a little awkward!  

Aunt Luana had radiation and chemotherapy but the prognosis was dire.  She lost all of her beautiful auburn hair.  Through all of the treatments and stress Aunt Luana remained endlessly positive.  I think we all thought that she was in denial (if we actually knew what that was back then).

One day Uncle Pat was helping Aunt Luana to take a bath.  I heard a low keening cry coming from him.  (I was in the next room playing with Chris but I'll never forget that horrible sound of a man weeping from the depths of his soul).  I heard him say, "Luana, your skull has turned dark."

Aunt Luana had a weird response.  She started to laugh.  "Of course," she said with her amazing ability to be positive, "My hair is coming back."  Come back it did.  Not quite as thick as before, and it couldn't return to the place where she had no skull, and no scalp but it was her lovely hair again.

When Uncle Pat would mourn over each new negative prognosis, Aunt Luana would smile and embrace him.  "Pat, I'm going to live to raise our children."  It made no sense for her to be so positive.  Every single doctor (and there were many) gave her less than 0% chance of beating this disease.  They also spoke of all the brain damage that she would suffer between the surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Radiantly, Aunt Luana battled on.  A year later (and she was getting stronger by the day), our family was wrenched away when Norton Air Force Base was closed.  We moved to Utah, where Papa was transferred to Hill Air Force Base.

I shall never forget if I live to be 120, precious little Becky sitting on the porch screaming, and crying as we drove away.  We were all in tears.  Aunt Luana and Uncle Pat were there with Becky, they tried to hold her close but they had become strangers to her in the time that she had lived with us.

I wonder as an adult how painful it was to Aunt Luana that her own precious baby wanted nothing to do with her for almost another year.

Aunt Luana DID live, and grew stronger, and stronger.  When she was in her 50's there was a brain scan done.  There was absolutely no sign of a tumor, or scar tissue from a tumor.  Miracle?  Oh yes.  If you had heard the doctor's reports relayed by Uncle Pat as he sobbed, if you had heard my Mama and Papa planning emergency contingencies for when she died (late at night when I was supposed to be asleep and not eavesdropping), you would have understood that as the world counts proof, empirical proof, that can NOT be denied, proof that is able to shown by our senses, sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, you would know without a doubt that Aunt Luana should NOT have lived to see her children grow up.  SHE DID!

I was there on the day that her youngest son married.  She cried tender tears and said, "I told you that I would live to see all of my children grow up."  Why did any of us ever doubt her?

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