why I cleaned my sister’s bathroom when her kid might have cancer

March 12th, 2012 by admin Leave a reply »

Me: “Pick me up at baggage claim.”

Kathy, my oldest sister: “Where are you?”

Me: “On a plane. You asked me to come.”

Kathy called me that morning two weeks ago tomorrow in tears, and I arrived from SFO into Omaha just before midnight. (In my family, if someone needs help, five other siblings can potentially be dispatched. I’m freelancing now, so I have the most flexible schedule.)

Kathy is a single working mom with two sets of boy-girl twins, 17 and 20 years old, three of whom have special needs. Her life is like a bad Lifetime Network movie. If I told you all of the things that have happened to her and about her kids’ health issues, you wouldn’t believe it. And she’s toughed it out.

The log that broke her back was the possibility that Elyse, her older daughter might have cancer. We should find out tomorrow.

The poor kid can’t catch a break. Recently, she broke her nose in a car accident and needs to have sinus surgery. She had to quit her job because of too many absences, even though they were all health related. Did I mention a drunk driver ran over her hand in a parking lot? If the ER had a loyalty program, she’d be in the 100K tier.

Elyse has a thyroid tumor, which is very common, especially with women, but hers has grown rapidly and is interfering with eating and breathing. It was some worrisome blood-work results, which could be caused by lymphoma (rare, but it’s Elyse, the statistical anomaly), though, that broke her mom. Hearing the “C” word and your child’s name in the same sentence is enough to send any parent into a tailspin.

When I arrived at her house, I knew Kathy had reached the point that every working mom reaches at some point, where you have to decide not to see the gigantic mess in front of you, which you’re too tired and busy to clean up. Because if you even acknowledged it existed, it would send you over the edge. So you buy new socks when the rest are dirty, add to the piles of papers (each representing an overdue to-do), and overlook what hasn’t made it to the garbage can.

That’s why—in addition to going with Elyse to the ultrasound and the surgeon, and taking my sister out to talk over drinks—I spent the next week cleaning Kathy’s bathroom and bedroom. To give her a sliver of control over her rollercoaster life. Tomorrow morning, when she wakes up, before taking Elyse to the hospital, she won’t trip on the way to the shower, can pull a hair-tie out of the designated drawer, and will choose from clothes on matching hangers, tops sorted first by sleeve length and then by color.

In lieu of having the rhinoplasty originally slated for her spring break, Elyse will have the right side of her thyroid removed and a frozen section biopsied while she’s under. The next steps depend on the pathologist’s ruling: malignant or benign? I can’t control the answer, and neither can my sister. But I can make sure that when Kathy gets home, she can focus on Elyse because there’s a little less chaos in her peripheral vision.


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