Last week, in fact, of complications related to chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). It’s a disease she carried for some 30 years after diagnosis, and you usually die from something else. Her last four years were a series of horrors for her, a normally active woman with tons of friends, and one who was very close to her children and grandchildren. This will be lengthy, I’m afraid.
In the beginning, she fell and broke her shoulder; painful and inconvenient, but she recovered. Then she fell and broke the other shoulder. On a subsequent visit to her (then) oncologist, the doctor, who has been treating her for years, suddenly decided that her white cell count warranted chemo treatments. My sister, surprised, reluctantly agreed and they started pumping poison into her body, with the usual results. While she was recovering from that first round, her (now former and much reviled) doctor took her off the anti-viral meds she was on. My sister promptly acquired the shingles virus on her scalp, the single most painful experience of her life. As she was recovering from that, she felt like she had zero energy, and was barely able to get out of bed without major effort. The quack diagnosed her as anemic, but offered no solutions other than to “rest and take vitamins”. Turns out that simple infusions would have turned her around in short order, but instead she continued to suffer for another two years.
Her depressed immune system meant that she was unable to visit friends or have them visit her. This pretty much included her own family. She couldn’t go to restaurants, go shopping or any of the normal activities a person takes for granted. The consequences of contracting a stray virus was just too dangerous.
Then one day during this past year, she began feeling really poorly. Knowing that she had an appointment coming up, she decided not to go to the ER. When her son saw her, he immediately took her in, as she was disoriented, unable to concentrate and barely able to walk. Her “doctor” was on vacation, so she saw someone else, a man who truly knows his business. He looked at the blood results and told her that she had no right being alive at that point. They immediately put her into the infusion unit and started pumping the good stuff in to help correct her white count and the anemia.
She rebounded a bit, but then about a week and a half ago, she went into rapid decline and landed in the oncology ward. I got an email from my nephew on Monday that she wanted to see me and he advised me to get my ass up there quickly, as she was waiting to see me before she died. We flew up to Anchorage on Tuesday and spent about four hours talking with her, telling stories and laughing together while her son and daughter took turns packing her in ice to fight the fever from the infection that was ravaging her. Her choice was for no special measures and she had a DNR in place.
The next morning, she was in a lot of pain. We were able to talk a bit, but they had to keep bumping up the pain meds and she finally slipped into unconsciousness for the rest of the day. At about 6 p.m. that evening her breathing became labored. She opened her eyes for the first time in many hours, looked at everyone in the room, then died staring into her son’s eyes. She was 76 years old.
My sister was special to me. When my father abandoned us all, she took care of me while my mother worked two jobs to pay the rent and support three kids. She taught me how to read before I started grade school, a lifelong pleasure for me. She married an asshole, but stuck with him. He’s still an asshole, but she was faithful to the end. She was a friend of dogs and cats, never being without the former, walking them all twice a day, every day, rain, snow, ice, sun, sleet and anything else Alaska can throw at you. She mentored her brilliant granddaughter, teaching her what it is to be responsible, honest and respectful to others. The girl is now in pre-med to become an orthopedist.
She was a master stitcher, winning many awards and starting a stitching chapter in Alaska that still thrives. She was also a master baker, learning at her mother’s knee that a pie crust is a work of art. Sinatra was a god to her. She loved to go berry picking in the fall, and could fill a coffee can faster than anyone else. I remember when we were young, she fell off a log while on a picking excursion. She stood up, held up her can, and shouted: “Didn’t lose a one!”
I’m so glad that I was able to get there in time; the fact that she specifically waited for me means a lot. We held hands for much of that four hours, laughed a lot, and talked about trivial things. I couldn’t stay for the celebration of life event coming up this weekend. It will be a wild scene, as she will be celebrated in death as she was loved in life: full of humor and good will, ready with a laugh or a smile, and inordinately fond of vodka. We will likely go back in the late summer, during blueberry picking season, and help spread her ashes over her favorite berry picking area.
Emotions are still raw, but every time I tear up when looking at an old photo, I can hear her saying “I’m dead, get over it.” She was glad to go, to be free of the pain and the meds, and to be able to hug and touch all the friends who came to see her one last time.
As for that fucking doctor. . .well, she has to live with her (as it turns out) bad diagnosis, and with killing my sister before her time. Someone asked her husband if they were going to sue. His reply was “We’re not the type of people who sue other people; we just burn down your house.”