Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
Smiles are upside-down frowns
Did she teach me how to die, or how to live?
The cancerous invaders in my sister Carole’s stomach were surgically removed. Signet Ring Carcinoma. Sounded ominous, especially coming soon after heart by-pass surgery. Well, she was diabetic and her heart, therefore, aged quicker, right? I’d pushed aside that our father died from a heart attack at age 45, and our mother’s line didn’t fare too well with her first of several heart attacks at 50, then heart by-pass surgery years later. But what made Carole, who lived alone, gutsy enough to go through chemo and radiation for nine months? How did she manage? I wondered, from my house 3,000 miles away, what she must have been thinking as solution dripped into her body and beams blasted tissue? Then cancer returned to what was left of her stomach anyway. Was she bitter? Why not?
I began to write down childhood happenings, almost as if doing, at the time, would keep her alive. Our wet wool snowsuits used to smell awful, and we wore Breton hats with grosgrain streamers or very large satin hair bows hand-made by our mother. Our bicycles had balloon tires and no-speeds. No. Too general. I began again. At 16, she was part of a summer-stock professional group in Bucks County, Pennsylvania; I couldn’t believe her talent for acting, singing, dancing. There she was onstage with people I’d seen in movies, and she was actually part of their cast! I’d write about that. Would that make her sad as she didn’t pursue it but became a wife and stay-at-home mother, so common for the time to either have a career or motherhood? Might be too unpleasant. I began again. Oh, hearing about her long braids being stuck in an inkwell in elementary school might be funny. The awful boy in the desk behind would take her thick hair and dab the braids’ ends in ink. My short, silky, thin blonde strands could never even be braided! Maybe, instead, I’ll think about how I felt back then.
I was sarcastic when she was bossy. I pretended to dislike her. I wondered why she bit her nails. I never complimented her incredible aqua color eyes. Sometimes, to just assert myself, I walked a completely separate avenue from the regular route to elementary school, just so I wouldn’t be with her. Even when we took our radium-covered jewelry into dark closets, during World War II, I remarked that mine had a brighter glow. Listening to The Battle of the Baritones on the radio, if she liked Crosby’s voice, then I picked Sinatra’s, or vice versa. And when we played the game of ‘Rather’, if she said she’d rather have cancer than polio (the always-used question in that game) because at least she’d be dead and not in an iron lung, I picked the opposite. Dead. Not in an iron lung. But she now has cancer! I began again, as it seemed I wasn’t remembering what we shared but rather the stupid sibling situation so common in families. Competition. I thought I was strong, she weak. Little did I realize she’d become a hero with strength almost unbelievable to me now.
As adults we didn’t communicate for a very long time. Why? What had been so serious to separate us? So silly as neither of us even remembered the trigger. But we always, even then, had a common denominator: snapshots of our parents in our individual wallets.
None of this was what I wanted to really write November 2004; here’s another ‘smokescreen’ and I’m running out of time to be ‘real’. I knew she was wheelchair bound, survived yet another cancer surgery then heart failure, then pulmonary emboli. How? My husband and older son are internists, our daughter is a registered nurse; I know that weakened patients with heart sections closing, even though by-passed and not able to be stented, do not generally survive failure nor emboli. How did she? With her optimism, she told me, through the phone lines, that she loves life, has had no choice as to what was handed her and only what to do with it. Frail, extremely thin from disease, her body and her spirits were incompatible. I used to pretend I could conquer anything playing out my self-assurance often at her expense, but she is the strong one. She is the role model. I went back to my pen and paper.
What would I want to tell her, if this were to be our last conversation? That’s what I ought to write: how her hand felt when she took mine to cross a wide boulevard each day for kindergarten, how she looked as a bride in satin and and lace, when she let me actually hold her firstborn not afraid I’d drop the infant, and the big-sister way she touched my just-turned-twenty year old face at our father’s gravesite. I’d say how much I really loved her and silently mouthed it as I wound 16 sugar cubes on a thin pink satin ribbon to make her Sweet Sixteen ‘corsage’. I liked her next to me when we pulled the radishes we planted in our Victory Garden. Her zest for living was there as a child when she’d take the sled to a higher hill; I’d only do that on a dare. She did it to better see her surroundings. She’s gone through life this same way, and still does, I said aloud to myself in early December 2004. I put the pen down. Tears were staining the paper.
It’s hard to sort out what to omit or present to anyone. She was always looking forward. Even, December 2004, when the permanent feeding tube was surgically implanted in what was left of her stomach, weeks after another operation to search for more cancer hiding within, she merely mentioned that she’d miss eating.
Maybe I’ll just appreciate that philosophy and write what she’s offering all who know her, won’t pry about tears she suppresses or fears she must have in the silence of night, and let her know she’s an amazing woman to accept the ravages of her afflictions and still find humor with each.
I telephoned her after a 500 mile car trip in constant rain and some dense fog. My husband and I had just returned from spending New Years with my daughter and her family, and I wanted to let my sister know of my safe arrival. Pneumonia and infection were ravaging her fragile body, but her clear words to me, on January 3, 2005, were “Thankfully, you’re home safely. I love you.”
Comfort Measures Only were initiated that night, with a drip to keep her hydrated, medicines administered to control pain, and an oxygen mask. “Hearing is the last to go” my daughter, a nurse who once worked in pediatric oncology, had told me during New Years. I telephoned my niece to put the phone to my sister’s ear. I continued the life-oriented charade and said I hadn’t spoken to her that day and wanted to update her on the family’s goings-on. She was conscious and responded, but with the oxygen mask, I could not make out specific words. No matter, over the next few days, how many times she seemed to be unconscious from heavy medication to quiet her brain’s intact thoughts of life, she was alert when a phone was placed to her ear.
The oxygen mask was removed after a full week of only ‘Comfort Care’ and still she was alive but seemed to finally be in a deep sleep, my niece said. My younger son, David, flew the 3000 miles to California on January 10th, 2005. When she heard his voice, she awoke and called his name, thanking him for making the trip, asking about his children. Emaciated, anti-biotic resistant infections on her, concealed cancer controlling her insides, she continued to respond with interest in others before lapsing again into quiet breathing. By the 20th, to the oncologists’ astonishment, she still clung to life, although was no longer able to be roused, and died on January 23rd, 2005.
But her last strong-voiced sentences to my ears were for Me. My safety. The Almighty’s thanks for getting my husband and me through the limited visibility of fog and difficulty driving in rain.
What kept her going after Comfort Care Only was initiated and expectations of only a day or two left? No physicians had answers. Spunk, courage, life being a gift too good to let go of it? She reminded us of that by not talking illness and just celebrating living.
http://www.thejewishpress.com©2005 The Jewish Press
re-published in an anthology book, April 2009, The Ultimate Teacher, HCI Books ©2009 Health Communications
A Night at the Opera