Katie's Voice

Spending a Life: My Sister, Cancer, and the Present Moment

These days, I write about only one subject: my sister’s cancer.

It’s the only subject that feels urgent, the one that dominates my days. Even when my sister and I don’t talk about it, we talk about it. There’s how she’s feeling (tired, nauseated) and how she’s feeling after chemo (utterly exhausted, unable to eat or drink, requiring IV fluids). There are doctor appointments where male oncologists ignore her questions, compete with each other for the right treatment. There are meds and alternative meds, a chatty acupuncturist whose ministrations help more than the anti-nausea pills.

My sister is less interested in her disease than in what she can manage to do: how many troubled teens can she work with at her equine therapy center in a week, how many parishioners of the church she co-pastors she can visit in the hospital, how many friends and family seen or talked to on the phone. I often think she tries to do too much, bankrupting her energy supply. But then, I always did think she did too much, packing activities into the minutes between other activities, arriving late because she’d been coordinating a service or offering solace. Her best paying job was working as a chaplain in a hospital, and she still sometimes works a couple of hours here or there, leading group meditation classes or just sitting with patients.

She also doesn’t dwell on the outcome of her disease. She has stage IV lung cancer. She has expressed no fear of death, which does not surprise me given her strong faith. But she has so much to do, she wants as much time as possible in which to do it. And unlike my own to-do list (#1: PET ALL THE DOGS), in addition to helping people, my sister wants to spend time with family and friends. My husband and I are taking her to the beach—my suggestion, because she loves the ocean and happens to live in land-locked central Illinois—but we’ve also visited family in the Pacific Northwest and will drive up to Wisconsin in the winter to visit other family, despite the difficulty of traveling when she feels so unpredictably ill.

I mean, she’s not a saint, of course. We are sisters, so we’ve known each other a long, long time—there will always be family stories (though admittedly they’re mostly stories we tell about our two brothers). She has driven me crazy with worry at times, jumping into owning an equine therapy center without detailed plans, choosing not to take my advice (most often about conserving time, energy, money), getting additional dogs when she already had two (she has four now)… The truth: she has always spent her life profligately, though not shallowly. She hasn’t worried much about the future, as I do. She doesn’t fear the rainy days, save up for them. Every day is today, now, and demands her full attention.

Funny how a Christian like her can school a Buddhist like me. I believe the human condition is suffering, or at least “discomfort” (depending on your translation), precisely because we are sentient beings aware of time. We cannot help but regret or yearn for the past, and worry or hope for the future. Buddhism seeks to minimize this suffering by encouraging awareness and appreciation of the present. As a Grade A Worrier, I (like my father, the Original Worrier), am drawn to the philosophy of Buddhism because of this.

Oh, of course human beings need a balance: we do need to plan for the future and learn from the past, as well as living in the present. But right now, when I have an unknown amount of time with my sister, when no one knows how she’ll feel at any given time, when that word cancer stretches out like a series of dots towards a final period, her way seems like the best way.

She was just down here in Memphis visiting. It may be late August, but it is still hot here, soupy with humidity. After we walked our dogs—slowly—in the neighborhood, we hopped into the backyard pool my husband bought for $100. The sun seemed to fall slowly through the leaves; hummingbirds visited the nearby feeder, buzzing over our heads. And the two of us—both in our 50s—circled the little pool, threatening to tickle each other’s feet. Our giggles pealed like bells over the grass and the Black-Eyed Susans and the wooden fence separating our yard from the neighbors’: ring, we are here, ring, the day is beautiful, ring, we are alive now, despite everything.

2 replies »

  1. Oh my, I love this so much. How I wish I’d had this essay when my mom was suffering from cancer! How hard it was for me to understand (at 30) why she fixated on the minutiae of everyday and complained about the regular stuff–the annoyances of a workday, cold toes through the OH winter–instead of that thief, cancer. Like your sister’s, my mom’s faith was strong, and I think there was solace for her in that and in the demand that real prayer (or meditation) makes that the supplicant be truly in the moment. Thank you, to you and your sister.

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