I’ll never forget the phone call that woke me from my sleep. It was just after 6am on Tuesday, November 27, 2012. I knew when I saw my cousin Rhonda’s number on my caller ID exactly why she was calling.
She had spent the previous night at the hospital with my sister, Paula. The two of them were way more like sisters than she and I were. They were the same age, grew up together, lived together as young adults, had kids similar ages and were pretty much best friends.
Rhonda was the one who called to tell me she was gone. She had been moved to palliative care just two days before, and hospitalized less than two weeks before. Sometime after her mastectomy, but before her reconstructive surgery, her breast cancer had spread to her lymph nodes then made its way to her liver. Even then, I didn’t know she’d never leave the hospital alive.
Let me back up a bit.
Paula was 15 when I was born. My brother was four years older than her. I’m the baby of the family to say the least, born the year both my parents turned 40. She graduated high school when I was four, lived at home for a few more years (which I have no memory of) before she moved out.
With the age gap, we weren’t able to have the close relationship that many siblings share, but we loved each other. I remember going to spend the night at her apartment in Homewood after she got married. After she began having kids, I loved them like my own. I remember going to the hospital in 1991 and 1993 when her first two were born. But I was closest with her baby, Hayden, who arrived six months after I graduated high school. I’d pick him up from Mother’s Day Out, take him for ice cream, to the park and all sorts of adventures.
She was there for all of my big moments: graduations, my wedding and of course the birth of my first child. She loved him like crazy, and he loved his LaLa.
Another day I won’t forget is one day in late March 2012 when she called me to tell me she had breast cancer. This isn’t something that we have a family history of, so I was shocked to say the least. She’d have several months of chemo, followed by a mastectomy and then reconstructive surgery. It’d be a long and difficult process, but the thought of death never really crossed my mind. What I learned is that her particular type of cancer was HER2- which meant it didn’t always respond to treatment.
After her last chemo treatment, we had a celebration dinner with my cousin Rhonda and several of my sister’s girlfriends. In October, I took her to a breast cancer fundraising luncheon, still thinking she was close to remission.
A few weeks later, I took her to an Auburn football game. It wasn’t long after she started feeling bad and that’s when we found out it had spread.
The last few weeks were a blur of trips to the hospital, a very somber Thanksgiving at my house before we all headed to see her, then finding out things were not looking good before her move to palliative care the following Sunday.
Even to the very end, she never lost her faith. She was fine whatever the outcome. She told me “I’ll either be healed on Earth or healed in Heaven. ”
She also said several times “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
She was saved, and she knew she was going to be with the Lord. Even still, I selfishly wanted her to be here.
Just over a year before, we buried my 19-year-old nephew who died in a car accident. Just four months earlier, I had a miscarriage. Now this?
Then, the phone call came. My parents had stayed with us the night before. We were all going back to the hospital that morning. When they woke up, I went downstairs to tell them the news.
They had lost their second child (the first was killed in a car accident when they were 22 when they were hit by a drunk driver in 1961). My brother and I had lost a sibling. Her kids had lost their mom. She meant so much to so many. Her smile, her laugh, the way she lit up a room.
When we arrived at the hospital, her room was already empty. We hugged and cried, then I began to write her obituary and help plan her memorial service. It was the following Sunday, December 2, at the church where I attend. It was so packed, there was no parking even on the street below and people had to be turned away. It’s estimated there were between 800-1000 people. I was on the front row. My body was anyway. Everything was fuzzy. I couldn’t sing the songs without crying. I read a bible verse and said a few words. The service was lovely and just what she would have wanted: casual with pink and black, her friends doing a bit from Sister Act, the songs she loved sung and played and a balloon release to cap it off.
November 27 will always be a sad day for me, but I will always make sure to honor her memory on that day and every day.
The last pic of us
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” –Revelation 21:4