Wednesday, September 3

When Life is Bittersweet

Each year when I see my doctor for my routine appointment, it comes up. Usually with a nurse, someone who is kind but impersonal, working their way through the checkboxes marking my family medical history, glossing over my paternal grandmother’s stroke and my mom’s diabetes, smoothly scrolling down until they pause on my siblings.

“And you have a sister who is deceased?” she asks me today, like I knew she would. On her screen, I can see the mouse hovering over the electronic record. In a small box, the brief details: Breast cancer diagnosed at age 23, died at 28.

“Oh,” she says, dismay and pity implicit in her tone. And I look away, trying to hold on to my composure, fumbling in my purse for a Kleenex as it deserts me.

She notices, and as I try to wave away her concern, she grabs me and pulls me in for a tight hug.

“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I lost a sister, too – not from breast cancer, but – you know, you never really do get over it.”

Why does this get me every time? I wonder. Almost nine years later, and it still singes my heart.

It's the best and worst time of the year. The waning warmth of summer, leading to the lingering crispness of fall, is my favorite time of the year -- yet it's also the most bittersweet.

Last week, as I’m at Madeline Island and we’re talking about all of the good memories we’ve compiled from more than twenty years of visiting each summer, my mom and I pause to talk about the hard times, too. Woven in our good memories of campfire s’mores and ice cream cones from Grampa Tony’s are painful memories of days where Katrina was too sick to get out of bed, her misery a palpable presence even the sunny days couldn’t diminish. That final year, we left the island earlier than we’d intended. And as the summer waned into the fall, her hospital stays got longer, her good days shorter.

This fall, the hard memories have risen to the top a bit more than usual. We’ve been spending time with an uncle I’ve only gotten the chance to know in the past couple of years, whose failing health can also be blamed on cancer, just like Kate's. And I’m once again torn. The part of me that wants to cherish every moment battles with the part of me that can’t help but remember all of the pain of the past, buried and now revived. The old cancer battle merges with the new until the indignities of illness simply seem unbearable.

And yet -- for all the pain of those final months with my sister, I cherish those days as some of the sweetest, too. Because when it comes right down to it -- when everything is stripped away, and the veil between this life and the next seems thin -- all that's left is what really matters.

And I'm reminded of that a couple of weeks ago at my cousin's wedding, when I'm speaking quietly to my uncle, wrapping up the evening and saying goodbye.


"You know I love you, right?" my uncle says gruffly, gravely. And I smile and tell him I love him, too. The sweetness of that -- of knowing that beyond any pain, any circumstance, love remains -- makes the unbearable bearable, the bitterness sweet.






Today we're linking up with Holley Gerth.




10 comments :

  1. I always wonder why they have to go over your health history.every.single.time? It's exhausting that I have this doctor for 8 years and they have to go over it like I don't know it. And to bring your sister every time? Yes, it's impersonal and uncaring. I get to add two more aunts who died of complications from diabetes. They were loved and still are. They are more that the disease they died from.

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    1. I'm sorry for your losses, Jeri. Maybe it's a liability thing -- they have to ask, in case something has changed? It does often feel redundant. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. Beautifully touching post! My husband is a two-time cancer survivor and I know the havoc that cancer causes in a family's life. While I can't imagine what heartbreak you and your family endured, it is a blessing that you share openly about it to impact the lives of others. I'm so glad to have found you through the Holley Gerth link-up and I am a new follower! Blessings from http://faithalongtheway.com!

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    1. Thanks for your sweet words, Sarah Ann! Continued blessings to you and your husband both -- I'm so glad it sounds like he's doing well. :)

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  3. I am the eldest of eleven children, nine of whom are still living. I lost my baby brother at 36 hours old. I lost my middle sister to cancer at age 29. She was the mother of six little girls; and a good mother she was. I miss her as much today as I did when she died, but I believe the Lord has her and my baby brother in his hands, and they are happy.

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    1. I'm so sorry for your losses, but completely agree -- I know that, someday, I'll see my sweet sister again.

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  4. Oh yes, the pain can come back, just as sharp as ever. It has been 12 years since we lost my Mom and sometimes it seems like it was just last week.
    You are right, we have to cherish what is most important!

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    1. It's comforting to know I'm not the only who still feels the pain, even years later -- and I'm so sorry for your loss.

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  5. I'm sitting here wiping tears from my eyes. I can't imagine how painful that must be. Thankful you have the sweet memories to help ease the pain of Kate's loss.

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    1. Thank you, dear friend! I can't tell you how glad I am that we didn't let the important things go unsaid -- I miss Kate every day, but am so glad that she knew how much I loved her and vice versa.

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