The Girl Who Fought

RE:Union - A story of cancer in the family from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Erik Söderström, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Today’s guest post is brought to you by my friend Chris Hall. Thanks for reading.


Wednesdays are hard for my mother-in-law. There’s too much time in them, too many memories.

Wednesday nights, Sara and I meet her for dinner or, at the very least, take her out for ice cream. It doesn’t matter which. They’re both just a reason to get her out of the apartment.

On this Wednesday we’re eating at one of those “All American” restaurants where the menu has more pages than the last book I read and the drinks are served in mason jars. She sits across the table from us. She looks tired, like a statue that’s been standing in the rain too long.

“I came home from work yesterday,” she begins. “And I don’t know how I hadn’t seen it before, but Becky wrote on the wall above her bed.” She stops and takes a breath. Her eyes fall to the table. “She said ‘I will fight’ and wrote the date with it. April 21st 2014.”

The rest of the restaurant felt suddenly vacant. No cooks, no waitresses, no customers, no mason jars, just those words. I will fight.

“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” she said. “She was always writing things on the wall in her room when she was just a kid.

“That’s our Becky,” she sings. “She loves to push my buttons.”

The way she speaks of Becky is always an odd pairing of past and present tense. I don’t think she’s ready to speak of her in only the past yet. I’m not sure she’ll ever be.

I look at my Sara, the ink barely dried on our marriage license, and softly run my hand over her back. She’s been strong, stronger than I would be in her place.

* * *

It’s been less than two months since our wedding. The day was warm, breezy and bright with a sky like the sea from a distance. We were surrounded by fields of almost-ripe wheat, still green with the vigor of spring. My bride walked down the grassy aisle, her feet gliding over the blades until she was next to me, breathtaking. Her dress was pink, like the first blush of a garden rose. I took her hand and we pledged our lives.

We laughed, we danced, we kissed.

Perfect. The day as perfect.

.           Except it wasn’t. There was an absence keenly felt, readily seen.

It was visible in the too few number of bridesmaids, on the deeply drawn lines of my mother-in-law’s face and in the empty chair at our table.

Becky had gone into the hospital five days before the wedding, racked with pain in her abdomen. We prayed for fast answers and faster healing, but it wasn’t until 2 days later that we had any answers: Peritonitis, an infection in the thin tissue covering the abdominal organs, and Sepsis.

Becky was placed in the Intensive Care Unit. She wouldn’t make the wedding. I did my best to catch Sara’s tears. The doctors were hopeful they’d caught the infection in the early stages. That was enough, enough to hold on to as we prepared for our wedding.

* * *

I like to think that Becky was born with her dukes up, ready to brawl, because that’s what she did throughout her life. She fought.

Born with a heart defect, she had open heart surgery at only a week old. Her chances were slim. Her will, iron. She grew up pushing the limits of what her ailing body could handle, dragging oxygen with her for years. At age 7 she was diagnosed with Protein Losing Enteropathy, a side effect of her heart condition that rendered her body unable to absorb proteins. Life with PLE was like putting numbers into alphabet soup. It complicated everything. By 20, she was in need of a new heart and liver. Still, she fought.

I once heard Becky talk about the future, of all the things she wished for her life, as though it were her’s to claim. There was no diagnosis that was going to keep her from trying, no handicap that would keep her from dreaming.

* * *

A week after the wedding we visited Becky in the hospital for the second time. Concern flushed my mother-in-law’s cheeks.

“Why are you worried, Mom?” Becky said softly, her words came at the expense of an entire breath. “I’m not worried. God’s going to take care of everything.”

The following Monday I was back at work when Sara called. The Sepsis had damaged Becky’s kidneys beyond repair. She was back in the ICU. After over 21 years of humiliating the odds, Becky was losing her fight.

We rushed to Philadelphia. Becky was still with us but her bouts of consciousness came in short bursts. We spoke with her, each of us reassuring her of our presence, our love.

More people came throughout the day. Friends who had been a part of her story from the outset, family who came back so soon after a celebration. They came to see Becky, to wish her farewell as she prepared to make a journey none of us could make with her. They came to comfort a mother caught in the agony between giving everything for her child and giving that child over.

“Where is God?” someone asked.

The question filled the hospital room. It was the expectation of a friend who said they’d be there only to stand everyone up. “Where is He?”

We gathered around her that night. We sang. We prayed. We spoke the words of those who have no hope left but for a miracle. It would be another one to add to the list. She just needed one more.

It didn’t come, though. Not this time. On Tuesday the rest of her organs shut down and we waited with dreadful anticipation.

Still, she fought. Just as she had done from the day she was born. Her mother fought, too. She fought to keep her will from spilling onto the white tiles. That waiting, that in-between, was the hardest thing I’ve ever seen anyone endure.

My new wife cried into my shoulder, her salty tears rooting in my skin. When I said “For better or for worse” I didn’t think the latter would come so soon.

“Where is God?”

A thousand pat answers rambled through my mind. All the promises I’d been taught, all the words of comfort I’d heard from the pulpit fell flat. I held Sara, mixed her tears with my own and hoped it would be enough.

Wednesday began with a call at 4:40am. They’d turned Becky’s pacemaker off. It wouldn’t be long now. It couldn’t be. Sara and I drove what had become the all too familiar route to the hospital.

Becky’s breaths – short, raspy struggles – came only a few times per minute now. We held our own with her between each of them, wondering if this was it.

Her mother could only be in the room for brief moments. She who had endured the loss of her husband to a brain injury, who had taken up the mantle of leader for her family, who had given all she had and more to raise her three children, was face to face with the day she had beaten back for so many years. If Becky was a fighter, it was because her mother had passed that fortitude on to her.

Becky’s last breath came shortly before 11:00 that morning. The vibrant, goofy girl who’d had such tender hold in all our hearts was gone. What remained was like the shell the locust sheds, giving the appearance of the thing but holding none of what made it.

I sat down that afternoon to write the obituary of the girl who ran to hug me every time I walked into the apartment, of the girl who had been my sister for 11 short days. Words have never been more difficult.

Becky’s memorial was held that Saturday. People from her everyday, from far away and long ago filled the church to remember her. She was loving, compassionate, brash, adventurous, temperamental and bright.

Bright. That was how I saw her. She was like a star who doesn’t care that the night is far darker and far longer than it knows.

“Where is God?”

The question clanged in my mind again, like a misshapen bell in a crumbling tower, ugly and cold. I looked up as my mother-in-law held a tissue under curled fingers, a microphone in the other hand. She shared of her grief, of her thankfulness for all who were there, all who had shared in Becky’s life.

God was there.

He was in the presence of friends around the hospital bed. He was in the songs that were sung as Becky drifted slowly from this world. He was in this church, not because it was a church, but because of those who were there, bearing his name, and comforting a grieving family. Grieving with us.

* * *

I watch my mother-in-law across the table. She finishes the iced tea in her mason jar and asks “When are you two gonna give me some grandbabies?”

Sara and I laugh. We’ve heard this a hundred times already.

“You know I’m just teasing,” her mom says. “Just don’t wait too long.”

I smile, glad to know she’s looking forward to something, and I think to myself that sometimes the fight isn’t as much about a test of will as it is the willingness to move forward, to hope.

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