Monday, July 09, 2007

I See Courage

Karen with Amy and Alex, just before her surgery

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." Anais Nin

People say life gives you only as much as you can handle. If that's true, then my niece Karen is Mother Freakin Teresa.

It's hard to believe life's given her such heavy burdens. Not that she can't handle them. She's a wife, mother, teacher, massage therapist, healer, a dedicated practitioner of healthy lifestyle and positive karma.

Plus she has an amazing husband, a solid marriage, a loving, happy home. Two children who'd make any family burst with pride.

Karen's smart, funny, warm, generous, open-hearted. Ups and downs, sure, like the rest of us. But Carrying the Weight of the World just never seemed her destiny.

Except. At age 4 their son Alex was diagnosed with a rare cancer called VHL. Now 11, he's endured more invasive tests, procedures and surgeries than most adults face in a lifetime.

I've written a lot about Alex and the family's trials and triumphs here.

And I've asked myself over and over, how do you cope with such heartbreakingly cruel responsibility? Even when Alex is healthy--like now, thank God--the stress of hyper-vigilance and Keeping Things Normal is sky high.

But normal is important, so life goes on.

Then this past January Karen noticed an odd patch on one of her legs. Melanoma. An ominous word. Yet she just dealt with it, no commotion, no fanfare. The growth was removed, same day surgery, clean margins, good outcome. Done. We thought.

She's had a benign nevus on her eye for a long time. Annoying because it interfered with her vision. Nothing to worry about, just to keep an eye on, so to speak.

Then, just 6 months after the last surgery, that word again. Melanoma. In her eye. Go ahead, shudder. I did. Two surgeries, radiation and a 5-day hospital stay would be required.

Karen took it like a trooper. No time wasted on fears or tears, she was too busy juggling summer schedules, keeping the house on track, cleaning the pool, walking the dogs ... as every mother knows, the list goes on.

So okay, a few more tasks were added -- X-rays, liver scans, pre-op tests, paperwork for surgery. And make sure the kids are looked after, emotionally and physically.

Who better than Grammy to man the home front. Karen's mother--my sister Judy--came in from LA. Because Judy's a top notch nurse--and the patient's Mommy--she'd also provide moral support, oversee post-op care, assure herself all was well.

The first operation last Thursday inserted a radioactive chip into Karen's eye to kill the cancer cells. Back in her hospital room, she seemed fine. Talking, laughing, even eating. Judy left to take care of the kids. I took the next shift with Karen's husband Bob.

Because of the chip, Karen would be quarantined with a lead patch on her eye for 5 days. Each visitor permitted only 3 hours a day. No kids at all. So we got busy discussing how she'd fill the time.

Then, without warning, the rest of the anesthesia wore off. Excruciating pain hit. Hard. Killer nausea too. The nightmare was suddenly very real. And finally, finally Karen didn't care who knew it.

Hallelujah! I told my husband when I got home from the hospital that night. She'd let the tears flow, the sobs come, even a few howls rip, releasing all the pent up stress she'd been carrying far too long under that stiff upper lip.

And more, I told him too, the girl who's sensitive to conventional meds, who much prefers homeopathic remedies and HATES needles even let me get her a shot. Wow.

In the days to follow, she'd only agree to take one lousy Advil at a time for the pain. No matter her discomfort, she talked calmly and patiently on the phone to the kids, entertained visitors, gave the nurses some good chuckles. We joked and laughed and talked as we always do.

Her inner balance was back. Hallelujah for that too.

Today, more surgery. The radiation chip was removed and a laser used to eradicate any remaining cancer cells. Easier this time. A few hours post op, Karen was ready to leave.

She's home now, recuperating. Eye patch til Wednesday. Treatments. Medications. And until the stitches dissolve, the incredibly annoying scrape of something in her eye.

But those are just details. She wants to get in the pool with the kids. Go horseback riding. Play Scrabble with Alex. Take long bike rides with Bob. Watch Amy perform in a local play.

Long term prognosis? Not on her radar, thank you. Too much life to live. We'll know when we know. Right now, things look good.

Except. Karen will need liver scans, chest X-rays and other tests every 6 months, then every year for the rest of her life.

And she shares something now with her son -- they both have the same eye surgeon, they've both had eye tumors removed. They'll both have to be tested over and over again.

But she jokes about it. Most people plan family vacations, she says. In our family we plan group trips to the hospital.

Short term, she just wants to know will she be able to see?

I can tell her what I see when I look at her -- and at Bob, Alex, Amy, my sister Judy. I see courage.

I only wish I saw half as much in myself.

P.S. Feeling grateful for your good health? Maybe a little generous? Consider making a donation to the VHL Cancer Research Fund through the VHL Family Alliance in honor of Karen and her son Alex. Thank you.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is Alex's mother? I will pray for them.

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Maggie said...

I had that surgery too. Tell Karen I can see fine.

I'll pray for them too. They look like a cute family.

1:35 PM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

This note Karen sent me is so wonderful I wanted to save it... then I thought, what better place than here, where I could also share it.

Thank you for everything you brought to make my stay here at Chez Wills more comfortable! Thank you for teaching me about egg crates, keeping the creepy radiation meter guy away, and yes, even ordering the damn injection to make the room stop spinning. Never before have I ever asked for a shot. That was a first!! Thank you for asking Frank to make his fabulous food and for keeping me stocked in straws. Thanks for taking Alex on the supermarket shopping spree and letting him get me organic food. Thanks for visiting me and taking care of me. And lets give thanks together ... for potato chips. Amen.

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Judy said...


2:42 PM  
Anonymous Karen said...

Got my hair cut today. Am driving short distances. Am listeneing to the kids and Bob play in the pool as I write this. Thank god for the little, normal things.

6:59 PM  

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