Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tenacity thy name is Karen

In my post "The final leg of the journey" I mentioned that the day was magic and tragic.  Did anyone else notice that I didn't mention anything about the tragic part?

Well, here's the tragedy - and it truly is.  We all have people in our lives who suffer more than others.  And we have people who think they suffer more than others.  Well, my friend, Karen, is one who has suffered too much.

When she was three, Karen was diagnosed with leukemia.  Treatments included radiation, and aside from possibly stunting her growth somewhat, Karen made it through.  Successful treatment.  No more thought of it.

Then, 8 years ago (in her early 30s), while driving between Lake Louise and Banff (I believe), Karen started to see double.  She'd been having pretty nasty headaches for a few months before then, but hadn't thought too much about it.  Well, her life turned upside down quite quickly.  After a trip to the optometrist, she was sent to a specialist and they found that she had a brain tumour. 

Bad enough, right?  Brain tumour.  Not a good thing.  But they operated, removed the benign (non-cancerous) tumour (although they couldn't get it all without doing serious damage - so a little was left) and it was a success.  She was out of the hospital within about 5 days and then got life back to usual.  Hope for a perfectly normal future was high.  Until the follow-up MRI when they found that her tumour was continuing to grow - rapidly. 

Fast forward 7 years.  Karen has had 14 surgergies.  Most to remove tumours.  At least 2 to deal with a nasty infection in her skull that has not properly healed in 2 years.  She no longer has the full use of her left leg.  She is blind in her left eye because of the swelling and just in the past 3 weeks the tumour has put enough pressure on a certain nerve to stop her left hand and arm from working.  It's hard to use her walker with only one functioning arm.  She can't cut her food.  It takes an awfully long time to do anything or get anywhere.

It's hard to understand why such things can happen to anyone.  Why does this happen to someone?  Why doesn't it happen to someone else?

Part of my journey in this life has been the exploration of death and what happens after we die.  I've always had issues with death - I think MOST of us do.  But since Daniel was born, and 6 months later I lost a 32 year old friend to diabetes, and then a couple of years later a 45 year old friend to ovarian cancer ... well, it became more important for me to find answers to some of our biggest questions.  Answers that made sense to me.  Karen's situation helped push me a little further along that path.

I've always felt that we don't end when we die.  When someone talks to me about "just becoming worm food" when we die, it just doesn't sit right with me.  Is it pure fear?  Maybe.  Do I need to believe that I carry on after this life just so I can carry in this life?  It's possible.  But deep in my heart - in my soul - I believe I won't be gone after this body dies. 

This belief helps me deal with other people dying.  And it allows me to talk with them in a matter of fact manner that most people do not.  I've known and been able to have conversations with a few friends who were dying.  It's a hard conversation to have.  But I find it far more satisfying to provide an ear for fears and concerns than to deny it or brush it off. 

So here's what I think about Karen's situation.  As much as I believe we don't disappear when we die, I also don't believe we appeared from nowhere.  I believe we come from and go to the same place.  And I think we have lessons here on Earth to learn.  But for some souls, I believe they come to help others learn their lessons, too.  Maybe Karen's soul needed to learn something - patience, faith, not to be too tied to her body - no one can know for sure except Karen.  But she believes she was put here to help her doctors learn.  Her neurosurgeon goes to conferences around the world and talks about her case. 

A couple of weeks ago there was an article on the news talking about how now, decades later, people who had cancer treatments as children are developing secondary problems such as brain tumours.  Perhaps, if we do have jobs to do here on Earth, if those jobs are changed because of medical treatment (if part of their job was dying for someone else to learn from it), just perhaps the job has to be completed anyhow.  Is it possible that we just can't thwart Nature (God)?  For every yin of a fantastic scientific discovery, medical treatment, advancement, there always seems to be a yang - a side effect, an environmental problem, a secondary disease, something.  I don't know, but maybe we should be trying to work WITH nature instead of trying to fight her. 

Well, for my friend Karen, I wish only love and peace.  She doesn't have peace right now.  When I saw her this time, her hope was fading.  She is an incredibly strong person - tenacious, you might say - she is normally not overly emotional.  She greeted me at the door with tears this time.  The doctors tell her they can only do one more surgery.  Her body won't be able to handle more than that.  It's a tumour on the right side that is affecting her arm and her leg, but it is not growing as fast as the one on the left (which has damaged the optic nerve which will never work again), so they are waiting to do surgery on the left side. They haven't even scheduled her next MRI yet.  Radiation treatments last year seemed to work on the tumour, but it would appear that this is no longer the case. 

It was hard visiting Karen.  But not even a fraction of how hard it is for her.  She is struggling.  And I feel for her.  I hope our lunch out gave her a nice break.  She lives a long way from me - a four hour drive - so it's not possible for me to see her very often.  I've put it off for far too long before seeing her this time.  I didn't realize how bad things were.

I can't imagine going through what she does.  I know I wouldn't have held up as well as she has.  My heart aches for her. 

And the lesson of this story for all who read it?  Well, you might take away your own, but I have a couple:  Be thankful for what you have.  Enjoy your body, the freedom you have (even if it's less than others) because there's a woman, 40-ish, using a walker, blind in one eye and unable to use her left arm.  It could have been any of us.  And another lesson?  Visit people.  Tell them you love them, show them support.  That's all that really matters, isn't it?

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