The Fourth of July 2011 is etched in my memory as the last “normal” family holiday we ever had. I was about to start my senior year of college. It was a gorgeous holiday at the lake full of sun, fishing and annual traditions. Worries were few and were small in magnitude. The future was bright. My middle sister was about to head down to the University of Minnesota with her best friend for their freshman year of college. My uncle and aunt from the east coast were in town for the week, and we loved being able to spend time with them.
Life changed drastically a couple weeks after that. My youngest sister, Grace, had strep throat so my mom brought her to urgent care. The doctor took a closer look at a concerning lump on her leg. She had an MRI the next day, and within hours of the scan they were told it was cancer.
We didn’t know it at the time, but as far as her disease was concerned, we basically had four years ahead of worsening news, with the exception of one year of awkward, hopeful remission in the middle. A new life perspective quickly emerged; the norm became a “carpe diem” way of life with bits of desperation sprinkled in. We had a lot of hope amid the overarching bad news, especially in her first year of intense treatment. But even with that hope, fear of the unknown inevitably forces you to learn to live in the moment.
The pre-cancer past seemed like a lifetime ago, one not worth pondering anymore.
You’d never make it back to that mindset, even though you’d give everything to do so. The familiar future you used to look forward to quite literally did not matter anymore. Most importantly, what was required of you in the “here and now” took everything that you had to give. There was no energy left to look any farther than the timing of her next round of treatment. This might sound dramatic, but at the end of the day, it was true.
Looking back now on the life perspective we eventually adopted as a family, we totally crushed it. We got so good at living in the present. Grace had everything to do with that; she was our fearless leader. She could get devastating news at an appointment and by the time the two hour car ride home from Fargo was over, she was ready to go do her thing with her friends. It was uniquely hard to deal with moments like that. My baby sister got the news that the latest treatment hadn’t worked, she was still on the track to terminal, yet she still wanted to go about her agenda as planned. That, my friends, is seizing your day.
Through the journey, we lived in the present for Grace and for us. As the bad news rolled in, we “accepted” it. Grace is dying, they said. What was I supposed to do with that information? Cry, sure, but what was I really supposed to DO? I knew that this Terrible Awful Thing loomed in my future: Death.
As time went on, the “carpe” part of “carpe diem” grew more intense. I could feel the exhaustion hitting us all in new ways, but we had to keep going for her. We had to because she was still pushing, still fighting, and maybe if we could all just keep this up, the impending Terrible Awful Thing would just stay out there somewhere in the indefinite future and never really hit us. Even on her death bed, I swear it still seemed that way. By that time, I, of course, desperately wanted her to be out of pain, but wished there was a way she could get there and still stay here.
Then, she was gone. Four years, one month and twelve days later. All of the sudden, though really not so sudden at all. Now what?
I’d spent the last few years living in the moment, so long as that moment included my living sister and our family of five.
Where do I live now? I noticed a transition to living in the past, where she resided. It was all I knew. How was I supposed to live in a world where she was not?
It’s taking a while to figure out where I live now. Depending on the day, I can wake up and find myself living in stages of the past, present and future. On occasion, I’ll get whisked back to a specific event and the emotions of the surrounding timeframe. Sometimes, I need to plan everything out for the foreseeable future and put it all on my calendar to lock it in. There are also moments when the past and the future are both too overwhelming, and I just need to go to bed and wake up with no alarm to see what the next day brings.
Written by Paige Woods
Paige is the older sister of Grace Woods who passed from osteosarcoma.
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