November 7th was the 20th anniversary of my sister-in-law Linda’s death. She was thirty-four years old when she was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the breast. She and my brother, Denny, had four children. The youngest at that time was in first grade and the oldest was in fifth grade.
Linda was diagnosis with breast cancer the week before Thanksgiving in 1997. I was teaching in South Sioux, Nebraska and living in Sioux City, Iowa, so I could help my two brothers care for our mother.
I don’t know about you, but for me suffering is a mystery that I will never completely understand. However, what my sister-in-law taught me as she lived through the dark times, the challenges, and times of joy living with cancer, has been a powerful gift that I will treasure until the day I die.
At the beginning of this journey, for Linda, God was present in her life but somewhat at a distance. She was busy being a mom, a nurse and a wife. God was not, you might say, the center of her life.
After the first year of chemo, it was suggested by Linda’s doctors that she go to Albuquerque, New Mexico for an aggressive form of chemotherapy, similar to a bone marrow transplant. For three months they made this difficult trip to Albuquerque.
The courage and faith that she and my brother had to have for her to endure the painful and scary effects of this therapy is beyond words. There were three or four times where we came close to losing her.
Never once, as she lived with all the pain and uncertainty did I ever hear her say, ” Why Me?” What I did notice was that somewhere along this journey, the Lord had moved closer and closer to Linda’s side. He had become a friend and a companion for her. Someone she could rely on. Near the end of her life, Linda was in the hospital. Every once in a while, she would talk to my brother and her kids, sharing some of the things she was experiencing as she moved closer and closer to the other side of life, death and rebirth. Her words gave her family much to ponder, along with a sense of hope and consolation.
She wanted my brother to promise her that he would not start smoking again. Which he did. She even told her kids that they needed to go to Mass, which if you knew Linda, was not something you would expect to hear from her. Something had shifted for her.
Linda had lived and fought cancer for eight years. She was ready to let go and surrender to Someone who she knew she could trust.
At the end of her life Linda told my brother that, “It was so beautiful that she had to go that she couldn’t stay.” He told her it was okay for her to go.
As I stated earlier, I will never understand the mystery of suffering. Yet, I do believe along with all the pain, grief and loss there is tremendous grace presence for all who find themselves on such a journey, along with their family members.
One of the many gifts Linda gave me was to teach me to live my life to the fullest. Not to get lost in the little stuff. Linda’s focus was on life, never death.
May we all come to know there is Someone greater at our side, loving us, walking with us and offering us the grace to life our lives to fullest with a heart full of hope until we too, experience the gift of rebirth.