Minutes Left

Minutes Left

By Melodie Lane

 

“Noooo!” fell from my mouth as I doubled over in my seat. The text message was from my oldest sibling, Pam:

 

“Just heard from Cheryl. Minutes left for Merry. Fading fast.

Text Cheryl with your final words.”

 

     What message do I send … in the last minutes of my sister’s life? 

Yesterday, we were told my younger sister Merry, most likely wouldn’t last a week in her battle with ovarian cancer. So, early that morning, my brother Jamie, his wife Jody, and my husband Kevin and I were in the car driving to Austin, Texas. We were somewhere in Kansas when the text came in.  We weren’t going to make it. She wasn’t going to make it.

     What message do I send? 

My little sister Merry and I had shared a room from the day she was born until the day I left for college. We were each other’s protectors. When either of us was going through a struggle, the other was there for support. When I was going through a tough time and needed a change of location she even helped me find a new job. Merry was the first person to arrive in the midst of a crisis. She was the fixer, the organizer, the one who took charge of a situation. If the family needed a project done, Merry was the one to do it.

     What message do I send?

 The past twelve months flashed by in a blur – surreal, unbelievable, heart wrenching. Merry called me October 25, almost a year ago, when she learned she had a tumor on her ovary. She told me she was scared and we cried together. Two hours later, Kevin and I were in the car driving to Texas to be with her.  Since that day, I made the trip to Texas to visit my little sister nearly every month.

Shortly after that first visit, Merry began chemo – nine sessions the oncologist told her. I saw my sister lose her beautiful red hair and fight through nausea almost every day, not only from the chemo, but also from the ascites—the cancerous fluid that continued to build up in her abdomen. For relief, she needed a painful paracentesis, to drain the fluids. The cancer cells were like a hive of hornets buzzing around in the fluid and they weren’t going away.

     What message do I send?

After a month of chemo Merry woke up one night with sharp pains in her side. Her husband Tom insisted they go to the Emergency Room. The ER doctor told her it was a good thing she hadn’t waited any longer. Her pain was caused by blood clots that almost killed her. She started on blood thinners and returned to chemo treatments after a two-week hiatus. On my next visit, I witnessed the first of three “code reds” that Merry experienced during her infusions. The episode was frightening. Within seconds, I saw nurses and medical staff surround her to yank out the chemo IV and give her a high dose of Benadryl and saline solution to counteract the allergic reaction. Merry squeezed my hand and yelled through the pain shooting up and down her back. After it subsided, she must have seen how scared I was, because she looked up and said, “It’s not always like this, Melodie. Don’t worry.”

I worried.

     What message do I send?

On my second visit to Texas, Merry told me about her encounter with an angel. Lying in bed one night, she felt a presence next to her. The pillow compressed as the presence lay down beside her. “I know it was an angel,” she told me through tears, “and I’m telling you, Mellie, because I know you’ll believe me and understand.”  And I did.

      What message do I send?

What do I say that we hadn’t already said to each other in the last 11 months, 19 days – or the 58 years before that?  During her third month of chemo, we talked about the unspeakable. What if she didn’t make it through this? It was then Merry asked me for forgiveness – “for the times I didn’t treat you well,” she cried. I tried to explain to her that all sisters have their moments – there was no need to apologize. But she insisted.  She needed to hear me say the words “I forgive you.” So I said them. Then it was my turn to apologize for anything I had ever done to hurt her. I too insisted that she say the words. And that was that.

To lighten the mood, I apologized for the time during our teenage years when I jumped on her head with my knees while she lay in bed. We laughed about it in that moment. Neither one of us could remember what we had been bickering about that night; but we both remember the episode. So… we got that out of the way as well.

     What message do I send?

The next month, I witnessed the struggle Merry had with climbing up and down two flights of stairs to their apartment. As I stood behind her on the step below, I heard her whisper the names of each person in our family – one name per step. It was her ritual to and from her treatments and doctor appointments.  I suggested that she and Tom consider one of the apartments on the lower level that were designated for anyone with disabilities. She said to me, “Mellie, those stairs are going to help me get through this.”

     What message do I send?

After the last scheduled chemo treatment in May, everyone who knew Merry was anxious to hear the results of her CAT scan. Our hope was that the tumors had been reduced enough to operate. The news wasn’t good. Her oncologist told Merry and Tom her cancer was incurable. Her options suddenly became very limited: 1. Do nothing (and hope for a better quality of life); 2. Try a third, but less effective chemo; or 3. Apply for a clinical trial – but only to extend her life – not to save it. Ever the fighter, Merry opted for a clinical trial. Things didn’t go her way. On each attempt, something always excluded her from qualifying – her low blood levels, her high calcium levels, or her low magnesium levels.  Then came the even more discouraging news in August, of a brain tumor. She would have to go through radiation treatment.

     What message do I send?

The next time I saw my sister, she had lost more weight and was aging before my eyes. For ten months, she fought through the nausea, pain, ascites buildup, infusions, and more than a dozen excruciating paracentesis procedures. Hydrocodone abated the pain and helped her sleep, but made her feel even worse when she woke. Merry had became weaker and weaker until she ultimately lost the ability to walk. Now Tom had to carry her up and down those same stairs. As I watched him gently pick her up and navigate each step, I could hear her whispering the names…

     What message do I send?

Only two weeks ago, I had been in Texas with Merry. The first two days, she was extremely frail; she wouldn’t eat, barely talked, couldn’t walk without full assistance and was in severe pain. On the third afternoon, we drove the two hours to San Antonio so she could get another paracentesis to help relieve her discomfort from the ascites. She slept all the way home without asking for a pain killer. We got her to bed and hoped her condition would improve enough to start a trial in five days.

Later that night, I heard Merry talking to Tom from the next room. “She must be feeling better,” I thought. Her soft chattering lulled me to sleep until I was jolted awake by her yell, “Fire! Tom! Get some water!” I heard Tom tell her it was only a dream. She had been hallucinating all that time. When Tom left for work early the next morning, I climbed into bed next to my sister who was still busy conversing through her delirium. Her hallucinations continued for another six hours: “It’s snowing; an Iranian prince had bowed down to me; I have access to the entire web; there was a car tailing us; unhook the water; I think I cut my phone in half; on and on…”

After twelve hours, Merry finally came out of it. To everyone’s surprise, she rallied the next evening, as if she merely had been to a bad movie. She ate something for the first time in days. She chatted with us. She smiled. She even joked about how real her dreams had been. When I left the next day, I was feeling a bit of hope that Merry would finally get her chance to start that trial. And she did. She had a single treatment, and it wiped her out.

     What message do I send?

Days later, Merry began having chest pain that sent her to the Emergency Room. The doctors gave her platelets and morphine for the pain, and assigned her to the ICU. The pulmonary doctor explained that the cancer was now invading her heart and lungs. Keeping her blood pressure from dipping too low required boosters. Privately, he told Tom she had two weeks at most. Our family was given the news and we started making our travel plans. The very next day, the doctors reduced the timeline to one week. That’s what prompted our expedited sojourn to Texas that morning.

     What message do I send?

For almost one year, my sister battled every day, just to have a chance – any chance. She battled to eat, battled to drink fluids, battled to walk, to sit up, to talk, to stay hopeful. Even when her oncologist told her and Tom that going through a second trial treatment would do nothing to improve her condition, Merry wanted to keep fighting. But, in the end, the enemy called ovarian cancer had too much of a hold on her.

     What message do I send?

“Tell Merry I’m proud of her, proud to call her my sister.

I will love her forever,” I texted.

 

For the next four hours we drove in relative silence – waiting to hear about her condition. As we neared Oklahoma City, the message came:

“Our sweet sister, Merry, left this earth to soar with the angels.”

 

Her fight had ended.

And ours had just begun.

 

Dedicated to Merry Lane Ross

January 29, 1959 – October 6, 2017

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