This is the fifth post which chronicles my sister’s battle with cancer. You need to start at the beginning, though, with a post I called The Club. You’ll be able to link through the rest from there.
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“Do you know just how incredible your sister is?”
I stared awkwardly at the nurse who had asked me this seemingly rhetorical question. And she stared right back with big brown eyes that sparkled with hope. They told me she believed–the cross hanging around her neck, their echo.
Though well aware that my sister is, indeed, incredible, I had actually been stumbling upon that very question all week. Specifically the just how incredible part. Frankly, it was difficult for me to reconcile the reports I was getting from Mom with the image that was etched in my mind — that of Holliday lying unconscious in her bed in the ICU.
“So she’s talking? Really talking?” I would ask.
“Well of course, she’s talking,” mom would offer flippantly, as if peeved I’d not been paying close enough attention to her.
“So what do y’all talk about?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Normal stuff, I guess.”
Normal stuff. You and your daughter who just regained consciousness after NINE horrifying days discuss… normal stuff?
“Well, how does she seem?”
“Good. Maybe a little tired.”
I’m sure Mom was doing her best, but something wasn’t adding up. Never in a million years did I think that Holliday would come back to us. I had hoped. I had prayed. But I had also tried to be realistic. Call it pessimism, a defense mechanism, a lousy attitude, or whatever you want. But based on everything I had seen and heard, such a scenario seemed as likely as a ride through Camelot on the back of a fire-breathing dragon. So when it actually came to pass, I suppose I expected grandiose answers to my questions. But all I got were replies which contained words like normal, stuff, and tired.
Two weeks prior, we were urged to fly, not drive, to come see her. A week after that, the doctors considered her recovery so unlikely that they discussed end-of-life scenarios. Yet this past week Holliday was carrying on like business as usual, albeit a bit groggily? Had everyone overreacted? I wondered. Or was this something incredible? And if so, just how incredible?
And suddenly, a nurse wearing purple scrubs was asking me that very question. Could she answer it for me, too?
Do you know just how incredible your sister is?
“Yes,” I said deliberately as my eyes scoured the sterile hospital floors in search of something more. “What happened was truly incredible.
“Right?” I added hesitantly, begging her to tell me for herself.
Which she did. What Holliday had done was one of the most incredible things this woman has ever witnessed in all of her time at MD Anderson.
Clinging to her testimony, I still managed to don my gown and gloves before opening the door to my sister’s room.
“John,” she said softly while looking right at me with a faint smile. I walked over and knelt beside her bed, then gently brought her face closer to mine until our cheeks touched. After a long embrace, I finally pulled away to give her a kiss.
I sat at the foot of her bed under the TV, my eyes damp with emotion. For the next hour, I reveled in the conversation I feared we’d never have, taking full advantage of it by telling her all the things I should have said earlier.
It’s never too late, you know. Assuming you get enough chances, that is.
I told her how ashamed I was that I didn’t fully comprehend the enormity of her very first battle, the one that had begun nearly thirty years ago, the one she finally won five years later when I was an arrogant teenager.
“You were young, John. You’re allowed to be young.”
So why weren’t you?
I told her in no uncertain terms how proud I was of her. How she was a hero to me. What a privilege I consider it to be her brother, regardless of how poorly we’ve kept in touch through the years. Regardless of how separate our lives have been. I told her about the magic I found in the melancholy, the beauty in the struggle. And with those words I broke down. Not in dramatic, wailing sobs. But in silent tears that meandered down my face before splashing upon the paper-thin yellow gown that covered my lap. I wiped them away with the back of my hand, blue latex leveling the salty evidence of my sorrow.
She tried to reassure me. “It’s okay, John. Everyone has to die.”
She said it.
But she didn’t get it. I wasn’t crying because of how she might one day die. I was crying because of how she had already lived.
Minutes later, Holliday couldn’t have been any clearer. “It’s no longer a matter of survival,” she said stoically. “Now it’s a matter of optimizing my life.”
“I understand,” I said, wishing I’d chosen a different word. How could I possibly understand?
Holliday’s kidneys don’t work. She’s on dialysis three times per week. As of this post, she’s still unable to walk. She’s quite sick, her body impossibly weak. As such, now’s not the time to even begin thinking about trying to kill her cancer with the hellishly aggressive chemo that had almost killed her instead.
So she’s stuck. Two weeks ago, it was between worlds. Now it’s between plans. Holliday’s no longer focused on defeating her life-long foe, but rather on returning home to Atlanta. Because that’s all she really wants to do. Is to go home. And optimize her life. Perhaps there, she’ll become strong enough to resume her battle. Perhaps she won’t. But she’ll be home. In her literal house. With her husband and daughter.
That’s what Dad was hoping for, only it didn’t happen for him. But it looks like it will for Holliday. We’re told she’ll be released on Saturday. Not quite under the circumstances for which we had hoped, but released nonetheless.
My wife can literally spend an entire hour in The Container Store shopping for little boxes which she’ll use to better organize the larger ones she already owns. They give her great joy, these magical boxes do. Oh, how she loves to put things in their place. Right where they belong. Sub-containers to further organize her containers. Sub-containers which allow her to eliminate clutter while still enabling her to find whatever it is she might need in a moment’s notice.
It’s not just Caroline. Everyone likes to put things in their place. Including me. That’s why I had asked Mom so many questions, why I couldn’t get my hands around Holliday’s borderline miraculous recovery. Because I knew she had been in a bad box before and I was eager to move her to the good one where I wanted her to belong.
But regardless of what our binary minds trick us into believing, not everything will fit into tidy little boxes, and my sister’s situation is a prime example.
Don’t get me wrong. Holliday’s remarkable recovery is the best possible scenario our family could have ever hoped for. It’s a good thing. But good in this case is a relative term, not an absolute one. And it can’t be written on a label used to broadly categorize her condition. It’s just not that simple. But I’m learning that it’s okay.
Shortly into our conversation, Holliday described the first things she remembered as she began to regain consciousness. She then casually mentioned something she remembered that happened just before she came to.
“I saw Dad,” she said.
“Really,” I answered, my matter-of-fact tone belying the spark which had suddenly ignited my soul. “How was he?”
“Good,” she answered with a smile.
“Did he say anything?”
“Yeah. He did.” Her eyes left the Food Network long enough to lock into mine. And at once, she looked old and young, defeated and victorious, naive and wise. And beautiful.
“He said This, too, shall pass.”
Though clearly one of Dad’s sound bites, the phrase is not one that would immediately come to mind if I were ever to recount the more memorable of his oft-repeated sayings. His words? Undeniably. Ones I’d easily attach to him? No.
Holliday later told Graham that the encounter might have been a figment of her imagination, but Graham and I aren’t so sure. We tend to believe that she actually did see him. Regardless, whether in her mind or between worlds, Holliday’s meeting with Dad is proof that the things which matter most cannot easily be placed into tidy little boxes.
And it’s better that way. Because if they were in tidy little boxes, those things would be unable to roam wherever they need to be. Wherever they’re meant to be. And if that were the case, how would we ever find them? More importantly, how would they ever find us?
Holliday’s coming home this weekend and while this is the best possible scenario our family could have ever hoped for, I’m still unable to tell you what, exactly, it means. But I can tell you one thing. I wouldn’t be quick to rule anything out if I were you. She’s capable of anything.
Of that I’m certain.