Five words have managed to get me through most of my life: “It could always be worse.”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve said that phrase, and it always managed to make me feel empowered and strong. Until the day it no longer applied.
It was that horrific week in March of 2014, when my older sister’s scheduled hysterectomy never happened. Those nightmarish five days when the truth was finally revealed, and we discovered that her stage 4 uterine cancer had spread unabated.
I’d had a sinking feeling when I first heard about the hysterectomy a month prior. My younger sister, Regan, the eternal optimist, did not appreciate my negative attitude. I’d just witnessed the rapid decline of several family members of a close friend from ovarian cancer. I couldn’t shake my feelings of fear and dread.
Ellen suffered terribly and died unexpectedly on March 15 just after midnight. On that last day of her life, Regan and I had left the hospital around 11 p.m., after our eldest brother Tom arrived from California with more family on the way.
Ellen had been asleep, but still moaning intermittently despite powerful IV pain meds she was receiving. We debriefed him–most importantly to ensure that her pain meds absolutely, positively did not run out.
The prior evening, her nurse had been busy with other patients–and Ellen went 25 minutes without any painkillers.
It’s truly unfathomable, the suffering she endured. Even with the potent cocktail of opiates and who knows what else she was getting every 20 minutes on demand, she still frequently said her pain was “off the charts.”
Tom was standing by Ellen’s bed as we left the room. We arrived back at Ellen’s house on Spokane’s South Hill around 11:30 p.m.. opened a bottle of wine, collapsed into her couch and stared at each other, silently.
The blur of the past week? None of it seemed real, even now. We sipped our wine and sat quietly. Then, Regan reached for her phone, checking for text messages.. We’d asked our brother to send an update after we left.
“We haven’t heard from Tom.” She dialed his number, and winced as he delivered the news. “I think Ellen just died.”
Later that morning, around dawn, I awoke, unrested and bleary-eyed. The dream I’d been having faded to the background; the nightmare was all too real.
Those trusty five words? This time, they most definitely would not apply.