Tag Archives: cancer

Remembering Ellen, Three Years Later

 

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I’m now older by a year than my older sister will ever be.

It’s a reality I’d never considered much. “I’m fourth of eight, two older brothers, one older sister, three younger brothers, and one younger sister—all in twelve years.” That was always my standard refrain when asked about my siblings. I’d oftentimes add in a p.s., which invariably elicited a laugh. “I’m the quintessential bitter middle child.”

Here we are, three years to the day when Ellen Marguerite O’Hara took her last breath—and yet, it oftentimes still does not seem real.

I was chatting with my daughter the other day, and the subject of Ellen came up. Gabriella and Ellen had a close bond; Gabriella really trusted and respected her—and the plan for the future was most definitely not this one.

The plan was growing older—all of us—together. Attending future weddings of our many 20-something nieces and nephews. Meeting their future progeny. Making plans to reconnect with all the “West Coast O’Haras.”

Oh, and of course, spending precious time with the Washington state branch of the O’Hara family tree—the Montano men, we three sisters & the two other cousins, Gabriella and Lillie (who now goes by “Levi”).

In time, when the cousins were older, all of us drinking red, red wine in Ellen’s candlelit living room on Spokane’s South Hill on a relaxing Saturday night, savoring whatever was on the menu for the evening. Soup made from a beef stock that had simmered all afternoon, or spaghetti in a sauce that made your senses sing. Whatever Ellen made, it was always sensational. “I just followed the recipe,” she’d invariably say.

One of her last texts to me, before things went from bad to worse and kept on going, was on Valentine’s Day 2014. “Wicked is coming here in May. We should all go.”

It wasn’t meant to be. A different kind of wicked had taken hold; the cancer would soon take its toll.

Three years ago today, she died. Later this evening, Gabriella and I will raise our respective glasses of red wine and send a toast out into the universe in honor of Ellen Marguerite O’Hara. (Will you join us?)

red wine pouring

breeandlilwater

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10.10.15

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I’m easing in this rainy Saturday morning. Sifting through bills, sipping on an underwhelming cup of coffee and adding tasks to my online to-do list. (Latest entry: ”Buy quality coffee beans at Cafe Lladro in Bothell.”)

My phone buzzes with a new post alert. I glance down and read it. It’s one of the those Facebook messages, alerting me of a friend’s birthday.

“Today is Ellen O’Hara’s birthday.  Reply to post a wish on her Timeline of reply with 1 to post “Happy Birthday!”.

I sit, motionless, listening to the pouring rain. Memories of that last horrific day in March of 2014 return.

It was late afternoon on the 10th floor of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital–the cancer floor. A harpist from the hospice had just finished up playing at the foot of my older sister’s bed. Two former colleagues of hers were knocking on the door, having ignored the “no visitors” directive.

I let them in. Ellen awoke. They had no idea how bad off she was, and spent a few minutes trying to banter. “Ellen, are you gonna come to St. Patrick’s Parade this weekend?” She shook her head slowly, back and forth. It was a “no.”

They continued on with their attempted chit-chat, about what I can’t really recall. After a several  more awkward minutes, I told them that she was exhausted and they should probably go.

The second guy had one more question: “Ellen, any words for everyone at the office?”

Ellen stared intently at them both for several beats. She was heavily medicated; pain meds administered every 20 minutes, with one simple click. On this, what would be her last day of life, even when she was asleep, my younger sister and I made sure of it (especially after the night prior, when Ellen’s pain meds ran out for an unthinkable 20 minutes).

Yet now, she was all all there. She slowly, weakly lifted up her arm and waved her hand back and forth, once. Just once. I could hear what she was saying: “Buh bye!” 

The two former colleagues departed. Ellen died hours later.

I return to my tasks at hand. Two years ago, I would have added “Call Ellen and wish her a happy birthday.” Today, I have only old photographs to study, vinyl records to play, candles to light, beer to drink, and memories to mine. (Such is life…and death.)

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The day those five trusty words finally failed me

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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.

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Ellen’s playlist p.s.

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It’s been six months now.

I’m getting more used to talking about her in the past tense.

I’m getting used to saying I now have five brothers and one sister.

I’m getting used to stopping myself as a pick up the phone to text or call her.

I’m getting used to living with the fact that my older sister, Ellen Marguerite O’Hara, is dead.

Her birthday is coming up—October 10th. She would have been 57. Would have been.

It was a late evening  this past April, about a month after she’d died. I had wandered up to bed; my younger sister, Regan, was still downstairs watching TV.

As I dozed off, I heard in the distance a series of loud thumps. Probably a few boxes falling, I thought.

Several moments passed, and then the door to the room opened. Regan, my younger sister, limped in, sobbing hysterically. She collapsed onto the bed, crying out: “I think I broke my f-ing ankle! I can’t believe this. I fell down the stairs!”

I helped her hobble to her bed, and sat down beside her. She was in tremendous pain, and it seemed to be escalating. “We’re going to the hospital,” I decided.

15 minutes later, there we were — in the emergency room of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital. There we were, in the very ER where Regan had rushed Ellen just the month before. There we were, in the very building where Ellen had died after five horrendous days.

Regan was lying on a cot in an exam room, ice on her ankle, awaiting the results of the x-ray. We’d both calmed down, and were quietly commiserating over the fall. In a moment of sentimentality, she had scooped up JoJo, Ellen’s infinitely annoying little white dog. “That f-ing dog! Why did I decide to carry that f-ing dog!” We looked at each other and chuckled quietly.

A few seconds later, we heard sounds. Music, coming from somewhere in the exam room.  We both fell silent and listened intently. The music was coming from my purse, which I’d stashed in the corner of the room.

I reached over and fished inside for my phone. It had turned on by itself — without the required 4-digit security code — and my Pandora app had begun playing.

It was a song I’d never heard before — “Black & Blue” by Miike Snow. We looked at each other, eyes wide. Next up was “Take a Walk” by Passion Pit, followed by “Walking with a Ghost” by Tegan and Sarah.

We laughed, then cried — and knew without any possible doubt that our big sister was most assuredly still around.

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W.W.E.D.

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Two weeks ago—right at this moment, Ellen was enduring the last few hours of her life. The massive doses of pain meds, delivered intravenously, were doing their best to allay some of her pain. She also had a handheld device that allowed her to administer another dose every 20 minutes.

Two weeks ago right now, she had been recently moved to the cancer floor at Sacred Heart hospital in Spokane. During the night prior, her pain meds had run out for 20 minutes, and by the time the nurse discovered it, she had suffered beyond belief. It had changed everything.

The plan had been for Ellen to get a new port for the dialysis put in on Friday morning, and once the doctors saw some progress with it, she’d undergo chemotherapy. The plan was for her to fight and rally—and have “the big talk” with her teenaged daughter on Sunday when Lil returned from a weekend school debate team trip. After the pain med “mishap,” we had a new plan. Ellen couldn’t bear the pain for another moment. Palliative care was the new plan.

As the sun began its descent in the horizon, a harpist came to play in her room. (The morning prior, upon hearing about the availability of this service, Ellen silently scoffed. I could see her rejecting the idea, even though she didn’t speak).  But now, this next afternoon, I invited the harpist in. She had said that the music could help alleviate pain, and that was all I needed to hear.

The harpist was an older woman with deeply empathetic eyes. She explained that she would time the music to Ellen’s breaths, settled into a chair and began.

The music was exquisite. At times, Ellen would open her eyes, stare at the woman for several seconds, push her pain pump and drift off. (Later, I’d ask her if she liked the music. “Yeahhhhh,” she replied. “Were you surprised to see the harpist in your room?” I asked. She looked surprised. She had not remembered looking intently at her, just an hour prior.)

Ellen had not wanted any visitors, period—just her two sisters. But during those last few hours, as word spread among her colleagues and friends, a few decided to come and try to see her.  At first, I tried to send them away. But my phone rang, and It needed to run down critical paperwork to Regan. I decided to let them in.

When I returned 10 minutes later, Ellen had awoken and conversed briefly with the two former colleagues. They—like everyone—had no idea that Ellen was dying.

They asked if she was going to the city of Spokane’s St. Patrick’s Day parade the next day. The answer was a most definite “no.” I could see she was fading again.

One of her friends then asked if she had anything she wanted him to say to her officemates. She delivered her answer, sharp and sarcastic even until the end. She waved her hand slowly, back and forth a few times—“bye bye.”

Ellen drifted off again, but was still in pain—even with all the massive doses of medicine.pain  A nurse came in to check on things. I repeated the story about how her pain meds had run out earlier that morning, and stated that it simply couldn’t and wouldn’t happen again, Regan and I were going to be monitoring it and the minute a machine beeped, we’d be all over them.

I also asked about pushing her pain med pump for her every 20 minutes. Ellen would still moan in pain even when she appeared to be asleep. I asked: “What do you think?” She hesitated, and said she needed to check with the supervising nurse.

It was at that moment that I made a decision that I know was absolutely right. “You know what?” I said. “I don’t care what you say. I am pushing it every 20 minutes. I know Ellen would want that.”

Regan returned to the room shortly thereafter, and the night unfolded. We’d alerted our siblings, and several were on the way.

Eldest brother Tom arrived around 10:00 p.m. Regan and I debriefed him and passed the reins on for the night. She and I left at 11:15 p.m. to go to Ellen’s house to get some sleep.

We arrived home, and collapsed onto the couch with much-needed glasses of wine. After a bit, we grew concerned. No updates from Tom.

Regan texted him, and then called. It was 12:01 a.m. Tom answered immediately: “I think she’s gone. She’s not breathing.”

W.W.E.D. — “What would Ellen do?”

She’d hang on until her two younger sisters had reinforcements.

She’d wait until our eldest brother was there by her side.

She’d go out her way, on her terms.

(And she did.)

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“Don’t shake your head. Nod.”

 

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It’s only been a week and a half since the sudden death of my sister, Ellen. 

Exactly two weeks ago, I was standing by her hospital bed. I had arrived the prior evening, racing across the I-90 from Seattle to Spokane after hearing the awful news. Acute renal failure. Stage 3 uterine cancer. Metastacized.

She’d been scheduled for a hysterectomy. She’d stayed home that prior week, private, proud, independent and always so strong, awaiting the arrival of our younger sister, Regan on Sunday, March 9. She was in terrible pain that continued to intensify as the week progressed, but apparently thought it was to be expected.

I’d texted her midway through the trip. “I will be arriving in a few hours. Can I visit?” No word until I neared the exit for downtown Spokane. My phone pinged. “Not tonight.”

The next morning, my younger sister and I headed to Sacred Heart Hospital. Ellen’s room was empty. We found her next-door, in the dialysis room.

I slowly approached her bed, unaware that I shaking my head at the sight of her. IV drips of various medications were circulating through her veins. She breathed through the mask of her CPAP machine.Her right hand was tightly clutching the device that administered potent pain meds on demand, every 20 minutes. . 

Her eyes revealed the unimaginble agony she’d endured. I think that was what I was shaking my head at most as I approached her. She stared intently at me, my always-in-control, take-charge sister. She was reading my face, the way she’d always done for the past 54 years. After a few moments, she spoke, softly: “Don’t shake your head. Nod.” It was quintessential Ellen humor. I obeyed her directive, per usual.

Regan then handed her the will. Ellen had asked her to bring it with us to the hospital. She held it up closely to her face and began scanning it carefully. I watched, silently.

Regan left to get an update from the doctors and nurses. Ellen stopped reading, and looked over at me anxiously. “Do you think ReRe can handle this?” (Ellen had chosen Regan way back in 2007 as the guardian for her teenaged daughter.) “Should I switch it to you?”

I assured her that she’d made the right choice; that our little sister was stronger than we knew. She had her amazing husband, and me—and our big family.

It was now her turn to nod. She returned her gaze to the will in her hands, and continued reading.

 

 

 

 

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