Kathy's New Book:
Life is a Kaleidoscope
Photo: Life is A Kaleidoscope

Darlene’s Final Journey

I learned a lot about courage in the face of cancer from my dear sister-in-law Darlene, a spitfire of a lady whose impish laugh and crazy antics made you feel good just to be in her company. She had a smile that could light up a room and a zest for life that was contagious.

How, then, could it be that the birth of her fourth child would also deliver a diagnosis of cancer?

Before Darlene became pregnant, her constant complaints of depression, mood swings and hair loss fell on the deaf ears of the doctor she sought help from. Then, a few months into pregnancy Darlene began to experience extreme leg pain that was steadily growing worse with time. With three young daughters to care for and a full time job as a legal secretary, this tiny tornado of activity still managed to run circles around anyone who got in her path. A world of new beginnings seemed to lay ahead of her--if only something could be done about the leg pain.

A few days after her 4th daughter, Emily, was born my sister-in-law's cause for celebration was crushed. A doctor explained that Darlene had thyroid cancer that had spread to the bone--an extremely rare occurrence unless, as in Dar's case, it goes undiagnosed for years.

Darlene took a liking to one particular doctor, the surgeon, who removed the cancerous thyroid and who assured her that the cancer could be controlled. He was so confident he even told her: "We'll dance together at Emily's wedding." It was all Darlene needed to hear. She looked no further than this doctor for treatment.

The next four years Darlene lived her life as she had done before. She helped her husband renovate their home, even knocking down walls with her own two hands. With four beautiful daughters, who adored her, a loyal husband and everything to live for, this high-spirited young wife and mother took great comfort in her doctor's encouragement. She endured painful treatments and the debilitating exhaustion that would sometimes linger, feeling blessed for what she saw as a second chance at life.

That's about when the bottom fell out of our well-intentioned optimism. Fear of a blood clot was the reason her doctor sent her straight to the emergency room.

The following week became a blur of round the clock hospital vigils as Darlene's condition quickly deteriorated.

It was a straightforward oncologist who gave us the devastating truth. My sister-in-law was in the active stage of dying-- that is how he put it. All of us had a million questions to ask, each of us beginning to deal with our own guilt as the grim reality set in.

How could she be dying when she had everything to live for? Didn't her doctor tell her it was controllable? How could a breathtakingly beautiful woman, with so much spunk, be nearing the end of life?
When the oncologist mentioned she was in stage 4, the final stage of cancer, we had to ask just how long she was suffering with end stage cancer. He looked at all of us as if we were either not too bright or in deep denial. "Since before her baby's birth" came the sobering answer we didn't want to hear.


My heart was filling with regret as I thought about the last few months when we'd ignore her worries, casually blowing off her cancer concerns by telling her she'd be just fine. Her brother and I also blamed her physician. Had she gotten better treatment maybe she would have survived. To this day it's hard to believe that a doctor could've been so optimistic in such a dire situation.

I have come to accept the fact that things work out exactly the way they were meant to. Who knows? Had Darlene gone for experimental treatment she may have ended up in nursing home limbo, not really here-not really gone.

The good Lord left us all with the memory of an inspirational young woman who survived four years with end stage cancer, a powerful testament to just how strong the will to live can be. On her deathbed, Darlene gave all of us a lasting impression of what a willful spirit can do.

Knowing the time was near, a hospital chaplain explained to her husband, Mike, that it would be healthy for the girls to be able to say good bye to their mother. The girls, ranging in age from three years to twelve years, entered the ICU as Darlene struggled to sit up, trying to look her best. The lipstick and blush I had applied, just minutes before, gave a little radiance to an already angelic face.

After telling each and every one of her children that she would love them for always and forever, she gave each of them a spiritual sense of solace - to draw upon in the coming days when she would not be there to physically comfort them.
She told them to think of her each time they saw a penny lying on the ground.
That would be their sign, from her, that she was watching them from heaven.
How could she know how much peace that gesture would bring to them in the days and weeks ahead? It was then that I knew that a mother's love has no limits, not even the finality of death can end it.

Shortly after that visit with her daughters, Darlene fell into a drug-induced coma, the machine at her bedside softly humming as it recorded her steadily falling blood pressure. Within a matter of a few hours, my husband's youngest sister was on an eternal hiatus-heaven bound.

It has been four years since this beloved woman has graced our lives with her earthly presence. But, I know she is not gone. When I think back to those days when Darlene was fighting to survive, my heart hangs heavy with remorse for taking for granted that she would have many more years to live.
Believe it or not, it is at those times that I find myself picking up pennies I spot lying on the ground. I've found them in the most peculiar of places. Once I found a lone penny on the edge of the windowsill in front of our home. It was the very same day we moved into our new house. Each time I spot a penny I kiss it up to heaven and I say a prayer for an angel I know is still with us.

Cancer, it can steal your mortal life, but it cannot quell your spirit. Its effects may have the power to ravage your physical body but it can't even come close to touching your soul. And, just in case I have any doubts, I can count on a special jar of copper coated coins to remind me. They are my proof that love indeed lives on.