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
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
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
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
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
That would be their sign, from her, that she was watching them from
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
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.