• Lauren Burke

A Visit to Tuscon

When I was a kid, I was into beading. I've always loved crafts, so jewelry making was a natural fit for me. My mom's aunt, Molly, was also in to beading, as was my mom's sister, Faith. The three of us bonded over our common interest, and we grew quite close over the years.

Shortly after I was diagnosed with T1 (in 6th grade, 2005), my parents were supposed to go to a concert out of town. My grandparents (maternal) had gone to all the classes at my diagnosis, but we were all too scared of needles to give me my insulin shots (my mom, the biggest chicken of us all, somehow was the only one brave enough to shoot me). Molly and her husband, Jay, happened to be in town that weekend, and she had a diabetic cat. So she bravely gave me my evening and morning shots while my parents were away.

In 8th grade, Faith took my to Tucson to stay with Molly and Jay so we could go to the giant gem and mineral show Tucson holds every January/February (2008). We drove over there, stayed at their house, and had an incredible time. The next year, my mom and I went, because Faith couldn't go. I've wanted to go back ever since, but my school breaks never again matched with the show. And once I graduated, and got a job, I couldn't afford to miss work to go (granted that's only been two years now). I spent a few days over summer there for a few years in high school, and Faith and I even drove out and picked up a puppy while staying at their house (2010 I think?).

We weren't as close as we could be, mostly because of physical distance, but Molly has always been an important woman in my life. She has a masters degree in geology, and is probably the only reason I was so dedicated to auditing my geology class in college (my schedule was overloaded, but I was bound and determined not to give up). I love rocks and fossils, largely thanks to her and Jay.

In February (I think) of this year (2018), Molly was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. She could have less than 6 months to live, or take treatment, and maybe double her time.

My experience with my grandpa, and spending so much time with seniors and in nursing homes, hospitals, and doctors offices, led me to encourage them not to fight it. Sure, she may get 6 extra months, maybe... But they could be miserable, where Molly is just a shell of the vibrant, brilliant woman she was. My perspective is morbid, I know, and Faith lectured me on it. She said even if there were a 10% chance, she would fight, because she is strong! And 10% is still a chance! I, however, am around death constantly. Heck, just yesterday I watched our elderly neighbor get pulled out of his house on a gurney in a body bag. I think there is such a thing as dying gracefully, and enjoying your last bit of time.

They chose to fight it, hoping for the same outcome her older brother had. My great uncle Bill had stage 4 lymphoma in 2007, and fought it. His odds were much better, but he's been in remission since.

Molly's tumor was different... But they fought it. And to an extent, they won! Her tumor has been "stable" since her last appointment (I don't have a time frame on that, though). But, after treatment, Molly lost her ability to find many of her words. Some days she was strong, talkative, happy! But others were not so good.

Two weeks ago today, Saturday, October 6th, she fell in the shower and fractured her neck. A fracture that is usually fixable with a surgery and 6 months of rehab. But in a cancer patient? Not so easy...

So the trip I was supposed to take over a weekend at the end of October or early in November became an emergency weekday trip to say goodbye to my beloved great aunt.

My mom and I drove out to Tucson after my job interview and her dentist appointment on Monday afternoon, and drove home all day Wednesday. It took us almost 7 hours to get there, and more than 7 to get back. 464 miles each way, plus/minus some for gas, food, and potty breaks. 

It was a hard trip. Molly saw us and smiled. She laughed when we joked, and seemed to follow along with the conversation with her eyes, since her neck is in a brace. But she wouldn't really answer questions with more than a few words, and didn't seem to be able to ask you questions back.

My mom is so strong, she just kept telling stories and anecdotes from things that had happened in her life. She would talk about her students, tell stories about motorhome trips with my dad and their dog. But me, I couldn't... I'm depressed enough as it is! What funny stories am I supposed to say?? "Oh yeah, haha, I got this job, that I hated, and then I had to take medical leave, and they 'eliminated my position' while I was gone, so now I don't have a job! Haha!" or, "I take care of my grandpa, and it's a lot easier to talk about things around him than it is with you, because between his lack of hearing and Alzheimer's, he's clueless as to what's going on around him! Haha, it's great, he totally doesn't get it!" I just couldn't come up with anything to say... Nothing positive, or funny, or uplifting, anyways. I just sat and stared, like the awful kid I am, looking at Molly and my mom.

She looked better than I was expecting (again, I spend a lot of time in nursing homes), but it was so hard for me to see her like that. Her hair is growing back since she's been off chemo/radiation for a while now, but she still has a weird round scar on her forehead from where they opened her head up for surgery. Mom and I stopped by their house to see my second cousin's kids, and to see their house and her beading table all set up, with complex weaving pieces sitting there, covered in cat hair, knowing that she probably won't ever get back to them.

I worry that she's trapped in there, perfectly functional on the inside, but unable to get herself out of the shell she's inside of. To me, that is worse than being an invalid, because you're just stuck, unable to communicate or connect. With Pop, my paternal grandpa with whom I live, I don't worry so much... He knows he can't remember things, he knows he has a disease. But he doesn't see or understand the pain and worry that surrounds him. He doesn't understand that his brain is going to mush while his body is still mostly functioning. He is clueless, and in his case, ignorance is bliss. He gets to live his life, day to day, just happy he has people around him and gets to watch his favorite sports teams on TV. And even better for us, even when his teams aren't playing, we have plenty of old games recorded, and he doesn't know the difference! He's just happy to see "his guy" play-- Justin Turner, Dodgers, or Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors-- whenever he wants to watch a game.

Thank God Molly has one incredible daughter, and that daughter has an equally amazing husband... They dropped everything and moved back home to Tucson from back east somewhere with their two daughters, 3 and 5 at the time, now 4 and 6, when Molly was diagnosed. While Molly was at the rehab facility for the week and a half following her fall, her daughter and son-in-law would take turns staying there with her at night, because uncle Jay's dementia is too bad to support her there.

If ever there are saints in this day and age, they are the caregivers. The people who drop everything to take care of their loved ones, no matter what. I hope my second cousin won't regret it like I do sometimes, but I'm sure with my own parents I wouldn't regret it as much... I am grateful for the happy hours with Pop, but I feel trapped, and that makes it hard.

I'm glad I got to see Molly. As hard as it was, it meant so much to me. I hope she heals, and we can go to the bead show in 2019 with Faith and my mom... But I am too much of a naysayer to allow myself to get my hopes up too high. I'll take it one day at a time, though.

On our travels, though, we saw a double rainbow. I didn't capture the double rainbow so well, but I got a few shots out my mom's car window. I'd like to think it was a sign of better days ahead.

F*ck cancer, everyone. F*uck Alzheimer's, and f*uck old age.

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