This is actually a book that I am trying to write about my baby sister who died of cancer. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to leave comments.
There's no way to go through life without ever being affected by someone else. Keep in mind that the opposite is also true; anyone who meets you is also touched by you in some way. That's the reason I wanted to tell you about my sister, Karen. During her short life, she touched the lives of our family and friends in a wonderful way. Karen never met a person that she didn't like; I can not remember her ever speaking ill of anyone.
Karen had a great sense of family. She was the one who kept the rest of us talking to each other and getting along. She was the family mediator. I'm not trying to say that she and I never had arguments; we had a lot of them. For a long time, I was jealous of her because I felt she was the favorite child. But, no matter how I felt about her, no one else better bad mouth her in front of me. Towards the end of her short life, she was one of my best friends, and I will always cherish the time we had together.
My parents, a young married couple living in South Florida, wanted desperately to have children and had been trying to no avail. Doctor's told them they may not be able to have children, so they adopted me through a family friend. Three years later, on March 15, 1966, Karen Denise Waldo was born. She would be the first of two children born to my parents after my adoption. My baby brother, Carl, was born in July of the next year.
When she was four years old, my parents were told that Karen had Acute Lymphatic Leukemia. I was only seven years old when Karen got sick. I don't remember much about the early days of her illness, but I do remember feeling resentful that she seemed to be getting all of Mom and Dad's attention. I was never taken to the hospital to see Karen while she was there, I always stayed with family members. When she was released from the hospital, Karen began a strict regimen of chemotherapy, but never took radiation treatments. She was subjected to painful bone marrow tests and spinal taps to test the progress of the medication, but she never complained.
Karen was a tomboy. She was the first girl in our neighborhood to join little league baseball. She never let her illness stop her from doing anything that she wanted to do. When she lost all of her hair because of the chemotherapy, she refused to wear a wig, even though one of our great-aunts had made it for her. She wanted to wear a hat or a ball cap all the time instead. She hated to wear dresses or anything feminine, which led to a good story that I will tell you later on.
In a small way, Karen became a local celebrity in the town where we were raised. There were a lot of articles written about her in The Miami Herald and other newspapers in our local area. My father was a law enforcement officer, and all of his co-workers gave blood when Karen first got sick. They also pitched in and gave Dad their sick leave when he had to miss work. The local firefighters also gave blood for Karen, and at one time the motorcycle group "The Hell's Angels" sent my parents a check to help them with all of the medical expenses.
There were daily trips to the hospital in Miami for the first six months after Karen's diagnosis, then twice a week for about a year, and finally once a week later on. When she was going twice a week, she would have a bone marrow test done and when they cut her down to once a week she would have a spinal tap. Every week we went to the hospital she would have to have her finger stuck so that the doctor's could keep up with Karen's white blood cell count. I can remember one trip to the hospital when Karen had to have blood work done. We had gone into the room and a nurse went to stick her finger and I passed out and started sliding down the wall. My family still teases me to this day about that.
The family moved from Florida to Alabama when we were teenagers. My maternal grandmother had a heart attack one summer, and since my Dad was having to retire from the police force due to bad health anyway, they decided to move. I was a junior in high school and had a hard time acclimating to my new surroundings, but Karen and my brother seemed to fit in just fine. Karen loved to play the drums and even had a set of her own. She was in the band while in school, but ended up dropping out before she graduated because she didn't get along with some of her teachers.
Karen was a free spirit who did what she wanted to do when she wanted to do it, no matter what anyone else thought or felt about her actions. One summer, after she had been in remission for awhile, she went to a summer camp for children with cancer to help out as a councelor and ended up staying in Florida for awhile with a new friend after camp was over. Needless to say, my parents weren't happy about her decision. It was hard enough on them letting her go alone for the camp, but knowing she was going to stay in Miami with someone they didn't know really made them nervous. Every time Karen would call home, Mom would ask her when she was coming back. I envied Karen her independence, and wished that I were strong enough to take that step out of the nest.
My Mom and Karen had a special bond that made them seem more like sisters. They palled around together after Karen dropped out of school. They were both heavy into crafting and going to yard sales. Karen was very artistic; she was skilled at calligraphy and drawing. She actually designed and built a bed for our nephew that was shaped like a race car. She also made a beautiful quilt with cats faces on it, and one with Mario Brothers on it. Karen painted a pair of shoes for my Mom and I that we dearly loved. She took a plain white pair of canvas shoes and painted a beach scene on them. She also painted a sweat suit for my brother with the Miami Dolphins logo on them.
I wasn't very close to Karen when we were young. She and our brother, Carl, hung around with other kids in the neighborhood. I was a loner, an overweight bookworm who my parents would punish by sending outside to play. Karen and Carl rode their bikes out to the strip pits, built forts and played baseball in the empty lot in front of our house. My passion was reading, give me a book and leave me alone. We had the usual sibling rivalry, but we always took up for each other.
One weekend when we were kids, my parents took us to stay with our paternal grandmother. Ma, as we called her, went to church every time the doors were open. Karen wanted to wear her black canvas high top sneakers with the dress Ma was making her wear, so my grandmother told her to get in the closet and stay there until the rest of us got back home from church. I worried the whole morning that something would happen to her while we were gone. I remember going in and feeling that the television screen was warm when I went to turn it on, but I didn't tell on her because I was upset with Ma for leaving Karen alone in the house. Karen later confessed to our Mom that she waited until we left and then came out of the closet and watched television until she heard us pull up in the yard, and then she turned off the TV and ran back to the closet. We all got a laugh that she pulled one over on Ma.
Karen had a beautiful calico cat named Gracie who she raised from a kitten. She and I had driven to the Humane Society in town and I drove us home while Karen bonded with her new baby. That cat was her responsibility, and she loved her like a child. Gracie only ate dry cat food because the vet had told Karen it was healthier for a can than feeding them table scraps. The only exception was when Karen ate a bowl of cerel, she would let Gracie have the left over milk.
Karen's second and final bout with cancer began for us on my birthday, April 17, 1991. Mom and I were in the kitchen. Karen had gone upstairs to the bathroom. When she sat down, her back broke. Of course, we didn't know that at the time, we just knew that Karen had cried out in pain. We rushed upstairs to find her in the floor. We took her to the emergency room, every bump we hit in the road on the way there causing her more pain. The doctor at the emergency room felt that she had just pulled a muscle in her back from picking up our nephew. They sent her to an orthopedic specialist just to be sure.
Karen never complained even though she had to have hip replacement surgery and learn to walk all over again. She had recently found out she was pregnant, and had to have an abortion because the doctor's couldn't promise her that the baby wouldn't be born with what she had. It was a difficult decision for her to make, she wanted a baby so badly. She and my Mom even discussed letting the doctor's keep her on life support long enough for the baby to grow to term and then letting Mom raise the baby. However, she didn't want to take the risk of the baby being sick and suffering, so she agreed to let the doctor's take it. It was not and easy decision for the doctor's either since she was staying in a Catholic hospital, and abortion was not normally allowed.
Karen was given an epidural of morphine as her cancer progressed. The pain and strong medication made her paranoid sometimes. One day when I was alone with her, standing at her bedside, she grabbed my hand and begged me to sneak her out of the hospital and take her home because whe felt that everyone was against her. I told her as gently as I could that I couldn't do it because she was too sick. She started to cry, and I tearfully told her I was sorry. She said it was okay, but I will always remember how bad I felt that I couldn't do what she asked of me.
When Karen was in the hospital and we knew she wouldn't be coming home again, the doctor got us permission to bring her cat Gracie to the hospital to cheer Karen up. I was the one who took up the challenge, and it proved to be no easy task. I made it only halfway between home and the hospital and decided that I didn't want anymore cat mess all over my car, so I stopped by the Humane Society and explained my situation to them. The person who ran the place was kind enough to let me borrow a pet taxi. Gracie still wasn't happy about travelling, but at least she was confined to messing only in a small space.
When I arrived at the hospital and got to Karen's floor, a nurse gave me a sheet to put over the pet taxi while I was carrying it through the hall so noone would stop me. There was still no mistaking that an unhappy cat was being carried through the hospital. When we entered Karen's room, however, and I let her out of the carrier, that cat was fine and became the queen of the room. Karen was thrilled to see her and actually perked up a little, and I think it did Gracie good too. I learned later that Karen made the comment to my Mom that she was surprised that I wasn't mad because Gracie messed all over me and my car. Truthfully, I wasn't mad, I was happy to do something so special for my baby sister who was lying in that hospital losing the fight for her life.
With everything Karen went through, the whole time, even when she knew she was not going to survive, she put all she had into trying to get well. She hardly ever cried, and she demanded that no one else cry around her. She said that what she was going through was hard enough on her without seeing what it was doing to us. I struggled with my own bitterness towards God for what I felt He was allowing Karen to go through. I mean, be fair, she had already faced death once with Leukemia as a child. Now here she was fighting bone cancer and several other kinds of cancer as an adult, it just didn't seem right.
I never talked to Karen about how she stood with our Creator, but most of the time I feel she must have been very close to Him because of the way she took everything so well. She was never bitter and never felt sorry for herself. Our pastor at the time told me that Karen had affirmed to him that all was well with her soul and she was ready to go to Heaven.
Karen was well loved by everyone at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Every nurse on every shift had to stop by and check on her every day. I believe they took her illness as hard as the family did. My Mom stayed at the hospital day and night the whole time Karen was there, she rarely left the room even to get anything to eat. She was at Karen's side holding her hand when Karen took her last breath. Karen died peacefully, but it was still very hard to let her go.
My Mom insisted on doing Karen's hair and makeup because Karen always wore very little makeup, and Mom was afraid that some stranger would put too much on her. I went with her to the funeral home and we were admitted into the back where the embalming is done. Being in that area of the funeral home was not a pleasant experience for me, but I didn't want my Mom to be alone during this process. It was a shock to see Karen lying on that cold steel table with only a sheet draped over her. I sat there and cried while my Mom put makeup on Karen's face and styled her hair.
The day of Karen's funeral was clear, if I remember right, we were all pretty much shell shocked at her loss. I was okay during the services, but when they closed the casket and went to roll it past me I started to cry. My Uncle Ronnie was holding me, and I felt like if he hadn't been I would have thrown myself on the casket. During the procession from the church to the cemetery, we had a police escort for awhile. At his stopping point, the officer got off of his motorcycle and stood at attention with his helmet off and his head bowed as we went by. The sight of his show of respect for my sister sent shivers up and down my spine. As the procession went by our house, it slowed down to honor the fact that Karen had always wanted to go home from the hospital, but never made it.
At the cemetery, after the graveside services were over and everyone was dismissed, I made myself watch as the men lowered Karen's coffin into the ground and covered it with dirt. Even doing that, it took me a long time to admit to myself that Karen had died. I always pretended to myself that she had gone back to Florida to live. Denial was my way to deal with her loss and the guilt I felt at not being able to tell her how much I loved her before she died. Sometimes I still worry that she didn't know how much she meant to me. I regret all the wasted years that I resented her when we were young.
I've had friends, relatives, and even a psychiatrist tell me that the resentment was normal. Knowing that still doesn't ease the heartache. I can tell you from experience, do not let a day go by that you don't tell your loved ones how much they mean to you because it may be the only chance you have.