My sister Claire gave birth to a baby girl in March of 1975. She was born with red hair, brown eyes and personality for miles. Years before the phrase “It takes a village,” was coined, my niece Mary was our family’s community baby.
Mary spent a lot of time at our mother’s house and since my brother and I still lived at home, we spent a lot of time indulging that child. Every word she uttered sent us all into convulsive laughter, and every face she made was considered high humor. Since she was the first baby for our generation, everything she did was brilliant and funny and oh, so cute.
As the years went by, more babies started coming. In addition to Mary, I had three daughters, and my brother, Kurt had two. As the oldest by four years, Mary was always the ring leader for that generation of the family. She encouraged and bossed all of the other girls, just like any other oldest child would do.
Eventually, all of those babies became young women. In her journey to womanhood, Mary traveled and lived around the world. She would come home to visit and regale the entire family with stories of the cultural differences in all of the exotic places she had experienced. Eventually, she married and she and her husband, David, settled in California.
Because of similar interests and outlooks on life, Mary and I became friends, not just aunt and niece. We would talk or email about different philosophical articles or books that one or the other of us would find. When she came to Kansas City to see my mother, her grandmother, we would always get together and spend some time with each other. I was able to fly to California a couple of times to stay with her and her family.
A few years ago, Mary started having headaches, dizziness and just feeling like crap. She went to a number of doctors and they all said she was fine. It was frustrating, but she had a life to live. As a teacher her students needed her and as a woman her family needed her. She learned to move forward and continue living her life through her pain.
Then, a few weeks ago as I was walking into one of the businesses downtown where I teach a strength class, I heard the ding of a text coming in. I casually pulled out my phone to see who was texting me. It was my sister, Claire.
The text was brief but shocking in its brevity. “Mary has a brain tumor. I am a mess.” What? What the Hell? I texted my sister back, telling her that I would call her as soon as I was done with the class.
Walking into the fitness center at the affluent business where I my class was, my mind was trying to process the news. After a few seconds thought, I decided that I would be better off if I taught the class. I put my brain on auto-pilot and taught a class that would let me put the news in the back of my head while still processing all of the possible implications.
What were the details of the tumor? How sick was Mary? How was my sister dealing with the devastating news? The class seemed to fly by, but at the same time, it felt like the clock would never get to the end of the class. Finally, I ended the class a few minutes early. Forcing myself to walk at a normal pace back out to the parking garage, I finally reached the car and dialed my sister’s number.
Claire was in an understandable panic. Her only child was seriously ill and she was half a country away. At that point, there wasn’t much more information. The tumor was on her brain stem and the doctors had already told Mary she was not going to be able to return to school to finish the semester with her students. Claire’s entire focus was on getting to her daughter’s side as quickly as she could. She eventually got reservations and flew out the next day.
An unexpected thought when I tried to process the news about her tumor was about Mary’s hair. Mary still has the same thick, curly red hair she had in her childhood. Her hair had been her trademark her entire life, but they were going to have to shave some of it off to remove the tumor that was pressing on her brain stem. Of all the things that anyone needed to worry about now, her hair was the least of her problems, but it was what kept coming back to my mind. It’s silly the little things the mind grabs hold of while trying to process big issues.
A week and a half later, Mary had brain surgery to remove the large mass from her brain stem. The surgery went well, and she was able to motion for her mom to come to her side as she was being wheeled to recovery. It took a few days for the results, but the ependymoma tumor was determined to be benign. A week after surgery she was moved to a rehab facility to recover.
After her first couple of days in rehab, things got interesting. Mary had been eating solid food at the hospital, but the rehab center would only give her pureed food until she had a chance to meet with a therapist. The therapist kept being a no show for her appointments and Mary had enough. She threw a big enough fit that not only did they start giving her solid food, two days later she was transferred home. Seeing Mary get fighting mad while she was in rehab allowed everyone to breathe a sigh of relief. We knew a crusading Mary was a recovering Mary.
It’s been three weeks now, and as Mary has said, there are struggles ahead, “…it was BRAIN SURGERY after all.” But there are improvements every day. Each step forward is celebrated with gratitude and jubilation. At this point in time, no one knows the end of this story, but what I do know is that Mary is a determined fighter. I look forward to every step she takes on this journey, and I celebrate her ability to take each of those steps.