“Don’t Wait.” How many times have I heard these two words since Thanksgiving Eve? I can’t count the number. If I rubbed her arm, I heard “Don’t Wait.” If I asked her if she wanted some water, I heard “Don’t Wait.” If I asked her if she was ready to sit in the chair, I heard “Don’t Wait.” If I told her I loved her, I heard “Don’t Wait.” If I kissed her on the forehead and told her I’d see her tomorrow, I heard “Don’t Wait.” It seems as though no matter what I said or what I did, her response was always the same – “Don’t Wait.” And it wasn’t just me that she said it to. She said it to anyone who asked her a question. I only wish I knew what it was that she did not want us to wait for.
I asked my daughter, Marti, if she knew what Sandra meant by “Don’t Wait.” I thought that maybe since Marti works with stroke patients she might be able to tell me. She gave me a clinical answer – after a stroke, the brain thought process can get stuck and although in her mind, she may be telling us different things, her response just comes out as “Don’t Wait”. OK, I guess I understand that. But, I’m not satisfied with that answer. I think there’s more to it. Why those words? Why not “The cow is black and white” or “Jump in a Lake” or “Go away”? Why was it always “Don’t Wait”? I’ve thought and thought and thought about this and have come to the conclusion that Sandra knew exactly what she was saying. Although she couldn’t communicate with us to a great extent, she was trying her best to tell us something very important to her. I just have to pull my thoughts together.
Sandra has fought a valiant fight for the last five years. When first diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided that she was going to fight with all her might. And she did. Bless her heart; Sandra has never done “sick” very well. No matter what the medicine, if there is a side effect to it, Sandra is going to have that side effect. If something can go wrong during a surgery, it will go wrong when that surgery concerns her. If a child she is teaching has some communicable disease, Sandra’s going to get a case of it. Never fails. When she began her chemo for the breast cancer, it really kicked her butt and after about three rounds, she decided that she just couldn’t do that anymore so she quit the chemo. Radiation was next. Thank goodness the sickness was gone, but the radiation was no day in the park for her either. But, she did it and the day she was told that she was cancer free was a day of rejoicing for us all. She had overcome that nasty cancer. What had happened to Daddy, Mama, and Sonja was NOT going to happen to her. Everyone was so full of joy.
It wasn’t long, though, before she started complaining about her bones hurting. After a couple of months, a PET scan was done and she was given the bad news that it had now moved to her bones. Not again. Please, Lord, not again. But she weathered this bone cancer with the same determination as she had the breast cancer. Determined to fight, determined to win this battle, she began the fight one more time. It was another year and a half of treatments, tests, more treatments, and more tests before she heard the words “You are cancer free” again. There had been many days of sickness and tiredness and just feeling lousy, but she had fought the fight again. There was now more rejoicing. More thanks to God. More believing that life would go on for her and for those who loved her. There were good days to be had. And through all this time, she continued to work. After retiring with over 40 years of teaching under her belt, she took a job of doing some in-home teaching. I used to love to hear her talk about her kids. She truly loved these kids and only in about the last 10 months or so, did she have to give it up. Not being able to continue to work with these children was rough on her.
But, there were not many good days to be had. After just a few months, she told us it was back. At first, she said they had found a few spots on her bladder, but it was on the outside so that was good. She said that they were going to treat it with a very low dose of oral chemo and that the doctor had told her she would not get sick and would not lose her hair. OK. That is good, right? Well, it should have been, but within a week of being told this, she seemed to just give up. I went down to her house one day and she was on the couch, not wanting to talk at all. In fact, the only thing she said to me that day was “Three Strikes and You’re Out”. Well, I thought about that for a few minutes and then told her that as far as I knew, there wasn’t a single damn person in that house who was playing a game of baseball. She just looked at me and closed her eyes, totally shutting me out. I finally left and went home to think and pray. After a week of her just lying on the couch I couldn’t stand it anymore. I was determined that I was going to MAKE her get off the couch and fight. Yeah, right. Sandra and I had not had a pure fight since we had been teenagers but we had a doozy that day. It started with me asking her to get up and go take a bath. “Nope. I don’t want to” was what she said to me. I tried a couple of more times to no avail. Zeke and I would both ask her to do something and again, “Nope. I don’t want to.” After several of these responses, I asked her what she did want to do. She wouldn’t respond at all. There is almost nothing in the world that can get to me more than to have someone totally ignore me, but I just sat there and waited. I guess I thought I could outwait her, but, of course, I was wrong. I tried a few more times of asking her nicely what she wanted, only to have her continue to ignore me. Zeke continued to try to get her to get up and she would just say, “Nope. I don’t want to.” After at least thirty minutes of that, I finally asked her if she planned to just lay on the couch until she died. No, that wasn’t nice. I know it. But, I didn’t know what else to say to her to try to convince her to get up. She finally turned her head to look at me and said, “If I want to.” Well, those were not the words I wanted to hear; those were fighting words and I lit into her. I told her that I’d never known her to be a quitter and that she had to think of others and try for them even if she didn’t want to try for herself. I gave her that old “Well, Sonja never quit. Sonja didn’t lay on the couch and wait to die. Sonja and Mama and Daddy would all tell you to get your ass off the couch and fight if they were here.” The entire time I was yelling at her, she just laid there with her eyes closed. After a few rounds of yelling, she raised her arm, pointed at the back door and said, “Get out of my house.” I know. I deserved it. I had been mean and cruel and said things that I never should have said. But I was afraid. I was scared that if she gave up, she would die and I wasn’t ready to lose another family member to cancer. I wasn’t ready to lose my big sister for any reason. Afraid that I would say something else, I was the one who got up. I walked to the back door and told her to let me know if and when she decided to fight to live. I walked out and came home and cried and cussed and yelled at my dog and threw things around. And then I started praying. I didn’t go back to her house for a week. It broke my heart to see her with this mindset. She had always been so determined that she was going to beat it.
When I finally went back, I had no idea if she’d even let me in. The door was locked so I had to knock. Nobody came to the door so I got the key and let myself in. Sandra was in the kitchen cooking. After a little silent “Thank you, Lord,” I walked into the kitchen and asked her what she was cooking. While the conversation was not as friendly or loving as I wanted it to be, she didn’t throw me out. We never mentioned the fight again. She called me the next Sunday morning and told me to come down for Sunday dinner about 4. In my mind, things were going to be ok. She told us that day that they had determined that the cancer was not involving the bladder, but that there were some spots on the liver. But, she said that the doctor had repeated that the treatment would be a mild dose of chemo. I asked her if I could drive her to her next appointment and was told no. Each time one of us asked about going to the doctor with her, we were always told no. She continued to say that things were going well and told us the beginning of November that Dr. L. had said that she’d have another PET scan in February and that he was going to change her treatment meds again and felt sure that things would be fine by February. Yay! She had done it again. She had beaten cancer for the third time. What a fighter. What a winner. Things were going well.
Sunday, November 8th, the Mains girls all decided to get together in Macon. Sandra had been feeling poorly all week, but was excited about going. I am SO very glad we made this trip. Sandra, KaKa, Kalli, Shannon, Brooke, Marti, Gina, Emma, Ashley, and I had a blast at Olive Garden that afternoon. We spent several hours just having fun. I’m not sure how much fun it was for everyone else in the restaurant, but we really didn’t care. We cut up, told old stories, and talked about what everyone was doing for Thanksgiving and for Christmas. It was decided that we would do Thanksgiving at Sandra’s. Another Mains’ family holiday was just what we all needed. Below is a picture of Sandra and me taken that day. I will always treasure this picture.
The morning of Thanksgiving Eve, Ashley called and asked if she could come over for the day and of course the answer was yes. As soon as she heard that Bowen was at Sandra’s, she took off to go down there. I talked to Sandra on the phone and told her I was heading to the grocery store and asked if she needed anything. She assured me that everything was covered and that she was finishing up her famous “Green S*it” for our dinner the next day. (Long story about Sandra’s Green S*it, but I’ll just say it’s a Mains’ Family Dinner Must Have.) She said that Ashley and Bowen had gone to Wal-Mart and to Zaxby’s and that she’d talk to me later. I got busy working on the dressing for the next day. Ashley got back about 2:30 and excitedly told me that she had watched Aunt Sandy make the Green S*it for everyone. Pretty soon, she headed back to Milledgeville. It was a busy afternoon for me making 6 pans of dressing for the next day and I didn’t get back to Sandra. About 5 or so, Will knocked on my door with the news that Sandra was on her way by ambulance to Athens and that the EMTs had said that she’d had a stroke. My heart dropped. He said to stay home and that he’d call me when he knew something. Oh, what an evening that was. I knew that Sandra’s greatest fear was a stroke. She said that she NEVER wanted to end up being dependent upon someone else for all her needs. Please, Lord, let her be OK.
What a long night that was. Will called and said that by the time the ambulance got her to Athens, things had changed. She was talking; she was moving. Thank you, Lord. You’ve done it again. They were told that she’d had a mild stroke, but that things looked good.
Since family was due to come in the next morning for what we thought would be dinner at Sandra’s, Gina offered for us to come to her house. Will said for us to go on to Gina’s and he’d call if there was something I needed to know. I didn’t talk to Will or Zeke during the day, but we all prayed and thought of Sandra throughout the day. The next morning, I went to Athens with Zeke. He was quiet during the ride, but that was pretty much expected. The whole way to Athens, I just kept thinking about how blessed we all were that Sandra was going to be ok. This was not to be.
When Zeke and I walked in the door to her room I knew that something was up. I walked over to the bed, gave Sandra a kiss and asked her how she was feeling. She looked at me with a blank stare – one that meant she had no idea who I was or what I had just asked her. I turned and looked at Will and he motioned for me to go outside. He, Zeke, and deLacy came into the hall and gave me the bad news. Sometime during the night after she had been admitted, Sandra had suffered a major stroke. The nurses had said that she had been fine when they checked on her around 2 a.m. but by 6 she was not responding in any way. I was devastated. How in the world had this happened? Why didn’t anyone call me to let me know? What was the outlook for recovery? I had a million questions, none of which were answered to my satisfaction. Will said that he had started to call, but knew that all my kids were at Gina’s for Thanksgiving dinner and he didn’t want to upset us. When I asked Zeke why he had not told me anything on the way to Athens, he said that he had thought that Will had told me. I told him no, that the last I had heard Wednesday night was that she was doing well and was talking and moving and that it had just been a mild stroke, but that all would be well. I just didn’t understand any of this.
A short time later, Sandra’s doctor came in to meet us. He took us all into a conference room and pretty much laid it all out on the table. He said that Sandra wasn’t going to get better. He said that she would never talk or walk again. He said that the Sandra we knew was gone. When we asked him what would happen if she had another stroke, he said “It really won’t matter. No further damage can be done unless it’s a stroke on the opposite side of her brain. She has suffered massive damage at this point.” I had never heard a doctor be so blunt. He didn’t try to candy coat things one bit. He told us to get ready for some rough days ahead.
After a week, we got Sandra back here in Eatonton to the local hospital. We spent as much time as possible with her and did the best we could to keep her in good spirits. She had many, many friends to stop by to see her and many of her classmates made daily visits. She was always close to her classmates and loved them dearly. During most of these visits, she slept, but occasionally she would be awake and would do her best to at least smile at them. It was a crooked smile, but such a beautiful sight to see. Her son and his sweet wife were amazing. Will seemed to be the only one who could make her eat anything. In fact, he pretty much would not let her not eat. She wasn’t happy about it, but she did eat for him. These days were so very tough for me. I could not stand to see her in this condition. And it seemed as though the harder I tried to get her to eat or do her exercises, the harder she would shut down. I don’t think there was ever a day that I didn’t leave the hospital in tears. And once I’d get home, I would just collapse. Sandra never, ever wanted to be in this condition and I know that she was tired of fighting and trying. She had fought for five years and she was done fighting. I know that eating was the only control that she had left and she was going to use that control. Finally, the doctors told us to stop trying so hard. If she wanted to eat, we needed to be there to feed her, but if she turned away from us, just let her be. Good Lord, was that hard for me to do. I knew what the outcome would be and I couldn’t stand it.
What in the world was I going to do without Sandra? She had been my big sister my entire life. I had never known life without her and I knew that soon, she was going to be gone. Another sister gone. Sonja was gone and now it would soon be Sandra gone, leaving just KaKa and me. There were so many things I wanted to say to Sandra, and say them I did, but it was evident that she didn’t know what I was saying. Why had I not told her all those things before now? Why did I wait? What if she didn’t understand just how much I loved her and how much she had meant to me? What if I hadn’t thanked her enough for taking care of me after I got out of the hospital in Atlanta? She opened her home to me and let me live there for two months before I moved into a house of my own. It had been so good to be back in the house with her. I had had so many hesitations about moving back to my hometown and she did her best to help me understand that moving home was going to be a good thing for me.
Sandra’s family doctor came over to the hospital one afternoon and spent a couple of hours with us, explaining everything. She had been by Sandra’s side for so many years and Sandra truly loved Dr. P. When she walked into the hospital room and spoke to Sandra, she got the biggest smile we’d seen Sandra give anyone. My heart was full. Sandra knew that Dr. P. was there for her. The next day, Sandra’s oncologist came over and gave us the very bad news. All this time that Sandra had been telling us that things were good and that there was nothing to worry about, she wasn’t being truthful. Her oncologist told us that during one of her appointments the first week of November, he had given Sandra the news that there was nothing more they could do and that the meds he had her on were just to make her life bearable. And we had thought she was getting better. We asked if he could give us any idea as to how much time she had. I’ll never forget what he said. “Will she be here next week? Yes. Will she be here for Christmas? Maybe. Will she be here for New Year’s? Most likely, no.” Those words rang in my ears as I left the hospital that day. I kept thinking that he had to be wrong. I now understood why she would not let anyone go to her doctor appointments with her. She knew. And she didn’t want us to know. I had such mixed feelings. I was mad. Mad that she had not trusted me enough to tell me. Mad that she had decided to keep this news to herself. But, after talking to my daughter about it, she reminded me that most likely, I would be the same way. And she was right. I understood why Sandra had not told us the truth. She was trying to protect us. I can’t say that I’m happy with her decision to keep us in the dark, but I do understand it.
We finally reached a point where we had to make a decision about what was going to happen when Sandra left the hospital. We talked about a nursing home, knowing she was going to need round-the-clock care, but finally, the decision was made to take her home. We divided up shifts and hired some sweet angels to help us and of course Hospice was there. And the wait began. I have to believe that Sandra knew she was home and was content being there. She communicated very little with us, but on her very good days, when we asked her something, she’d get a very serious look on her face and say, “Don’t Wait.” Here it was again. Sandra was trying to tell us something and none of us knew what that message was. Those hours of sitting by Sandra’s bed were so hard. She was in the same room where we had had Mom as she was waiting to die. I was sitting in the exact same place as I had been when I sat by Mom’s side. So many times, when I’d turn my head and look at Sandra, I could have sworn it was Mom lying in that bed. All those feelings kept rushing back to me and it was killing me to relive those days. And in Sandra’s lucid moments, she kept telling me “Don’t Wait”. I prayed so many times for God to tell me what I was supposed to do. What am I not waiting for? “Just tell me, God. I can’t do this.” But, He never told me.
December 30th was Hell. I had almost reached my breaking point and was a wreck when I got home that night. I took a sleeping pill and prayed that God would just let me sleep. “Please, just let me sleep and not think. Not tonight, God. I can’t think any more tonight.” God was good to me that night. I slept a peaceful night and didn’t wake until early afternoon. I got up and did a few things around the house and just never made it down to Sandra’s. I was so very afraid to go that day. I did everything I could to just not think about it. I couldn’t think about my big sister dying. I just couldn’t do it. I had to have a day for Betty to re-coup. About 11:30 that night, New Year’s Eve, Will called to tell me that Sandra was gone. And I hadn’t been with her. I should have been with her and I was too selfish to have gone down that day. Dr. L. had been right. She would not be with us on New Year’s Day. And I had not gone down to tell her good-bye. I had not been with her. What kind of sister does that?
The rest of that night was torture. But, it was over. I had stood on the front porch and watched them place Sandra in the hearse. Those were the same steps where I had stood and watched them as they placed Mom in the hearse. I stood on the steps where we had always taken our family Easter pictures and the importance of those steps just kept running through my brain. We had sat on those steps so many times as kids and watched the National Guard convoys go by. We had sat on those steps when Mom and Dad were fighting. I had kissed my boyfriends good-night on those steps. Sandra had chased me out of the house one time during a fight we were having and I had cleared every one of the steps. Looking at those steps that night brought back so many childhood memories. But, now, the steps don’t matter because there is no more Sandra. Her memories would always be there, but I wouldn’t be able to pick up the phone and call her. There would be no more Sunday evening suppers at Sandra’s. There would be no more Sandra for me to talk to when I was feeling blue. But, Sandra’s pain and suffering was over. There would be no more doctor appointments, no more chemo, no more radiation, no more…, no more…. No more anything.
Sandra wanted no visitation and no service of any type. She just wanted it to be over. We finally decided to have a visitation because there were so many people who wanted the chance to say good-bye to someone who had been their friend. Once it was over, I came home and began a major isolation. I spoke to nobody (except my children – I knew I had to speak to them when they called), went nowhere, and did nothing but sleep and pace. And think. And think some more. My mind went into overdrive. Big time, overdrive. I relived every mean thing I had ever done or said to Sandra and relived every good thing she had ever done for me. What kind of a sister was I to have not gone to see her that last day? Did she remember that I loved her? Did she know that I was sorry for every mean thing I had said or done to her? I was a wreck. After a month of this, I called my therapist and said I had to see her. I knew I was very close to the breaking point and had enough sense about me to know that I couldn’t let that happen again. It took another month or so for me to reach the point where I could be around people again.
It’s been almost ten months now since Sandra died. I can’t say that I’m through grieving, but I can look at things in a much better light now. And I can’t say that I truly understand what Sandra was trying to tell us by repeating, “Don’t Wait”, but I have come to my own conclusion.
I may be totally wrong, but I think Sandra was telling me to get better, to get a grip on my depression, and to start living again. She was telling me to forgive, to forget, and to live. She was telling me to let go of my past. She was telling me to somehow accept that I’d had a shitty life, but that it had not been my fault. She was telling me that it was now time to find the good things out there.
But, most of all, Sandra was telling me to love myself. “Betty, don’t wait any longer to realize that you are worthy, that you are loved, and that you deserve a good life. Go find it. Don’t wait any longer. We don’t have forever.”
I hear you, Sandra. I’m trying. I’ll make you proud of your little sister. Just watch!
THOUGHTS ABOUT MY THOUGHTS: Sigh……..I finally gave up trying to sleep last night. I had tossed and turned, thinking about Sandra, and finally decided to get up and put my thoughts together. Now, I’m tired of thinking. I think I may post some kitty-cat pictures tomorrow.
TODAY’S FEELINGS BAROMETER: Guilt, sorrow, loneliness, missing my sisters, thankful that I still have KaKa. Mind going a frillion miles per hour. I need to get a grip.