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by Philip Martin | May 21, 2023 at 2:26 a.m.

Close readers of this column will remember that the older of my two little sisters is dying.

I have alluded to that fact a few times over the past three years. She was diagnosed with Stage 3C ovarian carcinosarcoma, a highly aggressive form of cancer, in late January 2021. At that time we were given to understand her condition was terminal, while at the same time encouraged to believe there was some room for optimism. A slight chance is still a chance, and there are variables for which we cannot account.

She underwent surgery and has been through several cycles of chemotherapy. She seemed to respond well at first, and all the signs and markers the doctors looked at seemed to suggest progress. But last year things got worse and the cancer advanced to Stage 4. My sister was in and out of the hospital. She was sick all the time.

Last week my sister told her family she was quitting chemotherapy. She wasn't fighting anymore. Her doctor agreed. The chemotherapy was tearing her up. The last round had hit her so hard she could barely move from the couch. She couldn't go to her grandson's baseball games.

"I've searched my extensive vocabulary and the best way I can think to say it is 'it sucks,'" she said. There were no longer good reasons to resist. I didn't try to argue her out of it.

We chatted on the phone for about 20 minutes. She was cheerful but sounded old. She said she wanted to spend her last few months traveling, that she had people and places she wanted to see one last time. She had arranged to spend a week in a house on St. Simons Island in June. She wants to see real mountains again.

My father died of cancer. He had a form of lymphoma that was first diagnosed when I was a senior in high school in 1976. He died in July 1984, when I was 25. Chemotherapy was more brutal in the '70s and the '80s, and it tore him--a one-time professional athlete--up. Then he would rebound and for months, seem almost himself.

I don't have any athletic trophies in my house save for a softball his teammates signed and presented to him after he came back to play shortstop after missing most of a season.

I have that and his old baseball glove, bronzed, on a shelf in my office.

I missed his dying. I was at work, but I'd been with him the night before. I'd brought him a strawberry milkshake from Dairy Queen.

Until fairly recently, I told myself a false story about why I didn't finish law school--why I took the sports editor job that eventually led me to this one. I would tell people I was tired of school, that I took a year off because I couldn't bear to go back to the classroom. I was just burned out, I would say.

I used to think that was true. But now I understand I left school because my dad was sick. Because I felt like I had to get a job and earn money and take care of myself. It would be wrong to say that I left school because I wanted to move back closer to my family--though that was what I eventually did--but my father's sickness affected me in ways it has taken me years to untangle.

I was away for most of the years my father was sick, in Brazil, in Baton Rouge, in southwest Louisiana. I witnessed his suffering, the nausea and the enfeeblement, but I did not live with it. My mother and my sisters did. One was at home in middle school, the other in college 90 minutes away. I did not come home every weekend. They were there a lot more than I was. It was a lot worse for them.

I don't know that it is a universal instinct to want to absent ourselves from the scene of suffering. I think it takes an act of will to make yourself run toward the fire, but it is not natural to me. I would rather go to an afternoon matinee, to lose myself in somebody's else's dream, than to sit beside a hospital bed. I cannot congratulate myself for sometimes doing the decent thing.

The trajectories of our lives can never be purely plotted. There are too many variables, too many gravitational fields that might pull us one way or the other. There was a feckless streak in me that wanted nothing more than someplace dark and cool where I could listen to music. There was another side--that eventually won out--that was so scared of failure and letting people down. I'd find myself at my desk at 3 a.m., alone with a cup of coffee and a blinking green cursor on another unwritten-upon screen.

My sister tells me she is at peace with dying, that good weeks are better than bad months. She says she has done her due diligence. She has outlived her initial prognosis by more than a year. She says she still believes in miracles, but miracles are by their nature uncommon and not handed out like gold stars or merit badges. She sounds relieved.

There are no tears. It is not the time for tears.

There's nothing hard about this job except that you have to do it two, three--if you're lucky--four times a week. You don't have to be brilliant, or even smart, or even all that good at English. You mainly have to show up, which, somebody once told me, was pretty much the same for all jobs.

But you have to tell the truth here, because if you don't, you'll be caught out.

And the truth is there are times you want to burn down hospitals, when the whole world feels bitter and cruel and without much meaning. I struggle against that because I want things to matter, to believe we're not just a band of murderous apes on a remote rock in some provincial solar system.

Life matters.

But it only matters because it is finite and uncertain, because it cannot be perfectly charted and piloted. We are all of us buffeted and churned and shaken out like dice; all of us lucky to the extent that we are able to feel joy and pain and wonder at what we are and how we came to be.

And from afar, it might look silly, like the industry of ants. But we are caught in it, in the rush and throb and pulse of it, the shatter and wow. Life mightn't be the best thing for us, but we are addicted to it, to its sweetness and its grief.

We are the reckoning animals, the storytellers and the fabulists. We are the name-givers, the explorers, the ones preoccupied with a mystery we know we'll never solve, the very why of us.

Until we are covered by the unknown.

Print Headline: A long goodbye


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