Thank you for sharing your life with me and making me a better person for having known you. Thank you for letting me be there when you came into this world and when you left it. My love goes with you, where ever you may travel.
During the time I write about in these pages, I was fortunate to not only have the support of my amazing daughters, Lauren (Liz) Graham and Lindsey Graham, as well as the rest of my family, Theresa Buckley, Marion Buckley Shoults, David Buckley, Carol Anderson, Maureen McRorie, Cliff Buckley and Cathleen Breed, but I was also blessed with many helping friends. I couldn’t begin to list them all here, but I’d like to acknowledge Lezia Gethers, who was a rock as she listened to my daily reports at work and Barbara Karraker, who offered not only moral support, but added her clinical knowledge as needed. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also convey my appreciation to Larry Graham for being there for our girls.
I’d also like to thank the published authors of Georgia Romance Writers, or the Georgia Romance Authors Network, who banded together not only to round up donations during the blood drive for my daughter, Jessie, but who also made sure my two younger daughters lacked for nothing during a time when I couldn’t be with them on a daily basis.
And to Tom Simons I offer a special thank you. You gave me the biggest gift of all, time with my daughter. I’m forever grateful.
As a somewhat experienced author wanting to re-establish my writing career after having taken a deliberate break, I understand the drawbacks in choosing to write a memoir at this point in my fiction-writing career. As you will see in your reading of this, though, I felt directed to write this story. I was literally following a dream.
That said, I hope you will keep in mind the spirit in which this was written. My purpose is to share our story, in the hopes that in some way it may help at least one reader in whatever manner it may possibly help. In no way, whatsoever, do I mean to upset or hurt anyone mentioned in these pages.
The events depicted here are as accurate as my memory and the restrictions of the written word and passage of time could make them. In certain instances I’ve changed names of some of the people and places and condensed events to simplify the telling of them.
Conversations aren’t verbatim in most cases, but I’ve done my best to convey the content and characters of those involved. Other than that, what follows is the recounting of two and a half years that irrevocably changed my life. It is my sincerest desire that my sharing of these events will serve to enrich the life of the reader.
Best wishes to all,
Sometimes events in our lives stay with us, the memories ingrained long after they’ve occurred, especially the ones we most want to forget–the ones that have left us scarred. They echo through our daily routines, like background noise we’ve learned to ignore. Then the flicker of a thought, a passing comment, or a scent drifting on a breeze catapults us back into that moment and the grief we’ve suppressed rises, like a river over running its banks.
* * *
I stood in a high place, both a church and a courthouse. Dark masonry covered the walls, while light flowed through stained glass windows in splashes of yellow, pink and blue. Respectful quiet permeated the space.
Before me stood three camels. Their size and the muskiness of their scent drove me back a step. A commotion broke out among the handlers of the one to my right. They spoke in rapid dialog in a language I didn’t understand, but their distress was evident none-the-less.
Something was stuck in the camel’s mouth. It knelt before me and its mouth opened like a computer-generated image. I hesitated a moment, then reached in with both my hands.
My fingers closed around an abundance of long, slender objects. They slipped as I gathered them and pulled them from the opening. Light fell across my hands, revealing pencils, pens and paintbrushes, too many to count. Again I reached into the camel’s mouth, withdrawing a second bundle and then a third.
The load was more than I could comfortably hold. I glanced around for a place to lay my burden. A door stood ajar off to one side.I entered to find court in session, the judge in her raised chair at the front. I glanced around quickly, not wanting to disturb the proceedings. No shelf, counter or cabinet presented itself.
The judge caught my eye and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. With that, I understood the bounty from the camel’s mouth was mine to keep.
* * *
I awoke on a chair that pulled out into a bed in Northside Hospital’s cardiac care unit, one of the best in Atlanta. One small overhead light shone softly in the otherwise dark room. I rose, unsure of the time or even the day.
The constant inhale and exhale of a ventilator filled the air, the sound incessant, following me into restless sleep and back. It was a sound of both hope and despair–hope that the doctors would find a solution, determine a way to get my daughter’s lungs functioning again on their own–despair over the pulmonologist’s advice to pray. After all, things have to be pretty dire for a doctor to advise prayer.
Even I, with my endless optimism recognized that.
I moved to the side of the bed located before the large window adjacent to the nurses’ station. Still unaccustomed to the feeling of being in a fishbowl, I squeezed my Jessie’s hand. My sweet girl, my first-born, unconscious and fragile, so un-Rain-like. Jessie had adopted the name Rain at some point in her early teens when she’d first explored paganism. The name had suited her.
Her newly grown hair spiked in dark contrast to her pale skin. Her hair had been baby-soft as it had grown back after the chemo. I hadn’t been able to resist running my hands over the silky strands. Her lashes lay dark against her cheeks. She’d always been fairly translucent, but never like this.
The tube down her throat protruded from one side of her mouth. A feeding tube disappeared into her right nostril. Two more tubes were inserted into her chest. They drained fluid from around her heart and lungs. IVs pumped medicine into her veins, while electrodes, a blood pressure cuff and a pulse oximeter measured her vital signs, displaying them on the monitor above and behind her.
The CCU staff had been solemn that first night she’d coded and at least half a dozen hospital staff, including a close family friend, rushed her to the unit. To think, I’d almost listened to her blustering and turned the car around and not brought her that night. Thank God I’d ignored her protests.
They’d wanted her in intensive care, but no room was available, so she’d ended up here, where the staff was more accustomed to geriatric patients. One male nurse recalled a young man in his twenties a couple of years back. Other than that, Rain was the youngest patient any of them remembered.
She was nineteen.
Drawing in a deep breath, I straightened beside her, anchoring myself to heaven and grounding to the earth. I meditated on my chakras, aligning and balancing them, as I’d done on more occasions than I could remember. More deep breaths and I called in the angels, hers and mine, asking for their help.
I intend for this healing to be in Jessie’s highest good.
I intend to be a clear channel for Reiki.
My chest warmed with love for my daughter. I let it pour from my heart to hers and then I called in the Reiki, invoking the sacred symbols one at a time, three times each, repeating the sequence three times over.
Time stretched and warped around me. At some point I lost count and asked the angels to guide me, continuing by feel. When I finished I remained at her side, drawing in light and love and sending it to her, imagining us both basking in it.
Unbidden, grief welled up inside me and I breathed deeply to quell it. Here she was still with me, but I missed her, missed her laugh, her frank discussions and even her complaining. How long had we been here, in this room where day bled into night, then into day again, with the continual inhale and exhale of the ventilator and occasional hiss of the blood pressure cuff? How long since this new nightmare had begun?
* * *
Thanksgiving of 2004 found us in Disney World on a rare trip with my extended family. As I walked beside my sister, Cathleen Breed, I scanned our party, counting heads to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone. With my mother, six siblings, the spouses who’d joined, my three girls, one of Jessie’s best friends, Cytney Gueory, also known as Pyke, and my nieces and nephews, we made quite an entourage as we moved through the character-lined streets. I finished my counting as Jessie fell into step beside us.
My youngest daughter, Lindsey, scampered in front of us with one of her cousins, laughing. Jessie, ever intolerant of her youngest sister, glared after her. I shook my head, hoping the two of them would sustain a truce at least until after the holidays.
“Aunt Cathy, feel this.” Jessie pressed her aunt’s fingers to a spot on her neck.
Worry rippled through me as my sister frowned and asked, “What is it?”
“A lump,” I answered for Jess. “We don’t know, maybe a swollen lymph node.”
“Does it hurt?” my sister asked.
Jessie shook her head. “I can move it.”
“I’m taking her to the doctor next week. We couldn’t get an appointment before the holiday.” Guilt tightened my gut.
Jessie had mentioned the lump before, though I hadn’t been able to feel anything when she’d had me check her neck. I’d meant to have it looked at, but somehow I’d gotten sidetracked. I was still adjusting to the divorce and working full time. I had sole physical custody of my three girls, homeschooled Rain and my middle daughter, Lauren, evenings and weekends and was working my way through a four-book contract during every spare moment I could find.
Besides, we’d just found our way back to normal after that first nightmare, after that time with Jessie about which I’m not allowed to write. We’d already come through fire, through a time no child should have to endure. A scene flashed through my mind: Jessie’s gaze falling to the pillow and blanket Lauren and I carried, tears streaming down her face as she crumpled to the hospital floor with the realization we hadn’t come to take her home.
My chest squeezed at the memory. My heart had broken for her in that moment. I couldn’t comprehend anything more of consequence ailing her, not after all she’d already been through. Of course, none of that excused me from not getting her to a doctor sooner.
Cathy touched Jessie’s arm. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Jessie nodded. “Sure.”
I held her gaze. “We’ll take care of it, whatever it is. We’ll fix it.”
She nodded again and touched her neck as her gaze slid away.
* * *
One doctor’s visit and two failed rounds of antibiotics landed us in an examination room with a general surgeon. Jessie’s pediatrician had sent us to him to see if he thought she needed to have the lump biopsied.
Biopsy, the word whispered through my consciousness as though my mind could barely acknowledge it.
The surgeon frowned as he pressed his fingers along Jessie’s neck. “I feel some swelling, here.” He indicated the spot with which we’d become too familiar. Then he pressed the opposite side of her neck. “And there’s some here, too.”
Alarm pumped through me. I met Jessie’s surprised gaze as she felt the second lump.
“That wasn’t there before,” she said.
I straightened. “Does this mean it’s spreading?”
“It was probably there and she didn’t notice. It’s smaller than the other side,” he said.
Rain shook her head. “It wasn’t there.”
The doctor smiled. “Your lymph nodes are swollen. This is often a response to infection.”
“She’s already been on two different antibiotics,” I said.
He nodded. “Sometimes these infections are tough. Different infections require different antibiotics. We try the most common ones first, but they don’t cover everything.”
I exhaled. “So it may not be anything serious.”
“I don’t think so, but I can’t say for sure. I want to send you to an ear, nose and throat specialist. He may be able to tell what the infection is and determine the right antibiotic.”
“So, no surgery?” Jessie asked. “No biopsy?”
Again he shook his head. “I don’t see any point in it, but we’ll see what the ENT doctor says.”
* * *
“Mom, hurry.” A note of urgency rang through Jessie’s voice a week and a half later.
I glanced at the clock on my dash as I pressed my cell phone to my ear. “I’m on my way, honey. I left early. We have plenty of time before your appointment.”
“Larry dropped me and asked them to work me in. He has to be someplace.”
“What do you mean he dropped you? He isn’t with you?” Why would her father leave her? Why hadn’t he told me he was taking her early?
We’d kept him apprised of the situation since her first visit with her pediatrician. When Dr. Rosen, the ENT surgeon, asked us to get CT scans before he saw her, we’d been concerned and asked Larry if he wanted to come to the appointment, where we’d no doubt discuss the results of those scans. Since I’d been at work and he’d been closer to the house, it was easier for him to pick her up and meet me at the clinic.
“He’s coming back,” she said. “He went up to adult medicine to make an appointment.”
I tried to stem my anger. Didn’t he realize she was nervous–that she needed moral support? “He couldn’t have called them?”
“I told him it was okay, Mom. But will you hurry?”
“I am. I’m ten minutes away. If they call you back, just let them know I’m coming.”
Shortly after, I pulled into the clinic parking garage. My cell phone rang as I got out of the car. Seeing it was Jessie, I answered, “I’m here.”
“They called me back,” she said, her nervousness evident in her tone.
“I’ll find you. Please ask the doctor to wait if he gets to you before I do.”
I rushed through the main double doors, and then stopped in the lobby to catch my bearings. A sign directed me up a flight of stairs, then across a landing to the ENT area. I stopped at the privacy line behind another woman, who was checking in for an appointment.
Impatiently, I waited, the minutes dragging by. At last I stepped up to the check-in counter and explained I was there for my daughter, but they’d already called her back.
“Let me see where she is.” The woman clicked her mouse and checked her monitor. Her phone rang and I held my breath as she asked the caller to hold.
At last, she sent me through a heavy set of double doors, then down a hall. I had to ask two more nurses before I found Rain in a room off a side hall.
Worry creased her brow as I entered, but I’d made it before the doctor. I wanted to hug her, but didn’t want her to know how nervous I was, so I took a seat and set my purse on the floor. “Hopefully we’ll get some answers today.”
She nodded as a knock sounded on the door. A man in a white coat entered, his dark hair combed back in short waves. A sense of competence surrounded him and I immediately felt at ease.
“I’m Dr. Rosen.” He extended his hand and I shook it.
“I’m Dorene Graham.” I then gestured toward Rain. “This is Jessie.”
He took her hand. “It’s Jessie, not Jessica?”
“I hate Jessica,” she said, almost smiling.
He apparently had a calming effect on her, as well. I relaxed a little as we all settled into our seats, Jessie on the examining table, swinging her legs, her heavy mane of hair pulled up into a pony tail.
“I just came from looking at her scans and I don’t want to waste any time.” Dr. Rosen clasped his hands.
I stared at his knuckles as concern filled me. Another knock sounded at the door and the doctor frowned.
“It’s probably her father,” I said.
Larry entered, introduced himself, and then took the vacant seat on the other side of Jessie.
Dr. Rosen leaned forward. “As I was saying, I don’t like the look of her scans. I’m afraid it might be lymphoma of some kind.”
Lymphoma, another word whispering though my mind. My heart pounded. I met Jessie’s gaze.
Dr. Rosen continued, “I’d like to send you directly to Emory’s Winship Cancer Center. They can do needle biopsies and tell us for sure what we’re dealing with. We don’t have the same resources they have. Their lab is on the premises. You can have answers immediately.”
Lymphoma…cancer…the words echoed through my consciousness. Infection sounded so tame in comparison, so much easier to handle.
At last I found my voice. “Of course, whatever we need to do.”
“Are you available now?” he asked. “I don’t want to waste any time. The sooner we move on this the better. I’d like to call them to see if we can send you straight there.”
“Of course,” I said. “I can take her. It isn’t a problem.”
I met Jessie’s gaze again and nodded. “Are you good with this, hon?”
She straightened in her seat. “Sure. Let’s go.”
Dr. Rosen stood. “Let me call them to make sure they’re ready for you. I’ll send them copies of her scans, as well.”
He left and quiet descended on the room. I grabbed my purse and got out my car keys. I drew a deep breath, and then addressed Jessie. “So, we’ll finally get some answers.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded.
* * *
Two pathologists waited for us as we made our way through Atlanta’s late afternoon traffic to Emory’s Winship Cancer Center. After calling work to let them know I wouldn’t be back that afternoon, I turned on the radio and tried not to think about where we were going or why.
Biopsy…lymphoma…cancer…pathologists…they weren’t words that should be in an eighteen-year-old’s vocabulary.
The two pathologists were women, one brunette, and one blond. The brunette spoke in calm tones, as though not to frighten us. I wanted to tell her it was too late for that.
“We’ll numb her neck on each side, so we can insert the needle and take samples from both areas. It may take several tries until we get a good specimen, but we’ll run the analysis and tell you what we find before you leave.”
She held up a long needle and turned to Jessie. “It’ll be a little uncomfortable, but we’ll work quickly. Okay?”
Jessie’s gaze riveted on the needle. “Do I have a choice?”
The pathologist shrugged. “You always have a choice, but I suggest you let us do the aspirations. If it’s something serious, you’ll need to start treatment immediately.”
“You can squeeze my hand,” I offered. Jessie had never liked shots. She’d always squeezed my hand when she got them as a child.
She shook her head. “It’s okay. I can do it.”
Nearly an hour later, the grimace on Rain’s face indicated all wasn’t okay, though. I leaned toward her. “It’s hurting, hon?”
She blew out a breath. “I can definitely feel it.”
“Can’t we give her more of the local anesthetic?” I asked as the pathologist again inserted the needle into her neck.
“We’re almost done,” the woman answered, her attention on the needle. “We want to get as many good samples as we can.”
“And you’re sure this will tell us something?” I asked. Jessie couldn’t be going through all of this without results.
The woman nodded. “I hope so. We’re analyzing these in the lab as we go. We just want to make sure we get the best samples, so the tests can be as accurate as possible.”
“And if the results don’t tell us anything?” I asked.
The blond shrugged. “Dr. Rosen may want to take a more extensive biopsy to get a bigger sample.”
“Okay.” The brunette straightened, needle in hand. “I think that should do it. We’ll run these last samples. Hold tight and we’ll have some answers for you shortly.”
They both left and I squeezed Rain’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
She rolled her head, stretching her neck. “That anesthetic wore off about half an hour ago, but it’s okay.” She sighed and her gaze softened. “I think I should get some spoiling for this.”
“Absolutely.” I wanted to give her the world for having this kind of worry, especially after the past ten months. No one deserved this. Though it was a small concession, I offered, “How about dinner out? Your pick.”
“Okay,” she said, somewhat mollified.
“At least they’re done and we’ll know something soon.”
Her jaw tightened. She didn’t respond and we sat in silence until the pathologists returned. The brunette was the first to speak.
“Well, the results weren’t as conclusive as we’d like. Sometimes it’s hit or miss with needle aspirations. The cells were hard and it was difficult getting the samples.”
“One thing we can rule out, though,” the blond said, “is Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.”
“Oh,” I said, not quite sure how to respond. Ruling out one horrible option didn’t make all the other possibilities any more palatable. “Well, then that’s something.”
“We’ll send the results to Dr. Rosen and he’ll let you know how he wants to proceed. He may want to do an open biopsy, but that will be his call.” She smiled. “But ruling out Hodgkin’s is a good thing.”
Somewhat heartened, but still full of questions, we thanked them. Ruling out Hodgkin’s might be great, but we still didn’t have the answers we needed.