Monday, June 29, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

June 29,2009

On Sunday, Madison and I picked up our neighbor and friend Judi to go to the movies. Judi, having taken our Great Sadness* journey with us, suggested we all go to see My Sister’s Keeper as a “therapeutic” experience. You know the type of experience I’m talking about – when the sadness overwhelms you, makes you remember your own loss and then the endless tears come and come and come.

Yep. There were tears. Lots of them.

Madison and Judi had both read the book by Jodi Picoult on which the film was based so they had some idea of what to expect. On the way home from church, Madison gave me a brief overview to prepare me. People magazine gave the movie a pathetic rating and called it sappy so I went into the movie with mixed anticipation.

Don’t ask me about the quality of the screenplay adaption or if this will be a pivotal role for Cameron Diaz, who plays the mother trying to save her daughter from cancer. Ask me how it reminded me of the final days with mom. Ask me how it reminded me of how trying to control the life and betterment of my children can turn me into someone I don’t want to be. I’m no movie critic, but these are the questions I can answer after seeing this movie.

For those of you who don’t know, the plot of the story centers around a family with one son (the eldest child), and two daughters. The middle daughter was diagnosed with leukemia as a small child and the parents use genetic engineering to parent a third child to provide everything from blood, to stem cells and a kidney to her sister.

Despite all the surgeries and heroic efforts, there comes a time in the movie when the family has to make a decision when to terminate treatment and allow the inevitable. Like in so many cases, different family members come to this point at different times, causing painful conflict and dissention. And again, like in so many situations, the sick patient is the first one to say she is ready to embrace the hereafter, but needs those she loves to let her go.

This readiness is particularly slow coming for her mother – as you can well imagine. She had sacrificed her career and everything normal about her life to do whatever she needed to do to keep her daughter alive. I think most of us moms would do the same thing, at least to some degree.

There is a scene late in the movie that literally took my breath away. It shows the girl – now a teenager – holding her mother and telling her it was going to be OK when she died. As they both sobbed, her mother slowly accepted the fatal reality and was able to be fully alive in the moments of her daughter’s death.

On December 22, 2008, Madison and I had one of those moments with my mother in her hospital bed. The night before we had gotten what we thought was good news from a cardiologist who told us that mom had a severe cause of athersclerosis. The condition, according to the doctor, was likely the reason my mom had a stroke. He told us that with medication, this condition could be successfully treated.

So imagine our surprise when 12 hours later our oncologist comes in and tells us there’s something on the CT scan – something he feels certain will be cancer. CANCER. Is there another word in our language with such terrifying implications? Not for me, there isn’t.

Once the doctors leave, I sit on one side of mom’s bed and Madison sits on the other. She had heard it all and the look on my sweet little girl’s face articulated every fear going through my mind. And just like that, as if on cue, my mother swooped us both up in her arms. The physical-ness of this feat was amazing in itself, as her right side suffered partial paralysis from the stroke. Just getting her arm around me was a miracle, one that I didn’t even realize until later.

I saw the emotional strength of my mother in that scene of the movie. I saw, and remembered, how courageously mom comforted us, making us feel assured that together we could get through this battle, no matter the outcome. We didn’t talk about death, but rather about our God who would strengthen us through the battle. I felt weak in her arms, but yet strong because she was strong.

This was one of the last times that Mom got to take care of us – at least with her spoken words and actions. I felt like a helpless little girl and all I wanted in the world was to have my mommy with me. I knew this diagnosis meant I was likely losing her, but I had no
idea how quickly she would go.

A week later, my mother couldn’t speak. The cancer had ravaged her body, causing blood clots to form all over it. The body was trying to battle, but the cancer was going to win. All we could do was make her comfortable and then, one by one, release her into God’s loving care. It was the hardest thing I have ever done, but in the same sense, it was the only thing left to do.

She never quit fighting. I never quit fighting for her. We didn’t give up. We simply surrendered to God’s will.

Sadly, in this movie, there is no mention of God, His will or His plan. Instead you have a mother doing everything in the world, including sacrificing the health of her other child, to keep her daughter alive. I didn’t like seeing my controlling self in that mom; making everyone around me miserable all in the name of “doing what is best for my family.” It’s always that attitude of “I have to do it or no one will” that gets me into trouble too. It’s all about me taking control and telling the Creator of the Universe to take a back seat. It sounds ridiculous when I think of it that way, but in the heat of the moment I often feel like I have no alternative.

So what was the lesson in all of this? What did I take away from this movie?

Whether it is in dying or living, there is no peace when we try to control that which we weren’t meant to control.

(*I borrowed this term from The Shack)

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