AWAKE O SLEEPER: HOW I REDISCOVERED GOD THROUGH CANCER tells the story of the most defining moment of my life, the day I recieved a diagnosis of breast cancer and how that ultimately changed my life.
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August 31st is the day I learned I had cancer. It is the day my life was cut in two. Separated, like wood splintering, ragged edged, falling apart never to be one smooth piece again. It is the day that forever separated my life into two distinct parts: the time before cancer when I was self-involved, invincible, innocent in ways I did not know, and the time after cancer. Then I discovered the true meaning of life, then God revealed himself to me as I slowly began to recognize him, and then I learned that life is a gift given day by day for which I will be forever grateful.
August thirty-first is also a day that goes back as far as I can remember. One filled with August's muted sun and the marking of time's yearly passage. A day pressed gently into memory's folded pages. It was my sister Sally's birthday and although it belonged more to her than me and sealed summer's end I still relished it as much as my own. I have three sisters but she is the oldest. Our birthdays are two years, two weeks apart in August. She is the one whose shadow I lived in while growing up.
August thirty-first has recently taken on added significance with the birth of my nephew Thomas Ryan, named for my beloved father, the first grandchild born after his death and the only one bearing his given name. He is the one whose name assures me that my father continues to live among us today, the one born on Sally's birthday who completes that circle of life.
But it is the news I received on August 31st in 1988 that put this day in a new light, a harsher, blinding kind of light that scared me but ultimately altered the way I would view my world. Later that same day, conversations, events became blurred, confused, cracked, broken. They were no longer what was essential. It is only the details leading up to the shattering news I received midday I remember with clarity.
It was cold early in the morning; temperatures had dropped into the fifties overnight. My husband Jack and I drove over vacant country roads and sleeping city streets to the hospital. At the pre-op session the week before, the nurse told me to wear something comfortable the day of the biopsy since I would have a loose bandage on my breast and my clothing would need to accommodate that. I wore a casual outfit of pink stretch pants and an oversized matching sweatshirt with an artsy flair, swirls of what looked like gray, white and black paint. I loved that outfit; it had always given me a lift when I wore it.
We arrived at the hospital and after a few preliminaries I was taken to the OR for the biopsy. I remember talking with the anesthesiologist as he placed an oxygen mask over my face. I could hear him talking with the nurses and worried that the surgeon would begin before I was under, before I was completely asleep. I tried to speak but nothing came out.
Then I awoke in the recovery room as a nurse came to check my vital signs.
"How did everything go?" I asked her.
"Oh, the doctor will talk to you soon, when you're back upstairs." She said in a brisk, matter-of-fact tone with no recognizable alterations in her voice, like a recording, as she tucked a sheet and blanket around me.
I wondered if she knew how things went but wasn't saying. Could she tell by looking at me whether the tumor was cancer or not? Had she overheard something the doctor said? Or did she simply not know?
I was wheeled to an empty outpatient room where I laid alone fully alert for a long time - time being elusive in a hospital. Around one in the afternoon Jack came in.
"Did you see the doctor?" I wanted to know. "What did he say? Is everything all right?"
He didn't speak as he inched closer to the bed before stopping and leaving some distance between us.
" Well, have you seen the doctor or not?" I spoke a little more sharply.
"He wants to come up and talk to you himself, Kathy." His voice seemed far away and not his own.
What was the matter with Jack? I'd never seen him so evasive; I'd never seen him look like this before.
"Why? What is he going to say?" I demanded, never thinking that the unknown where hope still lingered was preferable to the answer.
Then Jack spoke the two words I never wanted to hear.
"CANCER." I burst out crying. Gasping, unrecognizable sounds lurched forth from my lungs. My diaphragm began to convulse and I had trouble breathing. The room began to whirl around me. Jack was at my side, his face a mask of contorted pain.
"Don't cry, please don't cry." He pleaded wrapping his arms around me.
He was like iron, unbending. If only I could match his feelings. I knew his telling me was hard. If only I could remain controlled ... at least for him ... but I couldn't. It was CANCER. I wanted to know why God was doing this to me? Why had he forsaken me? Where was he? I didn't want to go to more doctors. I didn't want to have more surgery. I didn't want to have treatments. I didn't want to be sick. I didn't want to think about what might come after that. No, I didn't want any part of CANCER at all.
A nurse came in to tell us the doctor was called into surgery. We could wait to see him and talk later or we could go home. The choice was ours but I didn't need to hear this news again. I went into the bathroom to put on my clothes. Again I began crying, just being alone, seeing myself in the mirror. I forced myself to stop and get dressed so we could get out of there. The nurse brought forms to sign, papers to take home, post-op instructions to read. A robot, I did as she said. She hugged me and wished me well. When my eyes met hers, I watched tears spill down her face. I was touched and then shocked by her sympathy. Or was it pity? I looked away forcing my own wet sorrow, hot and stinging, behind closed lids.