My sister Marilyn was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was 46 and I was 43. The disease was in an advanced stage since her symptoms had been undetected—masked by another serious medical condition.
She lived with brain cancer as a valiant warrior who displayed a quiet and determined demeanor for the entire 10 months of its stranglehold. The ravages of the disease could have given her reason to complain. Things like hair loss, a sunken spot on her head where a skull bone was removed, and enormous weight gain due to medication. All this could have caused her to despair over her physical appearance. Then she endured an emergency hospitalization, dealing with unbearable pain on the exact date of her 47th birthday, Easter Sunday that year. This sudden devastation of staph infection in her skull bone could have caused loud protests of "why me?" Yet Marilyn remained calm with single-minded faith in Christ.
She told me her deepest desire was that good things would come from her tragedy. She wanted her friends and family, who voiced anguish and concern in cards they wrote, to see this accomplished. Maybe not now. Maybe later. When she heard that a person reexamined his life and eternal destiny because of her sudden serious diagnosis, she rejoiced.
Marilyn spent tedious hours writing lists of ways she could help her loved ones; her physical abilities were limited, but not her desire to serve God. She called in orders for inspirational books to give away. She sent cards of encouragement and thanks, filled with sincere words of love. She spent what little energy she had making sure she kept focused on others.
Many people prayed for Marilyn. And on the days of pain and horror, when her deep roots of faith in God were tested, they held firm. Prayer surrounded her.
During her nearly year-long bout with brain cancer, I received an inestimable gift. Time. I was privileged to be Marilyn's daytime caregiver every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Multiplied hours of time, more valuable than jewels or any earthly treasure. Hours of firsthand witness. But the most powerful gift was the last conversation I had with her before she died.
If you could plan the last conversation of your life, no doubt you'd begin now. You might use dictionaries, commentaries, Bibles, and possibly a stack of Erma Bombeck's complete works. Eventually you could write an impressive monologue.
My sister Marilyn didn't have the heads-up to plan hers with me. Yet it couldn't have been more excellently scripted even if she'd been warned.
As I spent caregiving hours with her, I saw Marilyn ingest the Word. It nourished when nothing else could. I saw that faith works. In the battle between disease and healing, I saw that she used her armor well (Ephesians 6:10-18) and left the outcome to her God and Savior.
It was the Scripture fleshed out in her life that underlined and italicized what I already knew: that I need to read, treasure, believe, and act upon all of God's Word. When I read to her, from Romans 8, I could see her tenacious capture of the words into her will. The portion titled Future Glory (Romans 8:18-27) was a lifeline that infused her soul with Jesus' strength. Verse 18 states, "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (NIV).
Jesus brought her a glimpse of heaven when those words reached her ears. He delivered that tender other-worldly cradling of her soul through the power of the Holy Spirit. Verses 22 through 25 lifted her above the pain, above her disfigured skull, above the anguish of terminal illness: "We ourselves … groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for … the redemption of our bodies … we wait for it patiently" (NIV).
Expressions of Jesus
One day I was helping her get ready to go to the hospital for what turned out to be the final procedure of an experimental treatment. She was paralyzed on the left side, unable to stand or use her arm, and so dressing was a slow, deliberate task. Time passed too quickly, and abruptly I announced we needed to get out the door soon. Marilyn's husband, Steve, waited patiently. I know she knew they shouldn't be late for the appointment, yet what she said next took me by surprise.
"Get me the phone and my purse, would you? I need to use my credit card for something important," she said.
"Are you sure you have time to make a call?" I asked her.
Simple tasks like combing her hair, taking pills, or picking up a pen took Herculean effort and concentration. I couldn't fathom that she'd have capabilities to call someone and give credit card information. Especially if she had to hurry.
"I'll make time for this call because it's something I've talked over with Steve," Marilyn replied. "And I really want to follow through."
She called the Inn at Honey Run, a place nestled in the pristine rolling hills and untouched woods of Ohio's Amish Country. Her mission, it turned out, was to make reservations … for me.
She wanted my husband and me to have a get-away weekend because she thought we'd been stressed and tired. She wanted me to feel better. And so she kept her steadfast determination to call in the request for a room. She faced down the enemy, even the dread of a most torturous medical procedure that awaited her, by this act of kindness. It was a natural expression of Jesus in her life.
Mingling together, tears of both joy and sorrow coursed down my face. What joy was mine—this vivid display of her love and care for me. Yet the tears also told of deep sorrow because of her disappointment that the Inn was booked solid for the next three months. Both of us knew that three months could be a lifetime.
And indeed her lifetime was over before the appointed weekend came about. Remembering the day she made the reservations, I knew that the hotel's receptionist would never have detected in her cheery voice and personable remarks that he was speaking with a woman living on the edge of terminal illness.
Though the doctors had told Marilyn this painful treatment would give her four more months to live, she actually lived only 11 days—11 days of agony and misery—after that phone call to the Inn.
I now remember that amazing feat as her last real communication with me—our last conversation. What a tribute to the strength of her desire to represent Jesus. And her unwillingness to bow to the sorrows of the disease.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I urge you to imitate me. That's why I have sent Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord. He will remind you of how I follow Christ Jesus, just as I teach in all the churches wherever I go" (1 Corinthians 4:16-17). I watched how my sister lived out the final days on earth, and I realize that Paul's words are true, and as if my sister were saying the same to me, "Imitate me … [and] how I follow Christ Jesus." And I know I want to be just like my big sister.
Kathleen Grimm Welty, a freelance writer from Columbus, Ohio, was second-born in a family of five girls. All have been forever-friends; all shared this loss and relate closely to this story.