She was taking the trip of a lifetime, but she wasn’t sure how long that life would be.
Posted in , Oct 30, 2014
I pushed aside the mountain of medical bills, lab results and insurance forms, clearing a space on the kitchen table. Our family vacation to the Grand Canyon was in three days.
Before we left, I needed to take care of something. Something I’d been putting off for the past month—the annual Turnbull family Christmas card.
Every fall, I would put together the Christmas card of all Christmas cards. Not just an update on how the year had been for my husband, Gordon, and me, and our young daughters, Sydney and MacKenzie.
There was a catchy theme, my trademark wit and a fantastic photo. No cheesy holiday sweaters for us. Our card was the highlight of many a holiday mantel and I always looked forward to writing it. But I didn’t have much to smile about this year.
I sighed, staring at the blank card in front of me. How could I possibly sum up the past year? “Carolyn Diagnosed with Stage 3 Breast Cancer. Family’s Hopes Crumbling Faster Than a Stale Christmas Cookie.”
Not exactly a holiday headline. There just weren’t many cheery words to describe the turmoil we’d been through. I was diagnosed in April. I’d been careful about getting regular mammograms even though I was only 45. I didn’t want to take any chances.
My latest screening was clean. Still, when I noticed an abnormality on my right breast, I made my doctor run further tests. Something was off. I just had this feeling. A biopsy confirmed it—a malignant tumor.
A week later I underwent a radical mastectomy. My surgeon was hopeful the cancer was contained, but the pathology report revealed it had spread to four of my lymph nodes.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” the surgeon said at my post-op appointment, cutting to the point as directly as she’d made the incisions on my chest, “but the average survival time for this type of cancer is three years after diagnosis.”
I squeezed Gordon’s hand. I couldn’t cry, couldn’t scream. I was numb, as if I was watching my life fall to pieces. All at once gloomy images flooded my mind. Gordon picking out a dress for me to wear at my funeral. The girls getting ready for prom without me. My garden withering. My loafers.
I needed a new pair, but why bother buying them? I’d be gone all too soon. Besides, according to my treatment plan—as aggressive as the cancer, my oncologist told me—I wouldn’t have much time to worry about fashion trends.
I thought being a local television producer had made me tough as nails, used to going nonstop, powering through problems. But chemo knocked me flat. My hair and eyebrows fell out. My nails turned black. I refused to miss work, but most days I really could’ve used a 10-hour nap. Every little step took effort.
Even worse was the spiritual malaise. I tried to stay positive, especially in front of Sydney and MacKenzie, but it felt as if all hope had drained out of me along with my energy.
One day four months into chemo, Gordon sat down beside me on the couch and waved an ivory invitation with silk ribbons. My cousin Amanda was getting married in Flagstaff, Arizona, in October.
“We could make a trip out of it,” he said. “Maybe go to the Grand Canyon?”
I’d wanted to see the Grand Canyon ever since I was a little girl, dreaming of the Wild West from my bedroom in snowy rural Maryland. My chemo was almost done, but I still had a month of radiation ahead.
How would I travel feeling like a zombie? Would I have to wear that itchy wig to the wedding? Did my family really want to take in the sights with a lethargic bald woman in tow?
Gordon said he’d checked with my oncologist. She was okay with delaying radiation if I was up for the eight-day trip. “We need this,” he said. “The kids can make up the time at school, but...”
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. This wasn’t just any vacation. It could be our last vacation together. We were a family living on borrowed time.
How do you put all that in a holiday card? I wondered, thinking of our carefree Christmas card from the year before. The four of us laughing hysterically, making goofy faces for the camera. We weren’t the same happy family anymore.
I put the blank cards away.
Three days later, we flew to Arizona. When we landed in Phoenix, Gordon surprised us by renting a flashy green convertible. “If we’re going to drive around out west, we might as well do it in style,” he said. The girls whooped. Even I got into the spirit. We danced at my cousin’s wedding, me in my wig and all. We saw the Hoover Dam, stopped at the Venetian hotel in Vegas for a gondola ride.
But nothing compared to the Grand Canyon. We arrived early and made it to the canyon rim just in time to witness spectacular sherbet colors wash across the morning sky. Like a majestic painting come to life.
“Excuse me,” I said to a nearby guide. “Can you take a photo of us?”
I couldn’t miss this moment. I didn’t care how bald and sickly I looked.
“Try not to get the glare on my head,” I joked. The girls giggled beside me. Good. I wanted them to have a happy memory to think back on. Especially after I was gone.
It was a dream trip. But reality was waiting when we got home. There was a fresh stack of bills. A big red circle on the calendar marking my first radiation appointment. A blinking message light on the answering machine that could only be from my oncologist.
I wasn’t ready to face cancer again. Not yet. I wanted to enjoy my escape a little longer. I plopped down at the kitchen table and flipped through the vacation photos I’d had developed.
When I got to the one of the four of us at the canyon rim, I caught my breath. Those mammoth rocks looked like they’d been carved by a master sculptor. God was there in all his glory—his presence was impossible to miss in the masterpiece before me. There was nothing in the world greater. Nothing.
An idea came to me. I pulled out the box of Christmas cards. I taped the photo to one and wrote a headline: “No Grander Canyon.”
Then I started on the message: “The hand that created this geological miracle works a miracle in my life every day, showing me there is nothing so grand that God can’t intervene. Not even cancer.”
How right that Christmas message turned out to be. By the following year, I was in remission. Today, 11 years later, I’m healthy, strong and cancer-free. Something I make sure to celebrate in our annual family Christmas card.
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