Coming Home

My work phone rang.  Caller ID showed it to be my husband, which would usually worry me.  But it was my birthday in early 2001, so I thought he might be calling to comfort me for having to work late.  

“Tracy, your dad called.  You need to call home now.”

An alarm bell went off.  Dad never used the phone if he could avoid it.  Always, you were the phone caller, the birthday wisher, the anniversary minder, the letter writer.   My mind raced, and I scrambled to find your phone number in Florida, where you all had settled.

“Dad?  What’s happened? What’s wrong with Mom?”

“It’s the cancer.  It’s back.”

You had survived two bouts of breast cancer when I was only a small child in the late 60s and early 70s.  You underwent two truly radical mastectomies, and then radiation, both treatments leaving your poor chest a mass of angry scars and burns, your arms crippled with edema and loss of muscle.  You rejected chemotherapy, having watched others in your cancer unit die in agony from that protocol, still in its infancy.  

But by God you lived, and then proudly ticked off the decades of survival – 10 years, 20 years, 30 years . . . until somehow a lone breast cancer cell long dormant re-awoke and made its way to your brain, and then to your lungs.

After the phone calls, all of your children – 7 of us – managed to make it home to Florida from our far-flung homes around the south.  All of my older siblings arranged for longer stays, and helped prepare the house for an extended convalescence, helped cook meals, cleaned house, kept you laughing and Dad distracted. Both of you were surrounded by love.  New treatment gave you some relief of symptoms. I helped you shop for wigs. My brothers shaved their heads in solidarity, and you enjoyed a truly fabulous summer. 

Then 9/11 happened.  I truly believe that the collective trauma that gripped the nation in its aftermath completely drained you of whatever fight you had left.

Then came a second phone call, from you, and this time I was not surprised.  You sounded tired.  

“The doctors said that the cancer is not responding anymore to treatment, and it’s spreading.  We’re going to stop.  I’m going to stop.”  We cried together on the phone.  

Somewhere in those tears, quietly at first and then more insistently, there came an inner urging:  “Come home.  This is where you serve.”

And so I did.

It was a beautiful soft November morning. As was his early morning habit, Dad had walked around the house, inspecting the rose bushes to see if any could be cut and brought inside to brighten the air around you. You loved your roses! But there was only one, a tight bud, and out of season.

You labored all morning to breathe, each breath coming slower, with more space in between it and the next. The thought occurred to me that we were witnessing the rhythm of birth, in reverse.

Dad put on a CD of instrumental music–hymns, played on flute and harp. Amazing Grace, your favorite, came on. You struggled to gather the next breath, and under my own breath, I spoke to you: “It’s OK. Let go. Be made whole. Be made beautiful. Come home.” This became my mantra, over the soundtrack of gasping breath, silence, flute.

I realized suddenly, as the breaths continued to slow their pace, that I was not so much saying it to you, as overhearing it. Another was calling you home, urging you to step over, to be healed finally of all your wounds. 

Dad held your hand. The flute continued its song.

And the moment came, so simply and quietly, when the next breath simply – did not. 

 As my sister and I wept and held each other, Dad walked outside to hide his grief from us. He came back five minutes later, his face full of wonder. 

The rose, an out of season bud just a few hours earlier, had bloomed. 

And we knew that you were home. 

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