It’s December 31st in far north Texas, just south of the Oklahoma border. As I drive, I think about Alicia and all that she’s been through. How do you even begin to cope with such an ordeal, let alone comprehend it?
My thoughts are interrupted by fifteen motorcyclists merging onto I-35—all riding high-speed, aerodynamic sport cycles known as “crotch rockets”. The moment they hit the highway is the moment all of us driving south become part of their lawlessness. Two lanes become four lanes as they pass cars and semi-trailer trucks on both shoulders. One motorcyclist is laying horizontal on his seat as he speeds between cars, riding along the broken white line lane divider. His legs are outstretched with one hand on the handlebar and the other pumping a fist in the air as if declaring some sort of victory. Another cyclist is riding a wheelie at the same speed traffic is moving. To play in this game of highway anarchy means you have to be invincible, indestructible, and lucky this isn’t your day to die. Whether you’re lucky or not is something Alicia is all too familiar with. She understands a 20-year-old’s thrill to play with speed, but one careless mistake could easily result in a jack-knifed semi, a 10-car pile-up, and who knows how many fatalities and life-threatening injuries. But what do you care? After all, you’re going to live forever.
It’s one thing to live in the moment; it’s another thing to want to live beyond that moment, and to know why.
Alicia knows about the fragility of life and how quickly it can end or be permanently changed. Recently she’s been the recipient of far too many unbearable moments. Heavy moments where many of us might have said, “No more,” and surrendered the fight. But if you’re fortunate enough, you might get to see things as Alicia does. Put one foot in front of the other. Keep walking. Power on.
Alicia shows up in an email from your sister-in-law in Michigan, sent to you the night before encountering the motorcyclists. She’s her co-worker. Just when you thought that long line of holiday shoppers was enough to inconvenience your day; just when you thought the crust you burnt on the edge of the pumpkin pie was enough to kill Christmas dinner; just when you thought your sore hamstring muscle had dealt you a losing hand, you sit speechless, having read about Alicia’s year. Life is full of unwelcome events and circumstances. But sometimes the load can be so overbearing, its weight just stamps you into the ground. And there you remain, unable to rise because, quite simply, it’s just too much to handle.
Alicia thinks otherwise. Her past two years…
Her younger sister, Leanne, commits suicide from an overdose of Xanax in her mom’s house. Her mom blames herself for not checking on her. Alicia had been working with her sister to overcome depression. Alicia’s reaction is extreme anger at Leanne for having done this to her mom, let alone in her house.
Alicia’s newly married daughter, Kendra, goes unconscious at the wheel, causing her car to run against a concrete divider, shredding her tires in the process until her car comes to a stop. A virus had set up camp in her heart. The entire incident is witnessed by a fire chief and a construction worker. CPR is administered immediately, but the virus is stubborn and unwilling to give her a pulse. The EMS station is nearby which makes the ambulance’s arrival within minutes. Three electrical shock attempts later with the defibrillator and she is revived. Who are these people? Where am I? What the hell has happened to me? All questions to be answered by the attending physicians. But for now, time is of the essence. Kendra goes into surgery to have a pacemaker/defibrillator installed. And just when she thinks she’s heard it all, she is informed that due to her condition, she will never be able to give birth.
The ailing heart theme is unrelenting (and will return). Alicia’s older sister has a heart attack and stroke.
As her daughter recuperates from surgery and adjusts to a changed life, Alicia is diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer. She goes through rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, but due to intense burns, the radiation is stopped early.
Alicia’s mom suffers complications from a compound vertebrae fracture, leading to abdominal hemorrhaging, and then dies from cardiac arrest.
Alicia has surgery for a permanent colostomy bag. But the procedure leads to a handful of problems, most notably is a nerve that has been “disturbed” in her bladder. Catheterization is required for weeks until the urologist can figure out the culprit.
Alicia’s older sister dies from a second heart attack.
Alicia has a permanent port installed for future chemo infusions. Every two weeks she undergoes hours of treatments to allow seepage to enter a bag attached to the port. The permanency of the port means for the rest of her life she’ll be required to have contrast X-rays to make sure the cancer doesn’t spread any more than it already has.
2016 was a year to forget. Adding insult to injuries, ailments, and suffering, there is the laborious necessity of dealing with her health insurance coverage. Though the Obamacare plan did not offer her a renewal, she would not be where she is today if she had not had it. She has since spent endless hours trying to find an insurance company that will approve the doctors and specialists she has had.
It wasn’t until I gave Alicia a phone call to ask about the details of her past two years that I felt the weight of her anguish. I had already written a part of this story based on my sister-in-law’s email. I read it to Alicia to see if she approved of its direction. When I finished, there was silence. The emotional chord I had touched was, understandably, deeply sensitive. She didn’t just lose her sister to an overdose, she also lost her in all her attempts to show that this world is worth hanging around for. She did her best to keep Leanne from going the wrong direction, but in the end it was her sister’s will to release herself from this life that proved too strong.
Here was a woman I had never talked to, but as I listened to her and as I shared what I had written, I couldn’t stop thinking of my very first story called “Sterling Spirit”. All of the emotions that poured from me when I wrote about the tragic death of 7-month-old Sterling Archer Nesbitt had surfaced again. All I had intended to accomplish calling Alicia was to gather the facts. I had no idea how the depth of her story would affect me; how I would be so drawn to the magnitude of her exhausting two years.
Tragedy is inescapable amongst us all. It harbors in the darkest corners and often shows no warning. Those who can rise up against tragedy intrigue me more than anything, and I could tell Alicia possessed that quality. There were telling signs in her voice—cadence, inflection and, believe it or not, humor—that indicated she was a fighter. It’s rare that you meet someone who has had the type of year that Alicia has had. It’s even rarer for that person to maintain a positive attitude. Despite the chemo, radiation burns, bladder issues, colostomy, insurance hell, and family deaths, her level of optimism remains high. The doctors and nurses who have had her as a patient couldn’t agree more.
Before our conversation ended, I had one last question: “How have you been able to handle all of this?”
“I have my kids, and my co-worker Patt, to thank for helping me get through everything, though it’s hardly over. My family has been my greatest support.” Her voice paused with emotion before gathering herself, then said, “How did I get here? All that has happened—how did I become a part of this? I guess it doesn’t matter since I really have only one option, and that is to power on. It’s really all you can do.”
Alicia’s prognosis is good. The doctors feel confident her treatments will be successful, and that she’ll begin to see some daylight. And, who knows, hopefully 2017 will be a year to be remembered.
Copyright Ros Hill 2017