Thursday, November 4, 2010


I wish you could meet my brother-in-law. 

Paul Lewandowski is tall, good-looking, kind, and an All-American great guy – the kind of guy you always hope your daughter or your little sister will end up marrying.

Deb, Mary, our brother Tom, Tom’s little girl Kelsey, and I sat in the waiting room of the hospital.  We’d all had a chance to hug Terri before her operation.  She was calm, focused and ready.  Now Paul, who had stayed by her side until she was wheeled into surgery, walked out to join us.

“Well,” he said shakily, slumping into a chair and rubbing the moisture from his eyes, “she told me I’m supposed to make you laugh.”

I wanted to hug him.  But sometimes, hugging’s the worst thing you can do, especially when it’s your emotional brother-in-law trying to pull himself together.

Terri’s last minute instructions to Paul before her surgery didn’t surprise any of us.  She and Paul are two of the funniest people I know.  Their kids are hysterical, too.  A big family has to make its own fun, and the Lewandowskis are masters at creating their own entertainment.

One of their favorite “road” games started with my nut-of-a-sister.  In their extended family van, the “good ol’ Econoline”, they jokingly call it, Paul would pull up to a stoplight, and Terri would pretend to be dead asleep for the benefit of the other drivers on the road.  Smashing her face against the passenger window, she’d relax her gaping jaw and unleash a long drool of spit from the corner of her mouth. 

Paul was the straight man.   His role was to remain alertly business-like as he stared intently out the front window with his hands gripping the wheel precisely in the 10 and 2 position.  But the six Lewandowski kids in the back would rock with laughter and provide Terri with play-by -play commentary.

“Okay, Mom,” Ben would snort, “the guy’s just looking over.  Oh man!” An explosion of giggling shook the Econoline.  “You should see his face!”

Reaction is every thing to the Lewandowskis.  If they can’t shock and mortify their fellow man, what’s the point of living?

Paul kept his promise to Terri that morning in the waiting room.  We talked and laughed and played “Go Fish” with our niece Kelsey.  But all eyes were on the clock.

“We’ll be in the operating room about three hours,” Dr. Grange had explained to us, “unless we find something in the lymph nodes.”  The plan, she said, was to check the sentinel node, the first node where breast cancer would spread.  If the sentinel node was clean, there’d be no need to check the others.

After three and a half hours, we were getting jumpy.  Every time a shadow passed by the swinging doors of the operating room, our hearts skipped a beat.  Finally, though, Dr. Grange and Dr. Montag came striding out the door.

“Nothing in the nodes!” Dr. Grange reassured us right away. 

The relief was enormous.  Deb hugged both surgeons, and we all clasped each other with happiness.  Terri would be in recovery for the next hour or so, the surgeons explained.  By the time we finished lunch, she would be in her hospital room.

Kris, our stepmother arrived, and our youngest sister Caroline.  And finally, we were allowed to see Terri.  I was a tiny bit anxious to see my little sister without her breasts.  It’s hard to admit that.  Would she be traumatized, I wondered?  Maybe she’d be drowsy and out of it from anesthesia.

She was neither.  Alert and smiling, she greeted us triumphantly.  “I’m on the other side!” she sighed in happy relief.  And even without her boobs, she was still Terri.

A nurse strode into the room to check Terri’s morphine drip.  “How would you rate the pain,” she questioned, “between 1 and 10?”

“It’s around 4,” Terri quipped, “but I want you to keep the morphine coming, so I’m saying 8.”

The nurse laughed and assured her the last thing she wanted was for Terri to feel pain.

“When can you go home, Ter?” I asked

“They said tomorrow if I’m doing cartwheels,” she said. “I practiced one in the hall just now.”

All the way home, Deb, Mary and I marveled at Terri’s humor and resilience.  “Life is good,” I sighed.

It was good to enjoy the moment.  As it turned out, it was only a moment.

Deb and Mary were scheduled for their yearly mammograms in two weeks.

Deb would be next.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


At 1 in the morning, the shrill ring of my sister Mary’s phone sent us leaping out of our beds.

Mary groped in the darkness and finally located her phone plugged into its charger beside the bed in our room.


Deb, in the other bed, had at last found the lights, and the three of us shivered in the frigid air conditioning of the motel room.  Mary looked at us and snapped her phone shut.
“No one’s there,” she said.  “It says ‘unknown number’.”

It was the early morning of Terri’s surgery date, Tuesday, August 17th.  Deb and Mary and I had booked a motel room close to the Omaha hospital where Terri would have her operation.  We crawled into bed again, but sleep was out of the question.  It was odd, that phone call.  Even stranger, it suddenly occurred to me, was the fact that Terri’s surgery should have fallen on Tuesday the 17th.  Mom had died 31 years ago on a Tuesday morning on the 17th of April at about 1 o’clock in the morning.  And now, at 1 o’clock, Mary’s phone had been ringing in the darkness.

I’d never been a big believer in signs or much of any thing else supernatural.  Not until Mom died.  But something so strange happened the night Mom died that even 30 years later, it remains crystal clear in all our collective memories.

Dad and we older kids, along with our aunts Patty and MaryLee, and our parish priest Father Kurtenbach, drove home from the hospital at around 2 in the morning right after Mom died.

A kind neighbor had stayed with our younger brothers and sisters and put them to bed.  When we arrived home from the hospital, Dad woke each of our sleeping little siblings and delivered the news.

“Mom’s gone.”  Dad was a mountain of a man, and he gathered each of my weeping brothers and sisters on his lap and tenderly rocked them.  Eventually, in spite of the late hour, we congregated in the living room, and after the trauma of Mom’s death it was a great comfort to feel the nearness of each other.  Harry, Mom’s devoted little mutt terrier, hopped in my lap, circled twice, and plopped down.  The weight of his warm little body was consoling somehow.

We talked for a long time about the events of the night.  Father Kurtenbach coaxed stories about Mom from all of us, but there was a bewildering sense of unreality.  And at last, there was nothing to do but go to bed. 

Father Kurtenbach departed, and as we turned out lights and settled in our beds, the house became dark and quiet. Because my aunts were in my room, I was bunking out on the living room couch, and I cried on a corner of my blanket.  From every other room, I heard soft sniffles and an occasional muffled sob.

“Where’d you go, Mom?” I whispered in the darkness.  “I don’t know where you are.”

As if on cue, Harry, Mom’s dog, suddenly screamed.  It’s the only way any of us could describe it later.  None of us had ever heard a sound like that come out of Harry.  He had been sleeping in his accustomed spot on Mom’s chair in the t.v. room when he suddenly screamed in terror and made a scrambling, yelping dash through the entire length of the house.

We all fell out of our beds, running into each other in the dark and fumbling for lights.  Harry sped straight under Mom and Dad’s bed down the hall, and by the time we gathered in Dad’s room, the little kids were diving frantically under the covers clutching Dad.  My brother Rick pulled poor Harry out from under the bed and spoke soothingly to him.  Harry was trembling violently, and his hind legs suddenly gave out on him completely.

I examined his paws for stickers and searched for any thing logical about his bizarre behavior, and Rick checked him for injuries.  But Harry was fine.  There was absolutely nothing wrong with him except that he was terrified out of his wits.

We were all thinking the same thing.  But the night had been long and traumatic, and this was just altogether too much.  None of us could speak of it just then, but we knew that Harry had seen Mom.  She had come to say goodbye, and Harry had seen her.

“Did you really have to scare Harry to death like that?” I asked her once, sitting by her grave on a calm, summer afternoon a month or so later.  Maybe she did.  It’s been more than 30 years, but we still remember that night.  Mom had to do something big to let us know she was there – something so dramatic we’d remember it for the rest of our lives.

And now, on the morning of Terri’s operation, came that mysterious phone call.  It would be just like Mom to check in with us, to let us know she was keeping an eye out for Terri.  As we were preparing to leave our motel room a few hours later, I asked Deb and Mary if they thought it strange that we received an anonymous phone call.  Did they remember it was the 17th?   Both looked up with dawning realization.

“I didn’t even think of it,” Mary said. 

We were leaving our motel room and locking the door when I happened to glance up and notice our room number.  “Would you look at that?”   I pointed, in a kind of awe, to our room number. “Room 417.”

April 17th, that all-important anniversary.

Mom was with us.