Saturday, July 16, 2011

Journey's End

Mary went off her pain medication two days after her surgery.  Next week, she'll be back to work cleaning houses with Deb.  She's Super Woman, that girl.

I'm trying hard not to hate her just a little bit.

The week before Mary's surgery, something strange occurred to me.  Mary's operation - the last for all of us- would fall on July 7th, one year to the day after Terri's breast cancer diagnosis.

"I can't believe it!" Terri gasped when I reminded her.  "It's like a sign or something."

All the rest of my life, I will never forget the call Terri made to me on that warm July day from the WalMart parking lot after hearing the results of her biopsy.

"I've got it!" she sobbed. 

In that second, all our lives changed forever.

My little sister Terri is my hero.  She was the first to confront the unthinkable and overwhelming idea of a double mastectomy.  She was the first to undergo an operation to remove her breasts and to wake up in her hospital bed to pronounce, "I'm on the other side!"  She was the first to sit nervously in the plastic surgeon's office and feel the injection of saline expanding her chest muscles to create new breasts.

Because she was brave, Deb and Mary and I were brave.  And now it's over.  What a harrowing, emotional journey it's been.  But who better to share it with than your sisters and best friends?

From July 7th last year to July 7th this year, we lost our breasts and got new ones.  We discovered how to sleep sitting up, wash our hair without lifting our arms, and hide our boy chests behind carefully arranged scarves.

More than that, we discovered we could get through any thing as long as we had each other.

There are still moments of despair and grief at the loss of our breasts.  Much of that grief is for Mom.  She's missed out on so much these last 32 years.  But it is because of her that Deb, Mary, Terri and I will survive. We will live to see our children grow to adulthood.  We will know our grandchildren.

I miss my mother so much.  Terri, who is too young to remember all the subtle nuances that were uniquely my mother's, is more like Mom than any of us.  It's her quick-witted, outrageous sense of humor.  It's the way she gently turns an infant on her shoulder and kisses it tenderly on the cheek.  It's the spot-on imitations she does of her kids that make us gasp for air laughing.

She makes Mom feel very near.  But I see Mom in all my sisters.  She is in Deb's laughter, in Mary's expressive brown eyes, and in Caroline's plucky resolve.  We have felt her loving spirit encouraging us, comforting us, applauding us.

"Don't be sad!" she tells us.

I know we'll see her again.  And Dad, too.  But in the meantime, the terrible fear that ruled our lives is gone at last, and the future that always seemed uncertain  is folding out in front of us.  Mom would want us to enjoy it.

And so we will.
For our kids.
For ourselves.
And for Mom.

Friday, July 8, 2011


Sister William Jane, my second grade teacher, informed our class one day that under no circumstances would our pets ever enter the Pearly Gates.

"Animals have no souls," she looked sharply at us above her dark rimmed glasses. "Only human beings have souls and are permitted to spend eternity in Heaven."

My best friend Marla Marrone suddenly made a gasping little sound and slid low behind Murray McCarty to weep softly. Filled with rage, I glared at Sister William Jane with all my might. She took absolutely no notice of my indignation, however, and continued her ponderous sermonizing. I was seven-years-old and a trusting, obedient child. But I knew she was wrong.

No soul? My dog Duchess, a tolerant little dachshund who burrowed under my covers every night to curl up in the crook of my knee, had more soul than Sister William Jane would have in ten life times. I was never so certain of any thing in my life. And nearly 50 years later, I’m still certain of it.

Willy, my mangy little companion of a cat, began to have troubles this last week. After three days of witnessing him coughing up bile and secreting himself away in the privacy of my closet, I took him to the vet.

"I’ll keep him here for the afternoon to run some tests," Dr. Hughes said.

I tried not to worry. Willy had scared me before, but he always survived. And he’d been up to trouble in his regular fashion. Just a few days ago, he’d been stalking a family of rabbits in the backyard, and I was horrified to see him carting off yet another dead bunny in his jaws.

"You’re a serial killer!" I thrust a finger in his face after he’d successfully decapitated the bunny. "Why do you DO these things?"

He gazed calmly at me with those eyes that can almost speak and licked bunny remains off his whiskers.

I hate it that Willy preys on small animals when he has an overflowing bowl of cat food in the kitchen just steps away. In fact, there’s not much about Willy to like at all. He’s filthy and smelly and moody. He allows himself to be stroked but never hugged. Sometimes, if you walk too closely by him, he hisses for no apparent reason. And he deposits his dirty coon cat hair on the furniture, the carpet, and even in the vents.

But Willy is devoted to me. I don’t know how I passed his litmus test. John feeds him and cleans his litter box. Willy, however, loyally follows me every where - even to the bathroom. And at night, he curls up next to my head as I sleep, leaving in his wake a ball of Willy hair.

But I find it comforting, somehow, to sleep between the reassuring bulk of my husband on one side and the warm little weight of Willy on the other. John snores and Willy wiffles - both in a rhythmic duet. I feel safe and loved. And a little anxious in the morning that I might smell like cat.

In 11 years, I never needed Willy’s constant companionship as much as I have this last year. Recovering from two surgeries and months of muscle expansion in my chest, I prowled the house during the lonely pre-dawn hours when it seemed everyone else in the whole world slumbered. But Willy always kept me company. His reassuring little presence was constantly nearby.

"Willy?" I’d whisper in the darkness. And he unfailingly answered with the little chirrup that always sounded exactly like a raccoon.

So I tried not to worry that Dr. Hughes was keeping him for tests. Willy would surely always be there. But last evening when the phone finally rang, Dr. Hughes didn’t have good news.

"Willy’s kidneys are in bad shape," he said. According to the blood tests, two thirds of my cat’s kidneys had shut down. The very best scenario, Dr. Hughes explained, was that Willy was afflicted with a kidney infection. He could possibly rally, but then he would require treatment twice a week at the vet’s office to flush out the toxins from his damaged kidneys. It might offer him a little more time. But that was the unlikely scenario. In all probability, Willy was headed for a slow, painful death.

"Can I call you right back, Dr. Hughes?" I was reeling with the abrupt news. "I need to talk to my husband and my son."

We were all of like mind. Willy suffered great distress visiting the vet just for his rabies shot. How could I force my ailing cat to endure trauma with a twice a week visit to the vet? Hardly able to speak, I called Dr. Hughes back. "I think we’ve decided to let Willy go," I choked.

John was still at work, but my sweet boy Tommy accompanied me to the vet’s. Dr. Hughes brought Willy to us in a little sitting room away from the office and allowed us time to say our goodbyes. I stroked his thick grey stripes and looked into his frightened eyes.

"I love you, Willy," I sobbed, as he hid his head in my arm, fearful of his strange surroundings. "You’ve been the best little cat."

My six and a half foot son sat stoically beside me weeping silent tears and awkwardly patting my back with his big paw of a hand. A few minutes later, Dr. Hughes returned to administer the shot that would help Willy relax and drift off to sleep. With the old Willy spirit I craved to see, he hissed hugely and took a swipe at the vet. Then he nestled against my chest, and gradually I felt his small body relax.

"Willy, Willy, Willy," I murmured in his ear. Outside the window, clouds floated lazily by in the evening sky, and as I held him close, Willy went to sleep peacefully and forever.

The final injection stopped his heart. With one last sigh, Willy’s head fell limply into my hand. And he was gone. I kissed his warm little head. "Goodbye, Willy Boy."

A cat is a beloved pet. It is not a child or a spouse or a parent. A good friend buried her 10-day-old baby girl yesterday morning, and my beautiful dear friend, Ellen May, sang for the funeral congregation. Ellen herself lost her own baby Amanda nearly 25 years ago but bravely ministered to the devastated family whose misery she knew so well.

Over the July 4th weekend, two young brothers were killed at a nearby lake in a tragic boating accident, devastating our community.

And Phyllis Dryer, the saintly, much loved mother of 11 children, all who attended our small Catholic school, died of cancer last week.

The loss of our children and our loved ones is a loss that changes our lives forever - a loss from which sometimes we may never recover.

Willy was just a cat - a dear little cat. But he wove himself into the daily fabric of our lives. He drank out of the toilet, lounged in the sun in his favorite window sill, and wrapped his great plume of a tail around him whenever he slept.  He was there when I needed him most.

And he loved me.

In spite of all Sister William Jane’s arguments otherwise, I feel sure Heaven has room for every one of our beloved pets - the protective hound who ferociously guarded our babies, the canary who serenaded us in the mornings, the patient horse who carried us across the pasture. And a mangy little coon cat called Willy.

Goodbye, my Willy Boy.

I'll never forget you.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 4th

Dad was the most patriotic man alive.

When July 4th rolled around, he was purely in his element.  In our big back yard, he organized what we teasingly referred to as the "Dick Brown Olympics."  We raced, hula-hooped, tossed water balloons and furiously battled for the prize.

When our own kids were born, Dad really developed the Olympics.  Every member of the family, no matter how young or old, was required to participate in Dad's Fourth of July competition.  The little kids won a silver dollar for every event while the adults walked away with a 40 oz. bottle of beer.  Based on a carefully calculated point system, the winning family was presented with an annual trophy.  Dad made sure the name of the family was engraved on the trophy, and for a year, it proudly resided in one of our homes.

Never in ours, though.  Never the Howards'.  We never took that damn trophy home once.

It was still fun, though.  And at the end of the day, Dad always prepared a glorious barbecue for every winner and loser alike.

Dad is so intricately associated with the Fourth of July that I've dreaded the holiday ever since he died.  It's hard on all of us.  All our individual families have parted ways on the day to celebrate in our own fashion, to organize fire work stands, or attend softball tournaments. 

But I couldn't wait for the holiday to roll around this year.  My surgery would be over, Kenny and his girlfriend Katie were coming to Grand Island to see John and Tommy and me, and John's brother Cliff was even planning to visit.  They were all arriving on the Friday night before the 4th.  For a month I yearned for the weekend to arrive. 

Then last week I got sick.  Some sort of infection taking advantage of my post-op weakened immune system laid me low.  My temperature spiked, my chest muscles ached, and every thing in my stomach came up and up.  Dr. Montag put me immediately on an antibiotic, but even after the fever began to subside, I collapsed on my bed devoid of all energy, sank into a pit of depression, and wondered how I'd ever entertain the troops on the 4th.

Next door, Ann Hart had just arrived home from her own reconstructive surgery with a throbbing migraine and the news that her brother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. 

"I'm so sorry, Ann," I hugged her when I was strong enough to walk next door.

She hugged me back.  "I'm sorry you're so sick," she replied with deep feeling.  We looked at each other in mutual sympathy.  "Does it ever get better?" she sighed.

I didn't have the answer.  The operation that was supposed to solve all our problems didn't stop life's burdens from creeping in through the cracks.

Returning home, I fell onto the sofa in a feverish doze.  The afternoon was deathly hot, and the buzz of the locusts droned through my dreams.  Sweating out the fever in my sleep, I imagined some pre-life existence in Heaven where God, looking suspiciously like my big mountain of a father, interrupted play with my friends on some vividly emerald green hilltop covered with cushiony clover.

"Come over, Kids," he rounded us up and gathered us at his feet. 

"It's time," he said when we had settled, "for all of you to take a journey.  How would you like to visit a place together called Earth," he paused, gazing far away, "to learn more than you ever could in this perfect existence.  A place," he smiled, " to experience both exquisite pain and happiness, to love until your heart bursts, and to abandon yourself to the wildest ride you'll ever take in eternity?"

His loving eyes dropped to me, gently awaiting my response. 

I looked around at all my playmates who meant every thing to me, then turned back to the Lord.

"No thanks, God," I shrugged.  "I'm good here, really."

I believe he almost would have let me stay, too.  But it was the rest of them - those playmates who would one day be my parents, my siblings, my friends, my husband, my children - who wouldn't let me off and who dragged my reluctant and ill-tempered self all the way to Earth.

I'm onto something here.  The Pope would surely acknowledge my vision of PreHeaven with the "Good Catholic Seal of Approval."

But where did it all get me?  A week of feeling like day-old jello.

On Friday, however, Peg Ley, my high school typing teacher and dear friend, accompanied me to Omaha so that I wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel, and at last, my drainage tubes were removed.  I sighed in relief when Betsy, the P.A., yanked those tubes out of my side.

"Free at last," I groaned.

Every day has been a little better.  My husband, the best husband in the world in case I've failed to mention it in the last five minutes, prepared all the holiday weekend meals for our company and pushed me off to bed.  But when I was rested, I reveled in the company of my brother-in-law Cliff, who is as kind as the day is long, and thoroughly enjoyed the sounds and laughter of young people in the house.  Kenny and Tommy, the big oafs, teased Katie unmercifully.  But she knows how to handle the likes of them.  She might be only half their size, but the girl's got pluck.

Today, the three of them sped off to Omaha to visit the Henry Doorly Zoo, Cliff returned to Colorado, and John and I lunched with Pat and Julie Kayl and our former principal and his wife, Hugh and Fran Brandon. With our dearest friends in the world, we relaxed around our favorite table at Applebees, and in that seamlessly easy fashion reserved for old, old friends, caught up with each other's news and covered every thing from grandchildren to Social Security to heart health.

I couldn't help but think how 30 years ago, we were absorbed in child care, kindergarten registration and wedding showers.  And I thought how lucky I was to have spent the weekend with family and friends like them and Peg Ley and my brother-in-law Cliff - all those shadowy playmates who sprawled around me on a hill top in PreHeaven.

Tomorrow, John will grill brats, and Kenny and Katie and Tommy will search the city for firework entertainment.  July 4th.  The celebration of our country's glorious liberation.

My sisters and I will be celebrating our own liberation.  It's been a long year, but it's almost over.  Last July, Terri was diagnosed with breast cancer.  This July, we will have completed our four double mastectomies and reconstruction.  And life should be marvelous.  But a week of fighting back from an infection has tempered my euphoria.

Prophylactic surgery is hard, and I'm not sure I'd ever again opt for reconstruction after the last difficult six months.  The cost has been dear, and it hasn't made my life perfect.  But the double mastectomy, which I'd undergo again in a heartbeat, has given me the precious gift of time.

"More time to worry!" my smart aleck husband loves to tease me.

He's right.  The eternal struggle with my worrisome nature afflicts me again and again.  I'll worry until I die.  My heart will break for the losses of family and friends, I'll never have enough money to pay the August air condition bill, and surely I'll miss a very anticipated family gathering or two because of the stinking stomach flu.  Because that's life.

But maybe I'll take a far away trip with my much loved husband, feel my heart swell with pride over the achievements of my sweet sons, and perhaps even sprawl on some emerald green, clover covered hill with my laughing grandchildren.  Because that's life, too.

Then I will thank God with all my being that he didn't listen to my selfish whims in PreHeaven.  It turns out that in spite of all the heartbreak and loss and struggles and challenges, or maybe even because of them, it's been a great ride - the wildest ride of all.

So tomorrow I'll celebrate my liberation with a bratwurst.  I will laugh with my kids, hug my husband, cuddle the cats and swing on the porch.  And I will be forever grateful to those determined playmates who dragged me kicking and screaming to Earth to become the precious people I love most in the world. 

But right now, no matter what anybody says, I'm taking a nap. 

Happy 4th.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


An uncomfortable tugging from my rib cage woke me at 5:30 this morning.  It was Willy the Cat batting at my drainage tube as if it was a coiled snake ready to strike.

"Do not - repeat - do NOT sleep with household pets during your post operative recovery period," was the explicit warning on the instruction sheet the doctor sent home with me. 

That ship, unfortunately,  has sailed.

Other than the dreaded drainage tubes, however, I'm feeling good a week after reconstructive surgery.  The giant rock-hard pecs are gone, and I even found my armpits again.  Things are rounder, softer, and infinitely more comfortable.

"Are you huge?" my 94-year-old friend Mary Caddy called me yesterday.  I told everybody I knew that I was taking advantage of this unique opportunity to choose the "Dolly Parton Full Figure Implants".   My elderly friend apparently took me seriously.

"Nope, Mary," I assured her.  "I look exactly like I did before." 

I could practically hear her disappointment over the phone.  "Oh, well," she said, "as long as you're happy..."

With any luck at all, I may be able to have the tubes removed tomorrow, and that would be a very fine way to celebrate the end of the week.  It's been a week of milestones all over the place.  Our Tommy turned 21 this last week, and Deb is celebrating her 50th birthday today.  That my baby sister who looks every bit as young as her 20-something daughters can be 50 seems utterly impossible.   At least she still acts as if she's in her 20's anyway.

"Watch this," she directed my attention to her newly constructed chest.  Like a bad Arnold Schwarzenegger impression, she flexed first her right boob, then her left - popping one out right after the other. 

"How'd you do that?" I was astounded by her newly developed talent.

"Practice," she shrugged.

In my mind, Deb is still the long-legged teenager who outgrows a pair of jeans every couple of months.   And somehow, never in my mind did I ever envision the day that John and I would take our baby boy Tommy out to Applebees for a beer.  What happened to my curly-haired towhead who raced his Big Wheels down the driveway again and again?  I don't know where those intervening years went.  But dammit, I want them back.  There wasn't enough time to properly enjoy them.

My sweet next door neighbor Ann Hart reached her own milestone just yesterday when she also completed her reconstructive surgery.  The two of us have big plans to sit on the front porch some summer evening and heal together.  We'll compare battle wounds, and I'll coax out a story or two about her granddaughter as I await the first glimpse of those elusive fire flies in the warm Nebraska dusk.

These long awaited milestones mark the end of the road for all of us.  Mary's final surgery is two weeks from today.  Then it's finished.  For all of us.

It's a relief, of course.  But my sisters and I have grown surprisingly attached to our wonderful care givers.  We'll miss the p.a.'s, Erin and Betsy, and especially our surgeons, Drs. Janet Grange and Marie Montag.  Dr. Montag has guided all of us through the reconstruction process, and she's become the familiar friend we look forward to seeing every week.

I never knew any plastic surgeons before Dr. Montag, but I held on to a foolishly preconceived idea that they were intimidating and untouchable people.  Dr. Montag blew that notion right out of the water.  With her long hair trailing down her back and her laughing blue eyes, she sailed through the door every week. Once, she tripped over a stool as she left the exam room where my sisters and I were all crowded together for our weekly fills.  "I'm such a klutz!" she giggled like a girl.  "Every where but in the operating room.  Don't worry."

As a matter of fact, Dr. Montag is a brilliant plastic surgeon.  People wait for weeks to see her - and not just for boob jobs and brow lifts.  She's treated children with devastating birth defects and many patients who've suffered traumatic injuries.  She and her p.a.'s, Erin and Betsy, are all bubbly, charming people.  Dr. Montag is married to a farmer and loves her dogs, especially her oldest and favorite who just recently passed away.  Every year, she travels back to Sargent, Nebraska, where her husband's family farms and spends a couple of weeks helping to make sausage.

The atmosphere in her clinic is far from stressful. Erin, the p.a., chatted endlessly for weeks about her upcoming wedding until Deb interrupted.  "I know you really just slipped up and meant all along to ask me to be your maid-of-honor," Deb said with a completely serious face,  "but I need to know where to get fitted for my bridesmaid dress."  Dr. Montag chuckled appreciatively.

My friends who suffer from cancer often tell me that the disease taught them to be grateful.

"Grateful for what?" I used to wonder uneasily. 

But  I understand now.  My sisters and I have come to love our wonderful doctors and their life-giving staff members, and we are tremendously grateful for their kind hearts that persuaded them to take on the four scared Mary's.  We never would have had the privilege of knowing them otherwise - or worming our way into their weddings.

In two weeks, the journey will be over.  Mary's surgery will be the last milestone.  Then we'll celebrate our health, the good friendships we've made, and the first glimpse of Nebraska fire flies.

Summer is almost here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


My sister-in-law should host a late night talk show.  I've always said so.

Mary Turner is simply a female version of my husband John - funny, sarcastic, evil.  That's why I love her.  Like her smart-aleck brother, she makes me laugh til my stomach hurts.

"I can't wait to make this trip," she always jokes about traveling from the most scenic part of the Rockies where she and her family reside to the stark hot plains of Nebraska where we live.  "My friends are SO jealous."

Mary drove 14 hours over the mountains and through the plains this last weekend to give me one last hurrah before my surgery on Thursday.  And that's the other thing I love about my sister-in-law.  She's the kindest, most giving person alive.

Mary and her husband Ross live in Montrose, Colorado, where Ross owns a Chevrolet/Toyota dealership.

"WE SCREW THE OTHER GUY AND PASS THE SAVINGS ONTO YOU!" he announces in his cheesiest t.v. voice.  Ross is a smart aleck, too.  In truth, however, he is exactly the opposite of the stereotypical slick car salesman.  Ross is steady and good and as civic minded as they come, and he'd give the shirt off his back to any poor slob who asked.

Mary brought along her youngest daughter Laura this weekend while Ross stayed behind to tend to the car business.  Emily, their oldest daughter, is finishing up nursing school, and David, their 20-year-old, is fighting fires this summer in the Colorado mountains.  Emily and David are bright, fun, exceptional college students who will one day make their marks on the world in a big way.  But little Laura's life has been vastly different.

Seventeen years ago, Laura was born with her meningocele, the membranes that cover the brain and part of the spine, outside her head.  She was life-flighted to Children's Hospital in Denver where doctors performed emergency surgery and gently explained to Ross and Mary that Laura's brain was severely damaged.  "We don't know if she'll ever walk or talk," they delivered the news to my stunned sister and brother-in-law.

Laura was, in fact, so injured that she had to be taught the instinctive urge of every newborn to suck.  For weeks and weeks, her tiny body clung to life, and Mary and Ross worked desperately to help their little daughter sustain nourishment and thrive.  It was a very bleak time, and our hearts ached to think of the road ahead for little Laura and her parents.

But Mary, the best mother I've ever known in my life and certainly the most determined, sought out help from every available resource - doctors, nurses, occupational therapists, Head Start.  From the day Laura was born, Mary and Ross committed the rest of their lives to the happiness and well being of their baby daughter and worked hard to create a cheerful, loving world around her. 

The Turner house is always filled with light, music, precious momentos and the smell of Mary's phenomenal cooking.  She and Ross make parenting a child with special needs look so easy.  The two of them are a team seamlessly dividing Laura's care between them.  Laura's bladder and bowels have to be emptied by catheter tubes five times a day. All her toiletry and basic needs are tended to by her parents and her brother and sister.  And at a time when Mary and Ross should be looking forward to an empty nest with their grown children out on their own, the two of them are still full-time parents and always will be.  They have agonized over Laura's tribulations and been overwhelmed by her medical needs, but never - not once - have they ever complained.

Laura adores her father and giggles uproariously at her mother's antics.  Many times I've laughed at Mary's clowning until disarmingly, Laura twines her slender arms around Mary's neck and nuzzles her face.  "Oh Mommy," she sighs with love, "you're so funny." 

At 17, Laura now walks and talks and is loved by an entire community.  And she was delighted for the opportunity to finally attend high school.

"How'd Laura do in school this quarter?" I called Mary back in October.

"Well," Mary hesitated, "she's having a little problem.  Apparently she irritates the other kids sometimes."

I couldn't believe it.  Our sweet Laura?  Tall and slight, Laura attends special education classes at Montrose High School, and though she seems years younger than other kids her age, she's always been a sociable and loveable child.  How in the world could she irritate other kids?

"She sings their names," Mary informed me.  "Over and over."

The two of us burst out laughing.  I thought of all the times I'd seen Laura silently creep around a corner to sneak up on our boys.  "Oh, TOOOOOOMMMMY!" she'd sing out, smiling from ear to ear.

Of all Mary's kids, Laura alone possesses her mother's evil sense of humor.  When her big brother David pretends to collapse on the floor in pain, solely for Laura's benefit, she explodes into screaming giggles.  "Look at Dave, Mom!" she points, loving the violent pratt falls.

Amazingly, Laura has perfect pitch.  Her voice is crystal clear, and she loves to sing.  She's memorized the lyrics to several Broadway shows including PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL.  One afternoon when she was small, she sang for all of us at our house, including Tommy whom she called "Kim".

"Jesus loves the little children," she gazed upward and warbled in her sweet, soft soprano.  Suddenly, she turned to Tommy abruptly.  "Kim!  Sing!" she ordered him.  Startled, Tommy sang.  When Laura issues a command, you hop right to.

Last Sunday, Mary bought tickets for Laura, herself and me to see the musical WICKED in Omaha.  Laura's been listening to the sound track for the last year, and among her stash of precious belongings which include a Justin Bieber doll, a Rapunzel doll, and a Barbie Princess doll, is also a book picturing the cast members of WICKED.

"It'll be your job to keep Laura from singing along with the performers," Mary instructed me in her best school marm voice.

It was a performance I'll never forget.  In the old majestic Orpheum Theater in Omaha, hundreds of us sat spellbound.  Laura squeezed between Mary and me gazing in rapture at the beautiful Glinda and laughing raucously at any scene that even hinted of violence. 

For three glorious hours, I lost myself in the story of Glinda the Good Witch and Elphie, the surprisingly not-so-wicked witch, and reveled in the music and pageantry.  I forgot to worry about going under the knife on Thursday and waking up with drainage tubes attached to my ribs.  The chance to share that wonderful afternoon with Mary and Laura was a stolen moment and such a treat.

Laura and her family have a way of putting this complicated world into perspective for a lot of us.  For six months, I've had my life on hold until my final surgery the day after tomorrow.  But laying aside my worries for three hours at the Orpheum Theater was a gift, pure and simple. 

Laura, however, always lives in the moment.  She has no regrets about the past and no worries about the future.  Sometimes, she wails in frustration when she is unable to communicate her needs to others, but by and large, Laura looks forward to every new day and trusts her good parents completely.

Her birth seemed a great tragedy.  How could any of us have known how vitally important she would become to all of us?  It is because of Laura that her sweet brother has grown into such a compassionate young man and that her sister will soon earn a nursing degree to save lives. It's because of Laura that her Grandma Howard, at an advanced age, felt compelled to work with the disabled and that her cousin Kenny helps coach a Special Olympic's tennis team.

Laura will always be our little girl - forever and ever.  She won't go to college or marry or raise a family.  But her presence in all our lives has been transforming.  She and her remarkable parents show us that with the love of a good family, there's really nothing to fear.  Not the future, not the past - not even a couple of drainage tubes. 

Some events in our lives, like double mastectomies, can appear to be tragic.  In the end, however, we discover that our tragedies sometimes transform into blessings. They often become the very making of us and of those who love us.

Laura Turner, in her complete innocence, has transformed her family and even an entire town.  She has forced us to grow larger and wider and deeper and to see life for what it is - a marvelous gift. 

And if she can make her big brother collapse onto the floor in pain - well, that's just an added bonus.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Climbing mountains

Kenny's spent his entire life trying to drag me out of my comfort zone.

If he wasn't 6 ft.10, I could almost believe the hospital had switched babies on us.  Not that he was 6 ft.10 then, of course.  But he's such a spot-on combination of both my husband and my father that he couldn't possibly belong to anyone else.

I just don't understand why he isn't more like me.

Cautious and careful, I've sought certainty and routine all my life.  I have to know exactly what day the electric bill is due and what to expect when I die.  I don't even read a book until I've checked the last page to assure myself of a satisfying ending.

"Don't you EVER want to be surprised?" my husband sighs in expasperation.  No, I do not.  I want only to be safe and pay my utility bill on time.

But Kenny lives for surprises.  And that would be fine if he would only leave me out of it.

"Mom, just TRY the giant water slide," he coaxed me when he was 11.  And because I hated for him to think I was dull, ten minutes later I was skimming down a 60 foot high-speed water slide too horrified to even breathe.

"This is what it feels like to die," I remember thinking with some small, detached part of myself.

All his life, Kenny has shamed and wheedled me into doing things I hate.  I remember the unspeakable terror of flying upside down on a roller coaster high above Kansas City, cracking my head on a Denver water ride, and foolishly attempting to outrun a 30 foot wave at the "Tsunami" pool.

All because I was ashamed for my boy to think I was boring.

Kenny is still on a quest to force me to have fun against my will, but his suggestions aren't quite so over the top.   This last Memorial Day, John and I visited our oldest son in Denver.  We spent time with my mother-in-law, too, at her new nursing home facility, and, along with Kenny's girlfriend Katie, Grandma, and John's brothers Dave and Cliff, ate dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant.

Katie departed for California the next morning, John spent the day with his mom at the nursing home, and Kenny turned to me with that old familiar glint in his eye.  "We're climbing a mountain today, Mom."

Table Top Mountain boasts an easy trail all the way to the top, and I was proud of my son for suggesting a moderate climb that his aging mother could handle.  "Now when we get to the rocky plateau up there," he pointed, as we rested at the halfway mark, "we'll have to scale to the top with ropes."

My jaw dropped, and I gaped at him.

"Kidding, Mom.  We just climb a few steps," he grinned.

"Why do you do that to me?" I snapped.

"Because," he laughed, "it's so easy!"

But the climb to the top was worth it.  In the distance, the Denver skyline shimmered like Emerald City, and all around us were mountains and high clouds and the soft soughing of the wind.  It was a good moment to share with my boy.

"Mom," he said in the car later, "I know you've said again and again you'd never in your life eat sushi, but I want you to try it.  I know a great sushi bar."  What the heck, I thought.  I'd climbed a mountain today.

Sushi, it turns out, is not half bad.  With a little soy sauce and a lot of cream cheese, you could almost forget you were ingesting raw fish.

Kenny also introduced me to his smartphone.  I fiddled with the keyboard, and he guided me through the menus.  "See that little microphone?" he pointed.  "Tap that and ask for directions to your motel."

It was unbelievable.  "The Comfort Inn in Greeley, Colorado, please?" I asked politely.

Kenny laughed.  "You don't have to be nice to it, Mom.  It's a phone."

It was a great day, and while I missed John and Tommy, I loved having Kenny to myself.  All the kid's ever wanted is for me to enjoy myself.  But the sad truth is that I've allowed my terrible fear of breast cancer and every thing that comes with it to rule my life.

A week from next Thursday on June 16th, six months to the day after my double mastectomy, I am scheduled for my final surgery.  The expanders come out, the implants go in, and I will have my life back.  But with God's help, it won't be the same fearful, careful life I've cautiously led for so long.  I'm determined to be more like my son Kenny.

From the day he entered kindergarten and gazed with expectant blue eyes at his bright new world, he's never looked back.  Embracing every new experience, Kenny views life as an adventure.  I've done my best to reign in his enthusiasm and keep him safe in my old familiar world while he's dragged me kicking and screaming into his.

But if there's any thing the last six months has taught me, it's that confronting my worst fear and looking forward to the future is the only way to live.

Kenny's taught me, too.  With a little luck, he'll yank me up another mountain top or two.

And maybe let me play with his smartphone.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Aunt Patty

She can't walk upright any more, and she leans on a cane.  But at 80-years-old, Aunt Patty is just as feisty as ever.

My dad's only sister, Aunt Patty is and always has been our one and only aunt.  We adore her.  She and Uncle Carl and Dad grew up in Pennyslvania, but while Dad moved west to play college basketball in Denver and lost his Pennsylvania accent, Aunt Patty still speaks like the true easterner she is.

We love to listen to her talk - and believe me, Aunt Patty can talk.  Her ocean blue eyes, so like Dad's, mesmerize us, as do the "Brown" squint and her low rumble of a laugh, all uncannily like Dad's.

Aunt Patty and Uncle Steve live  in Virginia, but once every couple of years, they load up their motor home and  travel all the way to Colorado to visit my cousin Stephen and his family.  On the way, they stop by Nebraska to see us.  Last weekend, they pulled into Deb's driveway, and Uncle Steve anchored down the motor home, his pride and joy.

"You girls look wonderful!" Aunt Patty greeted Deb, Mary and me as we helped her out of the huge vehicle.  "You don't look at all like you've just had surgery."

That's what's so nice about Aunt Patty.  She thinks her nieces and nephews are the greatest people on earth and conveniently overlooks all our apparent faults.  But when it comes to religion and politics, you always know exactly where you stand with her.  A dyed-in-the-wool old Catholic Republican, she has her own fierce opinions on every thing from Obama Care to gay marriage.  And there's not a single thing you can say to change her mind.

When Terri elected to have a double mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis, Aunt Patty expressed her opinion about that, too.  "Such radical surgery," she shook her head firmly.  "It's not necessary."

So when Deb and Mary and I decided to have double mastectomies as well, we were just a little afraid to tell Aunt Patty.  Terri had cancer.  We didn't.  How do you tell your extremely opinionated aunt you're cutting off your healthy breasts?

"Maybe we should start with an email," Deb suggested. 

I composed a carefully worded message to Aunt Patty telling her all about Deb's hyperplasia, our fear of hereditary breast cancer, and the decision we'd made together.

Then we waited for her reply.

"You should have told me how frightened you were of your mammograms," she wrote back.  "I would have comforted you.  You're brave girls, and I'm very proud of you."

That's another thing about Aunt Patty.  Once she decides she's in your corner, she's all in.  And her loyalty is absolute.  She's been our biggest cheerleader ever since we were young.

Long ago, when Uncle Steve made a career for himself in the Air Force, he and Aunt Patty and our Hamer cousins lived all over the country and even in England for a time.  We never saw them as much as we would have liked, but whenever we managed a family reunion of sorts, we had such fun.

Our seven cousins, all boys, were interesting and intelligent, and every one of them was always up for a good time.  Between the seven of them and the ten of us, we could find plenty to do and even create a little trouble from time to time.

Danny, the second oldest of my cousins, was a sweet blonde boy with a wide open smile.  He was enthralled with the big bales of hay in our Nebraska fields.  "They look like giant loaves of bread!" he exclaimed.  Danny was fascinated by every thing - fireflies, windmills, coal trains - and his deep interest helped me to view those familiar objects with new eyes.

It was when Uncle Steve was stationed in Colorado Springs that Danny first started feeling under the weather.  A swimmer, he ran out of steam executing the difficult butterfly stroke, and he sweat buckets just riding his bike around the neighborhood.  Danny's doctors were baffled, and quite suddenly, at the age of 15, he landed in the hospital.  A huge tumor on his adrenal gland proved to be the culprit.

One fall night, Uncle Steve called Aunt Patty to tell her to come quickly to the hospital.  Danny was failing.  She sped all the way praying with every thing she had.  But all at once, gripping the steering wheel, she relinquished her motherly control.

"I won't fight you any more!" she told God.  "I'm giving Danny to you, dear Lord."

At that very moment, Danny died.

We simply could not absorb the idea that our own sweet Danny was gone.  At the time, Mom was sick, too.  The old happy life we'd always taken for granted was disappearing forever.

Then the following year, Mom was in the hospital herself dying of breast cancer.  We were astounded one day when Aunt Patty walked through the front door calling out, "Anybody home?  It's your aunt Patty!" in that strong and familiar eastern accent.  She'd driven on her own all the way from Colorado Springs to be with us, and for a week, she systematically burrowed through our house, cleaned every nook and cranny that had been neglected far too long, and filled our freezer with dozens of casseroles.  When Mom died, Aunt Patty was with us.

"Aunt Patty," I reminded her on her visit a week ago, "you were still grieving the loss of Danny, you had six boys at home," I shook my head, "and yet you left every thing to come to us."

She shrugged matter of factly.  "You needed me."

It was that simple.  And she was right.  We needed her with us more than we ever had in our lives.

Now, on those rare and special occasions when we travel to Virginia to be with the Hamer family, my siblings and I have a new appreciation for the sacrifices Aunt Patty made for us and how much she's always loved us. 

With our kind, handsome cousins and their beautiful wives and families, we sprawl every where on Aunt Patty and Uncle Steve's spacious screened-in porch and lounge in the Virginia heat.  We catch up on each others' lives, tell stories about the old days laughing uproariously, and savor our brief time together.  Sometimes, I catch myself looking up wondering, "Where's Danny?"

Mom should be there, too.  And Dad. 

But thankfully Aunt Patty is there.  She reigns over the chaos chuckling at the antics of her numerous grandchildren who leap and splash in the pool, and she still manages to express an opinion about every topic under the sun.  It's when she looks over her glasses with those bright blue eyes and fixes us with that penetrating gaze that we feel the nearness of Dad.

I never want to lose my aunt Patty.  We've said goodbye to too many precious members of this good family.  But Aunt Patty, even in her frail body, is the strong glue that binds us together. Her reassuring presence is life giving. She makes those we've loved and lost seem very close - our grandparents, Mom and Dad, and a sweet blonde boy who loved fireflies, coal trains and bread-shaped bundles of hay.

And when she sputters indignantly about politics, Obama, and those terrible Democrats, I shut my mouth.  And I smile.   Her blue eyes flare above her glasses with energy and passion and zest. For just a moment, I am young again. I can pretend my adored Aunt Patty will live forever.

And all is right with the world.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Best Friend

She's been my best friend for 34 years.

You could say we're joined at the hip, but it would be logistically impossible.  Julie Kayl is 4 ft. 9, and I'm 6 ft. 1.  In fact, sometimes when we're walking down the school hallway together, I become so impatient with her tiny little stride that I have to fight the urge to pick her up and carry her.  It would save so much time.

Back in 1977, I was a 22-year-old kid arriving at Grand Island Central Catholic to teach for the first time, and Julie was the English department head.

"Can you teach TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?" she quizzed me.


We beamed at each other, and a friendship was born.

At the time, we didn't realize all that our friendship would endure.  Julie and her husband Pat would be part of our wedding, godparents to our oldest son Kenny, and the couple we most enjoyed sharing a table with at Applebees.  As well, Julie and I would prop each other up through the births of each other's children, the deaths of our parents, and two generations of kids at Central Catholic.

And then there was the tragic loss of the Kayls' 25-year-old son Eric.  After Eric died, it was a long time before Pat and Julie would recover enough to return to some semblance of themselves.  I remember sitting close to Julie on her living room sofa gripping her hand the day she called me about Eric.  We stared at each other in wordless shock, and I was afraid she would never come back to me as her laughing, joyful, sardonic self.

But she did.

"Eric leaves me dimes," she confided a few months later.  In fact, she collected hundreds of dimes which mysteriously appeared in the middle of the table, the seat of the car, or on the kitchen floor that had just been swept clean.  She told everybody about those dimes.  Even her students.

"Julie," I said uncomfortably, "I don't know that you want to tell just anyone about your dimes."

She stared at me in amazement.  "Why not?"

Because, I wanted to say, it sounds looney.  What if people think you're too crazy to teach their kids?

But every single person at Central Catholic adores Pat and Julie.

"The Kayls ARE Central Catholic," my husband says.

If Mrs. Kayl said her deceased son was sending dimes from Heaven, then by God, enough said.  There was no reason to believe otherwise.

Julie Kayl is the toughest human being I know.  Retinitis Pigmentosa has robbed her of her vision and stolen her very independent life from her.  But she has adapted gracefully to the dramatic changes in her life.  She can no longer drive, and her tunnel vision requires her to swing her head around like a little owl when it comes to keeping an eye on a classroom of kids.  But she lets nothing deter her from her job.  She hounds the most unmotivated pupil and showers her love on all her students.

Several years ago, she complained to me of a pressure in her chest whenever she walked very far, and two days later she called me from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Lincoln.

"I'm having triple by-pass heart surgery tomorrow," she said almost conversationally. 

I thought my own heart had stopped.  "I'm coming to Lincoln."

"No!" she said.  "It'll be fine.  I'll have Pat call you afterwards."

But I couldn't sit at home while my best friend was undergoing open heart surgery.  When I arrived at the hospital, her family had departed for the cafeteria, and Julie, alone in her room, was perched on her bed swallowed up in a hospital gown five sizes too big for her.

"Hi!" she greeted me as if we were meeting for lunch.  She was, in fact, diving right into a huge lettuce salad.  "Oh man," she sighed in bliss, "this is the best salad I've ever eaten in my life."

Somehow, I had expected her to be languishing away in bed devoid of energy, and instead, she was singing the praises of a hospital salad.  I hopped up next to her in bed, and it suddenly struck me how much she meant to me and how scared I was to lose her.

"Julie," I said, trying not to weep, "are you nervous for tomorrow?"

She waved her hand dismissively.  "Naaa.  If it doesn't work out, I'll go be with Eric."

But thank God, it did work out.  Her surgery the next morning was pronounced a success, and after Pat and her kids had visited her in I.C.U., the nurse allowed me to slip in for just a moment.

Connected to dozens of tubes and devices, Julie looked half her tiny self in her hospital bed.  "Hey there," she greeted me hoarsely.  "How are you?"

I manuevered my way around tubes and I.V.'s and bent down to hug her head.  "More importantly, how are YOU?"

She held my eye.  "I saw Eric."

I stared at her.  "When?"

She closed her eyes for a moment.  "Just a little while ago when I was waking up from surgery.  He was standing there, a little shadowy, smiling at me.  Then he went away."

I leaned close. "Are you okay?"

Her smile was dazzling.  "I'm perfect."

And she is.  She's always been perfect.

But now she and Pat are leaving.  None of us at Central Catholic ever thought they'd actually retire.  Pat's literally kept the building up around us.  Only Mr. Kayl is intimate with the guts of the boiler system and remembers what tile hides the leak in the gym ceiling.  The Kayls are the heart and soul of our school.  And Julie Kayl is my best friend.  Now she has the audacity to leave me.

"Will we still be friends?" I whined, feeling sorry for myself. 

"Absolutely not," she said with a poker face.  "I don't ever want another thing to do with you."

She can joke all she wants, but it won't be the same.  Never again will I dash across the hall to tell her what I just heard in the lounge or vent about a difficult student.

In the weeks before my mastectomy surgery, when I was feeling afraid, I'd step across the hall just to be reassured by her joyful smile.  I never told her what she did for me during that uncertain time when I was trying so hard to be brave at school.  On a difficult day, I'd only have to look at her sweet face across the hall to get my bearings.  Without ever saying a word or knowing how crucial her presence was to me, Julie's steadfast loyalty and absolute faith in things seen and unseen helped me through those weeks.

Thank God we have this summer.  We'll lounge in the sunshine out on the deck Pat built for Julie, and we'll gaze at her gorgeous garden.  She'll do her best to persuade me I really should start watching "American Idol", and we'll talk about her grandchildren and our favorite books.  And about Eric.

Basking in the sunshine, I will be grateful for my 34-year friendship with a tiny, remarkable woman who is every bit as important to me as my own sisters.

 Goodbye, Mrs. Kayl, and thank you, my friend.

You mean the world to me.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


It doesn't happen very often, but lately, I could cry at the drop of a hat.

Mary and I have completed our saline fills, and our last surgery is a month away.  An eternity away.  I'm sporting two hard mounds as tight as a pair of bongo drums.  Ricky Ricardo could go crazy thumping out "Babalu!" on my chest.

There's an appealing picture.

My next door neighbor Ann Hart is in the same boat.

"I'm in pain," she moaned the other day.  Ann's double mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis was three months after mine, but she opted for two huge fills whereas my sisters and I took the long slow route of nine or ten small fills.  Either way, the last fill is a bear.

"I've been a little moody lately," Ann confessed. 

Don't I know.  Filled to the bursting point, these plastic water balloons in our chests poke, pinch, ache and render sleep virtually impossible.

I always feel weepy this time of year anyway.  Today is graduation at our school, and I'm mad at the seniors.  Last Tuesday when the final bell rang, a great roar issued forth from the hallowed halls of Grand Island Central Catholic.  It was the triumphant bellow of the senior class on their last day of school.  You would have thought we were housing inmates staging a prison riot.

Why do they have to be so delighted to leave us?  It was the same way when my own boys graduated.  They couldn't wait to move out.  Are we so boring?  Is life with us so dismal?

This year's group of graduates is a particularly good one.  There's Garrett Coble, a future Pulitzer Prize winning author; Kelly Soto, who makes us laugh 'til we cry; Jamie Partington and Gracie Mohr, two lovely young women with wise old souls; Mike Jones who quietly mourns his lost father; Dizzy Lizzy McGowan who can dart like greased lightning around the basketball court; Brianna Golka with her angelic heart; Brenan Anspauch and Riley Jones with their sweet, little boy smiles; Seth Wardyn, the gentle but fierce competitor; Kate Maginnis, the great organizer; Callie Newman and Abbey Galvan, the class beauties; Michael Pfeifer and Eric Juarez, the gifted entertainers, my own two gorgeous nieces, Steph Brand and Kailey Brown - and those are only just a few of the extraordinary kids in our senior class.

For the time they're in our classrooms, our students feel like our own flesh and blood.  Every teacher in this school suffers at graduation.  How could we not?  Our kids are leaving us.  And they can hardly wait. That's the sting of it.

I was mourning our last week with the seniors when Dillon Spies, a great kid in my junior English class, casually announced he'd be undergoing a routine tonsillectomy.  Dillon is wickedly and irreverently funny.  But he was understandably subdued about having to have his tonsils yanked out.

"Don't worry about your English homework," I assured him.  "Go do this thing and eat lots of ice cream."

"Yeah," he hesitated for just a second.  "Thanks."

His mother stopped at school after Dillon's surgery to give us the real scoop.  "Dillon knew he had a tumor behind his tonsils," she informed me stoically.  "It may be lymphoma."

I stared at her.  Dorene Spies is a rock of a girl.  She goes off to god-forsaken places like St. Lucia with a small band of equally committed friends to minister to the needs of the sick and elderly.  I guess you could call her our own resident Mother Theresa.  "How's he taking the news?" I swallowed.  "How are YOU doing?"

She smiled calmly.  "We're all okay.  Dillon's wondering if he might have to lose his hair, but he's handling it."

His pathology report would come Monday, she said.  But when Monday came and went, I started to get nervous. 

On Tuesday, I dragged Dillon's good friend Kevin Donovan into my classroom.   "Do you know anything?"

He shook his head.  "Haven't heard a thing."

"Text him," I said.

He gaped at me.  "You know that's not allowed.  I can't text in school."

I stood over him.  "Text him.  Now."

In all my life, I've never waited so long for a text reply.

"He's okay!" Kevin grinned.  "Every thing was clear."

Dillon was here at school Wednesday for Honors Convocation.  He marched up for his "Outstanding English Award", and I could have cried at the sight of that good, handsome boy.

"Hey, Mrs. Howard," he whispered as I folded him in a hug.

Dillon Spies will live a long, happy life and do great things.  Like his wonderful mother.

This outstanding group of seniors, too, will go off, every one of them, to do their own great things.  And that's the point, I suppose.  It doesn't matter whether you're recovering from a risky tonsillectomy, undergoing a double mastectomy with those pain-in-the-neck expanders, graduating from high school, or leaving this earthly life for the next. 

The idea is to keep going.

I guess we'll have to let go of our Central Catholic graduates just like we do every year.  And I'll have to forgive them for thinking we're so boring.

If only they could see us in the faculty lounge on Strip Poker Tuesdays.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

On Mother's Day

My mother told me once about the first dress she ever bought for herself.

"I was only in high school," she laughed with glee, "but I looked good in that dress, and I knew it."

It was a beautiful April afternoon, she recalled, and the moment she stepped out of the shop in her stunning new dress, she felt intoxicated by her own youthful good looks and the promise of spring.

"I sashayed down that street," she remembered dreamily, her brown eyes glowing, "and for the first time in my life, I felt that I was pretty."

So did everybody else.  One young man, a high school classmate, drove down the street staring so hard at Mom, he careened up the curb and smashed into a light pole.

If anything, Mom grew more beautiful with each passing year.  I yearned to be like her.  But where as she was tall and slender, I was too long and skinny with my father's broad shoulders and hawk-like nose.

"Be proud of your height!" my mother constantly nagged me.  "Walk like a queen!"

I was lucky to be born first.  Mom was there to guide me through those tempestuous adolescent years when junior high dances could shatter my fragile confidence with a single blow.  I wish my younger brothers and sisters could have known the comfort of our mother during their own painful times growing up.

As well, they aren't able to share all the memories that Joe, Mick, Rick and I have of Mom as the sometimes very human and lovely flawed person she was.  In the eyes of my younger siblings, Mom was a saint.  To be sure, she was sweet and funny and loving.

But Patti Brown was no saint.

For one thing, she was a  smoker.  The more we tried to pry her cigarettes away from her when we were kids, the more determined she was to hold onto them, until one day she at last relented.

"You're absolutely right," she admitted to all of us.  "It's not good for me.  Your dad quit, and I can, too."

And so she did.  One week turned into two, and before the month was over, Mom had kicked the habit.  I was never so proud of her and the ease with which she gave up cigarettes once and for all.

Then one windy day as we romped wildly outdoors, Mick alerted us to an open basement window on the south side of our house.  Peering in, we couldn't believe our eyes.  There was our beautiful mother perched with her legs crossed on an old suitcase in the storage room puffing away on a cigarette.

Outraged, we marched into the house to confront her, but she caught us at the window and dashed madly up the stairs.  When we burst into the kitchen, there she was casually drying the dishes.

Incredulously, we stared at her. 

"Oh, all right!" she snapped, flinging away the tee towel.  "I'm smoking.  And you know why?" she glared at us.  "Because I've got ten kids who never leave me alone, that's why!"

Poor Mom.  She never did quit smoking.  And I understand all too well .  I think of her stolen smoke in the storage room every time I give up on my diet to devour an entire can of Pringles or order the purse I can't afford from the Home Shopping Network.

Because it just feels good, dammit.

Life was a succession of days filled with endless laundry and meals for Mom.  For someone with her intelligence and creativity and humor, she must have felt smothered by it all sometimes.  That's when she'd sneak away to her piano and ignore all of us for a little while, even if chaos reigned around her.  Lost in the soothing magic of her piano, she was the calm eye in the middle of the storm.

But that she adored us, we had no doubt.

Terri remembers having a terrible struggle with her times tables in grade school.  Dad would chastize her and demand that she try harder.  But Mom understood.

"Don't worry," she consoled Terri.  "I'll help you."

Mom drilled Terri every night until she knew her times tables frontwards and backwards and better than any other kid in her fourth grade class.

Tom always remembered looking for Mom after kindergarten was over at noon.  He'd walk the four blocks down Capital Avenue until he spied Mom leaning against the mailbox by the street waving her arms at him.  Every day, his heart would lift at the sight of Mom so patiently waiting for him all those blocks away. 

"Shall we race to the house?" Mom would grin when he finally reached her.  "I think I can win this time."

Mysteriously, Tom always managed to edge her out just as they lunged for the door.

When it came to cuddling, encouraging and making us believe all things were possible, nobody did it better than Mom.

I remember coming home from my first eighth grade dance.  That was the year I grew five inches, and my arms and legs had sprung independent lives of their own.  The dance was a disaster, and I rushed up the stairs to fling myself on my bed and sob in adolescent angst.  A minute later, I was aware of the bed sinking beside me and the comforting feel of my mother's fingers stroking my hair.

By the time my sobs had subsided to an occasional hiccup, Mom pulled me over to cradle my head in her lap.  I wished so much I could have crawled into her lap the way I did when I was little, but I was nearly six feet tall even then with legs like a newborn colt.

She rocked my head and stroked my hair, and I sank into the safety of her.  Down the hall, I could hear my brothers wrestling on their beds.  Somebody was running water in the tub in the bathroom, and the radiator in my room hissed in the darkness.  The comforting sounds of home.

"This was just one awful night," my mother crooned softly to me.  "But you won't always be 13 years old, you know."

She was so good at helping me to feel that life was filled with possibilities and that one day I would grow comfortable in my own skin and "walk like a queen."

We're missing Mom this Mother's Day, just like we've missed her for the last 32 Mother's Days of our lives.  Terri feels especially close to Mom this year.  She, of all of us, was diagnosed with full blown breast cancer and is connected to Mom in a way that none of the rest of us can be.  Many times in the last ten months, Terri has traveled back 32 years in time to suffer and die with our mother.

But Mom would be so proud of Terri.  She would want her to be happy.  She wants all of us to be happy.

Although she couldn't be with us very long, her influence and the lessons she taught us will last forever. She taught Terri to encourage her children, Tom to laugh with his, and all of us to forgive ourselves once in a while.  And she taught her oldest daughter to walk like a queen.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom.  We miss  you.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Some of the nicest women I know were tortured by brothers.

We belong to a club - we sisters who have survived years of humiliation at the hands of male siblings.  If only there was a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous so that we could come clean about our pasts.

"My name is Cathy," I'd tearfully confess, "and I'm a tortured sister."

A sort of telepathic radar connects the reluctant members of our secret club.  We recognize each other on the street, in the grocery store, at the dentist office.  In that penetrating instant in which eyes lock, our souls are bared.  She, too, wore her brother's soiled underwear shoved over her head.  Yes, she, too, lay pinned to the floor screaming at the dangling spit waving seductively close to her face before it was sucked back up into the mouth of her wicked brother.

Tortured sisters deserve a special place in Paradise, and my own sisters and I deserve a spot far above that.  We grew up with five rotten brothers.  Count 'em.  FIVE. Joe, Mick, Rick, Tom and Jeff. 

As sister abuse goes, I'd put them pretty much at the top. The name calling was superior.  Four Eyes, Moose, Stick Legs, Big Butt, Zit Face, Mommy Dearest - it was all spot on.  But it was Mick who really perfected sister torture with his sheer creative genius.

I'll never forget when he kindly offered me a Fig Newton with a quarter buried inside.

Or the day he dragged my 10-year-old sister Deb, screaming and shrieking all the way, to the strange house of a neighbor we'd never met and tied her with a jump rope to the front porch.  Then he rang the doorbell and ran away.

Even younger, my poor sister Mary was Mick's perpetual victim.  The trouble was, she trusted Mick completely.

"How 'bout I take you out for some McDonalds?" Mick cajoled her one day with a friendly arm around her shoulder.

"Really?" Mary was delightfully unsuspecting.

Instead of McDonalds, unfortunately, Mick drove her straight to a mall department store and threw a pair of scuffed boots he'd worn for at least three months into her lap.  "Take those in and get me a full refund,"  he demanded.  Reaching across, he hurled the car door open and shoved her out.  "Then I'll buy you a hamburger."

Our terrible brothers, I'm glad to report, have all grown into very nice men, thank the Lord above.  We also give credit to their wives, every one as gorgeous on the inside as she is on the outside, for turning our rotten brothers into kind, civilized men who don't sneak asparagus into our milk glasses any more.

As well, our brothers survived some setbacks in life and emerged as even stronger and more compassionate men.

Joe, who sells pharmaceuticals, suffered a heart attack a while back.  A single father for many years, he quit his life long habit of smoking for the sake of his kids. Shortly afterward, he met the love of his life, Stef, and is as healthy and happy as I've ever seen him.

Mick and his wife Lori took over the family travel agency, but when the internet changed the travel business forever, Mick forced himself to change along with it.  And that's where his creative genius came into play. Now his agency buses kids to every school in town and offers a variety of services my dad's business never would have dreamed of 20 years ago.

At the age of 35, our brother Rick, who was unhappy with his business degree, decided to become a teacher like his wife Jan.  For years, he worked all night stocking shelves at a local grocery store and attended classes all day.  Watching him work so hard turned him into my hero for life.

Tom worked hard to earn his job as the beloved administrator of a nursing home doing what he does best - taking care of people.  He and his wife Sheryl take care of all of us, too, generously opening their big home for almost every family gathering, spur of the moment or otherwise.

And Jeff, who was born with cerebral palsy, has conquered many demons during his difficult life, including alcoholism and substance abuse.  But with an unshakeable newfound faith, he's remained sober and clean for several years and proudly lives on his own.

Many years after Mom died and my sisters and I were sure we'd endured all the brothers we could ever handle, Dad married Kris.  And just like that, we had another brother.  But Nolan was so young, he seemed much more like another nephew.  And he was certainly never as awful as our five older brothers.  He's grown now, ready to be married this summer, and he's such a good young man.

All our brothers are good men.

When we were young, there were times that my sisters and I would have been ecstatic to see our parents give all our brothers up for adoption.  But we're rather fond of them now.  What the heck.  We're crazy about them.  Even though our brothers weren't wild about our collective decision to choose prophylactic mastectomies, they nevertheless supported us completely.

"I guess now you can get the boobs you always wanted," my brother Joe joked about our reconstructive surgeries.

But he and the rest of our brothers remember all too well the pain of losing Mom.  In spite of the many cracks made at our expense about our diminished chest sizes, every one of my brothers rallied behind us.  They delivered food after our operations, worried about our pathology reports, and called frequently to cheer us up.

On Christmas Eve, while I was home recovering from surgery, I will never forget answering the doorbell to see my entire family, including my tall, handsome brothers, filling our front lawn to sing "Silent Night" in the frosty black stillness.  My husband swears Joe was choked up, but Joe would probably deny it until the day he died.

I'm glad my brothers tortured us.  By the time my sisters and I grew up, we realized Joe, Mick, Rick, Tom and Jeff had taught us some valuable life lessons - never to take ourselves too seriously and never to act like prima donnas.

And never to eat Fig Newtons without first checking for quarters.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Terri and Deb warned us.  The last few weeks of  breast reconstruction is the pits.

Mary and I are two fills away from the end.  The skin and muscles in our chests are expanded as tightly as possible, and the discomfort is profound.

"I feel like I could explode," Mary moaned.

I'm particularly fond of the rock hard shelf protruding from my chest.  I could set of glass of water on it.  And a couple of family pictures and a gallon of milk.

I've never felt so attractive.

But we're almost there.  Terri and Deb feel well and look so lovely and natural again that it spurs Mary and me on to the finish.  All week, we've been reminded how fortunate we are.

Last Tuesday, just before the start of Holy Week, my sister Mary lost a good friend and classmate.  Mary Kay Redman was a dark-haired Irish beauty from the Central Catholic class of '82.  Her smile and wide expressive eyes were as big as her heart.

All of us at Central Catholic are mourning.  Scratch very deep, and you discover the invisible chain that links so many of us together in this little close-knit Catholic community.  Mary Kay's nieces and nephews attend Central Catholic, and her oldest sister, the beautiful Sister Mary Margaret McGowan, has ministered for years to the parishioners of St. Leo's Catholic Church in Grand Island.

Mary Kay fought cancer for 15 years.  She never complained - not to her family, her friends or the kids she taught at Kearney High School 40 miles away.

"Get over yourselves!" her students lovingly recall her scolding them whenever they whined about the every day irritations that never really matter.

Just two weeks before she died, she posted one last loving message to all of us on Facebook.  "I'm so lucky to have my family!" she wrote about her husband, children, mother, brothers and sister who so tenderly cared for her around the clock.

I thought about Mary Kay during Holy Week.  Maybe we don't truly appreciate the agony of Holy Thursday and the horrors of Good Friday until we lose someone we love.

Mom died just two days after Easter.  That night, after Harry the Dog's bizarre behavior, sleep was out of the question. 

At six in the morning, I finally rose.  Wrapping a blanket around myself, I quietly crept out the front door to perch on the top step of the porch in the cold April darkness.

"Where are you, Mom?" I whispered into the black silence.

After a time, the sun slowly edged up over the horizon washing the world in dusky gray.  And all at once, a million birds burst out in a jubilant chorus to greet the day.

I was young then.  Before Mom became so ill, I obediently attended Sunday Mass and observed Lent without ever once pondering the great mysteries of Good Friday and Easter.

But when those birds sang out in the pre-dawn hours after my mother died, I felt the power of the Resurrection for the first time in my life.

Mom was safe.  She wasn't sick anymore.  She was someplace bright and shining like the morning sun appearing over the newly budding trees.

Mary Kay's there, too.

It was good to celebrate Easter today.  Kenny and Tommy were home at long last filling our quiet old house with their familiar laughter and perpetual banter.

We celebrated Mass this morning and laughed when Father Todd, meandering through the aisles to sprinkle the congregation with the annual Easter Baptismal blessing, drenched my husband John who was sitting on the aisle.

And later we crowded into my brother Rick's house.  He and his wife Jan grilled brats and burgers while nearly 60 of us sprawled throughout their home and spilled out onto the deck.  The boy cousins engaged in their annual good-natured baskeball tournament, but for the first time the uncles declined to play.  Arthritic knees have finally conquered ego.  And the little ones scattered furiously to scoop up treasures nestled in the grass for their baskets.

We talked and laughed and ate and drank.  It was an Easter afternoon just like a thousand others.  But it was uniquely different, as every one is, in that Rick and Jan greeted a new granddaughter into the world.  Gracelyn Nicole Brown was born on Good Friday.

Life, death and resurrection.

We lost a good friend this week.  She reminds me how lucky my sisters and I are to enjoy this beautiful Easter day with our families and each other.  And when I am tempted to complain about my sore chest, I imagine her fixing me with those big snapping Irish eyes.

"Get over yourself," she'd scold.

Godspeed, Mary Kay. 

And may the birds sing you to Heaven.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Family

Grandma was never the same after Mom died.  The light simply vanished from her eyes.

In 1982, three years after Mom's death, Deb and Brian were married, and Grandma, afflicted with heart trouble and diabetes, couldn't make the trip for the wedding.  I promised to bring my little brothers Tom and Jeff to visit the very next weekend.

"We'll bring pictures of the wedding," I assured her.

I was shocked when she answered the door.  Grandma lived in Beatrice, three hours away, and in the two months since we'd seen her, she'd grown thin and gaunt.  But she grabbed us close to her with the same old vigor.  Grandma was always the best hugger in the world.

"Dearies," she cupped the faces of of Tom and Jeff, who were 13 and 11 at the time, as they nestled against her.

"Grandma!" I couldn't believe my eyes. "Did you pierce your ears?"

She covered her ears self-consciously, then looked me straight in the eye.  "Why not?  I'm 75, and I'll pierce my ears if I want to."

I laughed and threw my arms around her.  "You look like a teenager!"

It was a glorious afternoon.  We went through every picture and told her all about Deb's wedding - how Dad's tux was too short in the arms and about how Uncle Carl, who decorated the church, had us all out at the river gathering greenery for the altar.  It wasn't until Deb and Brian were ready to exchange vows that an alert groomsman observed a problem with the green foliage Uncle Carl had so carefully placed on either side of the altar.

"It was marijuana," Tom informed our grandmother.

Grandma exploded with her deep rich laughter, wiping the tears from her eyes with the perennial tissue tucked in her sleeve.

When Tom and Jeff ran outdoors to play, Grandma and I settled down to talk around her low kitchen table.  We'd discussed to death all manner of things over that table - family events, soap operas and books.  She was pensive this particular afternoon, however.

"Do you believe old grieving people ever hallucinate?" she asked suddenly.

"Well," I said carefully, "I don't believe YOU'VE ever hallucinated, if that's what you're asking."

She stared down at her lap.  "Something happened the other day, and I don't want you to think I'm crazy."

I gripped her hand.  "You're not crazy.  What happened?"

She looked up at me.  "I saw Patti."

I sat very still.  The ticking of Grandma's cuckoo clock all at once seemed too loud.  "You saw Mom?"

She sighed and sat back.  "I was sitting in my recliner, and the birds were singing.  I was so low, and I thought, how can those damn birds sing when Patti's gone?"  Her eyes filled, and her lower lip trembled.  "Then a column of light came through the ceiling right down to the floor, and your mother stepped out from behind it."

I couldn't blink let alone breathe.  Grandma described perfectly the gown my mother wore with a rope belt around the waist.  Her beautiful hair was golden and swept over to one side. 

"Did she say anything?"

Grandma shook her head.  "She only held out her hands to me and smiled so radiantly.  Then she stepped behind the column of light, and it all went back up through the ceiling."

I sank back against the chair.  "I believe you.  I do.  Mom understood how much you needed her."

Grandma smiled through her tears, grateful, and we reached for each other.

"I love you so much, Grandma," I sobbed.

"I love you, too, Dearie."

That evening, both of us recovered, Grandma made our favorite macaroni and cheese from her own special recipe.  Jeff wolfed down the macaroni but skirted carefully around his vegetables.

"Eat your peas, Jeff," I nagged.

Sighing hugely, he picked up his fork and glared mutinously at the vegetables until Grandma pulled him over on her lap and whispered into his ear.

"Grandma," I was irritated.  "I know you just told him he didn't have to eat."

Two pairs of guilty eyes stared up at me, and I laughed helplessly.

It would be the last meal Grandma ever made for us. 

That very night, she died peacefully in her sleep.  When I checked on her the next morning, she was already gone, sleeping on her side with her hands tucked under her cheek and smiling sweetly.

I never shed a single tear for my grandma.  More than any thing in the world, she longed to be with my mother and my Grandpa Al who'd passed 18 years before.  I could only be happy for her.

But my brothers and sisters and I missed her so much. 

Grandma's remaining sister and brother eventually died, too, and it suddenly struck me that nobody from Mom's family was left to us.  I vaguely remembered meeting a couple of Mom's cousins when we were kids, but I could only recall their first names, Carol and Shirley.  Desperate to find them, I searched the internet and even paid for a membership to  It was all a fruitless effort, and sadly, I gave up the search.

Then last month, the OMAHA WORLD HERALD published a story about the prophylactic mastectomies my sisters and I had elected to undergo.  On the afternoon of the day the story appeared, I received a phone call.

"Cathy?" a pleasant voice on the other end inquired.  "My sister saw the article today.  My name is Carol, and I'm your mother Patti's cousin."

After 30 years, it was a single newspaper article that brought our mother's family to us.  My siblings and I were over the moon with excitement.

Last Thursday, four of my big handsome brothers - Mick, Rick, Tom and Jeff- and my sisters and I arrived at Carol's house in Lincoln, Nebraska.  Her sister Shirley, a tall stately woman so like our grandmother, answered the door and enveloped us in a hug.  Carol, just behind Shirley, was shorter with striking blue eyes and a warm welcoming smile. 

"We're so glad you're here!" her wonderful voice greeted us.

It was an afternoon none of us would ever forget.  We couldn't stop staring at those two attractive ladies, both in their 70's.

"You have Grandma's hands!" I marveled.

"You even smell like Grandma," Deb said shyly to Shirley.

While they asked us about our families and set us at ease, we drank in the sight of them.

Reinder, Carol's husband, invited us into the kitchen for drinks, and soon, we were all huddled around the dining room table talking our heads off just as we used to around Grandma's table as if we'd known each other forever.  We found out all about their children, and miraculously, Terri and Shirley's son already knew each other.

"Before I saw your names in the article," Shirley was telling us, "I saw Terri's picture and thought, 'Why, she looks exactly like my cousin Patti!' "

We shook our heads in amazement.

"It was all meant to be," Carol beamed around the table at us.

All too soon, it was time to leave.  But rising from the table, we promised each other we'd gather again this summer for a pot luck family reunion to meet Carol and Shirley's families and Cousin Mabel, the 90-year-old keeper of the family records.

Our time around the table with our two beautiful cousins was a divine gift, pure and simple.  Mom and Grandma felt very close.  I could almost see them leaning in close to catch every word.

Grandma once told me about a beautiful morning around her own kitchen table many years ago.  Grandpa was still living, and Mom was in grammar school.  The three of them sat with the aroma of good coffee and sizzling bacon filling the morning air, and Mom was chattering a mile a minute about her exciting school day ahead.

Grandma remembered that Grandpa looked up at her with a kind of piercing joy.  "Heaven can't be better than this," he said.

I think of the three of them together again. 

Today is April 17th, the anniversary of Mom's death, and it seems no coincidence at all that this would be the week we found her family.

I hope the heavenly table Grandpa imagined all those years ago is every thing he hoped for.  And I hope someday we'll all be sitting around it together again, along with Dad and all the people we love most in this old world, to laugh and talk and love and remember to our hearts' content.

Happy anniversary, Mom.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Race for Grace

Deb's oldest daughter Nikki turned 27 last week.

"I hate that I'm 27," she moaned to Deb.

And I hate it for her.  This is the year she will schedule her first mammogram.

The mother of two young sons, Nikki is completely on her own and making her own decisions.  But Deb made this one for her.  She is insistent about Nikki's first mammogram.  And when Deb makes up her mind, there's no budging her.

"I'll go with you," she promised my frightened niece.  "But you have to do this, Nik.  We can't afford to take any more chances."

I have 18 nieces who can't afford to take any chances.  My great-grandmother died of breast cancer when she was 36 years old.  In our family, three generations have been ravaged by this disease, and my sisters are determined it won't wrap its insidious fingers around a fourth.

But it's tricky.  No apparent breast cancer gene has been identified in our family.  We only know that our susceptibility is great.  So how can we determine who's safe and who's not?  My 18 nieces are all uniquely beautiful, and it pains me to think of what's ahead.  Are we a family of women destined forever to remove our breasts to prevent this disease from killing us?

It's easy to get trapped in a pocket of despair when you're trying to predict the future.  Fortunately for me, today was the Race for Grace.

Co-founded by two special friends, Lisa Willman and Julie Pfeifer, GRACE (Grand Island Area Cancer Endowment) raises hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for those in our community who are stricken by cancer.  Lisa and Julie, both breast cancer survivors, are the backbone of the foundation. 

You'd never guess the steely resolve that hides behind the beautiful smiles of my two young friends.  In spite of their youth, Lisa and Julie have fought their own dragons and won - both have reached the all important five-year benchmark.  Now they're determined to help their community.

The first annual Race for Grace started early this morning in downtown Grand Island.  More than 600 runners and walkers registered for the event, all of them commemorating their loved ones lost to cancer or fighting cancer with thousands of pink butterflies lining the route.

Deb and I volunteered to help.

"We need people to direct traffic!" coordinator Laura Dexter, our tall, joyful friend, coaxed us.

Julie and Lisa greeted and thanked us with a hug, and Deb and I saw dozens of people we knew helping with the race.  Spearheading the event were the Wenzl siblings - Angie, Kim and Leonard, all of them veteran runners whom I taught.  Dorene Spies, a human dynamo if there ever was one, was helping Laura register the scores of volunteers while her husband Michael donned an orange vest to direct traffic and her good son Dillon offered himself up as a teenage gopher.  Our school secretary Pam Fruin was there, and even our parish pastor Father Todd Philipsen volunteered to help.  They were only a few of many.  And all because of two lovely women who have made it their mission to fight cancer.

Deb and I drove to our post on a busy Blaine Street to direct traffic and encourage racers.

"How's this?" Deb joked, waving imaginary traffic through with her best Deputy Barney Fife impersonation.

But when the hundreds of runners and walkers first turned the corner and filled the street making their way to our intersection, Deb and I stared in awe.

"Thanks for volunteering!" many of them called out to us, laboring hard after reaching the four mile mark.

"High Five, Mrs. Howard!" a former student ran by, raising his hand.

To the last walker, they were inspirational, and Deb and I were choked up.  All of them were racing for a cause, especially one determined runner - Kim Willman, Lisa's husband.

Biking behind the very last walker, Terry Pfeifer, Julie's husband, made sure every walker and runner made it safely to the finish line.  "Thank you, Ladies!" he smiled warmly.

It's impossible to give into despair when you witness 600 runners and almost as many volunteers uniting for a common cause.  They fill me with hope.  The Race for Grace helps me to believe any thing is possible. Even a cure.

Lisa Willman and Julie Pfeifer are fighting for a community.  But they're also fighting for their daughters.  Lisa's doing every thing in her power to protect Daryn, Kamryn and Lauryn, and Julie's fighting for Lyndie and Natalie.  Their courage speaks to all of us - husbands, children and friends.  If they can believe and battle so hard for an end to cancer, so can we.

This year, my niece Nikki will have her first mammogram.  Deb will be by her side.  Nikki doesn't yet realize what a blessing it is to have her strong mother accompanying her to her first mammogram. But my sisters and I know.  Mom couldn't be with us.

So we're making progress.  And one day, perhaps each of my 18 beautiful nieces will make a life-changing appointment to visit her doctor's office for a breast cancer vaccination that will protect her for the rest of her life.

This spring, there are a million little communities all over the world running their own races - for their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and kids.

Someday, we'll find the cure.  We'll find it because of people like my good friends Lisa Willman and Julie Pfeifer, two young women who inspire a small community to do great things.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Cleaning Houses

Thank God Deb has her new boobs.

Before Dr. Montag inserted the soft new implants into her chest last Monday, Deb frankly was developing a fixation.

"Feel how hard my expanders are," she’d grab my hand and put it over her chest. "Have I made you feel that before?"

I snatched my hand away. "Only about a million times," I snapped.

We’re all so relieved Deb’s expanders are out and the implants are in. Maybe now she’ll quit slapping people's hands on her boobs.

Two down, two to go. Terri’s healing well and delighted with her new chest. Deb’s a little sore and still resting at home. Nobody misses Deb right now more than Mary, who’s carrying on their joint housecleaning business alone while Deb recovers.

Years ago, when Deb and Mary were still working full time for my dad and brother at the family travel agency, Deb yearned to spend more time with her daughter Sydney, who was just a baby. When she discovered she could earn just as much money cleaning houses for half a day, she struck out on her own and slowly built a steady list of customers. Mary, who’s always been close to Deb, decided to get in on the act as well.

"We’ll clean for two years," Deb persuaded Mary. After all, housecleaning is hard work. But two years turned into 11 years, and they’re still at it. They never bargained for the attachments they’d develop with their clients.

Frank and Esther were a sweet couple in their 90's when my sisters worked for them. Occasionally, Esther would sneak Deb back to her bedroom, out of Frank’s hearing, and show her the creased old photo she’d hidden in her underwear drawer

"Oh, Frank would be livid if he knew how much this boy used to mean to me," Esther confided. "But I had to quit him," she shook her head sadly, gazing at the photo.

"Quit him?" Deb was puzzled.

"Oh yes, honey, he was no good. I had to quit him."

After Frank died, Esther, who’d never had any children, was moved to a nursing home where Deb and Mary visited her faithfully.

"Don’t leave me!" Esther would cry pathetically when visiting hours were over. It was almost more than my sisters could bear, but they visited her faithfully until the end.

Carl is their very favorite client. An 86-year-old joyful Bostonian, he’s tried valiantly to expose Deb and Mary to the finer things in life. Lonely after the loss of his invalid wife, Carl would invite my sisters to stay after they’d completed their housecleaning duties to enjoy a glass of beer and a plate of sharp imported cheese. Then he gave them dance lessons. Pulling out some ancient record albums, he attempted to teach Deb and Mary the two-step, the waltz, and the polka.

"For God’s sake, stop bouncing!" he’d scold Mary as he tried to awkwardly twirl her around his living room. "You gotta feel it! Smooth it out!"

When Mary was gone for a month recuperating from her double mastectomy, Carl decided it was time to give his undivided attention to Deb. "You look like you could sing," he eyed Deb doubtfully. " I’m giving you voice lessons!" he pronounced.

No amount of protesting on Deb’s part could sway Carl.

"Stand tall!" he ordered. "Now begin." Conducting with his finger, he guided a red-faced Deb painfully through the scales.

"Do, re, mi, fa..." she trilled flatly.

God bless Carl. I’ve listened to Deb sing with enthusiastic gusto in church, and a rabid goat has more musical ability. The girl can’t carry a tune to save her life. Apparently, Carl must have arrived at the same conclusion. After the first lesson, he never broached the subject of voice lessons again.

Mike and Bonna are Deb and Mary’s other long time clients. Mike, a pharmacist, always departs from his house with a friendly offering. "I’m leaving, Girls!" he calls out to my sisters. "Help yourself to a beer while I’m gone!" he jokes.

One morning, not long after he left, Deb and Mary heard the garage door a short time later signaling that Mike had returned. They quickly nabbed a couple of bottles from the wine rack.

"Girls!" Mike shouted, as he entered the front door. "I’m back!" Hearing no response, he walked into the living room to see Deb and Mary apparently passed out on his living room sofa, each with a bottle of wine cradled in her lap.

"Oh, that’s clever," he chuckled. "Very clever."

Even if nobody else enjoys their sick humor, my sisters enjoy it enough for everybody.

There isn’t much Deb and Mary wouldn’t do for their customers. Tom and Kim, their biggest clients, employ my sisters three times a week. Deb and Mary are familiar with every inch of their enormous home and are even friends with the pets - two huge dogs and a beautiful show cat named Willow.

The dogs are free to roam in and out, but Willow is strictly an indoor cat. One day, while Deb and Mary cleaned, their employer Kim, who was feeling under the weather, spent the day in her room. Deb and Mary were polishing the windows overlooking the courtyard in the front of the house when Deb gasped. "Oh no, Mary! Willow’s out."

My sisters stared in horror at the beautiful cat casually lounging on the hot driveway in the morning sun. Deb and Mary, neither of whom cares for cats, sneaked quietly out the front door.

"C’mere, Willow!" Deb called softly. "Come inside, Kitty!"

Willow was indifferent. However, when Deb and Mary crept nearer, her head shot up, alert and suspicious. Just before my sisters could grab her, she darted away. Deb and Mary spent the better part of an hour trying to lure Willow back into the house. But when the cat leapt into a tall tree in the backyard, they desperately enlisted the help of the gardener, who fortunately possessed a long extension ladder.

"I’ll get a can of tuna!" Deb called over her shoulder, as the sympathetic gardener tried in vain to reach for the agitated Willow.

The tuna did the trick. As soon as Willow inched close enough to the tantalizing aroma of fish, the gardener grabbed her and deposited her safely into Mary’s arms.

"I’d better go to Kim and explain," Mary headed nervously off to the door with Willow. "With any luck, maybe she’ll think we’re all heroes."

Deb, the big coward, elected to stay behind as Mary bravely carried Willow through their employer’s bedroom door.

"Kim," Mary knocked, " I hope you weren’t worried..."

She stopped in mid-sentence. Next to Kim on the big king-sized bed was another Willow meticulously grooming herself beside her doting mistress. Mary’s boss looked up, confused.

"What are you doing with the neighbor’s cat?"

Mary stared at the cat on the bed, then at the cat in her arms, and back to the cat on the bed. Then she maneuvered herself silently out the door.

She and Deb laughed so hard, they couldn’t stand up.

They’ve always had fun, my crazy sisters.

I thought about that not long ago after Mary’s surgery for her double mastectomy. Deb and I crept into her hospital room to visit her. She was sleeping peacefully under the effects of anesthesia. Deb gently nudged her awake, and the look on Mary’s face when she first recognized Deb said it all. Her smile was radiant, and she gazed at Deb with such love that I couldn’t swallow for a minute.

It occurred to me in that moment just how close Deb and Mary had become as they grew up with each other as teenagers and lost Mom. During those difficult years, they cared for our younger siblings, and their own carefree youth was lost forever.

The two of them, so close in age, mothered each other and cried with each other. But they laughed with each other, too. Through good times and bad, they’ve been boon companions.

I couldn’t ask for two more wonderful sisters, and I’m glad to know I’ll have them both around for a long time to come. They may not be able to sing or dance or even tell one feline from another.

But they’re the best sisters you could ever ask for.