By John Knapp
This is a story about someone who was as constant as the sun. She lived her life in a straight line. Recently, she came to the end of that line. My sister, Laura, died of cancer.
I have always considered Laura the anchor of our family. As the oldest of the six kids in our family, she was the substitute mom/drill sergeant. She was the typical oldest child, all too willing to pull rank, but we fell in line. We loved and were proud of her and were mostly willing to follow her lead.
The anchor “dropped” in Baker, Oregon (which is now “Baker City”) on June 30, 1949. The family moved to Portland, then to Pendleton, Oregon, where most of our family years together were spent.
Everywhere we moved Laura fit right in. She had an easy way with people, never seemed flustered to meet someone new, and was good at small talk and networking. She was a hard worker, savvy with money, and had her priorities straight. It was obvious that she had a life plan and she stuck to the plan until life changed the plot line for her.
Laura graduated from Pendleton High School, went on to attend Portland State and met the love of her life, Alex, an immigrant from Iran. Alex was raised there and emigrated to get an education in the U.S. at Portland State, where he met Laura.
Laura and Alex were a great team. Both oldest children, they shared many of the same traits: thrift, savvy investment, common sense parenting and home building. They worked hard to build the life they had and were proud to share their home for family events, good and bad. My sister was the mother hen of our family, and her own, and with joy, her children’s families.
On one of my many visits to their home in Olympia, Washington, Laura told me that she had had a cancerous tumor removed from her thigh. It was very deep, she said. Though she didn’t show it to me, she motioned over a surprisingly large area. She was told they had gotten it all and they would keep an eye on it.
In the meantime, I was diagnosed with rather serious coronary artery disease. Laura insisted that I come to their place to recover, which I did. It was the best vacation I ever had.
As I recovered from heart surgery at Laura’s, she calmly relayed that her cancer had come back, and that she was looking into beginning treatment right after I left. She was determined to live and die without the burden of extra time granted with no energy to enjoy it. She rejected traditional chemotherapy and experimental treatments, and settled on immunotherapy, which harvests your own T-cells, grows them, and uses your own natural, but magnified disease resistance to combat the cancer.
Laura had two years of therapy and was able to live reasonably free of the burden of energy theft that traditional nostrums carried. She and Alex even went on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Europe, and particularly enjoyed their time in Paris.
Laura’s treatments were halted during the trip to Europe and were restarted on her return. After one round of treatments, they found she had a blood clot in her neck, which is a relatively common occurrence with this type of therapy.
They administered standard treatment of blood thinners for the blood clot and sent her home. Within a few days she woke up not recognizing who or where she was, or who anyone else was, either. She was taken to the hospital and was combative on the way, once trying to exit the car as it was moving. She fought the nurses when she arrived at the hospital. They diagnosed bleeding on the brain and LifeFlighted her to Seattle’s Harborview hospital.
As it turned out, Laura’s cancer was in her brain, and was causing a tiny bit of bleeding. Once blood thinners were administered, the little bit of bleeding turned into a river of bleeding. They managed to stop the bleeding, but from that point on Laura had stroke-like symptoms, particularly memory loss and aphasia. Once again, her treatments were halted in order to treat issues related to bleeding in her brain. Her tumors spread rapidly and even when treatments were restarted, they were ineffective.
Though she was receiving immunotherapy, Laura turned into the chemo-affected cancer patient she had feared becoming. Laura, Alex and her treatment team all agreed that the most common-sense thing to do was to stop treatment and let life do what it does. That way she would hopefully live the remainder of her time with some quality of life.
There were precious few moments that were free of either fatigue or memory lapses. She quit therapy after Thanksgiving and was hospitalized with serious seizures between then and Christmas. With massive infusions of steroids, she was able to join the family for Christmas Eve.
My last moments with Laura were with light flakes of snow falling on Christmas eve. She was looking through a lovely gift my sister, Ruth, had given her. One of the items with the gifts was a very nice hat/cap that was the exact color of the robe she was wearing, which was what I’d call “royal” red. The fabric on the cap was fashioned into blossoms on the side of the cap. She put it on and shrugged. “It’s just a chemo cap,” she said. I told her I thought it looked great. It did.
She was back in the hospital again in ten days or so and was there for three weeks in intensive care, due to the ferocious seizures that wracked her body. Alex battled with the hospital to get Laura home so she could die there. He and his son, Jon, built a ramp to aid in getting her up the stairs to the front door, and with visiting hospice nurses, Laura came home for good.
Laura weighed anchor on Feb. 14th, Valentine’s Day, and broke all our hearts.
Laura was not famous, held no public office and was not high profile in her local community. She led a straightforward life, with the usual markers and life events that others experience. She was a wife, mother, daughter, sister, artist, baker, and did an above average job in all those roles. But still, you might say she was no one in particular, except to those who knew and loved her.
But I’ve heard a saying that goes something like this: “In heaven, an angel is no one in particular.”
In heaven, as on earth, my sister will fit right in.
John Knapp lives in Vancouver, Washington with his cat Abby.
Editor’s note: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing John since 2008, when he became one of a dozen Oregon and Washington residents selected to write for The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section. During that time, I’ve learned a lot from his wise perspective on life, whether it’s reflecting on health issues, contemplating our legacies or the joys of owning a cat.
Tomorrow: David Quisenberry | To live is Christ, to die is gain