Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Epilogue to "Saving a Life"

This is one of my favorite photos of me and my brother, Eric, 
taken the day before he left the hospital after the bone marrow transplant. 
It was such a happy moment!  One that I will never forget and will cherish forever!

I don't even know how to begin this post. I really just don't know where to start.  Part of me feels like if I don't write about it, then maybe it didn't really happen.   But it did and if I write about it, maybe it will help heal my heart.  So here it goes.

Losing my brother, Eric, after we all thought that he had won his battle with cancer was devastating.  It was such a deep and personal loss for me because I felt like I had sacrificed and done all that I could to save him, but it wasn't enough.  It all seems so surreal and it happened so fast that I've hardly had a chance to wrap my head around it all.  But I knew that I had to write this "Epilogue" post before I could get back to my regular entries about the other things that have happened at the Holt household these past few months.  Hence the reason that our family blog has been neglected.  

It took me a long to get the courage to write the previous post about being a bone marrow donor.  It was almost 5 months after the bone marrow donation took place by the time I finished the post.  I started lots of times, but I couldn't get past the first paragraph without becoming overwhelmed with so much emotion that I would just close my computer and think, "I'll get to that tomorrow."  Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, and at one point I wondered if I would ever be able to record my experience of being a bone marrow donor for my brother.  And then one day I just felt a strong impression that I needed to sit down and get it done NOW and I did.  I spent most of the day writing and rewriting, making sure that I didn't leave out a single detail. I didn't want to forget anything or leave anything out.   I wrote it with great hope and a overwhelming feeling of joy and success.  At that point, Eric had hit every benchmark and had exceeded all of our expectations. My bone marrow was growing in his body, replacing his cancerous bone marrow.  In my heart and mind, I felt like my brother was going to be one of those lucky cancer survivors.  I can't describe how that feels to think that because of the small sacrifice that I made, I helped save his life.  All I can say is that it was really, really wonderful and the joy that I felt erased all the pain that I had gone through.  When I finally hit "post" on my blog, it felt so good.  I thought I had finished writing that chapter of my life and it ended with a "happily ever after."  Less than one week later that all changed.

We were waiting on the runway, waiting to take off, heading to Utah to ski with kids, when Mark opened up an email to all the family from MaryLynn, Eric's wife, that said that they had discovered a lump on Eric's chest.  She tried to be very upbeat and positive, telling us not to worry and gave lots of explanations of where the lump came from and what other possibilities besides cancer that could explain why there was a lump.  But in my heart I knew.  I knew that it was cancer and I knew that it wasn't good.  It was as if someone just kicked me in the stomach.  I felt sick.  I closed my eyes as the tears rolled silently down my cheeks the entire flight.  My head and heart ached by the time we arrived in Salt Lake.  I pushed it all in the back of my mind and tried to forget it and just enjoy the weekend with the kids, which I did.

By the time we got home from Utah, I'd almost forgotten about the email, until a couple of days later when I was at lunch with friends who asked about how my brother was doing.  I tried to put on a brave face as I informed them that they had discovered a lump.  I tried to spin it in a positive way, but the look of concern on their faces reminded me of the reality of cancer.  Gosh, I hate that word!  When I got in my car to go home my heart was heavy and I couldn't get it off my mind. 

About an hour later, I somehow missed a call from my brother.   He left a message that he had something discuss with me and that he would call me back in about 45 minutes.  Immediately my thought was that the cancer had returned and he was going to ask me to donate again.  I didn't give it a second thought, I knew that I could do it again.  I could clear my calendar and be out to Utah in a flash.  Now that I knew what to expect it would be a lot easier this time.  I was ready to sign up for another go around when the phone rang and it was my brother calling back.  He began by thanking me again for donating my bone marrow and then began telling me that the lump is cancerous and they are going to start more rounds of chemo.   Apparently, he explained that not all the cancer was killed off during his aggressive chemo treatments.  So even though the bone marrow transplant was a huge success, the cancer grew back.  He was busy sharing more medical details when I stopped him in the middle of all of it and said, "You don't have to ask me, I'll do it again.  I'll do the bone marrow donation again.  It's not a big deal.  I can do it.  Actually, I'd love to do it for you."  To which he replied, "Oh Deb, that is so sweet of you but I'm not going to ask you to do that again.  I'm not going to go through that again."  I pleaded with him but he calmly explained that even if we were to do it again, the odds of it working this next time were so slim that it would be like grasping at straw.  He reassured me that it really was OK.  He was going to start some chemo treatments that would hopefully give him a year or so and he tried to assure me that he was OK with that.  

Tears started rolling down my cheeks.  I tried to be calm and brave like he was but I couldn't hold back the tears.  Eric tried to comfort me and told me not to worry, that he was really at peace with all of it.  Eric continued, trying to reassure and comfort me by saying that everyone has to die sometime and he is just lucky that he knows when, so now that he has a timeline he can prioritize and get the most important things done, like writing his own obituary.  With that, I started crying harder and told him to stop, "Don't say that!"  Calmly he said, "But Deb, this is my reality.  And I'm really OK with it.  I mean, I'm kind of excited to see Mom.  And Dad will be joining us soon."  He was right; but boy, was it hard to hear him talk like that.  We made some small talk, but really, what do you say to someone that has just told you that he is dying?  I just cried into the phone and he just kept saying, "It's Ok, Deb.  It's really OK."  There wasn't much more to say, but I didn't want to hang up.  I knew that it might be the last time that I would talk to him.  He was very patient with me; and if you know my brother, Eric, he isn't one to just sit around and chat with you on the phone.  He is always business-like, and his conversations are short and direct, he is perhaps even curt on the phone. But on this day, even though I'm sure that he had so many people that he needed to call and so many things to do, he took time to reassure and comfort me and waited patiently until I was ready to say "goodbye" which, looking back on it all, means so much to me.  I finally hung up the phone and bawled.  I was in disbelief.  My mind was swirling with random thoughts like, "How could this be?  I thought he had this beat?  It just can't be.  He is just way too young!" The sadness that I felt was greater than I had felt when my mother passed away.  I know that might sound weird, but my mother had lived a wonderful long life.  She had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and even though I was going to miss her terribly, it was truly a blessing.  But my brother was just 59 years old.  He was young.  Way too young!  And we thought that we had cured his cancer, all was going to be well, and he was going to have many more great years to enjoy with his dear family.  Even now as I'm writing this, I am so overcome with sadness. 

That phone call came on Thursday, January 23rd.  Less than 2 weeks later my brother passed away, on Tuesday, February 4th.  I believe that he knew that it was his time to go and he was ready, so calmly and peacefully he left this earth.  He has never been a very patient person. An avid hiker all his life, he has always been the one that is leading the pack, anxious to see what is around the bend, and so it was with death.  He knew that he had lost the fight.  He had lived a good life and done all that he needed to do on this earth, so he was ready and couldn't wait to see what was around the next bend.  He is with my mom now, but we all miss him so much!
Eric Christian Olson

I can't tell you how many times I have asked myself, "Why did I have to go through all this if in the end it wasn't going to save my brother?  What was the point?"  Sometimes it just doesn't make sense.  I wanted to make a difference.  I wanted to make things right.  I wanted to give my brother the gift of life.  I think as a mom, I'm programmed to "fix" things, make everything all better.  I felt like it was my responsibility to "fix" his cancer and I wasn't able to.  And that is really hard for me to accept.  But as his sweet wife, MaryLynn, greeted me before the funeral, throwing her arms around me and comforted me said,  "You gave us the Fall. Those sweet moments that we had together meant the most to us!  You gave us a season, and that was enough!"  She, who probably needed comforting more than anyone else, having just lost her dear husband, showed strength and courage beyond anything I can ever imagine.  Her words did give me great comfort.  I wanted to give him at least 4-5 years but instead I gave him 4-5 months.  And I guess when you are looking at death, 4-5 months IS enough. 

Below is the Instagram that I posted right after Eric's funeral.
 I've sung this song since I was a little child, but today the words Families can be together Forever have taken on a whole new meaning as we honored and celebrated the life of my brother, Eric, who lost his battle with cancer. // Although it was not the outcome that we had all hoped for, I feel comfort in knowing that my gift to him was a little extra time with his sweet wife, MaryLynn, and time for his family to mentally and emotionally prepare to say goodbye. // I don't know all the reasons why things didn't work out the way we wanted them to or why bad things happen to good people.  But what I do know is that as I strive to be humble and accept the Lord's will,  I feel peace.  And as I exercise faith and trust in our Heaven Father's plan, I gain strength. //Throughout this entire journey I have felt an enormous amount of love and support from my amazing family and incredible friends!  They have been with me from the very beginning, sending texts, cards, emails, leaving flowers and homemade goodies on my doorstep, even visiting me at the hospital.  I feel truly blessed to be embraced by so many and surrounded by so much love.  I am reminded that even when we go through trials and disappointments, we can still feel joy. // And that is what life is all about, giving your all, no matter what the outcome, knowing that all these things will give us experience and be for our good, and finding joy in the journey.  Although my heart is still aching, that feeling is slowly fading, being replaced with love and appreciation for each and every act of kindness and all the thoughtful words of comfort. #familiesareforever #incrediblefriendssticktogether 

Now, in closing, I have to list a few of the tender mercies and other blessings that I've received.  It truly was a tender mercy that I wrote the post about being a bone marrow donor when I did.  I'm so glad that it was written when we thought that the bone marrow donation was a success.  I had a strong prompting that I should write it just days before we got the news about Eric's cancer returning.  If I had waited another week, I may have never had the strength to write it and record my feelings.  I am ever so grateful to have it all written down, not just for me, but also for my posterity.  I want them to know that we can all do hard things, really hard things; and sometimes, even though we give our best effort and we have good intentions, things don't always work out the way we want and that is OK.   Each one of my kids have thanked me for making the sacrifice for my brother, and as Tyler said in one of the first conversations that we had after Eric's funeral, "This will be a story that we will tell our children and grandchildren and for generations to come about love, sacrifice, and humility."  I do hope that when they are asked to do something hard or when they meet the challenges of life that it will give them hope, faith, and strength.  

I have been so blessed by so many kind acts of kindness that it has been overwhelming.  I have experienced so much goodness in my time of sadness.  I couldn't even begin to thank everyone for all the incredibly sweet things my family and friends have done for me.  So many people have gone out of their way to love me and comfort me as I grieved.  All the cards, notes, phone calls, See's chocolates, homemade meals delivered, beautiful flowers, inspiring books, the gorgeous potted camellias on my doorstep, lovely plaques, treasured quotes framed and generous donations to the American Cancer Society, American Cancer Research and the LDS Humanitarian fund in my brother's name, remind me that I am surrounded by so many incredibly wonderful people in my life and I feel so very blessed.  Life is good, even when we have do hard things.  And life is especially good when you have people in your life to love and support you through those hard times.  I can only hope that I can be that same kind of person for all of those who have touched my life.  My heart is full.  

I know that I will see my brother again someday with a perfect, cancer-free body.  I know this to be true.  Jesus is the Son of God, our Savior and Redeemer.  Because of Him, death is not the end, and life takes on new meaning.  I am especially grateful for this knowledge this Easter.  May we all celebrate His life and discover all that is possible #BecauseofHim.