I wrote the piece below in November of 2012, one year after my sister had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer. She had surgery, went through her chemo treatments and was pronounced cancer free the following year. We thought it was over. She thought it was over. 7 months later in June of 2013, she was re-diagnosed, this time with Stage 4 colon cancer. And this time, there was no surgery. Two years later, on February 11, 2015, my sister Charlotte died.
I am so thankful to have had a sister like Charlotte. She was my best friend, my worst enemy. She knew me better than anyone….better than I knew myself. She looked out for me. She cried with me, laughed with me, yelled at me often. We had our moments as all sisters do….but we loved each other more than anyone will ever know. When she died, a part of me died too. I am not the same person I was when I had a sister and women friendships mean everything to me now, even more than before.
I am thankful to have had a sister like Charlotte, someone who could smell bullshit a mile away. She knew when I was lying. She knew when I was telling the truth. She trusted me with her children. She knew how much they meant to me. “They are going to need you Emmy,” she wrote to me in a text message while in the hospital at Hopkins, month before she died. “They are really doing to need a mama. In the weeks and months to come whenever “this” happens and comes to a close I want to know they have someone who is as damn close to their “mama” as possible.” They are her children. They are my “children.” They will never forget their mother. Neither will I.
Today, we have a new member of the Giza family, Rose Riley Giza, my niece, the daughter of my brother Jimmy and his girlfriend, Kate. Charlotte would have loved Kate. She would have been so happy to finally be an aunt. She would be so happy for Jimmy for finally falling in love. Cancer changed Charlotte. It changed all of us. We are closer as a family than we have ever been. We miss her each and everyday but she lives in all of us – In me, my mom and dad, Jimmy and of course, her children, Jack and Eleanor. She is never far from our thoughts.
I am thankful to have had a sister. I am thankful to be an aunt. I am thankful to be surrounded by so much love.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
“You have a lot to be thankful for this year,” one of my clients said to me last week in class. “Yes, yes I do,” I replied, smiling. And I do. My sister is now cancer free.
A year ago this Thanksgiving, my sister had been diagnosed with stage three colon cancer. She had undergone surgery in October and was about to begin chemotherapy. Needless to say, everyone was very much aware of how much this particular Thanksgiving meant to our family. My sister was alive. My sister was going to be okay. Yes, she was tired and worn out and exhausted. No, she could not eat almost anything we had prepared for our meal but she ate what she could. She dealt with the diarrhea. She dealt with the pain. And each day, she became more and more determined to beat this disease.
She started chemotherapy the week after Thanksgiving. It was supposed to last for six months. It lasted for nine. Every two weeks she would go to the doctor to get her blood work done. In the beginning, everything went like clockwork. Blood count levels were normal and she would have her round of chemo. She would feel like crap for about a week afterwards. Then she would return to “normal” only to have to go back to the doctor to have her blood work checked for her next round. After about two months though, she started missing her treatments because her blood count was coming back abnormal. Each time she would go to the doctor she would wonder if her red blood count level be normal or abnormal? Would she be able to have chemo this week? When she didn’t, it was a blessing (No diarrhea this week!) and a curse (no treatment this time means chemo has been extended another session). The chemo was not only destroying those cancer cells, but it was also destroying all of her. Not good. First she could not eat and she lost a load of weight. Then the treatments started and she was eating again and she started to put on weight. The worst part of it all was that she was exhausted….all the time. She slept. A lot. She had a hard time caring for my niece who was just a year.
Before her treatments began, her doctor implanted a port into her chest for the medicine. She would go to the hospital for her treatments and then come home with the rest of the medicine in a little pouch and a tube that fed the medicine from the pouch into her chest. It was extremely uncomfortable. My nephew wanted to hug his mom but he had to be careful because of the port. And of course, Eleanor wanted to grab a hold of the tube. This meant that for three days, she could not pick up my niece. This also meant that she could not take a shower for two days. My parents spent a lot of time at her house caring for Eleanor while my sister slept. I picked Jack up from school a few times a week and stayed at the house with her until my brother-in-law came home. We all had our routine and our jobs. I remember the first day she came home with the medicine. My mom and dad and I were at her house when she and my brother-in-law returned home from the hospital. Charlotte sat down and showed us the port in her chest. My father just stared. Then I saw him ease back in his chair and start to wipe his eyes. He was trying not to break down in front of her. And he didn’t. He waited until he got to his house. And then he sobbed, my mother later told me. I think we all cried that day. Except for Charlotte. She did not cry. For the next nine months, I only remember her crying once to me. She was lying on her couch one afternoon after a treatment. I can’t remember what we were talking about but the next thing I knew, we were both crying. It was the first time I had cried in months. She was just so tired, so exhausted, she said. I told her it was okay to cry, that it was almost over. A few more sessions, I said and then she would be done. I had never seen my sister so vulnerable and so scared. All she wanted to feel was normal again….whatever normal was going to be for her now.
To look at my sister today, you would never know that she had been so sick for so long. She looks amazing. And I am not saying this because she is my sister. She recently went to her doctor for her first check up since her chemo ended and even though her blood count is still low, her doctor told her not to worry. Her body was still recovering from the treatments. He also told her that she belonged on a magazine cover because she looked so incredible for someone who had been diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer a year ago, had gone through surgery, gone through nine months of chemotherapy all the while still working, caring for a house, a husband and two children under the age of 4. I could not agree with him more. It says a lot about my sister. She doesn’t let anything break her. Not even cancer.
And she is back in the gym. Squatting, doing push ups, deadlifting. She has not missed a beat. In fact, she looks better now than she did before she got sick! (I have no idea how she managed to pull that off.) 🙂 Charlotte recently volunteered for the Ulman Cancer Fund Triathlon this past October and decided that next year, she was going to compete. We are already making plans for her to compete in the next Charm City Strongwoman Contest that will now be run in conjunction with the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation. Yes, my sister is strong. Strong in spirit. In health. In physical being. And we, my family, her friends, are all stronger for having gone through this with her.
So this Thanksgiving, when you are seated with your family and friends around the table, take a moment to really think about what it means to be thankful. We take so much for granted these days. Be thankful for what you have every day. Be thankful for the gifts that you have been giving, not the ones you think you should have been given. Be thankful every day for the people in your life who make you strong. Who remind you of how wonderful you are. Who love you and who will always love you. Who will always be there for you, when you need them and when you don’t. Who will remain strong for you when times are bad. Who will always let you know that everything will be okay even when you think the world is falling apart. Be thankful for them. And be thankful for YOU.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.