37: Not My Time to Go

37: Not My Time to Go

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

Not My Time to Go

The heart of human excellence often begins to beat when you discover a pursuit that absorbs you, frees you, challenges you, or gives you a sense of meaning, joy, or passion.

~Terry Orlick

I had not prepared myself for this news. “Unfortunately, you have breast cancer.” Those words cut like a knife through the uneasy silence after I answered the phone.

I was still grieving the loss of my vivacious forty-six-year-old mother-in-law, Miss Linda, who, after a well-fought battle, passed away of the dreaded disease a year earlier. I didn’t know much about breast cancer when Miss Linda told me of her diagnosis in 2003, one year after I married her only son. I remember going into research mode, the left side of my accountant brain hard at work. I discovered that the stage and size of the tumor determined survival, and when Miss Linda told me they had found it early enough to treat it, I stopped worrying. Chemotherapy after the surgery, she assured me, was more precaution than anything.

So, when her sister called me on a cold dreary winter day in January 2004, shortly after my husband Nate and I had celebrated and prayed in the New Year, I was confused by the tone of the conversation. “They rushed Linda to the hospital this morning because she was having trouble breathing. The doctor says there is fluid in her lungs.” I ended the conversation quickly and called the hospital because it sounded like pneumonia to me, which, though serious, was not necessarily life-threatening. The nurse at the hospital desk patched me through to Miss Linda’s room. Still somewhat out of breath, she said, “They are saying there is fluid on my lungs, and they think it’s cancerous.”

Later, I would learn that Miss Linda was actually diagnosed with advanced, terminal Stage 4 cancer after her first visit to the oncologist. It meant the cancer had metastasized and spread to her lungs. All of the surgery, chemotherapy, and drugs prescribed by Miss Linda’s oncologist were done in hopes of extending her life because she would never be cured.

After this return trip to the hospital, my mother-in-law was advised to get her affairs in order. We were told she had ninety days to live. Miss Linda lived only half of that time. She had just gotten married months earlier and didn’t even live to celebrate her first wedding anniversary. She didn’t get to see her youngest daughter graduate high school, and she didn’t live to meet her last three grandchildren. She made me promise that I would make sure her youngest daughter graduated from high school and went to college.

Now, here I was on an unusually warm day in May with the same diagnosis Miss Linda had received. Everything said by my surgeon after the words “breast cancer” was a blur. I heard “surgery,” “mastectomy,” “radiation,” “staging,” “chemotherapy,” and “tumor size,” but couldn’t connect any of it. I had to call back with a friend after I had calmed down so I could figure out my next steps. I also had the difficult task of telling Nate, who was still grieving the loss of his beautiful, young mother to breast cancer. And I had to tell him the day before our third wedding anniversary.

I’m not going to lie. I thought death was certain. I only had Miss Linda’s battle with breast cancer as a reference point, and it didn’t look good for me. The surgeon told me that there was no way to determine how advanced the cancer was, but based on what he saw from the biopsy, it appeared to be small and at an early stage. But he still could not give me any assurances until the surgery, so I was not convinced I’d survive. Miss Linda appeared to be cured and thriving after her surgery, and then a year later, she was gone.

I told my husband about the diagnosis that night and then reassured him that I would be fine. After he fell asleep, I lay awake in the dark, wondering if I truly would be okay. After what felt like an eternity, I finally drifted off into much-needed slumber. And then Miss Linda came to me in a dream.

Dressed in all white, Sunday Best finery, Miss Linda appeared with a woman from my childhood, Miss Bea, who had passed on some time before. Miss Linda sat down in a rocking chair on her mother’s porch. Her mother’s house was always the gathering spot after church most Sundays for family fun and delicious Southern comfort food that one could smell miles away. I sat at Miss Linda’s feet and did not move. I hung on her every word, delighted she was there. Nonstop laughter permeated the balmy spring air until dusk started to fall rapidly.

Miss Linda abruptly announced that it was time for her and Miss Bea to go. I started bawling and begged her to let me go with them, but she refused. After my incessant begging, Miss Linda finally relented, but it was clear from her body language she wasn’t happy about me accompanying them on their trip home.

I told her I couldn’t go dressed in what I had on and needed to go change into my “white” clothing because they were dressed in theirs. I made her promise not to leave me, but when I returned in my beautiful white gown, I saw Miss Bea and Miss Linda drifting away in the distance, the setting sun outlining Miss Linda’s frame in a ray of perfect light. I started screaming in the dream, and real tears woke me up.

My chest was tight, and my eyes were wet, but I knew what that dream meant. It wasn’t my time to go.

Blessedly, I survived breast cancer — not just once, but twice. I took the spirit of my mother-in-law with me through my countless treatments (radiation, chemotherapy) and my surgeries (lumpectomies, full mastectomy, reconstruction, reconstruction complications and reconstruction again). I became a breast cancer advocate and spokesperson, volunteering with Susan G. Komen. I became the face of the Race for the Cure in 2013. I also became a board member and later president of the Bridge Breast Network, an agency that provides free, life-saving medical care to uninsured and underinsured women diagnosed with breast cancer. And I started my own nonprofit called Sock It to Cancer, which provides comfort items (socks, blankets, house shoes and pillows) to women in active treatment for breast cancer.

My long-term plan for my nonprofit is to honor Miss Linda by providing scholarships to college-bound students who have lost their mothers to breast cancer. I know she would be proud that in my personal pain I found my purpose. Every time I share her story or honor her in some way, her legacy lives on. And I thank her for coming to me in that dream and reassuring me that it wasn’t my time to go.

~Sheila Taylor-Clark

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