My Sister Was a Badass

See all the pictures HERE
I picked Mindy up from her house on a Tuesday morning.

The night before I had traveled down to do some work in the backyard for mom - building planter beds and hauling in garden soil.

I wanted to bring Mindy down to visit with the girls. I wanted her to get a change of scenery for a few days and to spend as much time with her as I could.

That Monday Mindy and Eric had gone down to Portland to talk with her doctor and to ask what was next.

"I asked him if he was trying to tell us that we were running out of options," Mindy told me after we had started down the gorge toward my house. "He said we'd run out of options awhile ago."

In other words, when the latest medication she was on stopped working, the only course of action left would be hospice.

Hospice is a different kind of medical care from chemotherapy. In many ways hospice is a reaction to our modern medical system's focus on attacking a disease regardless of the pain and suffering the body in which it resides.

Traditional chemotherapy is a prime example of torture for your own good. The side effects are legion as we attempt to kill off the very last cancer cell, while leaving the patient alive. Advances have been made in recent years. New cancer drugs are targeted and much better tolerated. There are pills rather than infusions and medications much better suited to treating and preventing many of the side effects.

That said, most cancer treatments can leave you miserable, exhausted and depressed. It takes a strong person to get through a year of it.

Off and on, Mindy had been through four years. A roller coaster of good days and bad. When she was first diagnosed, she had been given just 6 months to live. Four years later her doctors were done pulling rabbits out of their hats.

Modern hospice care originated with British Registered Nurse Cicely Saunders, who created a philosophy of medicine which focused on the patient's needs rather than the disease. The goals are directed at the physical comfort and spiritual needs of the patient and the patient's family during the last days of life. It is the course of care when curing the disease is no longer an option or a choice.

Simply put hospice seeks to keep the patient comfortable and see to their needs rather than make them well. Comfort, quality of life and living fully until the end are the goals.

It is difficult in our culture to talk about death and dying, let alone enter into a system where dying is the end result -- even if the goal is to make that transition as easy and life affirming as possible. It is a hard conversation to have. Battling through chemotherapy and its side effects is all about fighting. After years of it, it is hard to change our thinking. It feels like giving up, like quitting.

It is not.

Mindy and I talked about these things on our drive through the Columbia Gorge. By the time we reached  Stevenson, she changed the subject.

"Did you know they have zip lines now at Skamania Lodge?" she asked.
"We have them down on the coast, near Astoria, too," I said.
"I want to do that," she said. "Do you?"

After that, the plan was set. I called just after we got to my house and set up a tour for Friday morning. Meanwhile, we took a motorcycle ride around the valley -- with her oxygen tank strapped to luggage rack of my bike. We visited Mary and said hi to the donkeys. We sat and watched the storms blow across the fields. The girls made her giggle and cuddled with her while we watched Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Despicable Me. We ate at a Bosnian restaurant, enjoyed the strange food and laughed at the ranting waiter.
Mindy's 02 bottle was in the black bag on the back. 

We both grew nervous as the day approached. I was worried about her. I called High Life Adventures to make sure they could have a cart to take her from one place to another so she wouldn't have to walk, and that it would be okay for her to ride the zipline with her oxygen tank. We watched the wind blow and the rain fall and wondered if they wouldn't cancel our tour.

We got up early and dressed in rain gear and warm clothes. We were just two out of a group of 12 people on the tour that morning. The rain stopped just as we started.

The first run is easy - close to the ground and you can see the end. The next one is higher. After a few shorter runs, you climb a tower and open a gate high above a lake and step off -- riding a line that travels hundreds of feet over water and through trees. You cannot see the end, which somehow makes it scarier.

One of the women we were on the tour with was afraid of heights. Mindy -- always taking care of other people -- reassured and encouraged her.

The woman was there with her two teenage daughters. She told Mindy that she used to be more adventurous. Then a few years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She survived and was cancer free, now, but had been more timid ever since.

Mindy understood.

 "You had to face up to what you might loose," Mindy told the woman. "Now you worry about losing all those things if anything goes wrong. You know what's at stake."

"I worry all the time," the woman said. "I never used to be like that."

"I'm terminal," Mindy said with smile and a little laugh. "I have nothing to lose."

As the woman stepped through the gate and zipped off across the lake, one of her daughters said in a tone of admiration: "my mom is such a badass."

In the four years since her diagnosis, Mindy got to do a lot of things. She saw her eldest son get married, her youngest son graduate and do well in college and a new job. She saw her middle son enter the Army and thrive. She flew across the country to watch him graduate from basic training. She swam with dolphins. She always worried about her boys, but she lived to see them grow in the world.

And when she couldn't travel anymore, there came a parade of family and friends and wishes from all the lives she touched, for she was a light in every room. She was a gift in every life she encountered.

By the end of the Zipline tour she was tired and her second 02 bottle was almost empty, but her eyes were bright and she smiled and giggled as we stepped off the top of the highest tower and raced 1200 feet across the lake.

My big sister was such a badass.


More photos from our adventure online here

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