By Lisa Geichman Prosek
That’s how many brain tumors my brother says lie in our little sister’s head.
A tumor for each year Beth had lived when diagnosed with carcinoid cancer nine years ago, plus two tumors for good measure.
I can’t believe the words coming out of my cell phone as I pace in the hall at Antioch University Midwest on Saturday, ten minutes before I’m to teach Expository Writing.
Mike tells me Beth starts heavy doses of chemotherapy next week for the tumors in her liver, but that treatment can’t pass the blood-brain barrier. She’ll need heavy doses of radiation–as much as they can give without killing her–to destroy the brain tumors.
The odds aren’t good, but always-optimistic Beth remains hopeful.
I’m pessimistic, or maybe just a realist. The longer Mike talks the more afraid I grow that Beth won’t make it.
My mind races as we end the call. I can hardly breathe, and my cheeks radiate fire. Somehow I am now supposed to go into class and act like everything’s okay.
Expository Writing focuses on applying the various rhetorical modes in academic essays. Today the students and I discuss division or analysis, which involves taking an overarching idea, dividing it into parts, and analyzing them. Later this week, the students will write an essay exploring three aspects of their lives.
I have stood at the front of the classroom teaching this course during eleven previous quarters and know the material inside out. While my mouth goes on automatic all through this two-hour class, my brain focuses on Beth, then moves to how I would feel while watching her die a little more every day. I reflect on what I am and am not, on what I may need to become in the coming months. If I’m ready and capable to take on such a task. If I can keep my head together enough to continue to teach.
Taking an overarching idea, dividing it into parts, analyzing.
Over the years my students have helped me learn that teaching consists of leading, not preaching. It’s about making information available, then facilitating student learning by asking questions to help them discover what they know so they can come to their own conclusions. It’s about subverting my need to express myself and instead helping others by listening to them and attending to their needs.
But until hearing Mike’s voice this morning, I’d thought that teaching was about helping others live fuller, more enriched lives through critical thinking.
During today’s class I wonder if teaching might become targeted toward helping my sister ease into death with confidence and courage. It would require the same process: Asking the right questions when Beth was ready to understand and accept. How do you feel you’re getting along? What does the doctor say? You look a bit more tired today. Are you? And later: What do you need to accomplish so that you can die peacefully?
Just like in the classroom, I’d have to let student progress dictate the process. I’d need to watch, listen, and go methodically through each step.
But I don’t know as much about dying as I do about writing, and the prospect of having to learn about it terrifies me and makes my heart ache. Images of Beth as a baby invade my dreams each night.
The week after Thanksgiving Beth becomes unable to walk because new tumors invade her spine. I start driving from my home in Columbus to her house in West Carrollton twice weekly in addition to seeing her Saturdays after school. I bring Beth’s choice of lunch–Olive Garden, Wendy’s, KFC–but sometimes she just picks at the food. Still optimistic, Beth allows us to talk only of happy things, like how she’ll style her blonde hair when it grows back in. She treats the frequent visits of friends and family and the every-weekday trips to the hospital for treatment like an ongoing party. She insists she’s going to get well.
In mid January, when doctors tell Beth they have to stop her treatments because they’re ineffective and eroding what’s left of her body’s ability to function, and that there are no other treatments available, l gently begin my line of instructive questions. The hospice social worker and family members help.
Beth spends the third week in February in the hospice center to get transferred from morphine to methadone for pain management. She’s almost all skin and bones and has made enough progress that I can ask her what she needs to do to be ready to die. She’s prepared for this step. With only a thoughtful pause, no stammering or tears, she answers, and we start working on those goals.
I fill an iPod shuffle with dreamy spa music in early March to help Beth have something to focus on as she drifts more often into deeper sleep.
Finally, when I visit her on Saint Patrick’s Day, a teaching Saturday, when my fingernails are painted Irish green, Beth raises her bony hand and motions me over to the hospital bed that has re-placed her living room sofa. Her golden brown eyes look straight into my dark browns. She takes my hands in hers and says, “I’m ready to go.”
I lean over the bedrail, kiss Beth’s forehead, and understand that my student’s work is almost done.