Bravery and Sadness
Warning: this may be tough to read. It was wrenching, but somehow necessary, to write.
I didn’t want to write about my Aunt Dot’s battle with cancer, but I’ve realized I can’t do her story justice without it. In 1948, at age 48, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In those days you did not say the word cancer but merely whispered “C,” if you talked about it at all. She underwent a radical mastectomy which involved removing not just the breast but the underlying chest muscle and lymph nodes. It has been described as a “morbid and disfiguring” surgery. In 1948 there were no support groups, no physical therapy. At first Dot could not lift her arm, but she would bend her head down and put in pin curls, gradually, day by day , raising head until she could reach her hair without bending down. Two years later she a second radical mastectomy when she developed a different strain of cancer in the other breast. A hysterectomy and radiation treatments of the chest area soon followed . The radiation weakened her ribs, causing breakage, and it also burned her, resulting in a skin graft. In the following years, she would sometimes have a respite and then a flare and receive different kinds of oral chemotherapy. She always seemed to stay just one step ahead of the dreaded disease. However, she finally died in 1962, at age 62. Again, I had no appreciation of how young this was, being only 24 myself.
But the important thing about this story is that I never once heard her complain. All those years, she got out of bed each morning, put on make-up and dressed very stylishly, always with a smile. In the middle of those years, she lost her husband (my Uncle Sam) to multiple myeloma. She moved in with my family, and although she hadn’t driven in many years, she had kept her license up-to-date and took over Sam’s job as the family chauffeur, driving as far as New Jersey and once even North Carolina. She loved to go out to eat and would often take my mother, me, or one of the neighbors for a ride and lunch. She urged my mother to become active, along with her, in a women’s group in my church and in the Rainbow Girls’ Mothers Club. This was interesting because until then my mother had been a semi-invalid, rarely leaving the house.
Dot began selling sterling silver flatware for a company called ” State House Sterling.” This company operated by means of referral from satisfied customers and the salesperson called on the prospective customer, often a newly engaged girl, in their home. With this company, if a buyer recommend someone who made a purchase, the original buyer would receive a place setting of the pattern she was collecting. Dot did very well with it, often earning a bonus for high sales. Later she even tried her hand at real estate in which she also did well.
Dot’s most fervent wish was, as she put it, “to die with my boots on.” And she almost made it, but not quite. The last two and a half of her life were marked not as much by illness as by repeated loss. I graduated from college and got married the same week, moving to Rochester, New York at the end of the summer as my husband was to enter seminary , and I was to teach second grade. My mother’s own three-year battle with cancer ended two weeks after I moved, and she had been dead less than two years when my father died suddenly. Dot weakened visibly and rapidly from that day, and the doctor advised that she not live alone. I sold the Medford house and just about everything in it, and in the last six weeks of her life Dot came to live with me in Rochester. Oh, how she hated to give up her beloved Oldsmobile! She was very weak but still got up each day, got dressed, combed her hair , put on makeup, and sat in the chair in the living room until the very last week when she had to be hospitalized.
I said Dot never complained, but… My first child was just nine months old, and we would sit and watch him as he crawled, tried to walk, and played with his toys. Oddly, he would pick up each toy and bring it to Dot and place it in her lap, sometimes naming the toy. In those last days, Dot would say to me, “Why can’t I live to see him grow up?” “I just don’t know,” I would reply, and we would both cry.
© Dorothy C. Judd
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