Truest Life… Epilogue

Martha (left) and Jan clown in the kitchen, 1982

The purpose of this post is to thank everyone for the kind, sympathetic and supportive comments I received on Truest Life, published March 15. As my thank-you gift to you, I thought I’d share how the piece came to be, and interpret where it might be a little ambiguous.

I had known since November that my sister’s cancer had spread, but she had not uttered the word “terminal.” The fact was there, behind her matter-of-fact reports of scan results and symptoms. Though it pushed itself at me, somehow my mind deflected the word, refusing to allow it to stick. After all, in many ways Martha seemed unchanged. We still laughed about the latest family happenings and sympathized with each other’s concerns. Admittedly, she did sound sort of tired, and she often had trouble thinking of the words she wanted to use. That was from the lesions on her brain stem, she said. The cancer also caused occasional panic attacks and confusion.

Still I could not accept the idea that she would not overcome this illness as she had overcome so many challenges in life. That simply could not be.

Oh, but it could. Early in March, my niece called to let me know that her mom was in the hospital. She had been admitted with panic attacks, and had decided to discontinue chemotherapy and go into a hospice. I spoke with Martha by phone the next day, and she was as calm as ever. She said she didn’t feel up to seeing our other family members, and gave me messages for them. We cried on the phone and poured love into each other’s hearts.

I went to see her a couple of days after she was settled in the hospice, and felt shocked at her decline. She moved and spoke in slow motion, and did not seem to focus on anything. Her last ten days or so found her increasingly withdrawn and confused, finally just sleeping nearly all the time. I went to sit with her, wishing I could tell her all about my latest work or run some ideas by her. A writer herself, she had always been my best supporter. I felt disappointed, almost hurt, that she was no longer able to care or respond.

One day as I sat with Martha, I thought about that detachment, common with a terminal illness but in her case magnified by the cancer attacking her brain. As she faced the hugeness of eternity, it was only natural for the most legitimate concerns of her earthly life — her work, the plans we had made together, daily routines, even our relationships with other people and her illness itself — to fade into insignificance. I tried to create a picture of our different viewpoints as the things I still cared most about simply stopped registering with her.

Physically, she was sinking into oblivion. But I knew that, in another dimension, her spirit would continue to live. The analogy of one child, outgrowing childhood before her friends do, seemed the best way for me to express the transition from both our perspectives.

Several of you commented that the post was “beautiful,” and I deeply appreciate that. But the darker side — the pain and struggle my sister went through, and our own struggle to deal with her cancer and the coming separation — nothing can make that beautiful. So I just left it out. I did not intend to romanticize terminal illness, just to isolate and preserve the concept that the person who dies will go on to live apart from us. It is the logical next step after his or her time on earth is done. And for the believer in Jesus, that life will be full of beauty, joy and adventure that we cannot imagine from this side. And I will one day join her again.

Cancer is ugly, but my sister was beautiful.

Just being around her was beautiful.

Thanks for reading, but above all, thanks for caring.

PS: Today I am linking up with my Soli Deo Gloria sisters. I so appreciate their coming alongside me with comfort and understanding.

About Jan C. Johnson

Welcome! If you like food, reading, laughing over life's little disasters, and maybe thinking about the bigger things of life, you have come to the right place. Besides blogging, I write humorous fiction, though real life tends to leave fictional humor in the shade. But I'm not a total goofball. No, really. I'm also working on a biography project. I live in North Texas with my husband, Brent. We enjoy bicycling, Mexican food, and traveling to visit our kids and grandkids.
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16 Responses to Truest Life… Epilogue

  1. Jerusha says:

    Jan, your writing strikes such a harmonious chord for me each time I read it. You know, my mother died of lung cancer six years ago and I sat with her in her last days at the hospital, not knowing what she was aware of there in the room or whether there was anything I could do. There was not–except to be there. I sat with her and told her all the things I wished I had told her before the coma, but didn’t know whether she heard me. I wonder to this day and just have to hope that she did. So, be glad that you and Martha shared feelings early on and that she knew–before she began to fade away.


    • Jan says:

      Jerusha, the doctor told my niece that Martha could probably hear and recognize our voices. Even if she didn’t understand what we were saying, he thought she would find it soothing. Your mom could probably hear and understand. The important thing is that you spoke to her.
      We always think we’ll have more time, don’t we?
      Love you, Cuz.


  2. Jen says:

    Nothing can make this separation beautiful — I feel the same way about my grandmother. I continually find myself asking God to let me dream about her, so that perhaps this angst of separation could be calmed for a few moments, even in another world.

    Thank you for being so honest and real. I hope you are linking up this post tomorrow for SDG — many would love to read it, sweet one.


  3. Jan, Thank you for sharing the details of the post truest life and grief anticipated. I know that it is not easy. Last May, I was by the side of my brother in law along with my two sisters when he breathed his last breath due to the cancer in his body. It is hard to put into the words all that is felt. While I have written little about that time in the public forum out of…unsurety…difficulty of reconciling all that has occured, I am ministered to by those who have put some of the words down. Not all….but some of the words…. I wanted you to know that your words have ministered. Thank you.


    • Jan says:

      Kathleen, nothing could possibly honor me more than to hear that my words have ministered to someone, especially a sister like you. Thank you for taking the time to share with me.


  4. Tiffini says:

    thank you for sharing your “real” heart. Good friends of mine just received news their 9 year old daughter has osteosarcoma cancer. She begins Chemo tomorrow. I like what you say..that cancer is ugly but your sister is beautiful. I understand that a little more now.
    I keep thinking about this sweet family…and cancer is not a choice…it comes. grateful for the SDG girls and how they do stand around us in prayer. cancer can never take away the beauty of a heart and the memories it made…grateful that we don’t have to grieve as those who have no hope yes…praying His comfort wrapping tight around you…xo


  5. Christy says:

    I am so sorry for the loss of your sister Jan. Watching a person you love so very much slip away but their body is still here…. no matter how long years, weeks, days… it hurts so very much. May you feel His love surrounding you in the coming days and months as your grieve the loss of your beautiful sister.


    • Jan says:

      Thank you, Christy, for your understanding comment. And I love your blog post today — SO true that love is bigger than our feelings for shoes, even our favorites!


  6. Rachel says:

    Thank you for being brave enough to share this epilogue, I can’t fathom losing one of my sisters. Praying for you, dear one


  7. Pamela says:

    I cared for my mother-in-law through her cancer. Hard stuff of life. I do understand your focus on the good part. Mary, Jesus’ mother, did the same. We read that she “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” I believe she focused on the shepherds visit, the precious child, gifts from the wisemen. The “hard stuff” of traveling while 9 months pregnant, giving birth in a stable, being criticized for becoming pregnant was pusheed aside to allow for the joy of the other.

    You express yourself so honestly and beautifully.



    • Jan says:

      Pamela, your perspective about Mary, and taking time to comment, are a blessing to me.
      (By the way, I LOVE the quote by Barnhouse on your post of yesterday!)


  8. Randy Beckham says:

    Nick and Nora Charles are a married couple who solved murder mysteries while exchanging sharp and smart repartee. When I first met Martha as a struggling actress 30 years ago, we developed a bond very quickly based on our mutual love of the English language and writing that language in new and inventive ways. In phone calls, letters and finally emails, we always greeted each other with one word, much like the multiple uses of the phrase “Dude”, a single word that spoke volumes, a word that indicated our mental state and simultaneously, our love for one another as friends. Darling!


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