I knew Nancy long before she became NanCy.
My sister lived 39 years before she was diagnosed with the big “C”, and believe me, she did a whole lot of living and loving in that time.
It wasn’t until the last 15 years that NanCy was forced to punch and kick her way through round after round with an insidious disease that seems hellbent on destroying my family. And she did it all with a smile, as if chemotherapy and radiation were somehow a trip to the zoo.
You could say the big “C” brought out the best in her.
I say her best was always there. Cancer made her best impossible to ignore.
Nancy’s smile, her joyful spirit, her warrior attitude existed way before cancer arrived. You think she fought the good fight with that vile disease? Imagine her battles as the only girl in a family of three sons. Childhood left her with a few scars courtesy of her antagonistic brothers (the worst of them inflicted by her oldest brother) and deep pockets filled with forgiveness. She never stopped smiling. She never stopped loving us. Nancy continued to show us her best even when her three restless siblings were at their worst. She emerged prepared to confront the darkest days the world had to offer.
The world responded with cancer.
The big “C” infested her body, but never her spirit. Her doctors poked, jabbed, pumped poison into her bloodstream, zapped her with radiation, gave her hope, told her there was no hope, took her hair, and kicked her when she was down. Look at the pictures. There’s one of NanCy with a needle in her vein, a long strand of plastic tubing attached to a chemo bag that’s hanging from a tall cold rod, and my sister beaming beneath her bald head like she’s about to blow out the candles on a birthday cake.
I ask you, how do you ignore the spirit of a rail-thin woman with a Kojac scalp and Cheshire cat grin as she dances like it’s 1999 at my daughter’s wedding?
Cancer didn’t define her. Even without the big “C”, Nancy would endure the tough times without complaint. At her memorial service, three different people called her their best friend. They weren’t drawn to my sister by her shiny scalp and her frequent trips to the doctor. They loved her, we all loved her, because she knew how to care and she knew how to laugh like no one else. The fact that she cared for others and laughed with others despite cancer…who doesn’t want a best friend like that?
My brain and heart were a jumble as we spoke about my little sister on a rainy Friday at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Titusville, Florida. I failed to make a point that I’ll make now. My favorite Bible verse comes from Philippians and reads, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourself.” My sister embodied this passage. She did nothing, ever, to advance her own self-interests. Instead, she humbly opened her door to others who needed a place to call home. Her house was a haven for relatives needing a place to lay their heads, or friends looking for companionship. Rarely was I the only visitor when I spent the night at her home. Her walls were constantly bursting with people from other families who quickly claimed Nancy as their own. This past week, as we embraced in grief, a friend of Nancy’s daughters called me “Uncle Jerry”. Nancy’s family was ever expanding. She was a mother to all, cancer or no cancer.
We were supposed to lose her in January according to one doctor, so when NanCy continued fighting into February and beyond, we assumed God had granted us the ultimate miracle. June brought issues that were all new to this fifteen-year war, and the miracle turned into despair. During a short hike along the Appalachian Trail, I texted my sister with a revelation. I’m going to walk 130 miles of the trail in honor of her and the father we lost to cancer just six years ago. Their ages added together equals 130. I’m going to spend my time in nature praying, reading my Bible, and reflecting on cancer’s impact on my family. I’m going to write a book about my experiences.
“You’re a nut.”
And then, while flat on her back with very little fight left in her, she wrote…
“Maybe I’ll go with you.”
She will. It won’t be as she planned, but she’ll be there every step.
There is a giant hole in my heart. Sometimes it’s filled with tears that unexpectedly come gushing out of me. Gone is the sister who kept me laughing as we traded stupid movie quotes with one another. Gone is the friend who followed me from Gainesville, Florida, to the University of Georgia, who spent many an hour with me cheering and bemoaning the ups and downs of our beloved Bulldogs. But I know Nancy isn’t truly gone. She is now the joyful spirit who left a body that failed her, one so racked with cancer it wasn’t worth keeping. Her pain is gone. Cancer can’t touch her. That’s why the hole in my heart is often filled with peace.
During her final days, a chaplain visited to talk about faith. NanCy knew the score. But her fighting spirit was still very much alive.
“The doctors don’t know when I’m going to die,” she announced. “Only God knows that.”
My sister fought the good fight. She finished the race.
She kept the faith.
The big “C” in NanCy stands for many things. Christlike. Compassionate. Comfortable.
It never defined her. It never damaged her spirit.
NanCy turned cancer into a little “c”.
Disease and despair have lost their grip.
Nancy is soaring.