Readers with long memories, or those who are prone to getting utterly useless information stuck in their heads, might recall a column last February marking my first work anniversary at the Pahrump Valley Times. At the time, I said I don’t ordinarily get personal in this space and that I wasn’t likely to do it again until my fifth work anniversary, should that come to pass.
Life has a way of throwing curves at you, especially when the catcher signals for a fastball. And sports often offers us a chance to put life aside for a while, to push bad things into a corner of our minds and focus on something that, in the grand scheme of things, often doesn’t mean much.
And sometimes having this space gives me a platform that I will take now and then, just because I feel like it. This is one of those times.
My sister died Monday morning, and I don’t think I’m feeling it as much as I should.
Donna was 47, the youngest of the four of us. As much as no parent should ever have to bury a child, for my mom, now 78, burying her youngest is especially unfair. Maybe that’s why Donna made it very clear she wanted to be cremated, a first in our family.
Actually, she made that clear at the time of my father’s death back in 2000. When she walked into the funeral home, she held it together pretty well, but at some point that day she said to my mom, “They are not putting me in a box.” Donna was claustrophobic, and apparently she believed death would not cure that.
No, I don’t get it either. Then again, not one of us doesn’t believe she won’t be haunting people by New Year’s.
The most likely victim of the haunting will be Perry, her second husband and the father of her child, my amazing nephew, Anthony. Anthony, who just turned 12, takes after his mother and plays sports. Lots of them.
He has played football, soccer and basketball; he has taken some form of martial arts (I forget which, and that is not something I am going to call and ask about, not this week); and he loves to ski. But his favorite is baseball, which makes sense, as his mom was a pretty fair softball player in high school and at the local community college. My job at the time sometimes sent me to cover her games, and in her senior year they were pretty good.
But Anthony already has taken athleticism to a higher level than she did. He recently tried out for the N.J. Axemen, a club baseball operation that had 29 players competing for four open spots on the 12U team. Anthony went home from the tryout disappointed in how he hit, but I guess the fact he struck out 16 of 20 batters while pitching made a more lasting impression. He made the team.
And he’ll need that right now, something on which he can focus his energies. I couldn’t imagine losing my mother at 12.
It was Perry’s sister who set up a GoFundMe page to help with their medical expenses. This is part of what she wrote — word for word — when she asked friends and family to help:
My name is Nicole, my brother Perry’s wife, Donna, is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met. I’m raising funds to help my sister-in-law Donna and her family through their difficult time as she continues in her fight against cancer.
This cause means so much to me because not only is Donna my sister-in-law, but also she is a light for so many others. She worked with adolescents with disabilities, and has helped so many. It is time we come together to offer her and her family help and support in return.
The past few years have not been easy for Donna and her family, with multiple surgeries, hospital visits, doctor appointments and endless treatments, which has left their family physically and emotionally exhausted. Between all these complications, Donna’s focus was never on herself, always caring for others including her son, Anthony. It has been extremely important for her supporting him at all his school and sporting events and never putting the focus on her.
I’m having a hard time with the “light for so many others” part — has that much changed since we moved out here more than seven years ago? — and her focus not being on herself was new since Anthony was born. I honestly thought she was far too selfish to be a good parent, but, like some other people I’ve known, having a kid changed something in her. (That does not always happen.) She was crazy about that kid from the beginning, and she was a great mom.
And she wasn’t a pushover. Anthony learned how to behave, how to be respectful of others and probably a lot of colorful language. He doesn’t love school, but so far he has been a very good student. More important than any of that, he’s the kind of kid that other parents love, and his friends’ parents — the moms were Donna’s closest friends and most consistent visitors — will play a huge role in Anthony’s life going forward.
My heart absolutely breaks for my mom, as it does for my nephew. But somehow I’m not feeling personally all that sad. Donna and I had not spoken in years, not even an email for the past three — her fault, totally her fault — until last month, when I flew home knowing that she didn’t have too much time left.
The first day of my visit was spent at my mom’s house, where my other sister, Jean, came over. My niece, Jessica, was in a middle school musical that night. It was too great of a coincidence, so of course I said I’d go. Jean had described the show, “Dear Edwina Jr.” as “kids play forks and napkins, and then there are pigs.” I was not excited. But I went, and it turned out to be a decent show by middle school standards, a series of skits bound together by a theme of giving advice, and each skit was an individual performance with no ties to any other skit.
In other words, you didn’t see a human fork on page for an hour or anything. Then again, my sister would describe “Casablanca” as “a black-and-white film with a lot of Germans in it.”
The second day of my visit, again by coincidence, was the day Donna moved into a hospice, something she had refused to do just a week earlier. Far more comfortable than the hospital, more appropriate than staying at home, Villa Marie Claire became home for the last 23 days of her life. And that was where I saw Donna for the last time.
The place is beautiful, but beautiful like a convent, so it’s kind of creepy. And it’s very, very Catholic. But a private room in a quiet hospice set on 26 acres beats a noisy hospital room any day. At least she was in peace toward the end.
When I saw her, she was still herself, joking about Jean and Mom, asking about my job (don’t worry, I lied) and talking about Anthony’s new baseball team. Her voice was weak and she moved very deliberately, and her hair looked like she hadn’t seen a brush since it grew back after she stopped chemo, but she was still Donna.
My mom, who no longer drives because of a bad leg, was brought up to see her a week ago Sunday and reported that she was still herself after two weeks in hospice. The next day, she called Donna and got, “How ya doing, Peaches?” as a hello. Still herself.
The next day she started hemorrhaging badly, and they didn’t think she would make it past noon. Typically, Donna, who wasn’t supposed to make it to autumn, was still alive if not kicking for several more days before the end came.
I know Anthony will have tough days, but I also know that for the immediate present he’ll do OK. Thursday morning he found his dad sitting on a bed crying. The 12-year-old went over to him, sat down, put his arm around him, and said something along the lines of, “Don’t worry Dad. You and Mom prepared me very well for this, and she made sure we knew what we had to do now. We’ll be OK.”
Yep, that’s Donna’s kid all right. Oh yeah, then he said, “I have to get dressed.” His dad said he didn’t have to go to school Thursday or today if he wasn’t feeling up to it, but Anthony said, “I have a math test, and I don’t like making up tests. I’m going to school. And don’t forget I have hitting practice tonight.”
While Anthony has things to do, at the worst possible time, there is very little on my schedule. The girls basketball team plays Friday, but that’s a nonleague game against Needles. They will play next after Christmas, the boys don’t play until after New Year’s, and the wrestling team is quiet until mid-January.
When my dad died, I was the assistant sports editor of a Gannett newspaper that covered parts of four counties near where I grew up in New Jersey. Aside from missing the daily news meetings — there were things to do and arrangements to be made — I didn’t miss any work. Only two people in the office, the managing editor and the person who answered the phone when I called the managing editor, knew my dad had died. I was able to work and work and work, totally focused on getting everything done and not on what my family was going through.
But now? Between having spent the past several years 2,527 miles from her and spending the past three years not even emailing, I figured her death, especially since we knew it was coming for so long, might not affect me too greatly. But I feel so little, except when I think about my mom or Anthony.
But instead of a steady diet of basketball games and wrestling matches to go to, and the stories to write afterward, I don’t have much to do because of the holidays. Thankfully, things I could have written in advance for the holiday weeks still need to be written, but that’s about it. So I get to sit around and, if not grieve, think about why I’m not grieving enough and about what kind of person that makes me.
I can’t wait until Dec. 27, when the Trojans girls basketball team opens play in the Gator Winter Classic, and Jan. 2, when the boys start a tournament at Mountain View Christian, and all will be right with the world.
Except it won’t be.