cancer

My Aunt Ruth Wolfe was the youngest of the four children of my grandparents, Allen and Anna Spencer. She was born on November 9, 1925 in Duluth, Minnesota. Strange to think that 31 years later, she would get a niece…me, who would be so much like her…in some ways that is. My Aunt Ruth was a very talented woman. She could play any instrument that was set before her, she could paint and do crafts, she loved horses and even raced them, and of course, she was an animal lover…all animals.

Aunt Ruth was never really one to want to settle in one place for very long…until she and Uncle Jim moved to the Spokane area, that is. Once they bought their mountain top outside of Newport, Washington, she knew she was home. The family built three cabins on the mountain top, one for Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim; one for their daughter Shirley Cameron and her husband Shorty; and one for their son, Terry Wolfe. The beauty of the mountain lulled them into a quiet, peaceful life, far away from the hustle and bustle of the California area they had left behind after losing their son, Larry Wolfe to an accidental explosion. Nothing would bring him back, of course, but the peace of the mountain top helped to heal their wounded hearts.

Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim, while very much at home on their mountain top, never lost their love of the open road, and often took trips to several location, including Casper, Wyoming to visit my family, her brother, Allen Spencer; sister-in-law, Collene; and daughters, Cheryl Masterson, Caryn Schulenberg, Caryl Reed, Alena Stevens, and Allyn Hadlock. We loved those visits. Aunt Ruth and Uncle Jim were always lots of fun, and having them in town again was a great treat. They had lived in the Casper area years before, and we were all very sad to see them move away. Those wonderful visits were cut short when Aunt Ruth became ill, and she passed away on May 11, 1992 of Cancer. Today would have been Aunt Ruth’s 94th birthday. Happy birthday in Heaven Aunt Ruth, I know you’re having a great celebration with all the loved ones who have now joined you there. We love and miss you very much.

Sweet MarlyceMarlyce holding BarryAfter 27 years, one might think that I would be used to the fact that my sister-in-law, Marlyce Schulenberg is no longer with us, but somehow, I’m not. Oh, I suppose that most of the time my mind has accepted that fact, but…well, Marlyce was such a unique person. She was special in every way. She had a heart of gold, and she loved everyone. That didn’t mean that she didn’t have a temper at all, but then, I think that when she got mad…at least at her siblings, it was because they teased her…or picked a fight with her. I suppose it was a kid thing or a sibling thing, but whatever it was, it drove Marlyce crazy sometimes. And every time Marlyce got mad at her siblings, they were moved to try it again. I suppose that’s just how kids are.

Marlyce’s life was cut short at the tender age of just 39 years, when cancer took her life away from her. Gone were that precious moments we all had with my sweet sister-in-law. It was so hard to believe. She was only 39 years old, younger than my own children are now, and yet she was gone. No more of her smiling face telling me that she had made my favorite chocolate chip cookies, or showing me the latest things she had knitted. Her giggle was now silent. That was 27 years ago, and yet, I can still hear her voice…filled with excitement about those cookies, and I can still hear her annoyed voice telling her littlest brother, Ron to stop picking on her.

It’s strange that the voices of the past still exist in our minds to the degree that it almost seems like we are still Beautiful MarlyceAmy with Marlycehearing them out loud. Harder for me to believe than the fact that Marlyce has been gone for 27 years, is the fact that she would have been 66 years old today. She was the oldest child, and with her passing there was a hole left in our lives. Because Marlyce was a special needs child, my in-laws were always concerned about what would happen to her if they passed away. Of course, we would have take care of her, but they needn’t have worried, because she preceded both of them. Today would have been Marlyce’s 66th birthday. Happy birthday in Heaven Marlyce. We love and miss you very much.

Sweet MarlyceMy sister-in-law, Marlyce Schulenberg was developmentally disabled. In many ways that made her always seem younger than her years. In reality, she probably never aged past her teen years, mentally. Still, Marlyce could do some things that adults do, such as cooking and working. In those ways she was much like any grown up person her age.

Marlyce lived with her parents, my in-laws, Walt and Joann Schulenberg, all her life, but she was a part of a school in Casper at that time, that trained developmentally disabled people to be productive members of society, and then worked to place them in jobs. Marlyce loved her job, and enjoyed going to work every day. It made her feel good about herself, and it made her feel like she was a grownup, like everyone else around her. Marlyce just wanted to belong in the adult world. Something most of us can understand.Beautiful Marlyce

Before Marlyce was forty, she contracted Cancer, and at the young age of just thirty nine years, she lost her life in that battle. It was a devastating loss to all of us, her family, and to all who knew her. Nevertheless, time marches on, and while we will always miss her sweet smiling face, the hats she knitted, and the wonderful chocolate chip cookies she made, we will miss her more than any of those things. Marlyce was the sweetest sister-in-law in the world. She was kind and caring. She loved being an aunt when all the nieces and nephews started coming along.

Her life was sadly, very short in the grand scheme of time, but in that timeframe, Marlyce lived a full life. She was not held back by the limitations that most of us do not consider limitations, like husband and children, but in reality, they are things that must be taken into consideration when deciding whether to read a book, take a trip with parents, or even take a nap. She could, for the most part anyway Amy with Marlycemake her own choices. And that was what allowed her to live a full life in just a few short years. Nevertheless, we all wish she was still here.

Today, Marlyce would have turned sixty five. I wonder what she would have been like now. Things would have been a bit more difficult in that her dad is in Heaven, and her mom in a nursing home. I’m not sure where she would have been living. Perhaps with one of her siblings or maybe in a group home. She would be ready to retire, but I’m not sure she would have wanted to do so. It’s all speculation, of course, because we will never know. Today Marlyce would have been sixty five, but in reality, she is forever thirty nine. Happy birthday in Heaven, Marlyce. We love and miss you very much.

Aunt Evelyn HushmanLate yesterday afternoon, my mom’s eldest sister passed away after a battle with cancer over the past few years. It was a battle she had mostly kept to herself. She had spent much of her last years taking care of her husband, my Uncle George, with the help of family members. Caregivers, like Aunt Evelyn have a tendency to brush aside their own illness while they take care of others. They simply don’t have time to be sick. They are busy making others well.

Being the oldest of Grandma and Grandpa Byer’s nine children, Aunt Evelyn learned at a very young age that she was needed to help with the younger siblings. While Grandma Byer didn’t work or go many places, there were after all eight other children, and the oldest if often the best helper. Aunt Evelyn was also a very social person as a girl though, and really all her life. It was Aunt Evelyn, who would make her parents grandparents for the first time, something that can be a bit of an honor, in itself. It was Aunt Evelyn and Uncle George, who would double date with my mom and dad during their courting years. They would all survive being hit by a train during one of those dates because of the quick thinking of both of the men. I’m sure that was something they all talked about for a long time.

Now the memories are flooding my mind. Times we spent at her house as kids, playing hide and seek, and all the other kids games we used to play. I remember the New Years Eve parties they spent at our house, and all the times at Grandma Byer’s house. I remember sitting out on Aunt Evelyn’s lawn on summer afternoons, and her beautiful house, which was her pride and joy. She enjoyed throwing and attending the annual Christmas party, and the summer picnic, until it became too difficult…which made me sad indeed.

It seems that with each passing year, our family patriarches become fewer and fewer. I remember thinking that we would always have the aunts and uncles with us, and now there remain only five of the original siblings and four of their spouses. Somehow, we all believed that they would always be here. I guess our minds play Aunt Evelyn & Uncle George Hushmantricks on us when it comes to loved ones…even to the extent of refusing to notice that they are aging, until we look back at pictures after they are gone. Then suddenly we realize just how tired they were, just how weak and weary, and maybe, just how sick and in pain they were. Nevertheless, they kept up a brave face, smiling at each visit, in spite of the pain. They tried so hard to make us feel better, when in reality they were getting ready to say goodbye. That’s how Aunt Evelyn was. Always thinking of those around her before she thought of herself. Always trying to make their day better, a thing she did quite well with that beautiful smile of hers. I will always miss her smile. It is so much of who she was, and who she will always be in my heart. We love you Aunt Evelyn, we will miss you very much, and we will see you again in Heaven very soon.

Clifford E ByerBecause he passed away in 1953 at the young age of just 43 years. I never had the opportunity to know my Great Uncle Cliff. My mom tells me that he was well liked. She said he liked to make people laugh, and always had a good joke to tell. That made him someone people liked to be around. He loved stopping by his brother’s house after work. He would leave a few snacks in his lunch pail for all the little kids to raid. Of course, that made him a big hit with my mom and her siblings.

Uncle Cliff was quite a character. He loved to pick on his mom some. When he was younger, and still living at home. He had a job, and his job required that he work a half day on Saturday. Sometimes he would not come right home after work, because he knew his mother would think he was out drinking. Grandma was mad, and indeed thought he was drinking. She decided to write a big “D” on calendar…for drunk. I guess she was hoping to shame him into not doing such things. He did it to tease her, because he wasn’t drinking at all, and the big “D” on the calendar only served as a source of humor for him.

Uncle Cliff married Marie Settell on July 28, 1940, and on their wedding night, the family gave them a real Shivaree. Now for those of you who don’t know, a Shivaree is a mock serenade with kettles, pans, horns, and other noisemakers given for a newly married couple. As sometimes happens in these event, things can get out of hand, resulting in the bride being stolen from the groom for a time, and Uncle Cliff was very worried that they would steal his bride. I suppose that once he realized they weren’t going to do that, he might have thought it was a sweet thing to do, but by that time the Shivaree was over, so he couldn’t relax and enjoy it.

When the United States joined World War II, Uncle Cliff was drafted into the Navy on August 18, 1945, at the age of 36 years. He had only been married five years at that time, and they had already had some sadness in the loss of their first child, Clifford Jr in 1941. I can only imagine how hard it would be to send your husband into war, when you had only been married for five years. But then, many woman have had to do this over the years. They and their marriage would survive the war, and they would have three surviving children, Joy, Gordon, and Judy and a number of grandchildren, but unfortunately, Uncle Cliff would never get to meet them.

Johnny and Marie SkaggsComing home from the war would not bring the best of news. I’m not sure just how long after coming home, but Uncle Cliff had some health issues, and he unfortunately put off taking care of them, In the end, it would be cancer that would take his life at the far too young age of 43. Uncle Cliff has always seemed to be a bit of a mystery to me…like an great uncle who I knew should have known, but somehow didn’t. He was a missing part of the family. He was my Grandpa Byer’s youngest sibling, and since I knew my grandpa, who was the third from the oldest of the nine children, why wouldn’t I know his youngest brother. Oh, I know that isn’t such an oddity, because a lot of people die at a young age, but it seemed strange to me at the time.

Five years after Uncle Cliff’s passing, Marie would again find love, even though I’m sure she thought it would never happen. She married Walter Oddsey (Johnny) Skaggs. Marie and Johnny were both well liked by the Byer family, and while they moved to California, they kept in touch with them through the years.

Jeff AtkinsonYesterday, I attended the funeral of Casper firefighter, Captain Jeffrey Atkinson. The service was beautiful and filled with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a hero. The ceremony included bag pipes, the Shriner’s Calliope Band, the sounding of the last bell, and the presentation of the helmet, badge, and flag to his widow, Kristen and his sons Eddie and Christopf. There were tributes about his bravery, his humor, and his caring ways. He was a firefighter, but more than that he was a husband, father, son, brother, nephew, uncle, cousin, and friend. His family loved him so much, and now cancer had taken him from them. It was a terribly sad time for a lot of people, in the firefighting community and the entire city too.

As I sat there listening to the ceremony, my mind drifted back over the last nine years, and my own encounters with Jeff and the other firefighters. As a caregiver for my parents and my in-laws over the past nine years, there have been more occasions than I care to think about when I would have to call for an ambulance for my loved ones. As most of you know, the fire department is often the first responder on those occasions. Since my husband Bob had been the fire department mechanic for many years, the firefighters knew me, but it wouldn’t have mattered. They weren’t just there because they knew Bob and me, they were there because they care about the people of Casper…or anyone in need.

Jeff and a number of other firefighters came to my rescue on more occasions than I want to think back on. In nine years of caregiving, there have been dozens of times when I had no other choice but to seek help in emergency situations. The firefighters and ambulance personnel were always professional, caring, and gentle with my parents and in-laws, but the firemen always seemed to look beyond just the patient. They saw me…standing there in the middle of it all, trying desperately to stay in control of my emotions long enough to be able to give them the information they needed in order to help their patient…my loved one.

At the time of those calls, I didn’t know if my loved one was going to make it through this. I felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit. Those were the worst moments of my life, and they saw me at my absolute worst. It didn’t matter to them. They saw that I was scared and trying desperately to hold myself together. It was at that point, as the EMTs were taking my loved one out to the ambulance that the firefighters turned their attention to me, asking if I was ok. Of course, that was the breaking point for me, and the tears flowed. Several of the firefighters, including Jeff took it upon themselves to give me the hug I really needed, and the encouragement to go forward and make my way to the hospital to give the information needed to the hospital staff too. I don’t think I could have made it without that hug. A hug might seem like such a small thing, but when your parents are sick and you have to be the one to make all the decisions about their care, it can feel so overwhelming. I felt lost and alone. They showed me that I wasn’t alone after all. With Jeff’s passing, the city of Casper has lost a great firefighter.

Uncle Bill's return to WisconsinIn June of 1946, my Uncle Bill and Aunt Doris left Wisconsin, for points west. He had no intention of moving back to Wisconsin at that time. They weren’t sure where they wanted to settle, so they tried Idaho, Oregon, California, and Wyoming. Uncle Bill would have loved to stay in California…he said the warm weather suited him. Aunt Doris was homesick, and wanted to be nearer to her family. I can’t say for sure if it was totally Aunt Doris being homesick, or if it was my grandfather becoming ill, with the cancer that would eventually end his life, or a mixture of both. Uncle Bill has indicated the possibility of both being the reason for their return. It doesn’t really matter, but it is my opinion that Uncle Bill could not let his dad go through cancer by himself. I can relate to that quality in him, because I think I inherited it to a degree.
Final Wishes
We never really know what events will transpire to change the course of our lives in an instant. We might be just living our lives, making plans for the future, or raising our kids, and then very suddenly we find ourselves in a position to step in when we are needed desperately. It is what we do with that call of duty that can make the difference between life and death for the person in need. Uncle Bill could not stay in Wyoming, where he was at that time, and simply let his dad handle the most horrible experience of his life without the benefit of help from family. He and his wife, my Aunt Doris headed home to Wisconsin, arriving in June of 1950. It was a decision he would never regret, nor did he ever decide to move away from Wisconsin again.
Grandpa and Aunt Doris
I think we eventually end up where we are supposed to be. Some of us move away from our childhood hometown, never to live there again, while others, like me, never live anywhere but in our childhood hometown, and still others like Uncle Bill, move away, and eventually move back for one reason or another, and never leave again. There must be something that either draws them away or back, or causes them to stay and never move away at all. I suppose the reasons vary as much as the people themselves, and sometimes there seems to be no real reason at all. They just end up in the place that draws them to it. I believe it is that we are in the place where God wants us to be.

Final WishesWhen a person knows that their life is coming to a close, they start to think about the things they will miss in this world. Often that includes their family members who don’t live close, or even their hometown. When my Grandpa Spencer found out that he was dying of Cancer in 1951, he started thinking of the loved ones he would be leaving behind. His son, my Uncle Bill was his caregiver, and he started thinking about the same thing. It was decided that they would make the trip to Eu Clair, Wisconsin, where my grandpa was born, and his sister, Bertha still lived. It was a trip that meant a lot to all concerned.

My Uncle Bill, who has always felt a great need to connect the different links of a family history, fully understood just how important this visit was for his dad and for his Aunt Bertha. It doesn’t matter if you are to be the one left behind, or the one going on ahead, that last visit…that final wish to connect with those you love, makes all the difference. There is simply no way to ever thank the person, who made that wish Getting a drinkcome true, enough. There are simply no words. Being able to go home again…to see your loved ones one more time…that is just beyond words of gratitude.

On the trip to Eu Clair, my grandpa got to see his sister, and also the old school house, where they got a drink of water…or planned to anyway. Grandpa got so concerned about making sure the picture turned out ok, that he completely forgot to operate the pump so his sister could get that drink of water. I’m sure they all got a good laugh out of that one when they realized why Grandpa was just standing there. I guess the water could wait…there were more important things going on. Grandpa was having his final wishes fulfilled.

Allen SpencerBefore my Grandpa Spencer passed away from cancer, on October 19, 1951, his life had held some difficult, sad, and lonely moments. My Uncle Bill writes that his suffering, from the pain that comes with cancer, “increased steadily for the last year and a half…then it was over”, and no matter what mistakes he had made in his life, all that was left was sadness that it was over…longing for a few more days to settle matters…to find peace with what was coming. My Uncle Bill took care of him in those last years, and while there were some hard feelings between them in earlier years, in the end, Uncle Bill was very sorry that he was gone…I know that by the way he talked about his dad and his death.  Grandpa wasn’t always the easiest person to be around, but in the later years, he and Uncle Bill had made a way…a careful relationship, I suppose, but it was a relationship at least, and for some years, there wasn’t even that.

Don’t get me wrong, Uncle Bill loved his dad, but he didn’t always agree with everything his dad said or did…but then, what kid does. Grandpa was a man of the times. In those days you didn’t think twice about giving your kid a good spanking if they needed it, and in fact, you didn’t have an issue with taking someone else’s child to task if they got out of line. That said, you also didn’t pick on someone else’s kid either. One time Uncle Bill had been sent to town to get some money from his dad who worked on the railroad and lived in town during the week. Grandpa decided to buy him a sarsaparilla in the bar…which was ok at that time…and while there, another man began picking on my Uncle Bill. Well, his dad, my grandpa, told the man to leave his son alone, and when he would not, a fight ensued, and grandpa beat him up. Uncle Bill always felt like that was a very special event in his life. He was pleased that his dad had stood up for him in that way. Nevertheless, a few years later, there was some discord between the two men. Theirs was a guarded relationship for a long time, but in the end, they had started to work out their differences, and then time ran out.

Sometimes, when you read through the journals of another person, or in this case, the family history written by a man who dedicated his life to telling the family story as clearly William Malrose Spenceras he understood it, you find yourself taking a look deep into the reality of human relationships. No matter how annoyed we can be at someone, we can also love them very much. And when it comes to the point of their passing, those difficult relationships can leave a very different kind of hole in our lives…one filled with “what if’s” and  “if only’s”, and once that person is gone, no way to change the relationship for the better or at least, forgive that past. Those who are left behind, must deal with their own feelings within themselves, because there is really no one there to talk to about it all. Nevertheless, I believe that Grandpa knew that his son loved him and I believe he loved Uncle Bill and his other children very much, too.

imageA few days ago, I received an email from a man named Cameron Von St James. He had read my blog, and knew from many of my stories that I have spent much of the last 7 1/2 years being a caregiver. It doesn’t matter what the illness is, when the need is serious, caregivers step up to provide much of the day to day care for those they love. It is a sacrifice that goes above and beyond what many people are able to grasp, and one that is rewarding beyond what most people will ever know. Cameron knew that story as well as I did, and he asked if I might share his wife’s story of survival with my readers.

Cameron’s wife, Heather was exposed to asbestos when her dad worked in construction. At the age of 36, just 3 months after giving birth to their beautiful daughter, Lily, they would receive the terrifying diagnosis of…Mesothelioma. No one knew what the dangers were back then. Sadly, that is the case with so many dangerous substances. By the time we know the dangers, so many people are already affected, but with new research, staying hopeful and Mompositive and with much prayer, more people are beating cancer. It is my belief that our faith in God and His mercy and love for us is vital. I am so pleased that Heather has been blessed with a great victory over a type of cancer that almost always carries with it a death sentence.

Heather’s fight began at almost the same time as my mother’s brain tumor, and my cousin, Jim’s fight with Mesothelioma. My mother’s story had a happy ending in that her cancer was confined to her brain only, and had not started somewhere else in her body, which would have been much harder to cure. It is rare for a tumor to be found only in the brain. Her doctor, an amazing faith filled man named Dr Mills, told us that we were blessed in that hers was “just a Lymphoma” and it should be an easy fix. While hers could not be removed by surgery, it was a very slow growing cancer that was gone after 3 treatments, and after 6 more for good measure, she was done. She has been cancer free since January, 2007, and we give God all the glory.

Like Heather, my cousin Jim, was diagnosed with Mesothelioma. His story would not have the imagehappy ending that Heather was so blessed to have. Jim passed away in February 1, 2006…he was 42 years old, and he never knew how he was exposed to asbestos. He left a son, Cody, who misses him terribly, as do we all. While Heather’s story will not be able to help Jim, it is my sincere hope that it will help others like Heather and Jim, who have been affected by this terrible disease. Please watch Heather’s story and read Cameron’s Blog for Caregivers, and be sure to pass them on to your friends. It is the hope of the Von St James family that it “might raise awareness and support for people fighting illness, and the caregivers who fight alongside them.”

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