Monday, December 24, 2007

Reflections from an Unforgettable Year

Dori and I are at the outpatient clinic at Vanderbilt the morning of this beautiful Christmas Eve. I've spent the last few days gathering myself from this year's hectic pace, relaxing and running, but most of all, thinking about this year and what it all means.

Dori looks terrific today. She's wearing a snazzy outfit - a shiny gold hat/wrap, red sweater with a silver necklace, and slacks with black boots. We just saw Tammy Hart, who made it home before Christmas. She also looks great. Both Dori and Tammy have the look survivors have, that "I'm really fortunate to be here." It's a gift few of us can appreciate.

As most of you know, this blog is not only about Dori's battle against leukemia, but also my journey alongside her. It has been a wonderful place of communication and reflection for me. My life changed on June 15. I remember the day so vividly ... I was very excited that Friday morning, eager to vacation with my family for the first time in two years. Dori didn't feel great that week, but I was so sure we were still going to be able to load up the car and spend six days at a secluded cabin in the Smokies. When Dori called me at work, I knew something was very wrong.

Fast forward four days later, when Dr. Greer told Dori she had an acute leukemia. On a day I should have been tossing flies at trout in a cold stream in the Great Smokies National Park, I was dealing with my wife's and my own feelings of devastation, shock and anxiety. I was telling my tearful children that Mommy was very sick and we would need to do everything possible to help her recover. Life as I knew it was over.

As the shock wore off, I knew I needed a game plan. First, I needed support. To make everything work, I needed to spend supportive time with Dori. My employer stepped up and worked with me on FMLA and a flexible work schedule. People called and e-mailed, offering to get the kids to places and to bring us meals. Through friends, we adopted a meal schedule that has been enormously helpful in keeping us well fed. To no one's surprise, my family members and Dori's family members answered the bell: "Just let us know, Jim, what you need." People have sacrificed income and personal time. Getting support was the easy part, thanks to the generosity of so many good people.

The hard part was dealing with Dori's and the kids' emotions through several valleys last summer. There were deeply disappointing days, like when Dori didn't reach remission after the first round of chemo and when the kids, in late July, wouldn't stop moping or fighting. My only answer during these times was prayer - for calmness and support as I helped my family believe we were going in the right direction, even as we were given what seemed like endless bad news. Those days were my best and worst - best when I was able to help everyone end their fixation on the negative and worst when I lost my patience with the kids.

There were also fantastic days, like when the team on 11 North lined the halls and cheered Dori as she left the hospital. Other wonderful days would follow. I recall in late August, through a donor drive we helped organize and publicize, when 150 giving people showed up to register for the national bone marrow donor program. I recall the morning of September 2, when my sister and I cried before I ran a half marathon in Virginia in Dori's honor and to raise $25,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

I clearly recall when Dori thanked me for never telling her how to feel or what to do in the hospital, while giving my unwavering support. Resisting my normal instincts, I shied away last summer from rah-rah Knute Rockne speeches. Dori responds better to gentle encouragement and empathy (the carrot more than the stick). She definitely sorts things out at her own pace, not like the trigger-happy folks in my family. Thankfully, I adjusted and delivered what she needed.

We were aware, the day Dori left the hospital in early August, this fight was nowhere near over. Dori had to decide if she would get a transplant. Her odds of survival if she didn't were very low. Other odds that were shared weren't much more comforting. Maybe one day, five years from now, I'll share what we were told. Our focus, then and now, isn't on odds but on complete victory. We took Lance Armstrong's words to heart. Who needs odds when you know what the goal is? Dori, who is analytical (she's the smart one in the family), was mesmerized at first by the odds. I reasoned differently, arguing to Dori those odds are for people who aren't you. People who haven't taken care of themselves over the course of their lives. People who aren't completely resolved to see their daughter's wedding or children graduate from college. People who aren't Dorothy Sawyer Brown.

For Dori and me, this fall's transplant was the hardest time. Dori's body was no less than brutalized by the process. At the worst part, she was so weakened as to be barely recognizable. A severe, near-catastrophic fall in the shower didn't help matters. Three weeks after the transplant, Dori was coughing up significant amounts of blood and breathing with difficulty. She gained 27 pounds in two days from the fluids. She went to the bathroom every 35 minutes, needing help or a spotter each time. Friends and family posted an around-the-clock watch on Dori because she was in such poor condition. I will never forget what one of the doctors told me on the elevator one day. As Dori began to regain strength and control of her bodily functions, she said, "We're happy Dori is coming back. She was really scaring us." Yeah, us too.

I wish I had a dollar for every time everyone said, "I don't know how you're doing this, Jim." It almost makes me chuckle inside, even though I know what they meant. When I took my vows 13 years ago, I recall it was "for better or worse" and "in sickness and in health." Similarly, people would say, "How do you find the time to train for your half marathon?" The run was a stress relief for me, but the run was mostly for Dori. How do you honor your wife, her courage, the support of other strong people around her and God's gift of life? You run, you don't hide.

I've been no walk in the park over some of our marriage, and Dori has stood by me at every moment. When I disliked my job seven years ago and acted stupidly or selfishly, Dori supported me. After Kathryn was born, Dori told me she was converting to Catholicism "so our family can be in church together." Every time I focused on me and didn't think of the consequences to others, she sacrificed and never complained. After I woke up and realized what I was capable of, I realized I owed her in a big way. I still do. I've been a much better husband the last several years. When our crisis started this summer, it was time to high jump over every bar.

Dori is 75 days away from her transplant. Her voice is stronger, and her eyes are starting to show some fire. She is no longer meek and weakened. Soon, she will be bossing me around, taking over more duties and chores around the house. We might even have an argument again one day. I never thought I would think that would be cool.

Dori and I have spent much of this year climbing out of valleys, and yes, scaling mountains, too. Hopefully, we will be able to reap the rewards of our collective efforts for many years. Knock on wood and keep praying, Dori will continue to get better. Then, I would bet the farm on a banner year for the Browns. We talk often of making a difference in the lives of others. We're not sure where life will take us, but we certainly have a perspective we didn't have before. God has given us, two people in love, a great gift, much like the gift of Christmas - a chance to fulfill His promise on earth with renewed purpose.

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