When a loved one is threatened by the scheming diseases of their own body, and you observe them battle to keep hold of first this breath, then the next, the impermanence of things suddenly looms large.
Consider my mother-in-law, a vibrant and strong woman beautiful both in form and in the content of her heart. Despite a healthy life lived often in service of others, cancer would make no exception.
“I want to live,” she told my wife just days ago, her voice breaking with determination and the vividly proud desire to hang on until the ride is over.
This past week, she finished the last round of chemotherapy and graduated into a maintenance phase of treatment. This after surgery, invasive examinations, agonizing suspense, and a keen demonstration of heart and will that humbled her loved ones with its ferocity.
She refused to let such frailties define her. It was an aspect of character she’d inherited from her parents, who’d crafted a life of love and stability on a retired dairy farm on the outskirts of Eureka. Their land, a scenic 10-acre spread, and the homes it held, required hard work and a tough attitude. Over the 50 years of their partnership, the land and the people helped to shape and define one another.
They in fact had in many ways become one.
The ten acres were part of a slough that threaded the low-lying cleavage between hills and homes on the southern end of Eureka. Their particular spread arose roughly a half mile after the municipal golf course ended, on three independent levels that each looked down on the dog-leg valley.
The Croans, originally from Oklahoma, had bridged the gap from the frontier generations that built the farmhouse where we now live, as well as the long-forgotten dairy barn and outbuildings that formerly dotted the property, and the newest bevy of bureaucrats intent on condemning a strip down the center that would someday soon accommodate a pipe to usher 100 years of shit from Cutten and Pine Hill to the sewage treatment plant whose tanks and workers ensure that at the very least this shit highway won’t stink.
It’s an important pipe, they’re told, one that ensures Eureka will grow in the years to come and at the same time be able to handle the legions of new poopers who’ll arrive with every subdivision.
This is one change looming for the family property, but not the last. Over the five years we’ve called this place home, intermittent rains, earthquakes, wind and the harsh dig of car tires on gravel have served to erode the hillsides. Each new year brings a fresh collapse in the earthen walls that line that quarter-mile drive that runs from Union Street to our golden green house on the hill, and though the floods don’t come as often, filling the valley with a temporary mud-puddle lake where birds roost like hogs in slop during the wettest months, they offer as much in the way of habitat as ever.
How the red-shouldered hawk, the sputtering kite, and the mutely magnificent white-breasted Barred Owl get fat and stay that way.
Even the house, built sometime in the 1890s, succumbs to the drag of our massive planet. A billiard ball set loose on the dining room floor draws a straight line in its haste to find the southwestern corner of the home, where pilings and a century-old foundation have begun their own steady decline into the hillside.
The family too has suffered its quiet changes. Grandfather and grandmother, who raised their four kids here in happy isolation, have passed. One son suffered lung injuries during his service in the U.S. Army and later succumbed to the damage and scars these and related wounds had caused. He left behind two sons and a wife he’d met on duty in South Korea.
Another son suffered through a decades-long battle with addiction and took his exit on the wooded hillside above the house. He was found there weeks later, by a neighbor.
He was found weeks later by a neighbor hiking the property line.
Our own family has grown here, thrived on the land and gaining purchase on the shifting sands beneath us. Our children join the three generations that came before, a family raised and fed on its own little corner of a rapidly changing world.
Death is ever seeking the survivors. My mother-in-law has led an exemplary life of good character and sound health. Despite having never smoked, never drank to excess and exercising regularly throughout her life, she was diagnosed months ago with Stage 3 uterine cancer.
Unlike her brother and apparently her nephew, she dug in for the fight of her life.
“I want to live,” she told my wife recently, her voice breaking with determination and the vividly proud desire to hang on until this ride is over. “I want to live!”
After surgery and weeks of chemotherapy, accompanied by the spirited support of local oncological staff that seemed to take her battle personally, she was recently set free of such responsibilities.
I hear so many of my addled friends and acquaintances decrying Big Pharma, their evil plots to hide or even destroy cures for cancer that would’ve cut into their bottom line, the conspiracy theory goes.
One imagines a dark boardroom, several haggard unshaven faces gathered in a loose circle about a massive conference table as they smoke fat cigars and pat themselves on the back for duping the world into primitive but highly profitable treatments for cancer while the real cures lay buried in the bottom of a filing cabinet that sits even now on the bottom of Hudson Bay, its drawers rusted shut and bound tight with a Master Lock the size of a Volkswagen convertible.
These local healthcare workers never got the memo, apparently. They care too much, and that concern helps save lives.
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.