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Life After Cancer - An Interview

If you were in charge of getting a family through a crisis that would extract every ounce of strength in their exhausted bodies, every teaspoon of compliance in their withered spirit, how would you do it?

Carol’s third oncologist, the one that reminds Deno of the original Penguin from Batman, put it this way, “I will put you through six months of hell for 30 years of health.”
So far he has been true to that promise.

If you look backwards, six months is not an exorbitant price to pay for a lifetime of laughter, freedom from pain, and the joy of family. But what if you are not sure?

Chemotherapy has been described as bringing you as close to death as possible, so that the cancer packs up and leaves, but the tiny scrap of life that holds you together, survives. That is a definition of spiritual temptation too. In every disguise God can come up with, and it should be mentioned that His repertoire is extensive, He allows us to be zapped by fear, disease, financial disaster, and loss so that our spiritual bodies may be cleansed of the cancers that threaten eternal life. You know the names of the many strains of terminal illness — contempt, self importance, adultery, revenge— they poison every fiber of spiritual health and it is only through the process of ripping them from their entrenched hold on our hearts that we live to see the dawn.

Carol and Deno Brannon had a good life prior to her diagnosis. Although Deno was drinking excessively, their commitment to marriage was deep. Divorce was not in their vocabulary. Pregnancy did not come quickly for them, but when it finally did they were ecstatic. When Carol was 7 1/2 months pregnant, though, Deno had yet another spree of drinking, and came home as drunk as a striped, smelly mammal. Carol came unglued. She screamed, she cried, she wailed, all out of character for her. But the most painful thing, she yelled at him, was that in the morning he would not even remember this nightmare.

That turned out to be untrue. The words cut deeply into Deno, reminding him of his own alcoholic father, and he vowed on that night never to drink again.

He has kept that promise.

Deno’s newborn sobriety became the rock that saved him, for only a few weeks later he caused an accident at work that almost cost two men their lives. If he had been still drinking, he is sure he would never have stopped, in a desperate attempt to block out the excruciating memory.

Then Justine came. She was an angel baby! The months, and they were only months, of her idyllic infancy brought a surge of joy and innocence to the family that would feed them through the famine around the corner. When Justine had an ear infection, and Carol took her to the pediatrician, the doctor was more concerned about Carol’s coughing than the baby’s ears. He made her promise to call a pulmonary specialist. She ordered an x-ray, and called a few hours later asking Carol to come in, and somehow Carol knew better than to go alone. She asked Kim Adams to go with her. So began the out-of-control, mind-numbing, body-ravaging years of radiation, chemotherapy, trips to the hospital, scrambling for childcare, emotional check out, endless appointments, and terror. Deno remembers not remembering how he got to the hospital at UPenn one time, but the clock said 7:21 when he left Rose Lane and 7:45 when he arrived. Can a car even drive that fast, especially when the driver is a million miles away?

There was no escape from the relentless failure — if Deno was with his baby he was a bad husband. If he was with Carol he was an inept father. For Carol, Justine was a lifeline, keeping her thinly tethered to this world. She was a darn good reason to get out of bed in the morning. There were transplants, and Carol lost her hair several times. As a preschooler, Justine did not like seeing her mother bald, and when she would creep into their bedroom in the middle of the night, her little face inches from Carol’s, Justine would ask gently, “Could you put on your hat so I can talk to you?”

There was a lot of sleeping, physically and emotionally, because being awake was so scary. The community around them brought continuous support: the conveyor belt of meals, clean laundry, rides to appointments, childcare, money, and one sided friendship. A little girl arrived living next door that they had not met, when Justine needed a playmate. Deno recalls that he did not even know how to say thank you. “Thank you” are words that come easily if you can pretend that someday you will not be so frighteningly dependent, or might even be able to reciprocate. But the future was a black hole. They borrowed a video camera and made movies of themselves together — in case. Carol and Deno tried to talk — she needed to articulate the conflict broiling inside her.

“I want you to marry again, but it can’t be another woman. I want Justine to have a mother, but it has to be me.”

Deno prayed every night, “Lord, please heal her, but if Carol is going to die, don’t let it drag on and on.”

When Carol was facing a month of isolation during a bone marrow and stem cell transplant, Deno brought Justine for a visit at the hospital. It was friendly and upbeat, with no signs of anxiety. But when Deno started to take her home, Justine’s anger and panic came flooding out, somehow knowing that this goodbye could be the last. He had to peel those little fingers from their desperate grip on Carol and pull his precious, hysterical daughter down the hall.

Carol went back to her room, praying in earnest, knowing that she could not survive this torture anymore. She had to turn it over to God. As she sat in a chair, with darkness around her inside and out, a petite Indian nurse came to her. The woman’s accent was thick, and she chastised Carol lovingly. Picking up the copy of the Word, she held it in front of Carol’s weeping face.

“Do you believe this? Read it! Read it! Do you believe?”

Carol felt herself pulled out of the abyss, and said, “I believe! I will read!” It was a turning point in her life, as she sat there, knowing that without God she could do nothing. She saw herself as a puddle of humanity, and placed her future in His hands in a way she hadn’t before. What began as one of the worst days of her life transformed into one of the most significant. Her marriage to Deno was no longer limited to the two of them — it was now a covenant with the three of them. A partnership formed that opened up a new relationship with God that has brought spiritual vibrancy to their lives.

The curious thing is that in the weeks that followed, she never saw that nurse again. Whose employee was she, anyway?

The spiritual chemotherapy burned out the complacency, the selfishness, the ingratitude. Having been to the edge of the cliff, with ground crumbling beneath their slipping feet, Carol and Deno discovered that every moment is a series of consequences leading to eternity. Each day brings fresh chances to smile, to touch hands, to hold on tight. When they would be in the presence of people who had lost that awareness, and were trampling the people they married, they found themselves wanting to shout out, “Stop!” and “What would it look like to just love each other?” Deno found himself in a men’s group where every other man was either divorced or unfaithful, and it grated him in a new way. He realized he had to make a stand for marriage.

Looking backwards, a decade or three is not an exorbitant price to pay for an eternity of happiness that makes earthly life look like a second-rate movie (which, come to think of it, it is). But what if you are not sure?

Well, you can be.