A Star Shines in Paradise…..Sisters and Cancer
My sister; Linda Mae Dunlap born Aug.18, 1941 died of Cancer Aug. 6, 2003. After a fourteen year battle, which she fought gallantly.
My sister and I spent most of our lives at odds either fighting or not speaking to each other. She was an alcoholic and a mean spirited drunk. I was her favorite target. She liked to tell people that she grew up in the shadow of her beautiful sister; “The Star”. She also, would say that I took all of her boy friends away from her. This was far from the truth, as I left home at age 15 and she did not have her first date until she was 18 years old. We were eighteen months apart in age. She told these sad tales of woe so much that I believe they became her reality.
I spent most of my life trying to avoid her. She delighted in causing scenes. Pulling a table cloth off of a table in a restaurant, leaving me with the mess and embarrassment while she made her exit. Throwing drinks in my face and then bursting into tears and sobbing ” Did you hear what she said to me”? Making her self the victim. She constantly put herself on my turf. Joined my Yacht Club much to my dismay, even though she didn’t own a boat. Then she would sit at the bar and get sloppy and belligerent and say anything derogatory about me that her evil mouth could spew. This was a place that I did business and I was greatly annoyed with her antics. She would invite herself on my Yacht when we had a Yacht Club function, other times I chartered the vessel as a business. She would proceed to tell these ridiculous tales of; ” poor me, Mary’s little sister tales”. People that were guests on my boat would look with shock and say; ” Who is this person talking such crap about our hostess”? And some one would retort; “Oh don’t pay her any mind, she is Mary’s sister. She is a bitter, jealous drunk”. Why didn’t I put her off the boat? Because it was less dramatic to let her ramble on and discredit herself by her own actions. Then to play into her hands and let her throw a fit and cause a scene. She was a Drama Queen and loved to throw tantrums.
None the less, I was her; “Big Sister” and she would call on me when she was scared or in need. And I always came to her aid, often gritting my teeth. Our Mother had a way of making me feel obligated to take care of, “Poor little Linda”. Her eyes would fill with tears when I would try to tell her what a snake her youngest child was to me. “Oh, Mary I don’t know why you pick on Linda, you have so much more in your life than she”.
When our Mother died, I no longer had to pacify her. Linda had moved herself up to Paradise and was living in our Mother’s home. She quickly liquidated her estate and sold even the antiques that I had stored in her home. I had subsidized our Mother financially for many years, but Linda decided she was in “Charge” and there fore the only one entitled to any of our Mother’s estate. She read me the hand written will our Mother left and then totally disregarded her wishes and did as she wished. I decided eventually to use it as an opportunity to severe all ties with my sister, who had been the bane of my life. Cheap price to pay, for some peace in my life.
I had not heard from my sister for five years. I had moved to Oroville, twenty five miles from Paradise and the phone rang one day. Her familiar voice said; ” Mary, something tells me I need to make amends with my big sister”. Are you willing to try to have a relationship with me?”
I knew of her cancer. I had taken her to Kaiser, years before when they diagnosed her with breast cancer. She had felt a lump two months after her annual mammogram. Kaiser refused to give her a second one as their policy was one a year. We left the Doctor’s Office after he had read the second X-ray eight months later. She was in tears and was panicked. The Doctor had scheduled a mastectomy for the next week. After her surgery, she was furious. And typical Linda, she threw a huge tantrum. I told her she should turn that anger into something positive. She did! She sued Kaiser and won a settlement of $250,000; It set her up financially for the rest of her life.
That began her mission. She got a computer and researched cancer of all types and their treatments. She became an expert on the subject. She often went to her Kaiser Doctors, yes, of course she kept her Kaiser membership. They were not about to screw up with her again. She would go in and demand certain treatments. She took control of her disease. She became very active in the Cancer community. After she moved to Paradise when our Mother died, it gave her a social life and a cause. She became the hostess on a Cancer Chat line. She donated her time at the Cancer Thrift Shop. Little did I know until much later how active she really became in the Cancer World.
My husband Ron and I had been living in Arizona and Mexico before moving up to Oroville. When I got the phone call from her she had survived cancer about ten years. Her alcoholic husband had died a couple of years ago and I knew she was alone. My basic kindness kicked in and I agreed to try to have a relationship with her, very cautiously. That was the beginning of a four year odyssey that I would not have missed for anything.
She patiently allowed me to vent my anger of her and our Mother’s infractions to me. She would listen patiently while I rehashed every childhood injustice that I suffered. I ask her one time if she knew how evil she had been and she smiled and said simply; “Oh, yes!” It gave her power, I think.
She gave me her old computer when she upgraded and taught me how to use it. She knew I was an aspiring writer. Our finances had reversed. She now had money and Ron and I were starting over, homesteading our acreage, we lived without running water or electricity for the first six months. She loaned me money on occasion which I signed a promissory note and paid back. Or I traded boarding her two dogs while she traveled. She was always frugal. Generosity did not come easily for her, but she began to experience the joy of giving. She became more and more giving to people and loved the power it gave her. She was a good cook and would often make her “Care Packages” and distribute them to cancer patients and the elderly. The elderly also, became one of her projects. She would scour around and find discarded computers, pay to have them fixed and give them to an elderly person, tutoring them on how to use them and there by open up a whole new world for them. She did all of this with out bragging to me about her good deeds. She was rather modest about her giving. She did grouse to me one time as word had spread that she had some money, that people were starting to ask her for money more and more after she had helped them. I told her it had been my experience when I had money and played “Lady Bountiful” to people, that one could never give enough. The very people I had given to would fault me for not giving more. Disregarding what I had given them. I looked directly at her when I said this as she was most guilty, of doing this to me. She nodded and said; “Now I know what you went through”.
We would go to lunch and she would show me the best bargains in Chico and Paradise always the bargain hunter. She was a vast vessel of knowledge when it came to stretching a dollar. I put her on my Costco membership and she would meet me at Costco, we would divide the large packages between us thereby making them more practical. She would bring me fresh picked cherries from a neighbor’s tree that she had permission to pick. Instructing me to freeze them, as they made great snacks and satisfied a sweet tooth.
She would share her finds at the local Farmer’s Market with me. And often made Pepper Jam, which I exchanged for my home made bread.
We found, much to our delight that we shared the same sense of humor and would often giggle until one of us was in danger of wetting our pants. She would often drive over to my Ranch when she was suffering pain and sit in my back yard and laugh and chuckle at my puppy’s antics. I have a video and sound track of her doing just that. I played it many times after her death when I would miss her. It gave me comfort.
All was not perfect. She insisted on Ron and I coming to her house for the Holidays. I hated those occasions. It was de ja vu. She had ruined every holiday in the past with her drinking and my Mother refused to control her or even make the attempt. I finally refused to subject my family, husband and children to her abuse and stopped going to our Mother’s for Holidays in spite of my Mother’s tears. But now I could not refuse thinking this may be her last Holiday. So, Ron and I would go, she bought the Prime Rib and all the trimmings. However, she had consumed a magnum of wine by herself. She was drunk, but still insisted on controlling the cooking from her chair. I had attended French Cooking School in Europe years ago and one of the businesses that Ron and I owned and operated before moving to Oroville was a Smoke House. We both were experts when it came to cooking meats. Linda was so sure we were going to over cook her $40.00 Prime Rib, in spite of the fact that we had a meat thermometer and showed her that it was still registering 110 degrees and needed to go to 140 to be rare. She would return in three minutes and turn the oven off again and again insisting that we were over cooking her roast. I would distract her and turn the oven back on and continue preparing the side dishes. Finally Ron looking desperate and out of patience announced that he was starved and wanted to go home. I sliced off the end pieces and micro waved them for him, served him the side dishes so he could eat. Linda, now had polished off the entire bottle of Cabernet and proceeded to go to the bathroom and vomit. Returning to say the Chemo had made her so sick, she would not be eating dinner. I put her to bed and wrapped up the food placing it in her refrigerator. Then we made a hasty retreat home. Dreading the next Holiday.
Yes, she still drank. The meds did not allow her to drink as much or as often as she was use to, but Lord knows she tried.
I would meet her at Wal-Mart parking lot in Oroville. This would save me driving 25 miles up to Paradise, where she lived. I would leave my car in the lot.
And accompany her to her chemo appointments 60 miles away in Sacramento. She would insist on driving there in her car. She took control of everything she could. It was her nature. I would sit with her and the other patients during the sessions. Being a storyteller I would entertain with my humorous tales, to Linda’s delight. Egging me on with; “Tell them about the time…” I would crochet hats while I was there and leave them for the people that wanted to cover their baldness.
There were times when she was feeling weak that I would go and get a wheel chair and wheel her down the vast hall ways. But, most of the time she would be stubborn and insist on walking. Often having to stop every few steps to catch her breath. She ask me to speak to her Doctors and sit in on her consultations. “ You know how abrasive I can be and I have insulted and been rude to them to the point that they avoid me when they can. I don’t have your people skills and tact.” She admitted. She would usually sleep in the car as I drove 60 miles back to Oroville. Where I would offer to drive her home in my car, or follow her as she drove her car. She would have none of that, she would assure me she was fine to drive the last 25 miles to her home in Paradise.
When she lost her hair, which had always been a source of pride, naturally curly and platinum blonde. It truly was her shining asset. I thought she would want a wig. She wore that shiny bald head as though it were a crown. She had a large nose and pock marked face from adolescence acne. She never wore make-up and her white eyebrows and loss of lashes made her light blue eyes ghost like. People would often approach her when we were in restaurants. And ask if she was in treatment for cancer. She would beam and invite them to join her and proceed to regale them with her experience and vast knowledge of cancer. She was in her best element when she was in control and the center of attention. I would often excuse myself and wait in the car to allow her center stage. So she could be the STAR. She would often ask if the person was part of the Cancer world. If they were, she would take their phone number or email address and continue to council them. She hosted the internet Cancer Chat Room. She would forward bits and snips of emails from this source. She would organize and attend trips of some of the members. She had been a Travel Agent and knew all the ends and outs of getting good travel and hotel rates, which she shared with this group.
She belong to a Gym and Swim club in Chico and went three times a week to swim. She would put on her one piece bathing suit. She never bother to put falsies or any kind of padding on the deflated cup of the suit where her breast had been removed. If she could have shown her scar, she would have done so. Being a victim of Cancer was her identity.
I received a phone call from her one night after midnight. She was in a lot of pain and ask me to drive up to Paradise and take her to Kaiser Emergency in Sacramento. When I got there, she was siting on her porch awaiting my arrival. She hobbled out to my car and got in. Her feet were covered with multiple socks. She said she couldn’t put shoes on because of the swelling. When I got to the hospital I went in and got a wheel chair for her. I was standing at her side when the Doctor unwrapped her feet. I gasped at the sight of oozing ulcers all purple and the size of a 50 cent piece. I don’t know how she managed to walk on those poor infected, swollen feet. The Doctor gave her a shot for the pain. Some anti-biotic ointment and new bandages and sent us on our way. Saying this was a side affect of the new drug she was taking. She insisted on being a Ginny Hen for any new treatment that came along. She slept all the way home. When we got there I picked up her now frail body and carried her into her house. I put her in her bed. Placed a clean bottle of water on her night stand, tucked her two dogs on the bed to give her comfort. Then I went to the kitchen and baked some carrot cake mini-cup cakes. Hoping to entice her to eat, I placed a few next to her bed. She was snoring and the dawn was breaking so I took my leave to go back down the hill to my Ranch to feed the critters. When I got home, I telephoned her neighbor and asked her to check on Linda and tell her I would be back in the afternoon before my evening chores on the Ranch.
I got an angry phone call from her one morning. “You have got to come up here, right now and get these damn Bible Thumpers out of here”, she yelled. I drove up there and found out the people were from Hospice. A lovely organization that had been a great comfort to my dear friend; Lin Nelson’s mother when she was dying of cancer. Alma believed in God and lived a sweet Christian life, she was kind and good to the best of her ability. My sister was an atheist and did not believe in an after life. Being such a control personality she was not about to give up any power to God. And she had been a mean, vicious drunk most of her life. Now that her life was coming to an end she was terrified of dying. There were no words of comfort for her. She was in bad shape and her organs were starting to shut down. She knew she was dying. What did she do??? She did what she had done all of her life. She threw a temper tantrum.
The biggest temper tantrum of her life. She came into this world screaming and it damn near looked like she intended to go out screaming.
She sat on the edge of her bed. Refusing to lie down. Afraid to go to sleep. She screamed! She screamed! And she continued to Scream! For three straight days and nights she screamed, sitting upright on the edge of her bed.
I begged her to let me give her some Morphine. The Doctor had sent me to Costco to get a large bottle and some syringes. It could be injected or given by mouth. She would have none of it. Afraid it would render her unconscious and she would never awaken. The Doctor had instructed me to not try to force any food or liquid on her as her body was shutting down. He could hear her screaming in the back ground. He said; “It sounds like her lungs are still in good shape.”
I would stay with her day and night. Going back to my Ranch long enough to do the chores and feed the animals. My husband Ron was out of town driving a bus Charter. I would have the neighbor come over and sit with her while I made the 50 mile round trip. She said; “ I don’t know how you stand the noise. I wish she would take something for the pain”. Still sitting on the side of the bed and screaming, I approached her and told the neighbor to hold her head. I came at her with a teaspoon of Morphine. Begging her to open her mouth. She clenched her teeth tightly and knocked the spoon out of my hand. It made me determined to get some in her. Or at least as much on her as me. I put my finger in the bottle and proceeded to rub it on her gums. I felt her rigid body start to relax. After several doses rubbed on to her gums I was able to lie her down. I got some warm soapy water and washed her sweat drenched body and put a clean night shirt on her. She smiled and said, “That is nice. Next time don’t sneak up on me. Just tell me when it is time to take my medicine”. I rolled my eyes and thought of all the begging I had done over the last three days and nights for her to take her medicine.
For the next seven days she remained in a sedated state. I would sit next to her at her computer that was located on the desk next to her bed. Listening to her breathing patterns. She was still restless and groaning not so much in pain but in some mental distress. Was she really an agnostic and not an atheist? Was that why she was so terrified of dying? Maybe there was a God. Maybe she might have to atone for her sins. She had been raised Catholic. She even graduated from St.Joseph’s Presentation High School in Berkeley. Perhaps all the old Catholic dogma came back to haunt her as she neared death. What does one say to comfort one of no faith? It plagued me. I so wanted to give her some peace.
I opened her computer and went to her Cancer Chat Room, I typed;
Dear Friends of Linda Dunlap; aka lindamae1941,
Linda is in the last days of her battle with cancer. She has fought long and hard. She has won many battles over the last fourteen years, but alas she has lost the war.
She is unable to read your emails or cards or talk on the telephone. She wishes no cards or flowers. If any of you want to donate to the Cancer Society in her name, she would like that.
Linda had many cancer friends and you all were a big important part of her life. Please know that you all enriched her days. Even though she had no faith in an after life. Please include her in your prayers. If for no other reason It will give me comfort.
I believe that hearing is the last sense to go. So, I am asking you, her friends to send emails, which I will read to her. My thought being that she will go with messages of love in her ear.
Mary K. Smalley
Linda’s Big Sister
Then came the flood of emails. These are just a few. I sat, next to Linda, and read each and every one. I know she heard me. Because one of them mentioned how she had taught them to control their temper. I laughed and said; “You taught someone to control their temper ? You never, ever, controlled yours “! I looked at her and she smiled. So, I know she could hear me.
I am so grateful you have your Sister with you. I have continued to pray for you and her. I pray that angels, saints and loved ones may be with you and that perpetual light may shine upon you.
First let me say Linda was so truly blessed to have you for a sister. It haunted me to think Linda might leave this earth alone. Instead you saw to it that she had love with her. I think that’s all we can ask for.
Your sister was the first person online that I spoke with when I was first diagnosed with head and neck cancer. I didn’t know what to do, up until then the flu was the most serious thing I had ever dealt with. I sat at this computer in a cancer support room, unable to speak up, huddled in a blanket, knowing in my soul that I would not be walking this earth much longer.
And along came Linda! Within half an hour she knew my history, my diagnosis, my family members and my overwhelming fear. And then she went about making things good for me for the next year and a half. That very night I signed off the computer and told my husband that this cancer just might be worth fighting after all, but I wasn’t sure. And the next night I signed on and Linda was there and she talked to me and talked to me. And then the hope really set in.
Five weeks into my treatment I decided to quit. The oncologist didn’t think I’d make it. I didn’t think I would make it. But, Linda thought otherwise!
Mary, the blistering, stern telephone call I got from Linda was enough to scare anybody back into treatment! I’d rather face the oncologists and the machines and my radiation mask than Linda” ire at my life being thrown away.
As I sit here listening to my husband’s quiet snore, the soft breathing of the dogs, the occasional contented purring from the cats; as I know my children are all safe in their homes and I will see their beautiful faces again and speak with each of them tomorrow; as sure as I know that..I also know that Linda is at peace and in a joyful place. Linda might not have believed in an after life, but I think our Linda has met a force greater than her and this time SHE will be bullied into living in a glorious place.
Mary, of course you have my condolences for your loss, but you also have the knowledge that your sister saved lives. I will never be able to walk in her footprints but I will always try to walk beside them and try my hardest to emulate Linda’s actions.
May the loving and caressing embrace of the Almighty be in your heart and soul tonight.
I remember the first time I went on the chat line. I said I was not going to keep my appointments. I was just going to die. It was not worth the effort to put my poor body through all the ordeals of Chemo and Radiation. You telephoned me and would not let me off the phone until you had the name of the Doctor. My address and the time of my first appointment. Imagine my surprise when I opened my door the day of my appointment and found You standing there with your suitcase in hand. You had flown all the way from California to Texas to take me to my appointment. WOW! If you could make such a jester for me then the lest I could do was follow. And lead you did. My Bossy friend. You stayed a whole week and cooked until you filled my freezer with all of those delicious meals. You assured me they would tempt my palate even when I was pukeee sick from the Chemo. And you were right . When the very thought of food would turn my stomach I would find myself getting one of Linda’s “Comfort” dishes from the freezer. My wife and I will forever be thankful for knowing you. We just welcomed our first Grandbaby. As I stood holding this little miracle, I said to my wife; “Thank God for giving me this experience”. and she added; “And Linda”.
Your friend in life,
As a dear friend of Linda’s, I must say that she may have lost the battles but WON the war. She will be in a much better place where the streets are made of gold and the Angels lay rose pedals at her feet when she walks. I will miss her terribly and as I write this, I am in so much turmoil in my heart. But, I must see her this way and not in any pain anymore.
Hugs to all,
Hi there Sweetie,
Well, Linda, I’m doing everything you’ve taught me, and you are still beside me. I’ve got three new people who I will guide through cancer; I’ll bully them, I’ll love them, I’ll encourage them, I’ll do what is needed so they can stay on this beautiful earth a little longer. You’d laugh at Reg, he’s worse than me when you so lovingly took me in your hands: But I’ve learned from the best, Dear, so I have hope and joy for him. Never will I be able to fill your footsteps but I’m going to keep on trying. Remember when I was new and cussed in the chat room you hosted and you so gently “ahemed” me? The special word that means to cool it with the swear words. I thought you had just misspelled AMEN so I kept on with my conversation! And how I looked forward to the food packages you sent. Whatever poor Joe made for dinner got pushed aside so I could eat; “Linda’s Healing Food”. And how you taught me to keep my temper when somebody said something I found offensive. Me and you and Glenna’s chat room..what a journey. You were the very first person, Linda who told me I could still be joyful with cancer. And that joyfulness got me through so much. I think my new chant will be; “Linda did it, so I can try”. When treatments get tough, when it’s a hard day.. I know you will be there with me. I’m going to write again Linda, but for now, you just relax, breath in and out and think of the glory and joy that you have spread. I love you Linda, forever and ever.
Linda died at home Wednesday night, August 6, 2003. I was alone with her and was reading her the last of many emails from her Cancer Buddies. She was loved by many. The messages flooded in and just as I finished reading the last one. She raised up, smiled and opened her eyes wide and said what sounded like; “Bye”. She fell back into her pillow and let go.
She went with love in her ears.
I stepped out onto her porch and looked at the sky. There above the town of Paradise was a large STAR!
I am so grateful to have had this time with my sister and to meet some of her friends. It is such a comfort to me. I never knew what a true; “STAR” she was in her life.
Thank you for sharing her with me.