Family Legacies Chapter 31

(A novel by Susan Overturf Ingraham)

Hastings, Nebraska, October 1968

[Lizzie Donohue Jacobsen is taken ill and Kate believes her last link to the past may be ending.]

“Thank you for coming, Dr. and Mrs. Cullen. Please take a seat.” Dr. Gates crossed the room of his small, cluttered office and sat at his desk, motioning for Al and Kate to sit in the two chairs on the opposite side. He wore a white lab coat over his black trousers and white shirt and red tie. His loud footsteps portrayed his confidence.

Kate, emotionally dazed and physically exhausted, heard the doctor’s words, saw the chair, and mechanically seated herself. Al immediately sat down beside her. “Thank you, doctor,” Kate managed to say. “I’m terribly tired. My brother called me early in the morning yesterday to tell me about my mother.” Kate sighed deeply and looked at her husband. “We drove all day and all night to get here. Neither of us has had very much sleep.”

“That’s quite all right,“ Dr. Gates said. “I understand completely, but I’m glad that you’ve come. Your mother is very ill. I’m sorry to tell you that there there’s not a lot of time left.” He folded his hands and placed them in front of him on the desk which was cluttered with stacks of file folders in every conceivable space.

The words reverberated in Kate’s mind: “There’s not a lot of time left.” How could that be? she thought. Mother has always been strong, always there, always happy. How could she be at the end of her life? Al reached for and held Kate’s hand, and Kate gathered her courage to ask, “What’s wrong with her?”

The doctor gave his best professional look. “Your mother, Mrs. Cullen, has leukemia. She’s very ill. More than likely she has Acute Myelogenous Leukemia or AML. Your mother’s the right age, although it’s more common in men than women. AML can be kept in remission, and it’s possible that your mother will do better for a while. However, overall cure rates, considering this type of cancer and your mother’s age, would suggest that she’ll have great difficulty surviving this. I’m sorry.”

“Leukemia,” Al said. “How did Katy’s mother get leukemia? Don’t you have to be a smoker to get that? Mother Jacobsen never smoked.”

The doctor shook his head. “No, Dr. Cullen, you don’t have to be a smoker to get leukemia, although it’s believed that it may be a contributing factor. There are other causes, including a person’s age, exposure to radiation or chemicals, and even genetics. There’s also a possibility that it’s caused by exposure to animal viruses and even former chemotherapy. We can’t know for sure what events combined to cause Mrs. Jacobsen’s leukemia. But she’s very ill and we’ve already begun her therapy.”

“What are you doing?” Kate asked.

Dr. Gates opened up a file in front of him and scanned it. “She’s receiving chemotherapy. She couldn’t withstand the stresses of surgery, so that’s not being considered — at least not now. Right now, your mother is as sick from the cancer as she is from the chemotherapy.”

“Then why do it?” Kate asked.

“It’s the only treatment we have. It’s the only chance your mother has.”

Kate stared down at the floor. Before coming into Dr. Gate’s office, she had seen her mother and she had never seen her so ill. She had been reminded of her own terrible difficulties after her surgery four years before. She didn’t think her mother was going to last long. Finally, she asked, “Dr. Gates, how do you know that this is what she has? Are you sure?”

“Yes, we’re quite sure, Mrs. Cullen. All of the test results support the diagnosis, but we were suspicious just as soon as your brother brought your mother in. I understand that she had complained recently of being tired and the evening she came in, she’d left her weekly bridge game to go home because she was so tired. Fatigue is one of the prime symptoms of this condition. Also, your brother said that when he found your mother, she was lying down on the living room couch and complaining of a general weakness. When we got her here, a preliminary exam showed that she had an enlarged spleen, lymph nodes, and liver. It did not take us long to come up with our diagnosis and have it confirmed with blood tests. I’m sorry, Mrs. Cullen. Your mother, I think, was probably having symptoms for quite some time but she had told no one. It’s not uncommon for leukemia patients to not know that they’re sick — not in the first stages of the illness, at any rate.”

“How long does she have, Dr. Gates?” Al asked the question which Kate was afraid to ask.

“No one can say that for sure, Dr. Cullen, but I doubt she has more than three months.” He looked at Kate. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Cullen. I’m sorry to give you that news.”

Kate felt tears come to her eyes. “Thank you, Dr. Gates. I appreciate the time you’ve given us. I’ll go meet with my younger brother now. My other brother, Frank, will be here tomorrow. I’m a teacher and I don’t know how long I can stay.”

“I’m sure your mother will appreciate whatever you can do, Mrs. Cullen.”

“Thank you.” Kate stood up to leave. She and Al walked to the door where Kate turned and thanked the doctor again. They headed immediately to Lizzie’s room, but she was asleep, so they just sat with her for a quiet, still hour.

Al finally disturbed the stillness. “We’d better go now, Kate. We’ll come back in the morning.”

For the next week, Kate and Al visited Lizzie in the hospital every day. Kate fretted about everything from how her mother was feeling to missing her teaching job. Most of all, it caused grat distress for her to watch her mother in such pain and discomfort. Lizzie was thirsty and tired all of the time, and she constantly complained of sores in her mouth and on her lips.

As the days went by, everyone knew that there was little time left. Kate went to be with her mother one afternoon, and sat with her, as usual. Kate wasn’t sure at first that her mother even recognized her.

“Mother?” she asked.

Lizzie turned in the bed and looked at her only daughter. “Oh, Kate,” Lizzie said. “Oh, I must be dying. You wouldn’t have come otherwise.” Lizzie coughed and then raised her hand to her lips. “Oh, my mouth is so sore.” Then she turned and looked away.

“No, Mother,” Kate said. “No, that’s not true. You’re not dying. I wanted to see you again, but the doctor says that you’re doing very well.” Kate picked up her mother’s thin hand and held it in her own.

Lizzie struggled to comprehend. She squinted her eyes and tried to squeeze her daughter’s hand, but she didn’t have the strength. “Kate. Don’t lie to me. It’s almost over for me. I know it is.” She turned and looked at the ceiling and then coughed. “Oh, Kate, I’m ready. I’m really ready. I hurt so much, and I’m so tired. I don’t want to stay here any longer.”

Kate shook her head. “Mother, don’t be silly. You know you don’t mean that.”

Lizzie slowly nodded her head and looked directly at her daughter. “Yes, I do, Kate. Yes, I do. You know I believe in God. I think He’s ready for me.”

She’s right, Kate thought. She‘s going to die. “Mother, let’s think about something happy. What’s a happy memory for you?”

“Oh, lass,” she said. Lizzie smiled and stared at the ceiling again. Her voice was soft, and Kate had to lean over just a bit to hear her. “You know, Kate, I loved being a Donohue. I loved being Irish.” Lizzie’s head nodded, as though she had many words to say but she couldn’t get them out.

“What else, Mother? What else?” You didn’t mention my father, she thought.

Lizzie paused and waited to catch her breath. She licked her lips and sighed. “I love you and your brothers.” A frown formed on her brow. “Promise me you won’t argue with your brothers. You know how difficult Frank can be. Make him behave. Let Willy run the business. Do that for me, Kate.” She stopped, quite exhausted, and stared into her daughter’s face.

“Of course, Mother. Of course.” She took her mother’s hand. “Don’t talk for a minute. Just rest.” What a mess this will be, she thought. The business will go to Willy, and Frank and I will be left out. Frank’s going to be furious. And I don’t understand why I, as the oldest and only daughter, shouldn’t get something from that business. “I’ll do what I can, Mother, but you know that it’ll be hard. Dad wasn’t always nice to Frank and me, you know.”

Lizzie’s pale face and shallow eyes showed the pain she felt from her daughter’s words. She asked Kate to give her a drink of water. Kate held the cup while her mother sipped through a straw. “Please, Kate. Let’s not talk badly about your father. He wasn’t easy to get along with, but he kept a roof over your head and food on the table.”

Kate smiled. The irony of her mother’s words struck her as ludicrous. “Yes, Mother,” she said. How dare she do this to me, Kate thought. And other little voice said: Don’t do this now, Kate. Your mother is dying. Don’t do this now. “Don’t forget, Mother,“ Kate said, ignoring the little voices inside her head, “he made my life miserable, and you never stopped him.” You knew all along, didn’t you? she thought. Dad came into my room and he did things he wasn’t suppose to do. You knew it. And you did nothing. Kate struggled to keep her emotions intact. Don’t do this now, she repeated to herself. It’s too late to change anything.

Lizzie cleared her throat and asked for another sip of water. Kate gave it to her. “Kate, your father loved you. You know that, don’t you?”

Kate nodded. “Yes, I suppose so, Mother,” and then she added bitterly, “but he had a funny way of showing it. And, sometimes, I just wanted you to be on my side, to defend me. You never stopped him. Why?”

A silence fell between them, neither mother nor daughter desiring to continue this uncomfortable conversation. Kate knew that her mother would defend her father to the last breath. Lizzie, weak and exhausted, was struggling to maintain clarity. It was a barrier they had rarely crossed because it was just too painful.

Kate finally broke the silence. “Let’s just forget this, Mother. You have other things to think about.” Kate gave Lizzie another sip of water and Lizzie closed her eyes, too tired to continue. She drifted off into a restless sleep, and Kate left the room.

At the end of the week, Lizzie died late in the evening while all three children — Kate, Frank, and Willy — were at her side. The disagreements among the three siblings began immediately with the funeral arrangements, even though Lizzie had planned and arranged almost everything before her death. Unlike Al, who spoke at his mother’s funeral, Kate refused to do anything. She found it difficult to be involved but the daughter of a Donohue would not neglect her responsibilities. She helped to plan the services and she made sure the church was ready. She greeted people at the funeral as they arrived and when they left.

The family decided to have a private burial, and as they drove to the cemetery, Kate realized that she was now alone — the two people who knew her secret were dead, never to speak or tell anyone again. She turned to Al, who was driving their car in a small cavalcade to the cemetery, and said, “It’s over, Al. It’s over. No one is alive now who knows.”

“Knows what, Kate?” Al asked. “What are you talking about?” Al looked her way, but since he was driving, he couldn’t see her facial expression very well.

“Everything,” Kate said. “It’s a secret now and no one will know.”

“What are you talking about, Kate?”

“Nothing, Al. Nothing. No one will ever know. The only one left who knows is me and I’ll never tell.”

Al pulled off to the side of the small dirt road in the cemetery and parked the car. They got out of their car and joined Kate’s brothers and their families. The minister recited the Twenty-Third Psalm and all bowed their heads while Lizzie’s casket was lowered into the ground. Before the cemetery employees began to fill the grave, each of Lizzie Jacobsen’s children threw a clump of dirt into it. As Kate threw hers in, she thought: No one will ever know now that Dad came into my room, over and over again, and got into bed with me and touched me where he should not have touched me. He always smelled of liquor and tobacco, and I hated him! You should have stopped him, Mother. You should have stopped him! I’ll never forgive you for that, for as long as I live.

Disclaimer: While it is true that my characters were inspired by my own genealogical study, I could not and did not know my ancestors with the same intimacy that I have created in my characters. Therefore, let it be said that these characters are fictional and created from my own imagination. Similarity to persons living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.

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