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October Harvest: Digging Up More Than Vegetables

Through all the emotions churning in my heart and the thoughts whipping through my mind, part of me continues to feel detached, as if watching this life-changing story unfold from the outside. Maybe it is trying to protect the rest of me from the pain I might feel if I allow my guard down.
10/08/2014 04:05pm ET | Updated December 8, 2014
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It is harvest time here at our ranch in the Precipice Valley. The aspens have transformed from summer green to a brilliant gold, their leaves happily clapping in a chilly autumn wind, celebrating the bounty of our garden that we have laboriously packed away into the cool, darkness of the root cellar over the past week. I stand and stare at the luscious rainbow of colour: the royal purple cabbages, Halloween-orange carrots, pinkish red potatoes, creamy white heads of cauliflower and the last bunches of forest green broccoli -- all planted, tended and harvested by our own hands, now resting contentedly in boxes side by each. Our winter larder is full. And, yet, as I glory in this fact, there is something missing. I feel restless. Incomplete. Sad. I pause outside the root cellar door to ask myself: why?

---

October 10, 1997.

My 23-year-old daughter Sara, her boyfriend Brad and I meet with our GP Susan Ackland about Sara's test results at 8:45 a.m.

"It's not good news," Susan says, as she enters the tiny examination room. "It's malignant."

Sara lets out a strangled laugh. Shocked, Brad and I say nothing. Sara's next line is:

"If I have to have chemo, will my hair grow back curly?"

That makes Susan chuckle. It's like a scene from some dramatic film that I am in the middle of, but no one has given me my scripted lines. I sit and watch, listen, afraid to open my mouth because I will only speak tears. I try to hear Susan's words, waiting desperately for her to say "easily curable," but she doesn't. She says "treatable."

"Desmoplastic small round blue cell intraabdominal tumour" is the name. "What an odd string of words for such a deadly foe," I think, still sitting outside myself. I can see and hear Susan's pain in having to tell us this news. She is focused, thorough in her information, yet limited by this cancer's rarity.

Rare. Treatable. Chemo. SARA IS 23 YEARS OLD. How can this be?

We leave Susan's office. Sara and Brad are staying with me in Vancouver temporarily (my husband Lee, Sara's dad, is up at the ranch), but we arrived for this doctor's appointment in separate cars. Sara asks me if I am okay to drive by myself. Like a drunk in denial, I nod. I don't remember the drive home.

Back in the living room of our little basement suite, the reality of the situation hits us like a rogue wave. It knocks us off our feet, and we struggle desperately to regain control, not to drown, as a breath-consuming panic spirals us into a sea of the unknown.

"Mom, I don't want to die," says Sara, curled up on the couch. "I have too many things to see, to do. I don't want to die while you all live on without me. I'll miss being there. What does it mean that it's treatable but not curable? What are the odds of recovery? I don't want to know. What if they say 50/50? What if they say worse? How will Brad live on without me... is Dad coming? Oh, this will be so hard on Jenny (her sister). How am I going to tell my friends?"

"Oh, hi!" Sara mimics a phone call. "Yeah, I haven't seen you in a while. How are you? Oh, me? Well, no. I got my tests results back and I have cancer. Mom, I don't want to die before I've had a chance to have proper sex. Nothing -- losing Gypsy (her childhood pony), acne, vulvervistibulitus, depression, gland trouble, nothing is as bad as this!"

Sara is talking as if she is already dying.

I figure she has to say all this to try to accept what's happening to her. I don't try to convince her differently at this time. I feel she needs to come to terms with the worst so she can deal with what is to come. She needs to find a reason to go on living.

"How do you live without a future?" she asks. "If they tell me I have five years -- how do I live with that?"

To that I say, "Probably the future becomes whatever you have. Five years, 95 years, 3 months... time becomes something different."

"I don't want to die -- I'm young."

Gods! "I don't want you to die either, Sara," I cry out, the horror of that possibility too much to contemplate. "I wish I could take all this away and make it go away," I say through a stream of tears. We hold each other and cry together. I am so grateful we can talk and listen.

From the beginning of her life (Valentine's Day, February 14, 1974), Sara has been a bit different, challenging, intelligent, beautiful, aggravating, funny, witty, lovable and -- because she and I often think alike -- easy to understand. It is a cliche, but Sara was an old soul from the day she was born. And now, once again this tired little soul is beginning a new adventure which already seems exhausting even before it begins. Why? It just is.

Through all the emotions churning in my heart and the thoughts whipping through my mind, part of me continues to feel detached, as if watching this life-changing story unfold from the outside. Maybe it is trying to protect the rest of me from the pain I might feel if I allow my guard down.

---

Almost 20 years later, standing lost in memory among the fruits of our harvest, I realize that I have answered my own question. Why? It turns out there is no mystery to my feelings, except that I have been detached from what's behind them. It's early October 2014. Sara was diagnosed on October 10, 1997. She reclaimed that day by marrying Brad on October 10, 1998. We celebrated Sara's 26 years of life here in the Precipice Valley on October 10, 2000.

As I close the heavy wooden door of the root cellar, I find myself smiling a little. I can hear Sara saying in her logical way: "Mom, of course you feel restless, incomplete and sad because I am not there with you to share the glory of this year's bounty. Forgive yourself. Allow yourself to feel sad and weep aplenty if you need to. I like knowing that I am still missed. I like to know that you have a root cellar full of yummy food. And I thank you for keeping my memory alive -- forever and beyond."

Happy October Harvest!

-- Pat Taylor