When You Find Out You Only Have A Week To Live


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My cousin Phylis was a real character -- as evidenced by how she spelled her name -- one "L" and one "S." How many times did I hear her correcting shopkeepers, bank assistants, and newly acquired friends on the proper spelling of her first name? You would think that at some point she would have just acquiesced and gone back to the more traditional way of spelling her name. Not Phylis.

Phylis loved anything purple -- and her tiny apartment was filled to overflowing with silk flower arrangements -- all in varying shades of purple. My mother called them dust collectors. I described them -- somewhat derisively -- as useless relics from the 1950s.

A life-long, devoted Glen Campbell fan, Phylis regularly weaseled her way backstage at concerts to greet him and his family. And they remembered her.

Her home answering machine reflected her craziness over Al Hrabosky, the mad Hungarian St. Louis Cardinals pitcher. Every phone message ended up with a phrase that continues to echo in my mind: Psyche Up and Leave a Message.

I didn't meet Phylis until I was 35-years-old and pregnant with my fourth child. In fact, I didn't even know she existed until she moved with her mom to our city -- Cincinnati -- to be closer to her father's family.

Phylis loved her mother, but it was clear she had adored her late father, who died when Phylis was in high school. I think we sealed our relationship eternally when I gave birth to another son and named him after her father -- Sam Pastor. From that time on -- until her death -- Phylis was an integral part of our daily lives. And though she never married nor had children of her own, no one can deny the love and devotion she bestowed on her extended family.

Just a few short weeks ago, my husband and I were sitting at our breakfast table lazily lingering over our second cup of morning coffee when the phone rang and I picked it up. "This is Dr. E ....., your cousin Phylis's oncologist," he began. "I have your cousin Phylis with me and as you are her POA, I'd like to share some information with you. Phylis is not in remission. Phyllis's kidneys have failed and her whole entire body is riddled with cancer. At this juncture, she has two choices: she can undergo dialysis and chemotherapy or she can do nothing. Either way, she has about one week to live. And," he added dramatically, "if she goes the pro-active route, she will suffer more and the outcome will still be the same."

My cousin screamed. I started sobbing. My husband began to shake uncontrollably. Though I eventually ceased sobbing and my husband eventually ceased shaking, Phylis cried hysterically for the next five days -- until she slipped into a coma, sparing herself further mental anguish. She died eight days after the phone call.

What do you do when you are fully lucid, not in debilitating pain, confined to bed, and told by your trusted doctor that you have a week to live? You start -- in between bouts of hysteria and protestations that you don't want to die -- to say your goodbyes.

The only upside was that word had spread of her forthcoming and certain demise. Practically every friend she ever had surfaced. One flew in from Arizona. One drove all night from Philadelphia to get to her bedside. In-town friends and relatives came and stayed -- first in her ICU room and then in hospice. They released purple balloons at her graveside service and wore strands of purple beads around their necks.

But after her burial, going through the voicemails she left me and hearing her terrified messages while I was at my son's wedding in New Orleans, I wonder if perhaps there isn't a better, more humane way for physicians to break the news of impending death to their patients. I fervently wish that my beloved cousin had been spared the gory details.

Just a week later, an oversized envelope from the cancer treatment center arrived in my mailbox. Inside was a beautiful card signed by every staff person at the cancer treatment center -- offering our family condolences. I very much appreciated the gesture, but at the same time I couldn't get Phylis's agonized cries during her final days out of my head.

I'm not a huge fan of country music, but when I hear a Glen Campbell song I will always think of Phylis.

I prefer the color red to purple, but I will never quite see the color purple without thinking of Phylis and her ridiculous purple nylon wig she insisted on wearing after losing her hair during chemo treatments.

And though my family vehemently hates The Cardinals, as my son Frank said, "We hate them a little less today in Phylis's memory. But only for today."

The world is less bright with Phylis gone. She was someone who loved me and my children and my husband unconditionally. And I hope I was and will continue to be worthy of that love.

I have two wishes: May Phylis rest in peace eternally. And may we find a more compassionate way to tell a dying patient the end is near.

If you want more information about Iris's forthcoming book Tales of a Bulimic Baby Boomer, or to sign up for her weekly newsletter, visit www.irisruthpastor.com or follow her on Twitter @IrisRuthPastor.

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