Life’s Legacy

Sheila Breaux battles cancer and loses – but her story lives on. This and other articles explore important end-of-life issues.The New DayWithout looking back, the rabbit stretched itself tall and bounded eagerly toward the forest. It was on its way, a wild little spirit set free.

By Marina Brown

The sky was that particular color of Wedgwood blue that only comes in the fall. And even then the vibrancy lasts for just a few moments.

Tilting her head, with only a little discomfort, the young woman seemed to be swallowing the color, nourishing herself with its richness.

{mosimage}Somewhere to the left, above the tall forest pines, snatched glimpses of a hawk making black arcs against the blue suddenly made her laugh. “So free,” she murmured. A smile played around her lips. Then, with a sigh, she took a deep drag from a cigarette.

The morning sun still slanted; it hadn’t warmed the clearing in the woods where Sheila Breaux’s trailer sat. Actually, it was her sister’s home, not far from Lake Talquin State Park, somewhere along State Road 20, nestled in a cluster of other working-man’s trailers. Sheila sat on the porch, alone except for a little dog named Scrappy, the hawk that circled overhead and – ever-present – her cancer.

She didn’t like to talk about the cancer. She was 45 years old, for goodness’ sake, and cancer was the last thing on her mind that day seven years ago when it had barged into her life. She didn’t like even thinking about it. But it was there, alright. Right there in her left breast, deep in the bones of her pelvis and spine, and scattered throughout her brain.

“There’s no gettin’ around it, I’ve got cancer pretty much everywhere, I guess,” she said. Then she lit another cigarette and pulled Scrappy up into her lap while peering at the sky for a hawk that had soared away.

Sheila Breaux once had been the one who soared. Soared and swooped and plunged and occasionally crashed. A self-described “wild child” as a girl, she guessed she’d given her mother enough white hairs to make a “snowy wig. And now she’s takin’ care of me again.”

She casually mentioned a small lump she had felt in her breast – nothing significant – just wondered what it was.

Sheila’s mother, Lucilla York, comes out onto the porch. She is small and round, Southern country-gentility in her every word. She looks at her daughter, now sitting in a wheelchair.

“Would you like a sweater, honey?” Lucilla asks.

For a moment, Sheila doesn’t answer – her eyes are hooded as if she has slipped into sleep. Then she rouses, smiles and tells her mother she’s fine as long as she’s in the sunshine.

With a sigh, Lucilla makes room for Scrappy, who has bounded up beside her and is waiting to be petted. Lucilla glances at Sheila, sitting pale and rail-thin, a soft cap covering her bald head, and thinks of her dynamic, stubborn firstborn child and how everything had changed.

Sheila and her sister, Sherry, were born in Moultrie, Ga., where her parents ran a seafood retail store. In the small-town atmosphere of churchgoers and polite conformity, Sheila always felt like an outsider.

“She had this free spirit inside her,” says her mother. Speaking with a soft drawl filled with regret and love, Lucilla says that “she was a wild, independent girl, a tomboy who was hard to rein in.”

Sheila was pregnant at 16 and, by 19, had married a Mr. Jenkins and was the mother of two. Still, though, she liked to party.

“But no matter what happened in her life, Sheila never blamed anybody,” her mother recalls. “She just took life as it came, worked hard at her job and didn’t much look back.”

When her first marriage ended, Sheila had married Mr. Doyle. But that marriage was short and forgettable. And she still liked to party. Eventually, after believing she had beaten her first battle with cancer, a charismatic Cajun, Mr. Breaux, would enter her life, and she would marry him and move to Texas.

Throughout her marriages and moves, Sheila had worked at Wal-Mart. She liked the people and the way the store “stood by its employees.” In the rollercoaster of her personal life, that store and her family would be the only constants. And then, in the end, just family would remain. But at the end of life, “family” comes to mean many things.

Suddenly, Sheila’s eyes jerk open. “I think I just heard Cathy’s car!” she says, alert and listening. She gives her mother a grin and turns her wheelchair to face the moving plume of dust advancing toward the trailer.

For Sheila, the sound of Catherine White’s car has come to mean that her pain will be kept at bay – that there is someone who won’t shirk from seeing or touching the cancer that is ravaging her body – and that there is someone who is willing to go wherever Sheila wants to, emotionally, on that day.

Cathy is like family, but “better than family,” Sheila says. “You don’t have to put on any show for her – I can kind of relax and ask her those tough questions, you know – the ones your family doesn’t want to hear.”

The tan Honda pulls to a stop. Cathy has driven into these woods several times a week for a month – sometimes every day, sometimes at 5 a.m. when Sheila has called. A registered nurse at Covenant Hospice, Cathy has been in the nursing profession for 19 years.

“Working at Covenant,” she says, “I find I don’t have the constraints of a regimented hospital or inpatient unit. I can advocate for my patients’ choices; whatever they want is what I’ll try to get for them.”

And dying with the “smell of the forest all around me” is what Sheila says she wants to do.

But not before its time – and not without an effort to live.

It was in Tallahassee, around 1998, that Sheila was doing a simple favor for her stepson, Doyle’s son, taking him to the doctor for a minor complaint. While there, she casually mentioned a small lump she had felt in her breast – nothing significant – just wondered what it was. The doctor wondered too. And so began an odyssey of probings, biopsies, a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. She fought hard and was optimistic. And by the time she turned 40, she would have skirmished with and apparently triumphed over breast cancer, a disease whose occurrence in young women can be one of the deadliest of all cancers.

Feeling healthy again, her sunny spirit restored, the reemergence of the “wild girl” would catch the eye of the Cajun, and “with few second thoughts,” the two were off to Texas. It was the middle of 2000.

The sun has risen high above the tin roof of the trailer porch. Sheila pulls off the little sleeping cap and scratches a soft dusting of light-brown hair atop her head. Her ears seem large and her smooth, soft skin almost transparent. Cathy is kneeling beside her, her fingers tracing a tube that stretches from Sheila’s arm to a bag slung on the back of the wheelchair. Sheila stares into Cathy’s face.

“How’m I doin’?” she asks, like a child waiting for arithmetic exam results.

The nurse calculates from a sophisticated pump, a computerized device that tracks how many times Sheila has pushed the button which will release an extra dose of opiate into her bloodstream. Sheila is on massive amounts of pain relievers – enough to fell someone without such extensive metastasis. But the steady infusion and the extra “rescue” doses are doing exactly what the nurse and Sheila have hoped. It’s making it possible for Sheila to stay at home, sit on her porch and smell the sweet fragrance of the woods.

The doctor wondered too. And so began an odyssey of probings, biopsies, a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy.

It was the remembrance of this place, where her sister lived with her daughter in the simple blue trailer, with barbecues on Saturday afternoons, where her sons lived a stone’s throw away, that had called to Sheila when she “lost the roll of the dice.”

“Well, I was just movin’ some shelves at the store,” she says, “when I felt this awful pain in my back. You know how that goes,” she smiles faintly. “It turned out I just missed the ‘five year cure’ – it was the ol’ cancer back again, and it was in my bones – and my brain.”

Sheila left the Cajun, though he visited a few times, and she returned to her family.

“My sister always said we’d take care of each other, and sure enough, she’s doin’ a good job of it now.”

Her Tallahassee doctor was a straight talker, a realist.

“He told me I wouldn’t have long – he told me I should go out and enjoy my life. I’m glad he told me that,” she says. “I didn’t have any money for fancy trips or anything, but it’s the little things, like being able to sleep late, eating what I want and when, being with Mom and my sister and . . .” – she remembers something that brightens her face.

“Mom, go get my bunny!”

Lucilla brings back a miniature gray rabbit and places it in the palms of Sheila’s hands.

“Her name is Hoppy,” Sheila says.

For the moment, the intravenous line pumping opiates is forgotten, as are the facts that Sheila’s legs no longer can support her and that her memory has become spotty and confused. For this moment, Cathy, Lucilla and Sheila are just three caring women, bonded in a matrix of love for another creature that can’t care for itself.

Sheila had never wanted to go to a hospital. She had resisted walkers and canes. It was impossible to keep her in a bed.

“She always told me,” Cathy says, that “I’ll know when it’s time to let go. When I take to my bed, that’ll mean the end is comin’.”

And then, when the weather had turned colder and the sky managed only a pewter glow, Cathy said the words that Sheila could hear only from someone she trusted implicitly. Cathy told her she shouldn’t get up. The pain had come back with a vengeance; her legs, her back, each movement, even breathing seemed to bring pain. The medication was increased; new medicines were added. And comfort came – but so did sleepiness. Sheila needed to stay in the safety of her bed.

Aides came three times a week to help Lucilla and Sherry in caring for Sheila; Cathy came daily. One day after a visit from the Rev. Cabaniss, the Pentecostal minister Lucille had sent in to make sure Sheila was “alright with the Lord,” Sheila had turned to Cathy, strangely lucid and aware.

“You know,” she said, looking straight at her nurse, “I’m not afraid of dying, but I will miss my family. I know that Jesus will be there to meet me – and that at last, there’ll be no pain, no sorrow.”

She’d asked for her bunny to be laid beside her, and the little animal had curled up with its head resting gently just where the cancer grew. She slept for a while, and then said, as if she had been thinking it through, “You know, we’ve been lucky. It was important for my family to care for me, and important for me to receive that care. We got to live the love we feel for each other. It’s been like a gift to each other.” Sheila paused for a moment. “But now it’s time for me to put a little distance between my family and me – it’s time for me to go on.”

The next day, Sheila began to die. Her restlessness increased all through the day; her temperature spiked, and her pulse rate became too fast to count. She wanted to sit up; she needed to move. But moving hurt, and only the medicine brought relief. Slowly her lungs began to fail. Sheila’s breathing was rapid; her heart needed oxygen, but her lungs couldn’t provide enough.

Sherry, Lucilla, Sheila’s niece Cheree and her son, Nathan, were at her bedside for the hours of her dying. The Covenant nurse stayed around the clock. “To neither hasten nor prolong death” is the hospice motto – and yet to honor the courage of the person who is undertaking the momentous work of dying.

In the early hours of a late-fall Saturday morning, Sheila’s family individually went to her bedside and told her they loved her – and told her that although they would miss her with all their hearts, it was time to let go and depart. It was time for the suffering to end. And it did. With her mother holding her hand, Shelia’s breathing began to slow. Longer and longer were the spaces between breaths. Quieter and more shallow the respirations became.

And finally, with one gentle sigh, they stopped.

The whole trailer seemed enveloped in a strange quiet. Without the sound of breathing that had so filled their ears, there seemed a silence that pounded in their heads. And yet, the delicate, ivory features of Sheila now were tranquil. It was alright.

There was only one thing left to do.

The tiny bunny that Sheila had insisted lie close to her when she had taken to her bed still lay nestled beside her still body. Like a tiny guardian, it had supported her in life, a miniature symbol of the freedom and wild spirit they both shared. And like Sheila, it was time for the bunny’s release as well. Sherry picked up the little rabbit, kissing it lightly on the head, and placed it gently next to the open door.

The night air rushed in, cool and fresh. The rabbit hesitated for a moment, and then pointed its face toward the dark of the woods. It seemed to be listening, to be sensing something. Perhaps it smelled the morning, the possibilities of a new day. And then, without looking back, it stretched itself tall and bounded eagerly toward the forest.

It was on its way, a wild little spirit set free. Free at last.

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