Until My Dying Breath

UNTIL MY DYING BREATH Remember the lyrics from a song on TV’s Hee-Haw that lamented,"If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all?" Well, that could have been the theme song of a long-time patient of mine, Barbara Brown. But despite enough trials hurled her way to compose a Grammy-winning country song, Barbara was the most upbeat and inspiring patient I ever doctored.

The seventh of eight children, Barbara was born to an alcoholic mom and a marginally employed abusive dad. Her mother spent nights chug-a-lugging whiskey at the nearest bar, and days zonked out on the couch, hung-over. Her father clobbered his wife and children for the slightest infraction—a charred burger or sibling squabble. In short, Barbara had every excuse to resort to drugs and alcohol herself—anything to escape the hellhole she was forced to call home. Instead, she discovered a surrogate mother, at a neighborhood church, where the pastor’s wife and several other church ladies ensured she had school clothes, encouragement, and plenty of warm hugs. To survive the abuse, her siblings stuck together like a school of guppies. “How could I become bitter when my oldest sisters worked hard after school to buy peanut butter, bread, and milk? God blessed me with wonderful sisters and a church family so I had much to be grateful for.”

Still, when a handsome classmate took an interest in her and proposed marriage right after high school, it didn’t take much persuasion. A road out of Dysfunction Junction? Hand me the map! “When Roger held me in his arms and told me he’d always take care of me, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d always wanted to be a wife and mother and Roger made that dream come true.”

Over the next twelve years, she bore five active boys who kept her running from baseball to football to swimming. At age forty, she delivered a baby girl with Down’s syndrome. While many women would feel devastated or overwhelmed with the demands of a mentally handicapped child, Barbara adored her baby girl. “You couldn’t find a more loving child. Her smiles and hugs light up my day.”

Life was good until the dreadful day her husband revealed, while he still loved her and didn't want to break up their family, he now realized he was gay and could no longer "deny who he really was." She had a choice: divorce or put up with a husband who caroused at gay bars on Saturday nights. She was crushed, as she still loved him. Deeply religious, she didn't believe in divorce, and didn't want to destroy the loving family they had created together. "He's a great father, a good provider, he doesn't drink or beat me. He's kind and gentle and we’ve been through so much together. How can I give that all up just because he has this one problem?" she asked, tears rolling down her cheek. She blew her nose and wiped her eyes. "What do I do? He says he still loves me and doesn't want a divorce.” She wrung her tissue between her fingers. “But it kills me every time he leaves on Saturday night—I know what he’s up to."

Right or wrong, she chose to stay and she developed a cordial, co-parenting partnership with him. Despite the emotional pain and betrayal she insisted, "I’m choosing to focus on what is good in Roger. And there's a lot that's good."

She channeled her hurt into a quilting group she started at her church to raise money for an orphanage in Africa. Some of the quilts were so exquisite they fetched over $1200 apiece. "I might not have a college degree, but I know how to quilt and God can use any talent we have for His glory."

If a rotten childhood, gay husband, and handicapped child weren’t challenging enough, Barbara's health nosedived. First, breast cancer necessitating a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. Then, diabetes, brittle enough to require multiple insulin injections and a strict diet. A year later, despite daily aspirin and cholesterol-lowering medications, her heart and neck arteries clogged and she required a quadruple coronary artery by-pass graft and carotid artery surgery. With time, her vision deteriorated from macular degeneration. She could no longer read or stitch the intricate quilts on which she’d built her reputation.

Did she complain or give up? No! Instead, she started a cooking class for all the newly weds at her church because, "some of these girls can barely boil water. Don't they teach Home Economics any more?"

The class was a hit. Some weeks, over twenty-five women learned to roll a piecrust, baste a roast, and steam vegetables to "al dente." The women graced the tables with red plaid tablecloths, cleverly folded napkins, and vases teeming with daisies. The young wives would giggle and glow as they served home-cooked feasts to a roomful of hungry (and grateful) husbands.

Unfortunately, Barbara’s health declined even further. She suffered such severe lumbar disc disease, osteoarthritis of the knees, and leg swelling that she could only get around in a wheelchair. Worse still, her kidneys failed, requiring thrice-weekly hemodialysis. She was now too weak to cook for herself, let alone teach a class.

To his credit, her husband kept his promise to always take care of her and took over the cooking, cleaning, shopping, banking, and nursing care. He drove her to her lengthy dialysis treatments every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and he carefully divvied out her medicines at the proper time. He prepared a strict diabetic, renal, low-salt diet.

Eventually, his strength waned from all the responsibility so the couple hired a homemaker to help with the cooking and housekeeping. Turns out, the woman couldn't cook!  Roger wanted to fire her on the spot—“she’s useless," he insisted. But Barbara’s response? "We can't fire her, Roger. She's a single mom and needs this job. If she can't cook, she'll be fired where ever she goes and then what will happen to her two little girls?"

You guessed it. Barbara, while sitting in her wheelchair, legs propped up to reduce swelling, nearly blind, riddled with arthritis, and requiring regular dialysis, taught the "home-maker" how to prepare chicken and dumplings, beef stew, quiche, and meatloaf. "God put this girl in my life so I can teach her to cook and improve her job skills. I may not be able to walk or read the fine print on recipes anymore, but even in a wheelchair I can teach her to sift flour and baste chicken. Until my dying breath, I will bless others any way I can.”

Unfortunately, Barbara passed away several years ago. But I will never forget her make-the-best-of-what-you've-got-left attitude. She looked for ways to bless others with whatever strength and ability she still had left. She found joy, humor, and purpose in life, despite her disabilities. She recognized the good qualities and the potential in a husband, handicapped child, and hired homemaker that others would condemn or write off as a burden. Abraham Lincoln said it best: "Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be."