Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reflections of My Mother

Note: I wanted to give you all a brief update. The results from the genetic test are going to take longer than we originally thought. In fact they won’t be available until the middle of May. So I’ve decided to take a trip to Mississippi to help Erin with the boys since her doctor has put her on total bed rest. She isn’t due until the end of June, but she has been experiencing various signs of early labor. So I’m going to do my part to make sure our little granddaughter stays put until it’s safe to come out. Besides enjoying my time with Erin, Asher and Gabe, it will help me keep my mind off things until the test results are released. After that, it will be decision time for us. The oncologist we visited with, Dr. David Einspahr, was very kind and helpful. He wants to visit with us again after I return from my trip. Meanwhile, Dr. Berntsen recommended that I have a colonoscopy done, so I bit the bullet and took care of that last week. Thank God, the results came back fine.

With Mother’s Day coming up, I’ve decided to share something I wrote shortly after my mother, Peggy Van Kirk, passed away from breast cancer in 1989. Some of you may have already read this. If so, I hope that you will enjoy reading it again. Happy Mother’s Day and God’s blessings to each of you! ~ Eileen

The Van Kirk Family, 1960 (Before youngest brother Bob was born.)

“Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” ~ Exodus 20:12 (KJV)

On Sunday, May 7, 1989, exactly one week before Mother’s Day, my own mother passed away. I don’t know that this will interest anyone, but I somehow feel the need to write down my thoughts and share them with someone. I hope you don’t mind.

My mother was born on November 25, 1925. When she was two and a half years old her father died. She had one younger sister, Mary, who was six months old at the time. My grandmother could have married again, but she always said there was no one for her but her Bill. So she never did. Much of my mom’s growing up years were spent at the home of my grandmother. She had several brothers and sisters who all helped take care of them.

My mom met my dad while she was attending nursing school. Both of their moms were friends. So when my dad got stood up by his date for a night at the Ice Capades, his mother called mom’s mother. She asked whether her Peggy would like to go out with her Joe. Mom agreed. Dad says that he knew the moment he helped her with her coat that night that she was the girl he would one day marry. He was right. They were married on June 19, 1948. Last summer they celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary by returning to the place of their honeymoon in Vermont. It was something they always wanted to do. I’m so glad they did.

My mom and dad always wanted a large family and have one they did. It started out with a daughter, Peggy, named for my mom, followed by Patricia, named for my mom’s Uncle Pat who had been a father figure for her all her life. Then came Connie and I’m not sure who she was named for. While in the hospital after Connie was born, Mom told my dad, “Joe, I had a dream last night. I dreamt I had six little girls. They were all dressed alike, standing in a row.” That dream eventually came true. After Connie came Joanne and then their firstborn son, named Joseph Edward Van Kirk, Jr. After Joe came my sister Mary, who was named for Mom’s only sister. Then I came along. Mom said I was named after her best friend from nursing school. My brother Bill (William Augusta) followed just sixteen months later. He was named after our maternal and paternal grandfathers. Last, but not least, was my brother Bob (Robert Alois) who was named after two lifelong friends of the family.

My dad worked for the 3M Company and was transferred around quite a bit. They moved about fourteen times in their married life, usually to different states and once overseas to Singapore. Until their last move to Florida, they always had several kids in tow. I don’t know how she did it.

My mom worked so hard. She was such a loving wife and mother. I can remember coming down for breakfast on school mornings and finding a long line of bowls with soft boiled eggs and toast in them. Those who ran late had hard boiled eggs. Then when we were all dressed and ready for school we’d come down and find a row of brown sack lunches waiting for us.

Mom always made holidays special. On our birthday we got a day off from doing household chores and received several gifts. We also got to choose the kind of cake we wanted. I always chose angel food. Every year on Thanksgiving we had the traditional turkey feast with all the trimmings. On Easter Mom would make up individual Easter baskets for all of us and hide them around the house. What fun! Even on Valentine’s Day she would give each of us a card and a small gift chosen especially for us. But the biggest holiday of all at our house was Christmas. Each year they’d take home movies of all the kids in their pajamas, lined in a row from oldest to youngest. Mom made us all big red stockings with our names on them and these were hung along the fireplace. When my sister Connie was old enough, she would dress up as Santa and come around the house from the outside, surprising the younger ones to no end. We never noticed that she was missing from the crowd and we never recognized her! We all took turns on Santa’s lap, telling him what we wanted for Christmas. On Christmas morning we would all rush down the stairs to find a living room full of presents. We would scurry around trying to find our own individual pile. I know how much effort it takes to shop for that many people and then wrap all those presents. Again, I find myself wondering how she did it.

In 1982, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. They did a mastectomy but found the cancer had already spread. The past seven years she has undergone many different types of chemotherapy. She lost her hair and was very sick from the treatment much of the time. She did manage to have some good years, though. It was like a yo-yo. She fought so hard to live and enjoy life and she never complained. Last month her doctor said that she was a master at masking the pain. Even when she smiled and seemed well we can only wonder how much pain she was actually in.

My mom always thought of others. She really started going downhill this past March and on March 7 she entered the hospital. She was in and out for the next six weeks but mostly in. When she was home, though, she found the energy to shop for a gift for her daughter-in-law because the blouse she’d sent her for Christmas hadn’t fit. Then she insisted on shopping for shirts for two of my sisters who both had upcoming birthdays. My sister Joanne was there at the time. She said that Mom was actually shaking but she was determined to wrap each present individually. She also included a gift for me and one for her new little grandson, Kirk Van. From the hospital she wrote Keen and me a letter thanking us for some flowers we had sent. Her handwriting was not good. You could tell it took a great deal of effort for her to write it. I think she knew it might be the last time she wrote for she closed it by saying, “Take care, dear children. I love you. Mom.” I cry every time I read it. She also wrote one to Jared, Josh and Keen II, thanking them for the cards they made for her. She wrote, “I will try to draw a picture of the hospital, although I am not as good as you.” I will also enclose lots of kisses and hugs….you know I love you.” I cry when I read that, too.

Mom grew progressively worse in April, but one day in there she felt well enough to talk. Dad called me and said, “There’s someone here who wants to talk to you.” Our new son, Kirk, was only ten days old. Mom wanted to ask me about him. We had always shared the births of my babies and she hadn’t wanted to miss out on that. Her voice was weak and shaky but she asked, “Is he a good baby? Does he sleep good at night? How are you feeling? Are you getting your strength back?” All those mother-daughter things. When we were finished talking, something welled up inside me. It was like deep down inside I knew that this might be the last time I ever talked with my mom. So before we hung up I cried and said, “I love you with all my heart, Mom.” As it turned out, those were the last words I ever said to her.

During the last two or three weeks of Mom’s life she was on morphine constantly for the pain. She slept most of the time, but when she woke up enough to say something, it was always something loving and sweet. She was herself to the end. One time she actually sat up in her bed, clenched her fists and said, “I want all the people of the whole world to know that I have the greatest husband in the whole world!” One or more of my brothers and sisters were with her all the time. Of course my dad was with her from morning to night every day. They cherished every word she uttered and even wrote them down so we could all share them. My youngest brother Bob took it especially hard. He was just sobbing and sobbing by her bedside. Her protective mothering instincts were still an active part of her. After seeing how hard it was on him, she became adamant about him leaving. “Go home! Get out of here! Enough! Enough of this! I don’t want you to see me like this!” She was actually yelling. She was trying to protect him from the pain. Later, she held Bob’s hand and said, “I will show you by the strength of my hand that I want you out of here.” She squeezed as hard as she could, showing amazing strength. When my sister Mary told her that they wanted to be with her, she sighed and said, “Oh, boy.” Later Mary said, “Mom, we owe you so much. How do you repay someone for a lifetime of love?” In a weak voice, Mom replied, “You don’t owe me anything.” Another time she softly said, “We’ll be together forever.” I hope that’s true. She uttered words of love and caring whenever she spoke saying things like, “You’re beautiful; I’ve always loved you; you’ll be fine.” Once she kept repeating the word love, love, love. So Mary asked, “Do you want everyone to know that you love them, Mom? Is that what you’re trying to say? Do you want me to tell everyone that you love them?” Her eyes widened and she nodded her head up and down. Then she said, “Always stay together….all nine.”

Before Mom passed away Mary was crying and hugging her. With her face so close to Mom’s she was able to hear the words she whispered ever so softly, “Don’t cry.”

I’m going to miss my mom so much. Right after I received the news of her death I can remember looking around outside and thinking to myself, “The whole world looks different without a mother.”

It will never be the same without Mom. I’ll never be the same. Our eight-year-old son, Josh summed it up best with a note he wrote. It read, “I love you Grandma. I wish you didn’t have to die.”

The Van Kirk Family, 1979

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Road Never Traveled

“Fear not, (there is nothing to fear) for I am with you; do not look around you in terror and be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen and harden you (to difficulties); yes, I will help you . . . When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God . . .” ~ Isaiah 41:10; 43:2,3a

I’m not quite sure where to begin, except to say that this past month has been a difficult one, to say the least. For that reason, I’m going to have to take a break from writing my column for awhile.

As you know, I took a trip to Mississippi in February to visit our oldest son Jared, his wife, Erin, and our two grandsons, Asher and Gabe. The night before my arrival, Jared learned that he would be deployed overseas for an undetermined length of time. (He just left last week.) Then Erin started having some premature contractions and had to be admitted to the hospital. Thankfully, she is doing fine now, but I had hoped to go down to help her for several weeks if necessary. Then life threw me a curve ball.

In mid-March, I went in for my yearly mammogram, which I’m faithful to get because my mother died from breast cancer and my late sister Patricia was diagnosed with it at the age of 38. The test results showed some signs of microcalcifications, which are tiny flecks of calcium – like grains of salt – which can either be non-cancerous or an indication of an early breast cancer.

The next step was to have magnification views taken of that specific area. The radiologist who read my films said that the results were “indeterminate.” In other words, he couldn’t really tell if it was something, and he really couldn’t say that it wasn’t. So he recommended a biopsy.

Keen and I arrived at St. Francis Hospital for the biopsy on Thursday, March 23, which was the one year anniversary of my sister Patricia’s death. Not a good day.

The doctor removed eleven samples during the procedure, and the following Monday I received a call from my doctor’s office saying that two of the eleven samples revealed the presence of “ductal carcinoma in situ” (DCIS). Our son Josh (a third-year medical student at KU), immediately began researching this type of cancer and learned that DCIS is the most common form of non-invasive breast cancer in women. Ductal carcinoma refers to the development of cancer cells within the milk ducts of the breast, and in situ means “in place,” referring to the fact that the cancer has not moved out of the duct into any surrounding tissue. (Thank God.)

One of the internet links Josh sent me was, where they answered the question about whether DCIS is really cancer:

We generally think of cancer as a type of disease that grows out of control. DCIS, on the other hand, is not an invasive cancer. It stays inside the milk duct of the breast in which it started. . . .it does not spread outside the duct into the normal surrounding breast tissue, to the lymph nodes, or to other organs. In the staging system that doctors use to classify cancer, DCIS is known as Stage 0. And it is sometimes called "pre-cancer."

So that’s the good news within the bad news. I’m sure you can imagine how relieved I am to know that we caught it at this stage before it spread to any other part of my body.

Whenever one of my kids or friends have gone through trying times, I’ve always encouraged them to focus on the positive aspects of the situation rather than the negative, because focusing on the negative only brings you down and destroys your spirit. So now I guess it’s my turn to practice what I preach.

“Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on . . . the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned. . . .”
~ Philippians 4:8 (The Message Bible)

That’s not to say that fear has not reared its ugly head a time or two this past couple of weeks, or that I have not shed my share of tears. Someone commented about how it must be hard for me not to think about what happened to my mother. But my situation is very different from my mother’s. By the time they discovered her breast cancer it had already spread to the lymph nodes. Although she took all the treatments and fought it bravely for seven years, it eventually took her life at the age of 62. But in my case, it was discovered before it had spread to any other part of my body. Therefore, the doctors have said that my prognosis is very good – and for that, I am extremely grateful.

“Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

~ Psalms 43: 5

Our next step was an appointment with Dr. Bernita Berntsen, a surgeon from Topeka. I was blessed to have plenty of family support from my husband Keen, our sons Josh & Keen II, and Josh’s wife, Lisa. We all agreed that Dr. Berntsen was just wonderful. She spent at least 45 minutes with us interpreting the pathologist’s report and explaining all of the options. Her first recommendation was for me to have my blood drawn and sent to a company in Utah which conducts a test for hereditary risk of breast and ovarian cancer known as a BRAC Analysis ( With the history of cancer in my family (my father also had two bouts with cancer), combined with the fact that my sister was diagnosed before the age of 40 and I am under 50, Dr. Berntsen felt it would be worthwhile information for us to have, and it will help us determine the best course of treatment. If the test comes back positive, showing that I have a genetic abnormality or mutation, then my risk of developing breast cancer sometime in the future increases to 56% to 86%; and my risk for ovarian cancer increases to 27% - 44%. In that case, the doctor would recommend a double mastectomy and the removal of my ovaries. However, if the test comes back negative, then I can opt for a less drastic and less invasive form of treatment which would involve removing the breast tissue around the affected area (also known as a lumpectomy), followed by seven weeks of radiation treatment. Either way, I am looking at a challenging couple of months, which is why I need to take some time off from writing my weekly column. I also hope to spend some of this time researching the various options for getting my book published, now that the manuscript has been revised and is completed.

The other day I came across this verse from II Corinthians 12:9:

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

That’s what I’m clinging to and counting on – that God is faithful and His grace will be sufficient for me, regardless of what road I may have to travel in the future. In addition, it is my sincerest hope and prayer that something positive will come out of this negative situation, and that perhaps my experience will serve as a wake-up call to other women who have been procrastinating about getting a mammogram. Even though it can be frightening, (and no one relishes the thought of having their breast squished between two flat surfaces) – early detection is the key. It’s like my son Jared said, “It’s not the cancer that kills you; it’s the spread of cancer.” In fact, the microcalcifications found in my breast could not have been detected by a simple exam. So this is one situation where "what you don’t know can hurt you."

Of course Keen has been incredibly loving and supportive throughout this whole ordeal. He even brought me a dozen white roses the day I received the results of the biopsy. But something he shared with me has really helped me through some rough spots. He said that our situation reminded him of the story about when the disciples were in the boat with Jesus during a terrible storm. The winds were blowing and the waves were getting higher and higher. All the while, Jesus was sleeping peacefully. Finally the panicky disciples woke Him up and said, “Lord, save us, we are perishing!” And Jesus replied, “Oh ye men of little faith.” Then He rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was “a great calm.” The disciples remarked to each other: “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” Keen compared that to what we are going through. The waves are beating against our boat and the winds are blowing fiercely, but Jesus is in our boat, and He has everything under control. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. So our level of peace during this difficult time is dependent upon our level of faith. Do we really trust God to take us safely to the other side?

“Do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you yourself shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come to you by the grace of God.” ~ Phillips Brooks

After I learned that Jared was going to be deployed, I was reading through Asher’s little Bible (which Rocky, their Labrador, chewed into a million pieces the very next day), and I came across the following verse:

“No one knows what lies ahead. So who can tell what’s going to happen? He can’t stop the wind from blowing. And he doesn’t have the power to decide when he will die. No one is let out of the army in times of war.” ~ Ecclesiastes 8:7-8a (NIRV)

As much as we would like to think that we can control the outcome of our lives, or that we can protect ourselves or our children from all harm, we really can’t. No one knows the future except God. Our part is simply to trust. Trust in His wisdom. Trust in His mercy. Trust in His love.

“One of the ways that our faith expresses itself is by our ability to be still, to be present, and not to panic or lose perspective. God still does his best work in the most difficult of circumstances.” ~ Tim Hansel

There is a very special poem called The Rosebud (author unknown), that talks about how we humans cannot unfold a rosebud, no matter how hard we try. It is something that happens in its own time, and in its own miraculous way.
Photograph by Patricia Van Kirk

The poem reads in part:

If I cannot unfold a rosebud,
This flower of God's design,
Then how can I have the wisdom
To unfold this life of mine
So I'll trust in God for leading
Each moment of my day.
I will look to Him for guidance
Each step along the way
The path that lies before me,
Only my Lord knows.
So I'll trust Him to unfold the moments,
Just as He unfolds the rose.

“Would you question Me of things to come concerning my children?”

~ Isaiah 45:11b (Amp)

Before I close, I would like to thank my family and friends for their love, support and prayers. I would also like to thank Joann Kahnt for graciously allowing me to share the journey of my life for the past three years. Thank you for your understanding, Joann, and for assuring me that you will welcome me back whenever I am ready to start writing again – even if it is only once a month. My heartfelt thanks also go out to you, my readers, because without you, I would be talking to myself – and Heaven knows, I already do enough of that!

Lastly, I would like to share the following poem I wrote several years ago during another difficult period in our life:

By Eileen Umbehr

I sit here, Lord, with my paper and pen
Wondering why, wondering when
My heart seems to beat out of my chest
Help me, Lord, to enter Your rest.

So many questions, so few answers
Fear runs rampant, like a dreaded cancer.
I feel so alone, in the still of the night,
How do I overcome this unbearable fright?

Night after night, I lose hours of sleep
Unable to trust in the Shepherd of the sheep
But I cannot run, neither can I hide
So I will face the future, with God by my side.

For life, though a struggle,
is a gift nonetheless
We must keep the faith
until we pass the test.

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” ~ Isaiah 40:28-31