Monsters exist. They lurk in the deepest, darkest recesses of our world. They watch from the shadows, ignoring many potential victims before setting their sights on the more unfortunate. They often strike without warning. Some monsters are swift and brutal killers. Others are subtle, hiding their presence until they have so thoroughly insinuated themselves that, once they make their existence known, it is often too late to save the victim.
These are sadistic and evil monsters. It is not enough to simply kill their victims. They feel the need to cripple and break a person’s spirit before consuming their lives and the lives of those around them. I probably sound like a madman, or I am describing one of the stories I like to write, but this is no fantasy. Monsters are real.
I do not speak of vampires, werewolves, demons, or other creatures made up to give people a fright or amuse them with tales of adventure. I refer to the real monsters—disease, and the most malevolent of them—cancer. I am no stranger to this fiend. It is one that has preyed upon my family so voraciously that I feel as if our last name should be Van Helsing.
The first time I came face to face with this monster was when it attacked my mother when I was just a small boy. Cancer had so ravaged her with its microscopic talons and teeth that it would take a miracle for her to survive. But she did. Perhaps part of her recovery was a miracle. A miracle aided by implanting a radioactive device inside her body for three days as if she were one of the preliminary tests in the Manhattan Project. While she did survive, the damage that the monster and her treatment caused was substantial and irreversible. While banished, her monster cursed her with eternal pain and suffering with its final breath.
But the monster did not stay gone. Like a demonic spirit, once it sets its sights on a family, it does not let go. Failing to take my mother, it struck at my paternal grandmother. Whether the monster had gotten smarter or it simply found a victim weakened by age, I cannot say, but she eventually succumbed to it despite the strength of her spirit.
We prayed that the nightmare was over, that the monster would be satisfied with its revenge and leave us be. That’s not how monsters work. Once they choose to haunt a family they do not relent. Cancer bided its time, returned to the shadows that spawned it, and waited for us to let down our guard.
Three years ago, my sister Kellie had been battling breathing problems for weeks. Doctors thought she was having asthma issues then possibly a minor case of pneumonia. Kellie returned to the doctor when she found it was frighteningly difficult to breathe one night. The doctor dismissed her problems as minor, much of it brought on by anxiety.
Unlike me, Kellie is not one to accept being dismissed. When she insisted that there was something truly wrong, the doctor threatened to have security escort her out, given her state of agitation. That was the wrong response.
Kellie was a sheriff’s deputy and had been one for twenty years. Nearly her entire tenure revolved around herding criminals at the county jail. Soon after her appointment, she faced a man a hundred pounds heavier and a foot and a half taller than her who decided he did not want to return to his cell, and a five-foot-nothing little girl was not going to change his mind.
He asked, “What are you going to do about it?”
Kellie looked up at him and said, “I’m going to jump up your ass and explode.” He returned to his cell.
The doctor eventually decided she did not want this woman to jump up her ass and explode and so relented, saying, “Fine, we’ll take an X-ray of your booboo.” It is unlikely this doctor ever said anything she would regret more in her life. She came back with Kellie’s X-rays, tears in her eyes and said, “Kellie, I am so sorry.”
Kellie was not a smoker. She did not work or live in a place that was detrimental to her health, aside from the occasional, unruly prisoner. But monsters don’t care about such things. While perfectly willing to take advantage of their victim’s poor choices or environmental factors that open certain doors for them, it is not required.
I speak of cancer as a monster, for that is certainly what it is, but there is an even greater fiend out there, more sadistic even than this repulsive creature. We call it hope. Hope? How can hope be a monster? It is what gives us the strength to move on. Perhaps, but like many things, it is all about perspective. Yes, cancer is an insidious creature bent on destroying the life of the person it attacks, but we expect that. We accept its design and intent. It does not lie or deceive. Like a wildfire, it just is.
Hope, on the other hand, lifts people up only so it can increase the force with which it dashes you against the rocks. The day I heard about Kellie’s condition, an idea for a story came to me, but I had other projects I needed to finish and I am a poor multitasker. I hoped I had time, and it certainly looked as if I did.
Kellie underwent multiple treatment options, treatments that we hoped would work and appeared to do so…until they didn’t. We hoped the next one would work, and almost every time it looked as though it was the one to beat this monster, until it wasn’t. With every reduction in the size of her cancer, hope lifted us up. Then the doctors found cancer in her liver and down we came, our spirits dashed against the rocks of reality. A new treatment, liver tumors receding, up we go again! New cancer cells in her brain. Down we went.
For three years we rode Satan’s rollercoaster. For three years I put off writing my story. Kellie put off nothing. She went to Iceland, twice, to ride horses across that amazing land. She filled every day with she had with joy and adventure, when she had the strength to do so and often even when she did not. She looked cancer in the eye and declared that even if it took her life, it would not break her spirit, and it never did. Her last breath was one of absolute defiance.
Kellie epitomized Herman Melville’s famous line: “To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” Kellie’s white whale was cancer, and she fought it to the bitter end despite being tossed about in a sea of fear and misery with nothing but a flimsy raft called hope keeping her from the beast’s mighty jaws.
Oregon has a death with dignity law, but lawmakers have made it less than simple and very expensive. Kellie put off filling out the stack of paperwork so, that when the time came, she could enact it. She did it for much the same reason I think that I put off writing my story. Doing so was to release our grip on the monster we hold so dear, hope. It was accepting defeat, and we simply were not that kind of family. Near the end, I scrambled to finish my story so Kellie could read it. I hoped I had enough time, but I did not.
Amelia: Battle for Ardentia is not about Kellie, but her fighting spirit, a spirit found in so many of us when put to the test, when beset by monsters. I wanted it to be a light to drive away the shadows in which monsters hide, so that people like Kellie, my mother, and grandmother can find their way forward when surrounded by darkness. I hope it is something that will help others find their way as well.