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Through Thick and Thin
Staying hopeful kept me strong for my uncle
Kaela Bazard
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“Luke has cancer,” my grandmother said calmly as she, my mother and I were eating dinner one Saturday afternoon. I nearly choked on my salad. My Uncle Luke had cancer? Impossible! For all 14 years of my life, Uncle Luke had been lively, athletic and healthy.

My heart pounded as my grandmother told my mother the details about his bone cancer. I’d read novels about people who had cancer and the characters always died. I felt like the world’s largest cup of depression rested on my shoulders. My favorite uncle might die and there was nothing I could do about it.

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He Took Me Everywhere

“Uncle Luke, you’re here!” That was the first thing I always said to him after I jumped on him and gave him a big hug. Back in Haiti, many kids looked forward to visits from family members who lived in other countries. For me, that visit came every two years when my uncle would come from New York. I would put on my best dress so I could look pretty the day we picked him up from the airport.

He was actually my great uncle, and one of the oldest members of my family. He was also the funniest family member, and he was a great dancer. During his visits, he took me everywhere with him—to the park, on picnics and out of town.

When he had to go back to New York I would sob and beg him to take me with him. He’d always lie and say, “I’ll come back for you tomorrow,” and I always believed him. The next day when he didn’t come back as promised, I’d cry myself to sleep and vow never to speak to him again. But over time I would forget my anger and get excited for his next visit.

He stopped visiting Haiti when I was 7 because he became busy with work. I was so disappointed and, as the years passed, I wondered when I’d see him again. That time finally came three years later when I immigrated to the U.S.

The first time my grandmother took me to visit Uncle Luke in Brooklyn, I was nervous. I wondered if we’d still be close. I wondered if his family would like me. When we rang the bell, his daughter—my cousin—opened the door and welcomed us.

At first I didn’t recognize my uncle—he looked older. He was in his late 50s now. He gave me a big hug and told me what a lovely young lady I had become. I also met his wife, who was nice.

But after we left, I felt a little disappointed. I hadn’t said a word all afternoon. It felt like I was meeting my uncle for the first time. I realized I was older now and couldn’t relate to Uncle Luke by playing catch or hide and seek anymore. But it was only the first day, I thought. I assumed we just needed some time to become close again.

A Second Chance

As the years passed, our relationship didn’t make a comeback like I hoped it would. We didn’t see each other often. Uncle Luke was busy with his job and family, and I was busy trying to fit into a new country.

But when I did visit during the holidays, Uncle Luke and his wife always seemed happy to see me. Over the years I grew to love the comfortable feeling of their home and never wanted to leave when it was time to go.

After hearing about my uncle’s cancer, I felt wounded. The one thing that made me relieved was that they were moving to Florida, which they’d been planning to do before my uncle got sick. “At least he’ll be able to relax in Florida’s soothing tropical breeze,” I thought.

When they first moved to Florida, things seemed to improve. My aunt got a job as a nurse. My uncle was taking his medications and doing fine. I had hope that he was going to beat cancer.

image by Frank Malkum

But three months later, my uncle’s condition suddenly worsened. His bones ached badly and he was in a lot of pain. He and my aunt moved back to New York to be near his private doctor. He learned that his only option was chemotherapy. It was a hard decision for him, because chemotherapy is a difficult process and there was no guarantee it would work. But he decided to take a shot at it.

Grateful for Small Progress

He moved in with us. His wife, who now worked at a hospital in Long Island, stayed with us on the weekends. Despite the horrible circumstances, I was pretty excited about Uncle Luke living with us. I felt like we were getting a second chance to rebuild our relationship.

The first few weeks after he moved in were some of the most pleasant times we had as a family. During Thanksgiving dinner, we laughed uncontrollably at Uncle Luke’s jokes. I was proud of him for not letting cancer get to him. “You’re going to lick this thing,” I would tell him each night.

Uncle Luke started his chemotherapy treatments in December and stayed in the hospital for three weeks. When he came home, I was shocked at his condition. His hair had fallen out and his arms and legs were swollen. But everyone assured me that his body was just weak from the treatment and in a few weeks he would regain some strength.

As the weeks passed, things did start looking a little brighter. Uncle Luke’s hair started to grow back and soon he could walk around the house with the help of a cane. I was so grateful for his smallest progress. But the moment that overwhelmed all of us with hope was when Uncle Luke started dancing again.

It was a normal evening and we were all in the living room. I was watching MTV.

“When are you ever going to stop listening to those songs? They’re not getting you nowhere,” Uncle Luke said. My passion for hip-hop music always irritated him.

I didn’t feel like arguing about music that night, so I turned off the TV and said, “OK, Uncle Luke, let’s listen to something you like.” I turned on the radio to the light music station 106.7. “Happy now?” I said teasingly as he started to smile. The station was playing “On the Radio,” a disco song with a jazzy beat.

Uncle Luke smiled and started talking about how he used to dance his butt off at parties. Suddenly he got up, dropped his cane and started dancing.

At first I was shocked. I didn’t think that he still had it in him. Then my cousin and I joined him. We danced with him all evening to jazz and merengue on the radio. It thrilled me that Uncle Luke hadn’t lost hope, so I didn’t either.

Angry at the World

The thing about cancer is that it’s like a senseless boomerang that knows it’s not wanted, but comes back anyway, no matter how far you throw it. Uncle Luke’s dancing days didn’t last forever. After a few weeks, he started to have worse pain than before. When he went back to visit the doctor’s office they told him what we all feared they’d say: “I’m sorry, Mr. Zephyr, but the chemotherapy has failed.”

The news came to us like a slap in the face. I was so angry that the doctors had given up all hope and there was nothing they could do. I couldn’t believe my uncle had gone through all the difficult treatments and this was the outcome. I was angry at the world for being such an unfair place.

What I hated most was watching Uncle Luke suffer and not being able to do a thing about it. It pierced my heart every time I heard him sobbing from pain in the middle of the night. As his condition worsened, I became more attentive to him to show him that I cared and that he wasn’t alone. Every afternoon when I came home from school, I sat in the living room, keeping him company so he wouldn’t think of his pain.

image by Frank Malkum

Brave for His Sake

One Saturday evening, Uncle Luke was telling me stories of how he used to get into fights as a teen. We were laughing when he suddenly stopped and his facial expression changed. I could tell he was in pain.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Luke. It’s just temporary,” I smiled, trying to comfort him in Creole. But I couldn’t stop him from bursting into tears and crying out, “God have pity on me.” Though I wasn’t sure my words helped much, I stayed by his side and prayed with him until he stopped crying.

No matter how emotional my uncle got, I managed never to cry in front of him. If I felt a tear coming, I would run to the bathroom and wash my face. I was trying so hard to be brave for his sake so he wouldn’t lose hope.

Over the next month I watched Uncle Luke go from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair, until he couldn’t walk at all. I thought that if I could switch places with him and take all his suffering, I would. That’s how unbearable it was to see his condition.

Waiting for a Miracle

Then came the memory loss, as his doctor had predicted, which meant the end of our deep conversations. Uncle Luke could recognize family members one second and the next second he didn’t have a clue who we were. Eventually, he couldn’t do anything for himself anymore, not even eat. It felt like he was turning into a newborn baby. Finally we had no choice but to bring him to a nursing home where doctors could be around him all the time.

One night in April, a day after my family visited him, my Uncle Luke died peacefully in his sleep. When I learned the news, I didn’t know what to feel. His death felt unreal to me. It wasn’t until the funeral service when I saw his casket that tears started to run down my cheeks uncontrollably. No matter how bad it had gotten, I’d maintained hope that he’d have his miracle. But now he was really dead. Cancer had won over hope and had taken my dear uncle to the grave.

It is a Haitian custom when you lose a family member to wear plain colors like black, white and blue for a period of time as a symbol of mourning. Some of my family members did it, but I didn’t, because my sorrow showed no matter what I wore.

For several weeks after the funeral, I couldn’t sleep for nothing. Every time I heard a noise in the living room, I would run in, thinking Uncle Luke was calling me. It was when I saw the empty spot where his bed used to be that I remembered he was dead.

My Heart Has Found a Way

I will never forget my Uncle Luke. It’s been three years since he died and I still cry when I think about him sometimes. But I guess my heart has found a way to get used to the pain. Now I think of the happy times we had while he was alive. I think about Uncle Luke’s soul smiling down at me from heaven, and it makes my heart joyful.

Throughout his illness, I wanted my uncle to live more than anything. Even when he accepted the fact that he was going to die, I still kept hoping despite the reality in front of me. At first I felt betrayed and angry when he died—I’d thought that if we had enough hope and faith, he would live. But I’ve learned that, like dreams, your hopes don’t always come true.

I don’t regret being hopeful, though. It was important to me to be hopeful for Uncle Luke. When I was a child, Uncle Luke was the one protecting me. But during his sickness, the shoe was on the other foot. I was the one who cheered him up and distracted him from his pain. For the first time in my life, someone’s well-being depended on me.

It was special to me to be able to help Uncle Luke through his illness. I learned that the best thing you can do for a loved one is to show them that you’re there for them through thick and thin, no matter what the outcome.

(NYC-2008-04-08)