04 January 2010
By R. B. STUART
When my sister [above with my dog Sunday], Fran E. Stuart transferred from the Navy [below] to the Army in 2001 she hadn’t know that within months she’d be deployed to Iraq in 2003. As an Army Chaplain Captain on the heels of a war with Iraq she was deployed from Ft. Campbell, Ky. Enroute to Baghdad with the rest of the 101st Airborne battalion in a C130 Military Aircraft. Unaware by March 2006, she would be diagnosed with a rare Stage IV Dysgerminoma Cancer two years post her tour in Iraq.
In the year while Fran was stationed in Mosul, Iraq, within six months she built for her battalion the first ever 101st Airborne Army library, her Colonel named it “Camp Performance.” Aiding her with donations from The New York Public Library, Penguin Putnam Books, Blockbuster and others packed the shelves with religious works, collections of books, music and movies. The library was to serve as a recreation center, a place where soldiers could gather hope, and occupy their minds with something other than war.
Besides her daily prayer services and Sunday worships that accommodated all denominations and ethnic faiths [above monistary Iraq], Fran also created a Commitment Ceremony for the married soldiers to re-strengthen their bond to the spouses back home. While other soldiers she took on field trips to the sacred sites of mosques built in the desert centuries ago. Visiting the holy lands only seen by the Iraqi's themselves---until now.
Fran’s makeshift office was in an abandoned Iraqi Army Officers Base and became the center of her mission. Surrounded by protective talismans; some sent by family, others she brought. The religious artifacts, angels and saints rested on her desk, clung to the walls, hung around her neck and laid in her pockets. They were constant reminders that God was present and all would be well. Amidst the heat, gun blats, and waves of sand storms, she would continue to care for the soldiers and press on.
Fran often wondered if she’d escape the war without damage---besides the fear of her safety and psychological impact of the noise---she did. Except two years post Iraq, she was deployed to Germany for three years where she would undergo hostility from several civilian co-workers. The daily strife caused so much angst and discontent Fran knew she couldn’t cope there the three year term. Nearing the end of the first year she began praying to God, begging him, to somehow get her out of there and back home to the United States closer to her five siblings. And unknowingly---God heard every word. Her wishes were fulfilled---and prayers granted. In March 2006, at 40 years-old Fran was diagnosed with stage IV Ovarian cancer, later re-diagnosed to Dysgerminoma, a rare aggressive Germ Cell Cancer. She was instructed to get her affairs in order--for she--was going home.
The Army made arrangements to medEvac her to Walter Reed Army Medical Center [WRAMC] in D. C. Fran telephoned me in NY from Germany to tell me her worst fears. Whaling the results into my ear, she cried out, “I'm only 40 years-old, I’m too young to meet my maker. I'll be 41 on Wednesday. I need more memories. I don't have enough yet,” she bawled in horror. I could only weep, “I'm sorry honey, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.” Ironically, it was almost three years to the day since she was first deployed to Iraq.
How could a young woman who had held the hands of wounded soldiers, comforted the spouses of soldiers killed in a cross fire, cradled babies dying of Leukemia and give the last rights to those in their final days….be herself on the other side of the bed? And be at war with the Cancer raging within. I asked myself, “Why her?” And then thought, “Why not her?” Fran said she asked herself, “Why me?” A voice repeated, “Why not me?” We both had unknowingly heard the same answer.
The day before Fran’s 41st birthday, March 14th, the medEvac originating in Germany laden with 30 plus soldiers from Iraq, all in need of medical attention in the U.S., headed for D.C. and Andrews Airforce Base. They carried her in a stretcher across the tarmac to the plane, she heard music blaring from the cockpit, the Rolling Stones song, Beast of Burden. The tears began to slide down the sides of her temples as she knew she was finally going home to see her family, but I didn't expect this way. The song reminded her of me, I used to sing it when we were younger. Fran loves music and has always had a special song for each of her family members.
A different person was emerging, one who shared her secrets, her joys, her pains. The Cancer was unveiling her Soul, the sorrow was opening her heart.
On St. Patrick’s Day 2006 Fran was wheeled into the WRAMC O.R. where she gave birth to a Volleyball size tumor that grew in my belly. And later, the eventual loss of her creative organs, as well as her red locques of hair. Conjoined would be the loss of faith and hope in God, as she asked why he would give her Cancer, as she was doing his work.
Months before the Cancer diagnosis she remembered envisioning a white, short haired kitty with piercing green eyes sitting on her belly. She whispered to me, “Its paws stretched out grabbing lightly at my chest. I’d stroke it with both hands and it would purr. It made me feel good when I’d see it.” Being a cat lover—I told her it was a guardian angel.
After six months and 30 rounds of chemo, the loss of who she was brought with it a fear of the future and an abandonment of hope. The family watched their baby sister revert to an infant, at the same time intertwine with the fragility and sadness of an old woman. Through the carving away of self through surgeries, unable to recognize herself anymore and finding more in common with a monster---produced a betrayal of her body as it had relinquished her life force to Cancer. The violation by another’s hands inside of your sacred body, splitting your armor apart and dissecting deep into your soul…..as they attempt to remold what God himself created, and in the process lifting the veil of boundaries of the sacred self, marred by the spoils of war.
We heard the echoes of her silent cries and inner torment as Cancer spread itself through the entire family, changing the core of who we were, as we try to balance between life and death, health and sickness, love and loss. The anger penetrates her dreams and dissolves her thirst for life as it becomes too arduous to live…and death is just a slip away.
In September 2006, for two weeks in between treatments as a way of revitalizing her, I picked Fran up at WRAMC and brought her home with me to New York. While visiting, a four-year-old male nurse appeared draped in Poodle fur, his name was Sunday. Never experiencing the sight of a bald human, nor the scent of Cancer, he steadfastly stayed by Fran’s side forfeiting his daily walks, food and water for days on end. His gaze affixed upon her, his small furry body glued to the calf of her leg. He wasn’t aware his patient was of rank, a Captain, and a higharchy of the cloth, a Chaplain. All he knew was that he must stay with her every move.
Sunday became entranced with his mission to care and bring comfort. And although Sunday was naturally a timid pup---he became a Dingo. Like a mother protecting a newborn, he turned on his owner---me. I stayed away, as he became her nurse. As she leapt from the couch to the bathroom to vomit he was by my side, head cocked as this strange odor spewed from her mouth. Fran became his master, as he listened to her every command. In turn, I became invisible.
Since I couldn’t get near him without him showing his teeth, daily Fran would clip the leash to his collar so that I could drag him off the bed and out of the house to urinate. As I tugged him towards the door, he resisted and barked in protest as if to say, “Don’t move! Don’t get up. I’m being taken away. But I’ll be back!”
Once outside he’d scamper down the stairs of the deck to the backyard, and urgently go to the bathroom next to the last step. Without thought of me---he’d race back to scratch and bark at the glass door, notifying Fran he was coming back into the house. I’d unclip him from the leash and he’d dash to the bedroom and jump onto the bed to inspect his patient; sniff her mouth, push the pajama leg up with the tip of his nose and lick the skin of her calf. He insisted she keep the skin of her legs bare at all times, besides cleaning her legs, he’d rest his head on Fran’s shin, to detect any movement or change in body odor. A possible signal to him she was in distress.
Determined to nourish him, after he shadowed her to the bathroom she quickly shut the bedroom door so that I could attempt to feed him. He scratched at the wooden door, while I laid the plate down next to him. Without taking his eyes off the door he realized how hungry he was---and in rapid speed scoffed a few bites down. In between chews he’d pick up his head to listen for movement in the room and make sure the door didn’t open. Hesitantly focusing on the food, jerking his body back to the door I could see his apprehension as he tried to do two things at once. He was caught between guarding the door and eating as fast as possible. Normally a picky eater---now within minutes he was done. I opened the door and back he went to inspect his patient, canvassing her entire body with his eyes and nose before finally laying at her feet.
I’d never seen such behavior in him. And didn’t want to interfere with what he was doing---but knew whatever it was it was important to him, and it brought comfort to Fran and waves of pleasure and laughter, as this strange creature would sacrifice, his food, water, sleep and walks---to tend to her. The ultimate sacrifice of God – Dog.
It was time to return to WRAMC and Sunday would head off to N. H. for a month. I would drive Fran back to D. C. and care for her through the final five rounds of Chemo and exploratory surgery. The darkness of the womb was calling her home, and at the same time her heart was beating stronger towards the light, towards the love cradling her back to health. The strings of her memories, the melody to her songs awakened the eye of hope, and courage was born. The goodwill and faith of others pulled her back into life as she turned a corner onto a different path. The wheel no longer in her hands, she proceeded with caution and edging herself out of the tunnel of fear, towards the rebirth of the woman she has become.
By November 2006, after 35 rounds of Chemo, and three surgeries, Fran was deemed in clinical remission. The sun returned to nourish her sprouting red locks and sparked the wisdom beaming from her eyes. As she shed the infant; the innocence no longer paints her face. And shrugged off the spine of an old woman as she walked into the future---holding the hand---of hope. The death sentence is lifted, the words remission propel her back into life as she’s once again, Fit for Duty.
God is omni present, taking Fran’s hand and walking her back to the soldiers returning from war---like her. With conviction in tact, she dons her Army uniform---black and gold crosses on her lapel, and once again, Fran the Chaplain returns to the path of comforting the military men and woman---with the furry paws of God.
Copyright August 2007, R. B. STUART. All Rights Reserved. No Reproduction of this Blog in any form.