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Love and Death

May 7, 2012

My sister-in-law, who was forty years old, died last week. A little over a year ago, she was diagnosed with a rare, inevitably fatal cancer; her death was therefore not a surprise. Still, the shock and horror–she died swiftly, her children are young, her parents are bereft, my stepbrother is devastated–of her death are undiminished by expectation, and there does not seem to be any way to make any of it all right.

I took my younger son to the funeral with me. We drove up the night before and slept over at my boyfriend’s apartment; the next morning, we took the subway to a commuter train, which whisked us north through a series of  beautiful, affluent suburbs in full bloom. My son held himself carefully on the train, mindful of his outfit–a hand-me-down jacket that was slightly too big for him, a new pair of pants I’d bought for his piano recital the week before, and his very first tie, which my boyfriend had knotted for him that morning. Coming with me had been his idea. “Maybe it will be nice for the cousins if I’m there,” he said, and I said I supposed he might be right. My stepbrother’s older daughter is nine, the same age as my younger son, and his younger daughter just turned five.

Despite the coincidence of the two nine year olds, and despite the relatively short distance between our houses, my stepbrothers’ daughters and my sons have never been close. They’ve spent time together at family gatherings, of course.  We’ve dutifully exchanged Christmas gifts and birthday presents and thank-you-notes, and we’ve kept track of each other via the family grapevine, but the kids don’t know each other well, haven’t grown up in each others’ orbits. And though my stepbrother and I were quite close when we were little–I wrote about our relationship, glancingly, here–we have not seen much of each other as adults. Sibling relationships wax and wane, especially when you grow up and out of the house, even more once you marry and have kids of your own. Once you start to spend holidays on your own or with your spouse’s family, you even lose the default see-you-at-Thanksgiving annual reunion. Of course, whenever I did see my stepbrother, the years fell away. But we crossed paths less and less the older we got, and I didn’t know his wife well at all.

Like my own ex-husband, she was not terribly interested in forging relationships with members of the family she married into. She was never obnoxious or rude about it; she simply kept her distance. This puzzled my parents, and my sisters, and me; was it something personal? Did she dislike us, were we coming on too strong, were we (an unlikely possibility) perhaps not coming on strong enough?  When she and my stepbrother visited our parents’ house, my sister-in-law would excuse herself early (my stepbrother would follow) while the rest of us stayed up playing Boggle. During the day, she’d inevitably absent herself in some harmless way–reading in her room, for example–for hours on end. “Shit, I didn’t even know you could DO that,” my sisters and I exclaimed, marveling at her nerve. Imagine–instead of straining to interact with the in-laws, you simply don’t show up!

It is odd to write this. It feels like speaking ill of the dead. I do not mean to imply that I disliked my sister-in-law–the fact is, I did not know her well enough even to have an opinion. She was inscrutable, and her relationship with my stepbrother was a mystery. What we knew was that they seemed to adore each other, and not to need or want much to do with any of us. After her cancer diagnosis, they became even more private. They did not want to discuss her prospects or the diagnosis with anyone; they did not want anything but to be left alone to cope.

It is surprisingly difficult not to intrude when people you care about are going through a bad time. I had googled my sister-in-law’s particular cancer; the five-year-survival rate was, everywhere I looked, given as zero. “Most patients die within a year,” the Mayo Clinic bluntly said. “Do not ask us what treatment we are pursuing, or what we expect will happen, or what we think the prognosis is,” my stepbrother wrote in an email he sent out to family and friends. And so we did not ask. We talked among ourselves, of course. We worried. We were sad beyond measure, thinking of their children, thinking of my sister-in-law, facing death at what should be the prime of her life, thinking of my stepbrother, about to lose the wife he adored. But we were put off, individually and together, by their absolute insistence that we leave them be. (I should add that my stepbrother has, through hard work in a lucrative field, made a truly colossal amount of money. This made it easier to swallow the idea that he and his wife had everything under control. They had access to, and the means to afford, any medical treatment they chose. They had the resources to cushion the horror they were facing with anything money could buy. They had full time hired help–they did not need anyone to bake casseroles or babysit or walk the dog or take turns driving carpool.)

There was nothing we could do for them, in other words. And nothing was exactly what they seemed to want.

The morning of the funeral, my father and one of my sisters picked us up at the train station. My son, tricked out in his tie and jacket, shook hands solemnly with my father. My sister looked beautiful, and it made me very happy to see her. (Is there always a family-reunion aspect of funerals that runs like a strange countercurrent to the main event? Until last week, I had, believe it or not, never been to a proper funeral before.) When we got to the temple, and my sister’s wife handed me their seven-month-old baby girl, saying “I know you’ll want to hold THIS,” and my beloved aunt and my stepmother and my youngest sister and her intended surrounded us, there in the lovely spring sunshine, I was happy, and slightly shocked at myself for being happy. The baby waved her arms and kicked her feet with joy. My nieces–the little girls whose mother had just died–marched right up to my son and started chatting. My stepbrother looked hollowed out by grief; still, he smiled when saw us, and hugged me hard and kissed me, and nuzzled my sister’s baby’s soft little head. There were pictures of his wife on the walls of the temple, pictures of their wedding, of their family on vacation, pictures in which she looked absolutely gorgeous, pictures in which she was clearly very sick. We were gently herded by the rabbi into an annex, where we stood with my sister-in-law’s family for a few minutes before the ceremony began.  I tried to remember the last time we had all been in a room together, and couldn’t.

The ceremony was devastating. I do not cry easily or often, but by the time my stepbrother gave the final eulogy I, like everyone else present, was in tears. My son buried his face in my lap, holding me around the waist so tightly it hurt. “I never thought she would die,” my stepbrother said at one point during his speech, and my two sisters, sitting on either side of me, stiffened in disbelief. How on earth, I wondered, as my eyes brimmed and my throat threatened to close, could he not have known she would die? “Even her mom and dad said they didn’t realize how sick she was,” my father told me later, when we were back at my stepbrother’s house, surrounded by flowers and friends and food. “They kept everything so private, you see.”

I didn’t see, not at all. Two months before she died, my sister-in-law was rushed to the ER and put on life support.  While she was there, my stepbrother sent a series of mass emails detailing her progress–something he had never done. They were businesslike, no-nonsense dispatches charting her condition–which tests were negative, which results came back inconclusive–up until their very last sentences. When my sister-in-law was extubated, my stepbrother closed by saying, “I love hearing her voice.” A few days later, he wrote, “My wife kissed me today.” From my stoic stepbrother, these moments of tenderness made public were extraordinarily moving. And then my sister-in-law was released, and the emails stopped coming.

In his eulogy, my stepbrother described their final hours at home, before he drove his rapidly worsening wife to the hospital where she would lose consciousness and die within a day. “We were getting ready, and I broke down and cried, uncontrollably,” he said. “And she asked me what was wrong.” He cleared his throat, swallowed. “I didn’t tell her,” he said, staring out over our heads with the look of a man who knows he’ll go to his own grave haunted by regret. But it’s not that he wishes he’d confessed, I thought. He wishes he’d been braver; he regrets weeping in front of her. My god, it’s not just us. They never acknowledged even between the two of them the fact that she was going to die.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” my stepbrother concluded, addressing my sister-in-law’s casket. “And so I won’t.”


We sat shiva at my stepbrother’s house for the rest of the day, if you can call it shiva when half the sitters are as anglo-saxon as it gets. It was a beautiful afternoon. My stepbrother’s older daughter found my son and me out in the garden eating lox and bagels (“There you are,” she exclaimed, hands on hips) and led him off to play. I stayed alone for a while, peaceful in the sunshine, forgotten by everyone. I was reluctant to look for my stepbrother, oddly skittish about seeing him after his speech.

In truth, his very expression, his thinly veiled desperation, his absolute refusal to accept what was inevitable, the fact that he had lived in fierce denial right up to and through the bitter end, spooked me a bit. The look on his face when he refused to say goodbye reminded me of the look my ex-husband wore for the dreadful months during which I insisted, and he refused to accept, that we simply could not stay married. My ex-husband, like my stepbrother, had thrived in what what a friend once called the “terrarium of modern-day marriage”. Whatever was left of his life after work, he poured completely into the little glass bubble that contained his wife and children, needing nobody else, wanting nobody else, refusing even casual relationships with anyone else. My stepbrother, an amiable guy, was not the type to build walls to keep other people at bay; but I had a feeling he’d been quite happy to let his wife build them for him, making it much easier  for him to retreat into their private world. “Some people pick spouses who can put up those barriers, because they can’t manage to do it themselves,” a friend told me at lunch a few days after the funeral. And some people, I thought to myself, pick spouses who allow them to opt completely out of the social and familial whirl, because their spouses whirl along happily on their behalf.

Not all marriages are like this, of course. But they can be. Such insular devotion is often praised, even envied, and I daresay it’s all well and good until somebody dies or gets divorced. The difference is that my stepbrother’s refusal to accept the loss of his wife seemed moving, passionate, even noble, I thought. While my ex-husband’s behavior came across as deluded and horrifyingly sad.

This was a pointless, even cruel line of thought, and I quickly abandoned it. Since when was divorce anything at all like early death? Just then my son came back, alone, and sat down beside me with an odd look on his face. I asked whether he’d seen his cousins’ playroom, which I’d heard was rather epic. Yes, he said, it was full of those things–what are they called? Princess hotels? “Castles,” I said, smiling. “So I’m guessing not a lot of nerf guns or Legos.”

He shook his head. He’d been given a tour of the whole house, ending with both girls’ bedrooms, which my older niece had led him proudly through. One of the bedrooms was very pink, he reported; the other was not quite finished. “She told me that her mom was really good at decorations, but that she didn’t know who’d finish everything now,” my son told me. “And then she stopped and said, ‘I’m kind of freaked out that I don’t have a mom any more.”

Christ, I thought. “What did you say?”

“I said, ‘I’m really sorry. It’s so sad for you and your sister.'” He hugged me again, but he did not cry. When I felt I could speak, I went to find my stepbrother. It was getting late. It was time to say goodbye.


The evening my sister-in-law died, my stepbrother sent a mass email telling friends and family that she had been admitted to the hospital the night before. “I love my wife more than she will ever know,” he wrote at the end.  My god, I thought, this is it, and I typed a frantic response.

“Oh honey,” I wrote. “She knows. Believe me, she knows.” And then I hit send, and nothing happened, because the internet and phone and cable all over town were suddenly down. I hit send again and again, and then I picked up the phone, which had no dial tone. The message is still there in my drafts folder, because by the time the internet came back up, my father had called my cell to tell me that my sister-in-law was dead. Presumptuous of me, really, to think I’d have a final, helpful word, to think I’d be able to give solace at the end of a long sadness I’d never been part of or understood. Still, I wish I’d been able to send that message. I wish he’d read it, no matter what it might or might not have meant to him, before she died.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. May 7, 2012 4:40 am

    This made me weep; so sorry. Also, that denial over divorce and death, yes. My ex-husband did that both when I left him and when his mother died.

  2. George permalink
    May 7, 2012 5:03 am

    Tell him now, and keep telling him.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 7, 2012 9:17 am

      Yes. I did, and I will. I sent a different version of that same email as soon as I could, just a few hours after her death. And he knows how much she loved him, I hope. I just wish I could have sent it before she died.

      • George permalink
        May 7, 2012 9:31 am

        It is so hard – but there is no ‘right’ way to deal with death, but it can offer opportunities to express love and connection, even if it’s only temporary – life is so fast moving, like a rip tide. The best thing that ever happened to me a long while after my son’s death was someone telling me they had been thinking about him. It made me feel less like the only one who ever did.

  3. May 7, 2012 5:25 am

    That is so poignant. Isn’t it wonderful, though, how children can find words for things that we grown-ups no longer want to or know how to express?

  4. SarahB permalink
    May 7, 2012 8:03 am

    Oh, you must be so proud of your son. His kindness through the whole ordeal…wonderful.

    Yes, funerals are like that. Both of my paternal grandparents’ funerals brought together a lot of far-flung relatives I had not seen often, and the reunion part of it was a great time in both cases, though our hearts ached.

    As for what the experience says about marriage and sibling relationships, I have many thoughts but few that merit concise expression but these: I think we have no idea how we will actually behave in the face of a tragedy until it occurs, and I am sure, in their own way, your stepbrother and sister-in-law did the best they could. I also think your unsent e-mail could lead to a longer letter to your stepbrother.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 7, 2012 10:01 am

      Actually, that sentence–that we have no idea how we will actually behave, etc–was in a draft of this essay almost verbatim…you read my mind! My sister and I talked about this–about whether we will be able to be closer to my stepbrother now. We will certainly try. My son has written his cousins, and will continue to write them from time to time.
      I also know that my stepbrother and his wife handled things in the only way they could, which was the best way for them. I don’t mean to judge, to imply that they should have done anything differently. I truly don’t.

  5. May 7, 2012 8:12 am

    The inevitable risk of loving so fiercely and singularly is devastation when it ends, no matter how it ends. Maybe I’m unpardonably naive, but I still think it is worth it.

    I ache for your stepbrother and nieces. Can’t come up with anything else to say, it sucks. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense.

  6. May 7, 2012 8:32 am

    My grandmother’s funeral was both impossibly sad and a wonderful time. It’s disconcerting, but in a way it’s the best tribute. If family didn’t bring us joy there would be nothing to mourn.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the whole experience. It was deeply moving. And I am impressed beyond all measure with your son.

  7. May 7, 2012 8:58 am

    Yes, funerals, at their best, can be family reunions of sorts. I think it helps the living see what is still there to be happy about.

    My brother is also a world-class denier. You put in words something I’ve been trying to wrap my head around about him since our brother and my first son died the same year. He has never actually said anything to me about either event though he was at my brother’s funeral and has been to my son’s grave. It felt like a slap in the face, but now I’m seeing it’s more about him than about me and what I need.

  8. bostongirl1 permalink
    May 7, 2012 10:29 am

    Oh my, what a heartbreaking story. I’m sorry for your family’s loss. You write with incredible grace; your words are poignant. Thank you for sharing this piece.

    It’s difficult for me to read this one as my husband has been dealing with a long-term but inevitably fatal disease as well (I once commented about this on your IKEA post last year). Right now, we are in the very, very good days of it. He is well past the initial treatment and is totally normal and thriving at work, at home, and is a wonderful father. You wouldn’t know he was sick if you didn’t already know. But, as we are now a few years from diagnosis (and a years closer to the end) we wonder at the surreal situation. Are we in denial? I’m quite sure he isn’t, but perhaps I am. On the other hand, it would be a waste of these good days to spend them worrying. It is also hard to keep up the intense “live in the moment, appreciate what we have to the max” mode for months/years on end. I guess I haven’t figured out how to function “appropriately” given the situation.

    Terminal illness is a tough, tough road to walk. Interesting to read your parallels with your experience of a marriage ending. I love your writing. You have a true gift.

  9. kizzbeth permalink
    May 7, 2012 10:40 am

    Yes, funerals are always like that and it’s always both comforting and disconcerting. Your son is a champ, but I’m sure you already know that.

  10. May 7, 2012 12:19 pm

    This post takes my breath away, on so many levels. The concept of illness followed by an early death absolutely terrifies me and I spend more time thinking about it than I probably should. Also, your writing is excellent.

  11. Was Living Down Under permalink
    May 7, 2012 4:12 pm

    Wow. How terribly sad for your brother and especially his children.

    Interesting that they were so insular. I have those tendencies – to be happy within my partnership that I don’t go looking for other relationships (though when I do, they make me happier) – just in the busy-ness of life with little children, it’s easier to become that way.

    I wanted to comment a little bit about culture and how that plays a role perhaps in how grief or even illness is handled. I met up with a friend of mine over the weekend. Her parents are English and she’s married to an Argentinian. They spend part of the year down there for his work. They have tried unsuccessfully to have children – she has gotten pregnant three times but lost them each time. My point is, that she was relaying how her response to the losses were: “I’m fine” “I’ll just go back to my apartment and watch a movie.” “I’ll be OK”. And each time people would show up at her house. His family – mother, sisters, grandmothers. They would show up and either make themselves useful or even just sit and watch a movie with her. When her grandmother passed away, her husband wanted to go over to her father’s house. My friend said, no, he told us not to. Her husband couldn’t understand it. “You don’t ask,” he said, “you just go.” I come from one of those cultures though we’re slowly losing that aspect of it as time goes by and as the new generations are born here in North America. Sorry for babbling. I just found it interesting.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 7, 2012 4:33 pm

      It IS interesting. I have always thought that some small gesture is always, always better than no gesture at all. Even–especially, as George says above–something simple like “I’m thinking of you (or of someone you’ve lost, or whatever) today.” I defied my stepbrother’s interdiction against contact from day one–I’d write, email, whatever–and I didn’t often hear back, but I refuse to think that he, and his wife, didn’t appreciate it on some level. It made me very sad not to be able to send him my love that very last time, though. I suppose it wouldn’t have touched his sadness–only mitigated my own.
      I love the idea of people just coming whether you say anything or not. “You don’t ask, you just go.” How wonderful. There’s no place for awkwardness when someone is grieving. Just go ahead and be kind. Why does it feel so difficult sometimes? Why do people worry so that they “won’t know what to say”?

      • Was Living Down Under permalink
        May 8, 2012 11:23 am

        I think we so often hear what not to do or what not to say that we become spooked. In our culture, we are so isolated in our relationships (by design or circumstance) that it stops becoming natural to just show up on someone’s doorstep for fear of intrusion. I was living in Australia when I gave birth to my son, my third child. He was 11 days late (as were my other children so for me, it was par for the course). My friend, someone who I had become close with during my time there, admitted afterwards that she was worried when she didn’t hear anything after my due date. But she didn’t call for fear of intrusion. And when I called her late one night when my partner had to go off to the hospital from complications of a day surgery, to ask her to come watch the children so I could go with him, she thanked me. She thanked me for asking her for help. I think most people want to help. They want to be there. But when you don’t know what to do or what to say or how to be useful it’s almost easier to be quiet.

        I think you did right by your brother. I know you don’t need me to say it. You are undoubtedly grieved by the situation and wishing there was more you could have done. It’s part of the process I suppose. But you did do right by him.

        Children, it seems, have it right. Your son didn’t worry about whether or not his cousins would want him there. He just went ahead and was kind. You should be very proud.

        • mabqueen permalink
          May 10, 2012 6:09 pm

          I think the gesture is very important – even if the bereaved party does not suggest they want it. When my husband died it was the phone calls and visits – from my family, from his, and from friends that helped keep me going (and probably sane) during those first few awful months.

          I am really sorry for your loss and desperately sorry for your stepbrother and his daughters. 9 and 5 is so very young to lose a parent; no age is right, but mine were 13 and 15 and at least old enough both to understand and to have very strong memories in their own right.

  12. May 8, 2012 12:54 am

    How terribly sad for the little girls and your stepbrother. Your son is amazing! I read some of the comments and I gather you did send him a modified version of your email you had written to your stepbrother before his wife passed away. That is really what I would have done. I also come from a culture where friends, family, neighbors just surround you and help with everyday living without being asked to or asked of. But I also appreciate when someone really needs their privacy.
    It’s terribly sweet your son has written to his cousins, and will continue doing so. Give him a pat on the head for me.
    I hope you can talk more with your stepbrother from here on out. Sounds like he could use a shoulder and an ear.

  13. youngest wren of nine permalink
    May 8, 2012 4:18 am

    Maybe someone who chooses to withdraw from discussing their illness has decided that they do not have the strength to handle other people’s gaffes or issues? You ask why people worry so that they “won’t know what to say”. Well, there are many ways in which people can be tactless or plain stupid. Deborah Orr listed some of them in the Guardian last month, and from some of the enraged comments she got, you would think that the sole purpose of saying something is to make the speaker feel better — never mind the recipient. Wolfgang Herrndorf, a German writer who has been writing a blog about his life with a brain tumor, has a lot to say about unwanted advice about alternative medicine, or unwarranted and unrelated optimism (“there’s great progress in breastcancer treatment now”) or holding forth without asking a single question.
    He also gives an example of someone who gets it right: “Each time at soccer, Janko (who I hardly know, who has lost both parents to cancer) comes up to me and asks me how I am. And then I say, I’m fine, nothing more, and this is such a social blessing, simply the message that he knows that something is going on, that there is something that is going on, and that I know that he knows, and nothing more is needed.”

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 8, 2012 8:12 am

      I agree with you, and also agree that expressions of concern that deteriorate into advice/anecdotes/nosey questions are not helpful at all, and I do think that my stepbrother and sister-in-law were heading these sorts of interactions off at the pass. In a way, I thought their attitude signified an acceptance of the inevitability of her death–don’t tell us about some freak cure available only in Australia, we don’t have time for that kind of foolishness, we’re fully aware we’re dealing with a fatal cancer. But then, at the funeral, I thought I’d been wrong about all that. All along I thought they had every right to cope with the cancer any way they wanted–though it was rough on my parents, especially my stepmother, to feel so left out, even she acknowledged that it was their prerogative. And I still think that. I would never judge the way anyone chose to face a serious illness–it’s simply that it’s astonishing to see the different paths people choose, and it gets one thinking (of course) “Would I do this? Or that? Would I want to discuss it with everyone, would I want death to become a normal part of talking about my life? Or not?”

  14. telechick permalink
    May 9, 2012 12:55 am

    I just lost my husband at age 43 (I’m 41) 10 days ago after a long illness that everyone, including his doctors, thought he’d survive. Actually, in the end it wasn’t the original disease that killed him. We had no children and were basically each other’s worlds for the past 8 yrs. Like your stepbrother, I never thought my spouse would die when he did.

    Dealing with a long illness is so exhausting for everyone concerned, especially when it ends in a way you weren’t expecting or didn’t want to admit to. I can understand where your stepbrother was coming from in not wanting people to know their business. For us, I felt that it wasnt fair to our family and friends not to know what was happening with someone they loved, but it’s a diificult choice and it took a lot of my emotional energy to keep people updated and to answer everyone’s questions..

    His funeral was surreal in that it was so wonderful to see all of our friends and family, but at the same time the one person I wanted by my side wasn’t there and would never be there again. People so want to be helpful and supportive, but for me, in the end, unless they had the ability to resurrect the dead, they couldn’t make it better. That left me feeling churlish and ungrateful. I do truly appreciate how wonderful everyone has been, but no one can fix the problem or make it better which leaves both sides a bit dissatisfied.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      May 9, 2012 8:22 am

      I’m so sorry, and you are correct, in the end there’s nothing that makes everything all right ever again. People are so uncomfortable with grief, I think they want to be the one to pat you on the had and have you magically feel better so that they can go away feeling better themselves. A good friend of mine’s father died when we were in high school, and she said to me one night, “Sometimes sad things happen and there’s nothing you can do but be sad about them for a long time.” It’s probably the sanest thing anyone has ever said to me about grief.
      What a dreadful time you are enduring, and if the consolations of a stranger are any help at all, please take mine. I’m glad you wrote this comment, thank you.

  15. May 10, 2012 1:44 pm

    Look at what a gift you have, I.R. Write a book. Now.
    Think Laurie Colwin. And, go.

  16. May 11, 2012 10:31 am

    Elizabeth Edwards wrote in her book, about the death of her son: ‘If you know someone who has lost a child or lost anybody who’s important to them, and you’re afraid to mention them because you think you might make them sad by reminding them that they died, they didn’t forget they died. You’re not reminding them. What you’re reminding them of is that you remember that they lived, and that’s a great, great gift.’

    My closest friends lost their baby boy two days before his first birthday, and I know for a fact that they don’t experience even a moment when they are not aware that he is gone. They will never not be aware and we can never REMIND them of their loss, which is on their mind at all times. We tried to emphasize to all our friends in the months and now year after his death that:

    – We needed to remember Ollie with them. Never mentioning his name or things he loved or did or looking at his pictures would be a different kind of death entirely. He WAS here and he deserves to be remembered and talked about, and his parents deserve to know that we remember him too. And in a life so young, there are so few memories to hold onto… every interaction we had with him is infinitely priceless.

    – After about two weeks everyone dropped off. Most knew, had heard before, that the hardest part is after the funeral when everyone goes home. But still, most had to get back to their own lives emotionally. They could not bare to stand in that grief with them, It’s so hard, but so necessary, to keep asking and to keep remembering.

    I don’t know why I’m writing this here. Maybe just to remind myself. And because I still miss that boy, so much.

  17. Stephanie permalink
    July 31, 2012 2:30 am

    I’m just getting caught up on your blog and I am so sorry for your loss. This was beautifully written. Please forgive me for being so nosy, but I am curious about what cancer she had if you could email the name? Thank you –

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