A Sister’s Story

“Everybody’s rock” is how one of my friends would describe her. “She took care of everybody” another would say. My thoughts of my older sister – she was someone who always did a little more than what was required or expected.

As young kids we had a lot of different interests and didn’t really become close until after we both graduated from college. I liked to stay inside in the air conditioning playing dolls or dress-up while Rexanna was all over the neighborhood gathering friends to play. Mom would say she never knew how many to expect for lunch or dinner because when Rexanna came in she always had a friend in tow. Rexanna was remarkable at keeping in touch with people and always made sure to calendar their birthdays or anniversaries so that she could send them a card through the years. Many of the faces I remember growing up are some of the same faces I saw who came to pay their respects at her funeral.

Rexanna had an incredible work ethic and a terrific sense of humor. She expected a lot from people but never more than she first expected of herself. She had a way of making a person feel like they wore armor – like there was nothing they couldn’t do, get through or accomplish. Rexanna never wasted time… always making the most of every day. She was an organizer, a list-maker, and an over the top “neat freak”.

In the Spring of 2002, she became “Aunt Rex” to my twins. Gage and Grace definitely brought out Rexanna’s soft side. For four wonderful years she was putty in their hands; and, even though she lived four hours away, she made sure not to go more than a few weeks without spending time with them. They adored her. I know now why God allowed me to have children later in life – so that Rexanna would so enjoy the last four years of her life and then to help me survive losing her.

Our brother passed away during the Christmas holidays of 2005. While we were home in Temple for Byron’s funeral, Rexanna thought she had hurt her back. She couldn’t lay down to sleep anymore so began sleeping in a recliner. Early one morning I took her to the emergency room to have her back looked at. Without taking an x-ray, the doctors determined that she had pulled the lateral muscles in her back. They prescribed her muscle relaxing medication and sent us home. In her typical “suck-it-up” fashion, Rexanna took care of business with family and school until early April when she finally went to see the team orthopedist. With one x-ray of her back, everything started moving in fast forward. The orthopedist ordered a bone scan – the results of which were frightening. From there, the orthopedist referred her to an oncologist. Rexanna’s spent her 49th birthday having a needle-guided biopsy to determine where the cancer originated from. Three days later our world was shattered by the words – malignant lung cancer.

My family was first touched by lung cancer in 1993 when my father was diagnosed. Dad had been a smoker since his teens and had previously been treated for throat cancer. We were frightened by his diagnosis but, I suppose, not surprised. Dad had his left lung removed, no chemotherapy treatments, no radiation treatments, and is alive and well to this day.

How could Rexanna have lung cancer? She had never smoked a cigarette in her life! What signs or symptoms had we missed? How could it be that Rexanna’s prognosis would be so dismal? My mind seemed to be going a million different directions. I searched the internet day and night trying to find something that would give us answers and/or hope. Rexanna’s friends, Lisa and Rex Spain, had already offered the upstairs of their home near Houston to Rexanna so that she could be treated at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rexanna talked to her oncologist in Austin about going to Houston for treatment and he immediately referred her to Dr. Karp at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

The first week of May 2006, Rexanna, mom and I traveled to meet Lisa in Houston and go to Rexanna’s first appointment with Dr. Karp. I had always heard of M.D. Anderson, what an exceptional place it was, and how lucky people with cancer were to be able to be treated there. Somehow that day, I didn’t feel like we were so lucky. As we got out of the car and the doors opened for us at the front of the hospital, there was this feeling of disbelief that we were there – for her. While we waited on the doctor we decided it might be best if we canceled our 22nd annual women and kids beach trip which was coming up in about six weeks. After all, there was only going to be about ten of us this year — we’d had as many as 13 adults and 21 kids on the trip before. No one would mind if we skipped a year. How could we have known then that the day we were scheduled to leave for the beach would be the day after her funeral.

Heading back to Temple that night no one talked much. I remember Rexanna saying, “If this had to happen to someone in our family, it’s better that it’s me than you or one of the kids.” Typical of Rexanna, always willing to carry the burden herself.

Rexanna asked to be and was accepted in an experimental drug trial to go along with her chemotherapy. Lisa and Jan went with her for her first round of treatments. It was May 17, 2006 – “LiveStrong Day” – Rexanna thought that was a good sign. Rexanna was determined to stay on schedule with her treatments and seemed to tolerate the chemo well; however, two weeks after the first treatment she was in the hospital with blood clots in her lungs.

Rexanna’s friend and colleague, Melanie, arrived in Houston on the day before Rexanna was scheduled for her second round of chemotherapy. Rexanna had worked in the Lake Travis school system for eighteen years. Mel brought with her the news of what they had been doing in Lakeway and at the Lake Travis schools to support Rexanna. The students sold “Lovestrong” bracelets and the community held a fund raiser to help with medical expenses. She brought Rexanna a “Huddle Up for Hawkins” t-shirt that they had been selling. When I arrived that evening, I can honestly say that I had never seen Rexanna so moved as she was by the news that Mel had brought. I was so thankful that she was able to know how much she was loved and appreciated by her students, their parents, colleagues and friends at Lake Travis. There would be no chemo treatment the next day because she had not passed the necessary tests to take it. Rexanna had not recovered enough from the blood clot ordeal the week before. I had never seen her so weak. Someone who I believed could move a mountain if she wanted to was having to stop and rest on each step as she climbed the stairs that evening to go to bed. Since her stay in the hospital she was now on oxygen throughout most of the day. On Friday of that week, we made a quick trip to the ER because she was having such bad abdominal pain. We both wore our “Huddle Up for Hawkins” t-shirts.

The following week Rexanna was raring to go for her next round of chemotherapy. Lisa and Dawn went with her for this second day-long treatment. About 24 hours after this treatment everything began to unravel. I had called Houston to see how she was feeling. Lisa told me that something had happened and that Rexanna was bent over in pain. Rexanna wasn’t able to come to the phone but I could hear her in the background saying “I’m going to be okay.” The next day when I talked to her she was still hurting. Her voice sounded like she was in so much pain she could hardly speak. Lisa told me it had been a miserable night but that Rexanna did not want to contact the chemo nurse or go to the emergency room because she didn’t want to have to stay in the hospital again. When I talked to Lisa again that evening things were not any better but Rexanna was at least getting some sleep. I told Lisa I would talk to Rexanna the next morning and make sure that she would go to the ER.

When Lisa and I talked early on Saturday they were on their way to M.D. Anderson. She told me that Rexanna had come down stairs that morning and told her she was ready to go. Lisa called me throughout the day to let me know what they were finding out from the doctors. For some reason, I felt like I needed to know exactly what was going on before I headed to Houston. Late in the day Lisa called with the news that Rexanna had a perforated colon. None of the outcomes presented by the doctors seemed to be positive. I headed to Temple to pick up mom and we drove through the night to Houston.

At the ICU on Sunday several tests were run and we waited for the doctor to come by to talk with us. I don’t know how many questions Lisa asked the doctor but she continued until she just couldn’t think of anything else in hopes of getting a more positive response. The doctor made it clear that the perforated colon might be how Rexanna died from lung cancer. They didn’t know if it would seal itself off or not. Surgery was not an option and, whatever the outcome of this, Rexanna would receive no more treatments for the cancer. Another doctor advised that, if there were people who wanted to visit with Rexanna, they should do so before the end of the week. When we got back to Lisa and Rex’s house that evening we started making phone calls. On Monday morning when we arrived at the hospital, friends were already there from Austin. Friends and family came throughout the day – many wearing their “Huddle Up for Hawkins” t-shirts. I worried about how tired Rexanna might be but I knew these people were important to her and she wanted to see them all. I think it was a great day for her.

On Tuesday Lisa and Bertha left for the hospital early. We knew it was time to talk to Rexanna about what her wishes would be if she did not pull through this and Lisa, thankfully, offered to have this conversation with her. Mom and I went to the eyeglass store to pick up Rexanna’s new glasses. Since she had lost her hair, she decided a new set of crazy glasses might help her look so she had ordered a pair of black frames with rhinestones on the sides. Things were different at the hospital that day and by early afternoon Rexanna began to sleep a lot. Friends and family were still coming to visit and by late afternoon my husband arrived with the twins. That’s the last time I saw Rexanna smile – and it was a huge.

For as long as I can remember, Rexanna’s favorite recording artist was Amy Grant and her favorite Amy Grant song was “Imagine”. When Rexanna passed away the next day, we had been playing the Legacy CD in her room for an hour or more. Just as Rexanna took her last breath, Imagine began to play. I knew from the tear that rolled from her right eye that she no longer had to “imagine what it would be like” because at that time she was “standing in His presence.”

And there we were – exactly two months from the date of her lung cancer diagnosis, Rexanna was gone. Her faith, strength and courage had never waivered. In her office at school Rexanna kept a framed quote from someone that read, “I may be only one person, but I can be one person who makes a difference.” She did make a difference in a lot of young people’s lives through teaching and coaching. My hope is that this Foundation will make a difference in people’s lives who are or may be touched by lung cancer.

You too can make a difference. Thank you for your support.