In a gray landscape of pain and exhaustion, it was a way of seeing from a loftier point of view.
She sat there all alone, grasping the coarse, braided ropes and dangling her muscular legs from the hardness of the wooden seat. The knots entwined about the branch of the oak tree squeaked as Kari glanced up at a sun-kissed leaf floating gently to the ground. The rustling of the leaf caused a bluejay to flutter from his perch in the tree and temporarily end his flight on the white picket fence bordering the yard.
Her tears were streaming down her face like ice cream melting on a cone. The doctor’s words seemed to sit right there beside her.
“There is no doubt anymore, no chance the test results are wrong, Kari. You have cancer.”
As tears continued to stream, Kari sat shaded from the light of the September sun and brushed her bare feet against the coolness of the thick, green grass. A bare spot was beginning to appear under the swing. Mother’s flowers lining the fence were playing their last concert before packing up for the year. The old farmhouse just a stone’s throw away was enjoying its last bask in the sun before the cold winds began to blow. The white siding on the house reminded Kari of the doctor’s coat, and she could feel the weight of his arm around her trembling shoulders.
“Kari, your leg can probably be saved since we have diagnosed the cancer early. But we’ll have to operate to remove the tumor. Then you may need radiation or chemotherapy. We’ll have to wait and see.”
The parking lot had seemed lonely afterward as Kari and her mother sat in the station wagon yards away from the clinic. They held each other as Kari’s mother stroked Kari’s short-cropped blonde hair.
“Mother, I can’t face it. Cancer is for grandmas and people in the paper who are just names.”
“Kari,” her mother said in a soft voice, “I know you’re overwhelmed right now, but remember what the doctor said about taking cancer one step at a time. Remember when you were little and wanted to learn to play the piano just like Uncle Billy?”
The blonde head nodded slightly.
“You didn’t want to play ‘Three Blind Mice.’ You wanted to play ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ You hated ‘Three Blind Mice,’ but it was one of the steps that had to be taken on your way to ‘Flight of the Bumblebee.’ At the time it seemed forever, but as you look back, was it really that much time?”
The blonde head moved again, this time in the negative.
Kari’s mother gently pushed her away from their embrace and looked her straight in the eye. “Kari, I want to make you a promise.”
Kari jerked her body away from her mother’s grasp. “With cancer, Mom, there are no promises. That’s what Dr. Walker said.”
“Oh, Kari,” her mother said, bringing her only daughter closer, “there is one promise I can make you. I’ll be with you every step of the way, whenever you need me. Remember when you were in grade school and the storms would come in the middle of the night? You were so scared of the lightning and thunder.”
“Yes,” Kari said as she brushed away tears that were quickly replaced by more tears. “I was so scared that I would hide under your blanket until you told me I could come out.”
“How I wanted to make the storms go away for you, Kari,” her mother said as she brushed away her own tears. “I really did. But I wasn’t God. I was just your mother. Eventually you overcame your fear of storms. You even began to understand a little why God made storms even though they scare little girls so much. What I’m trying to say, honey …”
Kari interrupted, “That I can hide under your blanket if the storm is more than I can handle?”
Kari’s mother nodded her head yes as the tears dropped one by one onto the seat. Many minutes passed before she was able to face the prospect of starting the car and beginning the long drive home to face reality.
As the memory slowly faded from her mind, Kari returned to the reality of the swing and the broad oak tree that spread overhead. For some reason she thought of the first time she had sat there. Her brother Thomas had hung the swing for her before he left on his mission. Thomas called her his “shadow,” and they shared many secrets as they were growing up. He left her one last secret the day they said good-bye.
He was dressed up in his new brown suit, ready to leave for the MTC. He leaned over her as she sat on the swing. The smell of his cologne mixed pleasantly with the aroma of the freshly cut hay that lined the fence across the lane.
“Kari,” Thomas said, looking intently at her, “There is nothing like swinging to put life into perspective.”
He spoke with the new authority his voice seemed to hold since the mission call.
“Tom, there you go again, talking way over my head. My ‘Dear Abby’ is going on his mission and leaving me with only a swing to talk to.”
Thomas held his tears of good-bye back as he stopped the swing and took Kari’s hands in his. Kari was surprised that his hands had grown as large as Father’s. He pulled her off the swing and gave her a hug. Kari could feel the newness of the brown suit.
“Just remember, little Sis—the higher you swing, the farther you see. Things look different when you can get above them.”
Now she sat there looking at all the familiar things she had grown up with and looked at every day. The old farmhouse with its rising tower of rooms. The checkered pink curtains of her upper bedroom. The pond where she had learned to swim. The sandbox with its cool, gritty sand and her old red pail and shovel.
She began to swing. The wooden seat was smooth against her legs as she lifted herself off the ground. As she swung higher and higher, things began to look different, just as Thomas had said. The house seemed smaller. Shingles lay on the roof like puzzle pieces. The pond looked more like a puddle. A ledge on a high window, a wire for the television—many things she had never noticed before materialized out of the green rushing of her speed. Things she had seen every day looked unfamiliar when seen from just a little higher.
Kari’s heart was beginning to swell with the exhilarating height when her little brother called from the back porch.
“Kari. Kari! Mom says dinner’s ready!”
The old oak tree had lost its leaves by the time Kari was scheduled for surgery. The night before the operation, she sat looking at her leg, wondering what it would look like after the tumor was removed.
The first few days after surgery were a blur to Kari. After that, her mother occupied her time by reading stories from the family library. Kari especially loved Little Women because it took her to times and places far removed from the sterile walls of her hospital room. She could laugh with the funny antics of Jo when the medicine took most of the pain and fear away, but cry with Beth when the medicine would begin to wear off. Kari secretly wished that Beth could somehow arise from the book and take a sickbed next to her own.
Dr. Walker came one evening with a book under his arm and a flower in his hand. “Kari, I want you to have this book. I noticed you and your mother reading together, and I guess I wanted to get into the act. I think you of all people might understand a little of what this young boy went through. He was about your age.”
Kari reached for the book and smiled when she realized it was about the Prophet Joseph Smith. As she read she began to feel that Joseph was a good friend as they traveled together through pain, trials, endurance, and above all, loneliness.
A few weeks after the operation, Dr. Walker told Kari she would have to have radiation therapy. The first snowfall had covered the old oak tree when Kari’s mother drove her to the first treatment. Dr. Walker had prepared her for the aftereffects as best he could, but she soon learned to hate the radiation treatments, even though she knew they were probably saving her life. She wrote in her journal, “A radiation treatment is 100 stormy nights all mixed into one.”
Kari’s mother kept her promise. She was there every step of the way. She was a cheerleader in a house dress and apron, keeping up the faith and the fight.
Christmas came and went. The words “Kari, make it just one more day,” became Mother’s battle cry. Or if the fatigue or nausea was unbearable, the words were, “Kari, make it just one more hour.”
As winter dragged on, the hours and days merged into a gray landscape of pain and exhaustion. Finally, on Valentine’s Day, Kari gave up. She lay in bed looking at an unopened valentine from her mother. Finally, she let it fall to the floor, still unopened. She was tired beyond caring. Her leg burned and itched. She was on the verge of vomiting. She lay back and gave herself up to “What if?” and “Why me?”
Turning her head as if to hide the pointless tears, she saw through her window the ropes of her swing. They moved lazily with the wind, pale lines against the bare oak limbs and gray sky. She struggled to her elbow, then slid heavily from her bed and limped to the window. As she looked down at the swing, a memory stirred and grew strong. She knew what she had to do.
She had made it down the stairs somehow and was halfway out the door when her little brother John found her.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he said. “Please get back to bed. It’s cold out here. You’ll catch cold and …”
“Just help me get to the swing.”
John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “The swing? You want to swing? It’s freezing out here.”
Kari kept limping toward the swing. “If you won’t help me, I’ll get there myself.”
John put an arm around Kari’s waist, and she leaned on his shoulder. Together they moved on toward the swing. Each step took forever. Kari held her stomach to keep from retching, dragging her leg behind her.
Finally they reached the wooden seat. Kari sat down and John began pushing her. At first she could do nothing but hold on weakly, but then she felt a change. Her grip tightened. Her head felt less heavy on her shoulders. Slowly at first, then more swiftly, strength came flooding into her from some hidden reservoir. For the first time in weeks she felt fueled by a purpose. She began pulling hard on the rope and stretching her toes forward. She felt as if she were reaching with her legs for the height her soul required. With all the strength she possessed she struggled higher and higher, hanging at each summit in a weightless, timeless calm, then dropping back into a dizzy gulf. Soon she was higher than she had ever been before. Street on street opened to her. Suddenly the whole valley was before her, clear to the horizon. She could see to the edge of the world. Her toes touched oak twigs. She felt as if she had left her body behind while her spirit soared. With every swing the world looked new and different. The oak limbs blurring past were the color of Thomas’s new suit.
The pages of Dr. Walker’s book began to dance in circles through Kari’s mind. She thought of Joseph crying out to the Lord in the jail at Liberty, and she heard the answer:
“My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity … shall be but a small moment;
“And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes” (D&C 121:7–8).
She felt as if she were kneeling with the Prophet as he searched the heavens again for the height he needed, and again heard the voice. “If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7).
Bells chimed somewhere in the valley, and Kari thought they were ringing in her soul.
All her newfound strength suddenly drained from her. She was barely able to hold on as the swing slowed. She went limp as John grabbed the ropes and stopped her.
He came around from behind the swing and faced Kari, steadying her as she slumped forward. He was surprised to see a calmness about her. And something that had been missing much too long seemed to have come back.
“Kari, what is it? Do you need the doctor?”
Kari shook her head. “I was just wondering how long a woman lives. How old is a woman usually when she dies?”
John shivered in the 35-degree weather. “I had a teacher at school tell me the average life of a woman was 70 or so. She was about 50, and I think she told us that to take away our hopes of getting a different teacher in the near future.”
The wind stopped blowing for a moment, and the air felt less harsh. “John, Dr. Walker says I’ve got three more months of radiation treatments. Right now that looks like forever, but when I think of living 50 or 60 years after that, it’s really just an instant.”
John took his jacket off and put it over Kari’s shoulders. He glimpsed his mother at the kitchen window and knew that in a few moments she would be running out to bring Kari back to the safety of the house.
Kari made circles for a moment with her toe. “The surgeons think they got all the cancer, but they won’t be sure for at least five years, and even then there are no guarantees. But, John …” She took his hands and found that they were strong, like Thomas’s, like her father’s. “Even if they didn’t get it all—when I think of even the longest life compared to forever, it’s like sitting here on the swing and seeing just beyond the yard compared to being so high I can see the entire valley. It’s just a moment.”
John looked a little dubious. “I’d have to say it was a long moment, in my opinion.”
Kari smiled despite the churning of her stomach and the screaming of her leg. “Okay, a long moment, but still a moment.”
“Now let’s go in, Kari. Please? Mom’s coming out of the house, and she’s going to be madder than wet hornets.”
John lifted Kari from the swing. Her head began to swim, and her stomach lurched. He held her tight and started guiding her back to the house. Suddenly she stopped and turned around to look once more at the swing. She knew, as some things are just known, that she would swing again when the bluejays began to fly and the sun warmed the house once more.
“John, Thomas was right.”
John turned around and looked at the swing too. “Thomas is usually right, Kari. He’s the brains in this family.”
The swing began to move slightly as the wind picked up. Kari saw her mother out of the corner of her eye, running to help.
Kari turned her back to the swing, and at the same time she turned her back on giving up. Snow began to fall, but Kari’s thoughts were on the coming spring. She was thinking about the hours she would spend on the swing, and about how far she would learn to see.