Little Sister

02.29.2012 | 1:21 pm

A Note from Fatty: This is the latest post in my effort to tell the story of Susan’s fight with cancer. Eventually, this will be part of my next book, Fight Like Susan.

If you were to visit my house, you’d notice one artist’s work dominates the whole place: Lori Nelson. Exactly twenty of her paintings can be found on our walls (I just counted).

The biggest part of that has to do with the fact that I genuinely love her work.

Part of it is that she’s my sister.

And part of it is that she’s helped my family get through some times I wouldn’t have thought we could get through.

When the twins were born, Lori’s gift was a painting she made for the occasion: Entwined.


This painting now hangs in the twins’ bedroom, and is one of the things I would grab for if the house were on fire. The other identifying feature in the twins’ room is a wall mural (about eight feet wide) Lori painted for them:


Those of you who have kids that love My Neighbor Totoro as much as my twins do will have a pretty good idea of how awesome this mural is.

But I’m drifting away from the story I need to tell.

First House of Three

While Kenny and I drove to Washington — saving us the money it would have cost to transport the cars, which meant Microsoft gave us that badly-needed money, instead of the car transporting company — Susan and Lori flew the family to our new home state. I met them at the gate (this was back when you could meet people at their gate), and was astonished that everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

I then drove us to the apartment we’d be living in for the next two weeks, while we waited for the larger rental home we’d been promised to open up.

And we set about doing our new jobs. I went to my first day of work at Microsoft. Susan met with her new oncologist — Tena (my friend and manager’s wife) — had done all the research to find us a fantastic oncologist, so all we had to do was transfer Susan’s records and show up.

And Lori took care of us for a week. She bought and made food, entertained the kids, and in general helped us feel a lot better about the temporary apartment we’d be living in while we waited for the temporary house we’d be living in while we looked for a house to buy.

And when Lori wasn’t taking care of us, she painted. But she didn’t show us what she was working on.


The night after Susan’s first visit with the oncologist, Lori told Susan and me to take the night off. Go out on the town. Explore Issaquah. So Susan and I went to see a community theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird.

While we waited for the play to start, Susan told me about the visit, and about the plan. Susan would start chemo very soon — as soon as she had recovered enough from the mastectomy to handle it. Just a couple of weeks. She’d feel sick sometimes, but mostly just tired. They had good drugs for combatting nausea now, and since we had superpremium health insurance (I felt a surge of pride), we could get whatever we needed, whenever we needed it. The cost of meds was no object.

Even so, Susan told me, cancer treatment was a game of odds.

If she had done nothing — no surgery, no chemo — the odds of surviving breast cancer were very low. Negligible.

With surgery by itself, the survival rate went up, but not to a very good number. I think about my grandmother — my dad’s mom, who I never met.

With surgery and chemo, the survival rate went up well into the 80-percent range. With surgery and chemo and radiation, the number budged a tiny bit more.

I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I remember being struck by both how good and simultaneously bad eighty-something percent sounded.

That would be a “B” if it were a grade, I thought. Not an “A.”

“Everything will be fine,” I told her. And me.

Video Night

The next night, Lori got out a DVD she had brought with her — something she had gotten on NetFlix (yes, NetFlix was around back then): American Splendor, a semi-autobiographical movie about Harvey Pekar.

What none of us knew going into the film was that Pekar had gone through cancer, and this film went into a gritty, darkly-realistic depiction of his treatment.

With Susan’s chemo about to start in a couple weeks, the timing for this kind of thing couldn’t have been worse. Susan cried and went into the bedroom, where she sobbed for the rest of the night. I followed and comforted her as best as I could, wishing I knew enough to be able to say, “It won’t be that bad.”

And then, even though I was still thinking about the percentages Susan had told me about, I told her, “We’ll get through this. You’ll be fine, and then we’ll forget about cancer forever.”

Meanwhile, back in the living room in our apartment, Lori was mortified.

I told her later that night that it was OK; she couldn’t have known. We’d have to get used to hearing about cancer. I didn’t realize at the time how sensitive I’d eventually become to the word “cancer” in the following months and years.

Parting Gift

Susan’s mom was coming to help out the following week, so Lori got ready to go back home. I think if I could have found a way, I would have kept Lori with us permanently, though. There was something incredibly reassuring about having my sister with us. Smart, funny, practical, and — above all — kind: that’s Lori.

The day she left, Lori gave Susan the painting Lori had been working on while she was with us:


It’s a small painting: about 10″ x 8″. I don’t think it has a title.

But it expressed, perfectly, what we all wanted.


  1. Comment by RodNeeds2Ride | 02.29.2012 | 1:41 pm

    Lori ROCKS! Looks like she’s got an exhibition coming to SLC too, can’t wait!

  2. Comment by dvhansen | 02.29.2012 | 1:44 pm

    wow – i’m almost in tears after reading that. that final painting is so expressive. appreciate the gut-wrenching honesty from you in this series, thanks for sharing.

  3. Comment by Mary Timberlake | 02.29.2012 | 1:50 pm

    Oh Fatty, judging by these posts-I’d say you have a bestseller. Thank you again for being so open and honest with all of us.

  4. Comment by rich | 02.29.2012 | 1:58 pm

    these posts have been tough to read…I can’t even imagine how hard to write…
    Thank you for sharing and your sister sounds amazing….a lot like my sister…

  5. Comment by a chris | 02.29.2012 | 2:10 pm

    I don’t have a sister, but each of my two kids does, and now I love hearing about great sisters. :)

  6. Comment by NYCCarlos | 02.29.2012 | 2:25 pm

    Can we trade sisters? Mine are perfectly lovely, they just don’t paint me awesome things like this! :)

  7. Comment by kellene | 02.29.2012 | 2:28 pm

    Elden you have such an amazing memory regarding detail. The whole experience remains more clouded for me…so many anxious days. Lori is an amazing and a very talented sister. That’s why in the family she has always been known as “sweet Lori”.
    Beautiful post and such a kind gift for your kiddos.

  8. Comment by Paul | 02.29.2012 | 2:36 pm

    I can’t even begin to tell you how sensitive I was to the word cancer while my mother was going through her treatments. It is insane how many movies have characters with cancer, I basically gave up tv and movies for a while so I did not have to worry about it coming up.

  9. Comment by davidh-marin, ca | 02.29.2012 | 2:52 pm

    Another believer in the power of Family. Thank you for letting us be part of yours.

    A little question though: In the past we have heard from Kellene, and about Lori, and of course you. All wonderful people indeed. We hear occasionally about one other and I think it’s time she have a chance to be the “Guest Blogger”, or a “Live Chat”. I think it’s time we hear from the ‘Mother of them All’. After all, you didn’t become who you are, by yourselves.

    Please sign @Colorado Mom up for a week…..or a day.

  10. Comment by Bob | 02.29.2012 | 2:56 pm

    *grabs a tissue and dabs his eyes*

    It’s been almost 30 years since I lost my sister to cancer (when she was just 21). I still feel heartbreak when I think of her. I can’t imagine if my wife, my best friend, my life were to go through that war and lose.

    Thank you so much for this Fatty. Looking forward to the next install. And I’ll be in line to buy the book.

  11. Comment by Heidi | 02.29.2012 | 2:57 pm

    This is wonderful. I hope that by writing it you’re able to experience a healing.

  12. Comment by Bob | 02.29.2012 | 2:57 pm

    p.s.: Lori is amazingly talented. (Not that you need me to tell you that.) Thanks for sharing her work as well.

  13. Comment by VeloMoze | 02.29.2012 | 3:04 pm

    As I finish reading each of these posts, I look for a way to turn the page so I can keep reading. Can’t wait for the book!

  14. Comment by Craig | 02.29.2012 | 3:07 pm

    Thank you for sharing. For being open and honest and real. I too keep looking for a way to turn the page so I can keep reading. The world needs more people like you and your family.

  15. Comment by gogogo | 02.29.2012 | 3:53 pm

    thank you for writing. it rips me open a little every time i read one of your profound posts.

  16. Comment by Rob W | 02.29.2012 | 3:53 pm

    I hope you include thoses paintings in your book. Lori,they are awesome!!

  17. Comment by AKChick55 | 02.29.2012 | 4:00 pm

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE these posts. Thank you again for sharing. I agree with Mary, you have a bestseller on your hands.

    I can’t wait to buy this book for my sister. Her husband has Stage 4 colon cancer and his prognosis is less than 8% change of surviving 5 years. He just turned 30!! And is 2 years into his 5 years – YES!!!

    It’s been tough on both of them, but really tough on her. The person she would normally lean on, she can’t because she feels like she has to be strong. She has found a support group in her area and I hope and pray it helps her deal with all the pressures she faces. Fortunately, they have an amazing support network and insurance.

    Right now, the maintenance chemo (as in he’ll most likely be on chemo the rest of his life unless the cancer miraculously goes away) is keeping the cancer at bay, for now. I wish your book was out now so I could send it to them.

    I’m going to send the link to your blog to my brother-in-law again and encourage he and my sister to read it. I think that your humor and your honesty about your feelings and how you two coped will help them until the book comes out.


  18. Comment by AKChick55 | 02.29.2012 | 4:01 pm

    Oops, that should have been less than 8% CHANCE not change of surviving. Argh. Need spellcheck!

  19. Comment by Lori | 02.29.2012 | 5:15 pm

    Whoa. That time period is a dark, dangerous alley I usually avoid. I take the brighter well-lit streets more. That’s just safer.
    But the twins were joyous babies then weren’t they, jumping in their cribs all unaware, and the boys and I made little tiny cabins with the twigs we found in the Washington forests, and they were all very young and so were we, weren’t we!

    I feel so much older now looking back, knowing the future now, and I miss running the house with Susan while you started your new job (that became your old job). We worked in a comfortable harmony inside a delicate bubble of hope in those days and I secretly believed I could paint hard enough to drive the cancer out.

    I loved those silly days so much. I miss them now.

    Thank you for letting me be there.

  20. Comment by K | 02.29.2012 | 6:04 pm

    darn you making me cry. As physicians, we sometimes lose perspective. I’m tired, I’m drained, but my people are people. You make me remember what happens outside my office when people go home.

  21. Comment by Dana | 02.29.2012 | 6:29 pm

    Have read your Blog for several years, for your humor. This work feels like your “pulling” a scab off “bit by tiny bit “. Thank you for amazing writing and the strength to “go back down those dark streets”.

  22. Comment by dvhansen | 02.29.2012 | 6:51 pm

    Commenting again – i have to say what an experience and, yes, opportunity, it is to read not only your stories but also those comments from others that have gone thru something similar. you are all an inspiration.

  23. Comment by Invisible Visible Man | 02.29.2012 | 7:05 pm

    Fat (if I can call you by your first name),

    This is a very affecting post. Cancer is such a strange thing to struggle with – particularly because it’s not one disease; it’s so many different experiences. I explained recently to a colleague whose mother is suffering bowel cancer that people regard it as a war of attrition but, at least from the experience of my father’s very rare cancer in the small bowel, it’s a series of skirmishes: the cancer creates this or that crisis that one confronts, before getting on with something else.

    I sincerely hope your wife keeps overcoming this illness.

    My reaction, however, ties together both cancer and cycling. My father died nearly 10 years ago after a series of skirmishes with bowel cancer (very different from your experience, I know) and he first taught me how to cycle. I relate the experience here:

    All the very best to you and your family,


    I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me that some readers might be new enough to my blog that they wouldn’t know that Susan passed away in August of ‘09. – FC

  24. Comment by Elisabethvi | 02.29.2012 | 7:10 pm

    I haven’t commented before on your posts about Susan’s fight with cancer. None of my immediate family has been affected by this horrible disease and I don’t feel qualified to have an opinion. I’m not sure why I’m drawn to these posts, but they affect me deeply. Your sister is an amazing artist and treasure beyond words for your family. The last painting you posted brought me to tears. And her comment just a few spots up gives us an idea of the gift she was for you at that time. Your words really enlighten those of us who haven’t experienced this.
    Thank you for sharing your difficult journey with us.

    P.S. My girls LOVE “My Neighbor Totoro.” The mural is fantastic!

  25. Comment by zac_in_ak | 03.1.2012 | 12:46 am


    I bought your first book on kindle. I will look forward(with trepidation) for your next book. I lost my uncle to cancer. Everyday I go along then I read something like this and the last time I saw my uncle flashes in my mind. Cancer is ugly and I hope I will be alive to see the cure. Keep it up, I think your book will help us all

  26. Comment by Henrik Wist | 03.1.2012 | 4:54 am

    And here I sit, reading this sequel of posts, one after the other as they appear. Before this installment, it was just Susan’s story (to me, anyway). The day before yesterday, I learned that my wife’s aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer and will have surgery next week. I feel pretty close to my wife’s family and all of the sudden, this series of posts applies much more to me than I would have wished for, ever.

    Send some good vibes over this part of the net. Livestrong, everyone.

  27. Comment by cece | 03.1.2012 | 9:46 am

    Sitting here with curlers in my hair crying …Lori’s art is fantastic and is part of the healing that occurred at the time. You are very lucky to have sisters and a family like you do…but I am sure you already know that. Please do include Lori paintings in the book.

  28. Comment by Kim | 03.1.2012 | 11:10 am

    I’m the only sister to four brothers – the youngest. Fatty, I lost one of my brothers to cancer in 2011. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish for more time with him and miss him terribly. I took him to many of his chemo treatments and have become too familiar with the ugliness of cancer. Please keep doing what you’re doing. The book will be awesome, and I look forward to reading it.

  29. Comment by GJ Jackie | 03.1.2012 | 12:48 pm

    Wow. These posts keep me grounded. Thanks so much for sharing.

  30. Comment by Kim's brother | 03.13.2012 | 9:29 am

    Thank you for everything you do! I have been following you for about 5 years. Today I am heading out to see my younger sister for maybe the last time. She has been fighting (like Susan!) for nearly 10 years now, since she was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 30 years old. She how has in-home hospice and is no longer on chemo. She is now to the point where she is too tired to get out of bed. She has been an inspiration to me and a great fighter. Your blog has given me a lot of insight and also prepared me for the time I am going through now. Thanks for working so hard and hopefully there will be a day soon when there will be no more posts like this.


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