Stupid cancer

On a snowy day in Boise, mom-in-law Ivalene checked into the emergency room — quite yellow. In the process of correcting her outrageous skin color, pancreatic cancer was discovered.


Photo credit: Unsplash


From her hospital bed, mom-in-law has been reminiscing. One of the stories she loves to tell is how she met her husband, Jack, when he was home on leave from the Marines and how they spent only a few days together before he left for the west coast and how they wrote and after a few hand-written exchanges he proposed in a letter and then returned to Arkansas to marry his bride.

The newlyweds boarded a train for a three-day cross-country trip back to Washington State, sitting up the entire way. They first moved in with Jack’s parents until one day, while out on a drive, Ivalene spied a little shack and said, “We can live there.”

Ivalene made a home out of the little shack in the woods without electricity or running water, which gives you a hint as to where the bathroom facilities were located. They were quite content appreciative ecstatic to be living alone together.


Jack & Ivalene in November 1946


Eventually Jack and Ivalene had four sons and a daughter — Hubby being the cream of the crop, a fact which I remind my three brothers-in-law of from time to time (I am their favorite sister-in-law for doing this).

Jack started a business, and after several years of hard work and sweat and steadfast determination, the couple semi-retired to a ranch in northern California where dad-in-law had to buzz the cows in his small airplane to clear the airstrip before he could land. They were quite happy together for several years until Jack died of a heart attack at age 53.

I remember spending weekends at the family ranch with all the siblings and grandchildren and Jack would pull Ivalene down to his lap and she would protest, “Oh, Jack!” and throw her head back and laugh, still a young-married couple after so many years of marriage.

* * *

Once mom-in-law’s cancer news was out, family converged on her hospital room, which was the laughter-filled story-telling noisy room. “This is why we put you at the end of the hall,” quipped one nurse.

During one of our girl parties, I snapped (tapped) this four generation photo: one mother-in-law, one sis-in-law, three of my nieces and one great-niece. Beautiful women inside and out, all.



As for our joyous noise and copious amounts of story-telling, we’ve not been celebrating the news of mom-in-law’s cancer; we’ve been celebrating life and family and come-togetherness and the hope of seeing loved ones who have gone on before us.

The doctor asked my mother-in-law if she wanted to fight this cancer. Ivalene’s immediate response was, “Oh, my goodness no! I’m 80-something … how old am I? Oh dear, 89-years-old?! That’s old!” (Here is where she threw her head back and laughed her contagious joyful bubbly laugh.) “No,” she said, “I’ve had a long full life.”

Mom-in-law is dozing nearby as I write this and as we wait for test results. I thought I would get to take her home Thursday, but that didn’t happen. Maybe Friday, but she was feeling worse on Friday, which meant more blood work and a chest X-ray, which wasn’t detailed enough and so a CT scan was ordered, which meant a cocktail mix of 7-Up and contrast dye to get down. The medical professionals were simply making sure there were no hidden pockets of infection before sending her home. A clean scan and a green light to exit the hospital room where mom-in-law had been camped over a week.

Hearing terminal cancer news, hanging out for hours and days in a hospital room, waiting for test results, transporting a loved one home for convalescence — did this remind me of my caregiving days with Hubby? Of course, of course it takes me back to a bittersweet place.

These words from Shauna Niequist describe best how I feel:

Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful, that there is a moment of lightness on even the darkest of nights, a shadow of hope in every heartbreak, and that rejoicing is no less rich even when it contains a splinter of sadness.

So, while sadness and laughter and love and heaviness and joy all bubble up in a large cauldron somewhere in the general vicinity of my heart, there is the reminder that this earth isn’t our final destination and there are some pretty amazing people in heaven waiting to greet our homecoming.

Mom-in-law’s homegoing may be sooner than we want, but it will be a sweet reunion with her husband, Jack; with her son Gary (my Hubby) who died of prostate cancer; with her dad, her mother who died of leukemia; and two sisters, a sister-in-law and a niece who all died of breast cancer.

And now pancreatic cancer is trying to claim my mom-in-law.

But she has been laughing in its face — that beautiful indomitable dazzling vibrant extraordinary infectious effervescent head-thrown-back laugh.

Take that, stupid cancer.


Why you should write a Life Review letter. Soon.


Cancer and counter-culture courage


  1. Sandy

    I’m so glad you are able to be with her, sharing those special family memories. Sweet but difficult time, no doubt. Praying for you…joy, strength and ultimately His peace! Your writing touches my heart, Marlys.
    My love and hugs to you,

  2. Steve White

    That’s some great writing Marlys. You hit it out of the park.


  3. Peter Howe B.E.M.

    Hi Marlys & your readers,
    So sorry to hear the news in this blog, our thoughts and prayers are with you all, especially mom-in-law and ‘distance doesn’t matter’, prayers do. This thing ‘cancer’ hits too many families and we too have had our share.
    My Barbara had breast cancer in ’88 and when my mother Nancy was diagnosed at 83 with breast cancer, in conversation and in the confidence of my Barbara being there for her, she said, “What do I want these things for at my time of life anyway!!!”. Mom Nancy took the view that once the breasts had gone, so had the cancer, that was good enough for her, she was 93 when she ‘returned home’. I have been blessed in spite of the 25% chance given to me in ’86, God has had ‘work for me to complete’ and though I have a tumour at the neck of my pancreas and with MRI scan checks, I/we have to remain positive to complete the ‘work God has for us’. We pray for all those of your followers/readers who need to know we are thinking of them in our prayers, may our loving God reach out with His healing hand on all who need to be comforted. Our love, God Bless and thank you for sharing as always, in prayer. Barbara, Peter & family.

  4. Brenda

    Oh Marlys. I LOVED the photo you posted of all the strong generations of women who are there to love, support and encourage one sweet lady. What a legacy of love.

    I am sending up/out prayers of love, support, hope and comfort.


  5. Julie Miller

    Beautifully written Marlys. There are many hidden gifts we receive amidst these challenges; the strength of women bonding together, and the time you are able to spend together.

    I can almost hear the laughter of your mother-in-law, she sounds delightful.

    Bless you,


    • Well said, Julie: “many hidden gifts we receive amidst these challenges … the strength of women bonding together.” You speak from experience, don’t you? Thank you for your kind words.

  6. Peggy Carey

    Love this beautiful story of love, faith and family. What else is there, right?
    Love to you.

  7. Sorry you are going through this now. What a beautiful family she has around her…means so much!

  8. Volinda

    Marly’s, once again your personal life has touched the depth of my soul. Stupid cancer robbing the life of your mom-in-law. But, God is Good! You are blessed with the surrounding love, strength and grace of a beautiful strong family. God bless you. Peace in the name of Jesus, Volinda

  9. Mary

    As always Marlys, beautifully written from your bittersweet heart. Thank you for once again for sharing your family, your faith and Ivalene’s laughter.
    I am writing this wearing the gift of your lovely hand made scarf. ????

  10. Nasus

    Marlys ~ so sorry that your heart is carrying the heavy load again of a dearly loved member of the family’s cancer journey. So thankful to know, though, that you, your mom-in-law, and the whole family, or almost, know the joys which lie ahead when a life lived for Jesus becomes eternity WITH Jesus! Prayers, love and hugs for you, dear.dear friend in Christ. If there is anything which I may do for you, please let me know.

  11. Her laugh, what I will always remember as long as I live!! She could make you crack a smile even when you didn’t want too….. her home was always open to all, that’s where I spent part of my honeymoon!! Many weekends during hunting season, everyone worked together and we all had a great time!! I am blessed to be a part of the Johnson clan……and auntie you will be in my prayers……

  12. Ron and Sandi Rock

    Oh sweet Ivalene❤ She is loved by all who know her. So so sorry to hear this. Please send our love. It will be so hard to let her sweet spirit go I am sure, but knowing the glory of seeing His face and all that awaits her will make us all a tad jealous. Blessings on your family as you spend the precious days you have left with her. You know too well all about how to do that and will graciously lead the family through it I’m sure. Love to your tribe ????

    • You pegged it exactly right, Sandi. “Sweet spirit” … “precious days.” Not everyone gets to die with an expiration date – a good many deaths are sudden and horrific and tragic – but what a lovely bittersweet sacred gift to walk beside a loved one as he/she prepares to leave this earth.

  13. Char Lake

    Oh Marlys so sorry to hear about Ivalene but so happy that your family all has this time together to
    love and enjoy each other.

    Darrell & I just returned home on Saturday night from Mt Vernon, WA with heavy hearts. My sister-in-law
    was diagnosed with Stage lV Lung Cancer while we were in Viet Nam on our trip. We were blessed to spend
    a week with her and my brother still believing God is in control and can perform a miracle.

    She was in the hospital with fluid on her lungs & blood clots and she is back again tonight in the hospital with
    fluid on her lungs again. We still are believing & trusting God.

    Thanks for sharing again! We so appreciate your blog & your positive sweet spirit.

    Much Love sent to your family!

    • Yes, Char, what would we do without family? I’m sure it must have been heart-wrenching to leave your sister-in-law and to know she’s back in the hospital. Love and blessings on you and your family during this time, and thank you for your kind thoughts.

  14. Intentional joy and memory making in the middle of the diagnosis of cancer. I love your wonderful perspective that releases waves of joy for all of us.

  15. Mary Kittelson

    Oh, Marlys, I just read your story. What a thing to hit in January. What a dear person your mother-in-law is, I can see from your descriptive words and the lovely photo. A flood of feelings come back, don’t they, from what you’ve already been through. When Carl’s niece was diagnosed in August with stage 3 color cancer and his cousin with terminal brain cancer shortly thereafter, I did a bit of yelling into the wind: “I HATE CANCER!!!” along with a few tears. Then, deal with it in more positive ways. It’s just good let out steam now and then, isn’t it?
    You and the rest of the family will be in my prayers.

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