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#NPRreads: Losing A Loved One To Cancer

#NPRreads is a feature we're testing out on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers throughout our newsroom will share pieces that have kept them reading. They'll share tidbits on Twitter using the #NPRreads hashtag, and on occasion we'll share a longer take here on the blog.

This week, we bring you four reads.

From Joanna Kakissis, our correspondent in Athens, Greece:

I met Matthew Teague and his wife, Nicole Rolin Teague, 15 years ago in Raleigh, N.C., when Matt and I both worked at the local newspaper. They were adorable newlyweds then, barely in their 20s, her hair in braids, his laugh contagious. They told vivid, hilariously frank stories, one finishing where the other left off. They glowed with love, youth, health.

I knew Nicole had struggled with and ultimately lost her battle with ovarian cancer. And I knew it had been grueling for her, Matt and their two young daughters. But nothing prepared me for Matt's honest, unflinching and unbearably moving essay about the ordeal, especially the emotional devastation, and how their friend Dane Faucheux devoted himself to them.

Matt's always been a preternaturally gifted writer but his essay is unforgettable because it is sincere and courageous. It takes real courage to reveal just how ugly death is, how it disintegrates your beloved, and how soul-destroying it is to watch, and care for, a loved one who is slipping away. As Matt writes:

"We don't tell each other the truth about dying, as a people. Not real dying. Real dying, regular and mundane dying, is so hard and so ugly that it becomes the worst thing of all: It's grotesque. It's undignified. No one ever told me the truth about it, not once. When it happened to my beloved, I lost my footing in more than one way. The tiled floor of life—morals, ethics, even laws—became a shifting and relative thing. I smuggled drugs. Lied. Hid money from the IRS."

This is not an easy story to read. You might even find it traumatizing. But it is impossible to put down because it is, above all, an honest story about love. There is the love of distraught husband clinging to his dying wife, extracting ribbon from the wounds in her abdomen as she screamed, drying her tears with sterile cotton pads when it was over. He writes:

"Since we had met, when she was still a teenager, I had loved her with my whole self. Only now can I look back on the fullness of our affection; at the time I could see nothing but one wound at a time, a hole the size of a dime, into which I needed to pack a fistful of material. Love wasn't something I felt anymore. It was just something I did."

And there is the love of friend like Dane Faucheaux, who left his job, his girlfriend and his home to move in with the Teagues and help them through the toughest time of their lives.

"I had married into this situation, but how had he gotten here?" Matt writes. "Love is not a big-enough word. He stood and faced the reality of death for my sake. He is my friend."

From Sarah Gilbert, supervising senior editor for NPR's Weekend Edition:

The IUD is still struggling to shake its bad reputation in this country. Most of the distrust stems from the '70s, when the best-selling brand was pulled after research suggested a link to infertility, and to the deaths of 18 women.

The National Journal has the story of a one proponent committed to furthering the use of the device in Colorado to prevent teenage pregnancies. He points to a 40 percent in the teen birth rate – and even sports an IUD lapel pin, fashioned from a set of earrings he bought on Etsy.

But I really did bury the lead: The opener — and a great hook — to this story.

"Don Coram is not exactly your stereotypical birth-control champion. A rancher, born and bred, the 66-year-old Republican Colorado state representative still raises cattle in Montrose, on the dusty Western Slope. He's a big man, with a big, white mustache and sideburns, though his hair's still steely gray. When we meet in his office in the State Capitol Building, he's wearing black cowboy boots and khaki-colored jeans with his blazer and tie—looking, as he says with relish, like a true 'redneck Republican.' He typically votes accordingly: Coram opposed Colorado's Medicaid expansion and stood against civil unions—even though his only son, who is gay, implored him to change his mind.

"In this year's session, however, Coram is the unlikely cosponsor of an innovative program to increase women's use of long-term birth-control methods like the intrauterine device (better-known as the IUD) and hormonal implants. He's convinced that these methods reduce teen pregnancies and abortions, and mounting evidence backs him up."

Impossible not to read on.

From Tanya Ballard Brown, an editor for NPR.org:

Hope Wabuke's essay initially spoke to me because I had similar experiences as a kid, getting my hair straightened with some Ultra Sheen and a hot comb heated on the gas stove in my Grandma's kitchen; going to bed with little pink foam rollers placed strategically around my head to make sure my hair curled smoothly; worrying about whether the rain or a really hot sweaty day would cause my hair to revert to its natural state and make all that ear burning and hair sizzling for naught. Here's an excerpt:

"Shortly after this incident, the school district told my parents that something 'needed to be done' with our hair. Wearing it in the short natural Afros that were the norm in my parents' villages back in Uganda would not be accepted. Your daughters look too much like boys, they were told. It was too confusing to tell the difference. Our hair must be straightened, they said, or we would have to find a different place to learn.

"That's when the terror of the flat iron began. The press of heat against my tender scalp to turn curly black hair into something that could pass for white. The Vaseline that was rubbed on the tips of my ears, and other spots, burned black afterwards; the nerve damage I still feel to this day. How the sound of hot oil sizzling and the smell of frying hair would send me running, hiding in the back of the closet, to avoid this Sunday-night ritual: all of us girls, one after another, and my aunt's arms, tired of fighting with us to behave. 'Hold still,' she'd say. 'So you can look presentable for school and not get laughed at for being so ugly with your kinky hair.'"

But, it hurt me reading Hope describe how she came to believe that black was ugly. I know the beauty standard often only celebrates those features that are common on black women when they are co-opted by others (see all the raves over the Kardashians' large hips and full lips), but still, to read the writer say she believed she was ugly BECAUSE she was black, cut me deeply. I hope the messages that young women of color receive today don't leave them with that belief.

From Wright Bryan, of NPR's social media desk:

Is there such a thing as The South, a cohesive culture and reality? Or is it just a bunch ideas, misconceptions and stereotypes that don't hold together on close examination. Tracy Thompson takes on these questions in a Bitter Southerner piece titled "Dixie Is Dead." It's an in-your-face kind of a headline that immediately divides readers into separate camps. Those who know about the B.S. — a publication that aims to tell the story of The South as it is today, not how it once may have been — understand what it means right away. Others take offense, or rejoice, at the implication. As someone who grew up moving between Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, I really enjoyed Thompson's essay. Here's a taste:

"I call myself a Southerner, but the person I recently unfriended on Facebook because of his anti-Obama rants had finally, I thought, crossed a line also sees himself as a Southerner, and just as profoundly as I do. As does my friend Patrice, who is black and who live in an otherwise all-white gated community in South Carolina."

"What is it we are all claiming? An accent? A shared taste for hominy grits? The accident of being born at a certain latitude and longitude?"

Books have been written, and will continue to be written, trying to nail down the question of Southern identity. Thompson's take on it is a good place to start if you're not already deep into this rich vein of competing facts and visions. And if you're already taken sides, well, here's some more ammunition for, or against, your arguments.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tanya Ballard Brown is an editor for NPR. She joined the organization in 2008.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Sarah Gilbert