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Nadine Messer Copeland lived in the upstate of South Carolina for most of her life. She and her husband, Marvin, raised their two children, Tina and Chris, in Dacusville. A small town in the foothills of northeastern Pickens County, Dacusville has friendly residents, beautiful farmlands, and picturesque mountain views that make it an ideal place to live.
For most people, a mountain view is usually peaceful and enchanting. However, the mountains Nadine faced were anything but that. As a matter of fact, they did not have anything to do with the majestic mountain region of this area with hiking trails, scenic waterfalls, and sweeping views. Unfortunately, Nadine’s mountains represented the insurmountable challenges she faced in her life. She’s navigated trails of uncertainty, shed tears of sorrow, and stared into an unknown future many times. Her “mountains” overwhelmed her so much at times that she wondered if she would ever be able to climb them and cross to the other side.
On the other hand, everyone I spoke to about Nadine’s life story always referred to her as a very strong individual. A mutual friend of ours described Nadine as being a “compassionate, selfless, and kindhearted lady with an infectious laugh.” I heard that laughter quite a bit during our interview. Nadine is a natural storyteller, a light-hearted conversationalist, humorous at times, and I must admit, her laughter is very contagious.
These traits served Nadine well as she provided care for over thirty years for many people in the upstate as a home care nurse. Nadine had many special experiences with patients. She didn’t just attend to their daily needs, she developed friendships, and provided comfort for some of them until their journey’s end. Helping people seems to come second nature to Nadine.
Nadine never thought she would put her caregiving attributes to the ultimate challenge with the adversity she faced in her personal life. When we met to talk about her family, she told me about her daughter, Tina. A friendly, beautiful, vibrant young lady, Tina was a free spirit with a bright smile and a magnetic personality. When Tina was fifteen years old, she developed a painful lump in her left leg. The doctors treated it as a baker’s cyst. However, scans, biopsies, and Tina’s intensifying pain confirmed this was a misdiagnosis. For months, the doctors couldn’t diagnose Tina correctly. Nadine explained, “The doctor’s were very puzzled.” Nadine felt a mixture of raw emotions, fearing that the diagnosis was going to be every mother’s worst nightmare.
Tragically, further investigation of test results revealed that the cyst was a malignant schwannoma, a relatively rare primary nerve sheath tumor. Most schwannoma are benign, with less than 1% being malignant. Nadine said, “At the time of Tina’s diagnoses in 1991, the doctors had never seen that cancer in the Greenville area. As it turned out, there were only seven cases in the United States.” Nadine mentioned that Tina was confident early on that the doctors would have to remove her leg. She marveled, “Tina could feel things and know things before I did. I don’t know how she had that foresight.” Doctors confirmed that Tina’s left leg would have to be amputated at the hip joint. Nadine added, “Tina broke down only once when the doctor told her…but after that, she was amazing.”
After one year of chemotherapy, body scans showed no sign of cancer and Nadine felt Tina was on the road to recovery. She returned to high school, graduated in 1993, and began Greenville Tech with a goal of attending Coastal Carolina.
Heartbreakingly, in 1995, Tina began to experience pain in her chest and a scan revealed that the cancerous tumors had recurred in her lungs. Nadine said, “Tina’s doctors loved her so. They did what they call a cherry picking, where they tried to remove all the cancer they possibly could.” Cherry picking is the layperson’s term for the surgical removal of metastatic lung lesions. The first surgery was not successful. Nadine watched her daughter struggle through a second difficult and, unfortunately, ineffective surgery to remove the schwannoma from her lungs. Tina also agreed to another round of experimental chemotherapy. Nadine watched Tina struggle through a range of severe side effects. Tina’s doctors were insistent that they schedule a third surgery on her lungs, hoping it would extend Tina’s life by five years. However, by this time, the aggressive tumors were already on her diaphragm. Tina and her family realized that another surgery was not what they wanted. Nadine explained, “If she had lived, they would have constantly been doing that…cutting her open to buy her time.” She went on to say, “It was God’s Will. I believed it was God’s Will and He was in control. The doctor was not. God was in control.”
Nadine knew Tina was reaching her limit. Tina and her family talked to her doctors about the toll the chemotherapy was taking on her body. Her doctors suggested trying a different experimental chemotherapy, but this time Tina denied treatment. Doctors told Nadine that Tina would only have six to nine months to live. Nadine explained that it was her choice and they knew how weak she was at this point. She said, “In her mind and in our mind, we had accepted the fact that she was going. Tina just accepted it. “
Tina went home and spent the remainder of her time loving her family, reminiscing with long-time friends, reconnecting with people, and enjoying simple things. Her top priority, however, was obvious. Tina wanted to make sure she saw her loved ones in heaven one day. Nadine recalled, “She still had that big ol’ smile and towards the end she would witness to people. It was a miraculous thing. Can you believe that baby was praying for everybody else while she was dying?” Nadine explained that the closer Tina came to the end of her life, the more she would talk about hearing angelic singing. She said Tina heard angels three different times and each time the singing was louder and closer. Nadine added, “Tina would look at me and tell me that Jesus was coming.”
Tina died in her home in October of 1995, surrounded by Nadine, Marvin, and her brother, Chris, who traveled home from the air force base in Alaska to say goodbye to his sister. Numerous other friends and family had gathered at the home to say goodbye to Tina and to support the family. “She taught us how to die,” Nadine said, “and if there’s such a thing as a sweet death, hers was.”
While grief is a universal experience for all of us, different kinds of losses create different grieving experiences. Losing a child to cancer is unlike losing one’s aging parents, relatives, a spouse, or even a close friend. All losses are unique and painful and require time for grieving, healing, and recovering. Unfortunately, Nadine faced five more painful family losses in the years following her daughter’s death. Nadine cared for each one of them until their passing. Some fell ill simultaneously and Nadine fought feelings of guilt and sorrow when she had to divide her time. She lost her elderly father just a few years after Tina’s death from kidney failure. Subsequently, the family’s adopted grandfather passed from a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Nadine and her sister-in-law also cared for her elderly mother who passed away in 2011. Furthermore, Nadine’s only living brother, who was also unwell, passed away on the day of their mother’s funeral.
Most regrettably, Nadine also lost her loving husband, Marvin, soon after, due to a long battle with heart disease. Marvin’s health declined while she was still assisting with the care of her elderly mother. It was a heart wrenching time for Nadine, as she tried to meet the needs of her elderly mother, her husband, and her home care clients. Marvin, her blue-collar, breadwinning husband, always found a way to provide for his family so Nadine could work a flexible schedule so she could dedicate her time to Tina and eventually, other sick family members. Nadine reflected on Marvin’s battle with heart disease over the years. She remembered when he was in the hospital many years ago for one of his first heart surgeries, not too soon after Tina’s amputation. Nadine laughed, paused for a minute, and said, “I looked over at Marvin in that hospital bed and then at Tina standing in the doorway with that crutch and thought, Lord what is happening to all of us…to my family?” Nadine shook her head and continued, “One of the main things people need to remember is to say things now while you have time. Say what you feel. If you love someone, show them and tell them now.”
I complimented Nadine on her ability to be so resilient through the loss of her daughter, husband, and other family members. She replied, “No, I’m not strong. It’s not me. I’m just a vessel.” Nadine feels that God took care of her during broken times. Her emotions seem to be governed by her belief in God. While she says she is not strong, it seems her perseverance was, and still is, fueled by faith. Her humble heart, steadfast faith, and caring ways blessed many others in a time that she was suffering the most.
If God blesses those who bless others, Nadine is definitely a testament of that because her life soon took an amazing turn.
Later in the summer, while visiting friends, Nadine became acquainted with Earl Copeland, a gentleman from Charleston. They realized they had much more in common than just mutual friends. Earl, like Nadine, also lost his beloved wife, Linda. He cared for her for fourteen years in their Charleston home until her death from Alzheimer’s Disease. Earl also cared for his elderly mother until her passing. Therefore, he could relate to Nadine’s experiences. Earl, a cancer survivor, is a retiree of Eastern Airlines, a former mayor of Hanahan, and a previous District Field Representative for Congressman Henry Brown. With so much in common, Nadine and Earl felt that God had brought them together and they formed a very special relationship. Nadine and Earl were married in 2012. Earl said, “I am blessed that twice in my life I have had wonderful ladies. Linda was very special and Nadine is the same way.” He continued with a smile, “Someone told me that most people go a lifetime and can’t even find the right one, but I’ve had two special ladies in my life.” Nadine nodded and continued, “Marvin’s last wish was for me to find someone that would make me happy. He wanted me to be able to do the things I was never able to do.” Nadine and Earl like many of the same hobbies such as building projects, traveling, and sharing their faith. They enjoy their cozy home in Hanahan, Charleston, a two-story southern home with a white gazebo, welcoming porches, rocking chairs, and a flower garden. Their home reflects two lives beautifully blended and blessed with old family photos, nostalgic treasures, favorite furnishings, and new family pictures. However, a notable item that seems to be consistent in every room is a well-worn bible. It has been said that a bible that is falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.
This prompted me to ask Nadine how she has managed to cope with so much loss and sadness in her family. Nadine said, “My faith is the one thing I always had. Even though things were bad, I knew God was there.” Nadine learned early on that if she looked at things from a faith-based perspective, she could see God at work in the hardest of times. Nadine continued, “I think I felt Him the strongest going through Tina’s illness. It’s hard to watch your baby suffer.” However, she has also been with clients at the end of their life and has witnessed a lot of special things. She explained, “I have been with so many elderly people dying and they have seen loved ones who have already passed on. They have also heard the angels sing.” Nadine’s faith-based perspective has also allowed her to look back and see blessings that have come from the brokenness she experienced from losing almost every member of her family. Nadine said, “Many people came to us after Tina’s funeral to tell us how it had changed their lives.” She continued, “While you hate to see your baby suffer…if it hadn’t been for Tina’s suffering and death, they would not have been saved.” Nadine is extremely grateful for the time she had caring for Tina, Marvin, and her other loved ones. She said, “When you lose your whole family, you realize how precious the time is. I only have one child left and I realize how very precious that time is with him.”
Even though Nadine and Earl have entered into a beautiful new life together, they will both tell you without reservation that they still treasure the life they had with their late spouses. However, it is obvious they have been blessed with new love, new adventures and a new blended family to enjoy. That’s not to say that life is now a fairy tale. Nadine and Earl have been through far too much to believe that.
Just as a their new marriage was beginning, Earl and Nadine both found themselves facing yet another mountain of adversity. Earl’s prostrate cancer returned and to make matters worse, Nadine found out she had breast cancer. Nadine and Earl continued to rely on their faith, praying that God would intervene. Fortunately, both cancers were caught early and Nadine and Earl went through radiation together. While Earl’s cancer responded to radiation, Nadine’s did not, and she had further radiation and eventually, a double mastectomy. Fortunately, they were both declared cancer free in 2014.
I asked Nadine if she thought people would consider her as someone who was inspirational for overcoming some of life’s greatest challenges. Nadine humbly said, “God knows what each one of us are going to face before we are born and then if our hearts and minds are open to Him, He will lead us through it.” Nadine believes God wants us to face life’s overwhelming trials with tremendous faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. She emphasized the importance of putting our faith to the test and trusting that God will provide what we need to survive any obstacle. Nadine assured me with great confidence, “I can promise He will always bring you out on the other side of the mountain.”
Heather Reeves, Challenges Column Contributor
Heather Reeves, a 5th grade language arts teacher, lives & works in her hometown of Liberty, SC. She is a graduate of Clemson University & her family enjoys cheering for the Clemson Tigers. Heather also enjoys gardening, crafting, traveling, & spending time with her husband and daughter.