It’s the Chemo

by

A year ago, my step-father, Gilly, was the strong one.  He hefted the wooden display table single-handedly, loaded the bushels of sweet potatoes onto the pickup truck and stacked all sixty cases of pint jars holding  my Mama’s jams, jellies and relishes.  She stood, smiled, recited recipes and collected the five dollar bills. 

“What ‘s the best thing to put this in?” a potential customer asked, holding a jar of Tomato Ketchup made from my Grandma’s recipe.

“Your mouth, right off the spoon,” Gilly said, laughing.

“Hush up your foolishness,” Mama admonished.  “Don’t you pay any attention to him.  It’s really good cooked in meatloaf, or spooned over pinto beans.”  Then she frowned at my step-father, daring him to say another word.

He just laughed and turned to bag more sweet potatoes from the pickup.

Gilly is six feet, two inches tall and until three months ago, was able to withstand hours in the garden, planting, plowing, picking  vegetables and weeding.  He chewed the end of his cigar and didn’t come into the house at night until darkness drove him to it.  Last year he planted forty-five hundred sweet potato plants and harvested two hundred bushels of the roots with no help.  Today, he was bent, gray, and thin.  It’s the chemo.

The spot on his lung turned out to be a tumor, a cancerous tumor that necessitated the surgeon taking out the upper lobe of his right lung and several lymph nodes. The process leading up to the surgery was long and slow, one test after another, little answers, leading to big procedures, a week in the hospital.

“The most pain came when they removed that damn drainage tube,” he said grimacing.  “When a nurse tells you it might hurt a little, she’s lying.”

Mama sat by his side, rubbing his back, turning her head when the tears started. 

A week after the surgery, Gilly climbed onto his backhoe and dug a septic system for the neighbor.  He planned to dig sweet potatoes September 24th, two weeks after his surgery.  He wasn’t going to call anyone to help, but  Mama called in the troops.  The whole family showed up that Saturday to dig and gather.  Gilly didn’t send us away.  Mama only allowed him to drive the tractor, no other work.  He picked up bushel baskets when Mama wasn’t looking though.

Chemo  treatments started Tuesday a week ago. Gilly spent two hours at the Cardwell Center having chemicals pumped into his veins to kill wayward Cancer cells. The nurse gave him a pamphlet to read during the procedure. It listed side effects.  After the treatment, Gilly drove to the barbershop to have his head shaved.  He’s always been proud of his thick, wavy hair. 

“You know, my Daddy was bald before I was born,” Mama comforted. “Garnett was bald too.  Seems most men in our family were.”

“I didn’t even know men had hair until I went to school,” I told him.

He looked down at the floor and sighed deeply as Mr. Herndon swept up the hair he’d buzzed off. Gilly put his John Deere cap back on his head and paid the thirteen dollars.  The bell over the door sounded cheery as we left the shop.

Today was the Vintage Apple Festival in North Garden. We tried to talk Gilly into staying home. We assured him we could handle everything just fine, but he was having none of it.  He wanted to sell his sweet potatoes and flirt with Mama’s lady customers. We finally gave in because we didn’t have a choice. 

Mama bundled Gilly in layers, brought the folding chair with the drink holder and a cooler full of water, tea and diet Pepsi. She kept him as far away from handshakes and sneezes as she could. My cousin Kandy, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last November, came with her husband Randy to help us.  All eight of us who showed up to help, took turns weighing and bagging sweet potatoes.

“Take that back and trade the big one for a couple smaller ones. People like a mixture,” Gilly said.

We followed directions and tried not to be conspicuous as we watched him for signs of fatigue and dehydration.  He caught us, rolled his eyes, and finally snapped at Mama as she asked him for the twenty-fifth time if he was feeling alright.

A woman picked up a jar of Zucchini relish, read the label and asked, “What’s the best use for this?”

“Just ask my husband,” Mama said.

Gilly looked up and said, “Just spoon it out the jar. It goes down easy.”

Mama didn’t scold. She smiled.

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