Posts Tagged ‘cancer’

Ups and Downs

May 2, 2012

I enter the Hampton Roads Tunnel and the rain suddenly stops. Usually I don’t like the tunnel. Going from bright sunshine into darkness illuminated only by artificial lights and knowing I’m underwater frightens me. Today, the tunnel is a relief, it feels like a refuge from the storm. The serenity only lasts a minute or two before I’m spit back out onto the bridge spanning choppy water. My windshield is pelted by rain. I look to the horizon and spot one lonely sailboat, its triangles of white canvas, stark against an all gray waterscape. I think the boat a brave little vessel to be bobbing there.

The tunnel separates my home from the land of my father. He is a retired Navy man. He still wears his USS America Cap with its pins attached when he ventures out for appointments and to run errands. Hampton Roads is home to military families, active and retired. There’s a sense of urgency here that I have not felt in other places.  I only lived here for the first two years of my life, and I don’t remember those. My mother and I moved three hours west in 1963. I’ve only come to visit since then.

Last Thursday and Friday when I was here, I had such hope. My father was better. He was still weak and he tired easily, but he was less pale. His hug felt tighter around my shoulders. He was able to drive us to the commissary for groceries, and to the Mexican Restaurant for dinner. He collected the chicken eggs in the morning and washed a few dishes in the sink. His biting sense of humor seemed to be returning and he had regained ten of the twenty-three pounds he’d lost after the first round of chemo. The suspenders he wore to keep his pants up looked endearing.

Bev called this morning to tell me he was being taken to the Emergency room. We knew this new round of chemo would be difficult, make him weaker, more susceptible to infection, possibly take away his wavy white hair. He took the treatments all day Thursday, half a day Friday and then went for a blood booster shot on Saturday. Bev and I kept in close contact over the phone each day.  We strategized my visit to coincide with our projection of the worst. By our estimation, Sunday would be the day the effects of chemo would begin to hit my father. Our projections were twelve hours off. By Sunday morning, he’d fallen twice from the side of the bed and the pain in his back was so severe he couldn’t move without screaming.

I had spent all day Saturday and early Sunday morning cooking in preparation to leave Sunday afternoon. I wanted to take enough food to carry us through the difficult part of the chemo. No one has the energy to cook after care-giving. I gathered all my things, packed the food in a cooler and picked up the interstate three miles west of our house. I tried to concentrate on the book being read to me on CD as I drove. Twenty minutes into the trip, I gave up, ejected the CD, and listened to my thoughts for the rest of the drive.

The hospital is only four blocks from my father’s house. It’s easy to find. The parking is atrocious though. I circle and circle the emergency lot, hoping for someone to get well enough to leave so I can claim their space. I pull out my cell phone and call Bev.

“We’re still in the emergency room,” she says. “Room thirty-four.”

“As soon as I find a parking space, I’ll be right there,” I say.

I wind my way through the emergency department until I come to the last row of doors on the last hallway. The door is shut, the blinds closed. All I can see is darkness. As I raise my hand to knock, a nurse comes up behind me.

“Can you wait here just a moment?” she asks, not waiting for me to answer. She shuts the door behind her, leaving me to wonder.

Panic sets in. Am I too late? Has he died while I was searching for a place to park? If I had known I would have parked in one of those ‘Employee of the Month’, or ‘Doctor Only’ spaces. I’d have double parked and not worried about the towing bill.  I’d have left the car running with its driver door open, not worrying about it being stolen.

The nurse comes back out and ushers me into the room. My dad is laying flat on a stretcher, his face so pale and drawn, he doesn’t look alive. His eyes are closed. He grimaces; and I let out the breath I’ve been holding.  “We’ve given him morphine,” the nurse says from the door. “It should kick in pretty soon.”

I hug Bev, lean to kiss my dad on his forehead, wheel the rolling stool in the corner of the room closer to his bedside. I take his limp hand in mine, and wait.

Early Spring

March 22, 2012

I look out my open living room window and see bright spring color. A breeze, still cool, but warm enough to hold the promise of April’s temperatures touches my face. Our weather comes from the west and this is the coldest room in the house, but my view is cheerful. The trees, bare, just days ago are full and ripe with bloom. The red-pink of japonica, yellow of forsythia, and white of bridal wreath vie for attention with the purple of crocus and the lavender of violets. Days are longer. People whistle walking down the sidewalk, and smile.

It’s the first full day of spring. Sometimes, in years past it’s been so cold the first day of spring that only the resilient daffodils show their colors above the snow on the ground. This year the season came early. Dogwoods will bloom well before the town festival and the Bradford Pears have already begun to shed their blossoms. The early birth seems to be pushing time forward for me, pulling up that hope still dormant in me.

It’s Wednesday and I know in two more days I’ll see my father. I can’t help but wonder how much thinner he’ll look this time, how much of his hair will be gone, how bent he will be over the walker. I know how he sounds. I talk to him every night. His voice is scratchy and ancient. His breathing is labored. He’s scheduled for a blood transfusion tomorrow. Those make him feel better.

I pick up the phone and make the nightly call. The phone rings and rings, then the line connects. “Can I call you back in ten minutes?” Bev’s harried voice asks as soon as she picks up the phone. Something is terribly wrong, I know it. I pace the floor, looking at my watch every thirty seconds, trying to push the time forward by the sheer force of my will. He’s stopped breathing, I think. He’s fallen again. His temperature has reached that critical one hundred seven degrees that sends you into brain damage. I can see her pouring ice cubes over him to cool his hot skin. I can see his eyes rolling back in his head.

When the phone rings exactly eighteen minutes later, I am breathless. “Hey,” I say.

“I guess you think I can’t tell time,” Bev says, a smile in her voice. My heart rate calms. “That’s OK,” I say. “I knew something was up.”

“We had just walked in the door from the chemo when you called. They started the drip at 9:30 and we didn’t get in the door until the minute you called just after six-thirty.”

“How’s he doing?” I ask.

“Pretty good. For some reason his appetite increases on the days he gets the chemo. He chows down on those peanut butter crackers they give out. I packed a cooler this time to be prepared. He nibbled all day long.”

I’m glad to hear his appetite has increased. The last time I’d seen him he said everything he ate tasted like cardboard or worse. Even fudge ripple ice cream, his favorite, held no appeal. Now he was eating yogurts, peanut butter sandwiches, apple slices, and pretzel sticks. My spirits lift.

“Here’s your Dad,” Bev says, handing the phone to him.

“Hi daughter,” he rasps to me.

“Glad to hear your appetite’s better,” I say.

“Things taste more like they’re supposed to. We stopped on the way home and got a hot fudge sundae.” I imagine him sitting in the car, spoon to mouth, eyes closed, savoring his ice cream. It makes me smile.

“Yum,” I say. “Wish I was there to have one with you.”

“Me too. You still coming this weekend?”

“That’s my plan,” I say. “Anything I can bring you?”

“Some of that warm weather you’ve been having up there,” he answers. “I’ve been waiting all winter for some spring.”

I think I’ll cut some japonica, forsythia, and bridal wreath from the bushes, put the branches in a vase, and carry them to Chesapeake with me. It seems a little early spring is good for the spirit.

It’s the Chemo

November 8, 2010

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.

Happily Ever After

July 24, 2010

When I was growing up, I never expected to find my Prince Charming, like Cinderella.  I never saw a “happily ever after” in real life.  Every adult relationship I witnessed, with the exception of my maternal grandparents, was disjointed, abusive, secretive, multi-partnered and chaotic.  Men may have looked like Prince Charming, but they hit, twisted arms, yelled loudly or were ominously silent, and drank. One showed up every now and then, but vanished sometime during the nights.  Castles were on hilltops in books. The princes I knew lived in trailer parks or houses I wasn’t allowed to visit.  My mother, on the other hand, fully expected to be fitted for her glass slipper and to ride off in the horse drawn carriage.  She worked to that end.

  Mama divorced at thirty.  Nine years of never knowing what to expect, cured her of marriage.  For thirty-five years, she swore, hand up, to anyone who asked, “I will never, ever, ever get married again.” 

     She changed her mind at age sixty-five. They met at the antique mall and frequented the same auctions and yard sales.  Following a long, familiar path, the man she found was married, but she left him alone in his relationship.  The two of them developed a long friendship, attended the same church, and finally, she watched the man care for and grieve over his dying wife.  Three years later, my mother fell in love with this widow and married him. 

    In the eleven years she has been married to G, my mother has thrived.  Their relationship is like one of those bridges that expands and contracts depending on the heat and cold.  They adjust.  He can’t work enough and when he’s home, he’s in the garden.    She is a women who cannot live without her independence.  No joint bank accounts for her.  Her car is in her name, she pays exactly half of the mortgage and the bills, she runs her own canning business and if he doesn’t want to go on vacation with the family, she goes and he stays at home.  

   “It’s the perfect fit,” she says.  “Who else on earth would put up with my stubborn ass?”

     He enjoys her self-determination, sits back and smiles, shaking his head.   He’s tried to help her out over the years with bills, groceries, spending money for vacation, lifting heavy boxes.  She hasn’t allowed him to.  She’s right, a fit was hard for her to come by. No other men in her life adjusted.

       The relationship I see between my mother and step-father, although not what anyone would call traditional, is the closest thing I’ve ever witnessed where she is concerned. 

     “I wake up in the morning, and suddenly it’s time to go to bed,” she says to me on the phone.  “I love my life so much, I wonder where time goes.”

     Eleven years, that’s longer than her first marriage, and she is so happy.  It’s been good to witness.

     Yesterday, she received the news that G has lung cancer.  It’s in the upper lobes of  both lungs and in a lymph node.  He watched his first wife suffer and die with cancer; now he has it.  Mama and G are both stunned, she, I think, more than he.

     My Mama is too old to have an evil step-mother throw a list of chores at her “happily ever after.”   She’s done the dirty work in her life, scrubbed out the fire places and worn the tattered dresses.  She’s practiced dancing with the mice in hopes of finding her prince.  She’s been left on the side of the road when her carriage has changed to a pumpkin.  The glass slipper finally fit, and now– well, we’ll just have to wait and see.