I had to review my family medical history for a new doctor this week and I went through all the autoimmune disorders, odd ailments, bad cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, heart attacks, stroke, and cancer this family has suffered in the last two generations.*
I mentioned to this doctor that my dad had died of cancer back in 2006 after living with pretty much everything I mentioned above. I wanted to add “Happy Father’s Day, right?!” to the conversation, but I didn’t know this doctor well enough to think I could pull that off. Although…she did laugh when I asked her in all seriousness whether a cyst might actually be a spider’s nest and would I wake up in the middle of the night covered in baby spiders. (I insisted she give me her home number so I could call her in the event that actually happens. I’m not convinced it won’t.)
All right. Let’s back back to my dad’s cancer. Fun!
It was a brief little fight. He was diagnosed the week before Christmas and passed away the first week in February. If you had only six weeks to live, what would you do?
It’s a fun dinner-party game and there are plenty of stories and movies about this type of occurrence–what would you do? Travel the world! Write that book I’ve had living inside me all these years! Rob a bank! Max out my credit cards! Visit all my old lovers! (We know I would never say that because, ugh…lovers? Really?)
Me? I ruin the game because generally I say, “I’d get the chemo and hope for the best. Pass the bread, please.”
There’s no way to prepare for a visit with someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease.
Do you focus on the good news? “He won’t be able to travel for several months…[he’ll be around for several more months]….”
Do you focus on the realistic news? “We’re not going to remove the tumor…[there’s no reason to remove the tumor because it's already a mess in there]….”
Do you focus on the mundane? “This room is so small!…[why can't I smoke in a hospital]….”
As it turns out, it’s easiest to let the person with the disease be your guide. In those initial days, while we wrapped our minds and our mouths around the word “metastasized,” he handled it like any solid Irish man who gets really, really, really bad news. He ignored it.
Within minutes of walking into his room, my father reported to me that his Johnny was uncomfortable and tugging at him, his goddamn IV line was getting snagged, the TV didn’t get any good stations, and he hadn’t taken a decent crap in about a week. He also reminded me that we shouldn’t be a bunch of Pollyannas.
Those first moments after discovering a loved one is going to die might be considered the worst. The truth is, denial makes them some of the best.
I don’t like the word process. I get a little annoyed when someone tells me they have to process something–doesn’t matter whether it’s a government form or feelings. It’s just an annoying and unnecessary word, so this is the most difficult sentence I will write in this entire post: We had very little time to process what was happening. I have journal entries, but I’m hard pressed to remember any last words.
Of course, I have my life-long list of advice and kernels:
- Always keep something on the back burner.
- We’re not interrupting you. We’re ignoring you.
- When someone hurts you, we go to the quarry, gather the rocks, and we build a wall.
- I’m not racist. I’m classist.
- Is there something wrong with your eyeballs? [Who says eyeballs? It still kills me.]
- [In response to my asking why he needed 300 stamps one day] Because 300 envelopes are useless without them!
- Be nice to your sister. [I have two. Which one, I asked. He stood with his back to me, sighed, and waved his hand distractedly. "Both."]
Even in the hospital, he had some tasty nuggets.
- Get the broad in here to detach me from the thing.
- Find out whether that code blue happened in a private room.
He could be a tough guy.
The other day, my brother told me about my dad’s deathbed conversation with him. It’s not my story and I won’t tell it here. I’m sure my dad whispered many endearments to other members of the family. Maybe he offered final advice to my other siblings, but I don’t really remember many of his final moments except one.
Those days in the hospital play out like a graphic novel in my head. Moments filling little illustrated panes. My father’s feet in those silly vibrating circulation cuffs. The spread of Greek food that miraculously arrived courtesy of Groom in the room in ICU dedicated to people in pre-mourning. My sister curled into a small phone booth with a blanket over her head. The humorously named Down and Out board game available to us in the cancer ward. My uncle sweeping around the corner and rushing down the hallway in the final moments to say goodbye, both anxious (to get to his brother’s side in time) and triumphant (because he did). In that particular elaborated memory, I see my uncle as a super-hero at the end of the story in a tuxedo and a cape, trotting in slow motion. It remains one of the more compelling images in my memory banks: sad, endearing, beautiful, real, and in some small way hopeful. I tap into it often for some reason.
In this graphic novel, my siblings and I, all five of us, show up as this giant ball of hair arms and legs, one unit, rolling about–loudly arguing, laughing, yelling, teasing, controlling the room, and constantly searching for answers.
When we weren’t at the hospital, we could be found in a handful of places around DC where my father lived, primarily grocery stores to find items my dad might consume (I remember only cream soda doing the trick); medical supply shops and drugstores (there is an amazing amount of stuff out there for sick people); and bars (see “Irish” above).
On our list of items: Mid-thigh, cotton, drawstring shorts so my dad could comfortably walk the halls with his IV without his backside flapping in the breeze, as he would say. We found boxer shorts (too revealing), pajama bottoms (too long), and even briefly considered Santa pants (too hot) and stripper pants (too synthetic). (Seriously. We had a serious discussion in the store about the Santa pants and I had my hand on the door at a porn shop while we discussed stripper pants.)
We did find some cotton shorts for him but when we returned to his room after delivering them, he was still in his gown waiting for the nurse to come by and check his vitals. According to my father, the nurses and techs came in every god damn ten minutes. “I swear they wait for the phone to ring or for dinner to be delivered—though I wouldn’t eat this slop if you paid me. This place would turn me off soup for Christ sake.”
When the nurse inevitably came in, she glanced at my dad’s johnny and said, “I notice you are not wearing your new shorts.”
My father–all in and out…Down and Out…on medication and morphine–leaned forward and started fussing with his gown. It had to have been maddeningly uncomfortable to be in a foreign bed with the heat set to 110 (honestly, why is it so hot in hospitals), and a tiny little cheese cloth for a blanket. He started to lift the gown.
The nurse stood solidly in place, experienced in these awkward matters and not glancing away, as my brothers and sisters and I collectively leaned back and closed our eyes…oooooh…noooo…. what is happening…. we’re going to see his swimsuit area….
I opened my eyes to see he was revealing a new pair of light blue pajama bottoms that ended mid-thigh and had been hidden by his gown.
Shazam!, he had said. Shazam! With that one word and to his enormous delight, he had shocked and horrified the quivering pile of hair arms and legs that represented his five children. And he had given me the most perfect last word.
*Side note: I am struck yet again that I bring absolutely nothing to my married family tree except disease and a debilitating sense of doom. Other than the blue eyes any child of mine might have had, I would have offered nothing positive to carry on Groom’s family name. Not that it matters. There’s no way I could ever create a human being nearly as well adjusted, interesting, funny, and good looking as my sister-in-law’s kids, so really, we did everyone a favor by being child free. Nobody in Groom’s family is saddled with having to pretend they love all the kids equally. Because that would be a bunch of nonsense.
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