“Welcome home!” Mom cheered with a bright smile and her arms raised high. “Welcome Home, Raj!” Dad echoed. (“Rog” looks sensical but rhymes with “Frog.”) The day was just another of 400 days I have come home to Sandy from work 55 miles away in Tooele. Yet Mom and Dad made me feel like the son newly home victorious from the front lines of life. Slurping our Lazy Rigatoni with sausage and sauce, I told them about volunteering that day at the free NoMas immigration clinic (No More a Stranger), and how I wished the facts for my asylum application were stronger, but that stronger facts would include kidnappings or beatings or murders, and how returning the man and his family to Maduro’s Venezuela likely would mean kidnappings and beatings and murders, and about how well I performed my work might mean escape, and if not escape, returning the man and his family to…. That morning, the shower pipe had again slipped into vibrating screams, which I loathe with rending vehemence, screaming in my soap-slimed face: “You’re doing it wrong! You’ll never be good enough!” and I had again adjusted the water quickly to quiet the unbearable banshee. And that evening, after dinner, Mom handed me a note Dad had written to Tamara, and asked if could deliver it, but after a twelve-hour work day I did not want to find the emotional energy needed to deliver a note to a woman dying of pancreatic cancer, feeling awkward with what to say, but I said simply, “My Dad wrote you a note: he loves you and hopes for you, we all do.” Tears and smiles: they arrive with our suffering and hope. We do hope for her. This is our faith, that in healing or in dying she finds hope and finds love. Pine needles had fallen thick over the years, an unruly mat in the back yard, and I quickly filled both cans, pensive about Tamara, waiting for next week to fill the cans again. With his bowl of chocolate ice cream and a slice of warm chocolate-chip pecan banana bread, Dad complained that he could not sleep the night before, how his hips and legs had hurt, how he sat on the edge of the bed in darkness wondering whether years of sleeping in the same spot on the same side of the same mattress might suggest turning the mattress over. In the day’s eleventh hour, I hurriedly stripped the bed, flipped the queen mattress over, and strapped on fresh sheets. Rising slowly in the stair lift, still they caught me in the last tuckings. “Which way did you flip it?” Dad asked. “I flipped it,” I answered. I hope he sleeps better. We shall see.
Tag Archives: Cancer
Courage at Twilight: I Have No Idea
Four interminable months have passed since our visit to Dr. Neurologist, when he pricked and prodded, when he found severe neurological damage and no knee reflex, months of worsening ambulatory paralysis and increasing pain, months without answer or insight. Dad’s questions have burned in his brain: What is the diagnosis? Why the severe? What can I do to improve? And finally, after those four months, he had the chance to ask the doctor these questions, again. N had been 80% certain of the diagnosis of diabetic amyotrophy, and after the negative spinal MRI, presumably 100% certain, there being no other working hypothesis. Before him again on his examination table, the condition worsening, his answer to Dad’s renewed questions was a simple, “I have no idea.” When that is the state of things, of course you order more x-rays and blood work and tell the patient you will can him with the results. Punt. At least the lumbar puncture/spinal tap and the MRIs and CTs are done and need not be repeated. At least no one quipped, “What do you expect? He’s almost 88 years old!” Eighty-eight and still with a resting heart rate of 65 from decades of physical fitness. Eighty-eight with a world heavy-weight champion fighting spirit. Meanwhile, we waste away at home in our recliners, grateful for stair lifts and showers and power wheelchairs and books, and family. Surely, there must be a team of experts out there that can decipher this mystery and say, “Do this.”
(Pictured above: the healing squiggly scar on Dad’s scalp after skin cancer surgery last month.)
Courage at Twilight: Cancer and the Lost Poem
“My head hurts,” Dad moaned. As well it should. As well he might. The spot on his head, frozen by the dermatologist, would not heal, and a biopsy found skin cancer. Because I was out of town, our kindly neighbor, Darrell, loaded Dad in the Faithful Suburban—I had coached him in my detailed wheelchair protocol—and drove him and Mom to Dr. Hinckley’s office, where the surgeon excavated the cancerous spot, and found beneath it a more aggressive cancer that had reached its tentacles across Dad’s scalp. The surgeon substantially lengthened the incision, followed and carefully removed each tendril, and stitched up Dad’s scalp. I returned from my Chicago grandson’s exultant first birthday—complete with first steps, family photos, and pudgy little hands digging in his cream covered cake—to find Dad sitting in his recliner with a swollen face and puffy eyes, an enormous bandage covering his head, and pain. The eight prescribed Tramadol pills did not last long, so ibuprofen and acetaminophen are trying to pick up the slack. If not found and excised, that cancer would have killed him. Cancer killed my classmate Kim just last month, and I sat in the funeral service remembering my twelve-year-old crush (she never knew), our five-couple senior prom group, our high school graduation, and how kind she had been to me after my divorce. Her funeral was not the funeral I had expected to attend. Kim visited Dad and me last summer: she had found among her documents a folder of my high school papers, which she had brought home from school for me, because I was out with knee surgery, and had carried with her across exactly forty years a green plastic folder with my senior world lit 2 class papers—ten As, four Bs, and one B minus—papers I am not likely to ever read—and a poem. I have written exactly 531 poems in my life, and I had lost one of my very earliest poems, written in 1982 in my senior world lit 2 class, a poem that expressed newfound deep feelings about my purpose and my way-of-being in life—I had lost that poem, somehow, until I opened the green plastic folder, and there the poem lay, having hidden these forty years. I messaged her my thrill and thanks and the story of my lost poem, and she was so happy. As I read the poem she had saved for me for four decades, I realized it is a terrible poem, full of cliché and cheap rhyme and artificial meter and childish sentimentality. But for all its superficiality, its core idea laid the first stone of my life’s foundation. A few months later, Kim died. Thank you, Kim, for being kind.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly holding my one-year-old grandson on the windy shore of Lake Michigan.)
Courage at Twilight: Grandpa Darwin
My children’s other grandfather is dying from his fourth attack of cancer. Tumors like softballs stud his chest and torso. Prior cancers removed his lower jaw and all but a thin fold of vocal cord. Family group texts to my children kept me informed of his worsening condition and of the many tender family visits from his eight children and thirty-six grandchildren and twenty-eight great-grandchildren. Though I have not been his son-in-law for six years, I love and respect the man, and I knew it would be right for me to say good-bye. Sitting at his bedside, we fist-bumped and we talked and reminisced and we shared our hopes for our families’ futures. He expressed his love and admiration for my seven wonderful children. I conveyed Mom’s and Dad’s expression of love and admiration and respect—“Right back at ‘em,” he chimed. He told me stories of his early life, like when he was a little boy and he and his cousins laid on their grandmother’s down-tic mattress listening to her tell stories of their Mormon pioneer ancestors. “She was barely 4-foot 10-inches tall,” he marveled. “We loved her. But you didn’t want to make her mad!” like when the children tried to ride the sheep. When I asked what he most looked forward to on the other side, he listed reunions with his father, Charles, who died by train in the shunting yard in 1961, and his mother, Jessie, who died of a stroke the year I married (1988), and many other family members, like his brother Kay, who died of the hardships of homelessness. I told him I felt very sorry that things had not worked out for his daughter and me, but that I loved him. “You are family,” he assured me in exhausted whispers, “and I love you.” He squeezed my hand hard, then let me know he was so tired and needed to sleep for a while. He stopped eating five days ago—he made it to March 1—everyone has said good-bye—I have said good-bye and god speed.