Sunday, March 4, 2012

That Damn Cancer!


I am not much a fan of learning lessons the hard way, but it seems the manner in which I’ve acquired some of my most useful knowledge of this world. I am usually the kicking and screaming sort. I will learn the lesson, dammit, but you will have to drag me into it. I much prefer books and exams and lectures and stories. I much prefer someone sharing a lesson. Life through osmosis. I much prefer witnessing lessons on the news or in the papers or in any public place in general.

Right now, for example, in this neighborhood bookstore I am learning that if you talk that loudly on your phone in a public place everyone will know your business, not that I care to know how much that phone plan will cost you, and not that this information helps me to move forward in my life, but still, now I know. I am also learning in these close quarters on a crowded Sunday afternoon that it is always a good idea to leave home smelling your best and dressing as if you won’t be retiring to bed in the next few minutes. Now, too, thank you to a nice corner table, I know what the owner of my health food store does on her day off. But none of this really is what I would call useful life knowledge. It’s good to know, but I could probably get through life without it. Except for the smelling good part.

No, my most useful life knowledge has beaten me over the head, tied me up, and shouted, “LOOK!! There is a lesson here, darn it and you are going to learn it.” I am like the two year old. I shake my head, stomp my feet, and yell, “No! You can’t make me!!” Still, life is a tough teacher and has a will all her own. I have learned compassion through ridicule, giving through lack, and life through death. I could have gone my whole life without witnessing some of the things I’ve witnessed, but then it wouldn’t have been half the life it is.

It is Thanksgiving. Or close to it. My husband is out of town, not to return for a few days. My six year old and three year old are upstairs sleeping. I am nursing my four-week-old, enjoying a bit of down time. The phone rings. It is my dad. He has something to tell me but is hesitant. He doesn’t want me to bear the news alone. Of course, now, I WILL bear it. One doesn’t announce the need to share bad news without sharing it. I make him tell me. He has a tumor. A tumor on his brain. The doctors say it is inoperable, but that radiation and chemotherapy may help.

A brain tumor? Understand that this is a man who quit smoking cold turkey five years ago. He is a muscle of a man whose body has never seen an inch of fat. He never gets sick. Never. He is the specimen of health. He laughs and jokes and chats up anybody who passes ten feet in front of his face. He, also, I should share, is fifty-two.

And now in my recliner in the dimly lit living room, quietly nursing my newborn, I learn that this man who fathered me, who helped bring me into this world, will soon be leaving it. I cry. A lot. Alone.

The tumor takes up half the right side of his brain. After seven weeks of radiation it has overcome the entire right side. Inoperable. I grow to hate that word. I watch as my dad goes from an active, energetic, looking on the bright side, amiable sort to one who develops a paunch, lashes out, loses hope, and ultimately gives up. A friend tells me in the beginning of her brother, how the cancer went quick after the diagnosis, how I might not think it now, but quick is better, I will be glad for quick. Did she just say that? Has she no feeling?

I am a good four-hour drive from home. I never know. I never know when to leave. I never know when to jump in the car and go. With no family in the area, leaving requires much scheduling, much arranging and rearranging, much preparation and planning on very short notice. And still, I am changing diapers, reading stories, getting one on the bus, the other to preschool, and seeing to bath time and bed. My husband helps, but he is mostly out of town. Three months go by.

I get the call.

The kids are in bed. My husband and I throw them in the car, pajamas and all. Pack: diapers, onesies, clothes for three kids, books, some books, that will be good, keep them busy, how long will we be?, clothes for myself, homework?, calendar, grab the calendar, will need to notify, notify who?, not sure yet, just grab the calendar. How long will we be? Oh, my God. My dad is dying. Now.

My sisters and my mom are in the living room of my parents’ home where my mom has brought in a hospital bed to allow my dad to finish out his last days. He has slipped into a coma at this point in the cancer. It is dark. The rooms are dimly lit, and we are speaking in hushed tones. It is, I don’t know, one or two in the morning, three maybe. My mom calls a friend who is a nurse. The friend has told her to call no matter the time. The friend comes. She stands with us by the bed. She tells us to say our goodbyes, that it is time. She tells us to say our goodbyes and to give him permission, permission to go, to tell him that we love him and that it is okay, that he can go. The gurgling breath, the drooling, the warm body that soon will be cold. We say our goodbyes, and the transition comes. Breathing one minute. Not breathing the next. He pees himself. He is dead. I have just watched my father die. I have just watched someone I love make the transition from life to death. I reach out to touch him, the lifeless skin, devoid of warmth, devoid of soul, not my father, not anyone. I watch as the men come and put him into the body bag. I watch as he is zipped into the bag and carried out.

I didn’t want this lesson, but I have learned to embrace it. It has been eighteen years now, and I have come to learn that watching someone die is the greatest blessing, the greatest gift. When you have seen someone you love make that transition, when you have heard breath stop, when you have been witness to the slipping from this world to the next, you have no doubt what is important in your life, you have no question what matters and what doesn’t, and you feel no shame in saying or doing or being as you see fit. I didn’t want the lesson, but I am glad for it. I am glad for it because now I live my life. I live my life because I know that someday, someday not of my choosing, someone will watch ME as I make that transition, that transition from this world to the next.

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