Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why I Hate Cancer

Johnny at 5 days....Dad, two weeks before the diagnosis (and looking a little uncomfortable holding a baby!)

It’s late in the evening, and I am home alone. My husband, Mike, is on the road as he is many nights every week. My six- and three-year-old are upstairs in bed, finally giving in after a bedtime story, a night-night song, a few Dixie cups of water, and a stern warning that if they don’t go to sleep this minute Mommy’s gonna lose it. I sit nursing my newborn, watching reruns of Cheers, feeling the opposite of sexy in my frumpy white robe and falling apart ponytail, spit-up encrusted burp cloth tossed over my left shoulder.

The phone rings.

My dad asks if Mike is home, if anyone is with me. “No,” I say. “What is it?” He says maybe he will tell me another time, that he doesn’t want me to be alone when I hear. He says Mike should be with me. “He’s not in for a few more days,” I say. “Tell me.” He says he has this thing in his head, that he and my mom were just having Thanksgiving dinner, just eating turkey. He says that’s when he noticed the drooling. The doctor says it’s inoperable. He wishes Mike were with me. He wishes he didn’t have to tell me when I’m by myself. “What do you mean a thing in your head? You mean a tumor? You have a tumor? Is that what you mean, a tumor? Is that the thing in your head? The thing in your head is a tumor?” “It’s inoperable,” he says. “It’s aggressive. Half the right side of my brain.”

The baby at my breast loosens his grip. Eyes closed and breathing slowed, milk spilling from his lips, he falls back into that breastfed baby nirvana, little chest rising and falling as he sleeps.

What did I just hear? My dad has cancer, cancer of the brain. Inoperable.

“So how do they make it go away?”

“We’ll try radiation first. Hopefully that will shrink the tumor a bit.” (It won’t. The tumor will double in size after seven weeks of radiation.) “Then after a little break, I start chemo.” (He won’t. The cancer will take his life while he waits the allotted time between the radiation and chemotherapy.)

They don’t make it go away. They can’t.

It has been three months since that first phone call. I get another, THE call. It is time to make the long drive home to say my goodbyes. It is happening.

The kids are in bed. Mike and I buckle pajama-clad babies into car seats. I pack. I don’t even know what I pack. Diapers, onesies, something for me. How long will we be? How much do we need? What about the schedule? I throw the calendar in the car. What do I need to cancel? Who do I need to call? Oh, my God. My father is dying.

My sisters and my mom are in the living room of my parents’ home when we arrive. My father lies in the hospital bed my mother has brought into their home. 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. My mom calls a friend who is a nurse. The friend has agreed to come and help us with the passing when it is time. It is time. The friend is hasty in her coming. She stands now with us by the bed. She tells us to say our goodbyes and to give him permission, to give him permission to go, to tell him that we love him and that it is okay, that we love him, and that he can go. He is passing from this life. The gurgling breath, the drooling, the warm body that soon will be cold. We say our goodbyes, and the transition comes. He is breathing one minute, not breathing the next. Just like that. I have just watched my father die. He pees himself. I reach out to touch him, the lifeless skin, the frigid body. This is not my father. This is the shell that held my father’s soul. I watch as two men come and put him into a bag. I watch as he is zipped into the bag and carried out the door.

I watch. I watch.