Author’s note: This post is a bit of a departure from the usual. It’s something I wrote when my father was battling what we later learned was pancreatic cancer, a battle he lost in February 2011. It is part of a larger work in progress. I’m sharing it again here to bring attention to a very important event.
This September 8, 2013 I will be taking part in my third Albany Pancreatic Cancer Research walk. We are currently in the process of raising money for Team 4HLW in honor of my dad. All the proceeds benefit The Lustgarten Foundation. Thanks to a commitment by Cablevision to underwrite the Foundation’s administrative expenses, 100% of every dollar donated to the Foundation goes directly to pancreatic cancer research. Research is the only way to fight this disease. Its low survival rate has not improved in a staggering 25 years.
Please consider making even a small donation to help this cause that is so very close to my heart. Thank you.
There’s no shortage of clichés when it comes to aging and it’s not until you have a personal experience that you understand why or how accurate they actually are. I suppose that’s true of all clichés. They exist for a reason.
My father sailed into his 80s with little fanfare. It was just the way he wanted it. He hates surprises and I believe when someone mentioned the milestone he quietly suggested that it would pass as the 79 before it did. Meaning, if anyone were to consider a big affair, he’d want nothing to do with it. It just wasn’t his thing. It wasn’t a question of age at all. Far beyond eligible for half-price breakfasts & coffee, my dad laughingly embraced his “senior” status and continued his day-to-day life as he always had…just as he wanted to. Long since retired, he frequently giggled at former colleagues who struggled with their own retirement, unsure how to proceed with a life that would allow leisure.
He enjoyed telling the stories.
“How do you do it, Harry?” they would say. “What do you do?”
He would feign a scowl then light up with a “whatever I want.”
He kept meticulous journals documenting everything from the marriages of his children and the births of his grandchildren to particularly delightful batches of baked chicken at the dinner table and quiet cups of coffee in the living room with my mom. They would retire there after breakfast and had affectionately dubbed it in later years as “the drawing room.” And so it went. He went about his life, we went about ours and none of us thought much about any of it.
Just about two years into his 80s, though, things began to change. He began feeling those years more than he had before. A minor ache turned into a major pain. He was forced to slow down a bit and before he knew it, he was headed for a hip replacement. Regular tasks became major productions. But what of it? Old age…whaddya gonna do? It was par for the course. Period. From all he’d heard, a simple procedure would be a bit of an inconvenience but then he’d be good as new. Besides, it gave him an excuse to use a cane he’d crafted from a old tree at our summer home. So he said and we followed his lead as we always had for all of our lives.
Then the little earthquakes began.
A hernia postponed the hip replacement. A hassle, yes, but a minor setback.
But then high blood sugar postponed the hernia surgery.
Eventually getting the all clear, he underwent the surgery. Worried, I waited for news, but as he always had, the model patient came through, again, with little fanfare. There was a significant recovery to consider, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle…except…
That surgery gave birth to a mysterious mass later to be termed by some as a possible tumor but whatever you called it, it showed evidence of cancer just in time for Christmas.
The news came from my father as I arrived home for the holiday and it arrived so matter of fact in the midst of a catch-up conversation I realized I had almost missed it.
“So, wait a minute now…it’s cancer.”
“Yes, well, it’s not in that thing they took out but it’s…somewhere. So, I guess we’re in a holding pattern for now.” He was his usual practical, cheerful self.
When my father left the room, my mother broke down in tears. It was a rare moment. She’s not a crier. None of us are. Not really. I hugged her tight, feeling more in that moment like a supportive friend than a daughter and shed my own tears. But then we took a collective breath and got on about the business of carrying on and carrying the presents into the house. Normal was becoming increasingly important these days; we had to fight for it.
That still mysterious mass touched off exhaustive tests, effectively ending life as any of us knew it. Journalistic nosiness led to generally ill-advised and admittedly completely amateur web-sleuthing. The information was overwhelming and, if even half-accurate, pointed to the most dire of circumstances; the authors, it seemed, were trying to one-up each other in worst case scenarios. The real answer remained a shoe to drop for another day, but it hardly mattered anymore. It would only be one more to add to the dozens that had fallen in little more than a few short months.
Doctor after doctor, test after test, no real answers but plenty of prescriptions and more than my father’s fair share of side effects: special diets, at-home blood tests, truckloads of meds, discomfort, unease, sleepiness, sleeplessness, neck pain, cold spells, heartburn, weight loss, incredible hunger, unbearable fullness….it is no wonder that following an endoscopy just days after Christmas he said to me,
“All these people talk of the Golden Years. It’s fool’s gold.” He smiled a little, pleased with himself I think, and added, “I am human iron pyrite,” triumphant at the comparison.
I had to laugh even through the welling tears. Who says that? My dad…forever the college professor, the academic, the lifelong student. For whatever would happen and for whatever we would have to endure or could have taken from us, in that moment I realized we could never allow our humor to be stolen. Life, after all, is ridiculous and without guarantees. You might as well have a good time if you can.
As hard as all of it was and as quickly as it all came, the hardest part may have been the effort both my parents put into “normal.” Coming home was both wonderful and hard. My dad reminded me of the kid who gets the flu right before a birthday party. He wants to go and to have fun and so he fights with all of his might to be well. Sooner or later, though, it just gets too hard and he has to relent, wrap himself in a blanket, and crawl into bed.
His stomach hurts, his neck is stiff, he’s hungry but it hurts to eat and he has no idea why; he has enough medications to take that it’s easy to forget them. 82 years–the last 20 at least spent eating low-fat diets, exercising, watching his weight. He bought a treadmill, walked to the post office, ate oatmeal every morning and for what?
“Don’t get old, Katherine,” he says.
I wonder about the alternative but have to say when you put it all together it almost seems more reasonable to wish to be hit by a bus. At least then you would have had the vaguest chance to see it coming and get out of the way and at least if it does hit you, you know exactly why you feel like complete dog shit.
“My head hurts!”
“Yes, dear, that’s because it bounced off the bumper.”
The aging process really is like watching a sunset. It’s slow and before you know it, it gets sad because it’s not until it’s almost over that you begin to suspect you haven’t really enjoyed it while you had the chance. Something beautiful is disappearing right before your eyes and there is nothing you can do to stop the encroaching darkness.
People with stronger constitutions (and I can only suspect living, healthy parents) will tell you it’s the circle of life. Puh. Circle of Life. Great. That circle isn’t perfect, though, is it? How many people spend their entire lives just trying to do the best they can only to watch the curtain close in the most uncomfortable seat in the house?
It’s nothing we ever want to talk about, but we can’t escape death. When my friend Megan had to have her childhood dog put down, she was devastated and I gave her credit for going home to be there for those final moments at the vet. I didn’t think I had the strength. I really felt for her and we agreed the death of a beloved pet is very much like losing a member of the family.
I told her the story of our big orange cat, The Weab. He became a legend of sorts in our town. I was in the second grade when he came to live with us and I was well out of college, about the same age as Megan, when he was put to sleep. He wasn’t the first pet I’d lost and I remember talking about how you can always tell when it’s “getting to be that time.” The animals become thin and weak. They continue on their normal routines best they can but it’s never really the same. You begin to make efforts just to make them comfortable and preparing yourself for the inevitable.
At the time, I felt as if my words were very profound. I was speaking from experience, but I never thought I’d ever think those same things about a person. To my great sadness, though, I’ve discovered it is all but too true and I suppose it’s true for all living things.
(I suppose it could also support my theory that raising children is much more like training a dog than any child-rearing expert would ever want to admit. Sit, stay or you will not get a treat. But that’s a story for another day.)
For as difficult as death and dying and loss are, the methods for dealing with them all are just as bad. I find “stay positive!” the best at being the worst. Second only, perhaps to, “be strong.” While no one wants to dive headlong into the pit of despair, or at least admit to doing so, catchy, feel-good phrases make me want to jump.
I guess the truth is none of us are comfortable with the very real and inevitable nature of death. For anyone close enough to you to know what’s going on, it’s a constant struggle to find the right way to be supportive. We’ve all been there…”I’m sorry” doesn’t seem like enough so we throw in an “it’s going to be okay” followed by a tight smile, praying that maybe we can change the subject or at least extract at least a small piece of good news out of the bad.
“But his color was better today” or “of course, they still haven’t done all the tests.”
I find myself identifying these days with the song “Picture Window.”
“You know what hope is?” ..it goes.. “ hope is a bastard, hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease. Hope comes near you…kick its backside. Got no place in days like these.”
It’s no “The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow”, but it’s real and it makes you realize that all the hope in the world can’t stop a sunset.