In a very real sense, living alongside someone with a serious illness feels like an echo of pregnancy,
Just with the potential of an outcome that is the antithesis of pregnancy.
Having lived through and around pregnancy, it is the only physical comparison I have to use for a changing body, a body that morphs because of and to accommodate the presence of something internal.
This makes sense to me because my dad has cancer,
and he’s the one with the morphing body.
Things were at a critical point a few weeks ago, with dad in the hospital and full diagnosis still pending.
Now we have the diagnosis, and while it is helpful to know what we’re dealing with (I say ‘we’ as if I am somehow able to help carry the burden he now has, as if the people who love him can do anything about the physical impact the cancer or the treatment have on him), I’m finding that I don’t have the capacity to fully hold in my head the severity of the situation.
He’s doing better.
He’s back at home.
His speech is clearer (he had a stroke and was hospitalized during that critical period).
The things that were causing him physical pain have ebbed.
It is easy to pretend everything is back to normal.
I’m a big fan of the way things were before this all started up. I’d prefer to go back there.
As with all of us, we don’t know what will happen to Dad. Will the chemo work? Will it work enough that the tumors in his lungs, lymph nodes and shoulder will go away entirely? Will we have him with us in five years? In two years? According to the doctors, the chances decrease as more time passes.
On a different scale, that’s true for all of us, serious illness or not.
Now we wait.
We take internal inventories, monitor what our hearts and bodies crave and take special care with each other. It feels like that period after the baby’s been delivered and we’re just starting to remember we can once again do the things we did pre-pregnancy. There’s a collective sigh in my family because we’re through the immediacy of the initial run of hospitalization and meeting with doctors.
I feel like I go through days holding my breath, waiting for an undetermined signal that may never come, the signal that indicates it is safe to relax, safe to unclench my jaw and my heart.
Is the signal the fact that my dad can get around their tiny house without help from a cane or someone’s arm?
Is the signal that Dad and Mom are planning, with doctor’s permission, to go back down to Costa Rica in a couple weeks?
The reality is that there isn’t a signal, and not one person can offer us one. We’re stuck taking things day by day, living in the unknown, trying to be positive but realistic, preparing for the worst but hoping for the best. There are moments, full days even, when I forget the illness and its severity. I have that luxury because I don’t live with my parents, don’t have to administer the medicines his body requires multiple times every day, don’t help with the chores of daily living and monthly trips to get chemo. I don’t see everyday the way my dad’s clothes look baggy on him, as if he lost his luggage and had to borrow them from a friend in a pinch.
I can live with a lot of mystery.
I don’t want God to be explainable —
I want there to be supernatural, divine moments when no scientific device can detect or dissect what just happened.
Living in this unknown, however, is different. It doesn’t feel like a holy mystery. It’s not something I enter into with reverence and positive expectancy.
This current unknown is full of life-threatening danger, slow decline and potential devastation.
For a while, I was in a state of constant fight-or-flight. I snapped at my family, exploded over piles of clothes on the floor, cried because a thought of illness entered my head. I stockpiled instant dinners and travel snacks, and kept my physical and emotional overnight bag at the ready. For instant reaction, I was your gal. The rational, nuanced part of my brain was shut down by something more primal, more reactive. Time passed unnoticed, sounds were muted, every movement required triple the effort.
Now the unknown continues, a slow march towards an unclear destination.
We’ve returned to the familiarity and comfort of our routines, except they’re all laced with added weight, the way some cloth is now laced with copper. There’s a feeling of negative expectancy, a bracing for the next hard thing, an assumption, maybe in self-protection, that the unknown will probably not be something welcome. It’s like being on guard for a cat to pounce.
Will the cat of cancer merely bat Dad around, like him a few times, toss him in the air but get bored and move on?
How long can one live in this state of heightened awareness, the shadow lurking around the edges?
Is it possible that this is our new normal?
I’m sorry this is so all over the place. It is as erratic as I feel some days. If you’ve got advice or resources for handling illness or stress, please feel free to share. We are all stronger together.
This will be brief.
Mostly it will be brief because I don’t know how to talk about what is going on in my family.
That may cause some confusion, because I actually mean “family of origin” but I ain’t that fancy and family’s family. My family by marriage is my family. My siblings and their spouses and my parents are my family. My husband and my children are my family. When something impacts one of them, it impacts us all.
My dad is sick. He was in the hospital for a week. We just brought him back to his house (with my mom) last night.
He has cancer. It is lung cancer. No, he is not a smoker, but if you think it matters or somehow a person who did smoke who develops cancer somehow deserved it, then you’ve never seen someone get sick. You don’t wish this on anyone, unless you’re a real dink.
There are many complicating medical factors that I won’t go into here.
I’ve stepped away from blogging, mostly because I’ve been busy trying to stay out of bed. Everything takes a monumental amount of effort, and I’m not the one who’s sick. I’m just on the sidelines and I find it challenging to keep moving.
As of today I’ve bought one Christmas present.
To blog about this, about this journey or the unfolding (or collapsing) of this could be a good thing.
It could also be getting personal gain from a difficult situation. I’m not talking “make lemonade from lemons” here. I’m talking about ambulance chasing, zero-ing in on that elusive “niche” that writers are supposed to find:
“How’d you become such a popular blogger?”
“I cashed in on the fact that my dad developed lung cancer at 67. It worked out pretty sweet for me. Sucks to be him.”
No thank you.
The thing for me is that writing has always been a way of processing things going on, whether that’s in my head or things around me. There’s that so-called “curse of self-awareness” that even as something is happening we’re aware of it, observing it. So as my dad positions on his shoulders a prayer shawl knitted by some kind people at a church in Colorado, I observe the way it clings to him, stretches and shapes to his body, how the yarn is bumpy and multifaceted with color, how I hope it covers him in prayers and envelops him with God’s peace. And as a person who writes and has been training myself to look for these stamp-sized images, I feel guilty for noticing.
It’s as if by observing, I remove myself from experiencing the situation in real time. And the one thing I can do for my dad is to walk through this with him, in real time, no self-preservation of distance or clinical observation. It is awful. But it is also infused with holy moments when all artifice is stripped away, all distance between presentation and reality is removed and we all are ourselves at our most raw, terrified, vulnerable and helpless. But we are together. And there is beauty in that.
Because of all this, and even though it snuck up on me and I’m not ready for it, it is also Christmas, and because I need to analyze why I would be writing about my life right now, I’m going to step away from blogging for a while. I may check in every so often with a quick hello, but I think it best to put it on hold for now.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for commenting. Thanks for being a really fun part of my days. I like y’all a lot. I hope to be back before too long. Have a wonderful Christmas, New Years, and any other holidays in December and January. Blessings. ~TC Larson
In the past few days, I have nearly stapled by thumb, sliced off the tip of my finger and vegetable peeled a stipe of skin into the potatoes I was preparing.
I find myself staring at nothing, blink and force myself back to reality.
Sometimes it feels like I’m wearing noise-blocking headphones.
Sometimes it feels like I’m half asleep.
Either I’m not hungry at all, food doesn’t taste like anything, or I just want ice cream since it is easy and actually has a flavor I can taste.
Sometimes my stomach feels nauseous or like I’m carrying a rock in there.
These are all unpleasant new experiences, things I’d rather avoid.
There are sweet people around me who want to help me feel better, who are sincerely sorry that my dad was just diagnosed with cancer and who wish they could do something, anything to make the situation more tolerable.
I haven’t told many people. I don’t know how to tell them, don’t know how to deal with their sympathy.
Before I can tell others, I feel like I have to be ready to allow them to be sad. The problem with that is that I don’t have any help or support to offer them.
Last week a friend of mine left at home her husband, her seven kids, her job working at least 20 hours a week and drove an hour and a half to meet me. She gave up six hours of her Sunday afternoon to help shoulder the diagnosis my family is trying to absorb. This is a gift I don’t know how to repay.
Maybe that’s part of my learning curve, learning how to accept help rather than being the one to offer it.
I have to learn how to respond when people say, “I’m sorry” about my dad’s cancer.
I have to learn that it’s not up to me to live up to anyone else’s expectation of my reaction. If I’m numb, I’m numb. If I’m teary, I’m teary. If the roles were reversed I suppose I would be prepared for any number of reactions. But in my mind I wonder if people wish I would break down and cry so they could feel like they’d helped get something off my chest, like I trusted them enough to bare that part of myself.
It comes down to the fact that I don’t know how to be the recipient of sympathy.
Who wants to learn how to do that? It’s a skill I don’t desire, like learning how to shoe a horse. I’m not interested in being in a situation that would require me to have that knowledge.
However, situations are not always chosen. More frequently they are thrust upon us.
That’s the other thing. I’m worried that it can come across as me making a big deal out of something small, or milking a situation for personal gain (although I’m not sure what I would gain by my dad being sick). I’d rather not have to admit I can’t help with that thing, or that I’m too unsure of my ability to compartmentalize that I can’t trust myself doing that event because I get choked up at the most inopportune times.
Maybe as time passes and we’re further away from the initial diagnosis this will get better. Maybe it will become the new reality rather than feeling like a bad dream that we’ll wake up from. Things will start being more manageable, they’ll feel like less effort.
Until then, I’m stuck in a class I hate learning something I don’t even want to know.
Do you have any websites or blogs that can offer some perspective or tips on how to learn this life skill? Have you ever dealt with illness and do you have any helpful suggestions for how to get through it?
I haven’t written anything for my work in progress in a week.
Even typing this I feel like I’m wearing gloves (and I’m not).
My arms are heavy to lift, like I’m underwater or walking around the house in three thick wool coats.
The past week or so has been filled with intense emotions.
The best feeling is that one of my brothers and his wife had their first baby, a boy.
It goes drastically down hill from there.
On the same day, my dad went in for some tests because they discovered he had a mass in his lung. He had to wait in the hospital in order to get his levels of whatever to be able to do the test.
A couple days after that my sister in law’s grandmother, a woman who is like a third parent to her, suddenly became ill.
Then my dad was told the mass was probably malignant.
My sister in law’s grandmother passed away.
And my dad received the test results. It is cancer. It is bad.
So the rug has been pulled out from under us. Our time has come to learn first-hand how to help each other get through this hard time. My posts here will probably be as erratic as my emotions. I don’t want to force you to be my therapists, but I find that writing does help me process feelings and ideas.
I’m dropping out of National Novel Writing Month. It feels like a failure though dropping out is a necessity, and meeting my daily word count seems like a very trite concern for me right now.
In the midst of deep sadness and fear, there are still so many things to be thankful for. I know this. I even feel it. I know that days will continue to arrive. Life will carry on. There will be laughter and lightness even in the middle of heaviness.
Thank you for reading. Thank you for being a community of friends. Thank you for your patience as I try to figure out how to deal with this new reality.