Grace Notes column: Navigating a new cancer diagnosis
May 25, 2012
I dream chemo all night. My father has lung cancer: these five words look strange to me in black and white. This is brand new. My mother, my siblings and I try to absorb the information. My father too, is absorbing it, and doing a better job than any of us. We are different now in a sort of hazy, undefined, searing way. Stunned, yes – he hasn’t smoked in 30 years, he had no symptoms, he felt fine, finding it at all was a fluke. We need to learn how to do this with him.
I wake and walk, in the dark, to the kitchen. I’m stunned even in the familiar dark, in the slight shine of tiny blue and orange lights blinking from the coffeepot, the computer, the microwave. I realize I’ve gotten up to write down a sentence on a lined yellow pad: “I dream chemo all night.” I think writing it down will take it from me and I will be able to sleep. I look at the clock; It’s only 1:30.
My siblings and I are careful with each other on the phone, speechless and full of plan-words at the same time. The subtext is unspoken and we talk only of details, facts, things to read, calendars. We let the reality of cancer and any words to describe it pile somewhere in our own lungs, unspoken, forming, solidifying into something we can live with, something we can live through, something we can help with.
My mother is calm. My mother has a broken heart. My mother handles everything between each new moment and the next. They’ve been married 53 years.
We start a notebook. In my family nothing is fully organized unless it has its own notebook. It fills quickly with schedules and drug choices, hydration instructions and insurance information. The first week we sit-down with Dr. Wu, the oncologist, and Dr. Wu looks my father in the eye and says “Yes, sir.” each time my father summarizes and repeats what had just been said; we all sit very still hoping Dr. Wu will say we’ve misheard, hoping we’ve misunderstood. And then Dr. Wu waits until we were all ready to ask the next question. And the next.
My dad has choices. He gets to choose what he wants to do. I find deep dignity in this. Do you want the most powerful medicines? The ones that may make you very ill? Do you want milder medicines? The ones that may be slightly less effective? Do you want to wait it out and do nothing? What do you want to do? Our first lesson is to shut up and look to my Dad to answer. In his own time, he does. He chooses the most aggressive treatment. “Why not?” If I can’t handle it, we’ll deal with it then,” he says. And we all know now what to do.
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I’m not present for the first chemo: my mother and two brothers are. I check in by phone. “So, are you just sitting in the chemo room and staring at him?” “Pretty much” says my mom. “And how’s he handling that,” I asked. She laughs, just a bare little laugh. “He’s putting up with it for now.”
Days later he is weary, but still eating macaroons. It’s said that if a writer has to ask permission, she’s not a real writer. Still, and yet, and I ask him long before this column is due. “Should I write about this? Or, should I not? I’ve written about my father many times. He reminds many of you of your own fathers; you write to me and tell me this.
After I ask, I listen carefully instead of filling the silence with words and disclaimers and explanations. “Oh, well I hadn’t thought yet about it.” Silence. “I guess I don’t have any feeling on it one way or another.” More silence, then he says “I don’t see why not. Just don’t write me off.” He does his sound of half way between a laugh and a hurumph . I have a lot of kick in me yet.”
Yes, he does. To each and every person out there going through chemo – you are not written off. We are with you. Kick and kick.