Dropping Like Flies

Three years ago, if someone asked me if there was any cancer in my family history, I would have said no.  Now we find out we are riddled with it.  Sure, there were a couple of cases in my extended family, but in my immediate family, we’d been lucky.  Only Jan’s brush with melanoma 25 years ago was noted.  We felt pretty fortunate about how healthy we’d been.

Today, three out of the seven of my immediate family members are gone, all to cancer – two to pancreatic cancer and one to neuroendocrine cancer, unknown in origin.  And that boggles my mind.  How did we get to this point?

It seems as though this all tracks back to Aunt Betty’s decline in 2007.  That feels like the beginning of it all.  We’d lost Uncle Keith the year before and that was sad, but I could see Betty was in trouble at her last Labor Day event.  She was frail and low energy, two things she normally was not, even at 90.  I spent the fall driving down on Saturdays to see her and watched her fade away.  She passed away in November and losing her was hard for me.  She was such a big part of my life and I felt lost at the idea of a world without her. Now, in hindsight, going to her funeral feels like a warm up for what was to come. 

Jan was diagnosed less than a year later with pancreatic cancer.  It was a death sentence and we all knew it.  The big question was “how long?”  I felt it deep in my bones and ached at the idea of losing Jan, too.  I resolved to do my best to be there for her and we spent some wonderful hours together.  Through it all, we became closer than ever. 

Dad was diagnosed almost a year to the day after Jan.  He had been praying to take her cancer away – he volunteered himself to go in her place, so to have this now be a shared disease was almost too much to take.  I felt as though he was going to be OK – that his tumor was operable and he would be able to get through it.  What I didn’t factor in to my thinking was his age.  At 82, he was not really able to tolerate the treatments as well as Jan did.  His first round of treatment was meant to shrink the tumor so they could remove it.  He handled that fairly well, at least right up to the end.  He landed in the hospital with kidney failure in December.  Processing the chemo toxins through his kidneys, which were scarred, was too much for them to handle.  Putting him on a second round of chemo seemed foolhardy, but it provided the needed hope that a cure could be achieved.  He struggled through this round and seemed to diminish before our eyes.  His death in May seemed sudden, considering the goals of his treatment.

Mom’s diagnosis came out of the blue.  She had slowed down a lot in the last few years, but we attributed it to age and the fact that dad had done so much for her.  When she had to become his caregiver, it was rough on her.  She found herself hurting a lot – her hip was troubling her and getting up and down from her chair was hard. She was convinced she had bursitis and it would have to wait – she was busy caring for dad.  At times, mom lost her patience with him and then felt guilty about it.  She told me that it was hard to not feel upset at having to do so much – especially when it hurt her to do it.  Dad felt bad about needing so much help and at times, I felt like a mediator between them.  After dad died, I talked often with mom on the phone and she had a lot of remorse over her impatience with him.  I let her talk and assured her that he understood.  I knew, though, that she felt she’d let him down.  Then, in December, her bursitis was suddenly diagnosed as a tumor on her spine and she quickly changed from a woman with the aches and pains of aging to a cancer victim herself.  She had been struggling with her own internal agonies throughout dad’s illness – no wonder things had been hard for her.  In one of our conversations, I pointed this out and it then hit her – she had been taking care of dad when she was suffering herself.  It helped ease her guilt and she forgave herself for not being able to do more for him.

She immediately rejected all treatments except palliative radiation for the pain.  She did not want what dad had gone through and since her cancer was terminal, she saw no reason to prolong things.  Pragmatic to the end, she felt this was exactly what she needed – she was ready to be with dad and saw this as her path out.  I respected her decision and hoped it was not going to be too hard on her – and the rest of us.  Suddenly, instead of mapping out the last years of her life, we were dealing with what to do once she was gone.  It was a whirlwind six weeks that seemed to go by in a flash and yet take forever.  Each visit, each phone call, I wondered if it would be the last.  I was torn between wanting her to be there for me and wanting her to be where I knew she wanted to be – with dad.  It was difficult, but since it was what she wanted, it had to be OK.

On New Year’s Eve, I missed a call from my cousin.  I assumed she was calling to check on mom.  She called again the next day and told me her father, Paul, my dad’s brother had died.  His death was completely out of the blue – he’d been outside in the yard doing something and collapsed. At that point, I felt like a sponge that was already so full of water that it couldn’t take in more.  I could barely process what had happened and how to deal with it.  Mom was devastated and asked me to write a note forher to Aunt Sally expressing her sympathy.  When I talked to mom in early January, she said to me “we’re dropping like flies, aren’t we?”  And I had to agree, we were. 

Jan, my dear, sweet Jan – she was the one we all hoped would beat the odds.  She lived through so much the past three years and kept her attitude up all the while.  I only once saw her break down – and that was early in her treatment when her white cell count was too low for her to have chemo.  She felt she’d failed a test and let people down.  She sobbed in my arms then, and I had to tell myself not to break down, too.  I wanted to be strong for her, but I was dying inside.  I got to my car and fell apart, able then to let out my own fears and frustration.  Even through her intense protocol in her second year, she was positive.  She was staying with me then, and after her interferon treatments, she would shake with fever and moan in her room.  I hovered near the door, feeling inadequate and impotent to help her.  I would bring her a heating pad and rub her back, making sure she was as comfortable as possible.  It was a glimpse in to what George and mom went through and made me better able to understand the strain. 

Mom and dad seemed to have made a pact with God to go before Jan.  Part of me hoped that the deal they’d struck was that they would go in her place – to be the sacrifice they hoped they could be and save Jan. It seemed that surely the universe must see that as a fair deal.  But it wasn’t to be – Jan went from doing pretty well this summer to being unable to keep food down in a few short weeks.  That signaled the beginning of the end.  I was able to spend the last four days of her life with her, which will forever be a gift.  I had the conversations with her that she wanted to have, I massaged her with lotion, lifted her slight weight in to bed and helped her feel as good as possible.  I got good at rubbing her back where it ached and tried to do what she needed most – whatever that was.  I was a witness to the true love she shared with George and saw how deeply entwined their souls were. It was beautiful to behold.  I kept my promise to mom that I would be there for Jan and take care of her.  I kept my promise to Jan that I would be with her at the end.  I felt grateful that she allowed me that.

Now the worst has happened.  Now what?  After three years of cancer, how does my life go on?  In the space of four years, I’ve lost five amazing people from my life – Betty, Dad, Paul, Mom and Jan.  I am bereft.  I am running on empty.  What takes the place in my life where the worry and care has been?  How do I get back to me – and figure out what the new normal is? I am tired of sympathy – the cards, calls, flowers, and pity – sick to death of death.  And yet, I feel like screaming at people “Do you have any idea what I’ve been through? How hard this has been to stay on track and keep things together? Do you have a clue??” Because the answer would be no, they don’t.  No one but I know what it’s like to live in my skin.  And only a handful of people really know how hard it’s been. 

I keep reminding myself that this didn’t just happen to me – it happened to our whole family and we are all affected.  But it feels so personal – and I feel so much pain at times it is overwhelming.  And then, I pick myself up, as a true stoic Norwegian would, kick myself in the butt and carry on.  It’s how I was raised and it’s what I know.  I have to figure out how to operate in a world where I’ve lost my center and my lifelines.  I have to figure out how to be my own center and be a lifeline to others when needed.  I want to fill the voids in my life with people who understand and can support me when I am hurting. 

It is going to take a lot of time before I can look back on all this and feel like I’ve survived.  After a series of body blows like this, getting up off the mat and standing upright feels risky.  There’s always another one coming along and it could be worse.  I feel shell-shocked and need to be protected somehow.  The idea of crawling into a cave and keeping my back to the wall sounds good – except that I’m claustrophobic, so I guess that won’t work.  For now, I count each day a success when I get up and do what I am supposed to do and don’t wallow.  I feel good when I acknowledge the pain but don’t let it overtake me.  I feel better when I reach out to connect for some compassion and comfort from people who care rather than keeping it to myself.  The twist is that I used to call mom, dad, and Jan for that – they were my top three go-to people and now I have to reach out to others. 

It is a process, they say. The Grief Process.  The challenge is, I never got through an entire process of one loss before starting the next one.  My processes are all mixed together and it makes it hard to know what I’m feeling for whom.  I guess I’ll have to treat it like a river, with different channels that move at different rates.  Sometimes I’ll be in one and then move to another.  I’ll let the current carry me for awhile before I decide to swim.  For now, I have to let things be, put down my load, and focus on getting through the day well.

Four years ago, I hadn’t experienced significant loss.  Today, I have my black belt in care giving, caretaking, and grief.  I have cleaned out more closets than I care to think about. I have held the hands of my dearest loved ones and said goodbye.  I have done what needed to be done and loved without fear.  I have seen death and felt at peace.  I took the body blows, I have kept my head, and I have felt the pain.  I will keep getting back up because I have no other choice.  That is who I am.

Companion Star

I became an orphan at 52 years old. That is how it feels losing both of my parents in the past year. They were the pillars of our family shelter and they are suddenly gone. It feels like I’ve lost my moorings and am adrift. The curious thing is that I didn’t really lean on them for much, but knowing they were there was all I needed to feel safe. I am a capable person; don’t get me wrong. I know I can take care of myself and my family. I just liked knowing they were always there, in my corner, ready to help. Now I look for them and see the empty space they leave behind and it is huge. It’s more than an empty space; it feels to me like a black hole. A vast, dark place that might consume you.

My parents were exceptional at being parents. They were both committed to creating family, whether through their own children or through other people. They knew how to connect and nurture; how to love and support, and how to set the boundaries that gave enough latitude without letting you run amok. They were, in short, the best. I know I was lucky; I saw other parents and mine always came out ahead in comparison. Of course, I am biased, but I know they were that good. Learning to live in a world without them seems like a daunting task, but it’s one I have to get through if I am to try to do the same for my own family.

I’ve gotten to know a lot more about myself through all of this and I’ve gotten to know my brothers and sisters in a new way. I learned that I can overcome my fears to do the right thing, even when I would rather not. I’ve learned that I’m not afraid to look death in the face and stand firm. I can hold a hand and feel love. I have learned that the words “honor thy father and mother” mean more than I thought.

About my siblings, I’ve learned that each one has a unique gift they bring to bear; Jan is the embodiment of peace and joy. Being in her presence, one can truly relax. Kevin is a bottom line, cut to the chase thinker and communicator. His loyalty and love for mom and dad were apparent both in the times he could be present but also in his absences. He reached across the distance to be sure he was there for them when needed. Shawn is a force to be reckoned with. She doesn’t take no for an answer and she is upbeat and cheerful in the face of some challenging moments. Rob – I can’t say enough good about Rob. What he was able to do for mom in her last days was a true gift for all of us. His depth of compassion and devotion was never more apparent than when he was doing mom’s hair. He was so gentle with her and she looked beautiful when he was done. I never knew my brother had that in him.

I know it hasn’t fully hit me what it means to be a 52 year old orphan. It’s uncharted territory and I just have to make my way through. I do know that I won’t be alone. I have some wonderful companions in the journey, and for that I feel blessed. I don’t think I will ever not miss my parents – that is a constant, I’m sure. I will learn to navigate alone and listen to the lessons that they have incorporated in me. In creating family, mom and dad made sure we would never be alone. And a black hole gives birth, poetically, to a companion star on the other side. I will look for that star to guide my way.

My sweet mom

Remembering My Father

“When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

This quote reflects in a few perfect words all that I have been feeling.  I have felt great sorrow in losing dad.  It was too soon – he had a lot of life left to live.  It was a tough year, watching him go from a robust, healthy man to a cancer patient struggling to make it.  In this sorrow, however, has come profound joy and gratefulness.  I have felt so lucky to be his daughter and to have been loved by him my entire life.  It hit me like a thunderbolt on the way to the hospital that last day.  I was so very fortunate and felt truly blessed.  How can I feel sorrow in the face of all that good luck?

As an educator and a people person, dad taught me many lessons, one of which was to treat people as if you’ll never see them again – that way, you don’t forget to be kind.  I learned that lesson when I was about 10 years old and our dog, Murphy, died.  I felt guilty because I had lied to stay home sick from school that day.  I thought Murphy’s death was my punishment for being a liar.  Dad’s lesson to me was one that has stuck with me.  He reassured me that I didn’t cause Murphy’s death and told me that we should always be kind to people when we see them, because we never know when it will be the last time.  Because of this philosophy, dad had a gift for making people feel special.

Dad was the king of giving nicknames.  To him, I was his Erin Lynn, Bonks, and later on, Madame Executive.  To me, he was Dad, papa-san, and the Big Guy.  He never failed to greet people warmly, with his great low voice asking how the pride of Cle Elum, or Woodway High School, or wherever was.  His memory of the little details of people’s lives was legendary. It was one of his many gifts.

Watching him live his life, it was clear that it was never about words alone for him – it was about actions.  The adage that actions speak louder than words was evident in everything he did.  As kids, we saw him take the high road on many occasions, we saw him give the gift of himself to people from every walk of life, and we saw him living true to his word.  He was who he was and we never doubted that what we saw was the real thing.

Another thing dad taught by doing was how to be a good partner.  His love and admiration for our mom was a wonderful thing to behold.  I’ve heard the saying that the best gift a father can give his children is to love their mother, and he did just that.  The two of them were a true partnership and they set the standard for all of us. 

I hope to take what I learned from dad to heart even more so now.  Hearing from so many people who were touched by dad’s kindness only reinforces for me that life is really about the connections you make with people, not about things or success or money.  I want to become the type of person my dad has been and leave a legacy like his.  If I can do that, I will have lived a successful life.

Thank you, dad, for taking the time to teach me so much by the way you lived your life.  I am so proud to be your daughter.  It has been an amazing adventure and I enjoyed every minute of it.

With my remarkable parents

Race to University Medical Center

The call came from a person I didn’t really know, one afternoon out of the blue.  “You need to get to Tucson; your dad is in the hospital.”  Dad had been in and out of the hospital several times during his chemo treatments.  It was hard on his 83 year old body and his kidneys were scarred.  I knew getting there would not be possible for me, as I was on my own with Adrian.  I said I would see who else could get down there to help mom.  “No,” she said. “You don’t understand.  You all need to get here.  He doesn’t have much longer.”   I couldn’t comprehend the words she was saying.  It didn’t make any sense to me, and I was confused.  I told her I was coming down in 2 weeks time, that it was already planned.  She said again, “You need to come now. He’s dying.”  I told her I would be there.  I didn’t know how, but I would get there.  I still didn’t completely understand, but I went in to action mode and started to make arrangements.

I called my brothers and sisters to let them know.  I contacted work.  I made interim plans for Adrian.  I made a reservation on the first flight out in the morning.  I kept going back over her words and tried to makes sense of it.  He had been fine on Sunday when I talked to him.  He sounded tired, but he was OK.  We talked about the PanCan auction and how I’d spent too much money again.  I told him I wanted to figure out a way to have him continue his treatment up in Seattle so he and mom would have some help nearby.  I had it all planned out.  He said, “You’d be willing to do that for me?”, and I told him I would – I’d thought about it and knew they were struggling by this point.  He said we’d talk more about it when I was visiting in a few weeks.  There was no way I thought he was dying.  I was sure this was an overreaction.

I rushed to the airport that morning and went to buy my ticket at the Southwest counter.  My credit card was declined.  Bank of America had put a hold on my card due to the 2 large charges that were processed from the 2 charity auctions we’d attended over the weekend.  I was irate and paid with my debit card.  It was like a slap in the face – here I was in what felt like a race against time, only to have that happen. 

My flight went through Phoenix on the way there.  It felt like a long lay over, though it probably was less than an hour.  I wanted to be there.  I moved my seat to the most forward row so I could bolt as soon as the doors were open.  My bag was small and at my feet.  I wanted to run once I was off the plane.  I met up with Robin by baggage. We started to head to curb when we saw Shawn.  She was waiting for her checked luggage.  I was stunned. You checked it?  What?  This is race against the clock!  She said she and Jan would follow us – she told us to go now and get to him.

On the way there in the taxi, I told Rob I was worried that we were all over reacting.  I’d called the hospital the night before and the nurse in charge said dad was talking to them and responsive.  It didn’t sound like he was on the verge of anything.  I talked to mom and she said she didn’t know what was happening.  We were thinking ahead to what we needed to do once he was released.  We agreed it was getting to be too much for mom to handle and we had to propose some options. 

Arriving at the hospital, we waited for the elevators.  Again, it felt like it took forever.  We made our way to his room in the ICU.  I saw his oncologist outside his room, and he looked dour, as usual.  I was asking him about dad, and the nurse in the room said, “You need to get in here now.”  Again, I was confused.  The chaplain came out and said to come in.  He’d been sitting with mom, but he said it was important that we come in.  Rob and I went to dad’s bed side and each took a hand.  By now, dad was gasping for breath.  I think he knew we’d arrived because he was more agitated.  Because he did not want any extra measures taken, he had only oxygen, but even with that, breathing was difficult.  I held dad’s hand with one hand and my mom’s with my other.  Dad seemed to listen as Rob and I both told him we loved him, that we were there, and Rob shared how Ryan had pitched a no-hitter the night before.  I told dad we’d take care of mom, and that she would be OK.  Then, he was gone.  It was over in less than 5 minutes from the time we arrived on the floor of the hospital.  Unreal. 

It was haunting.  It felt peaceful, not scary, though.   I thought about how people love being in the room when babies are born, because they experience that singular moment when a new life arrives.  I felt the same way, only at the other end of life.  It felt like a gift to be there with him and to hold his hand while he made his journey.  And, like a baby, dad was stripped of much of his earthly look.  He looked purified and distilled to his true essence.  It felt holy.  I held mom while she cried, and we all held each other up.  We knew that when Jan and Shawn arrived, we’d have to go through it again, for them.  I felt lost in a way that I’d never experienced.  Our big guy was gone and we had to find our way without him. 

It struck me then how truly lucky I’d been to be his daughter all my life.  I knew him for all of my days, and that was something only my siblings could claim.  We were so fortunate to have him in our lives, on our side, and in our hearts.  It was a gift without measure and I didn’t want to ever take it for granted.  Peace came over me then.  No more thinking about plans for his future care, now our focus was on mom and helping her through a difficult transition to widowhood.  In the days that came, we made plans and schedules, we grieved and talked, we cleaned and organized.  But mostly, we held on to each other.  We shared our sadness at a life without our father in it, but reveled in the past and our times with him.  It is a true blessing to have loved a parent without reservation.  I was one of the lucky ones in that regard.  Being my father’s daughter was always a joy.  Racing to his side was almost instinctive.  I had to be there, I knew I could get there, and I made it in time.  Feeling his love through holding his hand, and helping him on his way meant the world to me.  He was one of the first to ever hold my hand as I came in to the world, and holding his as he left it seemed right.