May 5 Redux

The irony is not lost on me that a week ago, I posted about my dad’s birthday.  Today, he’s on my mind again, as this is the day he died. It feels inconceivable that it’s been four years already – in fact, in last week’s post, I said it had been three.  My brother reminded me that it was, indeed, four. Wow. How time flies.

In thinking about dad, it is with admiration and joy and love. He was a great dad and this post I wrote quite awhile ago captures him well. He was a force to be reckoned with when he was on a mission.  I love him and miss him and hold the best of him in my heart, and hopefully, in my actions as well.

Cheers to you, dad. You are remembered.

Dad

Sad, But Still Kicking Butt

It hit me this morning as I got ready for work that I have something to be proud of.  A year ago, as Jan left us, I felt frustration about the fact that pancreatic cancer continues to kill so many every year.  There needed to be better treatment options and earlier detection available to change this.

On September 19, the House of Representatives passed HR 733 with a unanimous vote.  The name of the bill was changed from the Pancreatic Cancer Research and Education Act to the Recalcitrant Cancer Research Act of 2012.  A rose is a rose if it smells sweet, and this one does.  It is a step forward.

Representative Anna Eshoo from California was eloquent and heartwarming as she spoke about the need for this focus and of all the people we lost in the 6 years that this has been in work.  I had tears in my eyes hearing the unanimous vote in favor.  This is progress that matters for all.  It makes the trip to Washington DC with the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN) last June just that much more meaningful and worthwhile.

The bill is now in the Senate, and we hope Senator Whitehouse has the same success as Representative Eshoo.  I’ll be watching on C-SPAN with the same rapt attention.  This is about the only thing that will get me to tune in to that station.

Dad and Jan would be pleased.  I am relieved and proud and committed to continuing to fight on their behalf.
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BREAKING NEWS! The House HAS PASSED #HR733! Senate still needs to pass. Thank your U.S. Rep: capwiz.com/pancan/issues/

From Father’s Day, 1995

You taught me patienceJoe Kearney

by living at ease

You taught me charity

by freely giving of yourself

You taught me faith

by believing in me

You taught me hope

by looking to the future

You taught me to dream

by never saying never

You taught me to love

by living in your heart.

I love you dad, and always will. I always count on you to be there.  You are in my heart and in my head and I live my life knowing that your standards are also mine.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Even now that he is gone, I count on him to guide me by following his example.  I was lucky to have a father who was both strong and soft at the same time.  He is my hero, he is my protector, he is my heart.

Happy Father’s Day, dad.  I miss you.

Sacrifice

Today is Memorial Day.  I have always been proud of my father’s service in World War II.  He was drafted and entered the service at 17 as a part of the US Coast Guard, in California.  He deployed to Pearl Harbor and was stationed there for several years, post bombing.  He developed a deep love of Hawaii and brought us back many times over the years.

One of his proudest moments was taking his mother to Hawaii in 1975. She had wanted to go all her life and Dad told her he was taking us all on a trip to Palm Springs.  We knew he was really taking her to Maui.  When we got on the plane, the pilot announced our destination and flying time.  She told Dad we were on the wrong flight and needed to change.  It was only then he explained the ruse and let it sink in. She was finally visiting the islands she’d heard so much about.

There are fewer and fewer WWII vets around.  Today, when I see one wearing a hat that tells me they were there, I try to take the time to talk to them and let them know I appreciate what they did.  And when I saw the veteran’s group selling poppies outside the grocery store yesterday, I left a few dollars in my dad’s memory.  I have the utmost respect for the sacrifices that are made by our military.  Here’s to taking the time today when we remember just that.

Time Marches On

“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)

These words gave me a great deal of comfort when my dad died two years ago.  They summed up how it felt to lose someone who brought you great joy in your life.  That joy is made all that much more poignant by the fact that it is now gone.

I’ve been struggling with a multitude of feelings this past week.  The simplest things, like going to the Hallmark store to buy a card for a coworker, left me feeling morose instead of uplifted.  I was hit by the fact that I would have been, in the past, buying all sorts of cards – a birthday card for my dad’s birthday today, a mother’s day card for my mom, an anniversary card for them both – and I felt my loss profoundly.  This time of year is a tricky one to navigate – lots of significant days to notice what has changed.  I miss my dad, I miss my parents, I miss my sister.  It comes to me in waves and I am reminded how fresh the wounds still are.   No surprise there, really.  Just a part of what it takes to get through this maze of grief. 

The card I bought was for our office administrator.   Wednesday was the Office Professional’s day, and in recognition of that, I took her to lunch and had a card for people to sign in appreciation.  One of the things I have done for the past several years is to buy a gift for each of the administrators on our floor.  It is a small gesture of gratitude for the work they do – even though they don’t work directly for me, they are always helpful and pleasant. One of them asked me why I do it – why do I go out of my way to do that for them?  And I thought about it and I realized that it was my dad’s doing.  He taught me to take the time to reach out to people and make the human connection.  He told me that when you do, you never know what it might mean to that person and more importantly, what it can do for you.  I explained that to her and was reminded again of the legacy my dad left.  It is one way I can honor him through carrying on his tradition and it feels good to continue to plant those seeds of caring whenever I can. 

Today, I saw some glorious trees bursting into their spring time best, glowing from the sunlight that hit them.  The sky behind them was dark and stormy, and the contrast of light and dark made the trees look especially lovely and vivid.  It struck me then – it is the contrast that made them so.  Light and dark, joy and sorrow – it takes one to make the other stand out. I am lucky to feel the way I did about my father and I miss him dearly.  He lives on in the seeds of kindness he sowed and I will continue on in kind, in honor of his memory.

All Will Be Well

I sat down this morning to start this entry and wondered what it would be called. I knew I wanted to write about the passing of “firsts” – the first Christmas without dad, the first Mother’s day without mom – but the first thing that came to me was “all will be well”. I knew I remembered those words from somewhere, but had to think about why they came to me now. So, turning to my trusted friend, Google, I looked it up. And there in the third entry was the quote and the name Julian of Norwich. Jan sent me a poem by this woman after dad died and we discussed whether it would be a good reading for his memorial service. I realized that this title was something Jan planted in my brain a while ago and is her message to me. All will be well.

We have made it through several major milestones over the past 19 months since dad died. We are almost at a year for mom and only 3 months into the cycle for Jan. The hardest time for me was last spring when we were faced with the first anniversary of dad’s birthday, Mother’s Day, their 61st wedding anniversary and Father’s Day all in a cluster. It was only a few months after mom died and I was still reeling from that twist of fate. I reached out to my brothers and sisters and we shared our thoughts and feelings with each other, some by phone, others by email. It was helpful to share the experience and not try to white knuckle through it. I decided that I would celebrate on April 28th with the first annual “Joe Kearney Day”, where in his honor, I asked people to remember him by doing something that would connect them to people, as was his style. The idea of using his best trait as a way of honoring him felt right – and even if only one person did, it would still make for a better day in the world. I did the same on Mom’s birthday this week and plan to for Jan’s in June.

Now that it is post-holiday season, I can say I’ve made it through another first. I had mixed emotions – sadness at not having three of my most important people in my life to share it with, relief at not having a medical drama being played out during December, and nostalgia as I remembered past Christmases with family. I carried on some traditions that were my parents to help fill the void they leave and having gifts under the tree that Jan picked out was a blessing. I even found gift tags from earlier years that had her handwriting on them that I was able to reuse. It felt like she was here with us.

With each passing event or milestone, there is wistfulness for that which is lost, that which is remembered, and that which is fading to the past. I want to hang on to my people, not let them slip away. I want to hold their memories close and honor them in some way. And yet I feel, at a very deep level, that all will be well. I know, because I’ve had that message delivered to me several times now. I choose to listen to it and look for the good in the days to come.

All Shall Be Well

Life
is a precious thing
to me

and a little thing:

my life is a little thing,
when it will end here
is God’s secret.

And the world
is a little thing,

like a hazelnut
in his–her hand–
but it is in his everkeeping,
it is in his ever-loving,
it is in his ever-making,

how should anything be amiss?

Yes, all shall be well,
and all will be well,
“and thou shalt see thyself
that all manner of thing
shall be well.”

Kind friends,

I pray God grant you
all your good wishes,
desires, and dreams–

it is all in the choosing,
it is all in the asking.

Yes, all shall be well,
and all will be well,
“and thou shalt see thyself
that all manner of thing
shall be well.”

Julian of Norwich
Ca. 1342-1425

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.