The Longest Journey

Cancer Realities

The third day of chemo finally caught up to Dylan’s strength. He was too tired to shower, he skipped lunch, and spent most of the day sleeping, but it was a natural sleep, he hasn’t taken any pain killers heavier than Tylenol and the only requested comfort drugs have been for nausea. So, things continue to go well in the relative world of cancer treatment.

We did get a ray of hope when Joanna visited yesterday, she said, ” Looks like you will finish chemo on Sunday, so maybe you will get to head home on Monday.” Both Dylan and I were surprised, Monday Monday, like this upcoming Monday? Yep.

Dylan said he didn’t want to get his hopes up, but it was good news nevertheless. He still has a spinal shot to get through today and last round’s spinal seemed to trigger the terrible headaches and cause his severe back pain, but he has done the difficult things, the things that are small but turn into large things, like rinsing his mouth with saline each time he gets out of bed, like walking the halls when he says he can’t, like eating when he feels like he might vomit. His resolve this time around has been forged by hot fires.

Yesterday, as we walked the halls in the evening we talked about the difference between round two and round one. He wondered if the remaining rounds would go like this and I began talking about the possibility of me returning to work between treatments if things went well. With all the hopeful unknowns left floating in the air we returned to our small room in the southwest corner of the 12th floor. We walked by one of the rooms that had been busy with visitors and family for the past two days and when we closed our door behind us Dylan said, “That’s why I don’t look in rooms.” I had seen a nurse hurrying a portable toilet to one of the rooms with an older person and assumed Dylan had seen something I missed, but it wasn’t that, “There’s a body bag in the room across the hall,” he said.

This morning the room is empty. A cleaning crew is sanitizing the entire space.

All of the pieces fell together for me, it isn’t important to know what happened because it really isn’t any of my business but yesterday the hall was full of a number of people crying on cell phones. It isn’t unusual for people crying into cell phones here, I have been that person, but looking back I did notice many people who I had not seen before and a number of children who were new to the 12th floor.

It isn’t unusual to have large family groups with children on the floor, but most often those groups are here on the weekends and spend most of their time in the family room watching cartoons because it keeps the kids quieter. I didn’t think about it being mid-week, or even consider the possibility that cancer was about to claim another victim, just like the many times I drove by Swedish saying, “That’s Swedish. Howie Myers was born there,” I hadn’t been in tune with other people’s suffering even though they were right across the hall. The truth is earlier in the day, for an hour, I was mad at the people in the hall because Dylan was trying to sleep and they were making noise. I thought about walking out there and getting self-righteous about my son with cancer trying to sleep; in the end being a coward allowed me to be a jerk in my head without being a jerk in the oncology hallway.

I don’t know much about the person who died other than they had a young child: A hospital crib was set up in the room. There was time for people to say goodbye, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic.

I never met my mother’s mom, Grandma TenPas. Cancer took her when my mom was six or seven. I didn’t know much about what happened until last year when I finally asked my mom about what she remembered about her mother’s death. Her mother got sick, my mom was sent to another house to be taken care of and then her mother died. She hadn’t been told that her mom was dying. She was sent away and while she was gone her mother died. Cancer took people suddenly in those days. No kids allowed. Times have changed.

I wonder now if my mother’s decision to become a nurse (her oldest brother became a doctor) was a product of this tragedy. Like many kids, I was curious about who my parents were before I came busting into their lives and making demands, but my curiosity was a selfish curiosity. I wanted to know the details that made my parent special. If my parents were special, I could then project my “specialness” into this world with so few special people. I spent hours looking through their yearbooks and smattering of pictures from the years before I existed. I pawed through black and white photos hoping to find something that would prove my parents lived a life of glamour before I was conceived. There wasn’t much evidence supporting this premise and there was very little I could construct from my limited sources. In the end, much of what I know about my parents is a mix of fact and fiction because there is no real way to know the truth. There are stories, there are memories, but like the black and white photos so much of what is remembered has been washed out by time. It isn’t important because I know longer hope for special parents in the same way I did as a child, now I am happy to have kind and caring parents who tolerated me.

Last night, after death passed so close by, I read to Dylan. We started with a few essays by Ross Murray to lighten the mood and then dove into A. R. Ammons’ poem Corsons Inlet. The poem describes the poet’s attempt to classify things as he walks along the shoreline. He discovers the things that seemed so separate, so distinct, are, on closer inspection, really not distinct at all. This world he tried to classify and order is not orderly. Then the poet notices how everything works together, each bit of chaos relies on another bit of chaos to support life. In the end, Ammons says he will be back again tomorrow, everything will have changed but everything will look as if nothing has changed. It is a longer poem and a lot to swallow in one reading, so Dylan and I talked about it. The divide between life and death seems so distinct and from where most of us sit, it is, but when death is close the divide falls away. I don’t mean life and death are the same, I mean that life is fragile and death surrounds us.

Today, the sunrise was glorious. The room across the hall is ready for a new patient. The nursing rotation is taking place and everything feels the same, but somewhere close to this place there is a family who will remember March 5th, 2015, as the day their friend/sister/aunt/mother stopped living and passed into another realm.

15 replies »

  1. I always have lots of thoughts when I read these posts, which is good; you have us thinking. I’ll leave you with one: if you ever compile all this into a book, you should title it “Howie Myers Was Born There.”

  2. I agree with Ross. I was thinking book too, reading this post. While I’d think I’d shy away from reading this painful stuff – (I’ve had my own time in these kinds of places and have my own 19 year old and hate to think…) – I think about so much. Of course I feel for you and your family and look forward to one day soon, reading about Dylan’s adventures in the world and how you almost forgot about this insane time – but within this time, you take us, your readers to so many thoughtful places. Beautiful stuff. I’d read Howie Myers Was Born There.

  3. Kudos to caring parents 🙂 I do not have enough time or space on this page to express my gratitude for Bob and Alona!!!! And to me the best teacher of “life” is called age. All of the experiences, including your current one, good and bad, and then spending some time to reflect is what gives us purposeful life. Again, borrowing from Jimmy V (after all it is close to that magically time of the NC State run) life is a compilation of laughter, crying, loving, and reflection. For me personally, aging has allowed me to see the importance of reflection. For instance, your entire being wanted to go out to the hall of the 12th floor and tell “those” people to quiet down. But, in reflection, you stated that one family at the place where “Howie Myers was born” will remember March 5, 2015 as the day when a loved one passed. I say that more people would understand life if they spent every day in thought.

  4. This is beautifully written. As someone who was a part of “a group crying on my cellphone” years ago, I appreciated the patience of the other hospital patients during our difficult time there. Since I believe in Heaven, I believe whoever left this world on March 5th, knows what you’ve written, and she is honored to be a part of your tender writing and Dylan’s story.

  5. “but my curiosity was a selfish curiosity. I wanted to know the details that made my parent special. If my parents were special, I could then project my “specialness” into this world with so few special people.”

    Whoa! This will take up some space in my mind for a while…..Considering the other side as well What about when we show kids the things we think make us “special” and skip over the beauty of the mundane… Pleasure of chop wood, carry water?

    Thank you Jon!
    .

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