Eight little bottles sitting on the shelf.

Dad became more and more frustrated with each extra day he had to stay in the hospital because of the second surgery. He was still in so much pain, couldn’t eat anything, and was extremely lonely. Depression had set in and it was not going to go away easily. Having my brother come to visit during Easter was a great blessing, as there were three days where Dad could focus on something other than his pain and misery.

He was able to go home after having spent a total of 19 days in the hospital. This day was a very happy one; he was practically vibrating with excitement and sat down in his chair in the living room as soon as we opened the front door. Turned on the hockey game, I believe! His discharge planning was simple enough – a home care aide would come every second day to start, to do his dressing changes and help him with anything else he needed help with. At this time, he was eating soft foods and drinking fluids well. He did not use his feeding tube, preferring to take in his nutrients the old-fashioned way – through the mouth.

It’s interesting how you don’t really know your true strength until it is tested. And then tested again. And again.

Dad’s esophagus closed up two weeks after returning home. He was unable to take in solid food, and then soft food, and finally fluids would not even find their way into his stomach. He refused to use his feeding tube and therefore was taking in nothing. Absolutely nothing. Every time he tried, he would throw it up as it would lodge in his esophagus. Picture not even being able to swallow your own saliva.

He wasted away for another two weeks, losing over ten pounds in the process. Finally, he was convinced to head back to the hospital, where they performed a ‘dilation’ and opened up his esophagus, as well as pushing fluids into his body over a period of eight hours. When he returned home, he felt great again. He was happy, hopeful, and ready to eat.

The next day his esophagus closed up again.

When I arrived that afternoon, he was as pale as a white sheet of paper. He was throwing up and was too weak to walk for longer than seconds at a time.

I urged him back to the hospital, where we waited over eight hours to have him admitted. Another push of fluids occurred; x-rays were taken; they deduced that the esophagus had been irritated in some way and was swollen. They released him after a breakfast of jello, coffee, and apple juice. He was hopeful that it was only swollen and that any swelling would go away eventually. He tried to be in good spirits but I could tell he was beginning to feel defeated, was frustrated with the health care system, and was very ready to give up and accept death.

You can only say so much to someone who has given up. I literally begged him to start using his feeding tube again. I asked him to think of a goal he could work towards. I asked him to think about how good he feels now so it would motivate him to make the effort to take care of himself on the days where he isn’t feeling good. What he didn’t perceive as nagging, he did retain.

I counted the bottles of Ensure Plus before I left. Eight. I took a step down on the ladder of self-respect. If he wasn’t going to make the effort, I would know about it. I would make the effort for him.

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Unconditional

While I became excited that Dad would be heading home and recovering smoothly from his surgery, he was busy with physiotherapy and eating bland, processed food. On the day before he was scheduled to be released from the hospital, the medical team decided to remove the stitches from his chest – where they opened him up to perform the surgery.

As they began to remove the stitches, they noticed his wound re-opening. It hadn’t healed! After ten days, the wound still had not healed enough to have the stitches removed. The further they worked, the more noticeable it was that nothing was healing properly.

His surgery involved a lot of removing, moving around, and jostling of internal organs. My Dad is diabetic and the awareness was that though they knew it would take longer to heal because of this, they believed they had given his body enough time to do so. Not so.

He was rushed back into surgery and underwent another procedure. This also meant that he was going to be stuck there for another 10 to 12 days for recovery.

Easter was upon us. The long weekend loomed ahead for him, reminding him that he was alone, in a hospital, unable to spend the holiday with his family and friends.

He was so frustrated; with himself, his body, the hospital staff, his surgeon. It was just unreal how he had gone from being so happy and excited to head home, to sad and depressed and angry that he was still in the hospital.

Being hours away, I could only communicate via phone, and it felt like 10 years of my life would be taken from me during each call to him. There was nothing I could do, nothing I could say that would have possibly helped him into better spirits. So I called my brother. Not because I thought the situation was dire enough to call for it, but because I thought if Dad could just talk to him he might feel better.

My brother lives thousands of kilometres away.

After the call between Dad and Brother, Brother wound up booking a flight and staying near the hospital for three days. I still thank God he came; the effect it had on Dad was remarkable. He lit up; he was happy and talkative once more. Even though he was still feeling pretty miserable from the experience, we were able to joke and laugh and lighten the mood together. We spent a full day together with him on Easter weekend.

I can’t know exactly how much this helped him, but the phone call a few days later for an update brought an unexpected expression of gratitude out of him. I know he understands that it is difficult to be there for him when he’s so far away from us. And now I know that he appreciates our gestures so much that it is enough to bring him to tears.

You feel a strong emotion when you can do something for someone else; a feeling of pure, true, honest and unconditional love. All the better when it is reciprocated.

Surgery and Recovery

Dad went in to his surgery feeling optimistic. He called me a few times since I couldn’t be there before his surgery, and he sounded good, like he was really hoping this was going to be the miracle he was waiting for. It was especially nice to hear the spirit back in his voice, to hear a few laughs and a couple of jokes being issued out as if there hadn’t been a dark period before this.

On the day of the surgery, I travelled up to ensure i’d be there when he got up to the observation unit. At 4pm I strode in, expecting he would be in his room after spending five hours in surgery. Not to be. It wasn’t until 7pm that they finally wheeled him into his room. By this time I was frantic with worry and my level of anger towards the hospital was escalating at a dangerous degree. It is extremely difficult to wait when you are really not a patient person.

Either way, he made it out of surgery and seemed to be in pretty good spirits. The next day as well as the following day were filled with making trips to the ice machine so that he could dip swabs into the ice cold water and wet his starving-for-fluid lips and mouth.

He was in a great amount of pain, worried that he might overdose on the pain killers they were administering to him, and was fevered to a degree that chilled my bones to see.

After I returned home, I kept up to date with current events by checking in with a family member who lives in the city. Things were going well, so well in fact that they were thinking of releasing him that coming Sunday. In an expected 12 day recovery period, they were going to send him home 3 days earlier than originally planned. This was great news! Everyone rejoiced! Jubilance broke out! I can’t even begin to express in words how happy I was that he was going home. And I have to say, he was pretty pumped about it himself.

A wonderful recovery! All is right with the world!

Into the Dark

Over a six-week period, Dad’s cancer treatments really wore him down. In the beginning (weeks 1-4), he was okay and could be on his own and was keeping up with his food intake goals and even getting some quick 10 minute walks in. Though he was depressed about his situation, he was getting through it.

By week 5, the radiation treatments were adversely affecting him. He was sick often, developed a rough, chronic, phlegm-filled cough, and could barely drive himself to his appointments. He was left with a “metal” mouth and hardly ate anything because nothing tasted good. Weeks 5 and 6 were not fun for him, but once it was over I could tell that his spirits had been slightly lifted just from the fact that the initial journey was over.

While he recovered in the two weeks after treatments and weaned himself off of various medications, he was optimistic about the results of treatment. He was sure that the tumor had shrunk; said he could feel that it was smaller. It was easier for him to eat. He could taste food again.

Then tragedy hit: His mother passed away under unfortunate circumstances. He was not able to attend the funeral due to his health condition as well as the many different appointments and tests his team had set up for him. This was a difficult time for him, but he made what he felt was the best choice, and vehemently stuck to it.

He went for a scan approximately four weeks after the end of treatment, to provide he and his team with results from the treatments. The team was also optimistic. Theirs was an aggressive approach and they thought they’d knocked it off its feet. They thought the chemo and radiation treatments had been successful.

They were wrong.

There was no change. Optimistically speaking, there was also no indication that the tumor was growing. But this wasn’t what Dad was expecting to hear. This wasn’t what his team was expecting to see. It shocked him and sent him back into that downward spiral into despair.

He will be scheduled for an intensive surgery in the coming weeks, with a 12 day recovery period in-hospital and a 12 week recovery period at home. He is enviously optimistic about the surgery. We are so much more battle-ready than we think we are, right? One little step forward at a time. Anything can be beared when it can be broken down into little bits.

Check Yourself

In the days leading up to Dad’s Cancer treatments, I admittedly turned into a crazy person. As I said before, I basically broke down and turned myself into a martyr. I guess perhaps I was trying to take his pain and make it my own, or at least share in it with him to ease the burden. I know now that things just don’t work that way. Unfortunately, you have to watch them suffer through it, watch them struggle with their own emotions, and be tormented by the fact there is absolutely nothing in the world you can do to make things right again.

There are still the odd ramblings and questions that stir my mind from time to time; when will this be over? will it ever really be over? why did this happen to him?

I’ll never have the answers to these questions; eventually, I had to face the facts and throw up a white flag.

On my end, I made things work by talking to my boss and getting each treatment day off work so that I could drive up the night before, take him to treatment, then drive back home for work the next day. It was non-negotiable. This was what I was going to do for him, since I had nothing else to offer but my sympathies. I didn’t question my motives at that time, but I have since. My Dad is a very independent person. Aside from the fact that he asked his spouse (who he is currently separated from) for help, he had not given any indication that my services were necessary.

When I started getting the “she can help with that” and “he’ll be around to take me“, I started to wonder why I was putting in all the effort. I started feeling avoidance from my Dad like a dark plague on my life. Now, as I was avoiding my friends and living in isolation from them, he was doing the same to me.

Around this time was when tiny arguments started. The bulldog in him met up with the dragon in me, and we went head-to-head on quite a few things. Until I smartened up and realized he is not a baby, and that he alone must live with the decisions he makes.

I got tired. I stopped feeling like I needed to be there each and every time something happened. This wasn’t the way I would have wanted it to come about, but the fact is – I came to accept that his life was his own, and so was mine. I did not only want to return to the life I’d made for myself, but I also needed to. And he didn’t need me pestering him and trying to solve his problems my way.

Do you know how long it took for all that to happen? Approximately two weeks before his treatments ended. Which is to say, six weeks from his first call about the diagnosis. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

It is great advice to help people out as much as you can. It is even greater advice to let them fall on their own and get up on their own. In my experience, wisdom comes from errors made. If you choose not to learn from them, that is your choice. I have had plenty of those moments in my life. And will more than likely have plenty more! But no one needs nor do they probably want another person to lecture them about their choices. They’ll find out soon enough whether their choices were accurate or not.

So I had to check myself. It’s not like that’s never happened before.

If I had Just One Wish

Once upon a time, I posted a quote to Facebook:

Perhaps watching someone you love suffer can teach you even more than suffering yourself can.” – Dodie Smith.

My point was that I figured I’d learn something from the experience of having to watch my father suffer through cancer, even if the only lesson was that sometimes bad things happen to good people. Guess what? Bad things happen to good people.

I didn’t know what to do with the phone that was cradled in my hands when I received the phone call from my Dad that night. I couldn’t do anything but sit silently, saying nothing, while he gathered his courage, swallowed hard and told me the frightening truth. My mind went numb; I remember saying “Oh My God“. I think I may have even said “that sucks“. I was suddenly unable to say anything appropriate to the situation. I didn’t know how to process the information, how to work my way through it, how to come out on the other end at a better place than where I’d started. The “oh…“s and “yes…“s and “right…“s flew out of my mouth simply to fill the void where a more normal, intelligent person might be saying “do you need anything?” or “I am so sorry” or “you’re going to get through this”.

A comment on the posted quote came from a friend a short time later…

“Yes, but it would be easier to suffer yourself.”

Is that true? It’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch someone you love and care about suffer with a disease, any illness, any pain. Would it be easier if I were the one to suffer? Would I take it on in his place if I could?

They’re easy questions to answer on the surface. Yes, I would sacrifice myself in order to spare him. But it’s only too easy to say it without actually being held accountable, since it isn’t something that can be accomplished. I would banish the shadows from under his eyes, if I could. I would wave my magic wand and all the documents and forms required by this organization and that company would be filled out and sent in in a matter of minutes, if only to spare him from weeks of labour and frustration.

I felt so… betrayed, when I found out Dad had cancer. Not by him, but by those higher powers, the ones that should know there is no possible way I could continue to exist in the world without my father. The ones who keep heaping things on me, with the constant expectation that I’ll be able to handle it, I’ll be able to cope. I was finished with it. Done trying. Done making excuses for all the bad karma, and I pushed the blame button.

There had to be a reason for this, a purpose. And of course it had to have something to do with me. I did this. I did this to him, somehow. It was my fault. I began to back out of social engagements, preferring to sit alone at home. I outright disregarded my closest friends who only wanted to offer support. I argued with my Mom, I spoke to my brother only through e-mail. I grilled my Dad about the disease: What would happen now? What kind of treatment will they give you? How will you feel through it all? When what he needed was some time to work through those questions for himself first.

Looking back, I realize how badly I handled the news. I’m not sure, if given another chance, anything would change. It’s devastating news, to the person with the illness, to the family and friends. I don’t think anyone faults me for reacting the way I did, but I can’t help but think of a saying I wrote down a few years ago and kept reminding myself of: You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it.

I wish I could have controlled my reaction more, but I hardly took the time to decipher what that reaction was, nevermind attempt to control it. You can always look back at a situation and think of ways you could have handled it better. I have to stop analyzing my actions; it doesn’t matter what I did, it matters only what I do.

2011… Another Whole Year

Gone. I can’t believe how quickly time flies when you’re flying around wasting it.

A quick re-cap of my year? Okay. Sure.

I tried boot camp classes and. they. sucked. My shins hurt something terrible and I had to stop. But I kept running, you know, for a while there. But the damage to my shins had already been done and eventually I stopped running completely. Am now trying to work my way back. Once again.

I ran two 5k races and walked a 3k. I had planned (a 2011 resolution of mine) to run both a 5k and a 10k, so I obviously failed with that, but am very proud of myself for sticking things through for those 5ks.

I had also made a 2011 resolution to save money. Bahahaha. Well, I did, sort of. I saved money that was gifted to me. But that’s about all the money I saved. Still, I suppose it’s something.

I lost my Dog to Lymphoma, many of my Grandmother’s siblings passed away this year, and Dad was diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer.

Yes, 2011 has been quite a year. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of events that also were very important to me, but what’s most important is that it’s over. All over. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly ready for a fresh start. Is that too cliché to say?

And at some point, as I always do, I will think up some resolutions for 2012. If I could sum them all up, it would sound something like this:  Work on Becoming Perfect.

Should be easy enough.