Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Category: death

Sharks and Cancer

quint

So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest…”  Quint, Jaws

It has been a very difficult year and a half. First, in November of 2014 my father died after a brief but excruciatingly painful fight with lung cancer which had spread to his bones. Almost one year later, last September, my wife died after a long fight with breast cancer which had spread to her lungs. And then only six months later, my dog died after a painful fight with a soft tissue cancer which had spread to his bones. One year, then only six months, part of me wonders what horror will befall us in three months. But I have to believe that the pain and suffering have ended now.  I can’t help but appropriate Quint’s quote to, “So, five of us went to Texas, three of us come home, cancer took the rest…”

Cancer has targeted my family for far too long now. I don’t want it to have any more power over us. My children have spent fully one-third of their lives living under the threat of cancer taking their mother and then their dog. Almost their entire teenage years, years difficult enough without cancer moving in to live with us, has been spent living under that dark cloud. They are 21 years old now and, in spite of these added pressures, will both graduate on-time from the University of Texas at Austin, each with over a 3.5 GPA. How they have been able to stay focused amazes me and is a testament to their strength of character.

I know people have had it harder than we have. I don’t claim to have a corner on suffering. And I am grateful for the seven years we were able to steal from cancer by moving to Texas and seeking treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I’ll never regret that decision. But if we could have a break from any additional pain for a short time, that would be great.

Each of us is dealing with these losses in our own individual manner. Certainly, grief counseling has helped, but we still face a world in which neither Lisa nor Delbow will walk with us any longer. We have had long discussions about faith, heaven, philosophy, and all of the accompanying topics. We disagree as much as we agree but the discussions are always lively and fascinating. I hope that we can each find some comfort in our positions.

Finally, there is the issue of moving forward. The house, already quiet from Lisa’s absence is now even quieter without Delbow’s rambling about. The kids are on spring break this week, so I have a respite before facing that still house alone. I now have six months of experience without Lisa and living alone. I hope this serves me well when the kids return to school. But before we know it, school will be over, graduations will have been concluded and we will be packing up for our trip back to Rhode Island. I hope it goes well and we can begin our new lives healthy. No sharks, no cancer.

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No Autopilot When Spiraling In

spiral

As we continue our corkscrew toward the ground, we took another turn today. My wife can no longer easily swallow, causing her to cough when taking medications. Because she is so short of breath, she cannot cough up that which she has aspirated and she begins wheezing which results in her vomiting. Because she is not eating, the only thing she vomits is green bile from her stomach. It is a vicious circle as we spiral in.

The kids are convinced now that something will happen the day I drive them back to college. Given how we have tightened the spiral, I’m not sure I disagree.

Looking outward from inside this corkscrew is disorienting. As soon as I am convinced that something has settled, the wings tilt inward still further and we spin that much faster toward the ground. But one can find focus in this spin. When I least expect it and am most ill prepared, the gravity and magnitude of the situation (essentially the finality of it all) clubs me with a mighty blow after which I find myself gasping for breath, crying and floating directionless in the air until the reality of current circumstances force me to see the spinning and rapidly approaching ground through the windscreen.

There is no peace when spiraling in. Life’s obligations and daily tasks still require our attention: the dog needs to be fed and given his meds, the laundry never stops, groceries still need to shopped for, bills still need to be paid, work still needs to be done. However, there is a certain feeling of mechanization about it all. We go through the motions of shopping, eating, dressing, sleeping, as we have all summer, but there is no soul in it. Put your seats in the upright and locked position, return your tray table to its stowed position, tighten your seatbelt tight and low around your waist. The captain has exited the aircraft and will not be returning. Cancer is now piloting the aircraft. Thank you for flying the terminally ill skies.

The insanity of the situation is that all but one of us will survive the inevitable crash. We will survive but in what condition? And as hard as this flight has been, I cannot imagine how we will carry on after we bore into the ground. And it is approaching ever faster and filling my field of view. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I cannot see it clearly, because of the blinding rage and constant tears.

Stage Whiplash

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“There is not much sense in suffering, since drugs can be given for pain, itching, and other discomforts. The belief has long died that suffering here on earth will be rewarded in heaven. Suffering has lost its meaning.”                                                                                                                        Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote this in her groundbreaking 1969 book, On Death and Dying, she was, of course speaking of the patient, the person dying. In the book, she famously describes the “stages” the terminally ill patient goes through: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. The book was not meant to be considered a research study, a point she repeatedly makes. She also emphasizes that these stages may be skipped, occur concurrently or be returned to on the way to Acceptance. And yet we suffer. We all suffer.

As I watch my wife go through this process, I cannot help but realize how similar the process is for the caregiver, the family members, and the survivors. We, too, are passing back, through, over, and around these stages in our effort to understand what is happening to our loved one. My initial Denial and Anger had given way to Bargaining (“this is our new normal, we’ll take as much time as we can get”), when on any given day, I can slip easily into Depression and back to Anger only to wake up the next day after a dream in Denial. No seatbelt or ABS brake can prevent that whiplash.

I cannot imagine a day when I have reached Acceptance because Kübler-Ross also wrote:

 “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”

Am I grieving already? Yes. Am I confusing the “stages” and grieving? Perhaps. All I know is that each day (and often times several times within a day) brings a new emotion for which I am unprepared, I thought I had made peace with, or I anticipated would bring me peace, only to find myself confused and lost again. And one of the worst emotions I carry is that I know that while I am suffering the whiplash of these stages, I am not the one dying, I am not the one suffering or actually going through Kübler-Ross’s stages of the terminally ill. As she also wrote, “Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.” Suffering has lost its meaning because we all still suffer.