My nearly 84 year old Dad always dismissed retirement communities as places where people go to die. He opted to live at home, alone. For safety sake (one of his favorite hazards includes leaving the gas stove on), I moved back home five years ago. Now he is sick and we are surrounded by annoyingly upbeat and optimistic doctors. It seems like the schtick for those who choose Oncology as a specialty.
Endless appointments, another test, different doctors in different locations, the multitude of details wears down the patient (and his family) mentally before the cancer wears him down physically. A few weeks into the process, I’m crushed under the weight of managing this medical menagerie.
The upside: the crazy, non-stop, ever changing schedule keeps me distracted from the fear.
I feel it there, like a bruise deep in my chest just below my sternum. Most of the time, I ignore it. At night in bed, I relax a little, and it starts to surface. I reach for my phone to call a friend, but by the time the keypad is lit up, I can’t dial. Any kind words of support will cause a complete break down and sap what little energy I’ve held in reserve. My ability to keep going seems contingent on going it alone.
My friends can’t cure the cancer. They can’t replace me at Dad’s appointments or fill out the tax returns that are due. No one lives close enough to wash the laundry or prepare daily meals, and while their words of support are genuine an heartfelt, it’s like offering a smile to a homeless man when he really needs a roof over his head. The weary anywhere might briefly benefit from a helping hand, but a single gesture doesn’t change the situation for the days and weeks that follow, and that is the reason I don’t ask for help now. One day is not enough, and by accepting help for one day, it makes the other days without help seem even more burdensome.
There is no definitive time line for Dad’s illness. I have no plans beyond what doctor we see today or what test they will perform. Cancer is the ultimate live in the moment and go with the flow scenario. Still, a question nags me at night as I try to sleep:
WHAT COMES NEXT?
This question applies to tomorrow, next week, next month, and the years that will follow. What comes next when there are no more doctor’s appointments? What happens when I wake up alone in the house with nowhere to be that day?
Like being toppled by a wave, my body spins, my arms thrash about, and my head tries to solve the problem. Which way is up? I need air. I can’t control the future, but I fight anyway. The simple truth gets overshadowed in the fray: if I stop fighting and let the wave carry me to shore, everything will work out the way it should. I know this from past experience, but in the moment, I don’t trust what has come before. I don’t feel reassured.
My impulse is to run away and sit under a palm tree sipping iced tea until the dust settles. To hand my situation over to someone else is incredibly tempting (assuming there was someone else who could step in), but the worst years of my life were spent letting other people tell me what to do, who to be, and how to live. Frustration, anxiety, depression, anger, these are symptoms of fear. The fear is weighing me down.
To bolster my own strength and perseverance, I focus on appreciating the extra time we spend together in the car, the enjoyment we get from critiquing bad paintings in waiting rooms, and the laughter that bubbles up imitating the nurse’s squeaky mouse voice. These are the positive side affects of Dad’s illness, and they contribute to a shared understanding of what is important and what is not these days. I’ve been through tough times before, and though the circumstances are different, the lesson is the same:
Stay positive. What I need will appear when I stop fighting myself, and go with the flow.