Thursday, July 31, 2008

The C Word

As a general rule, I prefer not to discuss my personal life with the world outside of a few people whom I trust and know. Some people call it a defense mechanism that I tend to be less than serious most of the time, and who am I to argue those claims. I tend to chalk it up to the fact that we've all got something shitty going on in our lives, and we don't need to be saddled with other people's problems as well unless they really, really mean something to us. Whatever the case, my experiences of late have inspired me to put my experiences and thoughts to paper (or in this case, the intertubes) as something of a therapeutic exercise. Feel free to hit that back button at any point, I really don't mind....I don't want pity, condolences, or prayer (though the woman in question is quite Christian, so she probably wouldn't mind the prayer if you want to throw it that way). I really just want to say my piece.
Cancer isn't something I've got any real experience dealing with. My paternal grandfather, who it turns out was quite the bastard, died of it mere months after the sole time I met him (as a child). I've had an aunt get it and recover, but she was out of state and it was during a period in my life (adolescence) in which I was too self-aborbed to really get it. Otherwise though, thats it. Maternal grandfather lived through a stroke and died years later of old age. Maternal grandmother died a few years back of old age. Paternal grandmother died of Alzheimers, which is about the only reference point I have for this.
As a child then growing into adulthood before it ended, Alzheimers is the worst thing I can imagine. Unlike my brother, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother as a child...when she was lucid, before the disease set in. By the time he had that chance, it had already started to set in. I remember so many things about her, and then the years and year as her mind made that rapid descent downhill, to the point where if your timing wasn't just right, she had no idea who you were or what was going on. This was a hard woman, a woman that grew up during the depression....on a Texas farm, and to see her reduced to being a's something I just can't reconcile in my mind, even all these years later. A few months back when I was reading the Dante's Inferno I thought to myself that any sort of concious knowledge that one was afflicted by Alzheimers is worse than anything Dante had to offer.
In short, I would never wish Alzheimers on my worst enemy, or my worst enemy's family. No one should have to endure that. Although I did once wish it on George W. Bush only so he'd understand the error in his ways for fighting stem-cell research, but I digress.
Cancer is the polar opposite beast. Unlike my grandmother, who lost her mind but kept her body, my great-aunt's mind is sharp as a tack and she's losing her body. Quickly. It was just over 3mos ago that she was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer (yes, I know what that generally means....). They told her it was operable, and within a week she was in the hospital to get it removed. My father had to leave on business after he took her to the hospital, but we all assumed it would be a successful surgery and sure, there would be hills to climb, but she would make it. I was going to see her in the hospital after it was over, be her cheerleader, get us all through this (the way I had to do with my father's surgery a few years earlier).
That afternoon I called my Dad for an update, expecting the simple response that the surgery went well. It didn't. I remember where I was, driving east on Northwest Hwy. about to exit Skillman, when he said the words. The doctors aborted the surgery, there was nothing they could do. So that afternoon, with my father in California, I had to go to the hospital and visit my defacto grandmother (she's been there my entire life), and try to comfort her as she's nodding in and out of consiousness, looks like death warmed over, and has been told she has fatal cancer.
How do you do that? How do you stay positive? How do you hold back tears? How do you talk to someone that just got a death sentence? I really don't know how I held it the traditional definition, at 26, I'm supposed to be a man, but that day....that week....I felt like a boy, like a child. I had to keep a brave face, I had to spend my days at work, but in my heart....I was being crushed. It was the toughest day of my life, tougher even than the night I had to deal with my pill-fucked father the night after his surgery acting like a child and pick him up off the floor.
But you see, the story doesn't end there. You wish it did on some level, but it doesn't. In the 3mos since the surgery, she had to endure a month of rehab in a home, and now she's at home with hospice care. I've had the privilege....and it has been a great get to know her, better than ever, since. To get a family history, to get her thoughts and her experiences, and I'm relishing it. It's been a great experience, but the downturn is starting. The cancer has moved to her stomach, she can't keep food down. The jaundice is returning. The clock is expiring, and quicker than I thought it would.
When she was a child, her mother (my great grandmother) died of cancer. It eventually ate through her stomach and through her skin, and as a child my great-aunt and my grandmother had to bandage her to stop the fluids from bleeding through the cancerous sores on her abdomen. Can you imagine being a child and having to do that?
And can you imagine reaching your 80s, remembering that, and then suffering through the cancer yourself? The world is a really fucked up place. It really is.

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