Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes.

IMG_3857Over the past year I have been asked if E’s cancer changed anything.  What a preposterous question.  Of course it changed things.  It changed everything. But that’s not the question really being asked is it?  You’re all too polite and kind to ask the big messy Q. Fear of intruding. Or opening wounds.  Being considered nosey.  But this is me you’re asking. I’ve been an open book since I started this blog in 2011.  Poured my heart out. Spilled my guts. Let the cat out of the bag.  Shared my deep dark dreary thoughts in this diary.  So it’s perfectly okay to ask the real question on your mind. 

HOW has cancer changed things?

If you were to peek into our house this Christmas, you’d probably smile, possibly sigh with relief, that everything appears the same.  Sa-sa-sa-sa-same.  Same family gathering. Same festivities. Same decorations and ornaments hung on the tree.  It all looks very much like it did last year.  And the year before.  And the one before that.  Right back to when E and I shared our first Christmas together.  There have been a few different houses.  We’ve all grown older.  The kids are all now adults. There’s a grand daughter.  A daughter-in-law.  But the mood in the room is unchanged. Family jokes. Teasing. Cheerful banter.  Laughter.  Misty eyes.  Magnanimous grateful hearts.  Goodwill, and all that jolly ho-ho-ho.

Because of this ostensible normality it’s difficult at times to imagine that E is a cancer survivor.  Sometimes I can’t even believe he had cancer at all.  I think, did we really go through that?  His 23 days in the hospital, now a distant memory slowly fading to black.  I have to look at the photos that documented his stay there to bring clarity to my recollections.  Fill in the gap between fact and fiction.  Did this really happen?  And sadly, have I diminished this life-altering experience to just another story that I tell?

Yet it was real.  It did happen.  Truth is, it changed everything.

There’s the obvious things.  The loftier higher-self transformative stuff.  Gratitude for a life being spared, given a second chance.  Awareness of the fragility of our earth walk.  Delight in the small precious things.  Refined appreciation for all those we hold dear.  Joy in the everyday and the mundane.  Concern for all living creatures.  Reverence for the fleeting passage of time.  Appreciation of all that is good, for I am steadfast in my belief that there is more good than not.  Awe and wonder at the sheer miracle of being here at all.

I thank God for this metamorphosis of the spirit. For giving my caterpillar heart butterfly wings.

But there’s more to this story.  There’s the underbelly.  The ugly shit that is difficult to admit.  Even to myself.  There’s the stuff I think I’ve kicked out the door and sent slithering down the road, only to turn around to find the ugliness standing in front of my kitchen sink doing dishes.  Oh the shameful cowardly resentful thoughts I’ve had there.  The devil’s face reflected in the white porcelain dinner plate.  The monster in the bottom of the silver pot.  The creep in the cast iron frying pan. All me.

There’s the fear that grips my gut and tears at my bowels. The anger that erupts and gasps and flares out of nowhere. The sudden and unforeseen tears that sting my cheeks.  The frustration with a life interrupted.  The impatience with everything, including E.

A foul tenacious undercurrent of dread flows through my nervous system. Silently terrified that cancer will return. It’s the uninvited guest in the room. The one that has outstayed its welcome.  Can’t take a hint and leave. It’s the disturbing uneasiness beneath my flesh. The choking, suffocating, stifling vice grip. And at the heart of all this maelstrom, one thought prevails.  Will this sinister beast return and snatch E in it’s Godzilla grip forever?

At times, often when I least expect it, I’m angry. Pissed off that a year later E is still in recovery. My impatient unkind inside-voice says, ‘get over this already.’  I want things to move according to my agenda, spoiled child that I am. Not E’s natural healing process.  At the risk of sounding like Gilda Radner, ‘there’s always something.’  Rogue aches and pains throughout his body that seem to have nothing to do with cancer.  Yet in some way they do.  The hip bone is connected to the thigh bone, after all.

I cry. Like a baby some days. These crying jags are erratic. Out of the blue. Unpredictable. Indiscriminate and downright impolite. They take me by surprise. But then so did the diagnosis of cancer a year ago.

E’s personal mantra is that he “comes from good stock.”  Hardy.  Resilient. Tough as nails. It’s his Grizzly Adams fortitude and true grit that gets me through the hour of the wolf.  It’s the call in the wilderness that keeps me going. One baby-step at a time.

Fuck cancer anyway.  We don’t give up. That much hasn’t changed.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Unfinished Business.

IMG_0676It was inevitable. Bound to happen. I’d reach a certain age and life stage.  Then bam. Smack. Thump. I’d start thinking about unfinished business.

Well here I am. Signed. Sealed. Delivered. Right on track.

On the one hand I think, ‘Yay for me. Look at all I’ve done. Little Miss Smarty Pants.’  Then the grim reality sets in. The ugly truth. The road ahead is shorter than the road behind.  Then I think, ‘I’m just getting started. I haven’t done anything yet.  Shit.’

Age and stage notwithstanding, two things over the past year triggered this obsessive unfinished thinking.  E’s cancer diagnosis.  And a painting of Ma’s that I pulled out of storage.

Dealing with E’s cancer has brought me to my knees on more than one occasion.  I’ve felt a rainbow of emotions.  From fear to anger to sadness to joy.  And now gratitude.  This experience has reminded me of the fragile and fleeting nature of life.  How quick it all passes.  The cliche is true. Time flies.  Especially the older you get.  I can barely catch my breath on some days. I just want to scream, ‘slow down!’  I want to freeze frame the good stuff.  Fortunately, the older I get the more I realize it’s all good stuff.  Regardless of how it may appear on the surface.  I want to hold on tight.  Squeeze the life out of every last thing.

I’m overwhelmed at times by the immensity of this thing called life.  The fact that we’re here at all is utterly astonishing when you think about it.  Big bangs and creation debates aside, it’s mind blowing.

Then there’s the insignificance of my little life in the grand scheme of things. My humble place in this mysterious cosmic eternal universe.  We are all less than a blip on the radar of time.  Practically nothing.  Or perhaps not?  Why are we here anyway?  I don’t know.  But I want to know.  This, and the answers to about a million other philosophical and spiritual questions.  I’m a seeker.

I’m pretty sure that this pursuit will be the biggest business I’ll leave unfinished.

Then there’s Ma’s painting.  The unfinished one.  I found it in the attic at 204 after she died.  Vibrant yellow and orange color streaks across the canvas with etherial wisps and airy brushstrokes.  From a distance it looks finished.  A bit abstract for Ma’s typical style, but done. It’s only when you get up close that you see that it isn’t finished at all.  Not by a long stretch.  You can see that the yellow and orange were just the beginning.  The first few layers.  The background for the real painting.  Up close you can see the pencil marks where she had sketched in the foreground images.  The Sleeping Giant on the horizon.  Sail boats reflected in the water.  I don’t know for sure.  I only know that this painting was intended to be so much more than what was left behind.

Over the past year, I have spent time contemplating this painting.  I have struggled with the desire to finish it.  Complete this one little piece of her work here on earth.  But I won’t.  This is her unfinished business.  Not mine.  And quite frankly, none of my business.

But this painting is a gentle reminder of all the things that are my business to finish.  Truth is, I know I will go to my grave with tons of things left undone.  Not sure I’m okay with that.

Ironically, I love lists but I’m not a bucket list person.  At least not in the formal sense, with an actual physical list.  Like the one I make at work every day. I think I’m too lazy to sit down and compile such a thing.  Or maybe mine would be too long.  Endless.  From here to eternity.  It would take me forever.  When people talk about checking something off their bucket list, I’m perplexed.  Where do they find the time to both make the list and do all that shit on it?

Having said all that, I do have things I still want to do.  I also have things I wish I had done when I was younger.  These are the things that require a much more youthful body and brain.  C’est la vie.

So I focus on what I can still do.

Instead of attempting to accomplish, achieve, attain or actualize, I focus on what really matters.

When do I start?  Here.  This place.  This present moment.  As much as possible, I try to stay in the now.

What can I do right this minute to have a more meaningful life?  It doesn’t matter.  Meaning can be found in anything. And everything.  Doing the laundry.  Mowing the lawn.  Climbing a rock.  Soaring from the top of a mountain.  Lying on my back gazing at the sky. Kissing my love goodnight.  Holding the hand of the broken hearted.  Eating spaghetti. Writing a song. Running barefoot through the grass. Standing still.  The list is endless.  And very personal.  That’s the supreme beauty of it.

Who can I surround myself with?  Who are my people?  My tribe?  My dear ones?  They’re already here. Every last one of them.  And more will come.  Some will leave when our business together is done.

Where do I need to be to make a difference in the world?  Make it a better place than when I arrived?  Improve someone’s life, even in the smallest way?  Everywhere. Anywhere. People need help all over the place.  In my own home.  At work.  Down the road.  Across the street.  The country.  The ocean.  The earth.

How do I get it done? One baby step at a time. Occasional giant leaps.   Little tiptoes.  One foot in front of the other.  Maybe I’ll strap on a cape or sprout a pair of wings.  I don’t know.  I just know I’m going to die trying.

Why bother with all of this hullabaloo? Why not?  Just because.  That’s all I got.

I’ll take a crack at some dreams.  Hatch a few more schemes.  Make a new plan or two.  Write another story.  Wish upon a star.  Cause a ruckus.  Blow out a few more candles on the cake.  And keep going down the road.  For as long as I’ve got.

Will I die with some business left unfinished?  Most undoubtably so.  I am a work in progress, after all.

Just like Ma’s painting.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: 1 Million Likes and My Dad will Quit Smoking.

IMG_1700In an earlier post I shared some of the things I was angry about since this dance with the Big C began last fall.  Mostly bat-shit crazy, Mad Hatter things that have been overwhelming and downright mystifying.  The bubbling brew of oozing gooey undisguised and unrestrained emotions.  My psychological backpack is already jam-packed, yet I continue to gather more of these sour candies with each passing day.  It’s been a real slice and I am grateful to everyone who is on the road with me.  I’m especially grateful to those with large hearts and even larger compassionate muscles who haven’t judged.  Just walked the mile in my moccasins.

One of the big things I have wrestled with in this messy muddy life I lead is that there is just no way to sanitize these emotions. I wish I could.  But the truth is, they are there.  Maybe they always were and E’s cancer just brought them roaring to the surface. Demanding that I take note.  So I have.  And the thing is, I can’t paint a pretty picture.  Won’t even try.  All my life I have been referred to as “such a nice person.”  Well, there isn’t anything nice about this.  None of it.  So if you will indulge me one last purge, one final rage, one more dump about anger, then I think I’m done here.

Warning: Some of you may want to quit reading at this point.  No hard feelings. This isn’t for everyone.  I get that. You can move on and read the blogs about flour-free recipes or how to make a tee shirt from toilet paper.

There is one colossal thing that I’ve been livid about for years.  It trumps all those other things I’ve been mad about.  Makes them seem almost trivial.  Not even deep enough to be superficial. It’s the Big Kahuna of piss-offs.  I intentionally left it out of my first rant because it’s been such a sensitive thorn in my side.  And believe it or not, I was still trying to play nice in that post.  But since this is the final puke-up, here goes.

E smoked.

Not casually.  Not after dinner.  Nor while on vacation.  Not like those rare birds who bum smokes at parties but never indulge otherwise. It wasn’t a bad habit he picked up late at night while playing in bands.  E was a hard-core smoker from the time his was nine years old.  He chain smoked. Tons. It was the first thing he did when he got up in the morning and the last thing at night.  If he couldn’t sleep he got up and had a cigarette. It comforted him in ways I never could.  It was his best friend. An extension of his yellow nicotine stained fingers.

No one knows with 100 percent certainty that smoking was the cause of his disease. Even the doctors who treated him, and the nurses who cared for him, left the door open for other possible explanations.  Cancer does strike randomly.  Nonsmokers get lung cancer.  Health nuts, who only eat organic foods and run ten miles a day, get stomach cancer.  People who wear big floppy hats and cover themselves in gobs of suntan lotion get skin cancer.  We know this to be true.  Stress and inflammation are often at the heart of many diseases, from head to heel.  I get this.

But here’s the two thousand pound elephant in the room.  E stuck a carcinogenic substance in his mouth for 45 years, every day, all day.  He has mouth cancer. Mathematical equations aside, odds are cigarette smoking most likely caused this thing.

And I’m mad as hell about that.

Before our daughter was born I begged and pleaded with E to quit.  Once M was here, I tried every manipulative trick in the book.  Of course, intellectually I knew this had to be his decision. He had to hold his own come to Jesus meeting.  I had no control over this.  I understood addiction. Having grown up with an alcoholic father and personally battled with uncontrollable sugar cravings my entire life, I knew what misery looked like.  I’d grovel and drag myself through the mud just for an O’Henry Bar. I know what it’s like to wake up in the middle of the night needing to feed.  I will always be a sugar addict, whether I eat the stuff or not.  I’ve also smoked.  I know how hard it is to quit. I bawled like a baby for two weeks solid the last, and final, time I quit.  It was pathetic.  Not one of my more graceful and exemplary times.

Because I knew intimately how difficult quitting smoking could be, I exercised as much compassion and understanding as was possible with E. But I’m only human after all.  And I have my own crap to deal with. There was always this underlying resentment about him not quitting.  I often viewed it as defiance.  Not something he couldn’t do.  But wouldn’t.

There were a couple of occasions over the past 20 years where E attempted to quit.  His longest smoke-free period was about four months.  Most of his efforts were futile though.  When it came to quitting, the best he could commit to was “someday.”

Over time, my protests and admonishments ebbed and flowed in volume and frequency.  I also had a comrade, a buddy, a conscientious objector who shared my concerns.  I went from wanting to shield my daughter from a swath of cigarette fumes to having her join me on the protest line.  M and I were a united front on this issue.

At times we were passive aggressive in our objections and disapproval.  Never really coming out and saying, “You’re an asshole for treating this so lightly,” but implying it just the same, in our offhanded comments.  These ran the gambit from the descriptive, “The garage looks like a butt factory” to the succinct, “you reek.”  His habit was bringing out the worst in us.  We were evil twins.

But once E’s mouth cancer was confirmed, no one dared to say, “I told you so.”  We knew there was a good possibility something like this could happen. He was playing a risky game with much at stake.  Sad thing is, E knew it too.  That was the frustrating part.  Just like quitting  might happen “someday” so could getting cancer.

It’s a peculiar thing how love supersedes everything at times like these. Instead of thinking, “I knew this was going to happen.” All I could think about was losing him.  Nothing else mattered.  The cause was irrelevant.

Having said all that, I’m still angry.  At E for not quitting before it came to this.  At his doctor, for not ever suggesting he should quit.  At myself, for not being more persuasive, not fighting hard enough.  At God, for not answering all those millions of prayers.

Pointless self-flagellation.  I know.

One last thing.  All over social media sites, but Facebook in particular, there have been these images of kids holding signs that read something like, “My dad says that if I get 1 million ‘likes’ he’ll quit smoking.”  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry the first time I saw one of these posts.  For the most part these are scams called “Like Farming”, which can generate tons of money for the owners of those phony pages.  Scams or the real deal aside, I found them disturbing.  Because M and I know the truth.  It will take more than 1 million “likes” to make someone’s dad quit smoking. No matter how much they love you. It just doesn’t work that way. Nothing’s that simple.

I’m angry about that too.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: 23 Days

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On Friday, April 26 E had surgery to remove cancer from his mouth just below the tongue. It was radical. It was a miracle. It was the longest 23 days of our life.

We held vigil. We prayed. We held hands. We circled the wagons. We kept the fear at bay. For this is what love does. There were evening cross-town drives. Desolate cement parking garages. Elevator rides. And endless corridor walks. The TV amused and kept him company. There was a lot of hockey. He discovered Duck Dynasty. A clipboard filled with lined paper was his only means of communication the first week. He said a lot with his eyes and hands.

Family, friends, and colleagues visited daily. There were puppy dog visits in the sunny tranquil courtyard. Our daughters danced and entertained. Our grand daughter brought sweet little girl kisses. There was a quiet Sunday morning visit with our son.
Strawberry plants grew on the windowsill. Happy-face daisies sprouted from the end of his bed. Photos blossomed on the cork board. Magazines and books grew in little stacks. Coffee from the outside was brought in. There was a glorious view from his seventh floor room. It was heavenly.

And this is what those 23 days looked like.

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Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Tick Tock.

The clock on the wall keeps ticking.

The clock on the wall keeps ticking.

Start. Stop. Slow down. Speed up. Wait. Proceed with caution. The traffic signs of the Big C trip. We’re forced to walk when all we really want to do is run.  For our lives.  Things take time.  There’s a process.  Procedures to follow.  We get it.  But we’re also scared out of our minds.  The Big C clock is ticking.  And we don’t know if we’re running out of time.  The meticulous orderly pace is excruciating.  Never fast enough.  At least not for me.

When we returned from our weekend getaway, things moved swiftly at first.  We arrived home late Monday night and by Wednesday afternoon we had the results of the PET scan.  The cancer was localized.  Just below the tongue. Our greatest fears, that E was riddled with cancer from head to toe, were banished.  We were grateful and did the happy dance. High fives all around.  Big sighs of relief could be felt from coast to coast.

Three weeks later E met with the Surgeon, who examined his mouth and discussed his role in the upcoming surgery.  Because this would be a 2-surgeon job, eight days later E met with the Plastic Surgeon.  At this point, it was exactly one month since receiving the results of the PET scan.  To a cancer patient and his family this is an eternity.  With each passing day I grew more anxious.  My mind went to its dark place, that cavernous dwelling filled with irrational horrors.  All the ‘what ifs’ were examined. I snooped under every rock and coaxed all the scary monsters out.  My thoughts Teased and taunted. It was crazy-making at its finest.

I think E was scared too.  In between surgeon appointments he was baptized.  This was something he had been contemplating for a few years but he became obsessed with the notion after the diagnosis.  He wanted to come right with God.  Get things sorted out between the two of them. The surgeons could heal his body but only God could repair his brokeness. This would be his first step towards spiritual healing.  Truth is, it was more of a first dunk then a step.  I can only describe it as a full backwards drop into the watery depths, John the Baptist style. E emerged gasping for air.  Regenerated.  Renewed.  Reborn.

The triad of Divine Es – elation, euphoria and exaltation – wouldn’t last long.

The meeting with the Plastic Surgeon brought E to his knees.  Shaken.  Shattered.  Scared out of his wits.  Later that evening, he described the procedure.  He shuttered and shook his head as relayed the gruesome details.  I thought I was going to throw up.  The surgery wasn’t going to be pretty.  Lot’s of cutting skin and veins here, and moving them there, and then there, and there.  Visions of Roger Ebert danced through my head. Enough said.

The day after the meeting with the Plastic Surgeon, E’s Mama died.  He got the news at 7:00pm on the Thursday and was on a plane to Nova Scotia the next morning at 8:00. He spent a week with his family and friends, buried his mother and was back on the Westcoast by Good Friday.  The next evening his band performed at a Bluegrass Fundraising event.

It was the last time he would sing.

E’s surgery was booked for May 6, which seemed like light years away. Everything was moving in slow motion.  To us, the medical world was dragging its collective feet. Our anxiety eclipsed their tempo.  We felt like lab rats scurrying through a maze of white coats and mysterious technology. Humming machines.  Little cogs caught in the big wheel.  Dancing on peanut butter.  Plenty of action but really going nowhere.

E was diagnosed the first week of December, met with the Radiation Oncologist the end of January, had the PET scan in the middle of February, met with Surgeons in the middle of March and would have the operation on May 6.  When someone you love gets the Big C diagnosis you just want the “evil” extricated from their body.  We all wanted it out.  Like Lady Macbeth, I cried, “Out, damned spot.  Out. I say!”

Yes, I’ll admit, a bit dramatic.  But still.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Today.

E relaxing by the pond with Coco and Rusty.

E relaxing by the pond with Coco and Rusty.

I usually like to keep a bit of time and distance between me and the stories I tell.  Sometimes years like I have with the Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter.  With others, it’s weeks or months like this blog about me and E and the Big C. This is the psychological and emotional space I need to tell a good story.  It’s the way I work.

Time allows me to separate myself from the story so that it doesn’t erode into sentimental sop.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love a good tear jerker.  I just don’t intentionally write one.  I’m not here to emotionally manipulate.  It is my desire to share what I know, what I’ve learned on this journey.  At best, it may only be an enjoyable read.  At worst, a waste of time.  But if it informs and illuminates, touches a heartstring, resonates with some truth you hold dear, then I’ve accomplished more than I could have hoped for.

My story is your story.  We’re all in this together after all.  You may not have cancer, nor be married to someone with it.  You may be lucky and this disease hasn’t touched your life in any way.  But I doubt it.   That’s not the point.  This isn’t about the disease, you see.  It’s about two people and their family and friends and community.  It’s about you and me.  All of us.

Oh yes it is my dear ones.

Because we’re all human and this is a very human story.  Not a tragedy.  Although sometimes it is heartbreaking.  It is often fraught with folly.  And great big belly laughs.  Tears are shed.  Curse words are spat like mouldy grapes.  But there’s a whole lot of loving going on too.

So today, Saturday, April 6, exactly four months after my world was rocked I am going to do something I typically don’t do with my storytelling.  I’m telling you how it is now.  On this day.  No time.  No distance.  No space between me and the story.

This morning E and I were in the kitchen making coffee and chatting idly about the things we had to do today.  For reasons I’m not even certain of – maybe I was born with it or maybe it’s Maybelline – I turned to him and said the following:

“I know nothing can compare to the way you feel.  Part of me can’t even imagine.  But I just want you to know that for the people closest to you.  It feels horrible.  Awful.  Everyone expects you to feel like crap. You’ve got cancer for Christ sakes. But I feel like crap too.  I’m worried and exhausted.  I’m so depressed.”

E slumped in the chair and said, “I’m worried too.  I wake up at three in the morning and I can’t sleep.”

“Neither can I,” I snapped.

But what I wanted to say and couldn’t because he’s the one with cancer and that trumps everything: “You just don’t get it. Yes, you have the disease, but you don’t have a monopoly on feeling bad.”

“I’m depressed,” he sighed.

“Some days I feel like I’m hanging on by my fingernails.”

And that was the end of the conversation.  Maybe hanging on by your fingernails trumps everything.

There you have it.  Four months in and the truth is, we both feel like crap.  Not all the time.  The mornings are the worst.  Fortunately life distracts us.  We carry on.  Get on with it.  Try not to wallow.  Nor allow this thing to swallow us whole like a snake eating a rabbit.  Take the best part of us. We ‘do not go gentle into that good night.’

This afternoon we took our dogs for a walk around the lake.  It was good.  As we walked the trail, I breathed in the beauty of the world surrounding us.  The trees were green with newness.  Life was exerting itself everywhere. Hope filled the clouds above.  The breeze whispered sweet nothings in our ears.   You have today, it said.

There wasn’t a trace of cancer anywhere.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Take Two. Let’s Try This Again.

E and his band mate A wait to go on stage.

E and his band mate A wait to go on stage.

Sometimes I just want to start over. Tear out the page. Crumple it up.  Toss it into the nearest garbage can. Press delete. Delete. Delete. Begin again. Change everything. Rewrite the story.

Never have I wanted to do this more than with this story about E.

After the holidays, we settled back into our old familiar routine.  The one we enjoyed before the thunderclap of cancer struck. It was as if all that crazy-making stuff never happened.  Monday to Friday focused around our work.  Weekends were filled with errands, chores, family meals, music and church.  Smack dab in the middle of January we celebrated E’s birthday with joy and profound gratitude.  After the roller coaster ride of December this mundane life of ours felt good.  Humdrum was welcome.  The unremarkable everydayness had lulled us into believing that things were back to normal.  It was life as usual.

Not so.

Truth was, E’s appointment with the Radiation Oncologist was scheduled for the end of January.  There was no denying, nor getting around that.  This was “the meeting” where we would get the lowdown on this scary disease that had invaded E’s body.  The results of the CatScan and the biopsy would be explained to us.  This was where rubber would hit the road.

The Cancer Agency sent E a package of information to prepare him for this meeting.  He filled out the forms, read the brochures, watched the DVDs and composed a list of questions.  I borrowed a snazzy digital recorder from one of my colleagues to tape the session.  We were prepared.  At least so we thought.

I met E at the Cancer Centre on the afternoon of his appointment.  It was a mad rush from work to the Centre with five minutes to spare. I flopped down in the seat next to him expecting a long wait.  My plan was to scarf down a sandwich before meeting with the Oncologist.  Two bites into my cheese and lettuce and we were called.  I quickly stuffed the sandwich back into my bag and followed E and the intake nurse into “the room.”

We exchanged pleasantries with the nurse while she took E’s temperature and checked his blood pressure.  A few minutes later the Oncologist appeared.  It was one of those jaw dropping moments.  She was nothing like what I was expecting.  I was thinking someone more like Einstein or the original Dr. Who.  Someone who looked like they could cure cancer.  Not pose for the cover of Vogue.  She was drop-dead gorgeous.  Tall, slim, perfect skin and hair.  Beautiful smile.  Stylishly dressed from head to toe.  And by toe, I mean kick-ass high black leather boots.  She was lovely in every way and immediately put E and I at ease.

I switched on the recorder.  She began with a round of standard questions to determine E’s overall health.  What other things besides the mess in his mouth were causing him grief.  E rhymed off the litany of ailments that had been hurting, aching, paining, irritating and gnawing at him over the past two years.  It reminded me of the Skeleton Song we all sang when we were kids.  With the toe bone connected to the foot bone.  Was there anything that didn’t hurt I wondered?

After the inquisition, the Oncologist probed and prodded his neck and throat checking for lumps and bumps.  Looking for signs.  Was the cancer on the move?  Spreading like wildfire to the rest of his body or behaving itself and staying contained in the front of his mouth?

Modern medicine is full of wonders to behold.  Technological marvels that are mind-blowing.  Like the probe that allowed us to see inside E’s nose and throat.  More like science fiction than science seeing this strange interior world so close-up and personal.  Beyond the uvula. It reminded me of the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale.

After the examination the doctor discussed “the next steps.”  This took both of us by surprise. We thought we’d be leaving with a surgery date and a pep talk on how this would soon be behind us.  A little inconsequential blip in our lives that would be over with a quick snip and a stitch.  Not next steps.

E wearing one of his favorite Hawaiian shirts.

E wearing one of his favorite Hawaiian shirts.

What we quickly learned was that the results from the CatScan and biopsy weren’t one hundred percent definitive.  Inconclusive.  They didn’t know the full extent of the disease. Whether it had spread to other parts of his body.  So this uncertainty meant more testing.  Big Kahuna examinations.  MRI and PET Scan.

The drive across town to home was dismal.  Again I was alone in the truck.  A Gloomy Gus.  Consumed with worst case scenarios.  The wind had just been kicked out of our sails.  We had just spent the month believing that things were going to be okay.  E was back to normal.  He was feeling great.  Healthier than he had in a long time.  This wasn’t such a big deal, we thought.  Certainly not deadly.  Nothing to worry about.  A piece of cake.  Walk in the park.

For two smart people, we were seriously naive when it came to the Big C.

Back at the house, E and I spoke briefly about the appointment.  I asked him how he thought it went.

“Not good,” he said.

Then I knew we were in big trouble.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter. What Were You Thinking?

E before he quit smoking.

E before he quit smoking.

I’m not a mind reader.  I don’t have X-ray vision. No telepathic abilities that I’m aware of.  I’m definitely not a clairvoyant and the last time I checked I don’t have ESP.   But on occasion I do have an acute sixth sense.  Like Spider Man.  Sometimes I just know something’s up.

Such was the case the night we went to visit a gravely ill friend at the hospital.

After two decades together I thought E and I shared everything.  Our thoughts.  Feelings.  Fears.  But I learned that with this cancer thing, that wasn’t true.  Fact is, no one really knows for sure what’s going on inside another person’s head.  Nor do we know the things kept tucked away in timorous hearts.  Our interior worlds are ours alone. We share what we share.  Give what we give. Reveal only what’s comfortable or safe.  We’re transparent at times.  But more often than not, opaque.  The proverbial window into a person’s soul is often dirty.  Foggy.  Obscured. Dark and scary.

We rode up the hospital elevator to the seventh floor in easy silence. Each in our own private world. Elevators have this affect on us. I watched attentively as the red digital numbers over the doors changed.  Floor by floor.  Thankfully no one else joined us on our ride upward. I wasn’t in the mood for company. A fleeting thought of our sick friend crossed my mind.  Followed by an unsettling twitch of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  I took a gulp of air and let it out with flapping lips.  I sounded like a horse snorting.

Just before the doors swung open, I glanced over at E.  There was something about his expression that concerned me. Did it bother him to be back in a hospital?  Was he looking down the road to the day he’d have to return?  Was he afraid?

The doors opened.  We stepped out into the bright glaring lights of the corridor.  A startling contrast from the dimly lit elevator car with its hypnotic hum.  The steel box that confined and contained our emotions.

Boom.  Reality hit.  Raw.  Intense.  Chilly.  I couldn’t hold it in anymore.

“How do you feel?” I blurted out.

“I’m fine,” he auto-responded.

“No, how do you really feel?” I persisted.

“I’m tired,” he exhaled fully, releasing weeks of held emotions.  “And depressed.  I don’t know if I’m tired because I’m depressed.  Or depressed because I’m so tired.”

“I understand,” I said.

Finally some truth.  A place to start.

For the first time in a month, E fully understood that he wasn’t alone.  He had me.  No matter what.  Although the cancer was inside his body, the journey was ours.  We were in this together.  The good.  The bad.  And the ugly.  We were a shameless spaghetti western.  Clint Eastwood, this movie belonged to us.

The next day I sat down at my computer and wrote this poem.

The Truth About This Thing Called Cancer

Yesterday when we got off the elevator at the 7th floor

And we were heading towards room 721

To visit our friend who was back in the hospital

Having a blood transfusion

In preparation for surgery the next day

His third in nine months.
His body was covered in scars

From years of cuts and mends

Repairs and retribution

A missing foot

An ulcer on the other

Now in peril.
But this isn’t about him.
I asked you how you were feeling

Really feeling

No fake bullshit

No more keeping secrets.

 

I’m a big girl

I can hear the word cancer

The Big C

Without wanting to dive

Into the river of terror.
I’m your love

And you are mine

We’ll do this together.
So you confessed.
You said that even though

You laugh and joke

Put on your happy face

There are times that you feel tired

And depressed.
You sleep

Because you are tired

Which makes you depressed

So you sleep

To make the depression

Go away.

 

You can’t tell

The cause

From the effect.
I told you that I understood.
But the truth is

I only understand

Half of the equation.

 

I don’t know cancer

But I know depression

And the desire to sleep it away.
I know love

And the power it wields

The healing it contains

For both of us
I told you right from the start

That all I ever wanted

Was for you to

Tell me the truth.
And that goes for this thing too.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Search for Meaning.

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

E on his throne enjoying the Christmas festivities.

I’m a seeker.  Especially at Christmas time.  I search for perfect gifts for everyone on my list. Ones filled with wow and wonder.  I comb second hand stores for delicate vintage glass ornaments like the ones we hung on our tree at 204.  I inherited all of Ma’s and have been growing her precious collection every year for the past decade.  It’s my magnificent holiday decorating obsession.

I scour cookbooks, online cooking blogs and recipe websites looking for something new and delicious to bake or cook over the holidays.  In the end, nothing compares with the treasure trove found in Ma’s sacred and magical Gurney Recipe Box.

I flip through fashion magazines for inspiration on what to wear for all those festive occasions.  This is a silly pastime because E and I don’t attend those kinds of affairs.  Yet I do it anyway.  It pleases me.

I’m also bedazzled by sparkly festive shop windows.  I hunt for the perfect holiday outfit.  I daydream about a beautiful more glamorous version of myself that will somehow magically appear like Cinderella at the ball. I wonder what it would be like to knock ‘em dead at our office party.  I fantasize about a transformation from drab nondescript woman in the corner cube to glamor girl in the shimmery dress with legs that never quit.  That never happens.  Even the younger me couldn’t have pulled that look off.  Truth is, that’s not me. Never was. Never will be.  But it is fun to play that movie in my head once a year.

Pursuit of the perfect gift, recipe, or dress aside, what I really seek at Christmas time is meaning. What’s it all about?  This search trumps everything.

With E’s cancer diagnosis hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, the desire to find something deeper, more profound, more significant was intensified.  It served to remind us of the fragile nature of this life we live.  Teach us to grab onto every precious moment like it was your last.  Embrace the ones we love.

We were given a reprieve from the fear and anxiety that brought us to our knees the week E was in the hospital.  The Friday that he was released from the RJH was glorious.  A heaven-sent day.

The first thing E did when we got home was take the dogs for a walk in the crisp clean December air.  It was as though he was breathing for the first time.  He could walk unencumbered by the inescapable steel dance partner he had been hooked up to all week.  Free from all the medical machinery that monitored his every heartbeat and breath.  Free from the antiseptic smell that clung to every cell and fibre of his being.  Free to walk upright. Stride. Strut. Swagger. Flounce his new found freedom up the rocky hills that surround our home.

Simply be alive.

For as long as I have known E, he’s been a real crank about Christmas.   He would happily take a page from Rip Van Winkle’s book and sleep right through the entire month of December.  It was the same old thing every year.  Come the day before Christmas, the spirit would finally move him and off he’d go in search of my Christmas present.  Some years this was found at the local Shoppers Drug Mart down the road.  When M got old enough he solicited her help. This put a stop to the drugstore gifts.

“I’ll make sure he gets you something really good Ma,” she’d say.

And she does.

Of course, it’s not about the quality of the gift.  Or even that there are gifts at all. But in our family, we do enjoy this tradition. We like to acknowledge each other in this manner.  It’s sounds cliche but it isn’t so much the gift as the giving.  As a family we like this and we’re good at.  One look at our living room Christmas morning says it all.

This year, the curmudgeon grouchy bah humbug E left the building.  Like Elvis on August 16, 1977.  Replaced by the new and improved version.  Enthusiastic and joyful.  Happy to celebrate. Cheerful and charitable. Without complaint nor criticism. No protests. Gripes or grumbling.  Beefs or bellyaching.  And above all else, the new E, that emerged from the chrysalis on Friday, December 14, was grateful.

Deeply.  Profoundly.  Beyond words.

Recently, I read a quote by Cicero that really resonated with my spirit.  It expressed so beautifully the meaning I sought and found over the Christmas season.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

E and I are consumed with gratitude these days.  There is so much to cherish and give thanks for.  Starting with our love for each other.  For our family, our beautiful children, our granddaughter, our extended family and friends, our good neighbors, our understanding colleagues, the compassionate caregivers and spiritual teachers. Everyone who has touched our tender hearts so sweetly.

Kindness and compassion.  Generosity and magnanimity.  Big-heartedness and goodness.  It’s everywhere.  Dressed in the same attire.  Cloaked in the fabric of love.

Jesus and John Lennon were right. Love is all you need.

I’m grateful for that.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Five Days.

E with his bass jamming at home.

E with his bass jamming at home.

In many ways I’m a creature of habit.  Sometimes I wish it weren’t so.  But at times it’s a blessing.  I slipped as easily into this new routine as my favorite summer flip flops. Driving across town to the hospital that first night felt familiar.  Like I had done it a hundred times already.

Truth was, I had.  Flash back a decade.  Same time of the year.  Same weather.  Same heavy feeling in my chest.  Except a different vehicle.  Different driver.  This cross-town trip had been part of our daily evening routine those last few months of Ma’s life.

I hated that this was so easy to do.

E was still in the ER when I got there.  It was a different wing with a large flatscreen TV and chairs set up in rows like it was movie night at the local community centre.  The chairs were full of patients and their respective support groups.  Beleaguered husbands and wives. Friends and lovers.  Sundry others.  Some of the patients were hooked up to IV’s on portable stands.  The place was bustling with movement and activity.  Even those with IV’s were shuffling around.  They reminded me of the Walking Dead.  Eyes wide open but with no particular destination.  Just a scent embedded in their nostrils and an indestructible urge to follow it.  E wasn’t one of those.

I found him in a hallway propped up on a gurney and hooked up to a couple of IVs.  Fluids and antibiotics.  These would be his primary sources of sustenance for the next five days.

He greeted me with his usual wide toothy grin and rascally blue eyes.  He looked better than he had in days.  It was a relief to see him smile.  Maybe things were turning around, I thought.  In a way they were.  It was a subtle shift.  But I could feel it the second I saw him.  After more than two decades with this man I could read him like a cheap paperback novel.  Smiles like that do not lie.

“I’m feeling much better,” he said as I leaned in to kiss him.

“You look a million times better,” I said. “What’s with the hallway?”

“Waiting for a room.  I could be here all night.”

“I’m just glad you’re here being taken care of,” I said.

I stood next to his gurney while we visited.  Moving aside for passing orderlies or nurses pushing stretchers through the narrow corridor.  It was noisy and more like a Pub then a hospital. The season aside, there was something uncannily festive in the air.  I kept my gloves on while we visited. Partly because I was chilly but mostly because I felt submerged in germs.  People were coughing and hacking all around us.  My imagination was running rampant.  I couldn’t shake the fear that I’d catch some crazy incurable virus or ugly transmittable disease and land up in a gurney next to E.  Although I couldn’t think of anything finer than lying next to him, one of us had to remain healthy.

I don’t know how long I stayed with E that first night.  Time takes on a different dimension in situations like these.  It stretches on endlessly.  And it flies by in a second.  I only know I left when we were both too tired to visit any longer.  I kissed him goodbye and headed home.

This would be my afterwork routine for remainder of the week.

When I visited E the next evening he was in a private room. The lights were too bright.  Glaring and jarring.  It was like a science fiction movie.  It hurt my eyes.  Assaulted by fluorescent lighting. E was still hooked up to the IV and looked so small lying on a normal sized bed. I had grown used to seeing him in small cots and gurneys.  To see him looking so frail and vulnerable took my breath away.  He looked like a little old man.  Just like his Old Man in fact, the year before he died at eighty-seven.

Where was my E?  How had he gotten to this place so quickly?  Was he really this feeble?  Rail-thin and boney.  His cheeks sunken and sporting shocking grey stubble.  And his voice.  It sounded just like his father’s.  Not E’s.  Who was this old man that had taken my love hostage?

I took a deep breath and forged on.

We chatted leisurely about his day as if we were in our own living room unwinding after work. He was full of praise and gratitude for the care he had been given by the nurses.  All things considered he felt good.  He jokingly referred to his portable IV stand as his dance partner.  He sashayed her through the hallways, he laughed.  Round and round in circles just to get some exercise.  For a moment, I was jealous of a steel pole and a plastic bag full of saline water. E’s mouth was still in pain and his tongue was swollen.  Yet things were improving.  He ate green jello.

I kissed him on the cheek.  Not the lips.  I didn’t want to touch his mouth for fear it would hurt.  It was difficult to imagine that my kiss would not bring pleasure to his lips.

I stepped out into the dark rainy night.  Alone.

On Wednesday night everything changed.  Originally, E had been scheduled to have a CAT scan after the surgeon gave him the results of the biopsy, which wasn’t supposed to have been for another week or so.  But because he was already in the medical stream the doctor ordered the CAT Scan that day.

The surgeon had been in to see E earlier in the evening.  M arrived right after her last class.  She was curled up comfortably on the little leather couch under the window, her grey flannel knapsack resting next to her feet.  She was chatting quietly with her dad when I walked in the room.  The lights were still blaring.  There were no soft shadows cast.  I took the chair under the hanging TV.

I had barely taken my seat when E broke the news.

“I don’t know how to say this,” he said. “So I’m just going to say it the way the doctor told me.  I have cancer.  It’s the early stages. The doctor said he can take care of it.  He’ll get rid of it.  Don’t worry.”

Don’t worry.  Don’t worry.  Don’t worry.

I wanted to throw up.

“That’s better news than it could have been,” I blurted. “And if you’re going to get cancer, this is the place to be.  We have the best of everything here.”

I rattled on.  Spewing the fragmented bits and pieces of information I had picked up from work.  One of our clients at the Agency was the BC Cancer Foundation so I knew something about treatments and research.  How advanced our Province was in this field.  While the advertising crone spouted lines of optimistic copy from a recent campaign, all the wife wanted to do was ram her fist through the wall.
On the way home, M and I stopped into the little Mexican cafe up the road from our house and picked up beef burritos.  We sat in front of the television and ate in silence.  The room reeked of salsa, refried beans and fear.

On Thursday night my sister and her boyfriend came to visit.  She had called E earlier to see if there was anything she could bring him.  He wanted KFC.  He wanted solid food.  Anything but green jello and tomato soup.  He craved something nasty.  Junky. Greasy. Chicken licken good.  She walked into the room with the illicit contraband concealed in a brown paper bag.  You could smell it the second she got off the elevator.  E’s eyes widened with delight.  And gratitude.  He opened the bag immediately and ravenously started in on the chicken.  It hurt his mouth but he didn’t care.  It was the first solid food he’d had in a week.  Green jello doesn’t count.

It was good to see him eat something that didn’t require a straw. We were like proud parents feeding solids to an infant for the very first time.  Grinning from ear to ear.  It was a surreal visit.  If not for E being hooked up to a monitor and IV, we could have been drinking tea and chatting around our kitchen table. The conversation ebbed and flowed.  Intermittent at times.  B regaled us with stories of his misbegotten youth.  We laughed.  We stared at the floor.  We were silent.  Then it was time to leave.

I kissed E on the cheek, whispered I love you and said goodnight.  I didn’t look back.

I had Friday off but still had to get up early for a doctor’s appointment that I had booked weeks earlier.  I was sitting in the clinic waiting room taking Instagram photos of my boots when my photographic musings were interrupted by a text.  It was E.  He was getting sprung from the joint.  Hallelujah.

By the time I got to the hospital he was going through the check-out process with his nurse.  It was the first time I’d seen him upright in five days. Without the IV stand, he looked like himself. E had returned.

E drove us home.  The sun was shining for the first time in five days.  It was a large blue sky.  Just like the ones that hung over 204 when I was growing up.

Things were looking up.