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.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: The Weekend from Hell.

E singing and playing his bass.

E singing and playing his bass.

It was the weekend from hell. A topsy turvy terrifying roller coaster ride.  One moment we could see sunlight and the possibility of rosy days.  Only to be sucked into the uncertainty of the rabbit hole the next.  In between we did our best to breathe.  Keep our head above the icy waters that threatened to take us down.  Mostly we tried to make sense of this unforeseen mess that we found ourselves in.

The surgeon, who had performed the biopsy, sent E home with a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics.  In thirty years of practice, he’d never seen a reaction to a biopsy like this.  Lucky E.  One for the medical history books.  I was a little surprised that the surgeon wasn’t more curious to find out why.  Then I’m like a four-year old who asks ‘why’ about everything.  Except for why me or why us.  Life is a game of Russian Roulette at times.  Shit happens to everyone.  Good and bad.  So why not me.  Or us.

The painkillers did their job for short intervals, which gave him little pockets of relief throughout the weekend.  E spent most of the time hunkered down in his Man Cave watching TV or dozing off on the couch.  Deep regenerative sleep was elusive and interrupted by pain so severe it would have brought a lesser man to his knees.  But E refused to buckle.  Since his motorcycle accident at thirty, he lived with chronic pain in his hip and right leg.  He still felt unsettling phantom pains from the big toe that was removed shortly after his bike was t-boned and ended up in a gutter fifty yards away.  This pain was close to that.

During the interludes when the pain was tolerable we carried on with our regular weekend affairs.  Errands and chores mostly.  I was still doing most of the talking.  Acting as his interpreter.  Under any other circumstances I might have welcomed the quiet.  Instead I missed his chattiness and running commentary on life.

One of the things we managed to squeeze in was Christmas shopping for his sweet 94-year old Mama in Nova Scotia.  Every year he gets her the same thing.  A sweater and pajamas from Walmart.  E is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to shopping.  But Christmas shopping takes this crankiness to new heights.  The fact that he does it at all is a bigger miracle than the Immaculate Conception.  We combed through the selection of sweaters and PJs to find this year gift, then made a swift exit. The pain was returning and his tongue was again thickening.  Visions of baby’s fists were dancing in my head.

Back home, E noticed that the rear license plate on the truck had been stolen while we were shopping. E called the Cops to report the theft while I did a rant on the nerviness of the thieving creeps.  How could they pull off something like this in broad daylight? In a crowded parking lot full of Walmart shoppers no less.

Drinking was unbearable.  Eating impossible.  The pain “was like I’ve bitten down on my tongue real hard and can’t let go,” E said.

Imagine a cruel relentless Vice Grip.

By Sunday afternoon there was no improvement.  Painkillers were painfully useless.  A fiendish joke. We had no idea what the antibiotics were supposed to be doing.  Apparently nothing.  E agreed to another visit to the ER.  Before we could do that I had to get new license plates for the truck.

Things went from bad to worse.  While E rested on the couch, M and I drove across town in her car to an insurance provider that was open on Sundays. This should have been a straightforward no-brainer transaction.  Wrong.  As the insurance guy was filling out the form for the replacement plates he noticed that E’s name was on the registration of the truck.  It’s my truck but E’s name was included as a formality.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but I can’t finish this transaction without your husband being here,” said the soft spoken insurance guy.

“Whadayamean?” asked the impatient cranky wife of a suffering man.

“His name is on the registration and he has to be here in order for me to give you new plates,” said the soft spoken insurance guy.

“Are you kidding me?  He’s really sick. I need my truck to drive him to the hospital,” said the increasingly impatient cranky wife of a long suffering man.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, but there’s nothing I can do,” said the completely-powerless-to-do-anything insurance guy.

M and I stormed out.  Mumbling under our breath.  Christmas Carols were wafting through the outdoor shopping centre where the insurance  provider was located.  It was an irritatingly cheerful and festive juxtaposition to our dispirited foul moods.

Back home, I conveyed our frustrating story and lack of success at obtaining the license plates to E.  He was furious and raring for a good squabble.  And if not for his inability to speak coherently he would have been all over that.  To end things on a peaceful note, we went to a different insurance provider to get the plates.  Happy ending to that part of the story.

By the time we got back home, it was early evening.  We decided to have dinner and then go to the ER.  M and I devoured our meal while E forced a few tablespoons of mashed potatoes past his raw cheeks, over his swollen tongue and down his throat.  It was excruciating to watch.  I can’t even imagine how it felt.

We never did go to the ER that night.  E wanted to see his own doctor in the morning. He may not have been able to swallow.  Nor speak clearly.  But he was still capable of making decisions that concerned his body.  We went that.

When I left for work the next morning he was sleeping peacefully.  The plan was for M to drive him to the doctors.  As I was driving up the long and winding country road that leads to the Agency, I was finally able to achieve some clarity.

This thought hit me like a ten pound hammer.  E had barely eaten nor drank anything since Wednesday night. How long could someone last before their organs started to shut down?

The second I got to my desk I phoned M.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: You Could Die Waiting.

Boo looking up at E at the top of the garden.

Boo looking up at E at the top of the garden.

I have a big patience muscle.  I haven’t always.  But the older I get the bigger it grows.  It was tested fully those tedious grey hours that we sat waiting for a doctor in the ER. Each minute that passed felt like an hour.  I became the irritating kid on a road trip asking, “Are we there yet?”  Only my question that night was, “Is he here yet?”

M pulled out her Anthropology textbook and passed the time reading, listening to music and texting her best friend A.  Teenagers bring their cellphones to bed with them so they are there for each other 24 / 7. This wasn’t unusual. It’s a fascinating cultural phenomenon that is completely foreign to me, being that I’m as old as dirt after all.  I don’t judge.  It works for them.  I on the other hand, frustrate my daughter by my reckless lack of interest in my iPhone.  I use it primarily to take photographs, videos and record sounds.  I am also an Instagram addict.  But mostly the thing is either tethered to my iMac or lost in the bottom of my purse under wads of used Kleenex and other female essentials and paraphernalia.

During those wee hours of December 6, I amused myself by watching the monitor behind E.  It was hypnotic.  And almost as compelling as watching C-SPAN.  The endless minutes ticked by.  I spotted a miniature box of Kleenex on a shelf beneath the monitor and handed it to E to wipe his mouth.  He had the small bowl the nurse had given him resting on his chest to collect the steady flow of drool.  It’s funny the things that capture your imagination at times like these.  The bowl appeared to be made of the same material as take-out holders for drinks at fast food joints.  I wondered if it was sturdy enough to hold all that liquid pouring from E’s mouth. Would it turn to mush and melt all over him?  That’s all we needed on a night such as this.

Fatigue and weariness became intimate bedfellows, wreaking havoc with my emotions, which were fragile at best.  My body felt burdensome and heavy.  At one point I laid my head on the edge of E’s cot and closed my eyes.  I prayed for just five minutes of sleep. Just five lousy minutes.  Oh God, let me escape.  Get away from this insidious nightmare that held us captive.

With sleep turning it’s back on me like a jilted lover, I got up and tiptoed over to the nurse’s station.

“Do you think the doctor will be here soon?” I asked politely.

“Give it fifteen more minutes,” Nurse One replied patiently.

“My daughter has an exam in the morning and I have to work,” I said.  Not that it really mattered.  I just felt compelled to say this out loud.

“It shouldn’t be too much longer,” she assured.

“Okay,” I said, as I slunk quietly back to my chair next to E.

I was overcome by the 3Ds.  Defeated. Deflated. Depressed.

Then just like Nurse One promised, fifteen minutes later a lanky older man appeared suddenly out of no where.  The doctor had arrived. Hallelujah.

One of the other nurses emerged from behind their station to consult with him.  We were less than ten feet away so we could hear everything.  She gave him a quick rundown on the patients waiting for his attention.  There was the old lady in the wheel chair, the drunk guy sleeping on the gurney, and there was mouth guy.  Everyone was identified by their condition.  It was fast and efficient.

The doctor attended to E first.  Perhaps because he was one of the few who were conscious at that moment, or maybe my earlier query on when the doctor would arrive made me a squeaky wheel, or perhaps it was just our proximity to the nurse’s station.  It didn’t matter to me why E was the first to be treated.  I was simply grateful.

I filled the doctor in on the events that had transpired in the previous twelve hours — from the secret biopsy in the afternoon to the episode in the bathroom earlier that night.  A blow by blow account of E’s symptoms.  E interjected with the odd garbled comment.  No one really knew what he was saying.  The doctor scolded him for keeping secrets this big.

Then he asked E to open his mouth.

I peered over the doctor’s shoulder and got my first glimpse of what was causing all the grief.  E’s tongue was the size of a two-year old’s fist.

“Whoa,” I blurted. “Holy crap.”

The doctor sat down in my chair and crossed his long legs in a relaxed easy manner.  I stood across from him with M by my side.  We hung on his every word like he was our lifeline to hope and salvation.  He’d prescribe pain killers and call the surgeon who conducted the biopsy.  He teasingly proposed that M and I go home and get some rest.  E was in good hands and would be able to sleep once the medication kicked in.

Truthfully, M and I were relieved to be sent home.  The doctor was right.  E was in good hands.  There was nothing more for us to do that night.

M drove the truck home while I sunk into the passenger seat, thankful to be driven.  The rain had stopped but the streets were slick and wet.  We discussed the events of the evening. We were both a little shell-shocked.  M had been quiet and said very little during our vigil in the ER.  But in the shelter of our Ford Ranger she was able to share some of her feelings with me.

“I didn’t appreciate the nurse referring to Dad as mouth guy,” she said.

“I know,” I said.

“They shouldn’t talk like that in front of people’s families,” she said.

I understood my daughter’s hurt feelings.  But I also understood that this was just the everyday language of the ER. The nurse’s comments were not intended to cause harm. In fact, just the opposite was true.  They were merely the parlance of dispatching critical information with as much speed and economy as possible.

But I was too tired for explanations.  And she was too tired to care.

Silence filled the truck.  M and I were consumed with our own private thoughts.  As we were floating across town in a semi-dream state, I remember this horrible feeling of dread pass through my body.  Like thick black tar.  I flashed back to a year earlier.  To the week in September when our sweet little Jack Russell, Andy suffered a heart attack and died with me by his side.  E was in Nova Scotia burying his father, while M and I were thousands of miles away on the West coast.

It was just the two of us that week. Taking care of Andy. Watching him slip away. Overwhelmed by sadness. Paralyzed by grief.

This felt just like that.

Diaries of The Breadman’s Daughter: Wait This is an Emergency.

Boo and The Bass Man share a moment.

Boo and The Bass Man share a moment.

The ER is a dreary place.  Even more so at 2:00am.  It was quiet. Eerily so. I don’t know what I was expecting. A scene from the television show perhaps.  Blood, guts and gore spilling from victims of violent Chicago crimes. A young George Clooney flashing that seductive smile my way as he shouted a litany of incomprehensible medical terms at the actors pretending to be medical professionals.  There wasn’t any of that.

We spoke in hushed voices and politely waited our turn at the admittance window. Victims of our own personal trauma unfolding. No blood, just drowning in fear.  There was a surreality to the scene.  A bit like a lucid dream. We could have been waiting to buy a ticket at a Greyhound station.  Abysmal.  Everyone looked forlorn.  Like we were all buying tickets to the worst place in the country.  Fill in the blank.  We all know the place.

I remember feeling tired.  Deep into my bones.  I wasn’t up for this.  Whatever this was.

Our fellow sojourners that night were all equally fatigued and battle-worn.  There was the middle-aged woman holding her side.  She couldn’t conceal her pain.  It was written all over her face. Her son sat next to us on the bank of stiff chairs attached to the wall, secured to prevent theft I suppose. You never know in a joint like this at 2:00am.  She gave her details to the nurse behind the wicket.  I listened attentively to the conversation, as though this were my mother.  Hung onto every word like it was my business.  I’m a hopeless eavesdropper.  I can’t help myself.  It’s all fodder for stories.  You never know when or where this little scene, this bit of dialogue, these crestfallen characters will show up in my next story.  I’m always on the job.

On the other side of us was a drunk in a wheel chair.  He had “attendants” who were some sort of hybrid of a cop/EMT/ambulance driver.  It was hard to tell.  There were two of them.  Burly but soft-spoken.  They were taking a kid gloves approach with this guy but at the same time you could tell they weren’t to be messed with.  The drunk guy was paranoid.  The nurse needed to take his temperature but he refused to let anyone touch him.  He told everyone to ‘fuck off.’ I wanted to oblige but we needed to get E admitted.

At one point the drunk pulled a disappearing act while the attendants were discussing his situation with the nurse.  He vanished like Houdini through the hospital green doors right behind their backs.  There was a tattle tale, or two, in our paltry group.  When the attendants realized their charge was MIA, sly index fingers were pointed in the direction of the door.  Not a word uttered.  Just poker faces and sleight of hand as we easily gave up one of our own. I learned that waiting room bonds are easily forged and just as easily broken.  The attendants swiftly retrieved their drunk guy.  He managed to spit a few more ‘fuck offs’ before they wheeled him away.  I don’t know where he ended up. There’s always one rowdy in the crowd. He was a good distraction though so in a kooky way I’m grateful he was there.

It was finally our turn at the wicket.  I did all the talking because by this time E was incapable of doing anything but drool. Questions were answered, temperature taken, plastic identity bracelet attached to his left wrist, and then our weary little band of three followed the footprints to “room” 15, the vast repository for the suddenly stricken.  E stretched out on the narrow bed while M and I grabbed chairs and positioned them on either side.  Enclosed in white curtains on three sides, we were directly in front of the nurses’ station and had a panoramic view of the entire room.

The place was full but it too was uncannily quiet.  Occasionally someone moaned or coughed.  At one point the person next to us started to snore.  I found this comforting.  There was a scruffy bedraggled guy, who looked like he had spent one too many nights on the street, sleeping peacefully on a gurney in the open space next to the nurses.  An elderly woman was slumped in a wheelchair.  There were two little kids playing with another wheelchair nearby.  It was as if they had been scooped from a playground and transported to this place for my amusement.  It made me smile.

There wasn’t a doctor in sight.

E was hooked up to a machine that monitored his vitals.  I watched it carefully for clues.  If the top number goes up, is that good or bad?  Why is the smaller number changing constantly? What’s going on inside of E’s body?

A lovely, kind nurse came and took E’s temperature and checked his blood pressure.  She made the usual cheerful chitchat that people in the profession of caring for others do so well.  Calming.  Reassuring. Soothing.

Everything was going to be okay.