After several years of undiagnosed medical problems, my poor dad went through hell this last year and managed to make it through emergency life-saving surgery, cancer, chemotherapy, infection after infection, weight loss (think concentration camp style) and more. No epiphanies ensued about the connection between nutrition and health however, and as he chowed down recently on hot dogs one afternoon, I looked at him and thought, you are definitely a medical anomaly.
My poor mother, on the other hand, went through hell by proxy watching him suffer and feeling as helpless and frightened as the rest of us. (Now that he’s going to live, I think she wants to murder him.)
Now cancer is NOT funny. But if you don’t laugh you won’t be able to stop crying.
For example, when my dad was in a ward that was part of the emergency department waiting to be readmitted, there was another man in his 70s on the other side of the curtain. My dad said he could handle the nausea, the feeding tube, the inability to sit up by himself. What he couldn’t stand was this man screaming and yelling all day and night. The poor soul (as my mother would call him) was delusional from all the medication administered and shouted loudly and incessantly, awakening my poor dad whenever he was lucky enough to drift off. One night he couldn’t take it any more and told me that he pulled open the blue curtain and looked the guy straight in the eyes.
Buddy, listen, he said, I’m with you. I don’t want to be here either. But this screaming is not helping either of us. You understand?
The man stared wide-eyed at my father in silence.
Did he stop screaming? I asked when my dad told me the story.
For about five minutes. Then it started again.
When I told my friend Cathy this story she said the man probably hallucinated that my dad was a dog with devil ears and flashing red eyes hissing that he was going to take him down to hell.
After he was finally readmitted to a semi-private room, his new room-mate was an elderly woman who had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak. My dad had told me that he was very moved by how tenderly and patiently the son, who visited daily, would speak to his mother. I happened to be there on one such visit and felt that it was awkward to be a few feet away from such private and personal moments between mother and son. My dad and I were silent during this visit out of respect (or so I thought). My dad seemed to be as touched as I was listening to the conversation on the other side, and as I wiped away my tears, he looked up at me and said “I had a fantastic omelet this morning.”
Once my father was finally able to eat again, his world revolved around food. He would summon my mother upstairs in the evenings with extreme urgency where she would be told to sit down and take notes. He would then dictate what he wanted to have for breakfast the next morning.
Around this time, they were happily able to attend the wedding of the son of close friends even though my dad was barely able to walk. Throughout the entire meal, my mother told me she would look over and see my dad shoving nuts in his mouth between the generous courses (he’d brought his own supply). They had to leave early because he was too tired and on the way out of the hotel passed the sweet table. My dad couldn’t resist and started to load up for later but was interrupted by a waitress who told them the table was for another wedding! My mother of course proceeded to tell my dad’s story and the waitress immediately authorized him to take whatever he wanted.
On the way home, my mother looked over at her husband in the passenger seat and saw him inhaling a chocolate eclair. (I’m worried he has a parasite she confided in me.)
The unfunny parts of cancer are simply to painful to tell. Everyone knows how impossibly bad it is seeing someone else suffer and wondering about the outcome. Time stands still and is replaced by fear. But it also replaced by love. Such as the time I gave my father a sponge bath (I had listened to my mother complain about the fact that “the man refuses to bathe!” too many times). If not for cancer, would I have ever had the chance to wash my dad’s bony shoulders and back with a warm wash cloth? And gently clean his feet before putting on his slippers and helping him back to his hospital bed? I was given the opportunity to parent my parent and it was no less wondrous than bathing my newborn babies.
Now that my father has gained weight, he has fashion fits because none of his pants fit him any more. He also can’t stop thinking or talking about what he’s been through. While this is healthy, it’s driving my mother insane. Anybody who sits next to him at any social function is privy to the most intimate details of his medical journey not excluding the size of his prostate which, as he likes to remind his listener, has always been
“bigger than average” “huge.”
As I told my mother one afternoon after yet another intimate prostate discussion, those are some big matzoh balls.