Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Learning to Breathe

My life was abruptly altered. It started in June 2014, when, at the end of the month, my father died. roughly three and a half years after I had lost my brother to cancer. My sister and I hastily arranged both their funerals, with the greatly appreciated assistance of our cousin, a retired Anglican priest. My brother was only a bit older than I am now when he died. But my father was old - nearly 98 - and so, while unexpected, his passing was not unanticipated.

My emotions around his death were conflicted. I had only visited occasionally in the last 15 years or so because my family and I lived about 3000 km from my parents, who never traveled. Work, budget, and selfish lack of interest on my part all contributed to reduced visits. We were not distant from each other, but we weren't close, either. We never had easy conversation. We never really "got" each other, even though we understood each other reasonably well.

My mother's passing, in 1998, had had a more direct impact on my life. I radically changed several aspects of my lifestyle. I began working as an independent consultant, was able to begin re-learning how to prioritize work and family, quit smoking a few months later. My father's passing affected little. I grieved, felt his loss, picked up, moved on.

When my brother died, I felt some relief. I had not seen him much, either before his illness or after. But we did "get" each other, as brothers do. The good thing about his death was the end to the pain he had been in. His last words to me, over the phone the day he died, were "It's all about love."

He was right.

For some time prior to my father's death, at least since the early spring of that year, but possibly as long prior as a year before, my wife had been complaining of some unusual pain in her upper abdomen. For years following the removal of her gallbladder she had referred to this as "phantom gallbladder pain". It might have been just that, or it might have been something else.

Whatever it was at the time, she ignored it. She ignored steadfastly any kind of intrusive medical technology. Her reasoning was simple: Should they find something, they will do invasive surgery, followed by long treatments and recovery, for which the end result will be the same.

My argument was always: Catch something early, the end, while perhaps no different, will be delayed.

But I couldn't persuade her to have it looked at. She hid it from her doctor, who perhaps should have known better.

In about 2007 she was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes, and said that was a death-sentence. Victims of Type II statistically live about 5 years following detection, mostly because they have had the disease so long, undetected, that irreversible damage has been done.

She managed the diabetes beautifully - had extremely stable and healthy blood sugar levels once medication started, and each time her bloodwork was done, her numbers came back very good.

In November of 2014, she began experiencing more peculiar upper-abdomen pain. By the end of the month, it was bad enough that I convinced her to go to the doctor. The doctor wanted to do an ultrasound, booked through regular channels. The waits for testing were long. On December 9, the pain was likely unbearable for anyone but her - she was amazingly stoic and believed in "fighting through the pain".

It took a spontaneous phone call from her sister, despite my similar pleadings, to actually get her to the emergency room at the hospital. We were there several hours before she was seen. She was desperate in her desire to leave, to go home, to not do this. She was, I believe, terrified. I have rarely, if ever, seen her like that.

Tests were ordered. Ultrasound (finally), and CT scan. She had a known allergy to the contrast media used for imaging, so the CT scan was foggy. But one thing was clear: There was tissue growing from her cecum to her liver. They knew it was cancer.

She was admitted. Five days later, she was desperate to leave. Pain medications had been largely ineffective, so it didn't matter in her mind whether she was there or at home. It mattered to me, perhaps selfishly. A colonoscopy was ordered, and performed on December 14.

There was a long wait afterward. I was pacing the halls. I hadn't seen her for two or three hours for what would normally be a 20 or 30 minute procedure. I had no idea what the delay was. Then I understood. They were waiting for other patients in the post-op area to be returned to their wards. I was escorted in to a mostly-empty room. She was on a gurney at the far end. It could have been a movie set.

She told me herself, doctors and nurses standing by like a Greek chorus, that it was cancer, inoperable, and bad. She had at most a year to live.

She was put on the list with the cancer agency for a consultation for palliative care. We expected an appointment to be set up sometime shortly following Christmas. The call never came. On January 2, 2015, I took her back to the ER. She was nearly incapacitated by the pain.

She died on January 5, 2015. Her children, her mother, her sister and I were with her. Afterwards, I stayed with her, holding her hand, for close to two hours. I could have stayed days.

To say my life was shattered does not describe how I was changed by losing her. We had been together for over 30 years. Our relationship was solid, at times filled with childish rage, at others with amazing joy. We rode the roller coaster of life together. We desperately needed each other.

Following that, I had to learn how to let go - of my own ego, of my hurt, of my fear, of the better part of me - while realizing that what she had brought me, devoted love, was something I probably had not reciprocated as best I could. So I committed to doing better in that regard, to appreciate, and love, in return, those who loved me. My only New Years resolution, ever.

With my children, I arranged her funeral. I purchased a cemetery plot - two, in fact, one for myself, and my name is already on the marker. This is a reminder, daily, of my eventual end. So I will try to do better by those I love.

For the past year, I have been struggling to redefine myself in her absence. For the past year, I have been completely unable to write. But now, this is beginning to change, and I can finally see that I might have a chance at being creative again.

It's all about love.

I am beginning to breathe again.


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