Tag Archives: chemotherapy

A deserving burst of grief

While driving up a local road on some necessary errand last week, I turned up the radio and found the song “Somewhere Only We Know” by the band Keane playing.

I listened with trepidation because that song has deep significance for me. The album on which it appeared was released during an intense period of caregiving for my late wife Linda.

The lyrics are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever heard.

I recall so strongly one of the moments I heard this song during that period of my life. I’d spent three hard days and nights in the hospital after one of my wife’s many surgeries. She was beat up from the procedure and facing chemotherapy. Due to my work obligations, my mother-in-law spent the first night with her. When I arrived to take over, she warned me that the chair provided for hospital guests was far from comfortable. In recline position it bent backwards, forcing anyone trying to rest in the device to sleep like a dying dolphin.

On top of that, the nurses rolled in and out checking on her every hour. The machines beeped and the pumps pulsed. Doctors slipped in without warning. She’d greet them with a look of hope in her eyes that broke my heart. Was the cancer gone? Again?

Oh simple thing, where have you gone?
I’m getting old and I need something to rely on
So tell me when you’re gonna let me in
I’m getting tired and I need somewhere to begin

At that point my wife and I had been married for nearly twenty years. All she wanted was to be free of the disease, to work in her garden and teach her precious preschoolers. She wanted to love her children without fear of leaving them. She wanted to live.

I came across a fallen tree
I felt the branches of it looking at me
Is this the place we used to love?
Is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?

After three days I needed to get back home and check on things around the house. She would spend two more days in the hospital watched by friends who volunteered to stay with her. I climbed into our car, leaving behind a wife still trying to fart to prove that her digestive tract was back in working order. It’s true: the things that stink about living are the things that keep us alive.

I drove back home through the black night on wet streets thinking “Why does she have to go through this? Is it worth it?”

And if you have a minute, why don’t we go
Talk about it somewhere only we know?
This could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?

I recall falling into a rage of sobbing tears that night. Felt guilt over being free of the hospital and driving back home while she lay there hooked up to drips of painkiller and antibiotics and fluids. Her blue eyes still twinkled through the haze of hospital dreams.

We were years into cancer survivorship by that point.

My strategy to cope with caregiving duties for my wife and my father, a stroke victim, was to work through a series of lyrical albums by Andrew Bird and Indie group CDs that my daughter compiled from her catalog.

Then I dug deep into the Beck catalog, so deep I thought I’d never come out. Then came Modest Mouse, Regina Spector, the quirkier the better. On and on the music played as I clung to jobs trying to take care of everything, protect our insurance and keep the money coming in. Always the money. The goddamned money.

On that night driving home with Somewhere Only We Know playing , I felt a cogent realization that her back-and-forth dance with cancer could not go on forever. The wild balance between hope and terminal completeness is one that we all face. Cancer just compresses it.

That’s why I let myself cry so hard in the car this week. This strange, hard year has affected us all in strange, hard ways. For a moment, I needed to be weak and vulnerable, to let it all out, and admit that life has been hard in some ways. This was a deserving burst of grief.

It is also important to say that I have found love again with a woman I appreciate and respect. We are also meant to be together. But there is great value in remembering all those you love, wherever they are. It doesn’t last forever, you know, this thing we call life.

Perhaps you’ll be moved to sing along when a song like this one comes along. Allow yourself a bit of deserving burst of grief in these times.

Oh, this could be the end of everything
So why don’t we go somewhere only we know?
Somewhere only we know
Somewhere only we know

For all those parents saying goodbye to kids headed off to school

IMG_1299It’s a gut-wrenching moment, saying goodbye to a child on a college campus. But some colleges really know how to handle it. To their eternal credit, I recall the method by which the University of Chicago manages that transition for parents and students. The entire crowd present for the opening remarks from the college president is marched around the block toward the Quad, where the kids are siphoned off and sent through a set of arches to be greeted by upperclassman who cheer their welcome. The parents are shunted off to a consoling feast of food and alcohol at the center of campus.

Tears dry quickly when the chords are so suddenly snapped. And the process is inevitable if you want your child to succeed. We work so hard as parents to teach them to be independent and then blubber like fools when we finally succeed? The world is so full of contradictions.

Facing challenges 

The more difficult transition for our family during my son’s freshman year in college was coaxing my wife through the initial rounds of chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. She’d already been through procedures of hysterectomy and excision in the abdomen earlier that summer. We did not know what the results would be, or where the next steps would lead us. It would entail eleven rounds of chemotherapy, and it was tough. The poison drugs gave her a swollen face and a reddish complexion as if she were perpetually blushing.

Parent’s Night

Yet she was determined to attend Parent’s Night at the college. So we drove into the city with her mother and father sitting in the back seat of our car. Her father was a big fan of the entire University of Chicago experience. Years before my son became a candidate for admission, my father-in-law wandered Hyde Park and studied its history. He felt genuine pride at the fact that his grandson had worked so hard in high school and gotten accepted into the prestigious school.

So the trip down to UC was supposed to be a passage of joy. But my wife was sick as hell from the chemo treatments. She was so stubborn that I knew she could not be convinced to stay home. So I kept watch on her in the passenger seat as we drove down the Eisenhower Expressway into the city.

Her lip quivered a few times, and she had every right to be scared and exhausted from her treatments. But I still felt she needed to get a grip. I whispered to her quietly. “Evan needs you to be strong,” I told her. “This may be one of those times when you have to just suck it up.”

Tough love

It sounds cruel, but the message worked. She sailed through the evening like the trooper she was, keeping a smile on her face and dishing out hugs to the new friends and parents we met at the University. Evan was thrilled we could attend. And then it was time to go home again.

A few weeks later my son came home to visit the family over Thanksgiving, I was driving him back downtown when he confessed to a tension inside himself that he could not fully describe.

I asked: “Is it mom? Are you worried about her?”

“Well yes, but that’s not it,” he said. “I feel like I have this anvil on my chest.”

Coming home and coming out

That evening he did not attempt to describe what was going on. But I knew he’d eventually come to grips with whatever was vexing him. It took a couple months, actually. But during his trip home in mid-winter we went out to dinner with our family and shared the news that he is gay.

The news and perhaps the timing was a shocker to my wife, who was in the midst of eleven cancer treatments that were slowly eating away at her health. Ultimately the chemo drugs would clear her of cancer for two full years. The doctors would proclaim her cancer free. The treatments had worked. For a while.

Revelations

In the moment of our son’s revelation, my major concern was family stability in the face of all that challenge and change. My wife turned to my daughter and asked, “What do you think of this?”

My daughter was quick to reply. “I think we both like good-looking men.”

That evening after everyone was in bed, I reached out by phone to a gay friend for some perspective on my son’s coming out. My friend arrived at my door a half-hour later with a look of deep concern on his face. I shared the night’s events and told him about my son’s orientation. He smiled at me and said, “Oh, I was worried it was something serious, like Linda getting sicker.” That was a welcome show of assurance. I’d had hints that Evan might be gay over the years. The first showed up as early as fifth grade. I called my brother that day and told him, “You know, I think Evan might be gay.”

“If he is, he is,” my brother replied. That was the attitude of our entire family as the years went by. “Evan is Evan,” we all repeated. He’d grown up loving music and excelled at cello, earning top honors at the Illinois State Youth Music camp at University of Illinois. He ran track some, and played soccer a couple years. But he was ultimately drawn to acting and theater, an interest that carried all the way through four years of college. The roots of his being were there all along, in every respect.

Perhaps you understand the roots of your particular child as well. Sending them off to kindergarten or middle school, high school or college is however an admission that it takes more than a set of parents to help them become who they eventually will become.

Freshman year went generally well for my son. As for us, those quick tears the first day of school hardly affected our vision of what we wanted for our son going forward. His grades were good. He’d signed on to join a fraternity. He loved living in the city and would take off on a trip to China that next summer.

What it’s all about

Every step along the way is about more than just about going off to school. It’s not even about kids leaving home. It’s about growing to learn, and learning to grow. That’s true for the parents saying goodbye as well as those eager, perhaps frightened students.

You may feel split to the core at the feeling of loss. All those years of raising them around the house, hosting their friends and feeding them sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with lemonade on hot summer days. Time passes. We wipe the counter of their messes. Memories of diapers and bottles and pacifiers fade. They are replaced with smelly sneakers and college duffle bags tossed in the entryway on the day they come back home from school… and disappear again with friends to convene late into night. It can make you wonder if you matter. And you do. But you can cry all you want, this is life.

Wipe those tears and be glad for the normality of all that pain and loss and joy mixed together. Take pride in the fact that you help make it all happen. And thrive.