Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Remind me again? (or the funny cancer story).

     I know that cancer isn't funny.  It's a heartbreaking illness that claims too many people, too early in their lives, and the treatments for this awful disease can be worse than the illness itself.  With that being said, I also understand that you don't pick the humorous moments in your life, the best ones simply happen and I have one of those that is tied to my Mom's probable diagnosis of cancer.  Please don't read this blog if you aren't at a point in your life, where you can see the humor in this.  I don't wish to offend or diminish any one's life who has battled this illness, only to share this funny story about my Mom and her diagnosis.

An early ad for Chesterfields
     My Mom passed away last year, a few years after the doctors thought that she would.  She spent the last years of her life living in my sister Teary's home, which was our home from childhood, and being cared for by wonderful aides and by family members.  During that time she had several medical conditions that were competing to be the first to take her including, COPD, diabetes, a mental aphasia similar to Alzheimer's, an aneurysm in her back, and finally a cancer diagnosis that loomed over her. My Mom had smoked Chesterfield unfiltered cigarettes for over 50 years, so when he was hospitalized a few years prior to her death, and an X-Ray of her lungs showed a spot there, no one was surprised when the probable diagnosis came back as cancer.  My Mom had designated two of my sisters, Nightingale, and She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named as her health care proxy's, so after discussions between Mom, her proxy's, and her doctors, it was decided that no action would be taken to deal with the cancer, so they patched her up and sent her home with that diagnosis, oh and don't forget... the aphasia.

Chirp, Chirp.
     In many way's Mom's aphasia was a blessing.  The aneurysm in her back should have given her constant pain, except for the fact she forgot it was there each day.  I figured that it was God given so that my Mom wouldn't have to live out the rest of her days in pain, and truth be told, it allowed her to discover "new" things on a daily, if not hourly basis.  To my knowledge Mom retained the knowledge of all of her children and grandchildren and a lot of small details of her childhood and adult life, but her short term memory was just plain shot.  An hour after eating breakfast she wouldn't remember if she had eaten, much less what she had eaten, and a greeting card set in front of her, would become new again, after only a few hours passing.  One of my siblings gave Mom a gift of small stuffed birds that would chirp or tweet in different bird songs and she re-discovered these several times a day, casually picking them up and shaking them and being surprised each time they would start to chirp, so she'd work her way back through the basket of them, and shake each one.  It was a great gift for my Mom, but I'm not sure that the caretakers that were with her each day, would agree.  In front of her at the same table where she sat, also was a notebook where she had asked that some more important things be written down, so that she would "remember" them on a regular basis.  I'm not sure now if it was a composition type notebook or a spiral bound smaller one, but the point is, it sat near her each day and she thumbed through it and read the notes inside as the mood struck her.

     I never read Mom's notebook, but in my world it was filled with notes reminding her to praise her other
The "Cancer" Diary
kids as much as her favorite son, the Ongion (Well, she raised me from a small shallot, so we've always been close.)  More likely it was filled with reminders of people that she wanted to remember to pray for, or reminders about people's families,, but she would ask for things to be put in there, and one of those things was a small statement about her trip to the hospital and her cancer diagnosis.  I wasn't there for the discussion but I could have agreed with putting the note in there, just like my siblings who did, it was the right thing to do.  It was a life altering event and at that point we were just trying to give Mom the best possible care and trying and fulfill her wishes as best we could.  So in, it went, mixed among the other notes and prayer requests.  Here's where the story starts to get funny.

     Mom's routine didn't change after that day, with one small exception.  She'd still sit at the table drinking her coffee or water, and casually rediscover her chirping stuffed birds and the new cards and letters that
were on the table and of course then pick up her notebook.  She would peruse the news and reminders of family situations and of those who needed prayer and then she would see the Cancer note.  "What"?  She would exclaim? " I Have Cancer !!"   The caregiver that was there would then come out to find a very startled Mom and have to sit with her and explain how she had gone to the hospital, had the X-ray, gotten the probable diagnosis, and had decided that she didn't want to treat it.  Each time, by the end of the discussion, Mom would be shaking her head in agreement, and say things like, "Oh, that sounds like me", or "That makes sense" or more probably, "I'd let God handle that one" and things in the house would go back to normal.  On a side note, I'd always respected my Mother's steadfast decision skills, she thought logically, made firm decisions and she stuck with them.  If your bedtime was 8:30, it was 8:30 Mister and it wasn't her fault that the football game ran late and the Wonderful World of Disney was only halfway through "Old Yeller", if 8:30 came, you'd be in bed, period.  This was a great blessing when she would hit the "Cancer Line" in the book, as she always came to the same decision as to the treatment, given the time to work through it, but every time it came to her with the same shock as it did the first time.  The reminder notebook, therefore, became a ticking time bomb set in front of her.   You'd be at the stove making something for her and you'd glance over and see the notebook in her hand, and pray "Dear God, please
Reminding people of things can be painful
don't let her get to page 6 "(or whichever page it was on).  You could distract and delay but it played out like a game of "Keep Away" on a school playground, eventually everyone gets their stuff back and Mom would read her notebook and exclaim "What?  I Have Cancer !!", and you knew how your next hour would be spent.  It would happen just before church, lunch, the nurse's visit, and at any other inopportune time.  There was a movie made about short-term memory loss a few years ago called "50 First Dates", I'm hoping you are finding this blog funny, but if not, rent that, and you'll surely get a chuckle.  That's was Mom's life at that point, always interesting but with the impending threat of tragic news on the horizon each day.  We thought we were doing the right thing, trying to respect her wishes and letting her keep some semblance of control in her life, but this meant, that at any given moment, on any given day, Mom would get the news that she had cancer and as far as she knew, it was the first time she'd heard it.

     At some point, it may have been weeks, or days, I don't remember (FYI, that's why I write blogs, I have a spot for all my memories), it was decided that ultimately it was cruel to remind Mom each day that she might have cancer. That page from her notebook disappeared and the chirping of the stuffed birds stopped being interrupted by gasps and shocked exclamations.  Things became routine in the house once again.  The ultimate irony came a year or two later when, just prior to her death, Mom had another chest X-Ray and the spot on her lungs had not grown at all and the cancer diagnosis was removed.  This reaffirmed our decision to remove the page from the memory notebook, but could you imagine how we would have felt if we hadn't?  Elder care is not that different from parenting, you try to get it right all the time, but you rarely do, so you settle for "close enough"  (A quick shout out to my 10th grade Geometry teacher Mr. Weinel, who taught me that "Close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and sometimes, dancing")  That's my funny "cancer story", and if we meet on the street and I try and tell it again, feel free to remind me that you've heard it. 

The chirpy birds with their new owner Oretta


Gudl said...

I loved it! And started my day laughing out loud!Thank you.

Judy Johnson said...

This is great, Bill - a wonderful tribute to your mom. I also had Mr. Weinel as a teacher. He must have thrown in "dancing" after that, though. I only remember the horseshoes and hand grenades!

Daphne Mays said...

What a wonderful, touching story! Thanks for sharing! On a side note, I didn't have Mr. Weinel for a teacher, but I had him for a neighbor. A neighbor with an immaculate lawn until the day I got a call that my horses were standing in the middle of it! Oops!