Sunday, December 09, 2007

"This is your Calvary," the priest told my dad.

(skim halfway down if you're not interested in medical details; skim all the way down if you're not interested in me getting personal)

I speculated later to my mom that maybe that makes her and my sister and I Dad's Mary, Mary, and John.

My mom called me late Saturday morning to let me know that Dad was, in the doctor's words, on a downward spiral, and that he asked to see his kids. I tossed a change of clothes in a bag and drove up right away (I just got back a little while ago); my sister's coming in Wednesday.

I'm glad in some ways I've been spared the emotional roller coaster of proximity to the situation, but I do wish I'd been closer so I could offer Mom a little more support, and maybe help her maintain a more balanced perspective, instead of extrapolating certain miserable death or probable complete cure every time a doctor comes in with dramatically bad or good news and tries to give a "big picture" analysis without, apparently, keeping the rest of the data in clear enough perspective for us laymen. She generally keeps me updated on major things, but when he's staying in the hospital or just visiting to get a battery of tests done, the news can cycle between bad and good by the hour. Since I can't be there all the time I usually end up with a pretty condensed summary of what's been going on.

After having been by Dad's side through the years since his diagnosis, though, Mom's gained a strength she didn't know she had (or, a grace she didn't expect to get). She's at the end of her rope, too, but for all my talk about wanting to be able to support her, I think she helped hold me together more than I did for her.

I guess that's just part of being a parent. The children can console the surviving parent, but the surviving parent is still Mom or Dad. Even Dad continues to look out for us; Mom's gotten pretty good at reading the euphemisms he uses to keep her from worrying, but he was the first to encourage me to get back on the road this afternoon so I could stay ahead of the bad weather.

It's still strange to us. We know that cancer is complicated and the human body, even more so, but we just can't read the signs for an illness this profound. He looks thin, but his color's very good. His vital signs are strong--better than mine, even--but his electrolytes are lower than some of the doctors have ever seen. His physical strength isn't bad, but his lack of stamina and balance make it hard for him to get around (indeed, during the weekend of Thanksgiving, there were a few times he had to stop in the middle of a meal and rest, but maybe it was simply because his sleep aid prescription was too strong--I just don't know).

His sodium level is where the big balancing act in treatment right now is taking place. He needs a certain amount to be able to function coherently; when his sodium levels drop, it gets hard for him to concentrate, and if they drop too much he risks heart arrhythmia and cardiac arrest. If his sodium levels get higher, fluid collects in his abdomen (causing discomfort and making it hard to eat enough at mealtime) and, now, his pleura (causing shortness of breath). Saturday morning was bad, but by the time I got there things had leveled out a bit, and by the time I left this afternoon, although he wasn't particularly hopeful, he was less skeptical about making it to Christmas, when I'll be coming home again.

We don't expect a miracle, but we still have hope for one, because all natural options are closed to us at this point, and because living without hope--even if we do have to talk to hospice managers and funeral directors in the meantime--is no way to live. I may write in the near future about the reasons for hope we had, which I alluded to a couple months ago, but right now I'm tired and I might just wait to see how the story ends before I go off confusing myself over disappointing speculation that hasn't been verified or rendered moot yet.

My parents' pastor showed up shortly after I arrived Saturday evening, and his comment put the whole weekend into a different perspective for me.

Dad's been suffering a lot, and while he told the nurse this morning that he wasn't in pain, you can still tell a lot's been taken out of him. How humbling it must be, to have your person stripped so bare that sitting up in a chair will make you lightheaded. Even now, though, these mortifications come with small mercies. Since the doctors are out of curative options, they can change their treatment philosophy a bit to maximize his comfort and functionality in the short run. They still have hope too, of course, despite being unable to do anything beyond the palliative; if there's any hope to be had for a return to a level of health where proactive treatment would be feasible, getting his electrolytes under control would be the place to start.

So on the one hand it's sad because I know they're giving him a little more leeway in his diet because getting a burrito from the place down the street instead of something designed by the staff nutritionist can't do any more harm. On the other hand, I'm glad that something as simple as rubbing his feet and giving him a sip of my Coke, after nothing but water and milk and foul-tasting nourishing drinks, can give him all the comfort that he can find right now. It's not much, but it's something I can do.

I think having a family is partly God's way of making sure we all have naked people to clothe and hungry people to feed.

Rubbing the cramp out of his leg and trying to get some of the swelling out of one ankle while Mom worked on the other one, I thought about the Last Supper, when Christ washed His apostles' feet, and the time Mary washed and annointed His feet as well. I had no oil (Mom usually has skin lotion within reach when they're at home), and my hair wasn't long enough to wipe his feet with, but I wondered how Dad felt to be in a place where the only comfort he could get was the physical administrations of his wife and son (and in a few days, his daughter). I thanked God that, while what I was doing was not much more useful than sitting at home and wishing I could help, He at least let me participate in bringing Dad as much relief and peace as he's been able to get.

He didn't express to me (he did mention it to Mom, who assured him it's not how it would be for us; even now, it doesn't crowd everything else out) any concern about our last memories of him being a once-vibrant, now frail man fading away in a hospital bed, but if he did, I would have told him that I'd always cherish this weekend, just being near him, making sure we said all the things people regret not saying when a loved one is taken suddenly, being able to care for him and each other in the small ways that are all we can do now. Even blinking away tears and stopping to blow my nose Saturday night, I was astounded at the beauty of an act that seemed so small, of massaging Dad's feet in a hospital room that for all the noise just outside seemed so quiet, that had that substantial stillness I usually only experience standing before the Sacrament.

Christian deaths are always bittersweet because we're gaining a saint while we're losing a big chunk of the only life we know, but while the smallness of our ministrations was sad on top of everything else, being there and being able to do them added so much on top of being able to say "I spent time with him at the end and got the chance to say 'I love you' one more time."

Barring a miraculous recovery and a comfortable death years from now (I wonder how I'll feel about making those caveats in the future, if he lives or dies), Dad's last days being this way will end up being a big part of my mental picture for a while because the memory will have been the last thing of his I would get to hold on to; I won't deny it. In this world it's natural for children to bury their parents, though, and whether it's sooner or later, his end won't be the end of me and eventually I'll be able to integrate it properly into the big tapestry called Dad that's hanging on the wall of my life.

No comments: