For those of you who don't have a calendar handy, I'd like to remind you that today is August 6th. Now....think back to a month ago. July 6th. Can you remember what you were doing? Maybe finishing up your cleaning after your Fourth of July celebrations? Maybe taking your kiddos to the park? Or your dog for a walk? Or planning a trip to the beach? Maybe you were posting a blog about the events that had happened in your life.... the friends and family you saw, the fun you had, the places you've been.
My guess is, that no matter what it was you were up to, you can probably remember some of the details pretty clearly. Why? Because it was only a month ago, right?
Now....keep that in mind as you read this. Because my point is, as the title of this post suggests, in the grand scheme of things, a month really isn't very long at all.
Sunday, August 20, 1989: My husband and I walked in through the door of our tiny apartment, after our virtually silent ride home from The Cape. Our plan was to drop off all of our luggage (much of it still untouched), check in on our kitties and make sure they still had enough food and a fresh supply of water, and then head off to the hospital to find out more about my Dad.
A short time later, we were standing at the registration desk of Mt. Auburn Hospital, finding out which room they were holding my father hostage in. We walked through a maze of hallways, and took what seemed like a dozen elevators before we'd finally found it. I hesitated for a moment before I stepped inside, took a deep breath, and put on a cheesy smile. At least I could attempt to make light of the situation, and not stress him out any more than he probably already was.
I walked in to find some of my family already there. My mom was sitting on a chair next to his bed, looking pretty shell-shocked and worn out. My guess was she hadn't been home much since she left the cottage a few days before, and it clearly showed. My sister was there, too...sitting on the radiator in front of the big plate-glass windows. My niece Alison was sitting beside her, and the two of them looked as if they were just about holding each other up.
I moved closer to the bed, where my father was taking up space. He was propped up to a near sitting position, and was chatting up everyone when I walked in. He saw me, and said, "Oh, there she is!", as he had done so many times whenever I came to visit. But, this time, it sounded so much smaller somehow, and his voice sounded deflated, as if he were a balloon whose air is slowly leaking out somewhere. He looked old, he looked tired, and he looked really, really sick. It took all I had to turn around and bolt.
We all made small talk for a bit, and then my mother asked me to go to the cafeteria with her, to get something to eat. I knew my mother well enough to know that she probably hadn't eaten a thing since she brought my father to the hospital, and I wondered what she really wanted of me.
As we were walking, she updated me on Dad's situation. She told me she'd spoken to the head Oncologist, who had also consulted with the head Oncologist at Brigham and Women's. They both agreed that there was a slight chance that they could "minimize the cancer in Dad's liver by giving him a large dose of chemotherapy, followed by radiation". My heart actually leaped up to my throat when I heard this... could there be a possibility that my father might survive this, after all?
Then, my mother hit me with the bad news. Given my Dad's weakened state, the dose of chemotherapy they're considering might kill him.
And then, my mother dropped the real bombshell.
She told me that she gave them permission to go ahead with it, and that his first dose was scheduled to be administered the next morning.
My head was reeling. I didn't know what to think. Should I be optimistic, and hope, possibly beyond hope, that this "plan" could work and restore my Dad's health? Or, should I resign myself to the fact that my Dad was going to die?
Suddenly, the idea of grabbing a tuna fish sandwich and a bag of chips in the cafeteria didn't quite appeal to me. In fact, I was trying really hard to keep myself from hurling all over the place.
I took another deep breath (I took a lot of them, in those days), and told my mother that if she'd talked things over with Dad, and he agreed to the procedure, that I supported the decision 100%.
That's when she told me that Dad didn't know a thing. In fact, he still thought that he'd had a hernia, and the surgery was to repair it.
I couldn't contain myself. I asked her how in the HELL could she possibly think that keeping that kind of information from him could be a good thing? She said, "Because I know your father, Cheryl. Probably more than anyone else on earth. And I know that if he realizes he's as sick as he is, he won't fight it. He'll just give up."
How could she possibly think that? My Dad would never give up on anything. ANYTHING. But, she seemed to be convinced that this was the right thing to do for him, and I knew it would be pointless to even try to make her believe otherwise.
Thursday, August 31, 1989: My Dad had been through the full cycle of chemotherapy, and was suffering miserably because of it. With the first two or three treatments, his strength and health seemed to get a bit better, and we all sincerely hoped for the best. But, as the massive amounts of toxic chemicals kept being pumped into his body, his body finally broke down because of it, making him vomit, sweat, have chronic diarrhea, and feel generally like crawling into a deep hole and never coming out.
He went from having moments of clarity and lucidity, regaining the dry humor and amazing intelligence that was typical of my Dad, to suffering bouts of hallucinations: talking to ghosts of ship mates long past, with whom he'd seen many things that no 17-year-old boy should have to witness, as a sailor in the Navy during World War II; having conversations with my dearly departed Nana, whom he fiercely adored and missed tremendously; and recounting events from our childhood that we'd all long since forgotten.
Monday, September 4, 1989: My father's 62nd birthday was celebrated in his hospital room. We'd all brought in flowers, cards, presents, and a huge cake. It was actually a pretty decent day with Dad. He was "in the moment", and seemed happy and content to have us all there with him to honor his special day. He even managed to spend most of his time with us sitting up in a chair, rather than lying in bed.
We'd also received some good news from his doctors. They seemed to think that, even though my father wasn't 100%, he was well enough to attempt going home. Of course, this news made us all incredibly hopeful. So much so that my mother went through a flurry of preparations to get their apartment spic and span for my father's homecoming. She hired several contractors to install new carpeting, paint the inside walls and trim, and make some repairs -- all of which my father had promised her he'd get to, but never got the chance. She wanted so much to make his home as "revitalized" as his health seemed to be.
Saturday, September 9, 1989: My father arrived home, and although he was weak and tired, he was definitely glad to be in his familiar surroundings. Before he'd left the hospital, he'd had his second round of radiation. His doctors felt that, since he'd done so well with the first round, that it was "safe" to continue with the rest of his treatments.
On Monday, my mother arranged to begin at-home hospice care for Dad. But, she was quite dismayed when she found out that their insurance only covered part-time care. Since all of us (including her) were in desperate need to return to our jobs, which we'd all pretty much abandoned while Dad was in the hospital, she scrambled to find volunteers to come and stay with my Dad for the other half of the day.
I was scheduled to be one of those volunteers. Unfortunately, I'd come down with some horrendous virus, which wound up landing me at my own doctor's. She told me that I had a really bad gastro-intestinal virus, and that it was HIGHLY contagious. She warned me not to go anywhere near my Dad for at least 48 - 72 hours. I was devastated. My mom was furious.
She did manage to find other family members to go and care for Dad, who seemed to be holding his own at home. For the entire week, he was brought back and forth to the hospital to continue receiving radiation. All seemed to stay steady.... until my dad returned home after receiving his fourth radiation treatment.
Saturday, September 16, 1989: My Dad wound up getting diarrhea so badly that he could barely make it from the bed to the bathroom, and wound up soiling his pants several times over the course of the weekend. My mom later recalled that at one point, she rocked him as he cried like a baby, apologizing over and over to her for being so helpless. It was so uncharacteristic of my father to ever need any kind of help, and going to the toilet was seriously private for him. So, to not only need help going back and forth to the bathroom, but also having his wife clean up after his "accidents", made him feel deeply ashamed and humiliated. I can't even imagine just how badly her heart broke for him.
By Sunday night, he'd turned to my mother and softly stated, "Toddy, I think it's time for me to go back to the hospital." She knew, right then and there, that there was very little hope left.
Monday, September 18, 1989: My parents' 42nd wedding anniversary was celebrated as my father's birthday was.... in a hospital room. My Dad had been transported, by ambulance, back to the hospital the night before, right after my Mom made a quick phone call to the Oncologist, to let him know of my father's current condition, and to ask for his advice. He suggested that my father get back to the hospital.... quick.
Given my father's demeanor on the evening of their wedding anniversary, I almost couldn't believe that he was having any real problems. Yes, he looked fragile and weak, but again, his spirit was back in full force, and he was enjoying having his children and grandchildren around, wishing him and his bride love and best wishes for a future we'd all hoped they would have.
It wasn't until I encountered a brief moment alone with my Dad... a moment when he asked me to help him get to the bathroom and back, that I realized fully how dire his situation was. He was sitting in the chair, and as I gently helped to get him upright, I could feel that he was nothing more than skin and bones underneath the Johnny that draped around him. And he had an underlying smell that was almost putrid. A smell that went beyond dirt and grime. A smell of death.
Tuesday, September 19, 1989: When I first contacted my boss, letting her know of my father's situation and the need to spend some time with him and my family, her initial response was, "Take all the time you need." Apparently, the time I needed was far different from the time she expected me to be out of the office. She started calling me, telling me that my projects were beginning to pile up, and although she was terribly sorry to bother me at such a difficult time, my presence was sorely needed at work. So, I began going into the office, to try my best to play catch up with all of the lingering work I needed to complete. This was before the age of the laptop, and the ability to work from home, so it was almost mandatory that I show up to make some sort of dent.
I managed to put in a full day that Tuesday, and was reassured by my boss that she greatly appreciated my presence, and that if I could even come in for half-days for awhile, she'd be grateful. As I was leaving the office to head towards the hospital, I told her I'd do my very best for her.
As a result of putting in so many hours, and fighting through the rush hour traffic to get to the hospital, I didn't show up there until early evening. I walked into my Dad's room, expecting to see the same man I'd visited with the day before. I was completely shocked to see such an enormous transformation.
He was in serious pain, and was practically writhing from it. His hallucinations had come back full force, and almost everyone he encountered was thought of as someone else. His skin was turning yellow from the jaundice he was beginning to experience -- a hazard of his non-functioning kidneys and liver, which were both beginning to completely shut down.
Shortly after I arrived, the family and I were whisked into a conference room to meet with the team of doctors who had been working on my father's case. Their faces where blank and their voices were matter-of-fact as they gave us the rundown on his current condition. Not only were his liver and kidneys shutting down, but his other vital organs were following suit. Despite their efforts with the chemotherapy and radiation, his cancer appeared to have metastasized throughout his entire body, and he was in dire pain. His prognosis was fatal; they didn't give him much longer. He was dying.
They recommended that his morphine levels be bumped up considerably, to keep him comfortable "until the end". I think I'd pretty much blacked out from the information overload, up until that statement. I awoke from my protective fog to hear sounds of weeping from several members of my family.
I had an important question to ask, and I wanted to make sure I had the answer before I could cast my vote on the morphine issue.
"Can you tell me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my father is no longer lucid enough to make his own decisions regarding his healthcare and pain management?" All three doctors concurred -- with a resounding yes.
My vote was in. My Dad began receiving massive quantities of morphine.
My mother was all but inconsolable. My sister decided to take her to the cafeteria, to let her air out for awhile before taking her back to see my Dad -- maybe for the last time. Everyone else went with them. Everyone but me.
I went back to my father's bedside. He was sleeping soundly, but woke up when he saw me. He must have seen me as his young bride, because he called out to me, "Toddy! Hold my hand, Toddy! I'm so scared." I couldn't hold back any longer. I started to sob as I took my father's rough, well-worked hands. The hand I used to hold when crossing the street. The hand I held when I pretended he was my boyfriend. The hand that used to stroke my hair when I was sick. The hand that lifted me up when I was down, protected me from harm, and held me when I needed comfort. Now that hand, and that man, needed comfort from me. So, even though he thought I was his young wife, in a life they'd had so long ago, I held him. I sat, and sobbed, and held him as he lay dying.
It was the last time I saw my father alive.
Wednesday, September 20, 1989. As promised, I went into work that morning. I had a lot to accomplish on my first half-day, and was eager to cut through the paperwork on my desk, and return to the hospital to see how my Dad was doing.
I'd been there for about an hour, when Sarah Bodge, my co-worker and dear friends, knocked gently on my office door. Since her office was right next to mine, I could hear her on the phone moments before. By the end of the call, she was crying. When she knocked on my door, I almost wanted to tell her to go away and leave me alone, because I knew, in my heart of hearts what she had come to tell me.
Instead, I slowly turned my chair to face her. Her usual beautifully applied make-up was streaking down her face, along with a steady stream of tears. She seemed completely oblivious to it though. The information she carried to that door with her held much more importance.
"I just got off the phone with your mom. She asked me to tell you this as gently as possible. I'm so terribly sorry to tell you this, sweetie, but your Dad just passed away."
What happened next was a total blur. I remember falling into Sarah's arms, screaming "No! No! NO!!!!", and sobbing in a gutteral, animal way I'd never cried before. Someone must have called my husband's work, because he showed up shortly afterwards to take me to the hospital -- to be with my mother and the rest of my family. And to say my last goodbye to my Dad.
One month. One short month. No one knew, on that evening down The Cape, that all we'd have left with him was one short month. No matter how you look at it, it just wasn't enough time.