Tags: family

if I were me

Growing up with cancer

Not my own cancer, but my dad's.

It was my 11th birthday card in which my father informed me he had cancer, couched in terms of "You've probably heard by now I have Hodgkin's."

I hadn't heard, btw. My mother had only heard rumors, and one does not inform their only child a parent is ill based on rumor; one waits for facts. (One might go and seek facts, if one were a different person, but my mother is not me.)

Of course, I remember lots of life events prior to age 11, but so much happens in that tween range, those 10-12 years that set your personality like an aspic sets in the icebox, that I honestly do not think about my life in terms of pre-Dad's cancer and post-Dad's cancer, as people do who come to cancer later. I grew up with a sick dad. I also grew up with an absent dad. He was fairly absent before cancer, and he was way more absent after, but it wasn't like the illness was the tipping point--but I forget, sometimes, that as he was going in and out of remission, and I wasn't being told about these changes until months later, that he was battling something huge.

Sometime in there, my mother went to work on an experimental cancer ward (it was supposed to be an easier kind of nursing than the ER, ha ha), and I spent a lot of time around her patients and their families. Most of the patients died. (You don't go experimental on a curable cancer.) We kept in contact with their families for years afterward. One year, when Mom and I both had pneumonia over Christmas, the only thing that fed us was the cheese gift basket sent by a family of a patient--we were too sick to go to the store.

So when I say I grew up with cancer, I really grew up with it.

As a result, I UNDERreact about cancer. I never have anything useful to say when people get diagnosed, because I'm too busy feeling my own feelings. I know how meaningless the word is, in terms of how someone's life can change. I also know how meaningful the word CAN be. So mostly, when I hear about cancer, I'm frozen like a rabbit, trying to figure out what's going on, just like I froze all those years ago and tried to figure out what was going on, and all the other times I froze when I heard remission was over. (Twice, I think, but I seriously can't remember. I remember so many things, but there are some empty spots around this subject in particular.)

Cancer stole a lot of things from me. It stole my 11th birthday (the card) and my 26th (when I learned my father had died), and in some ways, stole my dad and a lot of the years in between. I've often wondered why my dad didn't try harder to parent me, and I often erase from my memory that he was seriously ill most of my life. It's not an excuse, of course, but it could be a reason, or part of it. How he chose to "tell" me was also a theft. He only ever addressed the subject directly with me once, in that card; other people told me stuff about his cancer AROUND him, the rest of his life, sometimes through layers of three or six people. A game of telephone about my father's health.

So. Growing up with cancer. I remember watching Dad light up a cigarette when I was 13 or so, and wanting to jerk it out of his mouth and stomp it into the dust, and I swear, every time I see anyone smoking, that's my reaction. I watch my lymph nodes hawkishly with a combination of anger and fear. And I underreact, frozenly, to other people's major illnesses.

That's the legacy.

Well. Something else to take to therapy, I guess. Something else to work through.
if I were me


I do not have very many precious mementos from my childhood left intact anymore. My mementos are either non-precious things I have somehow managed to hold onto in spite of having only half-warm feelings for them, or have been damaged or broken in spite of my best efforts.

Example of the latter: My tiny glass elephant, hand-blown by a family friend when I was 5 and given to me by my aunt, lost an ear to Kayla's childhood. I found that E6000 adhesive actually glues glass back together, but it's still not quite right. That's probably my oldest artifact that I actually remember, shy of a few shabby stuffed animals and some over-handled books.

I do not particularly mind not having many artifacts--I'm trying to declutter my life, not add to it--but there are two things that bother me.

The first is: I have no reserves. Every physical item of my childhood is either gone or in my possession. My dad kept nothing of me, as far as I know; and my mom kept nothing of me, for certain, as she is a relentless declutterer and has moved so many times that I know she has nothing except pictures, and not very many of them, either. Aunts and grandparents and cousins who might have kept a few things have returned all these things to me at some point, either to mark milestones, or upon their death, or just because. It's nice of them to do that, and no, I wouldn't want a niece's stuff in my house, either, but without my parents to perform any archiving tricks, there's no well to return to. This isn't such a big deal, or a terrible thing, but I do feel sometimes that it's odd to have been excised so early from other people's houses--I mean, this all happened by my early twenties. Okay, maybe the biggest deal is that I was excised from my MOTHER's house so young. But then I look at all the little bits of my writing she saved, and all the other bits that I saved, and I think: well, I have those. And it's not even that they still exist, but here is proof positive that she gave me the space to write and be who I was.

The second thing that bothers me is that I don't have many things from some rather key people in my life. I have more items from my great-grandmother than I do from my father. In fact, I would be hard pressed to point to anything in my entire house that might have come from my father. Part of that is because he gave me so few things during the course of my life, and part of it is because the few things he did give me were kind of non-durable--a lot of faddish, plasticy toys when I was younger. He did build me a dollhouse when I was four or five, but it was.... well, it was clumsy, and second, I sacrificed it to a ceremonial fire for healing a few years back. The only other thing I kept for very long was a small stuffed moose he gave me after a hunting trip, which caused my cousin to cry when he gave it to me and not my cousin, and I have such crappy memories about that... I don't know when I got rid of that, perhaps in a fit of pique before he died, perhaps some other time, but either way, it was not a font of warm memories. I wish I had something from him--but I wish it was something FROM him, that he had wanted to give to me, that was worth keeping, so that will never change.

The other two people I don't have strong material reminders from are my maternal grandparents. I have a few things from Grandma that I love and feel are the perfect thing, and those are mainly recipe cards written in her hand; I also have her "brag books" filled with pictures of her grandchildren. Those are just right, and quite probably enough to have, and the only thing I'm sad I don't have is an artifact of her knitting. (I also wish I had the antique wooden butter bowl that belonged to her mother, but she got rid of that while she was alive, to my chagrin.) I do have her cookie jar, now that I think of it, and I need to pull that out of the cupboard and cookiefy it, preferably with her recipe for icebox cookies. So I guess I'm square there, after all.

But for my grandfather, I have so little from someone who meant so very much. I have a rose quartz he found while digging in the garden and gave to me. I have a random woven turtle box he gave me. A kerosene lantern for emergencies. And... that's it.

But I also have all the stories he gave me. Mostly the turtle stories, but also his childhood stories. Those are treasures beyond telling, and I guess--I guess those are enough. They'll feel more like enough if I ever get them out of my head and set them down on paper, but I'm also afraid they'll look paltry if I do. Not because there weren't dozens of stories, but because I only remember a few, and because I can't possibly do them justice. Without seeing them outside of me, I can pretend that there's more to them; that the memories just out of reach might swim back into view someday. And there are the memories of being told the stories: of being cuddled on his lap far past the age that it must have been comfortable to hold me, of being rocked and having my back rubbed, while he told me about turtles who mowed lawns and went to church picnics.

So, really, do I need more artifacts to appreciate that?

No--I don't.
Doctor Who - 10 in snow, Whu? (Doctor Who - 10 in Snow)

Maybe Daleks would be easier

So, for this year's Christmas special, the plan was that my mom would come down, she would make a Christmas Eve dinner of lovely aloo choli, my in-laws would come over and I would cook us all a giant feast, and then the day after Christmas, we'd visit some friends. Somewhere in there, the house would get clean.

Dear readers, puking tried to ruin my Christmas plans.

Seriously. I'd taken Friday off work. The retrieving supervisor had felt ill for three days prior with a "gnome gnawing [her] intestines," but I'd brushed it off as "She sits pretty far away." I spent Friday cleaning the house and feeling just fine. I got up very early and made it to Trader Joe's by 8:05, to Whole Foods by 8:45, and to MedEquip (to get my CPAP pressure adjusted) by 10:00, then pretty much worked nearly non-stop but for a 30 minute break to lunch and a 45 minute nap late afternoon. All was going sort of well, other than I didn't check in on stepdaughter's cleaning of the bathroom, which I should have.

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I also, as usual, slightly misestimated Time Needed to Clean, per usual, so redistributing the chore load with my husband ended in an epic discussion, but we sorted it. Anyway. Mom arrived. We chatted, we watched 30 Rock, we got ready to eat...

My mom was putting together the aloo choli and I was toasting naan and suddenly I was overwhelmed by nausea. Like, "I DO NOT WANT TO EAT" levels of nausea. And I admitted it, which is not usual for me and feeling bad in front of my mom, because she swings into Full-on Nurse Mode.

Maybe that's why my husband feels I'm a hypochondriac. I know it's safe to mention feeling ill in front of people who aren't my mother, so I mention any twinge that comes along.

Now, Full-on Nurse Mode with my mother isn't like some awesome thing. I mean, Full-on Nurse Mode is awesome to behold, but it's not such fun to experience. She does things to you. Flu? She tries to make you drink hot pineapple juice laced with garlic, then feed you milk toast, and then everything you try to do for subsequent days afterward is met with a sharp, "JUST LIE DOWN AND BE SICK." She does not think well of people who try to do things while being ill. They're just asking for more being ill time in her book, and ultimately making her job harder. She has a highly competent bedside manner; you feel safe with her. But it's a kind of competence and safety that is occasionally hard to bear, especially if you were just feeling vaguely nauseated. She is not sympathetic.

So the fact that I said something and didn't try to choke down any food right then probably, in retrospect, should have been the sign that something was going to happen.

My stomach seemed to settle, and I had a bite or two of food, and a bite or two of naan. And stopped there.

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I spent the evening being nauseated and considering ways in which not to puke, and having waves of body chills and aches. I fell asleep on the couch around 9ish, sitting up, unwilling to go to bed even though I was wretched because lying down seemed like a bad idea; Dann played video games (Mom went to bed). Sometime past midnight, after I drank some electrolytes and ate some applesauce, I made it to bed.

I woke up mostly okay. I tried toast; toast was a friend. Then I had to start cooking Christmas dinner, which my mom was a huge help with. Every time I mentioned part of the plan that was complex, she nixed it. "Don't make it complicated, you're sick..." Full-on Nurse Mode, right? I hadn't gotten to do any of the prep I'd wanted to do the night before. All I'd managed was to hard-boil some eggs and doing the turkey brine.

So, morning. Turkey in the oven. Mom peeled potatoes. My husband took pity on me and made the bread. (He also did the chocolate pie, but not from pity.) We put together squash and sweet potatoes and broccoli. Everything was humming along. Then Diabetic Cat, Kali, yowled for a few minutes and randomly ran into the bathroom to puke on the rug. I sat down with her for a minute a little while afterward, and noticed she hadn't cleaned the puke off her paw; yet, she was purring, almost uncontrollably while she sat on my lap, not in any sort of cuddling-purring position. Dann and I looked at each other, a little worried.

Odd. Dann's parents and brother arrived. Back to the kitchen. We were achieving controlled chaos. It was noted Kali was drooling. Then panting. K. came home as I was looking up "diabetic cat panting drooling" online. The suggestion was not low blood sugar, but "symptoms of cystitis." Hm. But time to go to the vet, the website suggested--and hurry.

When I went back to the living room, Dann was already looking up the emergency vet's info. I sat with Kali a minute. Her pupils were wide, and she was strolling into unconsciousness. I almost went to get corn syrup to rub on her gums, but I wasn't sure that wouldn't hurt her more. Dann was back, I was calling the vet, they were saying come in, cars had to be moved, Dann and the cat were gone, K. was on the couch being comforted by her grandmother.

All I could think was that the last time there was a pet health crisis, Dann had had to deal with it alone, and it had been so hard on him, and I'd promised he wouldn't have to do it again--but there we were. I thought K. might feel better if she were there, that if we had to do the hard thing, she might prefer the chance to say good-bye, so I asked her if she wanted to go. She nodded, miserable and crying, and thirty seconds later I was saying, "You're in charge of dinner" to all available parents.

It was a long drive to the vet. Inevitably, on Platt, there was an old man driving ahead of me, who kept staring at the garbage dump and going 5 miles below the limit. I thought about how people regret chances they miss by minutes instead of by longer periods of time. I thought if the cat died while we were en route, it was going to be hard not to hate this old man.

K. and I held hands and sniffled silently the whole way there.

We got in the door to find Dann calmly filling out paperwork. A wretched few minutes later, the vet tech came in to say that Kali's glucose had been 31 (down from the 150 which would be considered normal-managed for a diabetic cat), and she'd been given dextrose and was perking up. We did the medical history of the cat, which nearly took all three of us anyway.

They wanted to pump her with fluids and monitor her for a few hours. We were let to go see her. The vet and the tech both told us about how when she was given the dextrose, she certainly seemed confused, like, "How did I get here???!?", coming out of her half-conscious fugue state. She meowed at us to let her out of the damn cage when we came in, as we each took a turn petting her. Only towards the end of the petting did she try to get up and come out, but we pushed her back down.

I texted my brother-in-law that the cat seemed stabilized, after the parents failed to figure out how to operate the landline phone; then said, "We're coming back in 20 minutes." He texted back, "With or without cat?" which I didn't get until I got out of the car. So we came in announcing that the cat was okay. Or, K. did. She's getting to that point where she thinks of these things.

We went home, opened presents, had Christmas dinner, opened more presents. It was slightly subdued, but much the cheerieer for having avoided the worst result. We had alternating bouts of self-recrimination for not figuring out what was going on with her earlier, and being glad we got her to the vet when we did. Or I did. I'm not sure about Dann.

The turkey was fantastic, if I do say so myself. That recipe is solid gold.

At some point, the vet called to say Kali's sugar was up and down and weird, and they wanted to observe her overnight. The cost was... high. Dann and K. went to the vet's to say goodnight to her, and to give the vet her food and insulin (and pay the deposit). Mom and I cleaned the kitchen...

Life went on... Folks-in-law went home, while we here watched a lot of 30 Rock and ate stocking candy and I fondled my new books.

Dann and K. picked up Kali this morning. She was better, and deeply pleased to be in their company on the car trip home, from all accounts; normally, she despises the car.

Today, got news from a friend (iuliamentis) we were supposed to meet up with that her husband had a puking migraine. So that was the third way that vomit iterrupted this festive weekend. Three pukes in three days! We did head on over to splash_the_cat's to exchange some presents, after a trip to the non-emergency vet for glucose testing and advice.

And... that was the holiday. I'd like to plan on a pleasant and easy-going five days to round out 2011, but I'm not counting these eggs before they hatch.