Tag Archives: cancer

How can I help?

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I’m going to be contributing to my friend Frank’s blog, Still Kicking as he documents his journey with cancer.   I’ll be cross posting here, and some posts may feel narratively disjointed because it’s a response to Frank’s story.  So I encourage you to visit Frank’s blog for the full picture.

Frank had a morning appointment at UCSF to meet with his oncologist. I hadn’t heard from him so I assumed he had found street parking and  and didn’t need to take me up on my standing offer of validated parking in my office building around the corner from the UCSF Cancer Center.  At this appointment he was to get the results of  a bone scan he had done two days earlier to check whether or not the  aggressive  cancer in his prostate had spread. I had asked him the night before to shoot me a quick text when he was done with his appointment to let me know how it went.

I expected to hear from him around noon, so when I didn’t I  kept my iPhone on me as I went about my work day.  During one particularly boring meeting, my boss had to nudge me to make me stop fidgeting with my iPhone as I was unconsciously trying to coax it to give me some good news from Frank.  But, due to some uniquely modern problems (he had run out of minutes on his cell phone plan, and my texting had been shut-off due to a billing snafu with AT&T), we didn’t connect until the next day when I called him the old-fashioned way – land-line to land-line.

I could tell as soon as he picked up the phone that something was up.  Usually Frank answers the phone  with a cheery “hello?” But that day he sounded drawn, wrung out.  He cut to the chase quickly. “It’s the worst possible scenario – stage IV metastatic bone cancer.”  I was stunned into silence. “Needless to say, I’m devastated” he continued.

As soon as I could find my voice again, I said quietly, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, sweetie. Is there anything I can do to help?”  It’s a question I’ve since asked too many times.

Our conversation was brief, as his other phone was ringing with someone he had made an appointment to give the news to.   I ended the conversation with the words “I love you” – words I’m normally stingy with, but I meant with all of my heart.

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Over the next week or so, in various phone calls and emails, Frank freely shares with me his emotions in coming to terms with the diagnosis,  and the agony of having to wait until all the testing is finished before a treatment plan can be formulated.  Whenever Frank seems strong, steady, I’m happy.  But, when he’s having a hard day, my own fear and discomfort come to the fore again. And with that discomfort comes that question, “how can I help you?”

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the impulse to help.  It’s one of the  human race’s best qualities. It’s our Buddha nature shining through our normal fog of self-involvement.    But, for the me the words “how can I   help you?” were almost becoming a mantra.  Every time Frank  seemed in distress,  I would recite my mantra, “how can I help you?”  Finally, the meaning behind the mantra became clearer to me: I was desperately looking for some way to not feel helpless.   Here is my dear, dear friend who has been given a dire diagnosis and there is little I can do to assuage his fear or keep him free from suffering.  Sure, perhaps I can give him some comfort, or a few hours diversion, but I can’t take away his pain.  I can’t change the course of his journey, no matter how much I want to.  I’ve never felt so helpless in my life.

With each phone call or contact, I found myself relying on my mantra, “how can I help you?” Finally one evening it dawned upon me that this  relentless desire to help went beyond feeling helpless about Frank’s situation.   I desperately wanted something to keep me busy so I wouldn’t have to think about my own inevitable march towards aging (if I’m lucky), sickness and death.

While I’ve had both pets and parents die, I haven’t had any close friends die.  Sure, I’ve gotten that twinge of mortality when I get news of the passing of some old high school friend. But, it’s not supposed to happen to someone so strong, so healthy, so full of life as my friend Frank. And if cancer can strike this healthy, vital river guide, what are my chances of making it out alive?  Oh.  Right.  None of us do.  I’m no exception. Shit.

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The weekend after Frank got the bone cancer diagnosis, our friend Rae and I went to a weekend of teachings by Ani Pema Chodron here in Richmond.  She is an incredible woman – funny, wise, earthy and a bottomless well of compassion. I think what most impressed me was the way she listened to people during the Q&A sessions.  At times it felt like I was at a Buddhist version of Lourdes.  People brought such immense suffering and laid it at the feet of Pema.  And she was fully present for it.  She never cringed, never wavered. She stood there and took it in and never looked away.

I think I have figured out my role in all of this, what I can do to help.  I’m going to take my cue from Ani Pema and simply be present for whatever happens. That image of her, standing still and strong, taking in the suffering of others and reflecting back love and compassion is imprinted on my mind, and will continue to be source of inspiration.

So, that will be how I will help – simply to stay fully present and just love Frank unconditionally.  Oh, and provide free parking.

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Road trip: the family

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It’s weird even writing the word.  Family.  For the last half of my life, I would tell people I didn’t have a family, despite having an estranged brother. It’s never been concept I’ve really related to.  In fact, not having family ties has become a big part of my identity.  I don’t need no stinkin’ family.  I am independent, self-sustaining, free from the ties of DNA or surname. 

Yet, now after this weekend, I kinda, sorta think I am part (albeit distantly) of a f-f-f-f-family.  And it’s screwin’ with my head, man.

It has been a decade since I have seen my brother and his wife and kids.  My personal mythology says he rejected me because of my chosen faith of Buddhism.  It’s a good story that allows me to be the innocent victim of my big, bad conservative Christian brother’s narrow-mindedness.   And it allowed me to maintain the independence that is the cornerstone of my identity.  Besides, other than DNA and our shared fucked-up childhood, what did we have in common?  It was better to let that sleeping dog lie.  Yet, I wanted to have a relationship with his kids – to be their crazy Auntie Mary who lived up north who had all the critters.  Not being able to have that made me sad. Still every year I  sent them presents at Christmas time in hopes that maybe one day they might wake up from the spell my brother cast and realize that Auntie Mary isn’t evil or uncaring, but actually kind of nice and fun. 

Every few years I would consider being the bigger person and try to break the ice that had formed around my brother’s and I’s relationship.  It’s hard when that much time has passed.  What do you say?  Pride, fear, anger and any number of conflicting emotions left me without words, so the silence won out.

With the news of my brother’s cancer, I figured it was time to stop all the nonsense.  At least we would have something to talk about.  So, before I gave myself a chance to talk myself out of it, I made the long journey south to visit my brother in the hospital.  I was nervous, to be sure.  I barely got any sleep the night before.  I attribute that to my friend’s overly soft mattress, but I’m sure a lot of it was nerves.  But, I knew I was doing the right thing.  That I never questioned.

The reunion felt a bit awkward.  The first comment out of his mouth was “so, it takes cancer to finally get you down here to see us.”  I opened my mouth to toss back an accusation at him, but I could see his kids watching me intently, trying to figure out who or what I was to my brother, to them.  But, I just smiled and told him it was good to see him.  I ended up hanging out in the room with his wife, kids and sundry colleagues and friends for about an hour or so.  Then I went out to lunch with his wife and kids . .  uh, I mean, my sister-in-law and nieces and nephew.

They’re nice kids.  They told me all about their school, their sailing and what they want to be when they grow up.  My brother and sister-in-law have done a nice job with those kids.  I look forward to getting to know them better now that is an option.

After lunch my sister-in-law dropped me back at the hospital so I could visit my brother alone.  Gulp.   He was asleep when I got there, and the urge was great just to leave a note and tippy toe out of the room.  But, then a nurse burst in with no compunction about waking him up.  For someone who had recently had a few feet of guts and other organs removed three days ago, he was doing really well.  Alert.  Good color.  They had even started him on soft foods.  He definitely didn’t look like he had been issued a death sentence.   Yet, there was still that tumor that they couldn’t remove, and that probably wouldn’t respond to chemo or radiation.  A slow growing tumor, but a malignant tumor nonetheless.

We chatted awkwardly for a while.  Then the oddest thing happened, something I totally did not expect, a miracle of sorts: he apologized for being a jerk these last few years.   So, we spoke briefly about our rift, but there was no need to belabor it.  I could tell he was uncomfortable talking about it, so I just accepted his apology and we moved on.  We left on good terms, with promises of future visits and more contact.

I’m desperately trying to come up with a way of closing this post.  Am I hopeful? Yes.  Sad?  Yes.  Confused?  Hell yes.   Yeah . . .

Prognosis: unknown

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My brother had surgery today to locate and remove the source of his cancer in his intestine. My sister-in-law called late this evening and started rattling off numbers of cancerous lesions found, the amount of intestine and colon removed, and the length of the surgery. I didn’t hear a thing. I was in a bit of a state of shock because a) I didn’t think the surgery was until Friday and b) I had no idea who I was talking to – it wasn’t until mid-conversation did I dare ask who was calling. I figured it was my sister-in-law’s younger sister since it didn’t sound like my sister-in-law at all. But, I guess exhaustion will do that to you. The bad news was that there was at least one tumor, possibly more, that was too dangerous to remove during surgery. Prognosis: unknown.

We chatted for a bit about how everyone had been doing. Apparently, my brother hasn’t been dealing with this too well, and it showed in his blood pressure, which in turn delayed his surgery date because he couldn’t go under the knife until he got his numbers down. My sister-in-law is in hunker down mode and is doing her best to hold it together and keep things as normal as possible for their three teenage kids. On the rare occasions that we talk, we talk easily as if this huge gulf between my brother and I didn’t exist. When I thanked her for letting me know in such a timely manner, she said “of course, you’re his sister.”

I’m considering driving down to San Diego to say “hello” while he is in the hospital. Make it short & sweet, and hopefully he’ll be heavily sedated so at least one of us will be at ease during the visit.

The other night I was laying in bed with my heart full of anticipatory grief. I fear for Alaska’s health, and also have my concerns about Sasquatch who has been very quiet lately. Then my mind turned to my brother. My only remaining immediate relative. Even though we are not in each other’s life, the idea of being sole survivor of my family before I even reach the age of 50 was very sad.

Tomorrow I’ll check in with my sister-in-law, ask my boss for the time off, talk to a friend who lives in LA for a place to stay and see if the boyfriend is willing to watch my menagerie so I can take a quick trip down south.

Now what?

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I’m at a loss.

I’m not sure what I’m feeling, or what is the proper reaction to the news I got today about my brother. He has cancer. Intestinal cancer that has spread to his lymph nodes. That’s all they really know for now. He’s going in for surgery next month to remove his appendix as well as some of his small intestine and colon.

My sister-in-law sent out a broadcast email with the news. You know the news is never going to be good when it starts out saying “we love you” and apologizing for letting you know via email. Right after I read the email my boss walked into my office to tell me he didn’t want me taking tomorrow off (which I had requested earlier in the day). When I looked up with tears in my eyes and told him what had happened, he slowly backed out of the office saying “that’s OK. Take the day off. Really. No problem.” Poor guy, he has no idea how to react to a woman’s tears.

To say my brother and I aren’t close is a bit of an understatement. I’ve written about our strained relationship here and here and here. For years, I’ve pretty much said the only thing my brother and I have in common is DNA, and DNA alone does not a relationship make. I’m not sentimental about family. Never have been.

Yet . . .

He’s my brother and he has cancer. And while there is a possibility that we may have many long years ahead of us to nurse our grudges and continue the estrangement, now there is a good chance that we may not.

So, now what?