“Die With Dignity”
The engine was running, I ended the call, and just sat in the parking lot, staring at nothing. Did this just happen? What did I do? How did I get this? There is no way I can tell Mother. Mother is suffering, as is our whole family, and we can’t take on another problem. This must be kept from Mother – there is no way I am telling her. In fact, I have to keep it from everyone, if possible. Maybe the report is a mistake. Maybe it will go away. I can try to go through the radiation and chemotherapy and not tell anyone, maybe?
Then nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just staring and wondering. I don’t know how long I sat in that parking lot, but it was at least a half hour.
It was surreal, I suppose is the best description of the time I sat in that parking lot trying to digest what I was just told. As I recall, my brother, Joe, or someone, called me and asked how it went and I just lied and said it was negative and everything was cool, and with that I drove home. I got home and literally walked in circles in my condo, just pacing from room to room, before finally deciding to get out and have a beer and just sit somewhere alone. I drove to Claddaugh, an Irish pub I used to go to weekly for their excellent fish. I sat at the bar and waited, and waited, and waited, but couldn’t get served, so I left. I went to Brazenhead, another Irish pub and oddly enough the same thing happened, so I left. I just wanted to sit and think and sip on a beer but I couldn’t even get waited on. I headed for Willie’s, a sports pub, but I was in such a daze I made a wrong turn and didn’t even realize it and I ended up turning around at the police station with a patrol car on my tail. I finally made it to Willie’s and it was packed but I got a seat at the bar and a beer. I just wanted to think but there was so much noise and a nearby conversation was just stuff I didn’t want anything to do with, so I left with a mostly full beer sitting there. I was heading home but went back to Brazenhead for some reason and did get waited on and had one beer, thought about nothing, and left. I just drove around alone, talking to God, listening to “Philadelphia” over and over again and getting lost in my thoughts. (Bad music choice, but that’s what I did.)
How does a person handle such news? This sort of thing happens to other people, not me, right? Lord, what is going on? Why Lord? Does anyone realize what it is like to sit across from a doctor and have him say, “You have cancer”?
I never smoked, gave up foolish partying when I was much younger, could still run long distances and was in generally good shape. This had to be a mistake. I wasn’t a candidate because the risk factors didn’t align with my life. Surely it was just a canker sore. Still, if this was going to happen to someone in our family, I was the right choice because I have no wife or kids.
I really don’t even know where I am going with this blog entry, but frankly that’s generally how I felt that night – confused, lost, didn’t know where I was going or how to handle this news. It was a tremendous burden being alone, unable to share the news and cry on someone’s shoulder. Isn’t that what a wife would offer – an understanding embrace, a shoulder to cry on, a compassionate ear to bend? But being single and not in a relationship there was no embrace, no shoulder, no ear, and that added fuel to the despair that was already creeping in. Oddly, the person who would understand best was fighting her own battle with cancer and of all the promises I made to myself the one to not say anything to Mother was one that was guaranteed.
I decided to start a journal so I went home and sat in front of the computer and entitled my well-intentioned journal “Die With Dignity.” I was super low, not depressed, just low in a confused way, if that makes sense. I did some research through WebMD and learned that oral cancer is aggressive and is often fatal. That was the last time I read anything about oral cancer, until recently. I just didn’t want to do that business of reading all about it because I just couldn’t handle all that stuff. I was trapped. I couldn’t make it go away. I couldn’t run harder, work more efficiently, or pray more spiritually. Lord, what is going on? How do I get out of this mess?
In one brief moment, one simple sentence stated in a matter of seconds, my life changed forever.
My journal that night was mostly notes and I can’t locate it because I have since purchased a new computer and did not copy the files over to this one. I do know that I wrote that I wanted to be a role model of sorts to young people on how to handle adversity of this nature. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job of that but it was a well-intentioned goal. I’m not sure it matters, though, because most of my nephews and nieces are young and busy living their lives, raising families, interacting with each other as well as their parents. It wasn’t much of a journal – I mostly stared at the computer until I dozed off, completely worn out.
So, where do I go from here? To Lancaster, of course, early Saturday morning.
Two hours in the car, alone with my thoughts, trying to make sure I could keep quiet about my situation. It’s hard covering up emotions for a long time but my goal was to get through the weekend and keep it to myself at least until I could meet with Dr. Barrett and get details about the radiation. I made it through the weekend without saying a word about it. There was so much love in Mother and Dad’s home and every minute, every second, with Mother was valued like never before. Our entire family felt that way. That aura of love helped me put my situation on the back burner, at least for a weekend.
The weight of the burden of carrying my secret cancer alone was heavy, very heavy. I worried about being selfish by talking about my situation at a time when we were all overwhelmed with love and grief for Mother. My focus was definitely on Mother and at that point she was still getting up and coming out to the dining area for donuts and other meals, and she mostly laid on the couch in her favorite position on her left side looking at the big screen TV. Mother was amazing and she was and is definitely my role model. She never complained. She worried, of course, and she hoped, but the incredible love that Dad and all of her children showed her clearly helped Mother through her most difficult journey. It simply wasn’t possible to look at my brave mother and then say, hey, guess what, I have cancer, too.
I made it through the weekend without saying anything and soon would meet with Dr. Barrett to discuss the plans for radiation. I also had to write out all my questions for Dr. Barrett, refine my lessons, get everything extra organized in case I needed a sub for a few days, and I was just generally very busy. I saw an ad on TV about a cancer center in Memphis and they had an 800 number so I called it and requested information. Those people were really nice and they called me back several times, but I was staying local. Was it the right decision, how could I know?
Sunday night I sat in front of my computer writing a journal entry before dozing off. The alarm clock rang, life had to go on. At 7:15 sleepy adolescents would be sitting in front of me unaware of my trials. They deserved my best, as always, and that was what I would give them. I LOVED teaching. Having spent over 20 years misplaced in the business world I found my calling, my vocation, and it showed in my approach to my job. I miss it, I really miss it. I don’t miss the long hours grading papers, especially essays, but even that was rewarding because I typically wrote long notes to my students, giving them lots of feedback and support, and they appreciated it. Well, lest I get on a tangent, I decided not to say anything at school either. Quite frankly, after a day of thinking about my situation my focus turned back to Mother and her struggle. My God, I love and miss her so much!
For those of you who have not been in a middle school lately, it’s a rather exciting and hectic environment when students are moving between classes. As I walked down the hall lost in thought in a sea of adolescents it was as if the sea was moving in slow motion. I looked at kids, so innocent, laughing, joking, pushing and shoving of course, and I recognized that at that joyful yet difficult age they each had problems of their own. I wanted their youth. I wanted to tell them to have fun and enjoy life. I was different that first day. Students sat before me and I remember just looking at them, saying nothing, and they looked at each other wondering what was going on. Eventually I came to, so to speak, and got through the day.
Coincidence or irony, I don’t know, but just a couple of weeks earlier I tried a unique approach to teaching a lesson. It was a “no talking” lesson. I just wanted to shake things up, which you have to do with teens, so I made a cool Power Point presentation with text of course and music in the background. I played it until an intermission point where they could ask questions before playing part 2, then at the end I had them write what they thought of that approach to a lesson. Again, just an experiment, but the odd thing was I didn’t realize at the time that I may have been unintentionally foreshadowing the type of teaching I might some day have to do. That’s actually pretty scary now that I think about it.
At night, I was alone, thinking, praying for Mother, confused, overwhelmed, and no one to talk to. I sat forward in the recliner with my head in my hands, not knowing what to do.