When you lose an anchor in life, if you’re smart, you look for another one. If you’re wise, you make yourself that anchor.
Any regular reader of my blog knows my father passed away last summer and my sister is battling Stage IV ovarian cancer. I was going to make this entry lighthearted and then not one–not two–but three friends have had fathers pass away or begun the process. It just feels like the right time to publish something I wrote in his last months. The good news? My sister is doing quite well after chemo and is looking forward to a European river cruise–one more thing checked off her bucket list. At the time I wrote this, things were not going so well. She even hosted the holiday party for my very large family. We enjoy each moment as it comes . . .
Thankful for the blessings, mourning the losses . . . and sharing, in the hopes it helps someone out there feel they’re not alone.
It started with a suit. My father has always been meticulous in his grooming, taking great pride in presenting himself in the best way possible to the world. Before my mother’s funeral, I asked my sister if he had a suit that still fit. When he tried it on, it hung loosely about his body, so much bigger than it should have been. The man I grew up with would never have let this detail slip. A friend of the family offered the services of the tailor at his clothing store and was kind enough not to charge my dad for the alterations. People show you who they are at times like this.
Such a small item. The suit. Understandable that someone who had just lost a spouse would not think of clothing. But if you knew my dad, you’d know that this was no small thing. It was just the first of many bits of himself he would start to leave behind over the next year. My father, once an excellent cook, couldn’t approach the stove because of his ever-present oxygen tank. The yard, once a carpet of green grass and lush flowers, showed all the signs of wear and tear he used to disdain in others’ yards. His hand shook too much to write out checks to pay the bills. And his memory failed him more often than not on which had been paid or even received.
I had the good fortune to spend an entire day with my father recently. In times past, the day would have been filled with activity and lots of conversation. Now, there are no long, rambling stories being told about his childhood, military training, family vacations. These stories used to drive me crazy with their length and stream-of-consciousness quality. “You were just a little one when we took that trip in the station wagon—the blue one. Or was it the brown wagon? Now let me think . . .”
Now, I try so very hard to make conversation and my father acquiesces, responding here and there. I remind him of when I was little and he’d put me on his shoulders to watch parades. When we’d visit him at work downtown and he showed me the Arcade, which I thought was the most beautiful place I’d seen at the ripe old age of six.
But I realize the man I grew up with is slowly receding into some sort of haze. He remembers he has six daughters but can’t seem to locate their names in his memory stores. He asks my sister if his younger brother (who died decades ago) is still alive. And then, the next second, he is alert enough to ask how my job is going and if I’m still working for the same company. He fades in and out without warning. I try to accept the ebb and flow, difficult as it might be.
I help him put on his socks. I fill the juice glass only halfway so nothing spills when his hand shakes. I cook in the very same kitchen where as a child, I used to watch him prepare his “famous” tuna salad. And I think about how ironic it is that the girl who could barely boil water now makes him a gourmet meal he cannot fully appreciate—with skills I learned from watching him those many years ago.
As time goes on, you realize that your role as child is being usurped by the very person who gave it to you in the first place. You lovingly start to pay a debt. Some do it without question. Others, like me, do it while struggling with issues you thought you’d put to bed after childhood ended, like how to show patience to a man who never had it to show to you. But you do it because it’s the right thing to do and you were raised to do the right thing by this very man you are now helping.
You realize, in the flurry of doctor appointments, meals made and financial matters handled, that you have become the anchor. When did this happen, you think? And then you realize it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have it in you to be the anchor.
My father still brings tears to my eyes when we talk on the phone and he ends with, “I love you more than anything in the world, sweetie.” What a treasure. To be loved so. And I remind myself that when he is no longer here, that love remains with me. But to feel it without the warm voice and eyes, that hurts already. So I try not to imagine it. Not to steel myself for what I know will inevitably come, just as it did with my mother. It’s tempting, though. I selfishly don’t want it to hurt as much again. Don’t want to break open again. Emotional armor tends to hurt the wearer. This I know. True strength comes from diving into the pain, being baptized by it and emerging knowing you survived the onslaught. Met it seemingly weak and sobbing but allowed it to change you in ways that make you stronger. Which is victory, even if bittersweet. This is what I strive for now.
So I have become, of late, an anchor for my father—one of six, really. My sisters bear the brunt of the work. They’re local and I’m not. I’m the one who had to go out and prove my worth to the world and Cleveland, Ohio was not the place to do that. Now I would give anything to live for a bit in Cleveland. Every time Leno or Fallon makes a late-night joke about Cleveland, I think oh—if only you knew the sweet side of the town. If you could have had dinner with my dad back in the day, you’d see what Cleveland has to offer. Salt of the earth, those folks.
My sister, like my father, is living with limitations right now. She can no longer take a real bath, a fill-up-the-tub-with-bubbles-and-read-a-book kind of bath, because she has begun chemo with an as yet unhealed incision from surgery. Seems like such a silly thing. But my sister loves her baths. My sweet sister who has had a life I would not call easy counts on the little things in life to bring her happiness. The little things, rather than people, who sometimes can leave her disappointed in their capacity to care and, I think, a bit lonely. So baths mean a lot to her. So do bargains and weekend breakfasts out by herself. I know this and it pains me that she is deprived of such a simple pleasure.
Her surgery was supposed to be routine. “We’ll remove the fibroid, Anne, and you’ll be good as new.” Only it wasn’t a fibroid. It was ovarian cancer and the “fibroid” was a tumor that equaled her uterus in its weight. The chemo had to begin before she was completely healed because, quite frankly, it was just that bad. Ten of 18 lymph nodes affected. Cancer had spread to the lungs and abdomen. My sister had said after the diagnosis, “I just hope it’s not in the lungs or the liver.” Being a nurse, she knew the implications. She got half her wish. I’m not sure that helps.
She talks about the effects of chemo so matter-of-factly. She dismisses the “sunburn” she gets on her face with each treatment, painful as it might be. She doesn’t complain about the fact that almost everything makes her nauseous for about a week after chemo and what doesn’t tastes like metal. She rarely wears a scarf or a hat and braves strangers’ stares with aplomb. I tell her frequently she is a rock star and my hero. I know thousands of people go through what she is going through but I don’t have a front-row seat to their courage or lack thereof. After her most recent bout of chemo, I made dinner for my sister at my father’s house. Bald, tired and hurting from head to toe, she went out to weed my father’s garden while I cooked. My mother would be so proud of Anne’s courage. Not an ounce of ninny in her and it shows.
While my mother admired Anne’s strength, I try to simply appreciate her in her entirety. She is a study in contrast. An almost scratch golfer who can bowl close to a perfect game. A truly brilliant nurse who helped me diagnose my son’s staph infection after the “best” doctors in Chicago botched the job. She was right, a fact later confirmed by specialists. Her keen intelligence is countered by a corny sense of humor. What will we do when the mysterious gag gifts are no longer under the Christmas tree? I guess then we will finally confirm they were always from her. Her fashion sense has always made me cringe but try as I might, I have never been able to rid her of the elastic-waist polyester pants (replete with tissues tucked into said waistband), sensible shoes or plaids with other prints.
I find myself crying as I write because her strange mélange of traits and quirks have been so much a part of my life and I truly do not want to envision a day when I cannot call her to question what the doctor said, or watch her on her hands and knees playing with my kids, or see what crazy outfit she dons for the family party. In the meantime, she shows me what true love can transcend, as she calls me to see how I’m doing. “Aren’t you the one with cancer?” I say. “Shouldn’t I be calling you?” She brushes it off, sending me an e-mail that says, “I wish we could have talked more at dinner when you were in but there were too many people. How are you doing? You are stoic like Mom and sometimes that is not so good. Feel free to talk if you need to, as I have big broad shoulders.” Despite her pain, she reads me like a book and sees what others do not. Out of the middle of her own muck, she brings this wonderful love. I have a lot to learn from my middle sister.
As thoughts of losing two of my best loved in the months ahead run through my mind, I try to focus on the moment. I try to be an anchor and maybe I am at least an emotional one. I hope my father and sister feel the love through the telephone lines. I visit as I can but certainly not as often as I should. I am torn, as I was with my mother, between caring for my sons and myself and my family of origin. Only this time we’ve added a painful divorce to the mix. I say to God often, “It is enough.” And I mean it. Only He seems to think I am Hercules. I beg to differ. Anyway, I feel guilty a lot. Guilty about not being of more tangible help to my sister and my father. And guilty for being distracted sometimes with my sons instead of focused on the here and now. I try to move past the guilt and stay in the here and now. It’s all I have any control over, my focus.