My dad was the very definition of a hard working, family man. He ran several small businesses and bent over backwards to provide for my mother and me. He also smoked. It was 1979, and I was 10. We were play fighting, which basically meant that he sat in his big comfy chair and fended off my sneak attacks with one hand. Somehow I landed a blow near his ribs which was the first time I saw so much as a chink in the armor of this giant of a man. In truth he had a fairly slim build, but through my young eyes, he was an impenetrable giant. As it turns out, the damage from my blow was serious enough to warrant an X-ray.
That’s when the first spot on his lung was detected. He was 52.
My mother had an innate distrust of the medical profession. She loved my dad with all her heart, and truly felt the best course of action was not the traditional lung cancer treatment of the day, but alternative medicine. This quest to find the cure for cancer took us to some pretty strange places, including a clinic in Mexico, where treatment for serious illnesses seemed to consist of ingesting fruit smoothies. I watched one of the clinic’s physicians take blood from both his arm and leg. I “learned” this was because blood from the top half of the body had a slightly different composition than that in the lower half. Even at ten I was skeptical, but I wasn’t going to argue with an adult in a white coat. Months later, however, when I returned to school, I did put the question to my science teacher and was met with a look similar to the one you’re likely making right now.
What followed was months of traveling to crazy places in search of the holy grail, weeks at home where he was under the care of my mom and relatives, and finally, a move to the hospital as the care and pain management he so desperately required simply overwhelmed my family. Out of sheer habit, I still close a screen door in the same fashion I learned to do as a child; mom was militant about quietness and ensuring he had a peaceful environment in which to fight his battle. We had a zero tolerance policy when it came to noise, enforced swiftly with a wooden spoon.
Late one Autumn evening in a stark hospital room, I watched as this seemingly undefeatable man gasped desperately for the shallowest of breaths; the Cancer had completely consumed him. He couldn’t hear me, or anyone else at that point. We left him, and went home, where I crawled into a spare single bed in the rumpus room – out of town relatives had overrun our house for the past several weeks, and an aunt from Seattle was now in my room. At some point later that night, we got a phone call and my mother woke me.
“Your father is gone,” she said quietly.
There wasn’t much more to say, and she left me to digest this expected news, and come to grips with it for herself. For as alone and lost as I remember feeling in the moment that night, I cannot imagine her own personal hellish pain.
I question the decision to allow a child to see his father in that sort of condition, mere hours before his horrific and violent death, but I don’t judge it. While it isn’t the final image of him I would like to be carrying in my mind’s eye, I can assure you, I have never, ever held a cigarette to my lips.
That said, I did pick up his fondness for cigars and a good drink.
Dad, on the right. Cigars and drinks…we’d get along just fine…
Cigarette in hand, well before I entered the picture
My mother never remarried nor dated, and I think in many ways, she silently blamed herself for somehow failing to save him, and as a catholic, she did the the self-flogging, constant guilt thing very well. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I did secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) blame his death on her for a number of years. But then I grew up. We make decisions in life, and we live with them. Her choices were based on what she felt was truly best for him, and in the end, there is no guarantee that following traditional treatments would have netted a different result.
She was a rigidly private woman, and I was raised that we didn’t talk about our feelings – even within the family, but kept them to ourselves. Because that’s super healthy! So it was sadly of no real surprise to me when in late 2001, she finally did tell me she had colon cancer. True to her methods over 20 years earlier, she once again shunned the medical profession, and instead sought out nutritionists, herbalists, Chinese medicine practitioners, and so forth. I suspect it was to punish herself for taking my father down that path, but that’s merely conjecture on my part.
She finally agreed to hospital admittance in October 2002, but by then, there were no more options for treatment. She had waited too long. With the enormous help of the integrated medical community in Victoria, we were able to bring her back to her home for her final days; the at-home support nurses were no less than true angels in my eyes. Without them, I honestly don’t know what we would have done.
Ironically and most disheartening for her, not a soul from her blessed church called upon her, thus reaffirming my bitterness and enduring hypocrisy towards organized religion. I reached out to the Salvation Army on her behalf and their support and frequent daily visits to her provided the spiritual comfort she needed. I will be forever grateful for them.
There was denial, or stubbornness, right to the end. The doctors told me that at this point, whatever she wanted to eat, she should have. It wasn’t going to make a difference, and her comfort in her final days was all that really mattered. But she firmly stood by her self-construed anti-cancer diet, and would take only plain rice and warm water. An offer of Roger’s Chocolates, a local favorite of hers, was not well received.
“Chocolate? I can’t get better on that! Don’t you want me to get better?”, she said.
‘Denial’ isn’t just a river in Egypt, it also runs under our family tree.
She quickly deteriorated in the days following her return to home, and begun to drift out of consciousness for longer and longer periods. All I could do was administer morphine using the needle-less syringes the nurses had provided, which I injected into her IV. I was told to use them “as generously as I felt was needed”. There came a point after about a week where she was unable to move. The nurses had taken to gently adjusting the position of her frail body every three or four hours. Anything to give her added comfort. One evening she looked to be in particular discomfort, and while the nurse on duty thought we should shift her, I was hesitant. After a short discussion, I agreed, and helped her. Instantly I knew it was a mistake. My mother’s eyes half opened, and her overrun body must have screamed inside her as her expression changed to horror. I broke down and kept apologizing to her again and again for causing her this brutality. The head nurse was called and she was miraculously at the house within mere minutes, and I left the room as they worked on my mom. Half an hour later, they called me back into the room which had been transformed into a softly lit, tranquil environment; something that was reflected on my mother’s face as she lay comfortably and peacefully sleeping once again.
I should never have moved her, and I’ll carry that forever.
Six hours later on that crisp December evening in 2002, I was at her side as she took her final gasps of life, and Cancer took another out of my world.
George entered my life as a clumsy mess of a kitten, an out of the blue gift in 1995 from a well-meaning girlfriend. He was fearless, gregarious, and every ounce a true Ladies Man. In short, everything I was not. He was also my best friend. He was there with me through less than spectacular times in my life, including the death of my mom. When it comes to bonding with our pets, we tend to think more in terms of dogs, not cats. George and I did bond, though, and we were inseparable. He was both an indoor/outdoor cat, but for whatever reason, I never really worried about his safety outside. He always came home when evening fell, and was just as happy to lounge on a bed, chair or lap, as venture out. Really, I think he just liked to have the option, not necessarily act on it.
The girlfriend that presented him to me didn’t last, and when I began dating my now ex-wife about a year later that break-up, it took a while for George to accept her. He *may* have peed on us when she slept over the first time (well, she was in his spot), and he *may* have beaten up her cat relentlessly when we moved in together (one of the cats had to find a new home, and since George wasn’t going anywhere…). But he did have a huge heart, and a love of humans; he had a habit of winning over the hearts of everyone he came into contact with, regardless if they were ‘cat people’, or not. He possessed the perfect balance of personal independence and warm, unconditional affection.
The first signs of trouble came in September 2009. Vet #1 identified a mouth infection but missed the cancer. Vet #2 caught it a month later, but by then we were up against the clock. We tried everything we could to save him, and in fact had optimistic hopes after what looked to be a successful surgery. But in the end, even the strength and steely determination that was George proved to be no match for such an insidious disease that had spread rapidly and pervasively. I held him in my arms as the vet administered a final dose to give him comfort, and with that a primary piece of my world drifted away forever.
My best friend, and the original Ladies Man, George. 1995-2009
Dad’s smoking, combined with his less that stellar diet, likely played a starring role in his demise. However, where my mom and George got their cancers from is far more difficult to narrow down. Cancer doesn’t always have an obvious source, but sometimes it does.
When I get the joy of second hand smoke over half a city block from the source, I get irritated.
When I run by someone on Vancouver’s majestic seawall as they’re ignorantly partaking in a refreshing menthol, I get irritated.
When I’m walking through the park near our home and the walkway, the playground, the grass and the flowerbeds are littered with the discarded remnants from a relaxing smoke break, I get fucking irritated.
It’s a disgusting habit that harms and kills not only the user, but the innocent bystander, and our environment – somewhere along the way, being a smoker made it socially acceptable to litter - oh, I’m not littering, I’m smoking. It’s getting harder and harder for smokers to find a place to light up these days, and it’s still not enough, in my opinion. To be clear, I could care less if someone wants to smoke and decimate their body; hey, it’s your body, do with it what you will. What I do resent is that those of us that have no interest in partaking are forced to do so by proximity. And unlike someone blasting bad music from a convertible, no one ever developed black spots on their lungs from an audible assault of gangsta rap.
Sadly, my story isn’t unique. Cancer has touched almost everyone at least once, it seems. I have no answers. Just a desire that one day, Cancer won’t be such a scary word.