My father is dying. The Votrient he has struggled to take since January is not working. In fact, the renal cell cancer which metastasized to the lymph nodes in his chest has now spread to his lungs, the lining of his chest cavity, and his bones.
My mother still believes there is a chance for him to pull-through. Her Sunday School class is praying for him. God is still in the business of miracles.
But I know he is done. There is no fight left in him. He is stubborn, my dad. Dr. George, his Oncologist, tells him he must get out of bed or he will lose his muscle mass. He must try to walk and get some exercise. But Dad only walks from the bed to the bathroom. “I don’t feel like getting up,” he says. He eats minuscule portions and his parchment-thin skin is gaunt across his frame.
“Dad, you have to eat.”
“I don’t have any appetite. Nothing tastes good. I can’t keep anything down.”
“I understand that. You still have to do it. You either eat or you die.”
He has made his choice.
Jerri thinks he has seen his last Christmas. She’s not sure he will be here come August when she hopes to move into a new income-subsidized apartment with a washer and dryer. She has requested a two bedroom in anticipation of unsupervised visits with JM, her 10 year old, who lives with our parents. But the apartment complex wants copies of his social security card and birth certificate. My parents won’t supply these.
“She’s trying to get a two bedroom under false pretenses,” Mom says. “JM is never going to live with her. She doesn’t have a mothering bone in her body.”
“She is not misleading the apartment complex. This not about JM coming to live with her. This is about visitation and having a room for him to stay over a weekend.”
“JM can sleep anywhere. He doesn’t need his own room. He can sleep on the couch or a blow-up mattress. Besides, she doesn’t have any bedroom furniture herself. How is she going to furnish a room for him?”
Because I’m going to give her furniture. Stan and I have two guest bedrooms we never use. We are planning to downsize within the next four years. The bedroom furniture will not be going with us anyway. Besides, its hard to justify owning beds that are never slept in when my own sister lives in such poverty.
My mother and I are at odds. Not about my dad but about everything else. Mostly about Jerri.
“You don’t even know Jerri, Mom. In your mind she’s the same person she was twenty-one years ago. She’s a drug addict. You refuse to see her as anything else. She is not an addict. She is not the person you’ve always told me she was. And she is capable of being a mother. To you mothering is all about providing financially. That’s not what mothering is all about.”
“You’re right and she can’t provide for him. She can’t give him clothes, or food, or even a bed to sleep in.”
“That’s not true. She can’t provide for him the way that you can but there is more to life than that. But this is not about him coming to live with her – this is about him spending a weekend with her – not every weekend, maybe not even every month.”
The argument escalates.There is nothing I can say that she will hear. She hangs up on me. There is so much left unsaid.
The phone call leaves me empty and strangely proud. I stood up to her. I said what I thought. I didn’t raise my voice or bite back my words even knowing that to disagree with her means certain retribution. For me, this is progress. In 5 months, I will be 50 years old. And I am FINALLY able to stand against my mother.
At 1:45 am, Mom leaves a voice message. “Don’t worry about coming to the hospital for your Dad’s appointment. He feels the same way too. We can just sever the ties of the family and you can just make it on your own with Jerri.”
About the third year into our marriage, we borrowed $1400 from my parents which we paid back 2 months later. That was the last time I ever asked my parents for anything and I’ve been married for 28 years. Wow. Just not sure how I’m going to manage to “make it on my own.”
Dad has an appointment with his Oncologist Monday. I was going to join them because given my pharmaceutical background, I understand what the Oncologist says better than they do. Mom’s message is clear. I’ve been uninvited. More than that, I’m once again excommunicated from the family. Because I disagreed with her.
I call her back that afternoon. “Do you really think now is the time to sever ties given Dad’s situation?” She lets loose with anticipated fury. I am always bringing up the past. I don’t know all that went on. (Over 20 years go, before Jerri was ever treated for Bipolar.) I wasn’t there when Jerri went into Prodigal’s Community. I can’t get a word in edgewise. She is soooo glad that God doesn’t hold grudges against her the way that I do. She is soooo disappointed in me. She hangs up again.
I am done. I call my friend Susan who, more than anyone else I know, can empathize with mother issues. “My friend,” she says, “All I can say is there is some undiagnosed mental illness going on there. There has to be. Normal mothers just don’t behave that way.”
On Thursday, Jerri leaves 6 frantic voicemails while I’m in Zumba. They all say the same thing. Daddy is in the hospital. Mom is not there. She had called the house to talk to Dad and that’s how she found out. He’s dying. They are going to bring in hospice. This may be the last chance we have to see him without Mom. Jerri is going to catch the bus immediately.
I beat her to the hospital. Dad is curled up on his side. He is so very thin. His hair is totally white now and he has brown spots on his face. He is so fragile. I don’t have the courage to wake him. If Mom is telling the truth, he will not want to see me.
Jerri arrives and he awakes. For a moment, Dad is unsure of what he sees – his daughters – but he sorts it out. We are real. Not a dream. Not the morphine. He’s been in the hospital since Monday. He fell on his way to the car for his appointment. His Oncologist sent him to the emergency room when he arrived.
He’s been in the hospital 4 days and Mom never told us.
He says they are no longer fighting the cancer. They are fighting the pain. His Oncologist has given him a choice. Another drug like Votrient that may make him sick and unable to function but may slow the cancer or pain meds that will do nothing about the cancer but allow him to feel okay. Dad has chosen the latter, at least for a month, and then he will see.
I don’t tell him the awful truth – that every moment he doesn’t fight the cancer, it advances. It has spread so quickly, he may not have a month. The brain is likely the next stop on the Great Cancer Tour of his body and then he won’t have a chance to change his mind. It will take his mind. I struggle to breathe.
He says he doesn’t have much longer. I ask, “how do you feel about that?” He says, “I’m okay with it. I’m not afraid. At least not today. Ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer.”
I am glad for him. That he’s not afraid.
From the hallway comes a public announcement. Visitor hours are over. I tell Dad we have to leave. He hurries to tell us one more story about the dream he had last night. It is not important. It is not how I want to spend my last minutes with him. I let him talk.
When he’s done I stand and he struggles to get out of bed. An alarm goes off. He is at risk for falling so they’ve tied an alarm to his bed. The nurse comes in and he says, “It’s okay. I just wanted to get up to say good-bye to my family.”
He hugs me. I know in my heart it is the last time. “I love you, Dad.” “I love you too,” he says and he makes a point of looking me in the eye. He knows it too. He hugs Jerri and tells her he loves her. We believe him. This is our real Dad, the way he is when Mom isn’t around.
Jerri promised Mom she would call after she gets home from her visit with Dad. She reports back to me the next day. “Your mother kept me on the phone for over an hour last night talking about you. Boy, is she mad at you. It’s kind of nice – her being mad at you and not me for a change.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“She said she’s not going to tell you when Daddy dies. She said you’re just swooping in because he’s dying.”
“Seriously, Jerri, I don’t want to hear it.”
“She said she doesn’t want anything else to do with you and neither does Dad. So I said, really Mom? Cause Terri was at the hospital last night and Daddy talked to her almost the entire time!”
I feel sorry for Dad now. Because Mom will hold my visit against him. She’ll be furious with him for not tossing me out of the room. It’s Father’s Day, probably his last one, but I don’t call. I’m afraid he won’t answer. Or he’ll say he can’t talk to me anymore. I’m afraid she may have gotten to him.
I can still see his face – his eyes penetrating mine. I can feel his arms around me, his stubbly cheek against mine. “I love you too, Terri.” Those words are a gift. They will sustain me for the rest of my days. I know that he meant them. She can’t take that away. No matter what happens next.