To be clear, these are my own lowly layman’s observations and opinions. I’m not skilled, trained or educated. Just someone who’s done a lot of listening and observing. Not always an easy task when you’re going deaf. Often when my head needs clearing to think and write, I drive to Lake Michigan. My eyes are filled with the majestic wonder and vastness of it. Great place to marvel at your own insignificance. And thank God for all your blessings, big and small. And type what’s in my head.
|A tanker out on beautiful Lake Michigan…|
It’s been well over 20 years since my friend and neighbor Mike passed away from liver cancer. As an adult, he was the first “young” person my age who I knew and witnessed going through a terminal illness. Since I had nothing to compare it to, I assumed this was the way people fought through this type of battle. Mike was always doing research for another treatment option to consider. Didn’t matter if it was an accepted or legal practice here in the states. If he was convinced a treatment could help keep his cancer at bay, or put him in remission, more likely than not, he was willing to try it. Mike packed 15 years in his last 2 on earth. Traveled, volunteered, oversaw a huge addition to his house. He could not sit still unless he felt so bad it was impossible for him to go on.
Fast-forward about 15 years, and I’m in the midst of my Parish Visiting gig. One of my close and much younger friends, Rosemary just learned that her breast cancer has returned for a second time. When she first got the news, she immediately stated, “I’m getting the hell out of here.” Understandable. Faced with something so horrible, I think I would try and run away too. Our instinct is to flee. But that trip never got off the drawing board. After talking to her oncologist, brother, and boyfriend, she chose a plan of attack, and the trip was never mentioned again. But how she viewed, and the steps she took were very different than Mike’s. And both were going through this about the same age. Whenever my Dad wasn’t feeling well, one of his go-to quips was, “I gotta lay low for a few days.” Probably made famous by Bonnie and Clyde when he was a kid. Well this was the course Rosemary would take. She stayed home, ate healthy foods, took naps. Didn’t really shun life or friends, but kind of went inside herself too. Hard to find the right words to explain. More of an “gotta conserve my strength, get through the treatment plan and take care of myself” attitude.
|Rosemary before cancer and Keen’s.|
Every few weeks though, she would pipe up with an idea. It was almost like convincing herself if she kept striving towards a normal life, everything would still be OK. Rosemary was absolutely smitten with my Keen sandals. One day she asked me if I would take her shopping to buy a pair of Keen’s. Road trip! We went to our local (but cool) mall. She picked out a black pair identical to my navy pair. For a couple hours, she was once again a normal 40-something, ready for a fabulous summer. We ate at her favorite Mexican restaurant. It was very warm that day. Once we were seated, she complained she was cold. She asked if we could move outdoors, under an umbrella on the patio. I about melted out there but she was finally comfortable. I think the majority of people on chemo treatments are always cold. Plus she had lost quite a bit of weight. She was tickled to be out, and pleased with her new shoes. It was a very good day. After I took her home, she jumped on the computer, and ordered another 3 pair of Keen’s. Different styles, but she was hooked. It felt good to shop. Normal stuff. That’s what she wanted. Doing mundane stuff healthy people did every day.
|Rosemary’s Keen’s, now adorn my summer feet…|
She also wanted to start cooking again. Wanted more control over what she was putting in. Eating pine nuts, and ground her own wheat flour! Asked me to take her to the mall to buy a couple of those expensive gel mats chefs use. That would make it easier to stand on her slate floors in the kitchen. But not long after, her chemo treatments would start taking a terrible toll on her. A nasty side effect called neuropathy. She was losing the feeling in her feet. Didn’t always pick up her feet, especially one. She fell a couple times tripping over the gel rug, or hooked a sandal on something. Had to start wearing a specialized brace from her knee to the heel of her foot. Inserted in a shoe a couple sizes bigger than she normally wore. Cooking stopped, rugs were removed, and Keen’s were on a shelf in her awesome closet.
A mutual friend of ours was also struggling with her own cancer battle. Her name was Pat and she was a little older than me. She and Rosemary went to a support group together called Healing Touch at Hackley hospital. But Pat’s attitude towards her (terminal) illness was much different that Rosemary’s. At the time I thought it was because she was 20 years older than Rosemary. Pat wanted and needed to squeeze every bit of life she had left by doing stuff. She planned a wonderful trip with her 2 adult children, Lisa and Mark. They took an awesome hiking trip in Yellowstone Park, a few months before she passed away. Then Pat and her husband visited relatives, even did some canoeing, and reunited with some of her old college friends out east. Many times Pat was very sick. Often ended up in the ER for a bit during these vacations. There was still so much she needed to do. Another fierce fighter. But also the kindest and most soft spoken woman I’ve ever known and loved.
|Pat and her beautiful daughter Lisa in Yellowstone, 2010.|
Pat developed a crippling illness to join her tough cancer fight. It wasn’t really a side effect. It was more the result of surgery because of her cancer. It’s called lymphedema. Happens sometimes when some lymph nodes are removed. Lymph nodes are the little dudes that move fluids through your body. Missing a few can cause fluid retention in your tissue. When the fluids in your body have trouble moving up and down, it puddles in spots. Which can lead to infections. And terrible swelling. And unbearable pain. Pat’s lymphedema settled in her leg and foot. This horrible new by-product, plus her cancer were miserable and debilitating. But instead of it controlling Pat, she turned her own experience and knowledge to her advantage by helping others. She became the local resident expert and advocate to anyone recently diagnosed with lymphedema. Calling them on the phone, sending them the latest literature on how to deal with lymphedema. One amazing faith-filled woman. And I was lucky enough to call her my friend.
Pat passed away one month after Rosemary died. Two of my biggest losses. So close together, it took me a couple years to come to terms and move past. Both close friends. Closure can be very elusive. Tough losses. And during my tenure as parish visitor, the total lives lost of folks I routinely visited added up to about 100. But these were 2 of the hardest.
Another set of vastly different ways of coping with illness that I encountered, were with older couples. It seems quite often health wise, one of them was frail physically but mentally sharp, while their spouse was healthy as a horse physically, but losing it mentally. They sometimes kind of played off each other or complimented each other’s shortcomings. While parish visiting over a decade I’ve seen 2 very different ways of acceptance or denial when one of the spouses is failing. Not so much if the health issues were physical, but if one was in a decline mentally. Sometimes they would cover for their spouse. Even to their kids. I’ve had adult children call me and say, “holy-moly, I had no idea Dad was this bad. Mom always said he was downstairs, in the shower, or out in the yard when I called. She’s been covering for him!” These couples didn’t want their kids to worry. Or worse, start making or forcing them to make decisions they were not ready to make, or even face yet.
Two couples, and friends with each other a few years ago. Both the wives were doing well physically and mentally. But both husbands were in a steep decline mentally. One of the wives was very open about it. “Boy he’s losing it Denise. Honestly he says at least 30 times a day, what should we do now? Enough to drive me crazy. And I love him with all my heart.” The other wife was very private about her husband’s illness of memory loss. If I’d call, she was cordial and polite. We had a nice visit–over the phone. She just wasn’t ready to let me in. Not into the house physically, or into her world and confidence yet. Just not ready to face the issue with me, still pretty much a stranger. Funny, after I’d been visiting with them for a couple years, she actually apologized. “We needed you. I needed you. I’m so sorry it took me years to admit it and let you in. Your visits are wonderful and your support has helped me so much.” Nice to hear. Wish I had gotten in sooner. Both husbands are gone now, but the gals are still doing well.
Wonder what it is that determines how we react to something? John and I have had small health issues. Nothing big, thanks God. And yes, we often keep it just between us. Don’t want to worry the kids needlessly. They’re busy and have their own lives. I vividly remember when I was in my mid and late 40’s. Hard to admit, but I was really kind of angry when Mom and Dad started calling me about their failing health issues. Then feeling guilty about those negative feelings. I wasn’t ready or willing to see, face, or deal with those issues yet. Denial. I didn’t want things to change or go wrong. But nothing stays the same, and we can’t stop time…