“you have cancer,” the doctor said.
the man sat on the exam table, the paper gown embracing his slumped shoulders and frame that seemed to be shrinking by the moment.
“what did he say?” he asked his wife. he looked confused. his hearing was almost gone—the blame to be placed on war-time gunners blasted nearby while he worked on soldiers’ teeth on a naval boat in the south pacific.
his wife placed her hand atop his and repeated near his good ear, “honey, it’s cancer.”
his child-like eyes welled up with tears. his wife had never seen him this way. then again, she hadn’t thought it might end this way. she had always imagined him going to sleep in his chair one day—
after all, his most recent birthday cake had 88 candles. it looked like a rocket about to blast off.
there was hope. hope of shrinking the tumor. hope of being able to eat again. that had gotten difficult. too hard to swallow. all he wanted to do was drink milkshakes.
and the man loved to eat. despite being diagnosed with diabetes what seemed like ages ago, the man--stubborn, full of himself, throwing caution to the wind (who cares, i’m already old, he probably thought)—loved to eat. pies, cakes, cookies, pancakes soaked with 1/2 cup of syrup, ribs so saturated in bbq sauce that it drizzled down his chin and onto his trademark white v-neck t-shirts.
i often joked with him: “pop, you need to wear a bib.”
in the face of this ugly tumor, he was equally stubborn. “i’m going to beat this.”
there was no chance of operating. his age, his health (there were heart problems besides the diabetes) were not up to snuff for any kind of surgery. but radiation could give him a fighting chance. could. never know. up to chance. god. fill in the blank.
his wife drove him to and from his appointments, every day. sat by his side. coaxed him to eat. changed his clothes. washed his clothes. made his favorite foods. mashed them up. eventually spoon-fed them to him. pleaded with him. gave him ultimatums: “you eat this or you won’t get better.”
a week went by. two weeks went by. his spirits improved. we ate at denny’s. he cleaned his plate. looked fresh from the dishwasher. inside, my heart leapt.
another two weeks went by. we went to visit. he napped, hardly got out of bed. when he did stand up and come out, he walked across the kitchen and looked down only to see his pants around his ankles.
the weight loss.
his signature pot belly, slowly deflating like a balloon, until suddenly all that’s left is his waist and pants that won’t stay up.
more chemo, more radiation. then dinner, a celebration: you’re done! it’s over! and then the wait until the doctor’s appointment. the one where they tell him how everything looks in there. how much the radiation shrunk the tumor. what the prognosis is.
except the appointment never came.
more weight loss.
every week, we visit. kids run in, fling obligatory hugs before settling onto the carpet. oh, luxurious carpet. carpet to wrestle on. carpet they don’t have at home. the best part it seems to them of going to visit nana and poppa. child’s mind.
while hugs are being flung, i gasp. on the inside. every time. want to run out. i’m a runner. fight or flee: i’m a fleer. don’t want him to see me emotional. don’t want to be emotional. crying gives me a headache. so impractical. think my tear ducts are blocked. or i’m hardened by the layers of life.
but the tears, they somehow find a way into their respective pipes at the corner of my eyes. every time. every time he’s smaller. incredible shrinking man.
except not so incredible. tragically shrinking man.
i take pictures, document the moments, kiss his feverish forehead. tear up, scoot away. feel like i’m saying good-bye to a man who’s not yet gone but not really still here. feel guilty: what if he gets better? then how will i feel about thinking he was leaving us?
and she, by his side, protecting him, caring for him, never telling the whole truth. never telling how she was really watching him die, slowly. what a nightmare she was living.
66 years, caring for the same person. that generation, that’s the equation anyway: lopsided, one caring more for the other, woman caring more for the man. get me some coffee while you’re up. maybe say please sometimes. sometimes just i’m hungry, make me a sandwich.
like fingernails on a chalkboard to my ears. me, sassy, telling him, get your coffee yourself. she works hard. give her a break.
but now, jumping up to clear his plate, grab his napkin, anything to make him more comfortable. she’s always done it; i’ve refused. now we all pitch in.
but she makes the biggest sacrifice. sleepless nights. watching his eyes fade from mischief to fear.
and then one day it’s too much. i can’t do this anymore, she says. i’m tired. he is moved to a place better equipped to care for him. to make him comfortable.
on independence day.
on this day of freedom, a navy veteran of three wars moves to a place where he will become completely dependent.
oh irony. now you are not very funny.
so we go, we want to say hello, and we see him, lying in a bed, wanting to sit up to greet us but unable. can’t hear. can’t talk (much). grips our daughter’s hand and won’t let go. a shell of the man he was.
daughter turns with fear in her eyes and asks, what happened? last week he was ok.
he wasn’t, but it’s so hard to explain to little people what is happening to someone they love in front of their very eyes. to them, poppa’s always been old, always liked to come over and plop in a chair and take (multiple) naps, used a cane.
two days later, two days after independence day, 11 pm. ring. ring. hello? ok, thank you for calling and letting me know.
and then how to wake up the sleeping wife, who doesn’t hear the phone ring and ring and ring and ring and ring. the one who would never forgive you if you didn’t wake her up, let her say good-bye one more time.
come stay with us, we don’t want you to be alone. come just be with us.
details. errands. loose ends. odds and ends. phone calls. letters. visits. conversations. flag-draped coffin. gun salute. flowers. taps.
quiet weeping. always quiet. portrait of a lady. a strong, resilient, funny, caring, giving, loving, gentle lady.
who gave to a quiet, resilient, strong, funny, caring, giving, loving, gentle man.
different ways of showing it. same characteristics all the same.
love you, pop.