August 15th 2011: While my father has been learning about real estate at a late age, my wife’s father has had his own adventures. In her words:
My Dad was diagnosed with esophageal cancer on December 1, 2010. He was treated with radiation in February, because, at 88, he is too old for chemo or surgery. A stent was also placed in his esophagus to facilitate eating, and he was referred to a palliative care doctor to further manage his case. This kind of cancer is generally terminal – the mean average time of survival from stent placement to lights out is about 18 weeks – thus the palliative care, even though Dad’s tumor was localized and had not spread.
However, in late June, he developed a tingling down his right arm and an inability to use his right hand for writing. The arm was also very painful. And he was extremely fatigued. The palliative care doctor, a kind and lovely East Indian woman thought it was nerve damage, from what she did not know, but suggested that Advil might do the trick to manage the pain. It managed the pain just fine, but not the use of his hand, which grew steadily worse.
Dad insisted on going back to get more answers. So we were given an appointment in July with another doctor, filling in for Dad’s doctor, who was on holiday. This palliative care doctor, (also a woman – I think they are all women) took more interest in his symptoms and ordered an MRI of his spine and neck, the unspoken supposition being that this could indicate a spread of his cancer. This doctor, older and more experienced, listened respectfully as Dad complained that he wanted to do so many things but fatigue and now this damn arm were keeping him in bed for much of the day. There must be a way of fixing this. The doctor winked at me and put a comforting hand on my arm, as if we were co-conspirators in indulging Dad’s denial of his true situation. Dad completely missed this silent gesture, and far from being comforted, I felt a rush of anger. WE ARE NOT IN THIS TOGETHER, DOC, OKAY? Neither Dad nor I are ready to go gently into that good night. We’re both sitting here, raging.
Dad and I waited almost three weeks to get called back for the results of the MRI. My sister came with us to the appointment, bracing for the worst. Our original doctor was back now, and held the results in her hand. Good news. No indication of the cancer spreading. Whatever Dad’s problem was, it was not cancer-related. She suggested a change in his pain medication, and a wait-and-see approach. It was certainly nerve-related, something to do with the ulnar nerve in his arm, but beyond that, frankly – a mystery.
My sister and I were incredibly relieved. We had dodged the cancer bullet – for now. But Dad was disappointed. If you don’t know what this thing is, how can you fix it? The doctor was sympathetic, kept a straight face when Dad suggested cutting the damn nerve, and suggested he keep up visits to his family doctor to monitor his blood work, which indicated that his hemoglobin was on the low side. That could account for his extreme fatigue. Or not. He was 88, after all. That seemed to be the blanket answer for everything.
The next weekend, my Dad insisted on driving his big white Cadillac up to the country churchyard where my Mom and scores of his family are buried. It was Decoration Day and he was determined to lay flowers at the graves of his parents and his wife. We made all sort of objections – there were a dozen drivers all ready and eager to take him up there. We’ll drive, Dad. You just sit back and enjoy the scenery.
No way. He was the driver. So my sister, her fiancé, and I sat in the air-conditioned Caddy and listened to jazz as Dad basically gunned it up the 400 series highways, expertly weaving in and out of heavy traffic, making the cemetery in record time. We laid our flowers, just as rain broke over our heads, stopped halfway back to Toronto at a fine Ontario roadhouse, where they served hot turkey sandwiches on white bread, and Dad bought us all lunch. He will be 89 in two weeks. He has survived the War, defied the odds of his diagnosis, the sympathetic assumptions of his palliative care doctor, the nervous Nellies that are his daughters, and the general belief that he should have hung his car keys up a good five years ago.
I think this is raging against the dying of the light, and I entirely approve.
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Part 11 Caregiver’s Diary: A New Year
Part 10 Caregiver’s Diary: Clean Sweep
Part 5 Caregiver’s Diary: Aftermath