There is something indefatigable about an intimate family life, something most beautiful when things are darkest, or most absurd. It’s like, the cynic in me, the girl-then-woman raised in a “militant agnostic” home (my father, anyway), some of the reasons I’ve written here for years is an attempt to communicate what it’s like to live my experience. The more I’ve written, the easier it flows, and the happier I feel. I mean often I don’t even think how valuable or interesting this might be to others, I’m just compelled to try to tell you about it if you want to read. I think there’s a lot to gain in relating to one another.
But yeah, there are these great moments in a family that are kind of … terrible moments. Like yesterday while we drove out to a birthday party, with three kids packed in the back of the car, one kid holding a cake and another a cat in a carrier (for a “pet show” of sorts), and suddenly the cat starts puking. Like you can really hear the chunkage, back there. And then there’s this sudden silence from three previously-rowdy kids and my daughter silently rolls down the window and somberly says, “You in the front: you’re lucky.” I mean I felt terrible for my kitty – who ceased vomiting upon arrival, only hours later to start up again as soon as we got back in the car – but it was one of those deliciously ridiculous FAILmoments that is best experienced with those you love, love, love.
Cake and birthday wishes. An honor to share them with others:
“Pet contest”, Harris was given special consideration for his sadness. Those are my two kids at left in the eared-hats.
Life has been lovely the last couple days. Today I’m having another painful series of episodes with my kidneys. That is never encouraging. I have accepted my illness in full (except for one nagging caveat, see below), and I am grateful for these repeated bouts of pain as they have taught me a great deal about acceptance. These experiences have also taught me a great deal about unconditional love, to wit: I receive it from many of my friends, and all of those in my close family.
Having this ailment has taught me a lot about humility.
I know it seems like I wouldn’t have anything good to say about a supposedly zero-sum illness, but I do. Still, sometimes the remnants of denial rear their head. I keep thinking, Why me? (not out of self-pity, just a genuine bit of confusion), or thinking, any minute I’ll be “cured” and this won’t be happening any more. Still, these are only blips on my radar, persistant as they are. To the extent I am serene and genuinely grateful through such a puzzling experience, I can put that at the feet of first my alcoholism and then my resultant experience in Recovery.
I know I’m going to learn more about why I’m sick in this way – if not the nuts and bolts or a scientific explanation – and one day I’ll be able to tell you, Why Me.
By the way. In honor of Father’s day I’m re-linking a couple posts about my father’s influence on my life (and my thoughts on his death), recent writings if you didn’t see them the first time around. If you have seen them, apologies for redundancy. I didn’t need to write another piece, so soon, and I didn’t make time to write one about Ralph or any other fathers in my life.
I know I recently wrote a bit about my father… this piece, however, was written a while back, at the request of the editor of Grays Harbor College’s zine.
I’m grateful for cancer
by Kelly Hogaboom Originally published in “The Diversifieds”, Grays Harbor College Aberdeen WA, Spring 2012
Caption: My father and I, Huntington Beach CA
My father was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000. I remember where I was when my mother told me – I was eating a white fish sandwich and fries at, of all places, the Southshore Mall food court. I was stunned to hear the news, although even in that split second it wasn’t the spectre of Death and Doom I sensed. I was shocked, sure, and over the next eight years I’d experience a lot of sadness and sorrrow. But I don’t remember being frightened or angry.
I learned so much during his illness as he received treatment and surgery, then went into remission. During this time I discovered much about him, a lot about my family and friends, and a great deal about myself. I took time out of work when he’d have his first radiation, his first chemo, then his surgery. I travelled to be with him. I do not know how glad he was that I did this, but over time it made me more centered, stronger, calm in my convictions that if I was a welcome presence for someone, I wanted to there for their big journeys. And, thankfully, he was there for mine – I remember he had a fine new growth of hair for my wedding, some months off chemo. That day we all celebrated his life and that of my new family.
Don’t get me wrong, there were disappointments along the way. His illness had been missed a full year before by a doctor who dismissed blood in his stool. I think my mother might have been angry about this. I accepted things as they were – for the most part. Sometimes my mind would churn on the “What if…?” I remember this mind would also hook on strange yet strong desires – like that he could live on and be there when my children graduated high school. Why this particular milestone, I do not know (funnily enough, they’re homeschooled now anyway!).
My father, during one of innumerate rounds of chemo. The staff were always so kind and professional.
During this time my grandmother in California fell very ill to a stroke, and my experiences with grave illness were very much with me. I packed up my new husband and baby and we flew down to be with the family, despite some protestations of my employer. She died after five days and I grew all the more. I was living life, not avoiding its terms.
My father’s cancer returned, this time blooming throughout his body. Again: chemo, pills, appointments. He had to stop long-distance running, a passion he’d excelled at since we’d moved to Grays Harbor. In September of 2006 he called us where we were living – Port Townsend, Washington – and let us know there was a job opening in Aberdeen that would be appropriate for my husband. I’m smiling as I write this, because my father rarely called me for any reason. We knew we was asking us to his home, asking us to bring our small children and spend time with him before he left.
When my father died in August of 2008 I was with him. My mother and I nursed him at home with the help of hospice. This too had its surprises and challenges, but it was deeply satisfying work. On August 22nd I stroked his hand and held him and spoke, only a little, and calmly, as he struggled through his last breaths. I felt brave and very Present, filled with transcendant love, shining bright within my body out through my fingertips. When he finally drew his last breath my mother jumped up to make a phone call. It was as if I had all the privacy in the world. I put my head on the bed and cried sobs from the very heart of me, the deepest I have ever cried.
After he died, many expressed sentiments. Some seemed to understand my mind, many did not. A surprising number couldn’t bring themselves to visit, or speak to us at all. I learned a lot there, too.
Brevity prohibits me from listing the many things I learned along the way from my father’s illness, treatment, and death – and especially that year and a half after we moved to be close to him, when every day I saw him I was filled with joy, a knowledge of how precious he was to me. It wasn’t remission or pills or chemo that gave me these things, although I am grateful such options are available to those who want and can have them. But cancer gave me these things, that enlightenment, that knowledge of how deeply I loved, the ability to slow down and savor our time together.
I could write so much and the many moments of deep satisfaction and awareness this process afforded me. But it is not necessarily afforded everyone – my journey was not my father’s, nor my mother’s or brother’s, and they may have very different experiences to report. When it comes down to it, this is what I believe: the journey my father took is one we all take – in some form or other – and I am grateful I do not experience anger about this. Just sadness, and then: gratitude. Life is an incredible blessing and experience.
Just the other day a girlfriend told me a loved one in her life had metastatic cancer. I had the presence of mind to ask her if she’d been through this before – cancer; she said No. She also related she hadn’t been through death of someone close, yet. Over the course of the next forty minutes, we both shed some tears. What I believe, because I know this woman a bit and know some about her past, and know what kind of friends and spiritual practices she has in her life, is that this will be very good for her. And it will hurt very much.
All I have to offer is my own experience, or what others have related to me. I was remembering my dad got pretty low when his cancer returned. It’s like, we’d been all excited years back after he had his surgery (before I got married), and we were so relieved after he went through the gut-rending radio and chemo and all that. The surgery was deeply disturbing and it left him physically changed. Everything changed. He got back up to running but at times was too ill to do so (he was a long distance runner who adored the practice), he couldn’t even walk around in his tightie-whities anymore in the house, as he had a colostomy bag and was of course quite shy about that. His hair changed, his appetite changed. Our hopes for the future were smashed in some cases, or caught jaundice.
In the last year of his life the news just kept getting worse, I guess “worse” is a judgment – I guess what I mean is, we knew his time was ticking down. Anyway I remember visiting one afternoon and he was drinking this huge glass of wine and it was early in the day. My mom, dad, and I all drank alcoholically but my dad and I were a lot the same, drinking at night and rarely acting much different, at least to outside perceptions. Seeing him with a huge glass of Uncle Carlo, and him so quiet and depressed, it hurt. I talked to my mom later, likely unskillfully and without tact. But, I was just worried; it hurt to see him go through depression. The next day my dad showed up at my house and was all pissy. “You’re saying I’m drinking too much?” Believe it or not, this exchange meant a lot to me. We were talking about something real, something intimate. It seems like something families should do.
Some people in our lives viewed my father’s cancer and demise as some kind of pathetic tragedy or whatever. I never felt this way. I felt sad, but I didn’t feel piteous about any of it. My memory is, I felt so gifted to be given this time to reflect, and love and serve, and really really really appreciate my father (and the rest of my family). And yeah, it hurt. It hurt him, I know, in his way, and it hurt me in mine. It hurt lots of people, in their own way.
I was privileged to be there with him while he died. I nursed him and I took it seriously. I learned a lot. I remember the last thing my father ate. A plum. I got to learn, while his appetite waned, that you can’t “make it better” by fixing food. Food is a kindness but there comes a time we are beyond it.
I cry when I think about my father, because I loved him very much. Despite a lot of difficulties, I did well during his death. I don’t know if he did or not; only he can judge that.
Death is like birth, an incredible opportunity to live life and to experience the incredible gift.
In my “writings” section, which if you haven’t figured it out is where I’m more likely to be all opinion-y and uppity and tell people how to live their lives, I responded to a question posed: Is unschooling a form of anarchy? I wrote that thing fast, as I had kids swinging off my arms etc. Anyway.
This weekend, due to this or another thing, we do not have money for gas for my mom’s borrowed truck – nor groceries. A problem, to be sure. In addition there is a particular sting in not being able to take the kids to the Relay for Life and grab them an elephant ear or whatever, but this sting doesn’t have the maudlin, intense, and guilt-laden feel the way it used to, way back when things were more grim and felt entirely unmanageable – and, in some real ways, were. For some time now we’ve been able to pay our bills, a circumstance which apparently, sadly, was needed for my spirituality and outlook to improve.
I try and mostly succeed in being patient we don’t have running cars (I had to hustle my ass via bike and bus twice yesterday). Working cars will likely come, in time. Yet it is hard to be so sanguine when we don’t have food and I am preoccupied with other work I need to do. This week I am considering what to do regarding the Conch, as there are some changes afoot regarding that enterprise (and you all deserve, and will receive, an update soon). I would very much like pay out for groceries so we can cook for people on Wednesday. I think I will not be able to decide on this, not in the next few hours at least.
The 24 Hour Relay for Life is in it’s 25th year here in Hoquiam (we always used to call it “the cancer run” and I still slip up) and started up last night. I hadn’t been to the Relay since my father died. This year I walked quietly and thought on him, and all in my life he has missed, that I wish he could share in. I miss his advice as it spoke to the heart of me.
The Relay here is quite impressive; Hoquiam’s Relay consistently performs in the top ten in America for money raised per capita. It is also now a party-like atmosphere with all sorts of barbecues, food, drunkenness and drug use, hugs and tears, joyful friendships and skirmishes, people fooling around in tents, drama, and grab-assery; in short, the whole beautiful mess of the human condition. I observed parts of the drag show and although it was a funny affair I felt sad to see the hints of mockery evidenced: mocking women, especially trans women, hints of homophobia. If I had the energy – and I do not today – I would (do more research, then) write the organizers with some commentary and advice on how to improve this feature of the Relay (for starters, a drag show that included the possibility of women in drag as men, would immediately benefit inclusivity).
But really, that whole bit was a footnote on an otherwise lovely walk with my husband and daughter – on a beautiful night.
Today Nels and I were up at odd hours. He stayed up all night and I awoke after a very brief sleep, at about 5 AM. Our son was thrilled, thrilled to be awake during his father’s getting-ready-for-work routine. The boy talked nonstop, fetched Ralph this or that, took wet towels in from the bathroom, devoured a honeycrisp apple with great delight, stole some noodles Ralph “accidentally” left steaming on the counter. He followed his father through the house, his entire body a spritely comma jumping in well-timed energetics. “Mmm Daddy?” he’d query politely, waiting for Ralph’s attention, then launch into his latest thought/fantasy/dream/suggestion/question. Minecraft beta is new and an update was released today; Nels was looking forward to bug fixes.
I decided I would try to rest instead of getting by on a three-hour sleep schedule, so I declined the fragrant and lovely coffee Ralph made up (which he did just for me since he doesn’t drink the stuff at home in the morning). I was nowhere near sleepy even after he left so I finished a pair of pants for Phoenie (pictures soon) and then cleaned and closed up my sewing room.
The sunlight was streaming through the house, dispelling our darkest-day-in-four-centuries just two days before. It was quite and warm and cozy. I poured myself a large ice-cold glass of water and drew a bath for my son and I.
Nels’ hair is reaching down past his shoulders now. It is one of my small but deeply-experienced pleasures in life, playing with or stroking it or burying my face in it or caring for it as much as he lets me. I don’t know how much longer until he decides he wants it cropped short again. Like mine, his hair tangles up and kitchens in the back; I’ve had to cut knots out of my hair if I leave it up and sleep on it. We could have a total mess of white-person dreds in no time. Nels doesn’t like having his knots brushed through, no matter how careful I am, but I’m guessing he’d like the dreds even less.
In the bath my son’s body is lean and spare and you can see every bone in his little ribcage and his high shoulder blades like butterfly wings. We had our arms around one another in the sunlight and he tangled his toes up in mine and his neck was the Most Delicious Thing. I was reminded of the many baths my babies and I took when they really were babies. There’s almost no other comparable pleasure, just having that time together, the closeness and the healing and the Love. I’m glad, so glad, to have experienced so many years of these rituals and maybe get a few more.
After bath I helped him brush his teeth and I combed through his hair and clipped his nails and dried him off and set the bathroom to rights. Wandering through the house in a kind of sleep-deprived daze. I was too tired to work (besides a teeny bit of housework after our bath), too desirous of rest to watch a film or read a book that was good, gripping, or adrenaline-inducing. I settled on the Netflix streaming of “The Beast”, an FBI drama starring the late (and much-beloved at Casa del Hogaboom) Patrick Swayze and some douchily-written young feller, obviously the paragon of sexy leading man (to the dudebro producers/directors/writers) because everyone in the show seemed to refer to his good looks about eight times an episode. Yeah, “The Beast” was pretty funny. It was heralded as “DEEP UNDERCOVER” (Big Deal!) which means, OMG the “good guys” are totally these antiheroes and they’re gonna have to go in deep, and like do drugs and slap women around and cut corners and murder deserving perps at their own discretion because it’s just Such! Important! Work! and that’s what it’s like, Man! At one point there are these eighteen layers of deception and drug dealers who are really cops pretending to be bad guys pretending to be cops etc. so essentially you had all these fistfights and gunshots and crack-smoking mindgames and punchouts* with eighteen people in the room and as it finally turns out only one of them ACTUALLY was a Bad Guy (seems a bit inefficient to me). Hm, what’s the word they were going for, that’s right, “Gritty”. Yeah, it was trying to be Gritty. Swayze was fun to watch, as always. His pancreatic cancer (and more likely, the concomitant chemo) had hacked away at his features and prematurely aged him. How well I remember this effect in my own father.
While I watched (with headphones) this watered-down Grand Guignol my son played Minecraft next to me, occasionally placing a hand on my arm so I’d pause the drama and remove the headphones and watch what he had to show me. Soon he was playing YouTube lyric videos and practicing some singing (a few songs I hadn’t heard before, love songs of course). At about 10 AM I sensed his little body, back up against me and slightly curled-up, was inert. I removed the laptop and placed it on the floor, tucked my son in, and a while later settled into my own slumber.
My husband is home for the weekend/holiday, something all four of us have been looking forward to. While Nels and I slept this afternoon, Ralph and Phoenix made a chicken potpie from scratch and did some Christmas shopping and wrapping. It’s almost embarassing how much work Ralph can get done when the two squawkiest-birds in the nest are down for the count. And I know it was nice for the two of them to spend some time together.
A day where I didn’t set foot outside. Rare for me, but they still make me uneasy. I’m hoping for another day of sun so I can get a little tomorrow.
* Yes, if you were reading closely you might think it is odd THIS is the sort of easy stuff I select for “resting”, and and god-bless-me, don’t know why, but No, this sort of show doesn’t generally upset me when it’s caper stuff with beefy hoodlums shooting at one another – it’s the constant rape/kid murder CSI misery-porn I usually have no stomach for.
Dad has put up both the bird feeders he got for his birthday (one’s a hummingbird feeder right outside the living room, and the other is a regular wood feeder for robins and such). So when I bring my cat down she sits on the windowsill and tries to “catch” these birds from inside the house. The double-paned storm windows that she continually bashes her thick little head into don’t seem to dampen her enthusiasm. Everyone laughs at her, especially Billy [my brother], who resents how old and fat she makes Puma [Billy’s cat] look in comparison. I have to admit she isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, that’s for sure. Although to give her credit she is excellent at catching the flies in the house. She catches one, releases it, catches, releases, etc. until she can manage to get a claw hooked in the curtains, at which point she decides to “kill” that too.
– letter to my sister Juliet, May 27, 1998
The other day Sophie [age 4] wrote this on the computer: â€œSophie Daddy Mama Nels loves Blackie so much.â€
– blog entry, November 14, 2006
The last couple weeks I’ve especially enjoyed the companionship of Blackie (we also call her Blackstone), my eldest kitty. A svelte 7.5 pounds, a tiny little inky-black creature with a white bellypatch, in our new house she comes and finds me while I read or knit and sits either above me on the top of the couch, or just behind me on the floor. She doesn’t sprawl, but pulls herself into a tiny ball, her paws and tail tucked. Just thinking about my nearness she begins to purr loudly; it takes others considerable effort to incite that response. I laugh because her purr is kind of rumbly and junky; it reminds me of when she was younger and would climb on my lap and begin to knead my chest. The motion was always awkward and snappy and she had a look in her eye like it was not her but her cyborg arms doing the work; she didn’t know how it was happening.
Blackie came to me my junior year of college. I was having a bad year. I’d been left by my closest friends, had a bad breakup then a not-so-bad breakup in recent months. School was hard yet boring; I was a lonely, crummy person and not a good friend to much of anyone. My roommate J. brought the cat to our apartment one night, then left – J. was never home but stayed with her boyfriend across the city. The cat hadn’t been especially cared for when she came into our apartment. She’d been moved from an apartment full of young people to someone’s parents’ house; she came with a rather unfortunate name referencing drug-use since her original owners used to blow pot smoke or whatever in her face (I couldn’t bear to call her by this name but never did name her; the unfortunate and unimaginative “Blackie” was the result of my indecision). She was a tiny, fearful little thing that hid under my bed and wouldn’t be cajoled out.
It wasn’t my cat and I didn’t give much of a damn about it at first. I found the creature amusing, and silly, because it was so fearful and unappealing. She seemed to not have the slightest bit of affection or grace. She was unique in that most non-feral cats, especially young ones, will quickly seek out food and love and companionship; not so for this one. She was like a solid, cold, shiny lump of dread and loathing.
I can’t remember how long it took her to begin venturing out from my bed. But by the time my mother visited me a few weeks later, the cat had somehow attached to me. I showed my mom a trick; I’d acquired a produce box with holes in it which I would lay on its side. The creature would inevitably find the box irresistible and creep inside; then I would dangle a feather on a string just outside these holes. My mom stared, dismayed, at the inky black paw with the abnormally-large gleaming white claws that snaked viciously out of the hole in the box and batted repeatedly and cruelly at the feather. My mom tried to think of something nice to say and faltered.
But I do admit, the cat became an important companion. She made me laugh, a lot of the time. Her litterbox was in my bathroom; she’d wait until I returned home before she’d go in and scratch at her box while I washed my face. I laughed at this because it seemed so ungainly and contrary to the desire for privacy I thought cats naturally had. I gained comfort in caring for her; I fed her oily tuna mixed with egg and vitamins and cream (my father, hearing about this, called the concoction “Powerball”) and I’d turn off the bathroom humidifier the minute I reasonably could, because I knew it made her uncomfortable.
Soon the cat liked me enough I felt it wasn’t right to leave her alone for the weekends. I decided it would be best if I took her with me when I went to my parents’. I did this with J.’s permission; during one such discussion (I felt guilty taking custody of someone else’s cat, even an owner often absent) it became apparent Hey, free cat if you want it. And so I became Blackie’s “owner”, although that doesn’t fit. In truth she became my familiar and longtime companion through my life’s many adventures to come.
While I attended the University of Washington in Seattle for the next year and a half she lived in apartments on busy streets with as much self-sufficient aplomb as she’d display in every other scenario I can think of. I let her outside and she never found trouble; or if she did, she escaped it unscathed. I used to take her in my backpack when I’d go catch a bus or visit a friend. I remember talking to a woman as I walked across the UW campus and I mentioned I had my cat in my schoolbag and the woman smiled thinly and stepped back – because I was lying, or weird, or both. Blackie didn’t soil the backpack (I would come to believe this would be true of any cat, but it’s not, ask me how I know this) and although I don’t think she enjoyed it exactly, she settled in, just as she always had. She rode in backpacks and on my lap in cars. One time I went to a houseparty in Montesano late at night, on my way back to Seattle. Trusting her, I let her roam outside while I visited friends; two hours later she came back when called, and we continued on our way. One time she got out of my car on the Ave in Seattle and slunk under parked cars while I tried to be calm and worked at catching her. Eventually two transients stopped and helped me corral her to safety – this was after many, many students and clean-looking “decent” people walked by, pretending not to notice our plight.
The first birthday I shared with this cat was my twenty-first; months after that I began dating Ralph. My new boyfriend liked my kitty; I remember in July that year (1998) I made him a birthday card with her silhouette. She became a source of constant joy and, it must be said, mockery, for the rest of our time together; she was my family and later, his. I moved to Port Townsend upon graduation and lived in a house-share. The boyfriend became husband and soon after we had babies. Throughout these most important events in my life, Blackie was constant. She was never a problem with infants or moving or other pets (although she profoundly disliked the latter). She has been, throughout all situations, tidy and prepossessing, and most loyal to me.
She has never been any trouble at all.
My cat is old now – we estimate fourteen. She is a bit creaky and arthritic and over the years has shrunk even smaller than her original eight-plus pounds – back when she was a young lass ably catching flies on the windowsill. Even so, in examining her last Wednesday it seemed to me she’d lost weight that couldn’t be merely age-related; Friday we had in her into the vet in what resulted in a series of tests (a “cat” scan – actually a double x-ray, plus bloodwork, ultrasound). We discovered that under her winter coat her weight, shockingly, had dropped to 5.25 pounds. Despite this, and a weakened condition and high respiratory rate, the vet told me they had trouble restraining her for nail clipping. A little fighter. When they brought her back to me she again started purring at the sight of me.
Sunday I found out Blackie has cancer with no hope of treatment. But I didn’t know this when I went home Friday. We had a steep vet bill and medications and fancy cat food ($27 for 5 lbs.!) and all of that, even though she was so thin and breathing in an alarming way, meant that we’d get on top of this thing and she’d live out a long(er) natural life. And I was only a tiny bit troubled that Friday night after frowning over the x-ray the doctor said, “We’ll review this and call you tomorrow”, even though I am no stranger to cancer and I know what these kind of things usually mean. I was in a fantasy of health and healing, things I am good at and have had success with thus far; I pet her and fed her and dosed her.
And then Sunday we got the call and the doctor said all this stuff about “rule outs” and “prognosis” and “severe lung pathology” and just like that, once again, someone is taken from me with my pre-awareness.
Sunday night I was picking up more medicines – including painkillers – and since that evening I’ve been watching her decline with that feeling of agonizing hopelessness, regret, and yes, guilt. Yet she is still constant. I bring her food and water and I give her love and she still purrs when I touch her.
This little feline has lived with me in nine houses, in three cities, for twelve years. She’s survived two cats that were adopted after her; she’s learned to love my children (with wariness). Her health has been stellar up until this final blow; besides vaccines and one deworming pill she’s had no medical issues or ill-health besides a cold now and then. Last year, as part of her geriatric exam, she was given a full blood workup – the same tests done a few days ago – and showed great health for her age. And I guess I really just thought we’d have more time together.
People think dogs alone are faithful of the small domesticated animals, but my kitty has changed my perception on that. She has never wandered off nor left me; even in a hellish house-share in Port Townsend with a vicious un-neutered male dog (part German Shepherd, part grizzly bear) that relentlessly chased her with the intent of felicide. Blackie moved out to the back shed and waited – for three weeks. She wouldn’t come near the horrible dog (quite sensibly) but wouldn’t leave me, either. Over the years her record at loyalty, toughness, independence and fidelity would remain untarnished.
So we’ve spent about $337 dollars on the cat in the last few days, but it was the last $40 that was the hardest. This is the amount of money I’ve spent on pain medication and (futile) lungworm medicine. The fancy bag of expensive cat-food I’d been complaining (boasting) about, she no longer eats. I find myself resentful of my two young, very healthy cats. They offer no comfort and seem, in their glowing health, to be taking her life force. In effect, I currently feel about them like a lot of people feel about cats: disinterest and mild dislike. I know this will pass.
And let me just skip the part where nursing my cat’s ailment of lung cancer is a lot like the way nursing my father was, dying the same way. I won’t go into that.
Last night she left her heater and food and water in the living room and joined me in bed, huddled up on my pillow like she has done so many nights before. She is uninterested at finding the litter box, so in the morning I found a mess on the pillow, which she’d politely at least kept from me. I cleaned the mess and brought her food and water and pain medication and my affection. Soon, after all these years, I will decide it is time to have her euthanized.
Very soon we will be saying goodbye.
My Blackie Kitty is doing well. The other night I was at a friend’s house with a few people and I started badmouthing my cat, all telling funny stories about how stupid she is, and my friend Ralph pipes up, “Yeah Kelly, you reallyhate your cat. Every time I’m over as soon as she meows you jump up and get her food. And it’s usually food out of the fridge, like fresh tuna!”
– letter to my sister Juliet, Thursday, July 2, 1998
In her old age and with the cold winter Blackie has let go her snobbishness and her anger (at the world) for allowing a new kitten into our home; in the morning she is minutely hunched just to my left, sleeping silently and leaving a mat of black cat hair such that each morning she sleeps with us I have to clean the bedclothes.
My husband’s co-worker M.* is very sick with what looks like an advanced case of cancer. Ralph has, since taking the job at the college, been bringing my food – especially my baked goods – to share at work. M. has really enjoyed my breads especially. I think at first he thought maybe we were bread-peers to have a competition, but he’s now thrown over as me the “winner” and him the recipient of my awesome bread. So I’ve taken to baking a loaf just for M. I love baking bread – I mean I love it, it will lift me out of any minor depressive state. And I love making it for other people even more.
Food-wise today I also made a yellow cake with double-chocolate cream cheese frosting and decorative kumquats and of course, breakfast and dinner (chicken lettuce wraps and vegetable fried rice). For lunch the kids and I took shelter from the rain at one of our favorite local eateries, a homey place that specializes in Italian fare. The three of us split a steak lunch and I wrapped every bit of extra meat in a piece of foil to take home to the cats.
I love diner eating with the kids for lunch. It feels like a little tradition of sorts. I won’t lie, the kids don’t always never sit still and if I’m hungry it sets me on edge. I’ve been smart lately and brought some math workbooks for the two of them to mess about with while we wait for our meal. Nels in particular shows a joy and adventurous proficiency in the subject; he worked on a first grade level today and after solving the numeracy problems assiduously decorated each cone, square, circle and triangle into corresponding real-life shapes (party hat, wooden block, eyeball, and tooth, resp.). Sophie and I sat on one side of the booth and we couldn’t get enough of holding one another, scooting in and kissing or snuggling. She smells better to me than just about anything else, even fresh-baked bread.
I am a dismantler. This afternoon Nels brings home all the odds and ends from his year at preschool including an autograph book, an academic workbook compilation, he and Sophie’s pottery work, and several pieces of art. In a few minutes I’ve taken his Emergency Pack apart, the snacks returned to the cupboard, the small stuffed animal returned to his home in the kids’ room, the large ziploc bag in the sewing room stuffed with cotton scraps for donation to the local trinkets shop – where I will stop on the bike, on errands this afternoon. Nels’ art is hanging on little clips in our kitchen, the end-of-year picnic notice recycled and the date put on my Google calendar.
A few minutes later at the kitchen table I’m helping the kids learn to operate a toy bow and arrow (Sophie’s choice of toy while visiting the local dollar store) and finishing the final details on two cotton dresses: a bubble dress (self-drafted), and the slip from Folkwear’s intimacies. Within a few minutes after setting the garments to washing and air-drying I am dusting and sweeping my sewing room, moving on to the next project (finishing corset #2 – my grommets arrived via mail yesterday).
Tonight I’ve organized a small craft event at the local deli; a series of modest art projects for our community’s children. The last day I’ve been assembling a few crafts revolving around the natural world: clouds, leaves, flowers. The supplies sit in a basket waiting to be loaded on the bike. Sophie’s swim team gear hangs in a duffel bag on the porch, where she knows she can grab it as she runs out the door.
I have to make something clear – I do not really get a high from operating an efficent house, if that’s what it sometimes sounds like. It’s much more like I can’t stand to let our busy life spill into chaos. And sometimes, weirdly, all my tidying and cleaning leaves me to feeling like I have nothing in my hands, get nothing done; our house often looks to me almost bare, despite the fact there is a very active family living here. The rooms are full of music and laughter, or bath water running and arguments; only the most recent artwork, no messy history except maybe two days worth of cat hair clumps. No history, no cumulative work. I don’t find clutter comforting and I don’t find myself attached much to any given house or piece of furniture.
What do I find joyful? Yesterday, in the car, rolling back the sunroof as the music came on and the sun spilled over the bare shoulders of my daughter, tall and willowy and strong. Today, apologizing to her and having her accept me, her body close as I leaned down for a kiss and smelled her hair, her body, one of the most delicious experiences I have to me. Flipping through my son’s yearbook and seeing, “What Makes Me Smile?” and his response: “Good Food.” Today upon showing him remedial archery principles; on the first try he sent an arrow flying across the kitchen, and looked up at me, eyes wide and his little body jerking in shock at his unexpected success. My husband and his small but many kindnesses, turning the bed down and pouring me a glass of wine, every single day he asks me how my day has been.
This evening is also the Relay For Life, a very popular event in these parts (I believe Hoquiam’s relay ranks in the nation’s top ten per capita “earnings”). Last year my parents walked the first lap together: this lap reserved for those who’ve had cancer and lived to tell about it. I’ve never given much of a damn for a defiance with regard to the personalization of the disease, “Cancer Sucks”, etc. etc. It’s almost as if I’m too tired and heartbroken to make an imaginary person, a foe, of something that is just another version of death. The more I think about the Relay the less I want to go. Instead: crawl into bed tonight and wake early for a train trip with my children and my mother.
This morning while brushing my teeth I discovered a small, irate monster dwelling in my breast: guilt. I’d heard of so-called “survivor’s guilt” but until that moment didn’t realize I’d been mired in it.
It’s useless to try to describe, even though I love to write, I love to come to a point or make a point and feel well-expressed. It’s simple: I feel guilt. I feel guilt no matter how hard I work, how correctly I conduct myself, and especially when I’m not over-working, when I know I could be doing more or better. I feel guilt sometimes (but not always) when I’m going about my business – when I’m telling my mother I’m taking an embroidery class next Monday. What right do I have to make plans, to rub the point in further that I have a life to move on to while my father does not?
I visit my parents this afternoon after the girls I babysat have been picked up by their mother. My mom tentatively feels me out for coming back over at 3:30 to sit with my father while she gets her hair done. I support my mom having time away so much that I’d probably do just about anything to help her acquire it.
So this means instead of coming home and letting my kids play with the new toy I bought them (yay pizza!) while I lie down or take a bath or even sew a little, instead I will come home and take care of my children’s needs quickly then bike back over there and sit with my father and watch him struggle to breathe. This is a decidedly less pleasant affair than watching someone struggle to breathe who is going to recover. This is watching someone over a period of days slowly be strangled, but there’s a lot of free time to say stupid things like, “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” but mostly just sit and feel so completely ineffectual and feel like it’s your fault. True story.
When you are supporting people who are experiencing a loss people will tell you “it must mean so much to them” and “they know you are there and it gives them peace”, but I have no particular knowledge that in any way my presence, my hugs, my deliveries of food or juice or water, my talk, my silence, my prayers do any good at all. I know they comfort my mother; she tells me this. I know in no way if I help my father, at all.
If I wasn’t pressed for time I’d write more: that the idea of “help” is selfish (there is very little I can do), the idea of “guilt” is selfish (it’s all about me!). The concept of being present, while your loved one suffers and dies, is all I can do, and sometimes it’s hard to do even that.
Last night we had a very small gathering which was only in part about my mother’s birthday. I made a cake; or rather, I made the best frosting ever, and fucked up the cake on eighteen levels, and Ralph saved the day with his amazing cake re-animator skills, and it turned out an *awesome* cake. We dressed the kids up nice and packed up the birthday gift and homemade card and headed to meet family.
My father’s brother and sister had arrived in town to stay at my parents’ house hours after the piano has been moved and minutes after an adjustable bed (complete with oscillating air mattress to forestall bedsores), wheelchair, and oxygen tank had been installed. My mother hadn’t been happy at first when it dawned on her my dad wasn’t well enough to go out to dinner (the original plan). So after a talk with me on the phone she decided to pick up dinner. Now I’m in the living room talking to my aunt and uncle, the kids crawling on everyone, Ralph fixing my aunt and I a cocktail, and my mother nervously chopping up a salad. She’s feeling glad for my family’s help yet somehow “responsible” for everyone’s food, good time, and happiness. P.S. her influence is something I struggle with daily – being a hostess, but not taking on The Weight Of The World by doing so, either.
My dad sits quietly. Sometimes his head is in his hands. Sometimes he smiles. He joins in the conversation then sinks away. We ask if he needs more medicine. After he has a coughing fit that lasts a while, Nels approaches his knee gravely and tells him to drink his water.
After dinner the kids are absolutely obsessed with the electric bed that’s not in the living room. I tell them after dinner, wash hands, let us make it up, then you can get in. In tucking in sheets and sorting out pillows I realize I am making up my own father’s deathbed. Sometimes I get these dramatic sentences, they pop in my head. But it doesn’t need to feel bad. Why not a deathbed? I remember us making up my bed for my son’s delivery, at home. This was an occasion too of worries, of expectation, of the unknown. The more time I spend at my parents’ home the more similar and deep the experiences of birth and death seem to me. It’s not even as simple as one event is joyous and the other sad, although I know so many see it that way.
The kids are in the bed, giggling. Nels says he’s “dying”, sticks his tongue out, dramatically falls back in bed. Sophie manifests a convincing consumptive cough. Ralph ministers to them by pouring out “medicine” (Diet Coke!) in a teaspoon. They love this. They cuddle-wrestle. My mother moves the bed into different positions. Nels snaps to this concept and when my mother leaves he immediately finds and operates the bed control. She returns, scolds him. He is banished from the bed for the evening.
This morning my mom arrives on the bike to deliver some leftover baked sweets that came into her life. People bring food to her home and it is appreciated, so very much, although I think people (including myself) may be bringing a few too many sweets – at least in the days when it’s just my mom and dad in the house. But food doesn’t go to waste around here. For instance, I made her a pie last week from fresh-picked berries (actually I made three, gave them to various and sundry) and she was able to take it to church and share it, something I knew gave her satisfaction.
I don’t mean to go on about food. My mother’s mood this morning is almost elated, girlish. She has somehow escaped hostess duties for a little bit of exercise, a drop-in visit bearing gifts. She hugs the children and cuddles the youngest chick before revealing what’s probably really got her happy: “David slept really well tonight,” she tells me (they had both slept poorly the night before). “He only woke up coughing once and I gave him some oxygen. I think that bed really helped.”
Life (death) will get difficult again. But last night our family gathering – interrupted with a welcome and sweet visit from two friends bringing, yes, pies and singing two-part “Happy Birthday” – wasn’t co-opted by maudlin experiences of sickness and dying, even as we were in the presence of such and indeed had gathered because of it.