Every two weeks my dad receives a chemo treatment called “cpt-11” and I’ll bet my parents both bless and curse it. “Bless”, because of course, it is what keeps his CEA markers low and keeps cancer from eating another part of his body, this time more dire than his colon. “Curse” because, Jesus, in every other way it sucks. It takes time (about 5 – 6 hours of his day), it really hurts him, it makes him sick, it kills his blood platelets, and it costs (everyone) money. He often sleeps, naps, feels sick, and doesn’t eat for days afterwards – and if he’s lucky, he doesn’t get debilitating hiccups. P.S. those aren’t cute when you have them for days at a time.
After moving to HQX I told my mother I’d like to come along for the next appointment and so today she jumped at the chance. In the clinic at 10:30 my mom takes my children under her wing and shoves her copious notes into my arms (my dad has battled cancer for six years now) and my father and I end up in an exam room to wait for the oncologist. An assistant comes in and takes his vitals (weight down to 193) and asks some questions regarding health specifics, medications, then: “Are you having any problems?” “No,” he replies, laconic and (I think) rude to this young woman. I wait until she leaves and turn to him: “So your crippling bladder infection is ‘not a problem’?” “Not for her,” he says – whatever that means, but at least it means he is planning on telling his physician so I don’t have to rat out his plumbing business.
My dad and I sit for a while, silently. What hangs in the air for me is his CEA – is it going to be elevated, reduced? I read notes for a while. When I have a handle on recent events I ask questions: “So is Bactrim what you’ve been on every time you’ve had a bladder infection?” “When was your last PET scan?” We wait so long for the oncologist he starts to ask me questions, like if we’re going to take up the rental we looked at the night before.
By the time Dr. Sui arrives I believe my dad is comfortable with me being in the exam room. I instantly like the doctor; not the least of which I know my parents like him, having had his help for the last couple years. He is very sweet in demeanor, and not afraid to take minutes of quiet to look at the notes. “Sickness and fatigue?” he asks. He pronounces it “furtigue”. My dad self-diagnoses a bit and the doctor dissuades him with the tests they run; they talk about a recent bout of nausea and a lack of efficacy in his antibiotic. We discuss everything my mom wrote in the notes: the infection, a pro-active dosage of hiccup medicine, a different anti-nausea medication than the compazine he’s taken for years now. Then Sui tells us: his platelet count is good (145). But it’s time for another PET scan: if the news is bad, the possibility of weekly cpt-11. My dad is silent. I can sense his disappointment and fear. Sui explains the markers are slowly rising so we need a PET scan to look for a mass. I ask about the CEA – surely they ran one the day before when my dad gave blood? The doctor looks again and this time finds it. Ah – it is actually down a point or two. This isn’t definitive news, but it isn’t bad news either. My dad is suddenly more cheerful. The doctor moves to him and puts his hands and his instruments on his body. Seeing the tenderness of the physician’s hands makes me feel a sadness, a sweetness, for my father.
The PET scan is scheduled and we move to the room with armchairs and IVs for his chemo. In the hallway as I wait for my dad to give a urine sample (Sui was keen on this despite my father’s underrepresentation of the severity of the pain), the father of my childhood friend and college roommate comes into the hallway. He is scheduled for major surgery next week. He looks good and I know he must be “on break” from the intense radiation / chemo schedule he’s been on. I wonder if this is what being an adult child will be like; the care for and about our aging parents and our friends’ aging parents. But I am not upset thinking this. I am calm and comfortable in hospitals, around sickness and death. When sadness comes it passes through me and leaves me in peace. I am glad to be allowed time to experience it. I don’t want it to be a mystery.
Out in the waiting area my mom is directing the children; I notice everyone else is happy with them there, too. I take them to lunch and my mom joins me afterwards, having brought my father coffee as he settles into hours of taking his medicine. “Medicine”, the word we use meaning “life-saving poison”.
Later in the day mom comes home with three pounds of shiny Granny Smith apples and says, “Dad says he’d like a pie tonight. It’s something he can eat”. I’m wondering, Is he exploiting this whole sick thing? But I adore cooking requests so this evening I make a rhubarb custard because Sophie helped me pick out rhubarb today. Served warm with ice cream, it’s a hit.