That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Archive for June, 2017

Dad, they come in through the doors.

Posted by kozemp on June 16, 2017

I’ve been having trouble getting out of bed lately.

Not trouble sleeping, mind. I’ve never been good in the mornings, but for at least the last god knows how many years that’s been mostly because I was never really sleeping. Since the nice doctors gave me the kickass CPAP machine at the end of last year, oh baby have I been sleeping.

But the last few months I’ve been having the damnedest time in the morning when I wake up. Before, my trouble in the morning was that I was always moving through quicksand. I’d get out of bed at 530 and I wouldn’t really even be awake until almost an hour later. That’s what happens when you haven’t slept for more than 8 or 10 minutes at a time in years.

That isn’t what’s happening now, though.

Now my alarm goes off at 530 – the opening song from La La Land – I wake up and turn it off, and then I just lay there. I’m not asleep, really. It’s not “oh, I’ll hit snooze and stay here for ten more minutes.” I don’t set a snooze on my morning alarm anymore. I turn it off and I just lay in bed awake. Sometimes for ten minutes. Sometimes for almost an hour. It’s not that I’m still asleep. It’s not that I want to go back to sleep. It’s not that my back hurts too much to get out of bed.

I just lie there, awake, not wanting to get up. I lie there until the thought of getting showered and dressed and making breakfast in time to leave for work would mean rushing more than I want to in the morning, and that’s the thing that jolts me out of bed. Having a leisurely morning is why I started getting up that early in the first place, and on days when I have to go to work it’s basically the only thing that gets me out of bed.

On weekends, when I need to be somewhere in the morning I’ll lie there until the last possible second before I’ll be late to wherever I’m going.

On weekend days when I don’t have to be anywhere…

On days like that I will stay in bed until I have to go to the bathroom so badly I can’t take it anymore.

The third or fourth time that happened I started to realize I had a problem.

********

Almost a year ago – in actual fact very close to exactly a year ago – we got the news that my father was sick. Really sick. Stage III peripheral T-Cell lymphoma.

That is one of those moments you wish you could say “I don’t remember much from those days.” I remember exactly which empty office I sat in at work to talk to my mother. I remember sitting there at the unused desk with my head in my hands for almost a half an hour, wondering what to do. I called Regina. I talked to my boss. I booked a ticket to Florida on the first flight I could afford. Then Florida in June – seven hells, Florida in June. The hospital. Back and forth the 24 miles from my parents’ to the hospital, sitting with my dad in shifts. Watching the Bridgestone and the Euros with my dad while my mom slept at home. Talking about treatment and prognosis with my father’s doctor, who annoyingly insisted on being called “Tim.” Exaggeratingly pronouncing “TIM” like John Cleese as soon as he left the room.

One night back at the house, laying out for my mother, talking nonstop for almost an hour in the coldest monotone I have ever managed, my detailed analysis of what an absolute failure I’d been as a son and a person. The feeling, when I left several days later, that I was inhuman for going back home and leaving them on their own.

I remember that week with perfect, excruciating clarity.

After that week came six months of treatment, which was somehow worse. I don’t want to go into too much direct technical detail here – I lived it for months and don’t want to spend so much as five seconds reliving it again – but basically the way we treat cancer, the way we stop this thing from killing you, is to do everything BUT kill you. The idea of the chemotherapy regimens is to get you as close to death as you can tolerate, and I don’t mean tolerate the way you gimp around on a sore ankle for a few weeks until you can see the orthopedist. I mean tolerate as in “not actually die.”  Once they find that level, they hit you with it over and over and over again. Then, for my father at least, at the end they perform a stem cell transplant, basically a complete teardown and rebuild of your immune system, a remarkable procedure with truly horrific side effects which in my dad’s case involved weeks living in a clean room and being ACTUALLY dead for a few seconds.

For six months there was this thing there, hanging over me, that no matter how much good news we got from doctors, no matter how well my father handled the chemo (which turned out to be very well), for six straight months I spent every second convinced that my father was going to die at any moment. Not just any moment, in the next moment. Every second of every day, waiting for the axe to fall.

It was not a good way to live. It wasn’t even the only one; over those six months I came up with any number of very innovative ways to live that were not good.

People were telling me from the start, “take care of yourself.” Tons of people reached out to me with offers of help, and good wishes, and the outpouring of support blew my mind more than a little, but people kept saying that to me and I really didn’t know what to make of it. “Take care of myself.” Of course I’m going to take care of myself. How can I not take care of myself?

Turns out, not taking care of yourself is a lot easier than you’d believe. Step 1: spend all your time worrying about someone else. Step 2: don’t do anything else. I’m not sure what happens after that for anyone else, but for me it involved losing a night of my life.

I’ve talked occasionally about the very few times I’ve straight-up hallucinated – brought on by my purposeful and idiotic choices to stay awake for days at a stretch – and how the real problem with, say, seeing trees in the middle of Roosevelt Boulevard is not “oh my, there’s a tree in the middle of the road that wasn’t there before,” but instead “there’s a tree in the middle of the road and I KNOW there isn’t a tree in the middle of the road so OH MAN MY BRAIN ISN’T WORKING RIGHT.” The problem isn’t bad input. The problem is the epistemological fear reaction it produces.

The very bottom of me ignoring the advice I got to take care of myself came on a Friday night in October, when I got home from work and stepped out of my car, and the next thing I knew after that I was lying in bed, in the middle of the night, in different clothes than I had worn to work that day. I had no memory of the previous six hours, but at some point I had, at the very least, changed clothes and gone to bed.

I made some very quick checks – I hadn’t blackout-dialed any of my exes. My car was still where I parked it. My bag was where I leave it when I walk in the door. I hadn’t done anything crazy. Near as I could figure, it appeared that once I had gotten home the conscious part of my brain simply shut down entirely.

The fact that I had managed to get myself inside, and changed and – damp towel, taken a goddamn shower! – and put myself to bed without any sort of higher brain functioning, all of that worried me less than the fact that it had happened in the first place. Just like that first drive back from New York in the middle of the night when I saw trees in the middle of the Boulevard, my reaction was not “oh my god I can’t remember the last six hours.” It was “how did I get myself to a place where it was possible for me to black out for six hours?”

Even at the time the answer was fairly obvious. I had been living on a ragged emotional edge for months at that point, and was now apparently doing considerable physical harm to myself as well, but what was I supposed to do? My father was sick. As far as I was concerned my father was going to die in the next five seconds. It wasn’t something that could be ignored. You might as well ask someone to ignore air, or the sun.

The part of my brain that still works through situations like this, that always seems to find some sliver to function rationally even when things have gone completely pear-shaped, reasoned that if I started blacking out regularly, or got myself sick or messed up, I wouldn’t be able to help my parents. That was what finally motivated me to actually make an effort to do what people had been telling me from the start and take care of myself through all this. That was what got me going. Not listening to those friends, or any sort of instinct for self-preservation. Just pure guilt. Straight up, end of Last Crusade, you can’t save him when you’re dead, guilt.

So I called some of the friends whose advice I had been ignoring, expressed my alarm that, Fox Mulder-style, I had lost time, and asked for help. My friends, being far better than I deserved, gave it and then some. I didn’t make any sort of real move to be actively healthy in any way – not then, at least – but I did start taking rudimentary precautions to make sure I didn’t black out again.

And then… not to make a long story too short, but: my dad got better. He tolerated the chemotherapy and his test results were positive. I went down to Florida a bunch more times. We did Hospital Thanksgiving the day after he was admitted to the transplant unit. We managed to have Christmas at their house when he demanded to be discharged from the transplant unit the first day it was humanly possible for him to leave. (He was in there a shade over three weeks.) Then, in January, we got word that his scans came back clean. There was no detectable cancer.

It was early yet, but by all indications the treatments had worked. My dad was fine.

The thing no one tells you, and I’m not sure if they don’t tell you because it only happened to me or because it’s too awful to talk about, is that the news that my dad was fine made things infinitely, almost indescribably worse.

I had spent more or less every second of the previous six months worrying about my father, but in an “is he okay RIGHT NOW” sense, and not in an “is he going to be okay in the indeterminate future” sense. That second thing was there, yes. In some way it was always there, but it was always a teeny tiny little process lurking in the background. 1 percent, 2 tops, and you’re not going to pay attention to that itty bitty thing when CANCER.EXE is up there at the top of the list crushing your CPU for every scrap of spare resources it can find.

My parents were young when they had me. I objectively know how young but it’s hard for me to understand, to really grasp just how young. I’m going to turn 40 later this year. When my father turned 40 I was finishing my FRESHMAN YEAR OF HIGH SCHOOL. The thought of having a kid that old is legitimately terrifying to me, let alone having TWO like my parents did. They both just turned 65 and aside from the occasional minor health scare – there were a few years there when I was a teenager when we thought my dad had prostate cancer, thank you useless PSA testing, but it never turned into anything so it was never real for me – my parents have been basically chugging along nicely my entire life.

Stage III lymphoma, though, that’s a big flashing neon sign the size of Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas that says, “hey, guess what, Sparky? Your father is mortal and you might want to get used to the idea.” The trouble was that while he was actually sick I was so entirely consumed by the “is he okay right now” question that the notion of my father’s mortality had never crossed my mind.

I’ve lost people over the years. I’ve lost a lot of people. The part of me that is a bad card player – a very small part, admittedly – sometimes likes to think that I’ve lost more than my fair share of people. The rest of me, the vast majority that is a good card player, that part remembers an old man in a robe telling me there’s no such thing as luck and a cute goth girl with an ankh necklace reminding me that I get what anybody gets. And that’s… in a weird way, that’s okay? We all lose people, and you go through it, and it’s awful and sad, and eventually you come out on the other side.

None of those people are my parents, though. None of them are my father. I tried to think about the possibility of my father actually dying and I just couldn’t do it. It wasn’t there; I couldn’t conceive of a world where that had happened. I’ve spent a lot of my life living in the future, in a future that was admittedly almost always incorrect but no less vivid for that, but no matter how hard I tried, and I tried very hard, I couldn’t see that particular future.

I’ve said before, here and other places, that I am loathe to assign meaning to things I cannot accurately describe, but this is one of those things that if I were pressed to say how it’s different I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything more than “it just is.”

So for six months I had sublimated – or, possibly more accurately, outright ignored – this giant reminder of my father’s mortality. (My mother’s as well, of course, but if there’s anything in heredity my mother will live well into her two thousands.)

And then came the news that my father was well. He was not going to die.

He was not going to die RIGHT NOW.

It was at this point that six months of not confronting my father’s mortality hit me all at once, and the force of it dislodged this thing inside me like an iceberg breaking off from the polar ice cap, and my entire brain was suddenly consumed by pure, atavistic terror.

Much like the feeling of worry that consumed me when my dad was sick, I’ve been experiencing that terror almost every waking moment since I got the phone call in January that he was fine.

You know what I hate more than anything in the world right now? My phone. Jesus puppyfucking Christ, how I hate my phone.

I had my first phone-related panic attack when my mother called a few weeks after we got the good news. My phone rang – the fanfare from the Indiana Jones theme – I saw “Mom” at the top of the screen, and the entire 68-piece panic attack orchestra broke into the opening bars of the 1812 Overture.

This was it. This was the call. The scans were wrong. The doctors fucked it up. The cancer is back. The cancer never left.

My mother was calling to tell me my father was dying again.

Now, of course, my mother was actually calling to tell me that my sister would be leaving their place soon and heading back up here, and she was sending some stuff for me with her, and when she came by to drop it off would I mind giving her the old vacuum cleaner?

I am reasonably sure my mom didn’t know that for the first 30 seconds of our conversation I was a hairsbreadth away from needing to be hospitalized. I think I covered it up pretty well.

My mother and I don’t talk on the phone all that often. She took to technology with much more ease than a lot of people her age so most of our communication is digital. She texts me about Doctor Who. She emails me stories about new attractions at Disney World and questions about whether or not she should upgrade her iMac. (The apple, and indeed the Apple, doesn’t fall far from the tree.) Honest to goodness voice calls, though, they’re pretty rare.

It’s a good thing they’re rare, because this panic attack happens every time she calls now.

Every time my phone rings and I see “Mom” at the top I get that feeling, that pressure in my chest, the world spinning around my head, that inability to catch a breath once I answer. Now, months later, it’s over almost before I know it, it’s over as soon as I hear that impossibly cheery “Hell-LO!” she always starts phone calls with, but even still, imagine that: even for a second, not being able to breathe when your mother calls.

This insane, impossible little box that connects me to the rest of the world has become this thing that I hate. I hate having it on me, I hate carrying it around, I hate needing it, because every time the fanfare from Raiders plays and I see “Mom” I am convinced that this time is it, this is the one I’ve been dreading, my father is sick again and the giant mass of atavistic terror is sharpened down to a dagger that gets driven into my chest.

One time she called me a few months ago I just sat there for a little bit, staring at my phone, wondering if this was the ballgame. Am I always going to panic when my mother calls? Am I ever going to be able to actually talk to her on the phone without feeling like I’m dying?

Am I going to spend the rest of my life terrified that this is the call telling me the world is ending?

The part of my brain that always functions rationally no matter what quietly said, “no, not for the rest of your life. Just for the rest of HIS.”

I put my elbows on the table and my head in my hands the same way I did that day last June when she called and said aloud to my empty dining room, “that’s not helpful.”

********

My dad and I were never really shy about communicating – well, not about talking at least, actual COMMUNICATING may be another story – but we talk a lot more now than we ever did. When my father was sick I made it a point to talk to him every day, even if it was just a text message to see how he was feeling. (The answer was usually “crappy.”) I still try to touch base every day, although most days if nothing else we end up texting the weather where we are to each other, as though the cursed smartphones we’re texting through don’t also tell us the weather where the other is.

So we talk about weather. We live-text each other the golf. We argue about movies. I text him the puns from the opening credits of Bob’s Burgers every week. He texts me what he did in physical therapy that day and how good he feels. We argue about their itinerary for when they drive north for the summer in a few weeks.

If I think about all of it too much it still feels just as bad, but it doesn’t feel as bad for as long, and I take my small victories where I can find them.

I woke up this morning and went down to the kitchen to make my breakfast. As I was getting ready to toss the butter for my egg in the pan, in my dreary pre-coffee shuffle I slowly noticed that I smelled gas, which should not happen. I realized, even through my stupor, that I never heard the click-click-click of the igniter on the burner.

I looked down: no flames.

I looked at the control panel for the range: no clock.

I muttered, “shit,” and was instantly, completely awake.

A minute later as I was sitting at my computer googling my electrician’s number I texted my mother “no power in oven. Weird. Calling the guy.” My parents are in Disney World, which I knew was the only thing on earth that would get my mother out of bed before 8AM.

Before I could finish finding the number my mother texted me “hang on.”

I saw that and thought “NO DON’T – !”

My phone rang.

Indiana Jones theme. “Mom.”

I gripped the edge of the dining room table so hard my nails would have snapped off, if I had any.

As my mother started talking about the GFCI and testing the outlet behind the dish rack, that rational part of my brain quietly slid up next to me and said, “it’s time we fixed this.”

I pushed the tiny red button on the outlet.

JLK

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