Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT SERIES
November 22nd, 2018
First, the very good news.
The results from the Cat-Scans came in last Thursday. My sister-in-law Lucie, who is a radiologist and who therefore has access to such information through a medical online network, quickly sent me a rather jolting email; in fact, only a title which read: Appelle-moi. Call me.
It scared me. It was so bare bones that I thought she didn’t know how to broach bad news. I could have spent a terrible stretch frozen in worry, wondering how bad it could be, but it seems that I’ve moved into a more direct, head-on way of living. I picked up my cell and dialed, come what may.
She answered immediately, a minor miracle, as she almost single-handedly holds down the fort in the remote hospital where she is chief radiologist. There was professionalism in her voice, but also a special energy that drove her to speak as fast as she could.
Her first words were that my body is having a FAVOURABLE REACTION to the chemo protocol. She’s so intense: you could tell that she just loved saying it. This is a real medical expression that is determinant in oncology. It means that for whatever reason: extraordinary health care, being very lucky, being offered continuous, exponential love and support, THE TREATMENT IS WORKING! My body is collaborating, and in just 2 and a half months, the larger tumour in my lungs—there are many tiny ones sprinkled throughout them, but this one had the oncologists wondering if it might be actual lung cancer and not metastatic colorectal tissue, because it measured over 6 cm—has shrunk 30%, with the rest of the cancerous tissue doing the same thing. No one has yet seen the abdominal scans (except the liver, which now shows the same results and where there’s only a tiny speck of a tumour), but everyone expects to see exactly the same thing in my bowels because the cells being hit are all of the same type.
So, on Tuesday, I got to travel to the CHUM and meet with the head of the research study, Dr. Francine Aubin, and smile. She smiled a lot too. She’s very happy. And she made me understand that this was a terrific result and that she believes that the Nivolumab—the new immune therapy drug—is at work here; has kicked in.
How does one deal with such a mixture of…relief, joy, disbelief; a gut feeling that this was expected (simply based on the disappearance of my most obvious cancer symptoms); a guilty feeling that this is undeserved, and creeping superstition about saying anything at all about it? I wrestled with this. Should I share the news? What if it changes…what if they discover something that casts a pall over this wonderful morale boost?
But that lasted about 2 minutes and then the thought of being able to tell my sons, my mum (who deserves to hear something happy and reassuring), my sisters, my husband, my friends…it overrode everything else. It felt wonderful to have some lightness and joy to share. Even if it’s just the beginning and even if I have no idea how long my body will continue to cooperate and ally itself with the drugs being pumped into me.
There’s magical thinking, and then there’s disturbing conditioning, and I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the latter; about the many ways it’s coloured my life. It’s been with me since my diagnosis, which evoked memories of my parents.
When my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 1987 or very early 1988, I wasn’t quite 30. It was awful news that was especially difficult because of our (my two sisters and I) strained and wounded relationship with him. The making of those scars won’t be told in this narrative, but with the distance of three decades, I realize that my father suffered from cardio-vascular disease, anxiety-depression and a good measure of obsessive-compulsive disorder that, combined with childhood trauma and something in his brain that could trigger explosive anger, were beyond his and my mother’s capacity to manage, at a time when the medical community had a fraction of the understanding of such things compared to today, and too few tools to deal with most of them. Which meant that my father was left largely untreated, and we, his three daughters, exposed to all of it.
My mother coped by covering most things up. Hiding what was happening in our house from the neighbours and her own parents and siblings. As much as she could, at least. For as long as she could. And so, when the cancer was diagnosed, she did what she knew best: she forbade us from telling anyone that our dad had lung cancer. She swore us to secrecy, until she felt the time had come to share the truth.
I remember feeling immediately that this was the wrong thing to do. My sisters did too. It was like being asked to swallow a bomb and carry it around in your belly for as long as you were made to. It was a dark and sad burden to internalize. It was maintaining the theatre of a life that had just been shattered. It was hiding anguish and pain. It was disorienting. It was anathema to us.
I don’t remember when the interdiction was lifted, or how people came to know…which is strange. I suppose once my dad started chemo, there was no more hiding it. He tried to keep going to work once his chemo started, but soon found that it was impossible (I understand this so clearly now: his stoicism was extraordinary). Because this was 1988 and the cancer was already in my dad’s pleura (the pair of membranes lining the thorax and enveloping the lungs), it seemed clear that his chances of living even 5 more years were bleak. And so, slowly, the world was allowed to know of his suffering and also of his need for love and kindness and support and companionship.
This opened the door to months of a different way of living and dying for my dad, who quickly hatched a plan with his baby brother Leo (my dad was the 7th of 9 children and Leo was the tail-ender) to have an extension—a sunroom—built on the side of the small house my sisters and I had grown up in, and then together add a wooden deck onto the back of that.
These projects, which my dad had to supervise at first, and then get right into, brought a wave of joy back into his life. Watching him with his leather tool belt hanging from his hip, side by side with Leo, through the spring, summer and early fall months, it was almost possible to forget how sick he was, and lovely to observe how poignant this dedication to the act of building was.
On May 24th, 1989, two years after his diagnosis and six days after my twins’ sixth birthday, which we celebrated together at St-Hubert BBQ and which he attended, my father died. It was very early morning, and he died at home, my mother by his side. It was the gentlest of exits for such a lion of a man, who was as slight and fragile as a bird on his last day.
My mother had lost her life partner and first love. There was all of that grief and sadness and abrupt emptiness; and the unearthing of memories and reliving of them to do, in their house, which was, for a long while after, still so suffused with his presence. And of course, there were all those hard months at the end, the months of beginning to let go, when they must have talked.
For reasons that we’ve never understood, my father chose to leave his daughters nothing. Not one of his beloved books, in which he might have written a dedication, not a written note, not a private conversation to stow away in our memories…nothing. He simply left.
I look back thirty years, and know that my father will remain a mystery to me.
I have always resisted the hiding and the opaqueness that smothered our childhoods. But recently, I came across poet David Whyte’s newest work, Consolations—The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying meaning of Everyday Words, in which he describes hiding as a way of staying alive, of holding ourselves together until we’re ready to come into the light.
Though Whyte’s insights help soften the feelings and attitude I have about those years lived under my parents’ roof, my appreciation of the value of sharing and opening up to others, and trusting in them, is the path I’ve chosen. The hiding is over.