Tag Archives: aging parents

Cancer is the New Black

I upset my husband last night with a little dose of dark humor. I asked him what cancer he thought would be the cancer that did each of us in, and he knocked on the wall. Apparently, he doesn’t want to joke about dying. I guess that’s alright, but personally, I would rather think about it now than be surprised by its sudden appearance. What is death, anyway, but just a phase of life, that seventh age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”? We should be so lucky.

Most of us aren’t going to make it to that seventh age that Shakespeare described in his seven ages of man speech. We’re not going to die in our nineties, drifting peacefully into oblivion while our family sits around the bedside, our spouses spooning soft food into our birdlike mouths. We can’t expect our deaths anymore, can’t plan for them. They’ll just announce themselves. Perhaps our family will be sitting around us when we go, but that probably isn’t going to be in our nineties.

Cheery, no? Maybe it’s the Fluoxetine, or maybe it’s just all the preparation I’ve had, but I don’t find death depressing. For me, it is not a debilitating thought. Do I want to lose my mother? Absolutely not. Do I feel that she and I still have a bucket list the size of Texas full of items that never will be checked off? Absolutely. Is she or I or anyone in our world ready for this? No. But it’s gonna happen, and it might happen far sooner than any of us thought it would. My mother has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a nasty cancer that has metastasized into her liver. She can’t eat. She can’t sleep. She can’t even sit up comfortably. Two months ago, we were on a vacation together in Maine. She and I walked down to the main drag in Bar Harbor, and she nagged me about how much money I spent. Now, she’s homebound, using a wheelchair, wearing great big t-shirts twenty-four-seven, and not eating a single thing. She wants to go, man. Who am I to stop her? I can’t do anything except be there for her. And that’s what I intend to do.

I remember when my dad first got prostate cancer back in 2005. I was strung out back then, and so I bawled and bawled and made my dad’s tragedy all about me and my business, and my personal regrets. I didn’t really do much to help him or mom. That was a long time ago.  I’ve since done a lot of helping. Like my recently departed uncle, I’ve showed up at hospitals with my sleeves rolled up, ready for action. What else the fuck can one do?

For three days, I’ve been wearing a tatty old dress that I bought on a road trip that I took with my mother. We spent seven days driving around Michigan together, sightseeing and driving each other nuts, and listening to the Grateful Dead channel, and bonding. It was the best vacation I’ve ever taken. In a little shop on Mackinaw Island, I bought a Woolrich dress that I wore almost every day for the rest of the trip. Somewhere, there’s a picture of me in that dress at the edge of the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Western Michigan, white sands that dropped so steeply into the shores of Lake Michigan that the park service posted warnings: you attempt to go down there, you will pay heavily for your rescue. And still, hundreds of tourists slid down those slopes and snaked their way back up the dunes. They looked like ant trails from our perspective at the top. What an awe-inspiring American vista. And I shared it alone with her. And now I’m still wearing that dress, even though the ass is worn out, and you can see the color of my underwear through the holes. I will never throw away that dress. I said I was accepting of death, I didn’t say I wasn’t sentimental.

There’s a lot of kids out there who treat their parents like shit. And there’s a lot of kids out there who are perennially lost. They need to look death in the face, stop knocking on walls. Cancer is the new black.

Does Anyone Else Feel Old?

I‘m having one of those, “Can this really be happening?” weeks. Yes, it can, and yes, it is.   This week was the double whammy of a sudden death in the family and the potential for much worse endings, pending a few tests. I feel old.   Mom and Dad have been careful about when to call me with news. They expect me to break down while I’m driving or whatnot, so they wait until I’m sitting on a couch with my husband nearby to tell me whatever it is they have to say. Then they marvel at my ability to just hear it.   I guess I grew up.

I’ve noticed lately that I keep thinking that I’m forty-six, even though I’m forty-five. In fact, for the past year, I’ve considered myself closer to fifty than I really am. Why is that? Why am I making myself old, rushing through the remainder of my forties?   Maybe it’s because the forties kinda suck. I just have this feeling that the forties are gonna go down in my history as the decade I lost everyone.

I’ll explain: My favorite uncle had a stroke on the operating table and died exactly a week later. We all thought it was gonna be a quick and easy operation. We all expected this summer to be the worst of his trials. Not even close. I don’t think anyone was prepared for an end. My father sure wasn’t. He lost his little brother, his closest sibling, and his greatest ally. This uncle and I spent weeks together while my mother and father were in the hospital or recuperating from one illness or the next. He was always there to help. I thought my mom was being morbid when she alluded to his last visit, while he was still on chemo, as a potential final hurrah. Damn, these people in their seventies who are so starkly aware of death.

And that’s one bit of bad news that has colored my week. There’s more, but the test results aren’t in, and I’m still allowed hope. Hope feels very different lately. It’s not a positive or a negative, it’s just an unknown. Sometimes, the unknown is better. For a little while anyway, while we process what we do know.


Mom fell today.

I had been dreading an incident like that.  She’s hearing-impaired, easily distracted, and clumsy.  I spent the first twenty years of my life hearing a “thump” and then “Owwww!” and then “Shit, shit, SHIT!” (Mom never said anything worse than “shit.”)  She was always walking into doorways or falling up stairs or bumping her toes on the furniture.  So I just knew that one of these days, on my watch, she was gonna fall flat on her face in public.

And so she did, at a busy intersection in front of a bus stop.  Fifteen seconds earlier she’d decided she wanted to walk the six blocks back to my car rather than sit on a bench and wait in a nearby park.  She’s stubborn like that.  Then, right in the middle of a conversation about what a great day we’d had shopping…  Blam!  Her bags fell out of her hands as she tried to catch herself, and I threw mine in a half-assed attempt to catch her.  Our stuff rolled all over the sidewalk. A guy in full Navy sailor regalia picked up her canister of silver cupcake topping and stuffed it back into the wrong bag and handed it to me.  Two ladies gave us their packet of tissues and stared for a second before shuffling off.  Another man ran into a nearby restaurant and grabbed a bunch of napkins for her bleeding nose, which turned out to be her bleeding lip.  Someone even offered to call 911, but there was nothing anyone could really do.  I knew by her reaction that she looked worse than she felt. Nothing was broken, or she would have been screaming, “Owwww!  Shit, shit, SHIT!”  She wasn’t broken, just embarrassed.

Later she said she felt bad for me.  But I wasn’t embarrassed.  I don’t give three shits how I looked on that sidewalk, cradling a seventy-something’s head in my lap .  The moment was all hers.  And apparently it made a lot of bad memories surface because she had never told me before that her own mother had caused her anxiety by doing the same things–by falling or getting sick or just losing her life-long poise.  It must suck to get old.

And that brings me to my purpose:  I’m not there yet.  I’m 43, and I’m not young, but I’m not old.  I’m not old old.  I’m in that place where my memories of the first twenty years of my life are a bunch of blurred images of random events; and my memories thereafter are just the highs and lows of adulthood, the boring stuff.  I’ve been “lucky” enough to have taken a bit longer to mature than your average adult and consequently burned through a marriage and lived a sort of renaissance for awhile–which added to the color and texture of my adult memories–but ultimately my adult memories consist of a few highs and lows and a whole lot of static.  Ask me to recall the most exciting moment at my job of twelve years, and it might take me a moment or two to scrape up an insincere answer.

I’m at some new stage in life that I know I didn’t experience in my thirties.  In my thirties, I was busy contemplating why I’d dated most of the men I had.  And in my thirties, I was looking for better.  In my thirties, I started looking at myself through a different lense.  In my forties, I just sit around and wonder random things like what it would be like to sit in my childroom bedroom, or to hang out with my parents when they were young.  I get a chill just thinking about what a conversation with my mother would be like if she could actually hear what was being said to her.  I think about the frailty of human life, and I think about death.  You know.  Stuff.

I appear to be a little younger than I actually am–some of that comes from my aforementioned late-blooming maturity, and some of that comes from decades of moisturizer and sun screen, and good genes–but at the end of the day today, I’m still 43. My mother falls on her face.  My father carries a cane around with him everywhere he goes that expands into a seat.  I’m facing retirement, cancer, kids making bad choices; and a  workout and some revitalizing face cream isn’t gonna wipe that away.

I call my forties the “new forties” because they’re new to me, just as they’re new to any woman who just spent her day in roll-reversal, sitting in a plastic chair in a doctor’s examination room while Mom sits on the table looking uncomfortable.  This kind of stuff didn’t happen in my thirties, or my twenties, or ever before now.  These are the forties, and women’s magazines and the beauty industry might help us to look younger, to act younger; the economy might force us to recreate ourselves again and again, to compete with younger, to think younger; our freedom to make choices for ourselves might allow us live a lifestyle that our mothers’ generation and every one before that couldn’t have imagined. But we’re not  younger.  We’re women in our forties, pragmatically staring at age and death.

Before this decade came along, I thought I really could live in whatever age I managed to sustain.  My thirties were the new twenties, with a few revisions.  But this decade, the forties, it’ll never be the new thirties.  I’m getting old. My knee hurts, I chipped a tooth, and my mom has started falling.  These are the new 40s.