“Always behave as though nothing has happened…no matter what has happened.”
These were the words on a card given to me as a going-away gift from the CEO of the first company I ever worked for. It is a perfect motto to live by. I’ve held onto it, loving the thought of it, and vowing to adhere to it as I move on through life.
Sometimes it is easier to aspire to such notions than to actually live them. I’ have learned this lesson the hard way.
Early on the morning of August 15th, I woke up in a Nashville hotel room, showered, dressed, and pulled on my favorite a pair of wedge sandals. They were comfortable. And it was going to be a long day, so comfortable shoes were required.
My daddy had been awake for a few hours. I smiled at the thought of the voicemail he had left me the day before:
“This is your ever-lovin’ daddy, I’m sitting here in downtown Nashville…looking to get some Senior Coffee and an apple juice…life couldn’t be better. I guess it could be better…it’d be a lot better if you’d give me a call! I look forward to hearing from you. Call me when you can. Hope you get this voicemail. Bye-bye.”
I can never forget the day my father called me to inform me he was able to purchase coffee at McDonald’s at the Senior Citizen rate. (At the time, he was only 55 or 56 years old, but I suppose his battle with Parkinson’s made him seem a bit older.) From that day forward, I could never talk him into sharing a cup of Starbucks coffee with me (that is of course, unless I paid J) and he was most proud to explain his new-found savings to anyone who would listen.
A few years later, on a Wednesday morning, he had ventured across the street to obtain yet another “Senior Coffee” and trotted back to the hotel room in his usual merry way, where he patiently waited for my mother and me to finish getting ready. It was when we had gathered up bags with computers, magazines, and snacks and finally opened the door to leave that he announced to the room: “I thought about it…and I’m not going to do it!”
Our heads snapped around to look at him, and then we saw the smirk on his face.
In my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe this unfathomable surgery he was about to undergo could be skipped and forgotten. Perhaps the cancer would follow suit and simply go away…skipped, forgotten, and no longer a threat to the familial happiness we’d cherished for so many years.
We loaded into the car, and a mile around the block to the entrance of Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Once inside, my father went through registration, and soon we were sitting together in the waiting room. One by one, my brother, my sister, and half a dozen family friends had joined us. And then we waited.
My father was going to have his esophagus removed that day.
“They’re going to WHAT?!” This was my exact response when my father first told me the news.
In January 2012, dad began to have trouble swallowing. By the end of that month, it was bothering him enough he decided to see his doctor. In February, an MRI and a scope showed there was some kind of blockage where his esophagus and his stomach met. In March, the biopsy of this area was returned and the diagnosis clear: Esophageal Cancer, Stage 3, because there was evidence it had spread to a least one, maybe two, lymph nodes. There was also a small spot on his lungs. A biopsy the next month showed it was a different kind of cancer, in its first stage, and operable.
Chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed. I cannot remember how many of them there were. But I do remember the first and only time I sat with him that summer while chemotherapy was administered. His body had become shockingly thin. I watched as he became incredibly tired, and could speak to me in only in hushed tones. I spent those hours sneaking to the bathroom in intervals while he was sleeping…and there I silently screamed and cried, hitting my fists against the wall. How is this happening to my sweet dad?
Around 11:30, they took him to pre-op. At Noon, they allowed us to go back to see him . His appearance was truly something to behold, with his hospital gown, blue hairnet, and all manor of wires, sensors, and tubes attached or connected to his body in some way.
We said our goodbyes. Dad told us he would see us soon. I recalled the patient information ticker I’d spotted in the Hospital lobby, the one that showed his surgery should last from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. For my father, seeing us again would feel “soon.” For us, the moment they moved him from the operating room into recovery could not come soon enough.
It was 2:30 PM when the call came. We’d quickly figured out that nurses would update patients’ families from time to time about the progress of surgery via phone calls to the lobby. But this call was different. My mother took it, and told us we needed to go to a “Family Waiting Room” on the 3rd floor and that the surgeon wanted to speak to us.
Why would the surgeon need to speak with us 1.5 hours into a 5 hour surgery? Shouldn’t he still be doing the surgery?
When I think about those moments before my dad’s surgeon entered that waiting room where we sat, our arms and hands intertwined in around around each others, I can still experience the cold wash of terror that came over all of us. It starts in the bottom of your feet, and moves its way into your stomach, where it seems to twist and contort until you feel like you might throw up. I think this is what authors have referred to throughout the ages with the phrase “chilled to the core.”
It only took the surgeon about 10 minutes to show his face. But those 10 minutes seemed like an eternity. He entered with a somber face, shut the door, and sat down facing us. Our terror was palpable.
“I could not accomplish what I wanted to do today. We found evidence the disease has spread. Surgery is not the right approach anymore…”
He went on to explain that a scope prior to surgery showed evidence the esophageal cancer had spread even beyond the original tumor. The Stage 1 cancer spot on his lung had been removed through surgery, but when they opened him up to remove that spot, sesame-seed-sized areas of disease covered the lining of his lungs. Chemotherapy was now our only hope.
The image of my mother’s face turning to me after he left, contorted by tears, is seared in my memory. We folded ourselves around her, trying to comfort her, each attempting to find some kind of solace in tears of our own.
Later that night, we stood around my father’s bed in the Critical Care Unit, all attempting to be brave as my mother explained: “They couldn’t exactly do the surgery today…” She talked him through the details, and when she finished, he was very silent.
Finally, he whispered. “Well…this changes everything.”
“Yes, honey,” My mom responded, wiping away tears from her eyes. “It does. It changes everything.”
To Be Continued…