Sunday, May 31, 2015

Parting Shots: The Penultimate Papers

I Need a Nap

A friend sent me a copy of Tom Brokaw’s “A Lucky Life Interrupted.” (A good read by the way) And I was oddly comforted to read that pancreatic cancer strikes one in seventy-eight men and women.  My peeps! It seems like I’ve got a lot of company.  He also notes the one devil fact about the disease – how sneaky it is.  How low it flies under the radar which means that by the time it’s discovered, it’s almost always too late.
It sure must have taken my Docs by surprise.  They must feel awful, as in Well, Dang!  But then, maybe not. So far, I have refrained from calling them up to say, “I told you I was sick.”   That would be churlish.  And, realistically, who’s to know, with a disease this sneaky.  You'd  have to run tests every 24/7 since if you missed even a month, a week, a day, you'd likely still miss the seeding.  In my case, all my blood tests were “perfect,” and since doctors are trained to look for horses, not zebras, when doing diagnostic workups, this is one of those diseases that can get past even the best gatekeeper. (Not to mention the cost of various tests, and with tests involving radiation, there's the problem of the test causing more harm than giving any benefit. 

But the thought is still there, like the cancer itself.  A poisonous variant on the old whine, "Why Me?" Or, it's deadly cousin: "If only." Perfectly natural, but not helpful.  I have had a lot of such thoughts lately. Plenty of time to ruminate in the early morning hours. 

I am absolutely sure that my one-in-78 Peeps have had the same thoughts.  And well-meaning friends are now coming to tell tales of many such caught-too-late medical horror  stories.  The tales make me angry and sad and cynical.  And something of a fatalist since life itself is constantly turning on just such missed moments.

In my case, there were additional wrinkles that made the ultimate diagnosis a sort of Max Sennet comedy of errors since the symptoms were coming in wrong – are we looking for a kidney stone? kidney disease? some bowel problem?  Whaaat?  Add in an overall physical system constantly disordered from the in--and-out middle-of-the-night emergency room stress, a poorly handled initial "solution, no sleep, and generally lousy pain management, by the time I left the French Hospital radiology office with a print-out of my MRI diagnosis in hand, I was already deep into PTSD. 

Add in more exhausting maelstroms of replaced kidney stents, an actual biopsy, MRIs and PETs to come, my brain was stumbling along in exhausted "D'oh" mode.  But instead of resting like a normal, sane person would do, in front of my sister Joan's horrified eyes, I turned into grim-lipped Brunhilde preparing for a Viking funeral.

An aside here: Many, many years ago, when my sister was visiting, I looked around at the book and-art-and-stuff-filled living room (and, mindful of the filing cabinets and boxes of Can(n)on fodder paperwork in the den), I wearily said, "I can't face sorting all this out. When I die, I want you to invite all my friends into the house for a Zorba the Greek giveaway (I didn't have a parrot, but if you've seen the movie, you get the drift, have them take what they can use, then put my body on the dining room table, light a match and run away. Viking Funeral! 

Then, months ago, I can't remember, maybe it was like a New Year's resolution and long before any of these health issues were on the radar, I did my usual, "Gosh, I've got to seriously sort all of this out." ( I have no doubt my body was telling me something I wasn't ready to hear out loud)  So, I started looking around the house and asking myself such questions as: "How will my poor sister, Joan, know what to do with all this crap when I die?" Or, after opening a closet door looking for a towel, "Why do I have  four lamp timers in here?  Seriously?  Four?"  

Live in a house 31 years and you'll know the feeling. One of those annual spring cleaning projects that usually last a day and a half then peter out with you stumbling upon your childhood winkie-bear which you couldn't possibly bear to part with. So winkie-binkie bear gets put back in the closet along with the amp timers until . . . next year.  

And so I started going through all of the stuff with serious intent.  At first I found it hard going.  So many decisions.  Like, Do I think my niece or great-nieces would like my childhood photo album?  Look how cute I was.  Surely they'd just love to have that valuable piece of the family tree? Answer.  NO. Well, what about my high school yearbook?  NO! NO!  Not even winkie-bear?  NO!NO!NO!

When I started the process, it was all sad-faced review, a spotty walk down memory lane but soon it became a gleeful rout.  Out! Out! Don’t need any of this. The photo albums were filled with people, half of whom I couldn't remember, while others  too often brought up memories of sadness and loss,  so why keep photos that make you sad?  The few images I wanted to keep were already burned into my memory, so I sure didn’t need any albums.  And so it went with photos, papers, mementos.  All of it.  Yes, I was seriously, deliberately erasing a life -- mine --but soon the act became a pretty wonderful, liberating experience because it finally occurred to me that the life I was tossing into the recycle bin was a life that didn't exist any more.  And since it didn't exist any more, why dust it?

After I received the diagnosis, but before I had met with the oncologist, that's when I turned into Brunhilde before Joan's horrified eyes.  I didn't then (and still don't know), how much time I had left, but through my exhaustion, pain and fear, I was determined that there was no way I was going to say, Fuck it all, and leave this mess to my poor sister.  

Therein started the Great Pre-Estate Sale, Viking Funeral, Zorba the Greek Garage Sale of the Century. Out! Out! Out! Like mad warriors and with the help of friends, when sleep wouldn't come, as pain allowed, we boxed and tagged and hauled.  I had years before made certain arrangements for earmarked items to go to specific places, so that paperwork could be turn-keyed, while the rest of the stuff was slowly being transferred to the garage, stacked and ready to go. 

So, come Saturday June 13 at 7 in the morning, the Stuff will head out into the universe to become treasures for somebody else to enjoy. With an additional mad scheme attached: I'll be donating all the proceeds from the sale to the "pay it forward" part of The Wellness Kitchen  (, a great group of folks who teach as well as cook prepared super-nuient dense foods (think "bone broths") for "individuals facing serious life-altering disease."  Their classes are for caregivers and patients alike.
Looking back on it all, it was mad.  I was mad.  But it  also turned out to be excellent therapy.  Not only did it keep me busy, but it was a daily reminder not to get mired in the past, not to stop, to keep moving forward.  It was also a daily discipline, a firm reminder of the impermanence of it all.  Nothing was mine.  Not even my life.  All of it was (and always had been) on temporary loan to be enjoyed, then let go

It also turned out to be a good way for friends to process what was coming.  Once you hear bad news and say, I'm sorry, the next questions is What can I do to help? Seems like garage sales are a pretty good answer.


Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

WOW! This needs reading by a whole lot of people! Just about everyone, actually!

I say this having, with my sis, emptied out our parents home - eight + dumpsters of Christmas cards from the 50s, fabric samples from the 40s, bins of used golf balls, church programs, plastic margarine tubs from when the stuff was invented, etc.. That need to "save" was sure imprinted on me.

Living through the depression sure put its mark on a lot of people. One kind of wonders, if with our 2008 "recession," a corresponding need to hang onto stuff will reemerge?

Anyway, good lesson here. Thanks Ann!

Churadogs said...

The key for me was to not burden my sister with having to make a decision about personal effects. Margarine tubs, old shoes, left-over fabric is one thing, but what about personal letters, photos, things with sentiment but no "value" to anybody but you. That can be very painful to deal with so I figured that was one burden she didn't need to take on.

Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

Your sis is a lucky, lucky person that you would think ahead for her well being...just in case.