Author’s Note: This piece was originally posted on 9/5/2014 on my cockeyedoptimistsclub blog which will be deleted soon.
We’ve all met them. People who are never happy, never content with the way things are. If there’s a silver lining, they’ll find (or create!) the tiny pulled thread in a one-of-a-kind piece of fabric and bother it until it’s a mess.
My Dad is the cure for people like this. His nickname is Eeyore, but only because he’s self-deprecating to the point of silliness at times. And yet, he is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. Even through a cancer diagnosis and the months following.
Thanksgiving 2013 was a laid-back dinner for my Mom and Dad. Mom baked a turkey breast and the fixings and Dad tried to eat it. He’d been feeling poorly all week and thought he had the flu. As the days progressed and he didn’t recover, Mom worried that it was something more.
That Friday she thought his eyes looked a little yellow, jaundiced, but Dad didn’t think so. By Sunday she was sure his skin was taking on a yellow cast. She got him in to see his doctor on Monday and within a week, following multiple scans, blood tests, specialists’ visits, etc, he was told he had pancreatic cancer. AND something else that had to be fixed immediately–his common bile duct was completely blocked.
He had a procedure to try to open up the duct but they weren’t able to do that through endoscopy. So they went in surgically and put a tube in so that the bile could drain out of his body. The next week they did it again but tucked the tube inside his body for it to drain. The week after that they went in again and put in a stint so they could remove the tube.
Each time they did one of these procedures, Dad had to stop eating for hours beforehand. He didn’t eat a lot anyway, but for these he had to fast. Every time they went in, they took biopsies.
This went on until December 22nd, the day he fell for the third time and didn’t have enough strength left to even help Mom as she tried to get him back up. My father, who in August helped me landscape around my home, who worked out three days a week at the gym, who took his puppy for 12-mile walks the week before he got sick, could barely hold his head up. He collapsed and Mom called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The doctors told them he was dehydrated. They said he needed to stay at least overnight until they could rehydrate him. They spent Christmas Eve and then Christmas in the hospital.
On December 27th I flew down. My plan was to be there when Dad was released from the hospital so that I could help out with him while he regained his strength. I was shocked at how thin and how sick Dad was when I walked in his room. He saw me and his face lit up. He said my name and smiled so widely that it relieved my fears. He was still weak, but he seemed determined to get well. His appetite slowly returned. They were pumping him full of very strong antibiotics.
The day I flew in, my dear aunt stayed at the hospital through the night with Dad. She said Mom and I needed a good night’s sleep. After that, I started staying all night with Dad in the hospital. I didn’t want him to be alone. And I wanted to question his doctor when he came in each morning because I didn’t trust him anymore. And maybe it’s my imagination, but it seemed like they started kicking it into high gear after that. They started him on physical and occupational therapy. They prescribed him meds to bring his appetite back. And finally, on January 3, 2014, they released him to a rehab center so that he could regain his strength.
And his specialist, who told us after each biopsy that they hadn’t found the cancer yet, also said that even though he couldn’t prove it, he still felt sure that Dad had pancreatic cancer. He mentioned other things that they couldn’t explain–like immature white blood cells–but didn’t give us any other scenarios for Dad’s illness.
Mom and I were fed up but Dad liked his doctor so we kept it to ourselves. Dad stayed at the rehab center for three weeks. I had to leave a week before he’d be released but by then it was apparent to all three of us that Mom couldn’t handle Dad by herself any longer. They put the house on the market and we set a date for my return–this time to help them pack up the house and move in with me.
Dad and Mom lived with my husband, two youngest daughters, and me for three months. In that time, Dad saw numerous specialists and underwent more procedures. The difference, however, was that Dad was slowly getting stronger! His lab results improved without any treatments, he gained the weight back that he’d lost, and the tumor near his pancreas shrank so much it was difficult to find on the MRI.
In the meantime, their house sold for exactly what they’d hoped to get for it, and they found the perfect house, in the perfect town, at the perfect price. Dad says he knew it was THE home for them the moment they walked in.
Let me tell you how many miracles there have been:
1. For years, my Mom, sister, and I had tried to talk Dad into moving to our state. He was never ready to seriously entertain it enough to even list the house to see if it would sell.
After Dad was released from the hospital, we found out FROM THE PHYSICAL THERAPIST READING HIS CHART, that Dad had been SEPTIC in the hospital. Mom and I were never informed. But Dad survived even though he was weaker than he’d been since he was a small child. Dad agreed, without too much encouragement, that it was time for Mom and him to move in with me.
2. Within six weeks of the move, Mom had a stroke and was hospitalized for five days. I took care of Dad and when Mom was released I took care of her too! If they had still been living alone, I don’t think Mom would still be here with us. I doubt she would have ever left Dad to go to the hospital. As it is, I couldn’t convince her to go to the ER until the symptoms returned the second day!
3. Mom and Dad got the offer on their home and we started looking for an apartment because Dad didn’t want to commit to living here long-term. But the monthly rent was much higher than they’d imagined. So one morning Dad came into the living room and said they wanted to start looking at houses. They wanted to be in the city, but as we looked up houses in their price range, it became clear pretty quickly that what they needed in a home was too expensive in the city.
4. I mentioned to a close friend that my parents were going to look at a home in their small town and she told me that a house had just gone on the market that week. We decided to take a look and put in an offer that night. After some negotiating, a price was agreed to, and Mom and Dad had a closing date!
5. Mom, Dad, and I, with help from aunts, uncles, and cousins, packed up the house, signed the final papers on the sale, and moved 600 miles north. The owners of their new house allowed us to unload the moving truck into their now-empty house and everything else fell into place. We found out later that the owners had been telling their neighbors they were going to sell it for over 20 years. It had only been on the market 7 days when Dad and Mom bought it, and the realtor’s sign had only been up for 2 days!
6. It really is a perfect town for Mom and Dad. It’s so small that they don’t have mail delivery service so everyone has to go to the post office to pick up their mail. Dad, and his Cocker Spaniel, Buddy, walk every day to get their mail. It’s about a block away. Dad ties Buddy’s lease to a pole outside and goes inside while Buddy waits. Sometimes they walk to the convenience store about a block away from the post office. Dad does the same thing with Buddy and everyone knows whose dog he is. Mom says the only thing that would make it more perfect would be a full-size grocery store. And maybe a restaurant. Haha!
7. In the meantime, every biopsy they’ve taken from Dad has come back negative for cancer. His blood work, which used to have markers which could indicate cancer, have all returned to normal. And his new gastroenterologist now believes that Dad’s a walking miracle! He thinks that what Dad has had all along is an auto-immune disorder that attacked his pancreas (and will continue to do so until the pancreas stops working entirely). The normal treatment for auto-immune disorders like Dad’s is steroids, but Dad can’t take them because of his diabetes. Fortunately, they have pills that Dad will eventually have to take to compensate.
It’s been an adjustment for all of us, this reversal of roles. For quite a while I paid all of their bills and balanced their checkbook. Mom’s hand shook so much, a side-effect of the stroke, that she couldn’t write checks. Dad doesn’t really like that I have that much knowledge about their finances, but he also asks for my opinion before they make major financial decisions. And he takes my advice. It’s a big responsibility and one that I try to fulfill to the best of my ability.
It’s also difficult to watch your parents’ health decline. They’re both rebounding from their illnesses, and Mom can handle the checkbook again, but I’m not sure if Dad will ever fully recover. Those high-powered antibiotics they gave Dad in the hospital, hurt his kidneys substantially. They’re still functioning, but at 30% less than they were a couple of weeks before he fell ill. He’s now on insulin for his diabetes and will be for the rest of his life. Mom’s on blood thinners for the rest of hers.
But they’re here, 10 minutes away from me, and I usually see them every day. When I don’t, Dad tells me how much they’ve missed me, so I know he’s gotten used to being close-by. His memory isn’t what it used to be either. And every once in a while he says something about making the most of our time because he might have to move Mom away to someplace warmer if she can’t take the winters up here in the North. Mom and I just listen because I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere. We’re doing our best to spoil them so much they won’t ever want to leave! And I don’t think they’ll ever be strong enough to live far away again.
I know the adventure’s just begun for us. I know there will be a time when I’ll have to say goodbye to these two people who’ve shaped my life with their love. Knowing this makes me treasure our time together even more. I’m thankful that I can see my parents more than twice a year now. I’m glad to go with them to their doctor appointments and help with their finances.
I thank God for the gift of time. With them. Right now.