Be there on Monday
I've been staring at the phone for the past few days, knowing that I should probably get up the bravery to call home and find out how things were going. But sometimes there is comfort in deliberately knowing nothing for a few days, in believing that while you're going on, blithely living your life, that just because everything is calm and quiet in your life everything is calm and quiet in everyone else's lives as well.
It's more deliberate than that, really. I didn't call home because I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what Mom had to say.
I decided to wait until last night to call. From the last time I talked with Mom, she'd said that the trips back and forth to take radiation treatments were pretty painful on Dad, and exhausted both of them. The first course of radiation ended on Monday, and I thought waiting until the next day to call might mean she'd had a chance to rest up a bit.
How do I explain that I knew when I started talking with Mom that something was wrong? I hate to use pseudopsychological babble phrases like "coping strategies," but it's true. Mom and I cope with the impossible in the same way: with upright spines and brittle smiles. Our crying, our emotional release, only comes when no one is around to see the carnage.
How do I explain that I heard that brittle smile in her voice last night?
Her words came out in such a way that she might have been just offering an offhand suggestion—"You know, next week might be a good time for you to come home. Before your Dad starts his next round of radiation."
But her voice didn't match the words she was saying. Her voice said something else entirely.
In return, I tried to ask her the question whose answer I already knew. I think I just needed to hear confirmation from someone else. "Mom, I need to know something. What is—I mean, how long does, well, Dad … have?" I couldn't force the harsh words out: Death. Die. Loss. Lose.
"Maybe six months."
Now flash the next section through your head, and you will have some approximation of my thoughts before I answered my mother:
I already knew it; why did it hurt so much to hear it from her? I've done my research; I've known what to expect. The pancreas is such a deep-tissue organ that early-stage pancreatic cancer is almost impossible to detect. By the time it is detectable, it is generally in the most advanced stages. In Dad's case, by the time it was diagnosed, he had two tumors in his pancreas, several more nodules in his chest cavity, and metastases in his vertebrae.
Stage IV is pain management, grief management, consolation, and loss. How does one "spin" this, a disease whose mortality rate hovers around 95-98%? How do you nod, accept, cry, dry your eyes, get up, and march on?
The morphine helps with my father's pain, but does not completely ease it. The pain in his vertebrae is intense; he sleeps (fitfully) in the recliner because he cannot lie flat in the bed. He does not have the strength to dress himself or bathe himself. He cannot be left alone.
"Mom, we've got a couple of commitments here. Jess is coming up tomorrow, and we've got a meeting we've got to attend on Saturday. The earliest I can leave out is Monday morning. Let me get a few things wrapped up here and I'll be out there on Monday afternoon or evening."
"I think that would be good, hon."
"Let me make some phone calls and get some things arranged. I'll be there on Monday."