Friday, June 15, 2012
One thing that I think I got better at during my dad’s illness was being present. When I think back to when my children were very young and there was a lot of just being there to be done, I don’t see myself as having been good at it; so often when I should have been completely focused on the joy of motherhood, I remember feeling like I needed be taking care of something else – work, household duties, or whatever – instead of basking in the good fortune that had come to me because I was able to spend time with them. I don’t think I was in the moment often enough back then, and, to be honest, it’s something with which I’ve often found myself struggling in many contexts over the years.
But when I was told of Dad’s diagnosis, even though I didn’t (couldn’t) believe the prognosis, I realized the preciousness of spending time with him, just in case. When my family was told the grim statistics that were so caustically presented to us, immediately we were all reeling over the extreme vulnerability of the man we loved so much, and maybe even that of life in general. From the time Dad was initially taken to the hospital by ambulance, in some distinct ways he seemed so different from the man he really was, but in other ways he was, well, just himself. What Cancer didn’t take from him was his sense of humor, his kindness, his tenacity, his love for his family and friends, and maybe even his belief that things would turn out all right.
Throughout his battle with Cancer, at least some confusion was there for Dad, at times a good bit of it, but his brilliance was still there too. As much as we wanted to protect him and to have as much time as possible with him, he worked even harder to protect us and to have as much time as possible with us, and I will always remember and respect the grand effort I am certain that took on his part.
Over the many years that Dad was in peak physical condition, especially when he was marathon-ready, he was thin-statured. His son-in-laws and some of his friends used to jokingly call him Skeletor and say that he looked like a POW. (Dad took that as a compliment: “Less weight to carry on my run!” he said enthusiastically.) But at the end of his life, Cancer actually made him a Prisoner of War – literally overnight, he couldn’t go where he wanted to go or do what he wanted to do. Hell, he couldn’t even be left alone for one minute for fear that his “I can do it myself” attitude and the impulsiveness and disregard for safety that were handed down by the disease would land him in the floor. Obviously, nothing and no one had been able to keep him safe from Cancer, and, the way we saw it, we’d be damned if we weren’t going to try our absolute best to keep him safe from everything else.
And that’s where being present became necessary, right from Day 1 of his illness. That’s also were being present became a privilege for those of us who loved him so much; it was a crash course for me in priorities and in time management. At first, as I sat with Dad and even while I helped him with the many things with which he needed help, my mind raced ahead and then behind and then ahead again. If not for the fatigue that became so extreme and so pervasive for my mom, my sisters, and me during the ten weeks we cared for Dad, we would surely have not been able to fall asleep at all for the whirling and racing our minds were doing. As it was, though, by the time Dad entered rehab just a few days after his brain surgery, being present was all I could do, and, as well, it was all I wanted to do.
Along the way, Dad seemed like he still had plenty of fight left in him, until he didn’t. The world, in Dad’s eyes before Cancer, was a great place, full of fun things to do and people to interact with, full of adventure and dreams and things to look forward to. We watched as Cancer and the four walls of the hospital, the rehab center, his house, and then the hospital again changed that over time, though, and as the light and the happiness started to leave his eyes.
People going through the kind of traumatic experience that my family was while Dad was sick are not always the easiest people with whom to interact, we knew that, and we did what we could to follow Dad’s lead and to be appreciative and patient. Some of the nurses and techs we clicked with, and some of them we tolerated while we counted down the minutes until their shifts were over. We weren’t ourselves; we were busy being present and taking care of Dad with every bit of intensity that we could muster, 24 hours a day. Fear and anger and helplessness and sorrow and fatigue changed who we were; I think most of the people we knew were aware of that and realized that our world had been turned upside down and we were just muddling through.
In the months since Dad went on ahead, I think I have lost a lot of the ability I had gained in being present. My mind so often flashes back to scenes of Dad struggling or the faces of the people who didn’t help us and didn’t seem to care that we were failing in our efforts to save him. It’s like a remote control gone haywire with a life of its own that's controlling my thoughts sometimes when I should be controlling them, so that I can pay attention and be present, especially when I am lucky enough to have time to spend with my family and friends; I cannot control those flashes or the distractibility and the emotions that come with them. I am very appreciative of the times when I can focus, whether it is to concentrate on doing something that needs to be done or to take a breath and feel some positive emotions. Oddly, sometimes when I catch myself feeling happy, I’m happy that I can be happy in that moment, but, as in a sky without a cloud in sight, it also makes me anxious and sad to know that there is a black cloud that out there that will inevitably come near again at some point in the future.
Being present more consistently has gone back on the list of goals that I have for myself, and I hope to achieve it one day soon so that I can more often bask in the good that is all around me, despite the fact that one of the best people in my life is no longer able to be present to enjoy it with me.