Saturday, November 24, 2012

Follow-up on Foster the Cat

One question I get asked pretty often by people who've read my family's story is this: What ever happened to Foster the cat?  

As I've mentioned, my mom is not a big fan of felines.  We had various pet cats while I was growing up and my parents had a cat named Sport who had passed away a year or so before my dad got sick, but Dad was always more the cat person between the two of them.  

I think I can speak for my mom when I say that there were no regrets about having gotten a cat for my dad after he got out of rehab; his Bucket List had been revised in such a drastic way when he got sick, and there weren't a lot of things on his list during that time that he could do because of the impairments that came from the tumor and because of the treatment he was undergoing.  Getting him a kitten was one of the few requests we could fulfill for him, and we were happy that his wish was able to be granted.  

Dad loved having Foster; in fact, he said that getting Foster was the "second best thing" that had happened to him since he'd gotten sick. ("The first best is having my kids and my grandkids around more," he said.)  He and Foster napped together and hung out together, and, when they weren't doing that, Dad enjoyed watching Foster play.

Unfortunately, though, Dad didn't get better with the treatments; in fact, he got worse, and he was only around for about six weeks after Foster joined the family.  

Mom didn't want a cat.  She had two greyhounds, one of whom was elderly and in poor health, and Foster tormented both of them.  He constantly tried to escape whenever an exterior door to the house was opened, and Mom didn't want to have to worry about him getting lost or hurt outside.  With Dad not around to take pleasure in Foster anymore, we agreed we needed to find a new home for the cat.

But this wasn't just any cat - it was Dad's cat - and, other than Dad's car, it was the first time we had to make a decision of what to do something of his - something he had loved, even if just for a short time.  Something he should still be around to love.  Ouch.

So we didn't want to let just anybody have him; ideally, we wanted him to go to a home with children to play with and to a family that would report back to us periodically about how he was doing.  I felt like it would be like losing a part of Dad if we lost track of Foster, and all of us were already battling against such sadness that I didn't want one more loss to add to the mix.

A couple of my parents' friends offered to take Foster when they heard about our situation, but neither had children and we thought Foster would be happier if he had some kids to play with.  Both of my sisters and I considered taking him, but all three of us already had two cats each and we weren't sure the younger, more energetic Foster would fit in.  

Taking a cat nap in a gift basket
Six weeks after my dad went on ahead, my siblings and I and our spouses and children all gathered again at my parents' house; because my dad had expressed his desire to be cremated and the cremation couldn't be completed before some of the family needed to leave town the month before, we had planned the memorial celebration for a few days after his death and the burial several weeks later so we could all make it back for the service.

That weekend, we talked about what would be best for Foster, and, to our delight, my brother and his wife offered to take him back with them and their two children when they returned a few days later to Philadelphia.  It seemed like the perfect solution; they already had one cat but thought she and Foster would work out any differences in time as needed.  

We were apprehensive about how Foster would behave on the plane ride, but they reported that he did fine. (Don't tell the airline, but he even got to get out of the carrier and sit in my niece's lap for awhile on the flight!)  

Since then, he has adjusted to living with them, and he and their first cat Greta have called a truce.  I know my dad would be glad that his cat has such a great life, playing with my niece and my nephew and going inside and outside as often as he wants, and we are grateful that he ended up in such a good place and that we get to hear funny Foster stories so often.  

At home with my niece, who is showing
him a photo of my parents

Friday, November 23, 2012

Two Years Ago

Today I am remembering my family's Journey of Hope exactly two years ago, when we took my dad to The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center in search of a treatment - or maybe even a cure - for brain cancer.

After Dad had gotten his first round of chemo and the "Magic Bullet" drug Avastin there, we spent the night in Durham, as we'd been told by the doctors that we had to do after the treatment in case Dad had any side effects after the first round that required medical attention.

We hadn't planned on staying that night originally; we had been told that we could get to Durham on the Monday before Thanksgiving, go to the first day of appointments at Duke on Tuesday, meet with the advisory team of neuro-oncologists on Wednesday morning, and then hit the road to travel the 500 miles back to my parents' house, in time to make it home that night so we could be there for Thanksgiving.  Our Back-up Plan was to drive part of the way back on Wednesday, spending the night at a hotel along the way and then getting up early on Thanksgiving Day to drive the rest of the way home.

But we also hadn't expected for the team to recommend that Dad start treatment there at Duke, right then.  And, since part of the deal for his doing that was that we stay in the area overnight, we agreed to stick around.  While I sat with Dad in the clinic as the medicine dripped into his veins, my mom and my sister Jennifer met with a hospital social worker to go over insurance coverage issues and other things; the staff at the Brain Tumor Center seemed much more well versed on several important matters like that than did the people with whom we had been dealing at the local oncologist's office.  My brother-in-law, Peter, who had taken a red-eye flight from California the night before to be with us in Durham, hastily searched the city for a hotel that had a suite-style room or two adjoining rooms - one of which we needed to be wheelchair accessible - available for that night.  Evidently, the night before Thanksgiving is a big night for hotels in that area, though, and the only hotel with enough available space for all of us to be in close proximity was not set up for handicapped access.  It was what it was, though, and so after a flurry of text messages back and forth between all of us, Peter booked the rooms and drove back to the hospital to pick up Dad and me, as Mom and Jennifer will still in a meeting there.

Once we got to the hotel, we got Dad situated in the wheelchair, and then I pushed him and Peter carried the luggage up to the room.  Dad wanted to sit in an armchair by the window in our room and watch TV ("It's way too early for bed," he said, as much to himself as to anyone.).  Peter went to the vending machine and got Dad a big bag of peanut M&M's and a Diet Coke, which he poured over ice into a styrofoam cup.  He put the goods on the table next to Dad, and then he and I took a look at the set up in the hotel room bathroom; I was very apprehensive about the fact that there were no grab bars (and essentially nothing else for Dad to hold onto) by the toilet, and, to make matters worse, the toilet seat was low, which would make it even harder (and more dangerous) for Dad to get up and down.  Peter and I decided that he would go to a drug store to try to find grab bars that could be installed temporarily; that seemed to be our only option at the time.

In the midst of our conference by the bathroom door, we heard a noise from the bedroom area where Dad was.  We hurried in and saw Dad nonchalantly sitting in the chair watching TV, with most of his drink and the majority of the M&M's spilled all over the floor.  "What happened?" I asked him.  "I didn't try to get up," he responded, which made me think that either he did and didn't want to admit that he couldn't do it, or he had no idea that I was referring to the fact that there was stuff spilled all over the floor next to his chair.  Peter grabbed towels from the bathroom, and, as he and I cleaned up the mess, I noticed that the table where the drink and candy had been was on Dad's left side, the side that was his dominant but in which he had impairment in sensation and strength because of the tumor.  It was evident that he had either accidentally knocked over the stuff on the table by just moving his arm, or he had reached for something on the table and knocked it over, or he had tried to get up out of the chair by pressing down on the only thing around him - the table- and then the table had tipped slightly, causing him to have to sit back down and the stuff on it to spill.   In any case, he seemed to have forgotten that anything had happened.  When he saw us cleaning up the spill, though, he started asking questions: "Did I do that?" and "Where is Vicki [my mom]?" and "When are we going home?" - and - the one that I thought was the most alarming - "Am I going to get chemo today?"  Shit, I thought.  I had been so hopeful over the last few hours as we heard from the Duke team about the benefits of their treatment protocol and then as I sat beside Dad in the Chemo Room watching him get the Magic Bullet treatment.  Now I was just scared, because with him not noticing or not remembering how he'd spilled and then with those questions, it seemed like he was getting worse.

But, as we had been doing during that time, Peter and I exchanged a look of concern, but we held it together and moved on to the next task at hand: while I sat with Dad in the hotel room, Peter drove to pick up my mom and Jennifer at the clinic.  He dropped off my mom back at the hotel and then he and Jennifer went on a quest for the safety rails, which, as seemed to be par for the course for us, turned out to be not nearly as easy as we'd thought it would be.  Traffic was nightmarish, and none of the drug stores in the area had what we needed in stock.  My sister tried to look up medical supply companies on her cell phone as Peter fought the traffic, but cell phone signal was sketchy.  Finally, they found a little hospital supply store that had the rails; they paid for their purchase and made their way back to the hotel.

Once back in the room, Peter and I looked at the directions for installing the grab bars and realized we needed a screwdriver.  He called the front desk and got connected to the hotel maintenance guy, who agreed to let us borrow one.  Peter handily removed the toilet seat, fastened the frame that was connected to the grab bar to the toilet, and replaced the seat.  Good to go.

The sun was just going down by that time, and Dad was already fighting sleep.  Like every night, he talked us into helping him into the bed and then talked about how he wasn't hungry but would try to eat something for supper and how he knew it would make for an odd sleep schedule to go to sleep that early but he was so tired he didn't think he could help it.

We let him sit up in bed watching TV as we came up with a game plan for what to do for supper. Peter volunteered to sit with him while Mom, Jennifer, and I went downstairs to the hotel restaurant, and we said we would bring food back to the room for the two of them.

I remember sitting in the restaurant thinking about just how surreal the whole situation was, from the fact that my dad had brain cancer, to the way his treatment had been started much more quickly than we'd anticipated, to how we'd been directed to stay in the area for an extra night, which meant we wouldn't make it back in time to join in on the Thanksgiving feast with the rest of my large extended family who had been expecting to celebrate with us after our trip.  As we ate, we talked about what a whirlwind the trip had been, how grateful we were that the Duke team seemed to be in our corner, and how hopeful we were that the treatment would help.

After we'd gotten back to the room and Peter and Dad had eaten, Dad announced that he was going to sleep, which was a cue for Peter, Jennifer, and me to retreat to the hotel room next door.  We positioned the door between the adjoining rooms so that it was almost closed, so we could hear if we were needed in my parents' room but so that we could whisper in our room and not disturb my parents.

As usual, Dad had to get up a few times during the night to go to the bathroom, and we were glad for the grab bars each time.  Because he had been started on the chemo pill just after he had the IV treatment that day, we had been instructed to be sure that the lid of the toilet was closed each time before he flushed and to make sure he thoroughly washed his hands after using the bathroom to protect him against toxic chemicals (Doesn't it seem weird that they were having him ingest the chemicals but he had to take extra precaution to avoid being exposed to them externally?).  We tried prompting him through the bathroom door to remind him, but, because he didn't always listen to us before he did something like flush or try to stand up by himself, eventually my mom just started going in there with him to be sure that he was following the safety procedures.

The next morning, on Thanksgiving Day, everyone but Dad woke up early and packed up our gear; we were eager to get started on the drive home.  We had a hard time getting Dad up and getting him ready; he wanted to have his face shaved, and it took major negotiating to skip it so we could just load up and go.  It was quite the antithesis to his usual tendency when it came to starting out on a road trip; every other time, he was the one getting up early and urging the rest of us to hurry.

Many restaurants and even some gas stations were closed along the way on the long drive home, and, by the time we finally made it back to my parents' house that night, we were hungry and exhausted.  We ate leftover Thanksgiving food that had been packaged up and put in the refrigerator for us after the big family meal that we'd missed.  Dad ate a little turkey and dressing and then went to bed; as usual, though, even with as tired as he said he was at the beginning of the night, he had a hard time sleeping and battled a headache all night, finally falling into a medicated sleep just before the sun came up.

The ringing of my parents' telephone woke us up early the next morning; it was a nurse from the nursing home where my grandmother was calling to tell us that Grandmom had taken a turn for the worse.  My siblings and I hurriedly got dressed and drove to the nursing home to be with Grandmom, and the challenges continued all day long.  A cold front had come through overnight, and it was very cold and windy outside, which added to our problems, especially during the family photo shoot.  

When I think back to that day, one of the most difficult days of my life, I remember the brutal cold, the confusion, the fatigue, and the extreme concern about Grandmom, but what I remember most is how hard Dad worked to take part in what was going on around him - and the feeling of love between all of us.  I remember noticing how difficult it was for Dad to tolerate the cold weather as he was helped out of the car, as he sat in the wheelchair for pictures to be taken, and as he was helped back into the car so he could get back home.  Like a lot of things going on then, the photo shoot seemed almost dreamlike: for as much as I was in denial about the prognosis of the brain cancer, I guess some of the reality had sunken in because not long after the news of his diagnosis had been given to us I scheduled a family photo shoot for the day after Thanksgiving, knowing (desperately hoping?) that the whole family would be together then so that we could have our picture taken, all together.  

We made it through the photo shoot and through the next couple of days, trying to keep all of our spirits up as we watched over Dad and Grandmom.  

I don't remember a lot from the time my dad was sick, including the details of what else we did over that weekend, but I do remember that I felt a sense of unease (even more than usual) when I left my parents' house that Sunday.  I really wanted to be present when the "magic" we had been promised happened; I envisioned Dad suddenly standing up from the bed or his recliner, steady on his feet and with clarity in his eyes and a smile on his face.  But more than I wanted to be there to witness first-hand the miracle, I just wanted one to happen.  I wanted to see the fulfillment of the cause-and-effect; I wanted the promise of the hope that we had to be realized.  It had been a whirlwind past few weeks, especially the one leading up to Thanksgiving, and I was exhausted both mentally and physically, but I was so very thankful for the love and the time together that we had.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Turkey Sandwich

When I was about ten years old, my parents decided that my family needed to split up for a couple of days so that we could visit both sets of my grandparents over the Thanksgiving break.  We drove the 400 miles to my mom's parents' house, spent the night, and then my mom and my two younger sisters stayed there while my dad, our yellow lab Dobie, and I continued down the highway 300 miles more to get to his parents' house.  

When we got there, my granddad was in the kitchen, with food cooking on the stove and in the oven and in all stages of completion all over the kitchen.  He was the big-time cook in the family; he loved cooking and was very good at it.  As usual, he let me sit on a tall stool and help him stir, measure, and pour, which thrilled me.  The kitchen was filled with conversation and great smells as we prepared and then ate the Thanksgiving dinner.

The next day, Grandmom had to work, but Granddad, my dad, and I stood in line so that Dad and I could ride the merry-go-round that their town sponsored every holiday season.  We ran a few errands and then ended back at my grandparents' house where we sat on the front porch and ate leftover turkey sandwiches that my grandfather had made.  I remember the taste of the sandwiches like it was yesterday; each one was cut into two perfect rectangle halves, on soft white bread and with the turkey chopped and mixed with a little bit of mayo and very finely sliced celery.  It was just the way I liked it.

Two days later, my dad woke me up before the sun was up, and we loaded our suitcases and Dobie into the station wagon for our trip back to my other grandparents' house.  As we hugged my grandparents, my granddad handed my dad a brown grocery sack and said, "Four turkey sandwiches for the road!"  We thanked him, with Dobie lying down in the "way back" of the car, we got into the front seat, and set out on on way.

A few hours later, Dad commented that he was hungry.  The thought of the perfect turkey sandwich was making my mouth water too, and so I climbed over the seat to get the bag of food.  I noticed that the top of the sack was opened, and when I reached inside, I discovered the only thing left in there was shredded plastic wrap.  Evidently, Dobie had helped herself to all four sandwiches as we drove down the highway.  

Dad and I were so disappointed.  We ended up stopping at a truck stop for lunch, which of course wasn't nearly as good.  To this day, I think the best part of the Thanksgiving dinner is eating a leftover turkey sandwich, cut into two perfect rectangle halves, on soft white bread and with the turkey chopped and mixed with a little bit of mayo and very finely sliced celery.  I attempt to recreate Granddad's version every year, but to date I have yet to eat one that is as good as Dad and I thought those sandwiches in the brown paper sack were going to be that day.  Maybe this year ...

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Church Pew

I'm taking an online grief class, and part of the focus of the class is to put together a collection of memories and pieces of information about the loved one who went on ahead.  We have been given a list of fill-in-the-blank style questions to help in the information gathering process; the list includes things like favorite color, favorite subject in school, first job, hobbies, and words of wisdom.  Some of it is easy for me to complete, some of it is hard to remember or to narrow down, and some of it I don't know.  

It's the latter that really upsets me; it makes me think about just how sad it is that many of my dad's stories died along with him.  Luckily, my mom and my siblings can fill in some of the information that I don't know, but, when they have exhausted their repertoire, that's all there is.  And that hurts in a way that I didn't know existed before.

When my dad was in the hospital waiting for the surgery that resulted in his being officially diagnosed with cancer, he was very talkative, around the clock.  Some of what he spoke about were things he was worried about, mainly my mom and his mom.  He chatted about what he hoped to be able to do when he got out of the hospital.  He asked about each of his grandchildren and said he could hardly wait to see them again.  In between these conversations, though, he said a few things that were out of the blue and some that were out of context and maybe even out of the realm of what we could understand.  One of those things he said was that he could see his dad, who had passed away years before, and a man whom he said was his "first preacher" from when he was a little boy and whom he said had a last name of Whitehead.  According to my dad, he could see both of these men sitting at the end of a church pew.  He didn't seem to know what they were doing or what else was going on in that scene, but it did seem to leave him a little unsettled.

Fast forward about 7 months later, after my dad and then his mom (my grandmother) both had gone on ahead, and my extended family on my dad's side had gathered for a memorial service for my grandmother in her hometown in Alabama, which is where my dad grew up.  I asked several of the people who had known my dad as a child, including his brother, if they remembered a preacher by the name of Whitehead, and they all said they did not recognize the name.  The story remains a mystery, and the fact that it probably always will bothers me, a lot.  I wish I could hold onto every bit of my dad that ever was, every memory and every fact, even those that I didn't know yet.  I guess there is a kind of grief for the loss of those things that comes along with the grief of the loss of a loved one, too, yet another thing that I wish I didn't have to know.