An Oncologist Stops By………

What people never tell you about somebody dying is what an incredible pain in the ass the whole thing is. And it’s pretty gross too.

We went to see my dad with the boy at the end of April. He was fine. Some time in July I get a call from my sister he’s in the hospital. He couldn’t piss- a problem that put him in the hospital for a few days last year- and apparently there was a fall involved. A second fall, he had one a month before and didn’t tell us.

A cousin was taking him home from the hospital, and he assured me that everything was just fine. They were sending him home with a walker and a catheter, which didn’t sound just fine to me, so I went up for one night to help. He was pretty fucked up, and totally in denial. I had to go back but pressured my sister into coming to help for a few days, our cousin filling in.

A week and a half or so later I was in the area on business, and with a weekend off I drove over to see him. On my way I find out he’s in the emergency room with our cousin. I get there, cousin goes home, and they start X-raying him. They see lumps, get him a bed, and a cute young blond girl doctor tells us he’s got cancer of some kind.

I go to his apartment and come back in the morning. This is a university hospital so a steady parade of interns comes through, and everybody is quite matter of fact that he has advanced cancer but they don’t know what kind, and don’t know when any tests might be scheduled. Dr. X will be in tomorrow, and we will ask him…….

I tell Dad we need to start calling people and he relents. A young Indian girl, an oncology resident, comes by and gives us the straightest answer we get the whole time- not a very straight answer, but relatively speaking. She says with concern Dad will need to think about the future, and while it can’t be cured, it can be treated.

I’m thinking a single course of palliative chemotherapy at this point but nobody is committing to any kind of diagnosis.

The next day- I think, it’s all kind of a blur- the oncology attending comes in, a rather unpleasant middle-aged Hispanic woman. (No white males at all, and I’m pretty sure no straight males. Medicine is not a career for them any more I guess.) She’s all like yeah maybe you can get chemo maybe you can get radiation. Our cousin is visiting, and having been a health care administrator for a long time, follows her out of the room and buttonholes her. She tells him- as he tells me later- Dad is not getting any treatment and is going straight to a nursing home after this. It would have been nice if she had not lied to us, but apparently this is what oncologists do.

Dad had never wanted to come to live with or close to his children, even after he lost his mobility, but now he’s scared and wants to. He can see he can’t go back to his apartment. I’m thinking he can go to assisted living and will maybe live six months, and at least he can live decently and we can have some time with him.

I have to go, but my sister gets family leave and comes up. He is discharged from the hospital to a nursing home in the same city. He recovers a little but the nursing home does not want to release him to assisted living and my sister doesn’t want to push it. He gets worse, then better, and finally we get him on a plane and into a nursing home near us.

He’s in worse shape and my sister is still afraid to put him anywhere other than a nursing home. She won’t make any decisions, he won’t make any decisions. They finally accept that he needs to be on hospice care and get that set up.

I get some time off and I go to see him on a Wednesday. He was mostly rational, but couldn’t stand sitting up. I told my wife we could go to the beach on Saturday and see him all together on Sunday. She told me to go again Friday so I did.

My sister was there and he was worse. I told my wife we should all go on Saturday. He wanted a poached egg on toast for lunch so we got it for him and helped him eat it. My wife was very effusive with him. We left about 3 PM. I was thinking it was going to end pretty quick.

My sister called me at 11:30 that night and said the nursing home had called her and said he was deteriorating. I drove over- about an hour- and my brother and sister were there. Dad was breathing with great difficulty. My brother declared nothing was going to happen that night and left. I sat there with my sister and waited for him to die. It didn’t seem possible he could go on like this, but at 3 AM I told her I had to rest, so we went back to her apartment to sleep a little.

She woke me up at 5:30 to tell me he had died. We went to the nursing home and there he was. We cleaned up the room and waited for the funeral home to come. The guy finally showed up close to 9 and we walked him out. They drove off with him and we had breakfast, went back to her place and fell asleep again.

Due to the scheduling vagaries of my sister’s Catholic church the funeral wasn’t until almost a week and a half later. I got really sick the night before and threw up a bunch, got almost no sleep and then had to drive because my wife couldn’t cope with the traffic. I kind of wish I hadn’t seen him at the end. He was totally ruined by the disease and in great distress. And then the thought of him waiting in the reefer at the crematorium for a week was not pleasant. Per Catholic practice and his wishes, the body was at the funeral and only cremated afterwards.

The cremation was performed and my sister picked up the ashes. They will be interred with our mother but that is another difficult chore that can wait. We will have a memorial service in his hometown and then it will only be administrative stuff. My sister is quite overwhelmed by everything, but she’s the executor and has to do most of it.

Anyway Dad is gone now. I wish things had been different, I wish we had had more time, but that’s how it goes. He changed mentally around a year ago, and in that way the person I knew was gone before he had died.

His death- or the process of it anyway- had not made me feel more religious, or spiritual, but the opposite. Death is only the end of the process where life and vitality leave as the body decays. Eventually the person is still alive, but only experiences pain, no clarity of mind, no thoughts, no joy, no recognition of others. Death at that point is a blessing, because nothing good is left.

And when the person is dead, there is nothing left. You have memories of them, but that’s it. Their stuff, their money, but it isn’t theirs any more. My father leaves a modest estate, to be divided three ways. He leaves one grandchild who will not remember him. My brother and sister being childless, I hope he will eventually inherit something from them and on top of what I am able to husband for him this will provide him with some modest security in a world where only the propertied have any dignity. Hopefully he will have a few kids, and I can tell him again and again, and he can tell them again and again, their modest, decent position in life comes from Grandpa’s hard work.

Or so I hope. Our hopes, of course, die before we do. I hope not in this case.

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Happy Mother’s Day

I was going to visit my sister today and on the way I went to visit my mother’s grave.

The cemetery was a madhouse. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, lots of other people had the same idea. Lots of Hispanic and Vietnamese families, some white families and individual white people.

I thought I remembered where it was, but I couldn’t find it. I walked over to the office but it was closed. I did some internet searching on my phone, found the location and walked back.

It was about where I thought it was, but I hadn’t been able to find it. Modern cemeteries are pretty anonymous places, a sea of flat, almost identical markers. It was a different color than I remembered and more plain.

I sat down to collect my thoughts, but the scene around me took my interest. Nearby a middle-aged Hispanic woman sat on a bench in the shade of a tree. She was there when I had first searched the area. She was probably a person of humble circumstances for who family is their whole life. The loss of her mother probably hit her pretty hard. Closer a couple of Vietnamese women lay prone on the ground talking. They too were there for a long time, but didn’t seem too sad. Near them was a middle aged white woman who didn’t sit down, but looked pensively at a marker holding some flowers.

I thought of some things I hadn’t thought about before, so I’m glad I went, I guess, Eventually I got up and made my way back to my car. On the way I saw a middle-aged white woman sitting by a marker with many white flowers in a vase. She had snapped the heads off some flowers and had arranged them around the edge of the stone.

This was a little more poignant than the typical display, but then I looked at the marker. It had a male name on it, one of the more “modern” boys’ names that suggested the person buried there was relatively young.

So, rather than the son visiting his mother on Mother’s Day, she was visiting him- at the cemetery. I had cried a little before but I cried some more. I have had a lot of hard times but the devastation here was hardly to be imagined.

Atheists wonder why people are religious, and this is why. The epicureanism of the sophisticated and comfortable does not hold up well under loss.

I pray for the woman and her son, that she may find some peace now and that they can find complete peace and joy together later.

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Is Christian Religion Sufficient For All Purposes?

Recently this young man, a child of missionaries who went to Bible college, wrote to Rod Dreher about his experience with pornography. Briefly, despite his intense upbringing within evangelical Christian belief and lifestyle, he was completely undone by it.

Isn’t Christian belief supposed to cover all human problems and difficulties? Supposedly, yes, but I am going to say no. Humans need a variety of tools to live well and Christianity can redeem human life but can’t and isn’t intended to start from nothing. Christianity is intended to start from a strong base of natural law and knowledge and revealed law and knowledge that predates Christianity.

Some pagan culture has a sense of the purpose and right conduct of human life. Europeans see this in Greek, Roman, and Germanic culture. Self-control and self-discipline are a foundational part of it. Right conduct prohibits overindulgence and wasteful and frivolous things. Excess of pleasure, certainly of artificial pleasure, and spending time thinking about things you don’t and can’t have is certainly included in this.

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity have some sense of this, Catholicism particularly in that rules are rules and not to be broken. Reformed Christianity has this to some extend but evangelical Christianity is quite weak in this regard.

Christianity does not refute pagan virtue but adds things to it which it can’t contain. Virtue means strength, and to pursue holiness we need to pursue strength as well.

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Valentine and Uncle Laurence

A few years ago my wife got pregnant for the first time. I woke up the morning of my birthday and saw baby emoticons on my phone. Then I got a picture of a positive pregnancy test.

I was overjoyed. Or I don’t know exactly how I felt, but it was wonderful, the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. We told our families. The baby was due Valentine’s Day of the next year. When I got home she had the house decorated, a sign saying “Welcome Home Daddy!” and a pair of baby shoes she had bought at Old Navy.

About a month later I was away again and in the evening she told me she had a little bleeding. Not much to do, but wait. The next morning it was worse and she was distraught. I managed to get an appointment with an OB-GYN and convince her to get in a taxi and go.

I called the company and they were more helpful than I thought they would be- I talked to the owner’s daughter, who had a couple of kids and I hoped would be sympathetic. I got home that afternoon after she was back from the doctor.

It was the beginning of a holiday weekend and no ultrasound tech was available so she had an appointment for Monday. We spent the weekend crying between her visits to the bathroom. On Monday no evidence of pregnancy was visible, so she was spared a D&C.

We named the baby Valentine. I put the shoes and some other little mementos in a shoebox along with a letter. The doctor had told us to wait a couple months and try again, and we now have an energetic little boy.

More recently I was thinking about the fate of my Uncle Laurence, or actually my great uncle Laurence. Over a hundred years ago my grandmother’s family lived in Atlantic Canada. My grandmother, her older brother and their mother all had tuberculosis. My great-grandmother died; my great-grandfather and her older brother went to British Columbia to farm, while my grandmother was left in the care of nuns.

My grandmother recovered but Laurence got worse. Eventually he left BC to go to a tuberculosis sanatorium in the southwest. There he died, alone and far from home, and was buried.

My father tracked down the grave years ago but when I called him couldn’t recall much more than the city it was in. He remembered it was unmarked and very creepy. I called the cemetery district and they gave me the number, in the old section, as they called it. I looked up the cemetery on Google maps and it’s a nice modern cemetery, with flat markers- except for the old section. It looks like something out of a horror movie, with a few decaying concrete monuments but mostly just crazed metal stakes, mostly dirt with a little brown grass.

These are entirely common human tragedies, awful to those involved but too frequent to even be thought about by anyone else. Laurence must have had a hard life. My sister says she saw a picture of him once and he was handsome. But he spent his short life farming in the cold and mosquito-infested northern forest. If there were any girls around they were probably not interested in a tuberculosis sufferer. If he was a pessimist he knew he was done for, and if he was an optimist deep down he knew he was done for.

He saw the light of day, which Valentine never did. Maybe he wished he hadn’t. Life was harder back then. Few people die of infectious disease now, at least at a young age. If he hadn’t been killed by TB he might have been killed cutting down a tree, or he might have had the deep honor of dying in WWI for the Empire.

“He suffered, died and was buried.” That’s in the Nicene Creed, but it could be the biography of the typical human being. I guess we will go on wondering the purpose.

 

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Pursue Holiness

I was in a small Southern city, in a Starbucks, and a girl of about ten comes in with her family. She had a t-shirt on that said “Pursue Holiness” and then a reference below it, 2 Corinthians I think but I couldn’t see too well.

Good advice, if hard to follow. I had been thinking about this recently. The girl was nobody special. She comes from an average family in an average place. Her parents know enough to give her guidance, although how well it will stick we can’t tell.

But how many people even know this? How many professed Christians, even? Society says do what you want, and most Christians go along with that. For Rob Bell, as an example, the worst sin, and the only real one, is racism. Lots of other progressive Christians promote homosexuality and other kinds of sexual degeneracy.

So let us pursue holiness. It feels awful lonely but we have our instructions.

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The Mystery of Life

I was at my dad’s apartment going through some files I left there, and found one with a bunch of old photographs- the paper kind, when people used to take pictures with a film camera, then take the film to be developed, and get paper pictures back. Does anyone do that any more?

Many weren’t mine, so I sorted them for distribution to other family members. One I couldn’t tell who it belonged to. It was a picture of a woman next to a large, multi-figure sculpture. On the back it said “Mystery of Life, Glendale cemetery, 2001”. The woman in the picture looked like my mother’s sister, but she was long gone in 2001, and the writing looked like my mother’s, but she was long gone in 2001. So who took the picture, why and who it belonged to remain a mystery.

My curiosity was piqued so I looked it up. There is indeed a sculpture called “The Mystery of Life” at the Forest Lawn memorial park in Glendale, California, and it looks like this-

Forest Lawn mystery of life 6.23

A variety of figures surround a pair of doves, who have apparently just hatched an egg, although I can’t find a picture that shows it. This provokes them to ponder the mystery of life.

It’s a little different for a cemetery sculpture. Catholic cemeteries usually have a pieta, a sculpture of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus, or Jesus carrying a lamb, or just single statues of saints, reinforcing the idea of life after death. Forest Lawn provides services to people of a variety of beliefs, including agnostics, so something like this may be aimed at them.

I have never been to a funeral with an internment at a cemetery, but I’m guessing that people who go there are a little disoriented, and that the death is not so much what has them thinking about things they usually don’t, but the life.

“What was that all about? What was the purpose of it?” they think. The “departed” may have had a pretty nice life, or a pretty rotten one. Whatever the case it is over, and why it happened and what meaning it had is hard to understand a lot of the time.

People don’t ask to be born, they just are. They are then left to cope with a decision made by their parents. The options for understanding it are limited, and you may not be able to stick with one your whole life. My sister, a scrupulous Catholic, now has doubts, long after it is too late to be a hedonist or something else.

I was driving to work this morning and an old song by Cheap Trick, “Surrender”, came on the radio. It’s an artifact of my youth, so I cranked it up. I realized that I was no longer the child in the song, but the parents.

We are a mystery to ourselves, and a mystery to others. I hope someday we can all understand.

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Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! (A Little Late)

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! (a little late).

I was on the road, so the other night I went out and had Thai food then walked around a little. I’m in a downtown area with a lot of bars so many people were out for the holiday.

I had a brief conversation with an apparently homeless guy about the bad drivers, and how the cops bugged him about collecting palm fronds. “But I told them my friend who works at the restaurant said it’s OK!” I told him somebody needs to keep an eye on things, and he agreed. I bid him a good night and went toward the festivities.

A young guy who was with another young guy and girl asked me if he could ask me something, and I assumed it was for directions or something, so I stopped. It turns out they were talking to people about Jesus, and I told them I was a Christian if not a good one, but the guy still wanted me to pray the salvation prayer with them so I requested we join hands and we did. (The salvation prayer? Or what do they call it?) I asked them to let me pray, and they agreed, so I prayed for them in their evangelical work and for the people out on Saint Patrick’s Day.

It’s a good day to evangelize. I guess the had the idea the streets would be full of drunk sinners in need of salvation, which of course it was. Saint Patrick is remembered for his evangelization of Ireland, so it’s really a good day to evangelize. I doubt most Baptists think of it that way, but it is.

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