Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Cancer Filter

I ended the phone call with as emphatic of an "I love you" as I could manage, with my voice broken by sobs.  The voice on the other side, I had never heard before, but I knew it belonged to what I could only venture to guess was my father, heavily influenced by high doses of morphine to manage his pain.  I had tried to say everything I could think of, everything I might have left unsaid over the years, yet the doubt in my mind lingered that he wasn't "there" enough to understand.  That was the last time I spoke to my dad.  He was in Dallas, lying on his death bead, and where was I?  I was stuck in a traffic jam in El Paso, TX trying to get back in time to see him again.  I was only half way home from Tijuana, with ten more hours of driving ahead of me. I could only hear now, the haunting echos of his distorted voice, and my mom's suggestion to prepare for the possibility that "he might not be here, when you arrive."

My heart broke, and my head began to spiral with self-critical thoughts.

"Why did you have to stop and sleep last night? Were you really so tired?  Those four hours of sleep could be the difference."

"Why did you wait so long to leave Tijuana?  Were all those friends you wanted to say goodbye to worth not being able to say goodbye to your dad?"

"Why didn't you go home when things started going south?  You could have been there a week ago."

"How will you live with this?"

The traffic jam broke.  The speed limit lifted to 80mph and my truck moved as fast as I thought I could get away with, yet the road stretched on and on, and the hours dripped on like molasses through an hour glass. Fortunately, I was not tired anymore.  I could not afford to be tired.

Body shaking, and head in a scatter-brained daze, I made it to the hospital in time, but it did not feel like I did.  I arrived to a scene I will never forget, though I'd soon like to.  My father, unconscious as he had been roughly since that phone call, lay in bed gasping for air merely four times a minute.  With each breath, a sound I did not recognize, but will always remember, reminded us that the time was drawing near.  In a time alone with him, I poured out my heart, not knowing if he could hear me.

I had arrived shortly before 11pm, after a 25 hour road trip. I was exhausted, having only achieved 9 hours of sleep in the last three days, but I had no intention of sleeping now.  I stayed at his bedside, holding his unresponsive hand which was growing colder as his bodily functions continued to slow, but eventually I fell asleep.

I awoke to a sound, or more accurately, an absence of sound.  His irregular breathing was no longer marked by the hideous gasping noise, but was a less forced, almost resigned short inhale and exhale.  It was almost time.

"Why did I sleep?"

Eventually his breaths, consistently getting more and more shallow, ceased.

After six years, that was how I saw my dad's battle with cancer come to an end.

That was the hole I found myself in, not even a day after returning home.  It was deep, dark, and in all honesty, I still haven't been able to climb all the way out.  Despite the myriad of family and friends around me, and the multitude of people that would pass through in the coming days, loneliness and confusion dominated my mind.  The following week, with the ensuing chaos of people dropping off meals, the funeral and all it entailed, reality lost it's tangibility.  Around the house, things seemed almost too normal, and my mind was taken back to my childhood when daddy would go on work trips across the world and bring back a cool model car.  His absence, heavy, but there remained an unshakable feeling of expectancy.  I noticed the patio cover needed to be re-stained in spots, I saw the leather working supplies I had bought for him--unopened, and the world came crashing down.  There would be no triumphant return.

Each day was/is marked by small moments.  Like waves, the forgetfulness allows normalcy to return just enough to think about texting him for advice, or a stupid joke.  In a moment just long enough for my stomach to drop, remembrance returns.

I wish I could say I've been able to focus on the good times, but what sticks with me are the moments that broke me years ago.  There are memories we all have that will forever remain clear as day.  These are mine, which I've previously refrained from speaking out for the sake of my dad as he continued to fight.  I share these simply out of a spirit of honesty, hoping to be understood.

I think, when cancer first reaches into your closest circle, there is a level of naivety that exists. Looking back I have realized that I spent the first year or so of my dad's cancer battle in limbo between ignorance and a blind assuredness that it would be resolved in short order.  I remember with painful clarity the day that idea came crashing down.  As my brother and I visited my dad at MD Anderson, his routine visit turned into the type of feverish weekend stay to which we would grow accustomed. As we sat with him, he-- hooked into an IV--tried to assemble the hamburger he didn't want into something he could force down.  (I'll never forget the passion with which he hated whole grain buns, always on the "diet plan" doctors assigned to him).  With his dominant hand tethered to a bag of fluids, he was struggling something fierce, and eventually we had to step in and help.  As we all three realized simultaneously what this meant, my dad broke down for the first time in front of us.  It was then and there that I realized that this fight was not going to be the easy fix I expected, and that the man I always saw as unbreakable, indeed had a Kryptonite, and I would have to be a helper to him from that point forward.

Later that same night, as we watched The Sandlot together-- a movie that could bring us a smile if ever there was one-- close friends dropped by to take Chad and me out for a bit.  With our mom resting at the hotel, our dad would be alone for a bit. I was second to say goodbye, and could see that he was just barely holding it together. With everything in me crying to stay at his side, I asked if he would be alright.  He nodded because words would clearly break the dam, and Chad and I left.  Now I can only summon regret for not staying.

I remember how gaunt he became as he went through his rounds of radiation.  My dad, always an imposing man at 6' 3" as I grew up, now weighed less than me.  He had radiation to his lungs, and even his brain-- a procedure that made me shudder, simply seeing the steel contraption bolted into his forehead.  It was sometime around then that the following two incidents occurred.

One evening, Chad and I worked hard in the kitchen to prepare a nice meal for our parents who were returning from another round of treatment in Houston. We started early and were on track to get the meal on the table about the time they would be coming through the door.  As we dined, I noticed a lethargy in my dad as he poked around at the food.  It was something I would eventually learn not to interpret as an insult to my cooking.  His treatments made him desperately nauseated at times,  Before long he rushed away from the table and to the nearest bathroom.  Eventually he returned, shaking his head and apologizing.  He really did want to eat the dinner, he said, but simply could not.  Of his struggles, this one plagued me most throughout his fight with cancer.  Each meal I made I would try to come up with a combination of healthy food to get nutrition in, and enough junk to please his tastes and increase the calorie count-- assured that THIS time, he would enjoy food again. In 6 years, I can only remember one time he went back for more. (Coincidentally, it was a sandwich that he coined the name of that night. I thought it was dumb, but they'll always be "It's a Bob" sandwiches from now on).  Of the joys that cancer robs, I feel like this is one of the most cruel.

Growing accustomed to the bustle of hospital visits, my dad finally decided to cave in and buy a pair of Crocs to shuffle around. Chad and I went out to shop with him and provide moral support for this ego-breaking task.  As we scanned one store, my dad found a pair he was interested in.  The boxes were down near the floor so he dropped into a catcher's squat to look for his size.  As he grabbed the box and went to stand up, he lost his balance and began to fall backwards before Chad and I braced him and restored his balance.  That moment he broke once more, I believe the second time I'd ever seen it happen, as he fought the realization that the simple act of bending down and standing up was no longer so simple.  He had grown so weak.  From that day forward it became my habit to position myself behind him, just in case.  Each time, a painful reminder.

In the time I spent at home in his last couple years, I realized that it was way easier to live a normal life from a distance. Despite the numerous times I had come face to face with the reality of the situation, I found it was easy to pretend all was normal when I was away from home.  Inside the house I had to confront the truth.  I became accustomed to waking up to use the restroom in the night, and seeing the dim glow from the lamps turned on in the living room downstairs.  He was not having a good night.  I hoped he was at least having a comforting time with God, reading the Bible or praying.  I never went down to see.  Even when I heard him having the most painful coughing fits imaginable for hours on end, I stayed up in my room, praying for it to stop.  It's perhaps the most troubling thing for me, looking back, to see the cowardice with which I isolated myself from the truth, and the opportunities I lost to comfort my dad when he needed it most.

What hurts me most, is that this is how I remember my dad.  It's these awful memories that stick with me.  The last few nights, I've tried to remember the better times, but I can't. The memories are all foggy and disjointed.  I remember breaking into tears as it registered in my mind that it was my dad standing next to me-- he and my mom surprised me by coming to a collegiate race. I remember snippets of the moment he taught me a lesson that I have taken to heart. I vaguely remember the time we spent practicing baseball together, but it all seems to blur together.

It's honestly been deeply frustrating to me, the timing with which I returned from Mexico. So many people tell me they're happy I made it in time to say goodbye, and that I was with him when he passed.  But all I have are the awful memories of that hospital room.  I'm told he had moments during the day, though much of it spent in pain, where he was joking around.  He was himself again, if only for a few seconds at a time.  But I missed all of that.  I had to say goodbye over the phone.  And I'm stuck with only clear memories of the bad stuff.

I guess that's what cancer really does. It doesn't just rob of health, it reaches into all aspects of life.  It changes what you remember and how you remember it.  It casts a shadow over the good, and magnifies the bad.

I confess, that's where I still am most days.  It's not where I want to be, but progress is slow.

I'll close this random collection of sadness with the best memory I have.  Years ago, my mom reached out to friends and family for us to write letters of appreciation to my dad for the impact he had in our lives.  I had this memory, clear as day, that I decided to write about.  It's the kind of memory I imagined myself recalling one day in the far distant future for his eulogy.  Incidentally, it was read as part of his eulogy just a few months ago.

Sidebar: In the letter I vaguely mention foot pain.  I didn't explain because it was a letter to my dad, and he would remember well the situation.  But for other readers in the dark: as I hit my last growth spurt going into high school I suffered from a condition where the bones in my feet grew faster than the muscles and tendons.  The strain had me in constant pain just walking around.  Couple that with the transition to metal spikes for baseball and I was in a bad spot.  Most cleats have a 6-8 spike pattern so the pressure is high in a small number of points.  I wasn't just complaining about aching feet, I was in serious pain...just to squash any doubt.

Pappy, baseball will forever hold a place in my heart.  There is little comparable to playing a game under the lights on a weeknight.  Even though school always seemed to come a little earlier the next morning, nothing could take away the game, the competition, the suspension of all responsibilities for even just a couple of hours.  There's nothing quite like a game of baseball.  
But despite the thrill of the game, when I look back on all the years of baseball I played, the games were just a bonus.  What I loved more than anything was practicing with my dad. 
Baseball brought us closer than anything else could.  More than anything, I've gained such a respect for you out of your dedication to me and my growth in the sport.  While I may not have realized it at the time, you gave me my first lessons in selflessness through baseball and have given me memories I will never forget. 
I remember in middle school, when I decided to take off-campus P.E. to satisfy the gym credit I needed.  I didn't realize that my decision had a greater impact on you than me.  It's hard to practice baseball by yourself.  You need someone to throw the ball with, to hit ground balls to you, or my favorite--throw balls at your feet in the dirt.  I still can't grasp how you had the energy to do anything after a long day of work, but you never failed.  Every day, shortly after you got home we'd play catch in the side yard-- always between the fence and the shed (That DARN side arm).  You always gave of yourself to make sure I was the best I could be.  It was that attitude that set in stone your position as the person I admired, appreciated, and respected the most out of anyone, even though I may not have shown it.  In all my baseball memories, one always stands head and shoulders above the rest, and I think it embodies that sentiment the best. 
It comes from just about the time we started wearing spikes.  I remember the aching pain in my heels, the discomfort with every step, and the shooting pain anytime I ran.  Especially when I ran.  I remember our combined efforts to relieve the pain and our very limited success.  I also remember the motivation to push through the pain and do my part for the team, a value I got from a pretty great man.  It was the last game of a weekend tournament.  After multiple games, my feet were killing me, and I felt on the verge of tears with every step.  I don't remember the score, the inning, or the number of outs.  I do remember walking up to bat and wanting nothing but to strike out so I could sit down and not hurt so badly anymore.  Just my luck, a nice meaty fastball came right down the pipe, and I couldn't resist.  I let 'er rip, and drove the ball right into the gap in left center, and it was headed for the fence.  Extra bases--my worst nightmare.  So I took off down the first baseline, feeling a wave of pain with every step.  I couldn't help but limp as I swung out of the baseline to round first.  I kept pushing though, and took a peak at the third base coach to find out that second base was the finish line.  I dug as deep as I could and made it to second standing, wincing from the pain and holding back tears.  But the moment I'll never forget happened as I stood on the bag, hands over head, gasping for air.  I looked toward first base, seeing the same coach as always, looking right back at me.  In slow motion his right hand went to his cap and grabbed the bill.  As time slowed even further, the hat lifted from his head and lowered to his waist, upside down before returning to his head.  The tipping of the hat may well have just been a gesture from a proud coach to a player, but it carried more weight than I could ever really convey.  In that moment, my dad, the man I looked up to most in the world, was proud of me.  And for once, there was crying in baseball.  Few people get the chance to receive the approval of their hero, but on that day, I did.   
Since then, my respect for you has only grown stronger.  When my time with baseball drew to an end, you were incredibly supportive despite the time and effort (and money) you had dedicated.  And then I got to witness you continue to pour yourself into my passions as you drove me to bike races each weekend and stood for hours on the side of the road just to see me come by for a few seconds and hand me a water bottle, only to turn around and drive the long hours back home.  Even on your days off from work, you refused to relax because you wanted to be my support.  If there is anything I've learned from all the time we spent together going to those high school races, it's that cycling is a sport that will test how much someone really cares about you.   
And wow, you must really love me. 
I'll never forget the day our lives all changed.  I still remember sitting upstairs on the couch when you broke the news that you had tumors in your lung.  And I'll never forget standing outside my truck in Austin, talking on the phone with you as you confirmed it was cancer.  No one could predict at that time where our lives would be headed in the next few years, but I think we've been through it all now.  I've seen you push through far greater pain than I could ever imagine.  I've seen the pain and suffering in your eyes as you struggled to force down the food you so desperately needed.  I've seen the frustration with plaguing illnesses, side effects, and I.V. bruises from incompetent attendants.  I've seen you grow in your faith, and I've seen you get stronger and tougher as a man.  But most of all, I've seen you change, in me.  Because of you, my faith has grown.  My relationship with God has grown.  I now understand hardship, perseverance, and love.  Because of you, I am better.  And as tough as it has been in these past few years, you have been used to accomplish so much good.  I respect you now more than ever, as my father, role model, a cancer survivor, and still my hero.  And I tip my hat to you. 
I Love you so much,