The dictionary defines cancer as such: noun, Middle English, from Latin “genitive Cancri”: a malignant tumor of potentially unlimited growth that expands locally by invasion and systemically by metastasis; an abnormal bodily state marked by such tumors.” I prefer this definition: “something evil or malignant that spreads destructively; the cancer of hidden resentment.”
My dad had just returned from an errand.
“Oh, Nancy’s still in the car, I’ll be right back.”
He came up the stairs with a box in his arms, holding it tenderly.
“Do you want to hold her?” my Dad asked. He had tears in his eyes as he passed the box to my brother and then to me.
I was surprised at the heft of the box–it weighed about five or six pounds. Not really what I was expecting. Of course, I wasn’t really expecting to be holding my step-mom in a box, either.
I wasn’t prepared for anything that had happened over the last four days. Shit, no one was ready, and how could we have braced ourselves for something like this? You can mentally prime yourself for what you may think will happen, but once faced with the actual events, all your self-training goes out the fucking window. The flood gate of emotions sweeps you off your feet and you can’t remember your name, let alone how you coached yourself daily on how to deal with the certainty of death.
I got the call from Dad Monday night.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he greeted me. He sounded defeated and I could tell he was exhausted by the sound of his voice, and how slow and deliberate he was being choosing his next words.
“Nancy’s taken a turn for the worse. It’s only a matter of days now. You should think about coming soon.”
I sat on the edge of my bed in stunned silence. His words affected me in a way I could never have imagined. I knew this call would come one day, but it hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since I had seen Dad and Nancy. I had gone to visit the day before, and immediately, I was grateful for that decision. She wasn’t in great shape–who could be when you‘re dying from terminal cancer, but I certainly thought we had a few more weeks left with her. To get this call from Dad was a shock. How could things have gone downhill so quickly? What happened to the weeks we had left, now it’s a matter of days, possibly hours?
“Wow…really? Dad, I’m so sorry…I, uh…“
I cleared my throat in a feeble attempt to stall the conversation and cover up the fact I had absolutely no idea what to say next.
“Ok, I’ll be there as soon as I can, so sometime tomorrow morning. Is that ok? Do you need me to get anything for you before I leave?“
“No, honey. I’m fine. I just need you here, and so does Nancy. I won’t keep you, but I love you and please be careful driving tomorrow. See you in the morning.“
“I love you too, Dad, and I’ll be careful. See you tomorrow.“
I hung up the phone and sat in silence at the edge of the bed. So many trivial things were running through my head: what about work? How much bereavement time do I have? Does my brother know? When can he be here? What am I going to wear to the funeral? The thought of impending death of a loved one really puts a wrench in your normal thought processes.
I sat a few minutes longer, thinking of nothing and everything at the same time. I got up off the bed and went to the closet to find my backpack so I could start packing an overnight bag. I didn’t know what to take with me or how much to take, so I just kept it simple. Change of clothes, deodorant, toothpaste and toothbrush. I knew I’d have to come back home anyway, so why burden my already heavy mind with “black slacks or skirt?”
I looked at the alarm clock on top of my dresser and saw that it was 7:00 p.m. I made my way to the living room and sat down on the couch. I tried to watch television to pass the time. I flipped mindlessly through the channels several times until I finally landed on the TV Guide channel. Why flip through channels when I can watch one channel specifically devoted to showing what’s on the other channels?
The rest of the night went on as usual–I ate supper, watched some more television and went to bed. I slept surprisingly well that night and I felt guilty about that. How can I be so rested when my step-mom is dying?
When the alarm went off the next morning, I got up, sort of, and made a feeble attempt at doing my usual routine. I took the dog outside, but I was walking around the apartment complex in a daze. I stopped to let him sniff at a tree trunk and my mind began wandering. The only thing that brought me back to reality was him tugging at his leash and whining loudly at me.
“Oh, sorry,” I apologized. I bent down and picked up his steaming business with a plastic bag. I gagged at the smell. “Good God, dog. What the hell am I feeding you?”
After dropping the bag off in the dumpster, we went back inside. The next thing I know, I’m standing in the bathroom, facing the mirror.
I closed the door behind me and stared at myself for a few minutes. Have you ever looked at yourself for so long your own face becomes unrecognizable? I don’t remember my eyes being that particular shade of blue-grey….or how my nose turns up slightly at the tip, my nostrils bordering on being too large…my mouth is a disaster. I’ve always hated my top lip….my eyebrows are ok. I’ve got no beef with them.
I started making faces at myself, pulling my top lip up into a sneer, scrunching my eyebrows down. I stuck my tongue out and began scrutinizing that, as well. It’s short and stubby. I remembered always being jealous of my mom–she can touch her nose with her tongue. When I do it, it barely goes half-way up the space between my lip and nose. I know there is a medical term for that area, but I’ll be damned if I can remember that right now.
After a few more minutes of face-making, I undress and step into the shower. I adjust the water temperature so it’s a little warmer than usual. I hope the extra degrees snap me out of my stupor. I pull up on the little gizmo on the spout that makes the shower head turn on and let the water blast me in my face. I foolishly inhaled at that moment and began choking on water. Coughing loudly, I bend over in an effort to expel water from my lungs. A few hitching, gasping breaths later, I stand upright again, turning around so the water is hitting my back and shoulders. I bend my head back to wet my hair and relish the hot water pounding down on me.
Most of the shower was just me standing in the stream of water. I honestly can’t tell you if I shampooed my hair or not. Maybe I did….but probably not. The water was starting to get lukewarm and my fingers were comically wrinkly, so I turned the water off and grabbed my towel from the shower curtain rod and started drying off.
I went into the bedroom and began rifling through my dresser for something to wear. I found my clothes and was on my way back into the bathroom to change. After dressing and a sorry attempt at putting on make-up, I went into the kitchen. I stood at the pantry door and tried to decide what to eat. Nothing looked appealing, but I know I should eat something. I chose strawberry pop tarts and poured a glass of skim milk and sat down at the small table and began eating. Normally, I love strawberry pop tarts. Today, however, they were the most vile things I’ve ever deliberately put in my mouth. Each bite was more disgusting as the one before it, but I managed to choke them down without incident.
The drive down to my Dad’s house was short compared to other trips. I don’t remember speeding but perhaps I was. I was convinced I’d get to the house and Nancy would have gone while I was driving down. I was trying to mentally prepare myself for my dad’s grief and kept repeating over and over in my head, “you can do this, just be there for Dad.”
Within a few blocks of the house, I was stuck by a strange, foreboding feeling; death was eminent. This feeling was interrupted by another, and then another. There were cars everywhere. Had the whole town turned up to bear witness? Where the fuck were they during her struggle? A woman had spent months dying in this house… apparently today there was nothing good on t.v. In my delirium, I half expected there to be vendors in the front lawn selling funnel cakes, corn dogs, and soda to all that came for the show.
Gathering myself, I carefully pulled up to the curb behind a sports car with vanity plates. “PASTORD.”
“Jesus christ,” I mumbled as I turned off the ignition. Head in hands, I sat behind the wheel. For a moment. For an hour. Opening up the car door, I made my way across the street, through the grass, still wet with morning dew, and up the steps to the house- the house that Dad and Nancy has just bought the previous spring. Recalling the phone conversation I had with Dad the day the sale was finalized, I was overcome with sadness. He was so happy. He had new homeowner high and was going on and on about all the projects he and Nancy had planned. Projects now on the back burner, where death was eagerly awaiting.
“Here we go,” I said aloud, “let the circus begin.”
I walked up the stairs to the front door. There was a note taped to the door that read, “Please don’t ring doorbell. Come on in.” I timidly pushed the door open and slowly stepped inside. The scene was vastly different than it was 48 hours earlier. In place of the oversized recliner that Nancy had made “her spot” for the past few months was a hospital bed with an IV stand behind it. Nancy was laid out in the bed. I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or had just regressed so quickly that she was no longer conscious. Every now and then, she’d let out a loud moan and writhe in bed, pushing the blankets that were around her legs off. I was transfixed on Nancy that I didn’t notice my Dad had made his way across the room to me.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” he said as he gave me a hug. I snapped out of my stupor and hugged him back. “How was your trip down here?” he asked.
“Good, good. Nice weather out today.”
Leave it to my father to bring up the weather.
“Yeah, it is nice.” And it was. I was grateful for the sun and clear skies, but I also felt that the weather was mocking our pain and it should be dark, gloomy, and raining instead.
“Come in and get comfortable. We’ve just started eating lunch, so you got here at the perfect time,” Dad said.
I walked through the living room past Nancy’s parents and a guy I didn’t know. The three of them were watching a Kansas City Royals baseball game on t.v. As I walked past them, they all turned toward me and offered sad smiles.
I made it to the kitchen and put my bag down under the kitchen table. There was a large amount of food sitting out and Dad was making himself a plate. He must have known what I was going to say because he started telling me who was all here.
“You know Nancy’s parents of course, but the other gentleman in the living room is Pastor Dave from the church in Lincoln, ”
Ah….the sports car with the personal plates….
My father was talking to me, but I half heard what he was saying because I was distracted by Nancy’s moaning. Again, Dad was a mind reader and said, “Yeah, she’s been like that since last night. Sherry’s been trying to keep her quiet and giving her pain medication, but we can’t tell if it’s helping her or not. The hospice nurse is going to be here later and we’ll make adjustments to her meds.”
He handed me a Styrofoam plate. I couldn’t decide if I was hungry or not. The sounds from the living room had kind of made me lose my appetite but I grabbed a few chips and some lunch meat to be polite. Dad grabbed a beer from the fridge and offered me one as well.
“I don’t know about you, but I could one of these,” he said as he handed me a Bud Light.
I might not have been hungry, but a beer did sound pretty good. We took our plates and drinks and headed outside to the deck to join the others that were already eating. Dad and I headed toward the empty chairs and sat down.
“Hi, everyone.” I said.
All eyes looked up at me as I spoke. Sad eyes, tired eyes. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what everyone was feeling at this moment. The emotions were running high in this house and for good reason. A person lay dying in the next room and we’re all eating potato salad and coleslaw.
We all sat in silence on the deck and listened to birds chirp their cheery early May songs. This seemed so normal, so very much like a family getting together for a picnic. Very Norman Rockwell.
When lunch was finished, we went back inside. I sat down on a chair in the living room and tried to make myself seem like I wasn’t extremely uncomfortable. I realized at that moment that this was the first experience I’d had with someone dying. I didn’t know how to handle myself. I tried watching the t.v., but that was no good. I finally resorted to staring at the digital picture frame on the coffee table. I watched days, weeks, months, and years flash by. Nancy looking healthy, happy and vibrant. Nancy looking a little more tired than normal, a thin smile stretched across her too pale face. Nancy with tufts of white hair poking out from under her pink Nebraska Cornhuskers hat. Nancy from the past weekend. Yellowish skin, dark sunken eyes, a few wisps of hair, looking so tiny in the t-shirt and sweatpants she had been wearing. She had wasted away to less than half her former self. Cancer is a motherfucker.
A cell phone rang. It was my Dad’s. He excused himself and took the call in the bedroom. After a few minutes, he walked back in, his eyes red and watery. He took out a handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose in the loud honk that would always make me dissolve into giggles when I was a little girl.
“Sorry,” he said. “One of Nancy’s work friends.” Why he was apologizing was beyond me. “That’s been the hardest part for me. I do ok and then someone calls and I just get overcome with emotion. I’ve got to work on that.”
We all sat a few more minutes longer, watching the game/pictures when the Pastor spoke up. “Dan, if you don’t mind, I’d like to say a prayer.”
“Of course, Pastor. Please go ahead.”
Pastor Dave walked over to Nancy’s bed, grabbed her hands in his and started praying out loud.
“Dear Heavenly Father, we are asking you to be with your sister Nancy in this dark time. Be with her, comfort her, let her know that this is your plan and your will. We may not understand it, but we just ask that you also comfort us. Ease Nancy’s suffering and bring her home to you. In your name we pray, amen.”
“Thank you, Pastor,” my dad could barely speak. Tears fell on his cheeks and got lost in the stubble on his face. Just when you think your heart can’t break any more, something like that happens and you realize a whole new level of grief. What I wouldn’t give to not feel like this right now….. to have none of this happen right now……
The rest of the afternoon and evening passed by in a blur. The emotion got too much for me at one point and I made my way downstairs to the basement and took a nap on the couch. I hadn’t realized how tired I was and soon found myself in a deep sleep. I had fallen asleep when it was light out but was awoken by the sound of loud voices and it was considerably dark. I looked at my watch…..9:30 p.m. Wow. That meant I had been asleep for roughly three hours. I sat up, slightly confused as to what I was doing back at Dad’s house and then Nancy’s moaning brought me back to reality quickly. I sat on the couch a bit longer, gathering my bearings and was about to get up and make my way upstairs again when Dad called down to me.
“Erin? Are you awake? Could you come upstairs, please?”
I sighed and heaved myself up off the couch. I slowly started up the stairs and saw a woman I had never seen before standing at the head of the stairway. She was clutching a book under her right arm. As I got closer, I saw she was also wearing the black shirt and white collar of a pastor.
She was a short, round woman with short grey hair and reading glasses perched at the end of her nose. She smiled sadly at me as I made my up the last stair and stood facing her. I smiled politely and she extended her free hand toward me.
“Hello, I’m Pastor Evie. God be with you.”
“Uh….thanks….” I didn’t know what to say in response. I shook her hand and stood there with her for an awkward minute until Dad came over to us.
“Pastor Evie, this is our other daughter, Erin.”
Dad ushered us into the living room where everyone had congregated for the evening. One by one, people were taking turns going up to Nancy in her bed and were whispering into her ear, holding her hand and stroking what was left of her hair. I sat down on a rocking chair next to the front door and could not stop staring at Nancy.
I sat on my chair for a few more minutes, lost in thought, when I realized I had gotten up and walked over to Nancy. I reached down and grabbed one of her hands in mine and gently stroked the top of it with my thumb. I don’t know why I was so surprised it was still warm, but I was. I figured that if everything else inside her was dying, she should feel more……dead to me.
The warmth radiating off her was bizarre to me. I stood there with her hand in mine for a few minutes longer and then I put her hand down next to her on the bed and leaned over and gingerly kissed the top of her head. I lingered a bit over her and softly said, “I’m sorry, Nancy.” I moved back before the tears that had started fell on top of her head. I tired to back up into my chair but couldn’t because I hadn’t noticed my dad was standing behind me. He moved next to me and put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me into him. We both stood there, looking down at Nancy. Her breathing was becoming more and more labored as we stood there. Fast, shallow breaths followed by a few second pause, then a gasp and back to fast breathing again.
Cheyen-Stokes respirations as they were called in nursing school.
The Death Rattle.
The end was nearing.
Dad took his arm off my shoulder and kneeled down beside Nancy’s bed. He grasped her hand in both of his and brought them up to his forehead. He started sobbing loudly; great, heaving cries of pain and sadness. He let himself collapse against the metal frame of the bed and continued crying. I stood and watched, my own tears flowing freely down my cheeks and onto the carpet. I could hear everyone else sniffling and I looked around the room for a box of Kleenex. I grabbed the box sitting on a table behind Nancy’s bed and walked around offering some to those who needed them.
Pastor Evie had been sitting in an armchair across the room, reading Bible passages softly this whole time but now was taking the opportunity to read more loudly. She announced she’d like to read Psalm 23 and asked for us to join in if we could.
My own personal religion has wavered over the years and I was doubtful I could remember the verse without faltering on my words, but was surprised to find myself reciting from memory, only stepping over words because Pastor was reading from a different version of the Bible I had been used to.
“The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want…He maketh me lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters…..”
We all spoke softly as we said the verse in unison. I couldn’t finish. The moment had gotten to me and I had to sit down. I hunched over in the chair and buried my head into my arms and waited for them to stop speaking. Pastor Evie closed her Bible and walked over to Dad and stood behind him. She placed a chubby hand on his head and silently mouthed a small prayer. In response, Nancy let out a moan and more labored breaths. I noticed the time between her breathing had begun to get longer and longer. I had picked my head up and was staring at Nancy again, not wanting to take my eyes off of her last minutes here on Earth. I think I half expected to see her ethereal form rise up from her body and float above her.
Sensing the end was soon, everyone gathered around her bed, lovingly touching whatever parts of her were closest.
With one last heaving breath, Nancy passed on from this world at a little past 11:00 p.m.
My dad looked up at that moment and was still.
“What time is it?! Tell me what time it is!!” he said frantically. “I want to know what time it is!”
Someone spoke up, and told Dad what time it was.
“Thank you,” he managed behind his tears. “Oh, my beautiful wife….I’ll never love again….”
Everyone was still for a moment but the silence was broken by Pastor Evie saying another prayer. I can’t for the life of me remember what she said. I was stunned. I was heartbroken for my father, for Nancy’s family. I was also surprisingly relieved. The past six months had be absolute hell for Nancy. She was in constant pain. The cancer had started in her liver and spread silently and deadly through her body, settling in her spine, pelvis, lungs, intestines……all she should keep down was Pedialite and even that was iffy. To have her be free of such torment was truly a good thing. No person should have to suffer as she did.
After Nancy stopped breathing and we all got over our initial stunned reactions, the cell phones came out. Family had to be told. Nancy’s mother and father had actually left to go home about an hour before Nancy passed. I recalled Carolyn’s last words to her daughter were, “See you in the morning, sweetheart, ” as she placed a kiss on Nancy’s sunken cheek. Nancy’s brother-in-law made the call to them. I was standing off to the side, close to Dad, wanting to be near him to help him absorb some of his grief, when he got up, wiped his eyes dry with his handkerchief and handed me his cell phone.
“Can you call your brother for me, please?”
I grabbed the phone from him and stared down at the keypad, suddenly totally unaware of how to use a phone. What was I going to say? I’ve never had to make a phone call like this before. I found my brother’s number in the phone contact list and with a shaky finger, dialed the number. It rang a few times before my sister-in-law answered.
“Hello?” She was trying to sound optimistic, but I knew she could tell this wasn’t going to be a pleasant conversation.
“Nancy’s gone…….” My voice was trembling as I began speaking and I broke down into tears and couldn’t talk anymore.
“Oh no….oh, Erin, oh…..oh god, I’m so sorry. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” She started crying, too.
I managed to squeak out “ok” and hung up the phone. I had made the call back in my dad’s office and just stood in the darkness for a minute. I took a few deep breaths and walked back into the living room where everyone was milling around. I hate to admit it, but the mood seemed lighter, almost. Like a great weight had been taken off our shoulders. There was an end to her pain and suffering.
I wish I believed in God and Heaven, as I could have taken comfort in the fact she was now in a better place and looking down on us, trying to let us know she is ok now and someday, we will be too.