Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sweet Illinois Sky

"Well, tomorrow I am going have an MRI to look more at what is there."
"Does this mean you have cancer," I asked. The truth is, the doctors may have had an inkling, but my family was completely unprepared. My mom had a grade 3 Astrocytoma, a tumor that radiates through the brain the tendrils of itself imbedding itself around the brain's topography. We saw all of this on the MRI, dozens of pictures of it from every angle. But that was after. After I left the hospital without my mom that night. After I went home, let Ginger the Collie out and fed her the dry dog food she ate. After I called my father, against my mom's wishes.

"Don't tell your dad," my mom instructed me, "Don't worry him when he is out of town. But the reality it I had to call my dad and tell him. I don't know if you have gotten to the point in your life where a parent and a child switch places. That is what happened that night. My mom was no longer the one who would take care of me. I would do the caring, the helping and the driving. That was one of the first things we discovered. In the state of KY when a person has an unexplained seizure, because that is what happened, the person is restricted from driving for 90 days. So when I got to the hospital to ferry my mom back to her car at the Y, she wasn't driving anywhere. For 90 days.

Some of my earliest memories of life are associated with cars. The first car I remember is my mom and dad's 4-door 70's green Chevy Impala. It had acres of forest green pleather in the back seat. This is what I remember: sitting in the backseat with the windows half down, driving to the farm where my grandparents lived. Looking at the back of my parent's heads and sitting next to my brother looking at the back of the front seat. It seemed enormous and too far away to even reach. If the seat was so far away, my parents must be even farther. I know that my brother older than me by 30 months sat to my left, behind the driver, but I don't remember seeing him. I remember that I couldn't see anything outside of the windows except sky. In my memories, the sun was always shining in my car memories and we were always driving to the farm. In retrospective, I am sure we drove to other places when I was young and I am more than certain the Illinois weather had other days than pure sunshine. But that sweet, Illiois sky is what I remember about all the cars that ferryed me as a child. My favorite car of them all was a red Ford LTD convertible with a white top and white leather interior. Miles of white around me - behind me, in front of me and all over the place I sat. And when that white wasn't overhead, that meant the top was down and there was more sky to see. It was fromm the overhead change in the sky's direction that I would know we were at the farm. The final right turn from Pipeline Road. The sky would get just up to speed again when the final slow down of the car occured, turning onto the lane. That is what they called driveways by the Lake. Driveways that led to houses that sat far off the road. Driveways of small white stone that would become dusty and get a clean car dirty if it was dry and hadn't rained in a week or so. And then they sky changed and trees appeared and a house roof. A roof that sat on orange brick. Our final destination of the ride.

Today, car seats provide the child with a view, and special mirrors allow parents to see their child any time they look in the rearview mirror - hands-free. But I was born in the 70's - a very dangerous, lead-filled time. And the children of the decade didn't really get a view. It was enough that we were secured. I look at kids lives now and think, "Wow, it is amazing a whole generation made it to adulthood." They are shoulder-strapped and waist-strapped and then the seat is strapped. Safety training is devoted to getting the car seat in the car correctly. Amazing. Don't know how we lived through childhood without it.

But I did. And amazingly, I went on to drive. Not so much looking at the sky when you drive. But it was there. And after my mom was diagnosed and started her treatment course, I drove alot. She went to radiation treatment 3 times a week. A port with a shunt was inserted into her chest so that the chemotherapy could be toted around for almost 52 hours a weekend and pumped directly into the vein that would take it straight to the brain. No waiting for a pesky circulation system for that chemo. It got a one-way ride to my mom's brain. It was a special kind of chemo too; the kind of chemo that was in the human-trial phase of a study. You know, the last one before FDA approval for the general public. Because my mom wasn't given much time before the grade-3 Astrocytoma became a Grade-4 Astrocytoma and prognosis became worse. My mom did chemo and radiation at the same time. Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons when I picked her up we would go to the hospital for the radiation treatment. It takes more time to set up a patient to receive radiation than it ever does to receive the radiation. That is because radiation is delivered so precisely it required my mom's left sider of her ead to be shaved so they could draw on the place where the human would direct the treatment. I remember that appointment took over an hour but everyother weekday, her appointment took barely 15 minutes. On Fridays and Mondays we had an extra stop. On Friday it was to pick up the machine o' chemo that my mom carred over her shoulder like a bad nylon purse. Friday nights were always uncofortable for my mom. Because that was when the chemo pouch was full and would make the machine more heavy, pulling on the port in her chest. Monday afternoons, it was to drop off the now empty bag o' chemo so it couldbe refueled for the next run. Mondays carrying around the machine weren't as bad as Fridays.

When my parents were given treatment "options" they decided to take the most direct route to the other side. Although the tumor had most likely been growing for two years in my mom's brain, something had to be done as soon as possible. The neurosurgeon immediately ruled out surgery. Although surgery could be done to remove brain tumors, the Astrocytoma's unique characteristics don't make this option viable for many patients. Added to that was the location of my mom's tumor. Smack dab over the speech and short-term memory centers of the brain. Potentially, the surgery could get the tumor, but most likely she would be a vegetable after that with no speech. And so I say "options", but I don't know that cancer treatment ever really has options. This option - potential for no cancer; the other option - potential for cancer to continue. I imagine that most people want the option that provides them the most viable option to be closer to the no cancer end of the spectrum. Ah, but here is where they get you with the options. At that time, although one heard about cancer treatments that weren't so bad, most of them were bad. She would lose her hair, that was a given. She would be sick and most likely nauseous. Another chemo given. She would also be taking a chemo pill before it was all over that caused her to lose her fingernails and toenails. That was the worst option that I saw, but hey it beats dying.

Throughout the treatment, my mom was the most positive person to be. Which makes it so sad now that this has changed and she is not very positive. She kept telling everyone it was just a "bump" for her to get through, not really anything to be bothered about. She was going to be well and the Astrocytoma would be kicked around enough by the 1/2 punch of radiation/chemo that it was just a matter of time. She even continued teaching because she didn't want to sit around. Besides, she had summers off. So I drove her to school on the days that my dad couldn't, dropping her off at her school before most of the other staff arrived.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother's Day Eve - A Good Day to Start

My mother's name is Cynthia. Until about a year ago, that is what I called her, "Cynthia". Just that. Drove her nuts. Bonkers, really. Just to let you know, I am equal opportunity and used my father's first name as the chosen form of address. I started this late in high school and just continued the habit for a couple of reasons: first, it was a completely passive-aggressive way to annoy both of them - twice. Once when I used it for D*** and once for Cynthia. Yeah, I admit that I got a little pleasure from that. What can I say - sometimes I am not so nice. Next year will be my 20th class reunion (not that I will be attending) but for a fair amount of my adult life I continued the practice.

The choice to use of my parental's first names provided others the perfect opportunity to give me unsolicited comments on what they felt about this practice. I once had someone tell me that this was the height of disrespect for my parents as parental figures. I was a little confused by that. The fact was this person had never seen any interactions between my parents and myself. So, I wasn't sure where this comment came from in the scheme of things in the universe. I certainly didn't degrade the use of their name when I used it - but I have gotten ahead of my story and this memoir.

When I was 22, I was living with my parents in "Hotel O***" a fabulous place where the washer and dryer worked without coins, I slept in clean sheets on my childhood bed and contemplated if I should pursue a Master's degree in Art History or work full-time as a temp. The job had certain perks - with no school loans, no car payment and a credit card with a $500 limit - all that money of $11/hour was intoxicating. Did I mention Hotel O*** had no daily, weekly or monthly rate. Sweet. It included my own bathroom, a hot tub outside and a in-garage parking space. I came and went in my pre-paid car, sleeping in my comfy full-sized bed with extra pillows and black-out blinds. The only drawback was the third-shift gig. Hence the room-darkening blinds. I was like any other recent college-grad in the mid-90's with a liberal arts degree. I hadn't grown into the desire for more money because all my needs were being met. And the thing is, I liked living with my parents. My dad and I shared (and still share) a love for great music and the season tickets to the shows at the local venue were a sweet bonus. I can't forget the 10th row behind homeplate season tickets to the local professional baseball team. We sat in front of those baseball wives and I people watched. Trust me, baseball-wife Barbie is something Mattel has missed the boat on.

My fabulous hit a speed bump in the fall of 1995. I came wandering home around 6:30 to an empty house. Not particularly a thing to raise any concern, although I had expected my mom to be home from her 3pm aerobics class. The answering machine "Message" light was blinking and I gave it a distracted punch. At this time the whole family had cell phones, but voicemail, caller ID and the amenities we take for granted today weren't on our list of necessary things at the time.

A voice from the local Y was calling to tell someone that my mom had an "episode" at her aerobics class that afternoon. The instructor and the fitness director gave her some orange juice and crackers - thinking it was a blood sugar episode. Which was odd to me - the woman didn't have diabetes and she certainly never skipped a meal. Just wasn't in her nature. The metallic voice continued: she had been taken to the local hospital's ER which was standard protocol at the Y.

D*** traveled most of the week during those years, working for a whacked out family-owned catering and vending company, covering 3 states in his job as a Director reporting directly to the VP - making the company millions in profits. In fact, looking back, I fully expected a call of this nature to pertain to D***, who was overworked, stressed, tired and harassed by a woman with some type of Napoleon complex that had to do with her being the brains of the operation owned by a Greek family, one that didn't recognize her amazing talents.

D*** was out of town that week. I believe it was a Wednesday, early fall. So, I just got back in my car and went to (what I thought) was a simple pick-up of my mom from the ER. After all she didn't have access to her car, parked at the Y. I arrived at the ER and asked for her only to be told she had been admitted. Again, a little on the non-normal side of things, but maybe she had developed diabetes and needed some time for observation. She was admitted for observation. no alarms going off at the time. So I took the convoluted directions (I am sure they weren't but I never fail to get lost in hospitals - weird quirk, I know). And when I came into her room, there she was in a hospital gown with all of the lights off except for the TV and the hallway spillover, it was dim.

"Hello, I hear you had an episode and need to stay for observation," I began the conversation. My mom looked at me and patted the bed next to her. Here was where the standard protocol became not-so-standard. The gesture was so intimate, so out-of-character for my immediate family. I must have started to look worried or panicked, because my mom started talking to me in the most soothing tones I had heard. Again, behavior that was not normal. I sat down on the bed and she took my hand. At that point, this kind gesture really threw me and I blurted out - "What's wrong". Her next words would be surreal.

In the hospital's protocol, when a person faints and comes in to the ER via ambulance that has nothing to do with blood sugar, there are certain tests that are completed. One of those tests was a CAT scan. The CAT scan showed a white, golf-ball sized something in Cynthia's brain. "What does this mean?" I asked suddenly out-of-breath and feeling the particular squeeze in my chest that precedes tears.