Sunday, January 01, 2012

Rabbit Hole

Honestly, a lot of the last few days has been a bit of a haze.

As of this week, I have done everything that could be done to combat this cancer and tomorrow it is likely that I will be going home to await the outcome of our efforts. When I asked what would happen if the tissue removed showed signs of more cancer, I got no answer. I think they don't know beyond a vague, "more treatments". It seems that combating cancer is very much a matter of navigating on instruments without a map. The cancer tells you which are the best guesses, and you go in whatever direction the tissue samples indicate. No way of knowing ahead of time which way we're going.

On Wednesday evening, I had a long talk with one of the doctors here who had gone to some considerable effort to translate and type out a large document into English setting out all the possible ramifications of the proposed surgery, short and long term. I read it very thoroughly and asked a lot of questions and the beautiful young doctor with the charming Italian/Australian accent sat with me going through everything inch by inch. But by this time, I only wanted information so as to be forewarned. The decision to go forward was already set by then, but until about lunchtime on Wednesday afternoon, it had been nothing like a foregone conclusion. And I balked.

We had arrived around noon, and had been shown to my room where an elderly lady lay in the other bed surrounded by her relatives. I hung up my coat and sat on the plastic chair looking blindly out the window, waiting for the doctor. The now-familiar routines were followed with paperwork, blood test, tagging... but I could see the wall coming up fast and I was finally certain that I could not get over it this time.

By two pm my nose was pressing up against it and I cracked. I told my friend that I did not want to do the trade. It just wasn't a good enough deal. They would not conduct this horror on me just for a roll of the dice that might or might not result in a few more years of the same life I'd already had enough of a dozen times over.

"If all it's going to be is more of this, and in that condition, then no." I got up, heading for the nurse's station: "I'll just go tell them I'm going home."

I had my coat on and was pulling on my shoes, throwing things into my bag, trying to stay calm enough to explain that no, I would not, could not do this horrifying thing.

How could I trade who and what I am at so deep a level for something as cheap and lousy as a few more years? Why should I go to such lengths to extend a life that has rarely failed to disappoint? What could I possibly imagine I could still hope to have out of it at this stage?

It has been, shall we say, a strange few days and much of it spent in a cloud of morphine-induced confusion and on Saturday evening an unexpected and frightening reaction to one of the other pain drugs. But now that it is over, I have come to a kind of island of quiet. Not peace, exactly, but at least quiet, enough to wait through, because now we have to wait again.

What did I learn about myself in this odd, dream-like week? I learned that I almost fear life more than death by cancer. Which I think is not uncommon for people of our time.

Somewhere in the middle of all the haze and confusion, I remember taking a phone call. On Saturday afternoon, I commented that I was looking forward to lunch because the Gemelli does pretty good fish for lunch on Fridays. I had lost a whole day, but during that dream-sequence Friday, another odd thing occurred.

I really have little clear memory of the day after Thursday's surgery. I know I lay still, having been tucked by my friend carefully around with soft pillows to keep me from moving in the night. I looked up to see the nurse approaching with a cordless telephone held out towards me. She said something in Italian that I was certainly in no condition to understand. All I heard was "Canada". Were my employers calling to see how I was doing? I took the phone and a crackly old-fashioned operator's voice said in Italian, "Wait please for an international connection," and the next voice I heard was my father's.

I don't remember much of what I said. He asked me how long it had been since we talked and I think I said, "About 30 years." He told me that he was sorry and that he hoped I would get better and would I let him know how things went. He said he has prostate cancer. I remember asking what stage and he said, "Intermediate". He's being prepared for chemotherapy in the spring and is "optimistic". He asked me how long I'd lived in Italy, and what was I doing and was I enjoying it?

It was not long before I could no longer make any sense and the nurse standing over me could see that I was distressed. I told my father that I could not talk now but that I would send him a note telling him the outcome of the surgery. I can't remember what he said after that, but the nurse took the phone gently away and said many things in Italian that I understood even without knowing the words. "It was my father. It has been thirty years." She looked shocked, but stroked my head and told me not to cry. "Tranquila, tranquila..."

Indeed, with a fresh eight-inch abdominal incision I could barely speak; even breathing was painful. I lay there trying to remember his face listening to the faint sound of a newborn wailing briefly in the obstetrics ward one floor above us. The week between Christmas and New Year's is a quiet one in hospitals, and in the place of the usual boisterous Italian familial bustle was an uncommon stillness in the halls and rooms.

This week my past and future and present all seem to have crowded into the little double room to tell me things.

It's a good thing this was a slow week for sickies, because I think the drama was too much for my roommate who asked to be moved to a spare bed in another room. Perhaps she was offended that I had asked for a screen. It is not the Italian custom to erect privacy curtains between beds and when an Italian friend visited, she explained and the nurses had kindly found a portable screen. I'm sure they didn't fully understand my strange Anglo/Canadian need to not watch or be watched by strangers in vulnerable medical and emotional moments.

So, here I am, maybe even cancer-free, who knows? Maybe with 30 or 40 years ahead. Or maybe more chemo and a short time to sort out my affairs. My English relatives have gently scolded me for not calling more frequently, and have been calling every evening.

I was surprised to find I was able to get out of bed by Saturday morning, to be able to walk that day with a friend on either side ten or twenty yards down the hall and back, and twice today unassisted, though very slowly, to the cafeteria and back to the ward. I am reminded how grand it is to be able to get to the bathroom by myself, and to stand up straight and to walk to the little balcony for a breath of fresh December air. Even pain is not entirely unwelcome; it comes from the real world.

Today a shock-haired Friar in bare feet and sandals and a brown habit brought me Holy Communion and said he would do it again tomorrow. Hospitals are dull places but we entertained ourselves. While I darned socks and the elbows of my cardigan, Vicky and I learned how to gamble a starship with Corbomite and sailed through the Gothic into the early Renaissance with Lord Clark for an episode and a half of Civilization. We figured out how to make un-melt-able cups for hot Darjeeling by cutting off the bottoms of Schweppes grapefruit soda bottles with Vicky's Swiss Army knife.

And now, we just have to wait to see what will happen next. Tomorrow, having found that most of my plumbing is in basic working order, they will be letting me go home and I will spend the next several months recovering and figuring out what all this means. They have removed all the organs that they think could have been infested with cancer cells and now those are to be examined cell-by-cell in the lab and

The surgery I've just had is thought to be the best possible option for my stage and type of cancer and the numbers for it are very good for total cure, about 85-95%. We will know in "twenty days".

This afternoon, I switched on my computer and found a YouTube video of some monks singing the Te Deum and, because it is the Feast of Mary Mother of God, prayed for the Plenary Indulgence because this week I decided to try to keep living.



Seraphic said...

Holy moly. I almost dropped my laptop at the phone call. I don't know WHAT to say.

Anonymous said...

Now you've gone and done it.

You've finally made me cry.

BillyHW said...

So sorry to hear all that.

Fr. T. said...

ad multos annos

Teresa B. said...

I pray that Mary wraps you in Her Mantle of Love.

Sean M. Brooks said...

Hilary Jane:

My condolences for what you've suffered, but good wishes and hopes for your complete recovery. Good you heard from your father after so many years. Prayers for you coming.

Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

Maureen said...

I am glad to see you writing! Prayers continuing! It will be good to be at home.

Ttony said...

Bloody hell, girl!

You'll get the prayers.

Anonymous said...

Since you always fight for the Holy Innocents in the unborn, I was considering that your ordeal seems somehow tied to this or at least could be seen in light of this. From Today's readings which is the Octave Day of the Feast of Holy Innocents in the pre-1962 Tridentine office from the Sermons of St Augustin, Bishop of Hippo.
1st for Childermas.
The Lord is born, and sorrow breaketh out, not in heaven but on earth; to mothers is proclaimed lamentation, to angels joy, to children translation. God is born, and innocence must be offered up to Him Who cometh to condemn the malice of the world. The Lamb that taketh away the sins of the world is come to be crucified, and the tender flock is brought to the sacrifice. But the mothers will lament over them whose inarticulate bleating is silenced for ever. Let us turn a look on this great martyrdom, this heart-rending sorrow. The sword is drawn, though there is no offence to punish, only jealousy shrieking for Him Who is born, and doth no violence. And here are mothers weeping over the lambs of the flock. In Ramah was there a voice heard, weeping and great mourning. which shall be returned hereafter, but they are pledges taken without being given, impounded without being entrusted.

L. Margaret

Claudia said...

I was trying to think of something clever to say [viz: You can't die yet -- Christopher Hitchens has met God, but he's not ready to face YOU...], but am more interested in saying, you must write that book. And do your own self-portrait for the frontispiece.