Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: Half a Sandwich

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Like many women my age, I'm part of the sandwich generation, an army of clear-eyed women who are caregivers at both ends. By day, I've been looking after little Squishy, my granddaughter who is nearly two. On nights and weekends, I've been caring for Jennette, the cancer patient.

Now that Jennette's gone, I'm feeling a little lighter, like an open-faced sandwich missing the top part of the bread. Of course, there is still much work to do in the short-term. I have a funeral to plan, music and pictures to archive, and as her executor, I have many letters to write and meetings to attend.

Still, I've got a lot more free time now that her place is cleared out, and Sundays and evenings aren't spent eating fast food and drinking wine to calm the heck down. Last night, I looked at my PVR and realized that it's nearly full. I must have two months worth of Colbert and old movies to watch. Nope, too much stress. Colbert is already old fake news. It's time to hit the erase button.

The Christmas presents have sat largely untouched. The rowing machine is still in its box. I'm going to have to re-learn all the moves in my Zelda game that Stef got me, and I have a Instant Pot that's sat on the counter since Christmas Eve.

The only Christmas present that got lots of use was the bottle of Dos Amigos that Jennette bought me. Last night, I decided, it's time to break up with George Clooney. Now that George's favorite tequila has been well drunk, I won't be buying any more.

Since Jennette got really sick, I've gained all the weight that she lost. I had struggled to lose 20 pounds in hopes of finally getting a breast reduction, and they're back, and they are everywhere. I have fat where I've never had fat before! I even have back fat.

My hair is in need of a bob. I cut it myself over these months and I'm starting to look like the little girl who was the victim of a granddad driveby barber operation. The color I chose is something that is now looking a bit like doggy diarrhea.

And don't get me started on my wardrobe which consists, now that I've gained the weight back, of exactly one pair of pants that aren't stretchy. My boobs are literally spilling out the sides of the cups, and I'm going to have to do the walk of shame over to Pennington's.

This week, I will have the opportunity to get back on the hamster wheel. Squishy has left the country, and is headed for a destination wedding in Cuba, so I am not even half a sandwich for seven days.

So it's time to get my shit together.

I have an appointment with the doctor on Thursday, another walk of shame, to check my vitals, and arrange for tests. This hasn't been easy for me, since the very last person I want to see is a doctor right now. I've had my fill, let me tell you.

I'm also arranging lunches with all my friends who don't drink. It's too easy to slip back into the two-hour lunch syndrome when you're in mourning, so I need my rehabbed friends to remind me why the breakup with George has to be at the very least semi-permanent.

I still haven't figured out what to do with J's four bottles of vodka. I'm not at all fond of vodka; it's like the pity date for a girl who is pining for George.

Today, I'm contemplating buying new bras and underwear, learning to cook a meal in the Instant Pot, and turning off CNN. The workout will have to wait.

Realistically, I'll probably just chill on the couch with Zelda.

Seriously, I want to thank all the arm-chair coaches who have helped me through this difficult time. I'm a tough broad; I been in worse spots.

So for those of you who are worried about me, don't.

I'm good.

I'm happy.

But just in case, I've squirreled away some left over Ativan I found in J's closet.

It was in the underwear drawer beside her vibrator.

Of course it was!

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: How to Save a Life

My son has been very upset about the passing of Jennette. He saw her on Christmas Day, frail, a whisper of a human being with her head taped up like a mummy. He saw her, but he couldn't see her.

By that time, the oral cancer had enveloped her like a thermal blanket. Even I, the person who had spent the most time with her, could only see a glimmer of my friend peeking out of her rheumy eyes.

Stef was a little freaked, encountering a person who looked vaguely like Jennette who was being consumed by an alien. His normal little auntie blew us off on Christmas Day; she couldn't talk much, didn't want to talk much.

"I don't understand it, mum," he told me after a few drinks on his birthday. "I couldn't live like that. If I was sick like that I'd want to end it all."

She had had that discussion with her friend Gudrun who was the only one to raise the subject when not in front of medical professionals. Jennette had been given the speech by the friendly palliative care doctor. If she wanted to take the cure, she could do it.

But she didn't want to. She didn't want to die, she wanted to live, even if it meant dying in excruciating pain with half her face eaten away, unable to eat, or even drink.

She still wanted to live.

I admire Jennette for it, but I don't understand it.

I was doing the paperwork today, and came across her medication invoice which listed 23 drugs. And this was an old invoice. Drugs for the pain, drugs for constipation, others for diarrhea, anti-psychotics, drugs that fought the thrush in her mouth, ENT magic mouth wash. And Lyrica, that damned Lyrica that she had been taking for years, along with an inhaler in the smoking days, pills for high blood pressure and others for stomach ailments.

For at least a decade, she had lived on a cornucopia of pills. She took so many pills she needed a cheat sheet. And she seemed weirdly proud of her Rx bill. It was as if she'd earned the right to be drug addled.

To magnify their effect, she always washed them down with a snoot full of vodka.

And she still kept going.

What was she looking for? What were her hopes and dreams?

"What bucket list?" she asked me, when she got the news that she was terminal.

For years, I tried to get her help. I told the doctors over and over in ERs about the drinking, which might have contributed to the falling and the breaking. I saw them write notes on her file. When I finally got through to a social worker, she made a referral to a psychiatrist but the shrink said she wouldn't take Jennette unless she stopped drinking -- which is a ridiculous thing to say to an addict.

It's a get out of jail free card.

I wanted to talk to her doctor about all the drugs she was taking in addition to the snootful of vodka, but he didn't seem to care. He kept piling on the pills, the inhalers, the suspensions while ignoring her vagina and her breasts. The next doctor was much better. She ordered tests for everything: the colon, the heart, the bones, and fixed her cataracts. But who was keeping an eye on her chemistry?

I guess you get to a certain age and the docs just give up on you. I've read that if you are a lifelong drinker, you might as well keep drinking because by the time you reach your dotage, your number is up anyway. I guess that's why Jennette continued to live in the pharmacy kingdom. Heck, she worked for the government for 35 years. She had kick ass benefits.

The 23 drugs I mentioned? Only two weren't covered by her government drug plan.

One was the "natural medicine" for constipation. The other was for mouth wash.

I am sad that she couldn't see the world in a clear-eyed fashion when she wasn't in the hospital, like Humpty Dumpty, getting put back together again. A broken femur, a broken hip, five bones broken on the top of her foot, a goose egg the size of a goose from a coffee table injury, fainting while paying for her computer, fainting before her cancer operation.

She was what medical professionals call a frequent flyer. In Jennette's case, she could have gotten points to fly around the world.

Nobody asked, nobody cared.

She was just a little old lady, after all, who looked the age of my grandmother.

There was no talking to her. She reported to no one but herself.

"I make my own decisions," she told me, as she neared the end. "And I don't regret a single drink or cigarette."

It makes me sad, but I, too, live in a glass house. I have my demons.

I wish I could have helped her, but I couldn't.

I tried, but I failed. In the end, all I could do was hold her cold and tiny hand.

"I'm sorry," were the last words she croaked. "I'm sorry."

Those words continue to bounce around in my brain. They wake me up at 4 a.m.

I couldn't save her. In the end, there are days I find it hard to save myself.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: The Secret Lives of Levetts

On Friday, Scott finished up moving Jennette from her perch at the Hunt Club Manor.

That move took us roughly 10 hours, and was a lot easier than the last two times we moved her.

The first move was the most challenging. You see, she might have been all of 4 foot 9, but she lived like four people: her mother, who was a keen collector of jewelry and Royal Doulton; her father who was a spirited collector of paper and coins; Roger who was a curator of all things Blue and Jay; and Jennette herself who liked to keep bills, photos and newspapers until they literally disintegrated.

The first move came in 2014, after Roger died. Don't get me wrong, the place was well organized, with small paths that took the couple to the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Everything was covered by a inch of ash, including the birdcage which had sat in the middle of the living room over the two years since the Cockatiel Digger died.

The aftermath of Digger's death by second hand smoke at the age of 30 was horrific, and landed Jennette in the hospital. She had dropped something, maybe the cage, on her left foot and broke five bones on the top of her foot. She said she had swooned in the bathroom, but that explanation wouldn't have gotten her past the evidence -- a swollen top of her foot, all black and blue. However it happened, the surgeon said it was the worst break he had ever had to repair.

That same surgeon put Humpty Dumpty back together again three times, first when Jennette fell and broke her hip, then her femur, after an heroic rescue by Roger, who had been passed out in the bedroom for six hours. Instead of calling the ambulance, or the super, Roger called Telehealth who sent the ambulance. The hip break was on Jennette, but the femur was broken by Roger who tried to awkwardly pick Jennette up and lay her on the couch, then dropped her.

Roger died in bed, and the place was so bad the cops wouldn't even go in. It was left to the funeral directors to bag him, and squeeze him along the tiny path, out into the fresh air.

There was no question that Jennette needed help, and so I hooked her up with Moving Forward Matters, a company that specializes in hoarding solutions. It took three strong women with kind hearts to pry loose many of  the momentos of Jennette's life. Finally, and successfully, we managed to also pry her out of that dump and into a clean and bright apartment on Kilborn Avenue where she began a clutter free existence. She wasn't bad in this apartment, that was until her Dad died, and then the whole mess started over again.

She literally replicated her father's house in her little place. Seriously, I'm sure anyone who knew her Dad would have thought they had walked into an Amberwood Village time warp.

When J got sick, and we convinced her to move to a retirement home, it was up to me to clean out her place, and I took on the assignment with verve. The place didn't seem nearly as bad as her first abode -- that was until you entered the bedroom where she kept boxes of memorabilia from dear old Mum, and even some of Rogers clothes and baseball crap. There were at least five unopened bags of clothing and two suitcases filled to the brim.

In the closet, I found 20 odd pots of expensive skin cream, 12 unopened palates of eye shadow, all in the same shade and bags and bags of pee pads. There were flashlights everywhere.

The kitchen held a treasure trove of appliances from the 70s, all in avocado and that orange beige that dominated during the M*A*S*H* years as well as new appliances, and enough -- get this -- cleaning products to scour the entire apartment building. Down below, in the locker, were Roger's golf bags, his old magazine clippings from the very few years he was actually committing journalism, and three pairs of women's golf shoes, size 5. (To my knowledge, Jennette hadn't picked up a golf club in 30 years.)

Midway through this horror show, I knew I needed to bring in reinforcements, and Geraldine at the Hunt Club Manor offered to help pay part of the move. She offered up Darling Solutions, who sent out a crew of kindly ladies to gingerly and lovingly pack up J's place and restore Dad's home like a museum in a one bedroom suite -- minus all the crap.

Jennette had been extremely agitated waiting for her stuff to arrive, but her anxiety quickly disappeared when Dad's living room came to life, complete with his cherished oils and water colours.

The final move,after her death, was by no means a picnic. She still had a boatload of useless stuff. You see, every few days the Manor takes the seniors shopping, and Jennette started to expand her inventory of cleaning products, flashlights, Kleenex, and tweezers. She even bought a new iPad even though she had a perfectly good one in working order.

I must admit, I was an accomplice at times, because what can you get the senior who has everything...cancer, osteoporosis, thrush, a body full of metal and the inability to eat solid food?

You get her anything she wants, is what.

Now that the move is complete, my own house looks like a mini version of dear old dad, and mom.

Yesterday, I took mom's jewelry to the pawn shop, traded it in, and bought myself one nice ring to remember Jennette by.

One nice ring.

For the past three years, I have supported my friend, Jennette, who recently died from Stage 4 oral cancer. I agreed to help her on her journey. In exchanged, she agreed to let me document it, warts and all.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: The Smoker's Tumour

Two years ago, when Jennette began her cancer journey, we made a pact. I would help her through it, and she would let me write about it, warts and all.

Today's post is not for the squeamish, but if I'm to tell her story fully, it has to be accurate and truthful. And that means talking about what the doctor's call her "smoker's tumour". Nobody is forcing you to read this blog, so feel free to click the little "x" up on the right hand side of your screen. 

Otherwise, welcome to my room.

Here we go.

Look at this beautiful face. It's the face of the person I looked after for the past two years. Tomorrow, I am going to the funeral home and I won't be able to see that face. The funeral director urged me to allow their restoration professionals to fix her up before I come in to identify Jennette's remains.

I said I didn't think that was necessary. I had been with her through palliative care, and I thought I'd seen everything: the face swollen four times its size on a 95 pound weakling, the frail body deprived of nourishment and water. And who could forget that smell?

Photo by Donna Bartlett

No, the funeral director insisted. The tumour had blasted through her neck and the right side of her face, and there was a gaping hole where she used to put on her blush. Ok, I said. I'm in.

I'd actually seen the ravages of her tumour months ago. It had eaten through her neck and I could see flesh and yellow fat cells. It was pretty gruesome, but tomorrow, I'm expecting much worse.

It got me thinking about smoking. I've never been a smoker, but I had lived my life around them. As a kid, I lived in a house with four heavy smokers, and nearly every relative smoked. I hated it, thought it was a dirty habit, and I was disgusted by how smoke made my hair smell walking out the door to school. After all the relatives died, my mom relocated us to a small apartment in St. Catharines where she smoked and smoked and smoked.

Smoking killed her, of course, and nearly wiped out the entire clan. It has also killed many of my friends including Jennette's husband Roger who actually burned a hole through his lung. Still, he continued to smoke until his dying day.

Jennette told me that she realized she had brought the cancer into her own body. She stopped smoking after her first surgery but the damaged from her own smoking and Roger's second hand smoking had done the trick. She was done, like a breaded and deep fried carnival pickle.

She beat cancer the first time, at least she thought she did. Here she is, the Cheshire Cat, after an eight hour surgery to remove most of the bottom of her mouth.

It didn't take long to come roaring back, like a tornado or a freight train. 

Over the last few months, I've watched that tiny lozenge-size tumour grow into something out of a Ridley Scott horror film. It nestled in her cheek for a while, then last week went in for the kill. 

Her oral cancer was horrendous, disfiguring, and aggressive. I have never in my life seen anything that horrific -- and I spent years editing a pathology journal!

I am not an anti-smoking zealot. A couple of my kids smoke, and I've chided them for it. My philosophy is that people choose their own path.

But every once in a while, I feel the need to speak up, not on behalf of smokers but for the other victims: spouses, moms, dads, kids, and close friends.

Smoker's don't really get it, do they?

Not until they actually get it.

Spend a Thursday afternoon at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre. They call it Oral Cancer Thursday. It's pretty disturbing seeing people walking around without their lower jaws or teeth.

Wouldn't it be great if the smokers in our lives thought once or twice about the collateral damage?

I'm talking about the damage done to people like me who have to go and identify their bodies.

Only to see this.

P.S., I know this post will attract trolls. I will not respond, and your comments will be deleted. 

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: Love Trumps Cancer Every Time

What is hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most to us wind up in parentheses. -- John Irving

I told the doctor that I wasn't that person in Jennette's life, I wasn't the one who would be hugging her, and holding her hand at the end. It's not that I was afraid to stare death in the face, it was that I, like Homer Wells in Cider House Rules, felt my time was better spent "being of use".

And so I busied myself yesterday moving Jennette's remainders out of her assisted living apartment. For the past week, I've been spreading the wealth to the deserving: her coat and the brand new clothing she had bought went to Gessie. Gudrun got her collectibles, Marissa got her bedroom set, and we took the electronics and a few tables. It was unbelievable how little was left at the end of her life; as Scott says, "it's the things that fall away".

The move finished, we drove to a little house on Bank Street to cancel her insurance.

"What about the home insurance," the nice woman asked. "Doesn't she still need that?"

I sort of chuckled.

"Not where she's going."

That's me, always making a joke, but it's how I deal, and I won't apologize for it.

Then I turned my laser focus towards executing Jennette's final wishes. She had already paid for her funeral, but had added on a few details, including an afternoon service, red carnations, and some snacks for those bearing final witness.

Scott wheeled into Kelly's Funeral home, and I paid her bill out of her account. She had been adamant that nobody would be out of pocket. 

After a trip to Costco for dog food, and to Mastermind for a few new toys for Squish, I heard my phone ring. It was Gessie.

"You have to come, Rose," she said through her tears. "I don't think she's going to make it through the day."

Oh dear, I thought, as we headed for the Bruyere. Is it really the end, after all these excruciating and painful months?

I rushed up to the 5th floor and found the room full of women, forming a circle around the bed. Nurses bustled in and out, and her doctor stood at the end of the bed.

"Don't give her any water," an efficient nurse instructed. "She'll choke."

I looked at the tiny entity lying on the bed, her head crooked to one side, her eyes glassy, her mouth agape. It wasn't my friend of thirty years. I knew Jennette was in there someplace, but I was looking at cancer in all its glory, and I was smelling its wrath.

I could feel the tiny spirit of Jennette rallying, as she held out her emaciated arms and hands for a hug.

"Rose," she murmured. I rushed to embrace her, wishing I'd brought the Vick's. That smell...

"I love you, Jennette," I said. "But soon you will be with Dad, and Mom, and Roger. Don't worry. Everythng is ready."

And then something miraculous happened. The cancer seemed to disappear into the background, and I saw Jennette emerge from this shell.

"Put my bed up," she said, in a strong voice. She was back.

We sat around for the next hour, joking with her. She smiled and twinkled. At one point, she asked me for her purse. I handed it to her, and she fumbled through it, looking for her lip balm and then pulled out the wallet and handed me a wad of cash.

"Parking," she said.

Like I said, she never wanted anybody to be out of pocket because of her.

At the end of the afternoon, the nurse came to give Jennette her death juice, all those drugs, and Jennette stopped her, and shooed her away. She didn't want to go to Lala just yet. In fact, I know she didn't want it to end at all.

But dogs needed to be fed, and strong drink needed to be poured, so we left her, propped up on her pillow watching Ellen DeGeneres with a wry smile on her face.

It had been a stellar afternoon.

Sure, there was cancer, and it would kill her any minute. But in the hand of life, friendship and love trumps cancer every time. 

Photos by Donna Bartlett

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: Seasons of Love

The 5th floor of the Bruyere Residence in Ottawa is well known to paupers and princes.
Impending death has a way of levelling the playing field like nothing anyone can imagine. Nobody on the 5th floor was making plans for 2018.
My friend Jennette is in Room 508. It's a lovely room with a comfy hospital bed and large reclining chairs. The nurses seat her every day, looking towards the door; perhaps they hope that someone will come and see her.
She isn't like my friend Viggo who died there recently.
Viggo had a gaggle of kids, and his room was always filled with legacy.
Jennette doesn't have much family to speak of and so it is up to friends to visit her. We do so with checkered regularity. Most of her friends are elderly, and on the bus, and with the wind chill setting record levels, it's hard for them to get around. Her elderly stepmom, Lois, is determined to come, to hold her and tell her she loves her so, but the fates haven't been kind to Lois of late. She's in her 80s, lives half a city away, and has pneumonia.
And so Jennette sits there most days relying on the kindness of strangers, cherishing every visit, every squeeze of her emaciated 90 pound frame, every kiss on the top of the bandage that has become a fixture on her head.
We do our best, but Jennette is depressed and lonely.

Since then, she has taken a turn for the worse. She refused oral medication. She stopped taking her Ensure. She lost interest in her favorite shows, and even in her beloved nightcap.
And so she is here now, on the 5th floor, languishing, waiting to join Dad, Mom and Roger in the ether. Unable to speak, except with her beautiful liquid blue eyes, eyes that have seen a million sorrows, eyes that never gave up on love until just now.

But wait, something happened the other night.
For two nights running, she saw two cherished friends whom she met in her brief stint as a shopgirl.
Gudrun came by first. She walked into the room, and Jennette looked up from her slumber, her eyes glistening with joy. Gudren told her not to talk -- not that she could if she wanted to -- and they held each other.
Yesterday, Gessie came by. She walked into the room and, again, Jennette looked up, eyes glistening, and beckoned her over. They sat for a few minutes, holding hands, and then Jennette laid her head on Gessie's shoulder, and began to snore. Thirty minutes later, Jennette looked up, and saw that Gessie was still there, holding her, loving her.
She smiled, and motioned to the nurse.
"Boost!" she roared.
She hadn't had any nutrition since Christmas Day, after pining for her golden boy, and now she wanted to eat.
Jennette decided, she wasn't giving up after all.
It took cancer for Jennette to realize that love wasn't about blood, or men.
Love came in the most unexpected places. And from unexpected people.