My first day here, around the middle of last November, I didn’t think she’d make it to her birthday. I walked into the Fogies’ little house at the retirement complex, and there was noise and excitement and hellos, and a hug from the Old Buzzard, and the Girl Child finding a vase for the flowers I’d brought, and she stood quietly waiting behind all the fuss.
She looked so small.
I put my arms around her and it was like hugging a baby bird. So small. So fragile.
Those first weeks, when I sometimes wondered whether she’d even make it to Christmas… they were hard. There were days spent waiting for x-rays, for CRT scans, for medications to be ready to pick up. There were arguments with the medical aid, whose protocols demanded this, that and the other painful and pointless test. There were tears and Serious Talks and figuring out what-to-do-about-Dad. There were visits to doctors who were compassionate but not encouraging. There was Hospice, a nurse who was warm and so kind, who gave us things to read with titles like “How to cope when someone you love is dying”.
There was oxygen. It perked her up. There was time working together on editing her book. That tired her out, some days we couldn’t manage more than a few paragraphs, but it made her smile. There were flowers. Visits from friends. Meals she enjoyed, at least for a few mouthfuls. A whole chocolate milkshake at the end of a morning’s shopping.
When we finally saw the oncologist (actually we waited only ten days for an appointment, but it felt like forever – Christmas was close, and I wanted, needed him to work a miracle and ensure she was able to celebrate) I pummeled him with questions. “Should we change her diet? Cut out sugar? What about exercise? Is it good or should she rather rest? We have a source who will sell us cannabis oil – she doesn’t like it but… will it help?”
He looked at her and said, so gently, “It doesn’t matter what you eat. You can eat as much ice cream as you like – and if you don’t feel like eating, you don’t have to. Exercise if you want to. Rest when you need to. Don’t let anyone bully you – you can try whatever magical remedies you like, but you don’t have to do anything that makes you feel bad. Rather, spend time with your family. Enjoy the time you have left.” And then he prescribed hormone therapy, since that worked 20 years ago during her second bout with breast cancer, along with various other medicinal compounds, and he went off on a skiing trip, and it was Christmas.
She celebrated with us.
At the beginning of January we went back to the oncologist. When she walked into his consulting room, still small and somehow fragile but walking on her own two little short stubby legs (sorry, Ma – you passed them on to me; I can be rude about them if I want to) his eyes lit up with surprise and pleasure. The x-rays showed that her lungs were almost clear of fluid, and she was breathing just fine. He didn’t stop beaming at her the whole time we were there.
When I came to Johannesburg in November, I thought for sure we’d be planning her funeral by January. Instead, we went on a road trip.
Last week, when we visited her oncologist again, he told her to get more exercise. He said, “You’ve been really sick, and now you’re going to have to put some work into getting better.”
Of course, technically she’s still sick. Stage 4 cancer doesn’t just go away. So she uses a wheelchair if she goes anywhere that requires a lot of walking, she takes her medications, she rests often, and she spends around 12 hours a day hooked up to oxygen.
But she’s not letting a mere disease take one flicker of the sparkle out of her life. Last week she had cataract surgery, because it looks like she’ll be needing her eyes for a while yet and she doesn’t want to miss seeing anything. On Thursday, undeterred by her eye patch, we celebrated her birthday by wrapping up the edit of her book, then we went out for dinner with the rest of my siblings. On Sunday we celebrated again with a picnic for 25 friends and family at one of her favorite places, the Walter Sisulu Nature Reserve.
I wonder why they call it a “positive” diagnosis when it’s actually anything but?
Okay, to keep things in perspective here: prostate cancer isn’t unusual in men over 70. Also, it’s relatively easy to treat, with minimal side effects these days, and he probably won’t die of it. In other words, not such a big deal, right? Sure. Take a deep breath. Right.
Oh … bollocks.
The truth is, the past few months have been downright scary. And difficult. And sad. And really scary (did I already say that?)
it started sometime this past summer, when I casually asked Himself a question relating to some or other health matter, and got the growl that is the standard response around here to any question for which he does not have an answer. A few days later his ankle swelled up to the size of a football – and I’m not talking about a squishy little Deflategate football, either. So I unleashed my Inner Pitbull and chased him clear across town to his doctor …
… where I learned that what he actually needed was for Pitbull Wife to be standing alongside him, barking questions, listening with pricked ears, and standing guard with an I-will-bite-you gleam in her eye. Because, as it turns out, while I haven’t been paying a whole lot of attention to his bodily well-being, neither has he. And although over the years he’s built up an impressive stable of specialists to take care of a range of anatomical bits and pieces, apparently they don’t talk to each other, and in consequence various other body parts had been overlooked.
So that’s what I did last summer. I chivvied my guy from surgeon to specialist to internist, with several detours past his primary care physician and frequent pit stops for tests of one sort and another. And it’s been tiring and challenging and, as previously stated, sometimes sad and scary – because this is my guy, you understand, the only one I’ve ever had and, as it happens, the only one I want.
Back about 17 years ago, at some point between “Yes, I will” and “I do”, he said, “We have to talk.” I giggled and poked him in the ribs and said, “Gee, that sounds serious!” (because that’s the stage we were at – lots of giggling and poking). And he made me quiet down and sit still and listen to a lot of words about how he was 14 years older than me, and his family tended not to be as long-lived as mine, and he was going to get old and then kick the bucket and I would be a widow. Although I really didn’t want to hear it he made sure I did, and so over the years I’ve periodically pondered my impending widowhood, and even made jokes about it, ha ha, because that’s what I do when something isn’t funny but won’t go away. (I won’t deny that, during the course of 17 years, there may have been one or two occasions when I’ve contemplated speeding the process along.)
And now here we are. A summer of doctors, just figuring things out and developing a plan to manage a variety of not-deadly-but-no-longer-ignorable issues. And then, a week ago, like the cherry on a teetering healthcare sundae, a cancer diagnosis. On a seriousness scale of one to ten, it rates about midway between let’s-keep-an-eye-on-this and oh-shit. Yesterday morning, they shot him full of isotopes to make his bones glow. Next week he gets to drink a barium milkshake to make his organs glow. In about a month he’ll start daily treatments. In the meantime, for comic relief, we’ve had lengthy chats about erections with two separate specialists, although when last Friday’s specialist slipped on a rubber glove and prepared to probe more deeply into the subject, I scurried off to the waiting room and worked on a jigsaw puzzle they’ve set up in there.
It’s a tricksy puzzle of a couple thousand pieces, which is good, I guess. Apparently I’ll be spending quite a lot of time with it in the months ahead, while the doctors fire death rays at the sneaking attacker within him.
And THIS is why the gubmint should NOT be in charge of healthcare! Free universal healthcare is a great idea, and countries that can afford it should do so. But for crying out loud, don’t entrust it to bureaucrats and politicians!
Dr Gough was a kind man with a rumpled face and baggy clothes, and everyone in that small university town knew he would give you an abortion if you needed one. I already knew I was pregnant – I felt the winning spermatozoon drive into my ovum like a comet plunging into the sun, and soon after that the morning sickness began. I’d roamed Grahamstown’s quiet streets by night, breathing fog into the chilly air, cuddling my tender breasts beneath my baggy sweater and thinking through my options. So although his announcement was a shock, it was no surprise. I had made my decision.
“When am I due?” I asked, and watched as the pools of sad expectation evaporated from his eyes and a smile spread across his face. I loved him for being happy for me, for not thinking I should kill my baby.
* * *
I’d had no idea the heart would beat so fast. It was like holding a tiny bird in my belly. Every time I visited Dr Gough, he turned on a speaker so that I could listen to it with him. Later, after I moved away to the unmarried mother’s home in Cape Town and started going to a big state teaching maternity hospital for checkups, the doctors were discouraged from doing anything that would help us bond with our babies. The pressure to give them up for adoption was huge, and relentless.
Nowadays expectant parents always share their ultrasound pictures, and every time I see one I’m a little sad that no one ever showed me ours. But then I remember the eager hummingbird beat of her new-formed heart, I remember the quivering excitement of the moment I felt her begin to dance, and I know my memories are complete.
* * *
I’d had a bit of a meltdown the year before I got pregnant. Someone I loved, in a complicated sort of way, died unexpectedly, and I had a car accident, and various other things happened and, to cut a long story short, I’d always been a bit of a basket case but all this shit pretty much filled up the basket that I lived in, suspended above reality by my beautiful balloon, and I fell out and plummeted to earth. So I was seeing a shrink, who liked me to tell him my dreams. I had been reading Freud, so my dreams were pretty interesting, until I found out he was a Jungian. I didn’t know anything about Jung so after that I didn’t know what to dream any more and our sessions became rather dull.
Anyway. When I told him I was pregnant, he said I had done it to get back at my father. I was pretty sure my father hadn’t crossed my mind at the time the getting pregnant was happening, but I didn’t argue. (I was a student, he was head of the Department of Psychology. Arguing about what was happening inside my head wasn’t an option.) Then he offered to put together the paperwork to get me a legal abortion. (Back then in South Africa, if a sufficient number of specialists concurred that you were sufficiently a nutcase, you didn’t have to give birth.)
So I stopped seeing him. Which was a bummer for him, because it turns out that pregnancy hormones give you the most extraordinary dreams.
* * *
When various well-meaning people finally quit trying to get me to give up the baby, they started in on my dog. “If you must have this baby, then for goodness sake get rid of the dog!” they said.
I told them not to be ridiculous. “She’s my first kid. I just hope I can love this new one as much as I love her,” I told them.
I really, really did love my dog. But it turned out I had vastly underestimated my capacity for loving.
* * *
I had a teeny little crush on Dr Alperstein. He was in his final year of med school, or maybe it was his first year after qualifying, but he was a little older than the other students in his year. He was stocky and pale with a beaming round face, and the head of obstetrics was tall and sallow with a long, serious face. The girls from the unmarried mothers home were all state patients, so they used us as teaching aids for the med students.
I lay on one of the examination couches behind flimsy curtains until the professor and his gaggle of students pushed them aside and clustered around me. “Open wide,” the professor always said, and as I let my knees flop apart I’d look for Dr Alperstein. He always focused on my eyes, with a nod and a smile and a “Good girl.” I felt as though he thought I was good because, of all the girls who were due when I was, I was the only one planning to keep my baby.
* * *
I glared at the med student. “I don’t know why you have to induce me. I’m not overdue,” I groused.
“There’s a big golf tournament starting tomorrow. Nobody wants to miss their game because you come into labor,” he said.
“Well can’t you wait a couple hours before starting? I really wanted a leap year baby.”
He snickered. “Don’t worry. You’ll have your leap year baby.” It was 6.00PM on February 28th.
He waited while the nurse strapped my feet into the stirrups, then leaned forward between my legs with a look of cold disinterest. Something bright flashed in his hand, there was a moment of invasion and not-quite-pain and a gush of fluid, then he stepped back and watched the nurse adjust the flow of medication through my drip. He glanced at me. “So how come a nice girl like you is so fat?” he asked.
I had no idea how to answer him, but it didn’t matter because at that moment the pain roared through me like a locomotive and carried me away. He chuckled, nodded to the nurse to undo the stirrups, and slapped my butt. “I’ll check on you in time for leap year,” he said, and strolled out through the swing doors. He was in a good mood. There were four of us there from the home, and he needed to catch just four more babies to be done with his obstetrics rotation.
I had gone from wondering what the fuss was about to hard labor in the space of a few minutes. I couldn’t remember how to breathe. It was too bright, the fabric of my gown was too coarse, and everything stank of antiseptic. The nurse turned out the lights, but would not open the window or let me remove my clothes. And then, after an endless time that took no time at all, a great hand took hold of me and squeezed. I opened my eyes and I was alone. “Nurse!” I called. “Nurse!” It was dark, and I had no idea where the call switch was.
“NURSE!” as the swing doors parted and she wandered through with a cup of tea. “The baby’s coming!” I yelled.
Her teacup smashed to the floor. “No! No! You mustn’t! It’s too soon!” she shouted, and scurried off to get help. (I think she must have been a student too.)
She came back with a midwife, and 20 minutes later we were done. It was 10.20PM on February 28th, not yet leap year day, and I didn’t mind at all. By the time the med student came back from his supper break he was too late even to catch the afterbirth. I smiled sweetly at him. “I guess you might just have to miss your golf game,” I said.
* * *
Lynn was a writer known for her acerbic wit. She was not the maternal type, so it was quite a surprise when she appeared abruptly at the foot of my hospital bed. In retrospect, she had probably taken me under her wing – one of several people to do so. In their different ways they fussed over me and fed me and wondered what on earth I was thinking, to insist on raising a child on my own, with no savings and no job.
The girl child was two days old, and I was surrounded by three or four women, all cooing and oohing and aahing, and passing her around between them. Lynn looked at them with a worried expression, sighed, and fetched herself a chair. She leaned forward to peer into the baby’s face.
“Would you like to hold her?” one of the ladies offered.
“Good God, no!” Lynn exclaimed, rearing back. They stared at her disapprovingly, and she looked embarrassed. “So. Um. What have you called it?” she asked me.
I told her, and one of the ladies gushed, “Isn’t it pretty? She’s named after the Greek goddess of joy!”
Lynn, however, roared with laughter. “Larissa?” she guffawed. “That’s the name of a dirty little railway junction in the middle of Greece. I’ve been there.” She never did get a foothold in the conversation after that. Moving as one, the ladies turned their backs and froze her out, and she left after a few more minutes. I was sorry to see her go … I was feeling a little scared, and she always made me laugh.
We have YouTube now so I checked it out online. Looks like they’ve cleaned it up since Lynn was there.
Your turn! Have you ever stood by a decision, and been glad that you resisted well-intentioned efforts to change your mind? Do you thing being pregnant is a reason to give up your dog? Have you ever been to Greece?