Tucked securely – for now – in the basement of a 9-story bank tower in a big Texas city is an 1800-and-something silver dollar.
More than a half-century ago, it belonged to a young man, a farm kid who never had much money. This guy had recently met a young woman who had stolen his heart and changed his outlook on life – and his plans.
It was almost date night, but there was not much money. But there was that dollar coin he had received as a gift from his grandmother years earlier. So he decided to spend it on that date.
His little sister found out about it, and said: “Don’t spend that dollar. Sell it to me.”
That little sister is now my aunt; both my father and she believe they got the best end of that deal. My dad would tell you that girl was worth countless vintage dollar coins; my parents enjoyed nearly 40 years of marriage before both died too young – not even 60 – they now are grandparents to 20 and by June will be great-grand-parents to 9.
My aunt made that coin part of her collection, which continues to grow.
I didn’t, however, come to San Antonio to learn about my family’s unique relics.
I came because cancer called – again.
My aunt was visiting us in 2010 when she had the first symptoms. The doctors caught it early – Stage II – and after a few chemo cocktails, she was cancer free. She had told us that she felt more sick from the chemo than the cancer.
“Can you come?” she asked.
There is only one thing you can do when a fiercely independent retired Air Force nurse – who survived cancer the first time around mostly on her own – says “Can you come?”
We went – or rather, came – nearly a month ago.
After years of debating the practicality and affordability of taking a long trip (I am still hoping to see Fort McHenry and the ships of Baltimore sometime soon) there was no debating.
The timing was not-so-good: We are expecting granddaughter No. 7 soon. Also, we had just begun our annual Vinton Today fund drive – you know, that time of year when we tell everyone how we are always here for you, covering the news without asking for any subscription, ever, or charging readers for things almost everyone else does, like obits and classified, so we would appreciate any donations to help keep us doing what we do in Vinton while we were 1,100+ miles south.
But then again, cancer has earned a reputation for being rude and intrusive.
We had a substantial list of things we knew we would help my aunt accomplish when we arrived. We’ve talked to doctors, Hospice providers, funeral home directors, lawyers, and others.
We did not exactly plan, however, for my aunt to spend 20 days in the hospital.
About that proverbial 1,000 mile-journey
The elevator stopped. The bell dinged. The door opened. A very tired-looking woman who looked about the age of my aunt walked in, stood in the opposite corner, with her hands on the rails and her head leaning back into the metal.
After a long, loud sigh, she said: “Today we are finally going home.”
“Your father?” I asked?
“Yes,” she replied. “But my mother is downstairs, in the ER.”
I don’t know her name, but I knew exactly how she felt. We, too, were going home that day. But going home is just the next step on this unpredictable ride in this uncharted territory with no GPS to guide us and the clouds covering the celestial bodies that offer any sense of where we are, or which direction we seem to be heading.
“Home” means contacting Hospice providers and other experts on caring for the terminally ill, so we can help my aunt make the most of the time she has left, although it’s too soon to tell whether we will look back and measure that time in years, or months – or less.
A journey of 1,000 miles very rarely identifies itself as such when it begins.
And every cancer journey is different.
“I don’t know,” said the doctor, as she explained the cancer and the treatment (and side effects) and wondered how much more time modern medicine would buy my aunt, and at what price. The first seven years after cancer came at a fairly low physical cost for her. The next couple are going to include much tougher negotiations, as we set parameters and see what works and what doesn’t, and how to tell the difference. After all, the symptoms that kept my aunt in the hospital for most of the past month were caused by both the cancer and the side effects of her chemotherapy, but not even the doctor could tell us which culprit caused which exact symptoms, some of which were severe enough to inspire my aunt to say, “If living two more years means living like this, then that is two years too many.”
Valerie and I have had ample opportunities to put into practice the routine we worked out over 2o years of parenting sick children. She takes care of the patient, I tend to the mess. And together, we decide when the patient needs more than TLC, and it’s time to call the doctor.
We plan to be home, in Iowa, before Memorial Day – if my aunt keeps doing as well after this week’s chemo as she has for the past few days, and if we can make arrangements for long-term care by then. She has an incredible network of friends – most of them retired military nurses – who do everything they can to make her laugh and help do the things she can’t. But they, like her, are facing the effects of age and illness.
So, like that amazing doctor, despite our best efforts, we don’t know, for sure, what’s next, or when we will first get to hold that new baby.
Taking care of the care-giver
One of the very first words of advice the experts give you when you are helping someone deal with a terminal disease is: Take care of you.
And for a rookie caregiver in a strange, huge city, cancer offers many opportunities for personal growth disguised as challenges – the kind that cause you to pray, as I learned years ago: “Lord, please make me better at this than I really am.”
I have prayed that prayer almost every day, I think: God, please make me better.
Better at knowing what to do, what to say – and figuring out things as varied as which “durable medical good” to purchase, when to realize it’s time to call the nurse, or head to the ER, and how to get to the hospital in rush-hour traffic on highways I have maybe seen once before – and how to approach it all with faith and calm and humor.
Taking care of a cancer patient has its bright spots. My aunt’s hospital room included one of those plastic over-the-door basketball hoops with her favorite team logo on it and a poster that reads “Go Spurs, Go.” My aunt scheduled a visit from one of her fellow spurs fans for a Sunday afternoon Game 1. And, of course, we are learning lots of family history, like The Coin Story.
“Take care of you,” they say. When you are helping someone, you need to eat before you get too hungry, sleep before you get too exhausted to be of any good, relax before you lose your sense of humor, and try to keep up your exercise routine.
For me, that means lots of ice cream, riding the bike I bought from a nearby moving sale (just wait until you hear THAT story) and taking time to enjoy the sunsets.
Despite the daily burden of feeling like I am not doing enough, or wondering how much better someone else could help my aunt, I know am doing my best, while taking care of the patient, and adjusting to this giant learning curve, to help her while also making the most of what I can find where I am at, with the resources that are available.
And on a journey like this, that’s all we can do.