On October 4th, 2018, while my father slept in his ICU bed, I ran a horary chart with the question:
“Does my father have cancer?”
Less than a week earlier, I received a voicemail from him telling me that he was in the hospital. We had been in one of our estranged periods several months up until his call. The last time I saw him was when he took me out to breakfast at IHOP for my birthday. He had brought his own drink to the restaurant that morning – some name brand mixed fruit drink that was his latest obsession. I suppose we were also celebrating Dr. Araya’s news from the month before – my father was cleared of his Hepatitis C which meant that he was no longer at risk of getting liver cancer. He had been infected for over forty years and had refused to get treated for two main reasons – addressing it would force him to face his shame for how he acquired it and it would force him to face the fact that he was still the same junkie now as he was back then. But after my mother died, I had a two-hour long heart to heart with him where I tearfully begged him to get the Hepatitis C treated so that I wouldn’t have to lose another parent to another unnecessary death. He agreed to do it, but not without remarking,
“You put on a gooooood show there.”
I took a picture of him toasting me with his bottle of juice. He had a good bit of healthy weight on him around his neck and midsection, but he looked tired with heavy bags under his eyes – the kind you see on ninety-year-olds. It was the last photo taken of him in the calm before the storm. When I look closely at his eyes in the photo, the lack of light is strikingly obvious.
The voicemail was jarring, but it wasn’t surprising. As always, I expected any call from my parents to be related to some crisis. My father explained that he had rushed to the bathroom earlier that morning to be locked to the toilet as blood shot out of his throat and out of his ass.
“And then what happened?”
“When it was over, I went back to my bed and thought to myself, ‘what would Lauren do?’, so, I called 911 for an ambulance, unlocked the door for them, and waited back in my bed for them to come.”
When I arrived at the hospital just an hour later, he was in a deep sleep in his hospital bed – almost too deep. His eyelids and twisted lips looked like they’d have to be pried open for him when he was ready to wake up. His coloring was pallid. I hung around until he groggily stirred, acknowledging that I was there and then told me that he felt very weak and drifted back to sleep.
Getting any information from the nurses was like pulling teeth. They were able to tell me that he had lost six pints of blood by the time he arrived at the hospital and was given a couple of transfusions. They needed to do an endoscopy to investigate the origin of the bleed. Before the endoscopy, they gave him another transfusion because his blood counts were still dangerously low. The results of the scope showed mild gastritis and three varices that “didn’t appear to be bleeding but they banded them anyway.” The conclusion – they had no definitive answer for where the bleeding had originated. They mentioned that they did an ultrasound, but no additional information was provided. My soul already knew the answer or I wouldn’t have asked that horary question.
Once he stepped down to a regular hospital room, my father’s energy and spirits seemed to lift considerably. We exchanged funny memories that made us laugh until we had tears in our eyes.
“You know,” he said between laughs, “you’re the only one left who gets this stuff.”
Within a few days after our fun bantering, my father was discharged from the hospital. It was pretty late in the night when I drove him home. He told me that he had no food in the house and that he didn’t know how he was going to be able to shave with his projectile vomit blood covering his bathroom sink. I double-parked in the parking circle and with a twinge of irritation I said,
“It’s late. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
I watched him as he slowly walked to the front door by himself, in the dead quiet of the night. As I drove away, I pictured him ambling through the deserted lobby, the overnight guard nowhere in sight – up the empty elevator, just his body, his thoughts, and the rattle of the car and the buzzing of the floor signals – through the long, fluorescent lit, dingy hallway – into the void of his greetingless bedroom, onto the bedding he had not changed or washed since my mother’s death three years before. My irritation transformed into tremendous guilt, like a lead weight sitting heavy in my chest.
The next day, I got to see just how bad the bathroom was. The sink was covered with a thick, several inch layer of brown, dried out, coagulated blood that had clogged the drain. There was a large dried-up puddle all over the floor as well.
“I tried calling the office”, he said, “but they told me that maintenance can’t help me and they’d have to hire a hazmat team.”
Now normally, the sight of guts and gore doesn’t cause me to even blink an eye – but this blood belonged to my father and it was overwhelming to be face to face with how close to death he had been. I sent my ex-fiancé a text telling him about the condition of the bathroom and he told me that he would take care of it. The following day, I received an angry text back from him asking me why I had waited to tell him about it.
“I could’ve cleaned it up before he got home.” But all logic ceases to exist when you’re in shock. My father had apparently stood over my ex and apologized over and over as my ex was down on his hands and knees, scrubbing and sanitizing the entire bathroom with bleach.
It couldn’t have been more than a day after my father returned home that he received a call from his liver doc informing him that the ultrasound performed in the hospital had revealed a cancerous tumor on his liver and he wanted him to get a MRI right away. I would think that most everyone has some type of intense reaction when they hear the word ‘cancer’. My father’s intonation didn’t change when he used the word – and I didn’t gasp, or scream, or cry either.
“Schedule the MRI and I’ll drive you there”, I responded in an even tone.
I didn’t feel any anticipatory anxiety while sitting in the waiting room with my father – or if I did, I was completely disconnected from my emotions.
“You’re really hard to reach,” the doctor said while entering the exam room and shaking my father’s hand. And then. . .
“The MRI report says that the tumor is nine centimeters, but I think it’s smaller than that. You also have a clot – if it’s a regular clot, it’s fine, but if it’s a cancer clot, it’s a very bad prognosis.”
“Nine centimeters, OK,” he stated with a neutral nod.
“How long does he have to live if the treatments don’t work?”
“Maybe one year.”
Finally, my father connected to reality.
“One year,” he echoed in a bewildered, somber tone.
“Where is the best place to go?” I asked.
“Anywhere,” he shrugged. “Penn, Jefferson. . .”
The following week, we were sitting in an exam room inside of the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center. The first person to enter and introduce himself was a man named Brian who I had spoken to over the phone to coordinate my father’s appointment. I couldn’t help but stare at him with my mouth gaped open. It was the first time I had ever met anyone who was a doppelganger of my father’s long-deceased father. He had the identical style of silver-white hair, the identical twinkly blue eyes dancing behind his square, wire-framed glasses, and the same childlike sense of humor. It was no coincidence – in hindsight, it was a sign of the lifting veil. When he left, I turned to my dad,
“He looked exactly like your father.”
“Yeah, he did.”
It was then the team of doctors’ turn to walk in – an Interventional Radiologist, an Oncologist, and a Hepatologist. They put the MRI images up on a computer screen for us to see. I was stunned when they pointed out the massive, perfectly round, white ball that they verified was indeed nine centimeters. They pointed out a few other smaller tumors, and yes, the clot was indeed a cancer clot. The blond-haired IR doc with an Irish brogue initiated the options conversation.
“Chemoembolization is a procedure I provide, but in this situation with the size of his main tumor and the clot, this would not be an option.”
Then it was the English Hepatologist’s turn – “Surgery is not an option.”
I looked to our last hope – the socially awkward Oncologist who was wearing a bowtie and who would abruptly smile at me whenever I made eye contact with him as if he had received his social skills training from some two-hour seminar. Regular chemo was an option, but it also wasn’t, because by this time in the conversation, I picked up on the message written all over their somber faces that my father was a hopeless case. My father said that he didn’t want the chemo anyway. A PET scan confirmed that there were no other tumors in his body – the cancer had originated in his liver.
After I saved him from his two suicide attempts so many years ago, I had it chiseled in my mind that I would always have the power to snatch him from death’s grip. But this time, I couldn’t save him. Little did I know that one year had been a generous estimate.