Through much of June and July, my Dad had excruciating pain in his neck and was hardly able to move from the pain, numbness, and tingling that spread through his entire body. One morning in early August, he fell and subsequently lost all feeling in his body below his chest. He was rushed to the hospital in Brantford (where my parents live), and an emergency MRI revealed an egg-sized tumour on the vertebra at the base of his neck (the C7 vertebra). Emergency surgery soon followed at the General Hospital in Hamilton, as did an eventual diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. And so began the new reality for my Dad and my family.
My Dad was in the hospital for three and a half months: from August 7 until November 20. There were several reasons for this lengthy stay:
- After not moving very much through June and July, his muscles had already started to atrophy by the time he had surgery. He needed physical therapy just to regain the ability to use his muscles.
- The surgery itself required a long recovery time, which involved my Dad wearing a pretty impressive neck brace for 12 weeks (I think). The tumour had eaten away much of his C7 vertebra, so in addition to removing the tumour from his spine, the surgeons also had to put an apparatus in my Dad's spine that, in essence, replaced his C7 vertebra. The neck brace kept everything stable so the apparatus could sufficiently integrate into his spine. It is now a running joke in my family that Dad is bionic, like a super hero.
- More tests revealed that my Dad had another large tumour and several "craters" in his right femur. So while extensive tests were done to determine the integrity of his right femur, my Dad wasn't allowed to walk, which of course further weakened his already depleted muscles.
But I'd be lying if I said I always maintained a positive and grateful attitude. I'll just say this plainly (and perhaps selfishly): sickness gets in the way. Never mind blogging, having a loved one who is ill gets in the way of making dinner, doing laundry, and sleeping. And it gets in the way of joy and peace. It's a very strange reality, and all of you who have walked this journey with a loved one - and there are so many of you - know this strange reality all too well.
Over the last few months, people have asked me, "How is your free kitchen reno going?" It's nice to be asked. I'm honestly thrilled that people are interested. My answer is always the same: "It's not." Since my Dad went into the hospital, I have not picked up a paint brush or fired up the compound mitre saw. While my Dad was in the hospital, I simply didn't have the energy. And when my energy started to come back, I had no time to work on the kitchen because I had to haul ass to make enough Christmas inventory to stock my shelves at AllSorts Gallery.
My family has marvelled over these last months at how inexplicably tiring it was to be at the hospital. It's hard to put your finger on why. Part of it was seeing all the other stories of suffering and loneliness around us every day. Part of it was processing random bits of complicated information from various (sometimes conflicting) sources. Part of it was feeling guilty each time we were free to leave the hospital when Dad had to stay behind. For me, I think the biggest part of it was feeling so helpless in trying to make things easier for my Dad. And then there was the endless quest for free parking . . . don't get me started.
In addition to neglecting my kitchen reno, I also neglected my studio . . . there were probably tumbleweeds blowing through it. I didn't set foot in the place through August and September. In October, I knew I had to start getting my act together if I was to have anything ready to sell for the Christmas shopping season. I spent a lot of time just sitting and staring blankly out the window because I couldn't think of anything to make. Even the most trivial of my creative pursuits seemed insurmountable. I am not one of those artists who processes pain by making art. Pain stunts my creativity. My concern for my Dad and Mom, and my own fatigue put a big weight (picture one of those hefty weights they use to squeeze down hamburgers on the grill) on my creative mojo.
But who would've ever thought the Christmas rush would be a blessing in disguise. The prospect of empty store shelves forced me to power through my fatigue fog and make stuff. As I cut through wine corks, hammered beer caps, and drilled through beach glass, the creative energy started to recharge, like a cold car battery sputtering back to life.
I have realized that, one of the many reasons why illness or death makes us so uncomfortable is because it changes what we know. Our normal routine and the habits of our relationships get thrown up in the air to land in different arrangements to which we must adjust. For my family, it has been a permanent readjustment that began the day my Dad started feeling a strange pain coming from his neck.
He is now home from the hospital, thank God, but everything is different. It's evident around the house: the safety bench in the bathtub, the arm rests on the toilet, and the walker that goes everywhere with my Dad. It's evident in my parents' schedule, with all the chemo and doctor appointments, and visits that get cut short when my Dad gets too tired. It's evident in my parents' relationship as they adjust to a different and awkward balance in which my Mom is, in many respects, my Dad's caregiver. And it's evident in my own sense of attention and responsibility, but this is a good thing.
This has been my reality for the last few years: I am a wife, daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and artist. In my new reality, I am still all of these, but my Dad is sick, so priorities and commitments will shift. At least I hope they will. I hope I have the presence of mind to think beyond my daily concerns and pressures, and care for others in my life, especially my Dad and Mom.
(By the way, I did manage to finish one more stage of the free kitchen reno before my Dad got sick, and I will post about that soon. It's the most exciting stage yet!)
* For any of my brothers who are reading, I know. (Inside joke.)