Monday, September 22, 2014

Sitting

Yesterday ended on a completely different note than it began. The husband of one of my cousins has cancer. This weekend, he took a precipitous turn for the worse, the cancer apparently having been chased by chemo to the spine and brain, finding sanctuary on the other side of the blood-brain barrier, which apparently the chemo cannot cross. That might not be completely scientific. In any case he is now back in Sloan Kettering and his oncologist told my cousin yesterday that he is not expected to go home. On hearing that news, I went to the hospital.

It took forever because I was at a conference on the far side of town from where the hospital was, and traffic in the city was snarled and roads were closed because of the unprecedented size of the climate march. More than 300,000 people marched for a myriad of environmental and social justice causes. It was thrilling out there on the streets. But in a dark corner room on a high floor of the cancer hospital, my cousin was contemplating women who throw themselves on the funeral pyre with their husbands and wishing she lived in such a culture.

Her husband Gary is dying, and very likely soon. It didn't look this way a week ago. He seemed to be responding to the chemo; his tumors had shrunk by more than half. He and my cousin spent the summer going to museums, hiking in nature, roaming around Chinatown, doing all the things he loved to do, just because he could. But cancer was cunning. Now his brain is swollen and his bones ache in places too deep to touch and he is moaning and writhing and he doesn't recognize anyone who comes.

My cousin sent out an email asking anyone who wanted to see him alive to come now. My cousin's sisters are coming in from Boston and San Francisco to be with her. And people from our little church, which Gary joined back in the days when he used to take my mother to Sunday services, also started visiting. No one had realized he was so closed to the end. Gary is a Buddhist but he joined that little Episcopal church in Harlem because he found such kindred souls there. He helped build the ramp that my mother's pushed her rolling walker up and into the church every Sunday when she was here. He felt enfolded, welcomed.

 My husband and son also came to the hospital. I said to another cousin later that I was in awe of them, their ability to just sit or stand at Gary's bedside and be present and calm for hours. I am not so good at that. The hospital room closes in on me. I find myself wanting to flee. My cousin (not Gary's wife, the other one) suggested we all have different ways of serving. I did try to make myself useful. I called my cousin's colleague and asked that they cancel her classes for the week (she is a professor). My cousin also hadn't eaten anything so I took her downstairs to the cafeteria while my husband and son stayed with Gary. She was grateful for that. She hadn't wanted to leave the room because she didn't want Gary to die when no one was there.

Later, my son and I drove her home so she could shower. Gary is a musician and she also wanted to download the music he had been writing, his legacy album, she called it, so she could play it for him My husband waited at the hospital. My cousin completely broke down in the car, screaming that she had nothing left to live for, weeping that she wished she had been a better wife, that all her husband ever wanted was family around him and to be loved. Her husband is white and his brothers disowned him when he married a black woman. His family had been pretty fractured before that, though. He often expressed appreciation for the closeness of our family, even with our squabbles, and he became central to us. I'm trying not to think about his made-from-scratch cranberry sauce missing from our Thanksgiving table. I am thinking there is still time for miracles.

I remember when my Uncle Charlie was dying years ago, how Gary came and cleaned out his room and rearranged the furniture so that the hospice people could bring in a hospital bed and all the palliative care equipment my uncle needed. I remember how Gary visited daily and sat in the room with my uncle for hours. Now it is our turn. We don't know what comes next, how long he might have. All we can do now is be there with him, whether he is aware of us or not.


33 comments:

  1. Oh god. Such sadness. May your cousin find some peace. I know there will be plenty of love. May Gary go in peace and without too much suffering. And how much is too much? Any.
    So hard.

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  2. oh, angella, this is absolutely heart-wrenching. i relate to so much...the restlessness in hospital rooms, wanting to be able to DO something. it's so hard to just sit and be with a patient. but please know that whatever you do is enough; you'll give what is needed; for your cousin to have a safe place and a safe person to be with, to break down and sob...this is your offering to both of them.
    xo (here's hoping for a miracle, and if it is time, a peaceful crossing.)

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  3. Dearest Angella. My heart aches for you, for Gary, your cousin, for me. For all of us. It seems impossible to bear the sadness. Sending you all love and grace and peace.

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    1. yolie, i can feel the love and grace and peace--thank you. xo

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  4. Yes...I'm familiar with this journey all too well. Sending many hugs and prayers for all of you.

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    1. Thank you, Angie. It is a human journey we all have or will experience. I appreciate you being here.

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  5. Gary is surrounded by love and knows he is loved. Peace and gentleness to you all.

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  6. This is so very sad. And yet, so good to read how you can all find empathy and time and of course, love. Sending you hugs and for your cousin my hopes for a graceful last journey.

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    1. Sabine, a graceful last journey. What a beautiful way to frame it. Thank you.

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  7. As always, you and your beautiful family are so deeply open and gracious in these times of suffering and grief. Oddly, I know a cranberry sauce maker of the same name who has just begun
    chemo. May love and peace surround you all.

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    1. A, may your cranberry sauce maker have wonderful success with his treatment. Sending love and peace to you too.

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  8. We rise in the morning not knowing what the afternoon will bring. Life is so fragile. You are in my thoughts, and there you will stay. ~nancy

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    1. Nancy, you speak true. We are so fragile and yet we dare. Love to you.

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  9. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. How very sad that this happened so fast. You and your family are full of love. My best. Sweet Jo

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  10. Praying God's comfort for you and your family - particularly your cousin and her beloved husband. Thank you again for continuing to share your stories with us. The love that your family has is palpable and will certainly carry you through the difficult times.

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    1. Nerd Girl, it's a blessing that there are so many of us. Thank you for your kind words.

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  11. I'm so sorry, Angella. Take care of your family. Sending all my light and love to you. xo

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    1. Dear Rachel, thank you. Take care of yourself and your little miracle! xo

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  12. Hugs and many prayers from afar. You and your family are in many ways an inspiration. My best always. E.

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  13. Angella, your family has had more than its fair share of grief. It boarders on trauma. It is hard when you can't even catch your breath and then grief rolls over you again. I have lost 8 members of my family in the last 3 years and most of the time I have to push the sadness away. It is just too much.

    I am sending love through to you as well as your cousin and her husband. I pray that he will be without pain in his last days. I pray that your cousin's heart will stay intact.

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    1. Dear Birdie, strangely it doesn't feel as if we are undergoing trauma. I think of it as the price of having such a large family, with everyone so close. It means what happens to each member hits home. But I would rather it be this way that to not have these people who I am lucky enough to call family around me. There will be more. My mother and her sisters are all well past 80. It is the price perhaps of all the love they have showered on us, this grieving again and again. It is worth it, I think. Thank you for your concern, though. It is hard to lose so many people at once. I send love to you and peace. xo

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  14. I believe your family are supreme abiders -- you graciously abide with one another during times of illness, unease and dying -- that is no small thing and certainly beautiful and evident for outsiders to behold. May Gary not suffer anymore and may you all be at peace and find comfort in one another.

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    1. Elizabeth, perhaps it is simply that we have no choice but to abide. Love to you, dear friend.

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  15. Sending so much love. This is so hard. So sad. So big. I'm sorry. Love to your cousin, to you, to all the family..

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    1. Denise, i know you know better than anyone what my cousin is going through. I am going to at some point share with her that exquisite piece on grief that you wrote, about the sides of the crater. Thank you.

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  16. I am so sorry to hear this news -- yet another blow to your family. I'm sending good thoughts your way. At least your cousin was able to spend the summer with him, during that time when he seemed to be in remission. She will eventually look back on that time and be glad, I'm sure.

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    1. Steve, i think you are exactly right about the summer they spent. she will have that to hold on to. thank you, friend.

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  17. What a hard time. He sounds like a good man, a good family member, a good friend to people who have needed him, a loving heart. I am so sorry.

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