SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Many years ago, I was awakened by a phone call to discover my father had suffered a heart attack.
I said okay, that I would be at the hospital later that day – then I rolled over and went back to sleep.
Too sleepy to process the information? Maybe, but I think it was mostly a case of denial. When it comes to medical stuff, denial is something we Hunter men are particularly good at.
But time goes on, and reality intrudes. By the time we’ve seen our fourth or fifth specialist and half a dozen prescriptions, medical stuff becomes less something to deny, and more something to fear.
When I got the call this time I was standing in the Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri. I’d just been on a scenic overlook, snapping photos of a spectacular Mississippi River and enjoying the attention our dog got from every single person who encountered him.
Then the phone rang.
My brother had been staying in contact more since earlier this year, when first I, then my sister-in-law, then my wife ended up in the emergency room for various reasons. I had no reason to think he was doing more than checking in.
Instead, he called to tell me it was my father’s turn to be rushed to the emergency room, with pneumonia. It seemed a repeat of what happened to my grandmother over the winter. Pneumonia’s bad when you’re young; it’s often fatal when you’re old.
Oh, and there were also the lumps, in the area of his lymph nodes. By the time I got the call, doctors were already pretty sure he had cancer.
I didn’t know it then, but at about the same time my father received his diagnosis, I was sent an e-mail asking if I’d be willing to do public information work for the Noble County Relay For Life again next year.
Our location in the state park was an hour’s drive from where Emily and I were staying with her parents, nine hours from home. It was near the end of a long day, and we were supposed to be down there for a while more; packing up our scattered stuff could take hours.
There was, to say the least, a certain feeling of hopelessness.
I don’t have a particular direction to this story, or an end. On the contrary, the story is just beginning. As I write this, Dad has been taken to the emergency room after a bad reaction to his very first chemotherapy treatment … not a good start. They still haven’t returned the results of a bone marrow biopsy, which will tell us whether he’s stage 3 or stage 4 – it doesn’t matter from a standpoint of treatment, but it makes a difference to us, the people who need every scrap of information we can get.
Delbert Hunter has Aggressive Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a type of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s not common, and it doesn’t play nice. It tends to be discovered in its advanced stages. It started in his lymph nodes, but this disease tends to get around.
In the last few weeks I’ve read up a lot of this type of cancer. A lot. And then I stopped reading because, quite frankly, I wasn’t being encouraged. At times like this you need facts, but then you need hope.
Now the chemo has started. Imagine you already have the flu, and then you get food poisoning, while your hair is falling out. It’s like that, only worse.
(I’m being necessarily vague: The actual side effects vary from person to person.)
Not long before treatment started, my wife got sick. Nothing major, but when an immune system is beaten down by cancer and chemo, the little things can kill you. Would I get what she got, and send it on? I took my dad a box full of movies to watch, a copy of both of my books, and a print-out of my e-book short story collection. Then I left, with the intention of making my personal visits sparse until sure I wouldn’t give him something his body couldn’t handle.
I’d been working on a writing project that I was going to dedicate to my parents. I think that might be part of the reason why I’ve lately had an overwhelming urge to write more, write faster, get it done.
It might also be because I deal with tragedy and stress by retreating from it, and what better place to retreat to than a fictional world, where I can control what happens? It might also be that keeping busy also keeps me from thinking about it.
But it might be about facing reality, as well as retreating from it. It’s a selfish kind of thing that humans do: The possibility of death makes us look at ourselves, our regrets, our shortcomings, our accomplishments. “I have so many stories to tell! Must write faster! Must get more done!”
Yeah, I made it all about me. But here’s the thing: In the end, we have to have hope and faith. The world revolves on those things, with a dollop of love. Right now, while I can’t spend much time with my Dad, I want to put all my efforts into a project I’m dedicating to him, so that later he can hold it in his hand. There will be a later. That’s where the hope and faith stuff comes in.
My parents are readers. They bought me my first comic books, and the Oz book collection, and encouraged my book wormishness. I think he’ll like having the culmination of his parenting, bound in a book in his hands.
He’s got an experienced, hardworking medical staff doing everything they can for him – this is what I can do for him. That, and be there.
Oh, and that request to help out the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life next year? Of course, I said yes.