Monday, June 01, 2015

An Event (Unction)

I'm taking part in a fundraising event for the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto on June 13th (you can get all my donation details here if you're so inclined). These events fly over my radar most times but this one felt like something worth doing. My mother is a cancer survivor and my father died from the disease over a decade ago.

I wrote and re-wrote about it for a long time. This piece was blogged in 2005 and removed to a different blog a few years later, resurrected here to maybe explain why I'm taking part in this year's Relay for Life. Reading it might generate an understanding of the phrase "Anything that helps," especially given the alternative. "I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy" applies as well.


Unction [uhngk-shuhn] – noun

1. an act of anointing, esp. as a medical treatment or religious rite.
2. an unguent or ointment; salve.
3. something soothing or comforting.
4. an excessive, affected, sometimes cloying earnestness or fervor in manner, esp. in speaking.
5. Religion.
  a. the oil used in religious rites, as in anointing the sick or dying.
  b. the shedding of a divine or spiritual influence upon a person.
  c. the influence shed.

     -As defined on

There are nightmare scenarios that are far worse in hindsight or in planning than when they actually arrive. The horror isn't diminished exactly, but is played out with an immediacy that spurs you into some kind of action, rather than introspection. Acting upon something is most often preferable to simply dreading it - you have the luxury (and this is a broad term) of thinking "I'm doing something. At least I can do something, at least for now."

In 1999, a second wave of cancer hit my family. My father had been in the first wave; he had lost his kidney two years before and after that time, further metastases had been undetectable. This second wave was my mother, who'd been hit by shooting pains causing her to crumple over in pain in her garden. She was rushed to hospital with what they thought was a rupturing appendix, and during surgery it was discovered that instead a cyst affixed to one of her ovaries had burst.

My mother is alive and well after chemotherapy and helped to no end through her faith as a high Anglican. My father's story, for reasons physiological and oncological, doesn't end as well despite his own chemotherapy and no less faith as a born and bred Baptist. But there are particular issues and minutes to each story that are etched into my memory of the whole. It's hard to reason what renders something indelible - one cannot remember every second of any event, even when experiencing a horror. There's no way to determine why some instances remain and others fade, or why you will step outside of yourself in spite of events and know I will remember this.


It's October 1999, dry and cold. My father's cancer (his first instance) has passed and his later condition is not yet an issue, not even considered in the wake of my mother's sudden illness. My wife Abby and I are visiting her in the hospital, I am watching her clockwork tics of her coping with nausea, shaking from the inital blast of chemo, aching from her abdominal stitches as her muscle and tissues begin to heal. I didn't own a car at the time; Abby and I took long bus trips for these visits. A cab would be faster and would not have bankrupted anybody but it was not necessary. Taking the bus feels like something to do that isn't cancer or chemo or being scared.

My father is at her side, doing what he can.

The situation isn't good. It could also be far worse. There are medications and nurses and a blanket of family and friends to support. But none of this is illuminating or soothing. There's too much awareness of what the cancer entails, the fear of blunt harm that bruises everyone in anticipation of nausea and biopsies. That said, nobody in my family is squeamish. The crisis-management gene has kicked in and everything is orderly, for want of a better word. We realize there's nothing to be done and our role is to be at the hospital to be sure my mother gets what she needs and has visitors when she wants them or simply has quiet when she needs it (during one chemo session she sharply - but not unkindly - told me 'I don't need to be entertained', I took her at her word and read a novel as her IV dripped).

My father, retired, methodical and no less scared than any of the rest of us, is her advocate. Abby and I arrive and we have our visit - not too long, allowing for rest, bringing magazines and bottled iced tea, fetching chips of ice from down the hallway. Attention must be paid. There is less fear in an order to things.

My father arranges to drive Abby and I to the subway after our visit, which doesn't have to be in a plan - my plan was a bus ride or a cab extravagance. My father, exhausted but smiling (tightly) has his own agenda, his own order of things to be done. And I feel it. He has arranged the night into a schedule that allows for visits, feeding my sister's dog, attending to groceries, preparing the house for my mother's return.

Driving Abby and I to the subway is on the schedule and there is a ticking, quiet inflexibility to the order that risks cracking his surface of control. I was no less scared than my father but knew that I lacked his responsibilities. I had been married less than a month and didn't want to imagine my wife in hospital, could only picture my father's upset in the vaguest terms, foggy and unformed. He was compelling himself though what needed to be done, I know the routine; I act the same way under pressure (no less so when he was in treatment), trying (hoping working forcing) to be normal, even in the context of something unexpected and horrible.

This hope for normality meant that I had to accept my father's quiet, well-behaved and stubborn insistance that his car had been stolen. On our way to the underlit garage, he looked into the corner where he was sure his car should have been and found nothing. He sighed and hearing him say, "Great. I'm going to have to go inside and report this to the police, my car has been stolen," was unspeakably awful, a instant etched-memory on a night that could have been set-directed for such an event; cold, snowy, a bitter wind and filled with sinistermachine-noises from the rear of the hospital.

I knew the car was in the open garage somewhere (Abby wisely stepped behind our backs, eyes darting for the license plate and shape in the darkness) and knew that he was about at his limit. I watched him process the information and make the only decision that he could handle at the time, which was that the car was beyond rescue and he had far more important and scarier things on his mind.

I didn't want to tell him to sit down and have a coffee as Abby looked for the car (or ran interference with the police if his suspicions were correct) because I knew it wouldn't help. It might break him, and thus far neither he nor my mother nor sister nor myself had snapped, we had been dealing. This - faulty as it might have been - was dealing. And horrible. I wanted one of us to snap, simply to cry out the awfulness of what it was, and knew that would neither be happening nor productive.

It was a long, dry, cold matter of seconds. I'd let him go inside and make the call. He's coping. I'm coping. By letting this happen as it is playing out I am coping for us.

Then it was done - Abby yelled "It's over here!" in a careful, controlled voice while standing beside the Taurus. I watch my father's mechanism twist for a second, could see One Less Worry pass through his gearbox and then we were in the car, to the subway, and home.

My mother recovered, not easily but well. And misses my father.

Less than three years later, I returned to the same hospital with my father in the last weeks of his life. He was thin, barely able to walk, in need of yet another X-ray to see if there were masses or bruising or fractures, it's difficult to remember. He was aware, awake, calm, apologizing that I had to miss work that morning for this visit (my mother was home preparing an air mattress and adjustable bed) and the trip wasn't difficult on the surface. He was attended to quickly and I was allowed to wait with him in the examination room, standing beside him as he lay, half asleep, undressed on the table.

The room was underlit and faintly green from the tiles on the walls.

He's going to look like this when he's dead, I thought, another frozen moment, stretched out.

I tried to admonish myself with That's a horrible thing  to consider and simply didn't have the warm blood for it just then, for one reason - it wasn't true, yet.

I held his hand for a moment on the table, he smiled sleepily. He might have said 'My son, my son' quietly, an expression he used to me for decades and I use unconsiously with my own child, wincing briefly seconds after.

There weren't any tears. No time for them. I was only aware of the silence, the sound of his breathing, the waiting moments stretched between. I can remember this, I told myself. It was horrible but done, yet. He was able to walk, and there would be some - if not much - time for he and my mother and sister, for anyone close to us and caring. This wasn't ending well but it was not over.

All of this played concurrently with that parking lot memory from a cold winter night. Now I was in his place, coping. If my father coped - still hoped, still lived - on the table, I could respect it, all of it resonant sharp-edged and indelible. He might have felt it in the way I held his - I'm coping, I told him. For awhile longer, I am coping for us.

August 2005 - revised June 2015


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