Friday, October 27, 2006


When I was a teenager, I watched my stepfather die from cancer. In actuality, I spent a lot of time avoiding watching him die from cancer, as his diagnosis and my move off to college happened at around the same period. I spent my time doing school work, working several jobs and clubbing all night during the heyday of the Tunnel and Limelight. I rarely came home, and when I did I spent a lot of time sleeping and just avoiding interacting or feeling too much. Over time, each trip I made home he looked worse. I didn't know what to say to him, how to act, what to think, so I shut down. The truth was, when it was announced to the family that he had cancer, everyone else immediately began insisting he'd beat it and discussing possible treatments. For me, however, with the word the sound of a death knell tolled in my brain. I never had any hope.

A lot of this time is very hazy in my memory. Sure, I was in a whirl of a new environment, studies, odd hours of work, adolescent hormones, discovering my sexuality and way, way too many drugs. But mostly I think I was getting through things and allowing my brain to erase them or build walls around them thereafter. It's a coping technique that started early in my childhood, and there are vast tracts of my life that I simply cannot recall, unless strongly prompted. However, there are always things that stick out and persist in my mind's eye. In this case, whenever I remember my stepfather, I remember two images of him. One, him progressing slowly towards the bathroom with his equipment for his daily, lengthy coffee enemas - a treatment recommended by some naturopath in Germany he'd consulted- and two, him lying on his side on the couch, too thin with sagging skin, dead-eyed, his robe too large and falling open, watching television or watching me watching television or maybe watching nothing at all. Just sad and wasted and wasting away. Tired. Dying.

I can't tell you how angry this makes me. I am enraged that this is now my main memory of him. Yes, when I reminisce, I can recall him when healthy and strong, the stubborn, abrasive, incredibly intelligent, loving, alcoholic, damaged person that he was. But, this picture always comes first. And I feel it taints everything.

I am also angry at myself. Yes, our relationship was complicated, and at times I could barely stand the man. But I shut myself down when he was dying, and avoided him. I can't even remember exactly how I acted, but it was not in the supportive manner I retroactively expect of myself. I try to forgive myself for being a wounded, confused teenager, who'd already decided to expect the worst from life, and thus had begun mourning and detaching myself from him at the moment of his diagnosis. Still, I wish I could have been better, I wish I could have been kinder, and I wish I'd had or given myself the chance to resolve or understand the man and our relationship more before it was too late.

Last night, I spent the evening with some friends visiting our friend J. J was diagnosed with cancer some time ago, and after a long period of unsuccessful treatment, she is now at home receiving hospice care, with no hope of recovery.

In all honesty, I had been avoiding J since her diagnosis. Although I'd known her for around a decade, we had never been truly close. She had once dated a good friend of mine, a roommate, and I got to know her over time through that and other group interactions, like the documentary another friend filmed mostly in my apartment that featured us both. Still, I never really called her just to talk or do things together. I would just hang out with her in groups, until over time we began to move in different circles, and I only rarely heard second-hand about one or another occurrence in her life. So, whereas I knew her to some extent and thought her to be a kind, fun, life-loving, inquisitive and talented person, her diagnosis stymied me. How do you talk with someone you don't know well about such an important, intimate, terrifying surprise in her life? Moreover, given my experience with my stepfather and my pessimistic, fucked-up emotional issues around cancer and the nature of life, how could I possibly be supportive, say the right thing, even hold myself together in her presence? I didn't think I could, so I, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, blocked out the situation and hid.

I don't know why I finally decided to visit her last night. Possibly because time seems to be growing much shorter for her now, and who knows how many opportunities there will be. Certainly because friends had been visiting her more often, and, knowing that she'd like to see us all but some of us were having difficulty feeling strong enough to go alone, a group pizza dinner was coordinated. And maybe there is a small part of me that has grown up since my stepfather's passing and doesn't want to make the same mistakes, to disconnect myself again. I'd like to think so. I don't know.

I had a mini stress attack before I entered, but I made it in. J was, as I'd feared and expected, looking terrible. In a wheelchair, lost hair, painfully thin in most places and oddly swollen in others. Her eyesight is seriously deteriorated, her hearing a bit off, her speech low and slurred. Her poor, small, bare feet poked out from beneath a blanket, looking oddly purplish and burned or frostbitten, probably from the chemo and radiation. She can use one arm. She doesn't talk or eat much. She can't watch TV and she doesn't want books on tape. Her health care aide and her mother massage and feed her. She is around my age, but she looks like the 90-something year old residents of my grandmother-in-law's nursing home. Frail, pained, exhausted, oddly soft and tender.

But she's still J. She still insisted on paying for the food for everyone, because she loves doing nice things for her friends, and hates accepting gifts or handouts. She still likes to laugh, painfully, at silly things, and thinks some of us are crazy. She still takes moments to remember kind things about everyone and say them out loud sincerely. She said nice things about me. I don't feel I deserve them.

I am glad I went. Glad I saw her, got to share some time with her, make her chuckle. Glad I didn't shrink away and avoid feeling and act like an ass. Afraid I did or said something wrong. Outraged at it all, and sad... so sad for her, for us, for her family. So angry and sad that I don't understand death or suffering or life, and that now, when I think of her, this will be the image I have. Not her as a vital, tender hearted, energetic firecracker of a woman who always seemed younger than her years, but this: the wasted body, the hurt, the unfair, inexplicable, surreal mutation of who she is on the inside showing out. The same as it was with my stepfather.

There is no "right" way to deal with all this. No way not to be awkward in some way, stuck in one's own head. But I'm trying. I hope to visit her again. I don't want to see her like this. I don't want to cry and feel that the world is a cold place. I don't want her to die. But I want to know her, to honour her, to be something of a friend. I wish I could save her and protect her. It's so not fair.

I love you, J.


claire said...

No, it's not fair. It never is.

I'm so sorry that you're going through this right now. Also, for your friend, J. {{hugs}}

Ken said...

Thank you.

Helen the Felon said...

I'd say that your willingness and ability to express your thoughts so beautifully and honestly are proof that you have, in fact, grown and learned a great deal since the time when your stepfather was sick.

I'm sorry that your friend, and you, are going through this. But from here, it sounds like you're doing right by her as a friend, and that's huge.

I'll be thinking about you guys.

Doug said...

What Helen said ;)

I guess a lot of us are going through these things currently. I don't think there are any answers. I do think that all we can do, and the main thing we really need to do, is be there for one another.

Hanuman1960 said...

Ditto to what everyone has said.

When all is said and done, all that we can do, is be there for them.

First Nations said...

yeah. am there now. i'm scared to see them be helpless and me be powerless. and I have to force myself to visit too.