Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Day 51: Death Shock

I went into an emotional tail spin this weekend, and it might help to write about it here. The precipitants of my tail spin were news from Bruce Lieberman, from Annette Davide, recollections about the death of Annette's stepdaughter, bad old memories, and loneliness on a Sunday afternoon.

I hadn't heard from two people in a while, and their communications with me are mixed into what I want to say here.

First person I hadn't heard from was Bruce Lieberman, friend and husband to my friend, Marlene. Bruce didn't write after hearing my cancer news. I knew his mother had died about 15 years ago from cancer, and I suspected that his silence might have been related to that loss. I found out more this weekend.

Another person who I hadn't heard from is my friend Annette. Last I had heard from her, she mentioned that her daughter's father in law, Jim Sullivan, was suddenly very sick. Annette asked me, oddly enough, if I had been saying any "bad" prayers for him. She reminded me about how I had told her I felt bad for the wife Truda when Jim sold their trailer home after he recently lost his job, since she had never until this past year lived in a home they'd owned in their entire married life. ( I hope I don't have to tell anyone reading this that nothing would motivate me to say "bad" prayers about anybody.) So there I was armed with that little bit of information about Jim's sudden illness and that weird question from Annette until more news came in this weekend that blew me away.

We didn't dwell on Jim's illness all that much when we had last talked. Annette has bad troubles of her own, and the conversation moved to how her big toe had been removed, and how poorly she was recovering from cellulitis, which had caused both her legs to swell and turn red.

I learned more about Bruce's mother's last illness when Bruce wrote me back from work at Microsoft on Saturday. Isn't everyone's life odd these days? Bruce's wife and daughter are in the south, with the daughter at Space Camp, and the wife is celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary going on a tour of Graceland without Bruce, who couldn't get away, and who has a travel phobia these days anyways. If you catch my meaning, even if he could get away, he can't. Bruce wrote me he admired my courage for going through the treatment. The gorey things I describe, I guess, are the reasons why Bruce's mother decided not to be treated for pancreatic cancer. No chemo, no radiation, nothing, he wrote, she just died -- at 60. If I refused treatment, I would probably die by 60 also, since my 59th birthday is coming up Oct. 3. I wish it was otherwise, but my own outcome is not all certain yet. Bruce seeems to be unhappy that his mother gave up seemingly without trying, not fighting back with treatment. Just dying.

I was sorely tempted to skip the treatment when the doctor told me what it would be like, but as I wrote back to Bruce, I felt that God wants me to obey the doctors, so I have.

Bruce told me that there is a Jewish gene, which, according to his colorful explanation, does not cause the cancer but manipulates the genes around it so they cause the cancer (sounds like something from a comedy routine at a Catskills resort, but still isn't funny). Bruce said the gene is hereditary, and that he has a 50% chance of getting pancreatic cancer himself and dying like his mother at 60. Well that's a sobering thought for him to have to live with.

Over the weekend I got it in my head to try to connect with Annette again so I left a few messages on her answering machine. She has moved all the way down to Newman CA as part of the general upheaval in her life. It had been over a month since we last talked. Sunday afternoon was dragging into evening when Annette called. As usual much had been going on. Annette had gotten a message from her daughter telling her that I had called and she was squeezing in a quick call before bed. She wasn't at home. Annette was staying with friends in Milpitas because she had an early doctor's appointment the next morning. And it takes over an hour and a half to commute to the doctor from where she lives now.

Almost casually, I heard her say that one of the reasons she had been so busy lately is that Jim, her daughter's father in law, had died. They'd held a "service" at my former church in Milpitas, and I hadn't heard a word about it. His wife will be taking his ashes back to Massachusetts so they can be buried there. He had been finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 30, and passed away 11 days later. "Your stepdaughter died from pancreatic cancer too, didn't she?" "Yes." That was fast too, her step daughter Betsy's death.

Jim dead like Betsy? Truda suddenly without a husband or a home? Big Jim now reduced to a box of ashes. Too much to handle.

My emotions were as if I was watching a horror movie where a nice, big, man over 200 pounds was disolved in a whirlwind. At the end of the blur of motion, only ashes were left of him, in a little box.

I was so upset I started retching and crying when Annette ended the phone call. I know it's not only Jim Sullivan's death that got me that way. Fears of my own death are mixed in there, must be. But there is another story here.

Psychology says that people get clusters of emotions centered around traumatic events. When someone reacts inordinately to a current happening, that's an indication that memories of earlier unresolved event is behind the reaction. These memories aren't just mental intellectual memories of the facts of the long ago situation. They consist of the emotions and physical reactions too. So the death of this man who I slightly knew was not the whole reason why I was retching and crying Sunday night.

I was also reexperiencing another shock earlier in my life where I was offhandedly told by my sister, "You know Grandma died?" two weeks after my beloved grandmother was buried. At the age of 15 I was in a long term care hospital recovering from surgery to straighten my spine, and nobody thought to let me know that my Grandmother had died until my sister blithely dropped it into our phone conversation. She was buried, two weeks earlier. I had no privacy in the 40 bed ward, no place to go to scream like I wanted to, and nobody to share my grief with, and that loss is still fresh and painful. Grandma dead? Buried? Nobody told me? Big over 200 pounds Grandma who I had been separated from by my mother 4 years earlier and had only seen once in that time? I remember sitting next to her on the couch the one day we'd snuck away to see her. She'd had a stoke, and her hair had gone gray. She was still big, a tall, stocky woman, but had lost a lot of weight. Now she was gone? Death, that ultimate adamant fact with which there is no bargaining or going back from had taken her away from me. And nobody bothered to let me know?

Post Script: Bruce, pancreatic cancer is fast moving and seemingly hard to treat. Maybe your mother knew that fighting with treatment would have done nothing except make her last days even more unpleasant than they would have been otherwise. I hear that Betsy's last day's were full of retching from the chemo. Maybe there was more to the decision to "just die" than we can know.
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