Thanksgiving with a side of cancer.
People experienced major delays on Wednesday. My flight was delayed from 8:50 PM until 10:15, but then I didn’t get into Indy until 1AM. I wound up at my friend’s house, crashing on an air mattress in her office. It worked out for the best, because my dad was able to go home and sleep. As it turned out, my grandmother was admitted to the hospital in Indy that morning. Mom wanted to come over and check on her, so she picked me up and went to the hospital.
There was a blockage that had made her jaundice, but there was also a lingering question of a mass. Not a Thanksgiving Mass at Our Lady of Guadelupe, but a mass near the pancreas. At eighty years old, masses make you think the C word, whether or not a docter has said it.
When we the drive up to the hospital, I recognize it. I haven’t been there since New Years even when I was a freshman. The night my first nephew was born and given the longest name in the family. Certain he would be an only child, my brother and his (ex)wife heaped names onto Alan. Three picked by my brother, two picked by his (ex)wife and one dictated by geaneology. He wasn’t a the fourth, but had a long, unique name that would never fit nicely on a monagrammed towel.
The night Alan was born, there were thousands of starlings in the trees surrounding the hospital. We were experimenting with a video camera my parent’s had for upcoming grandparenthood. We would clap and send the birds off into indianapolis. Then we raced down the pedestrian bridges, the echoes reminding us of Star Wars or other science fiction space station movies.
Thursday morning, the sky was clear and birds were nowhere to be seen. Hospitals make me want to cry. I hate the smell. I hate the sadness. The uncomfortable chairs. The thin curtains. The unresponsive nurses. Just putting quarters into the meter makes me want to stay in the car, better yet, go wait downtown for my mom.
But I can’t. I’m 27. I can go into a hospital to see my grandma.
The jaundice isn’t as bad as I expected and grandma is very lucid. I find a chair and sit next to her and hold her hand. She tells me that she started her working days in an ice cream parlor and enjoyed it too. Later I find out that most of my relatives on my other side also worked in ice cream. Perhaps ice cream is more a family legacy than I realized.
I think about times when she would blow in for a month when we were kids. She would share my bedroom and we would stay up late like schoolgirls. Okay, I was one. She would tell stories and I would get comfortable on the couch in my room. She would also go around the house and retune every single radio to a classic country station. Not Hank WIlliams and Johnny Cash again. She would wash dishes every day and smoke on the back porch.
She tells us the doctor has just left. She gives mom a picture he drew of her liver and bile duct and the mass. She won’t tell us the rest, but makes us wait for the doctor to come and explain it all. The doctor returns with a resident (Dr. Craig) and starts explaining. Bile duct. Mass. Stints. Roto router. Invasive Surgery. Chemotherapy.
The mass is 90% likely to be pancreatic cancer. The only cure is radical surgery removing most everything in her gut. Then weakening bouts of chemotherapy, feeding tubes, and other tubes without names yet. He is kind and honest, with a slight accent. “It is a question of adding quantity of life, but removing all quality of life.
We could force more time out of Grandma, but she would look like a science experience and wouldn’t enjoy the extra month to two.
Or. Clear the duct and let the cancer do it’s thing. Manage the pain when it starts. Let her go gracefully, with quality of life. Okay, the doctor didn’t put so much judgement into it. He gave the options realistically. When he was done, Mom said, “I know what you want.” “Yes.” “The simple one.”
On Thanksgiving morning, Mom found out that her Mom is going to die of cancer. Not the diabetes, not the heart, not all the things she has battled. But a tumor that slipped in during the last ten years of constant medical attention.
There was little discussion. “Schedule the bile duct clearing procedure and follow-up.” We knew it was the right thing. She has had a good life, she isn’t afraid of death. We might be afraid of letting her go, but we are pretty much all in agreement here. Quality over quantity.
Does that mean she’s going to jump out of an airplane strapped to the stomach of a expert sky diver? I doubt it. It just means there won’t be tubes replacing good meals with family. That she will be strong enough to hold Henry when he joins us in January.
Then we went to Thanksgiving dinner and talked about Grandma’s new cancer over oyster stuffing.