Part IV: In Vain


The fourth part of an ongoing series

A few notes before I start this post. I know it’s been a few months since I wrote anything so my apologies for that but things are finally starting to wind down for us and getting back to normal. I just haven’t had the drive to write lately and honestly, have been tired in the evening – the time I normally blog.

Second, this post will deal with the topic of religion and the role its played in my life, so the language may be a little too much to handle for some. But understand where I’m coming from and what we were going through. Thanks.

Going back to work after hearing word of the official diagnosis was tough, but I had to do it.

As I walked to my desk, a coworker asked how Ann was doing. I just looked at her and shook my head, then continued to my desk where I grabbed a tissue and wiped away tears that had started to form. The coworker stood there for a second then slowly walked away as if she regretted asking.

But sadness was just one of the emotions I was feeling at the time. I was also extremely upset and angry about how life was taking a really strange twist for us. Regardless of what I was feeling, I had to get myself back into work mode and take care of business.

Gina, whom I sit next to, showed up at her normal time and asked how everything was going. The two of us are close – she’s the person in the last story of this blog post and I find it easy to talk to her about almost anything. Although I had been giving her updates via text/Messenger, I still felt the need to talk to her about everything that was going on so we went outside and sat on the patio to chat.

And it was a good, therapeutic talk. She told me that her mom had the same procedure done years ago with the cancer was completely removed and after all her follow-up tests, she is still cancer-free. It then turned into a big, fat philosophical discussion that lead to personal beliefs which we share.

Basically, we’re spiritualists. We believe that doing good and being good do not require the shackles of religion and that any act of kindness can’t automatically be attributed to God or whatever. Goodness is ingrained in people. We do good things. No bible required.

Even so, I was having a difficult time with this.

“You know, sometimes it’s okay to believe in something bigger, whatever that might be. If that’s what helps pull you through then I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” she said.

I hadn’t prayed in years. I left the Catholic church as an adult when I realized their teachings no longer aligned with the person I was becoming, so I wasn’t sure that her way of thinking would be right for me.

In any case, I thanked her for the time and gave her a big hug to show her my appreciation, then we went back to our desks and started working.

After the long day at the office was done and the kid was in bed for the night, I sat at my desk with a candle burning and got lost in some old pictures. I don’t know why I did this.

All of my photos are organized in folders by date and, if necessary, the event or place we visited. I have thousands of images saved on an external hard drive and DVD backup and could be here all night looking at them.

I guess that might have been my intention – and my mistake.

I kept opening folders. My eyes started to well up as I recalled all of the little things he did when he was an infant, his giggle, everything. And then I got to this picture from 2005 and it was all over.

02-18-05 kodak 020

I don’t know what it was about it; it could have been the first picture I came across with Ann and Anthony together. I stared at it for a minute and started to really cry.

My wife, the one I’m supposed to grow old with, the one I promised to give my life to, the mother to my only child, was lying in the living room asleep on the couch – and had cancer growing inside of her.

The world suddenly got smaller as I thought about Dad and how young he was when he had passed away and how unfair it was to everyone in my family. I thought about his funeral and the seven short years we had together. What kind of cruel creator would subject people to this kind of nonsense?

Crying turned to loud sobbing as I stared at that picture for even longer, my mind racing a mile a minute.

“I don’t know what I’d do without her. Why her? What the hell has she done?”

Thoughts turned into words as I looked to the sky and spoke up.

“SHE HAS NEVER HURT ANYONE IN HER LIFE AND DOES NOT DESERVE THIS. What, taking my dad at a young age wasn’t enough for you? Now you see it fit to give my own wife cancer? With all the evil in the world, this is your plan for her? She’s a mother, goddamnit! Can’t you see that? I mean, FUCK. Can you be more cruel?”

Everything was piling up on me. My heart was pounding and I had reached my breaking point. Finally I got up out of my chair and with both hands, flipped off the heavens and raised my voice.

“FUCK YOU, GOD! JUST…FUCK YOU! YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE! AND FUCK YOUR PLAN.”

I sat back down and laid my head on the desk, crying uncontrollably. I had no regrets over what I had just said because I meant every single word.

And what little faith I had in God or a god was officially gone.

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Part III: Confirmation


The third part of an ongoing series

A few days after being released from the hospital, it was time to visit the doctors who had been providing Ann’s care during her stay. First on the list was Dr. F, the oncologist.

At this point we weren’t quite sure why we were scheduled to see him. From all indications, and according to both doctors, the mass was not cancerous. Regardless, we kept the appointment.

This was the first time either of us had been to an oncologist. Fortunately, at least up until this point in our lives, the two of us have remained relatively healthy and free from any serious illnesses. With that in mind, let me tell you about an oncology office.

They are quite simply the most depressing places on earth. As we sat in the lobby waiting to be called, we could see beds beyond the reception area with IV bags hanging from shiny chrome stands next to them. Patients walking by with the stand receiving their chemotherapy with needles and tubes in different parts of their body. Relatives/spouses/children of patients walking out of the office in tears. Overhearing stories of what sort of therapy someone had to go through, then watching them slowly hobble out the door struggling to live whatever may be left of their lives.

It’s not an easy thing to see.

When Ann was called, we were directed to a room and waited for Dr. F. to arrive. Our room had a SpaceX poster autographed by Elon Musk. I stared at that longer than Dr. F.’s certifications that were hanging all over the walls.

Dr. F. finally arrived and greeted us. He brought along a laptop which had the results of all of the testing she had done at the hospital. He explained everything in detail but mentioned something specifically the needed attention.

“During the scan, we noticed these lesions on the left side near the hip,” he said as he turned the laptop to show us. “What we need to do is to determine exactly what those lesions are, which will require a biopsy.”

Ann’s bottom lip began to quiver as she held back tears. It wasn’t long before they started running down her cheek. Dr. F. handed her some tissue as he assured her that in most cases he had seen, the results are normally negative.

“We have to be sure it’s nothing. But based on what you feel and the location of the mass, I’m not convinced it’s anything to worry about.” In his professional opinion, the lesions were simply the result of arthritis.

We left Dr. F.’s office and walked back to the car. Ann couldn’t hold back anymore. She took a deep breath and looked at me. She had pretty much tuned out everything after the talk of the biopsy.

“So is it cancer?”

“From what he thinks, the lesions aren’t. But the mass on the kidney might be, which is why you need the biopsy to make sure the lesions aren’t.”

A few days later, we had a visit with Dr. P. Like Dr. F., his laptop was his window to Ann’s case and he went over his thoughts and how we were going to take care of it.

“The mass on the kidney is 5 cm. We could work to remove just the cancer itself but there’s no guarantee that it won’t return, so if you have no objections to it, I’d recommend removing the entire kidney which would ultimately remove the cancer as well.”

This was the first time we heard either doctor mention “cancer” during our conversations. Ann and I looked at each other and we both cried. Dr. P. immediately consoled us.

“Ann, I’m going to do everything I can to take care of this. The good thing is that kidney cancer is something that has a high survival rate once the kidney and cancer are removed.”

He then went over the procedure he would most likely be doing in order to remove it, complications, recovery time, etc. Any way you look at it, it was not a good day.

You always hear of other people getting some kind of cancer and you never think it will happen to you or someone you love. However, when it does, I can’t even begin to describe the emotions you go through.

Fear. Anger. Denial. Solitude. It will really mess with your mind.

When we got home, we all sat and talked about it. Despite the gloom and doom of the diagnosis of cancer, in the back of my mind I knew everything was going to be fine. It’s the only way to keep a sense of normalcy in your life after you get such shocking news.

But something happened to confirm this.

After the family talked things over, we got together and had a big family hug. We needed each other more than ever at this point. As we cried and talked about how we were going to be strong throughout all of this, I raised my head up to temporarily leave the discussion.

I sensed something strong in the room – a presence. It spoke to me and I smiled.

Ann looked up at me and asked what was going on. Still smiling, I answered.

“You’re going to be alright,” I said as I started to cry. “I just felt Uncle Lou tell me this. I saw him. He just stood there laughing, waved his hand and said ‘Bah, she’s going to be fine.’”

All you need to know about Uncle Lou can be read here. He was a great man and I miss him terribly.

Later that night, Ann asked why Uncle Lou would be the one to give me this news.

As I wrote in another blog post about him, “…he’ll just show up at your door unannounced. That’s not unusual until you consider that he lives in northern California, exact location unknown, and we’re in southern California.”

So for him to just show up the way he always did was nothing out of the ordinary. But being we rarely saw him, he hardly had the chance to get to know Ann and she was puzzled as to why I saw him and more importantly, why he would say she’d be fine.

Uncle Lou died on March 1, 2013. That’s just over 5 years ago.

Ann’s birthdate is March 1. The cancerous mass on her kidney is 5 cm.

It could have been anyone, but I’m not disappointed or surprised it was Uncle Lou. I can still see him and hear him saying those exact words.

Everything was going to be alright and there was no real reason to question it. Despite this, the next few days would be some of the worst I would ever experience when trying to deal with Ann’s diagnosis.

Part II: Hospital Stay


Part II of an ongoing series

With Ann staying the night in the hospital, I had to make some calls and send emails. First, I had to call her parents then send an email to the boss and my coworkers letting them know I would be absent at least for the day.

The latter was easy. The former, not so much.

Ann’s mom doesn’t speak to you in most cases. She questions you, and I was ready for a barrage of questions upon calling her. And that’s exactly what I got.

“Oh, so she’s staying? Well, why didn’t you take her to the ER in the first place? How long will she be there? Do they know what it is? Why do the have to keep her?”

The list can go on but I did my best to answer them all. Everything was still too fresh and I didn’t have all of the info to properly respond during my interro…conversation with her.

Ann lay in the triage waiting to be put in the queue for two different types of imaging: an ultrasound and CT scan. Apparently the ER is a rockin’ place for such things on a Thursday morning.

It would be hours before she was wheeled away for the ultrasound and I went along with her.

She was taken into a dark room and then went into the restroom where she donned her aforementioned hospital gown. The technician described what they were going to be doing and she was okay with it; nothing she hadn’t already experienced during her pregnancy.

I was watching the technician intently as she was doing the ultrasound and it looked all too familiar: zooming in on blobby imagery and taking measurements. In the case of pregnancy, that means they are measuring the size of the fetus but when you know it’s not there’s obviously some cause for concern. Right then I figured something wasn’t right.

Ann was then wheeled down another hallway into a room for her CT scan, one of many she would have over the duration of her hospital stay.

And hospitals are freaky places. Cold, freaky places that simply are not home sweet home. This was my takeaway as we followed nurse after nurse after technician down what seemed like endless hallways that all lead somewhere – really Twilight Zone-ish.

As I followed her and the technician down another hallway, we were greeted by a group of police officers who were standing at the doorway of a room. I’m not sure of the circumstances but they were all looking in the room at who I believe was a suspect of some kind. A female officer smiled and waved at Ann as we passed.

I wasn’t allowed in the room as the CT scan was performed which is understandable. I sat outside the room where my wife’s body was being bombarded with radiation, each flash of the “X-RAY IN PROGRESS” sign above the doorway letting me know when it was happening. After the scan, she was taken back to the triage where we waited for the results.

The day dragged on and Ann and I talked about what was happening. She told me she was scared and rightfully so. I held her hand and bowed my head thinking about just what in the world may have been going on. Finally, a doctor came by with some news.

“Looking at the ultrasound, there appears to be some kind of abnormality around the uterus. It’s hard to determine exactly what it might be at this stage but one possibility is an ectopic pregnancy.”

That news alone was a heart-wrenching. With an ectopic pregnancy, there’s no chance of survival for the fetus and it’s likely that the mother could suffer from internal bleeding which could kill her. It’s just a reminder of how many things can go wrong during a pregnancy, and how a pregnancy that produces a healthy baby truly is a miracle – women are indeed stronger than men.

As painful as it was to hear that news, we knew that a pregnancy was out of the question. We’re not exactly spring chickens anymore.

When the results of the CT scan came back, the abnormality shifted from the uterus to the adrenal gland and it now had a size: 5 cm. Now the course of action was to keep Ann at the hospital for blood work and a daily urine sample in order to check the hormone levels in her system. If the abnormality was on the adrenal gland, the hormone levels would be low.

I stayed with Ann as long as I could until she told me to go have dinner and get some sleep. We left Anthony at home and sent him updates as I found things out.

Her first night in the hospital was strange. The bed at home felt so empty. I felt so alone. After 25 years, this just didn’t feel right.

Her hormone levels remained acceptable her entire stay. The second day, she was visited by a urologist (Dr. P) and oncologist (Dr. F). Dr. P had a little more detail on things. I arrived in time to hear him speak.

“Looking further, it appears that the mass is on the outside of the kidney and not the adrenal gland as we had originally thought,” he said. At this point, the abnormality was just referred to as a mass but Ann was worried after a visit from Dr. F.

That’s because an oncologist studies cancer. He was called because the scan showed not only an abnormality but also what appeared to be lesions in her hip bone, so he needed to let her know there’s a possibility of something else going on inside her body.

As if, already scared, she needed something else to worry about.

“I will look at it and if it’s nothing to worry about, you won’t see me again,” Dr F. said as Ann lightly sobbed.

After Ann was released from her three-day hospital stay, we would be seeing both doctors within a week.

That nothing was something after all.

Part I: Fourth of July


Part I of an ongoing series of blog posts

According to the 2016 census, Long Beach has a population of over 470,000. That’s by no means a small city by any stretch of the imagination, but there are times when that number can be simply a number.

One of those times is on the Fourth of July when residents gather a block away to celebrate our nation’s independence and partake in the neighborhood’s annual Fourth of July Parade. And it’s a grand celebration – decorations, noisemakers, Souza marches, and an overall small-town sense of pride. We’ve participated since Anthony was old enough to do it and even when he wasn’t, I wheeled him around the parade route in a wagon replete with patriotic bunting.

As part of the good times and like mostly everyone, we have a BBQ at our house with both families. It’s not a lot of people but it’s just enough to keep the hosts – Ann and me – on our toes for at least a few hours.

And with that BBQ comes indulgence. There’s usually a slew of side dishes strewn upon the built-in lazy Susan of the glass patio table along with a plate of various meats, usually cooked to burnt perfection.

The post-BBQ activities usually include a nice nap once the guests have left then watching fireworks being lit all around us. Illegal in Long Beach, residents still manage to make them a part of the festivities.

It was in the evening while watching the night being lit up by pyrotechnics when Ann told me she had been experiencing pain in her abdomen. Naturally, since eating was as much a part of the day as the parade and fireworks, I said that she probably just had a little too much to eat. She agreed and took some Tums in the hopes of getting some relief from the pain.

That wouldn’t be the case.

On July 7, she complained that despite taking Tums and other OTC medications for a few days, the pain had not subsided and may actually be getting worse. Rather than running to the emergency room to sit and wait, as Long Beach Memorial is notorious for, she agreed to have me take her to the local urgent care facility where they have come to know Anthony on a first-name basis. Dislocated finger? Broken ankle? Yep. They’ve seen both of them on this kid.

I rushed her over and checked her in, and were seen in a time that would have never happened at the ER. But with that comes limitations.

Urgent care facilities are great for, well, urgent care for symptoms that can be easily diagnosed (like, you know, a dislocated finger). After a routine examination and reading her vitals, the doctor told us that Ann’s condition was a little more difficult to pinpoint since they lacked the proper equipment to facilitate in finding the cause.

By now, of course, the pain wasn’t constant even with the doctor applying pressure to the area in question. It was still there but just not chronic or as intense as before. Later in the day, it had all but disappeared.

The doctor gave us a few ideas of what might be causing the pain but didn’t have any concrete answers based on her exam and vitals, so she recommended Ann get some blood work and an ultrasound done in order to zero in on the source.

They were scheduled two weeks down the road on July 28.

On July 12, Ann woke up in tears telling me she couldn’t take it anymore.

I jumped out of bed, threw on some fresh clothes in no time flat, then grabbed my phone to send an email to my boss and department letting them know I would be out that day but would send updates as I got them.

When we arrived at the ER, it was surprisingly empty. Ann was seen promptly and explained her condition to the nurse as she prepped a spot for her. She told the nurse that she was scheduled to get ultrasounds and blood work done in a few weeks. Immediately, the nurse scheduled both of those to happen that day after Ann’s initial examination.

“I’m going to go get you a gown and a bag for your personal belongings,” the nurse said as she started waking toward a door. Ann nervously looked over at me then the nurse.

“Am I going to stay?”

“First, we’ll get the blood work and ultrasound going. Then it all depends on the results and if the doctor thinks it’s necessary to keep you here for observation.”

Ann began to cry a little. I held her hand. This wasn’t what any of us had expected – and it was only the beginning.

Prelude


“Every writer is a frustrated actor who practices his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.” — Ben Hecht

Writers draw from their life experiences to craft stories. It’s not that writers lead more exciting or interesting lives than everyone else, it’s just that they see them as chapters unfolding right before their eyes.

Everything has the potential to become a story. Except lunch – nobody cares what I had for lunch. Honestly.

Well, I’m about to start a story that’s been taking shape and still in the process of being written. And as it continues, I will pass it along here.

The topic is a health issue – read the tags and you’ll figure it out – that the family has been dealing with since early July, when Ann first complained of stomach pain. Since then, our lives have been riddled with disappointment, shock, anger, and even some happiness and good times.

I’m doing this, with Ann’s blessing, for a few reasons.

As therapy. It’s a way to get things off of my chest because frankly, I was and probably still am taking this much harder than the family (remember: empath). You’ll get a better idea when the time comes and you mustn’t be easily offended by blasphemy. It will be raw, real, and emotional. Understand this.

To inform. Hopefully, anyone with the same diagnosis who might read this will do so and feel better about their own situation. It will also draw on the importance of overall health screenings and physicals since this would have never been discovered had Ann not been suffering from stomach pain. And that alone is pretty scary.

It may take a few days between posts because I now have to sit and scribble down, from memory, notes about everything that’s taken place since July 4th. That’s almost two months of pulling stuff from my brain and remembering details but I’m pretty sure it can be done.

If you’re used to the silliness my blog usually entails, this will be a far cry from my typical content but it’s something that needs to be done.

And it will all begin with the next post.

Thanks for reading.