Can you imagine an ambulance picking up your spouse to take him to the hospital, him joking with the paramedics one second and eyes rolling back the next? Your pulse is racing; his stops. The paddles shock life back into his body. You wonder who’s going to shock it back into you, now that your own heart has stopped.
It’s an unsettling scenario. It has also been my mom’s life for almost the last four years since her husband was diagnosed with cancer in his head and neck. Not that situation every time; in fact that was the first time they have had to use the paddles on him. It’s just that was the most recent ordeal.
Since the diagnosis, there have been: surgeries, chemo, radiation, Staph infections, pneumonias, MRSA, ambulance rides, ER visits, hospital stays, falls, walkers, wheel chairs, specialists, internists, hospitalists, neurologists, cardiologists, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, feeding tubes, catheters, pharmacists, drugs, side-effects, nurses, home health aides, sleepless nights, isolation, weakness, numbness, visiting priests, last rites and tears.
At the center of it all, is my mom, his sole caregiver. Read the last paragraph again – none of it happens without her involvement.
Instead of being at a loss for words to describe what her life has been like, I feel flooded with them—to the point that trying to convey the mass and entirety of their meaning dilutes them altogether.
My mom married Bob the year I was pregnant with my first son, 12 years ago. I was 29 years old and I wasn’t interested in having a step-dad. That sounds so bitter, but I mean none. It was just too weird at my age to think of having another parent.
So while I didn’t think of him that way at first, I certainly considered him a blessing. He was fun and funny; good-natured and good-hearted. He treated my mother with respect, devotion and love. He was there when I gave birth, when my dog died, and when my kids were sick. He took me to look at houses when I wanted to move, tile when I wanted to renovate and furniture when I wanted to decorate. He and my mom would let me tag along with them to estate sales and lunches out when my kids were small and I was lonely.
After he found out I wanted to be a writer, I received a package in the mail with some videos of writing courses. The note said “Your stimulus package is here. Hopefully, it will enable you to unleash those fine literary talents you have kept in abeyance.” I know because I still have the note. I carefully cut the encouraging words from the package slip and hung them on my bulletin board where I kept his kindness before it could drift from the warm memory of my heart.
He signed it “Daddy Bob.” That’s what I ended up calling him, thanks to my son who couldn’t say Granddaddy Bob. He started calling him Daddy Bob; and the rest of my family followed suit. Somehow he evolved to be my Daddy Bob whether I intended him to or not.
His illness has been hard on me too and again I feel flooded with words. Yet, if I were forced to speak, I am afraid nothing would come out.
I have tried to care for him mostly by caring for my mom. I have cooked for her, cleaned, picked up prescriptions, groceries, taken care of pets, sat with her in the ER, the hospital and at doctor’s appointments. I have fielded middle of the night phone calls, and valiantly tried to help lift him when he needed help up the steps or off the floor after falling. But whatever I have done to help, pales in comparison to what my mom has done. As much as I have tried to be there for her, she is very much alone in her plight. Knowing that just makes me sadder.
When I think of dying, I don’t think of it in terms of years, but that’s what it has been – years of slow decay. It seems like he has been through everything – everything but death. I have wondered why God has kept him alive when his quality of life is so bad. I have wondered if caring for him will kill my mom. I have wondered if my boys remember how good he was to them before he got sick. I have wondered just about everything it seems.
But after years of going through it all, it somehow seems more distant than familiar. He stays in his bedroom and for the most part doesn’t want visitors. At first this hurt my feelings, but then it became kind of a relief. It was so much easier to serve on the other side of the door.
So that’s where I have been mostly, until today when I visited him in the hospital. He is so physically different, worn and almost wasted. I have to catch my breath. It’s awkward seeing him so weak. It’s like trying to ignore the very strong elephant in the room. I just want things to be easy and light, the way they used to be.
But easy and light is over for Daddy Bob.
He started crying when he saw me. He thanked me for coming and said he was happy to see me. He got so excited when I talked to him about the boys. I tried to stay composed. I have been here too many times. Too many goodbyes have been said. I look away and think momentarily about how people talk about telling loved ones what they mean to them while they still have the chance. I have done it before. I can’t do it today.
Before I leave I kiss him goodbye and tell him I love him. On the way home, the tears spill.
I go to a large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Fatima in my dining room. It is known as the traveling statue of our Lady. Pope John Paul II wanted a statue of Our Lady of Fatima to be in every parish because of his devotion to Mary and the rosary. The statue travels from home to home so that families can gather and pray the rosary. It happened to be my week to have the statue.
Standing in front of her, I think about Daddy Bob, my mom and our call to comfort the sick. I think of the example my mother has set with her devotion and selflessness over the past few years. I think of Mary’s own suffering watching her son die on the cross. She never walked away, as hard as it must been for her to watch the torment of her child. She stayed.
Love compels you to serve and comfort, even when it means your own discomfort. It gives you the strength to step up, to keep going, to endure for however long is necessary. That’s what Mary did for Jesus and what my mom does for her husband.
In honor of them both, I take the rosary from our Blessed Mother’s hands into my own and begin to pray for Daddy’s Bob’s comfort — “now until the hour of his death.”