Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The not silence

I've always suspected that my girl gene for "love of shopping, especially for shoes" was redirected and replaced by the man gene of, "I've been sick for 24 hours, isn't that enough?!" My head cold arrived Saturday and by Monday was in full blown mode. By Tuesday, the goo in my head was traveling south, looking for a place to vacation in my lungs. I know this is the natural flow of things, pardon the pun, for me when I'm sick. I will sneeze, blow my nose enough to deplete a forest through tissue usage, then cough through the night as my poor lungs rattle at the invading extra moisture. For me, this is normal. I know....sad. And I never gave it a second thought until two things happened: my Dad died of cancer and I was diagnosed with asthma last spring.

No, the two don't seem related. Dad was a smoker. I never smoked or drank. That's okay...I'll wait for those of you who just fell out of your chair to regroup and get comfy. Dad had a smoker's cough my entire life. I use to tease him that I could find him in a crowd if he just coughed. My cough was the kind which came with the occasional bout of bronchitis. Although I wished Dad didn't smoke, there wasn't much I could do about it. I was the kid. He was the parent. There was, however, one moment I always regretted. Dad had tried to quit smoking but he'd gotten so cranky none of us could stand it. It was out of character for Dad to snap at me and so one day after being the target of nicotine withdrawal one time too many, 12 year old me took Dad's lighter out of hiding and handed it to him. I'll never forget that lighter. It was a silver Zippo from his Navy days that many men of his generation carried. I can still hear the sound of it clicking open, the sound of flame hissing to life, the finality of that click as it closed.

One day the finality of that click would haunt me.

When Dad was diagnosed with cancer, he and my Mom were legally separated. I was an adult but having grown up in such an all-American family it still felt weird. The day of Dad's initial test, he joked about having a harem present: my younger sister, my sis-in-law and myself. As we sat in the waiting room together, a doctor would come out, yell a family's name, then walk over to share what he had found. One family was slow to respond and the doctor got angry. Dad teased us that for the sake of our own health, we'd better get up quick when his name got called. And then Dad was off to testing. When the doctor did yell our name, we all jumped to attention, answering in unison. It was the only time I ever wanted to hit a man. Hard. I still believed all doctors were compassionate and caring. Marching over to us the doctor demanded we identify who we were, then advised flatly,"We found something. It's probably cancer. We took a sample. But don't tell him today. Wait for the lab results." And with that he walked away.

Every time I've seen that doctor since, I feel my hand curl into a fist.

Afterward, Dad took his harem out to their favorite seafood place and couldn't believe we weren't hungry. We never let on why.

I'm guessing it's because I'm the oldest that I went with Dad to his follow up appointment, the one where the cancer diagnosis was presented a little kinder. With options. As we walked back to his car like zombies, each in his/her own world, without thinking, I muttered, "Life's a bitch..."

Dad didn't miss a beat when he sighed, "...and then you die."

I wanted to rip my tongue out. Instead Dad gave me a hug. Yet in my head, I heard the ghostly sound of that Zippo lighter clicking shut. Like the lid on a coffin.

Why had I ever given it back to him?

Oh sure, intellectually I knew it wasn't my fault. Or my choice. Dad could've chosen to quit smoking. He tried once or twice but the nicotine won. I knew the facts, yet 12 year old me was hanging my head in shame.

And so we began the first step of an almost five year journey of "What's next?" By the time we made our way to the doctor who would be Dad's Oncologist, I felt some hope amidst the fear. How can you not like a man who states, "I don't know if you have 5 weeks, 5 months or 5 years. I'm not God. But we'll work on this together."? And we did. Yes we, for Doc considered family part of the team. He armed me with the information I needed for those moments when Dad mentally shut down and stared at the wall during his exams, only to ask me questions on the long ride home. Any time the information was a new horror, Doc would wait until Dad was at the desk making his next appointment. I would feel an arm slip around my shoulder and his kind voice whisper, "Do you have any questions?" This was always followed by, "You're important too," and a gentle squeeze of my shoulders before he strolled away. There were days, especially after witnessing things the rest of my family didn't see, that I wanted to turn and bury my face in Doc's kindly embrace. Because he understood. He'd lost an aunt and his partner had lost his mother; both to cancer. He'd been where I was standing at a time when doctors' technique was more in line with the jackass M.D. who'd bluntly stated on Day One, "It's probably cancer" as if casually noting that it was raining outside.

Doc never deserted me or the family. The last three weeks of Dad's life was spent in our hometown hospital, away from Doc's practice in the big city. When I'd call, Doc and his nurses answered my every question. Even the hard ones. And yet, knowing the answers to the hard ones made it easier in the end. At least for me. The last couple of days were a tough road for Dad. Last night I had a momentary glimpse of how horrible that must've felt.

Night is funny. It has two properties. Night can make ordinary things seem magical. Exciting. Memorable. Night also has a dark side. It's called fear. Fear of what's out there just past where the light ends. Fear of the unknown. It can twist something which is annoying in the light of day into the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Last night fear paid me a visit. Not in the form of the Grim Reaper. In the wheeze of that cold settling into my chest. A wheeze which sounded much too much like Dad's last couple of days.

In his case, it's known as the "Death Rattle". Last night, it sounded as if it were coming from me.

Dad's cancer started in his esophagus and in the course of almost five years, visited his lungs before finally lodging fatally in his liver. I knew what to expect, textbook wise. What I learned, was that a childhood fear was being played out in front of me. You see when I was a kid, we stayed away from Dad's mother when we had colds; if Grandma got a bad cold, it turned into pneumonia. I remember telling her once when I was about 10, "Grandma, you and I are going to be the only 2 people who ever drown on dry land."

Listening to Dad lying there, essentially drowning in bed, made icy fingers of fear grasp my own lungs. My 10 year old humor was no longer funny.

I'd had bronchitis enough times to know how that wheezing sound feels. It's as if every breath is going to be your last. If you don't think it through, panic sets in. The harder you struggle, the tighter your chest muscles get and the more useless they become in helping you breath. It's the mother of all vicious cycles. Even though I knew closing my eyes and focusing on the sound of air coming in and smoothing sailing out was the key to bringing it back to normal, it was a tough mental sell. Listening to my Dad gasp in his morphine induced sleep made my chest tighten even more.

I wouldn't realize until the very end how much his wheezing had effected me. The last day the doctor came in mid morning and said Dad's breathing was so labored, he would be gone by mid-afternoon. It was his way of saying, "Say what you need to say now." My brother and I sat there, counting respirations as if that would help. Help who, I never figured out. When the doctor returned at 10 p.m. he was amazed. His all knowing manner dropped a notch as he stated in awe, "I don't understand. He should've been gone by now."

I am my father's daughter. We shared the same sense of humor. As some family members gasped in what they saw as insensitivity to the highest degree, I said to the doctor with a smile, "You've never dealt with a Huggins before. Stubborn folks. Give them a deadline and they'll chose their own." As he stared at me, I added with a wry grin, "Besides, I know Dad. He's waiting for Sunday morning so St. Pete will personally greet him at the Pearly Gate."

An hour later hubby and I went home. I knew I needed to get some sleep because come morning, Dad would be in heaven with the angels and I, as his Estate representative, would be dealing with the humans. Several hours later, early that Sunday morning the call came. Dad had been promoted. As we re-entered the hospital room, Dad still lying there but looking peaceful now, the weirdest thing came out of my mouth.

"Thank heaven he's not making that sound any more," I'd sighed in relief.

My family probably thought I'd finally lost it. After all, I'd been there from Day One, through appointments, surgeries, treatments. I'd seen things I'm glad the rest of them never had to see or deal with. I was strong for Dad and cried in the shower. Because Dad trusted doctors as agents of God, their word was law. All knowing. And if Doc had ever said, "You'll be dead on Thursday at noon," the hearse would've been pulling up at 12:01 p.m. on Thursday.

But all I could think of was that sound. That sound which was finally gone.

Gone until last night.

As I sat up in bed, the wheezing growing even louder in the upright position, I felt myself struggle not to panic. In through your nose, out through your mouth, my brain commanded calmly. The evil filing cabinet in my mind which contains the file,"Dad's cancer" opened up and laughed, "Wheezing huh? That call that the death rattle you know."

Panic tightened it's fingers around my lungs and squeezed. Hard.

Night fear brings with it not so pleasant memories, trying eagerly to attach them to the problem of the moment. A couple of weeks ago, a favorite great-aunt died...on my birthday. I'd just finished reading a book entitled "Life's That Way" by actor Jim Beaver, whose wife died of lung cancer. 4 months after diagnosis. Since she'd quit smoking 20 years earlier, her doctor had declared her a non-smoker. Her biggest fear was.... suffocating.

Fear's icy fingers squeezed my lungs harder. Panic ratcheted up a notch.

Nose, mouth. Nose, mouth, my brain chanted. But the panic rose a notch as fear raised its ugly head. Had Dad felt like this? Felt like no matter what good he'd done in life, it was being erased by having all the wind sucked out of him by a failing body? For two and a half hours I did this dance.

Why did I have asthma? I never smoked, I thought between ragged breaths.

Your great Uncle Joe had asthma, Fear reminded me. Worst case anyone had ever seen. Remember how they "cured" him?

Yeah, shot him full of morphine and made him a drug addict by age 18, I recalled with a shudder. The new doctor made him go cold turkey. One step forward. Just in time for that electric shock therapy. Two steps back. A couple of years later they would realize it was only asthma, not anything mental. By then, it was too late.

Asthma can kill, Fear added drolly.

The chest muscles, on their way towards relaxing, tightened again.

Note to self: [and anyone else with bronchitis/asthma]: Always listen to the brain when it comes to medical stuff. Shove Fear back into the filing cabinet and slam that sucker shut!

It took about 30 minutes to do that, my brain suggesting I remember good things about Dad, not the "Life's a bitch and then you die" stuff. Because if there was one thing Dad and I shared, it was a sense of humor. Find the funny and the world will right itself.

Not being able to breath, for whatever reason, is not funny. But suddenly I envisioned how silly I must've looked sitting up in bed, grasping the pillow to me as if it were a life preserver at sea.

Kinda melodramatic, my brain smirked. If you want to go for the full soap opera effect, make sure to wake hubby and tell him goodbye. And don't forget to add, "Good bye cruel world!" as you smack yourself on the forehead.

I giggled. That takes air you know. Giggling is also good for relaxing.

So I gave the pillow a good squeeze and silently thanked Dad for adding the "humor" chromosome to my gene pool. I never was a good swimmer [and I shall avoid further drowning analogies if you don't mind]. But if you can laugh, you'll always have a life preserver waiting to serve and protect you.


mapstew said...

That was a long one!
(I seem to be reading a lot of long posts these days, must be getting patient in my middle age!)

Change a few names, dates, and illnesses, and I might have written this myself. (Though nowhere near as eloquently, or with as much heartfelt warmth!)

I'm off the ciggies more than six years now, and I don't miss my annual bout of bronchitis each Oct/Nov.

And yes, the night!
Night still puts the fear in me ever since Helen died, seven months ago now. I can't go to bed until I'm almost exhausted, until I know I will sleep the moment my head hits the pillow! But it's getting easier.

My youngest has asthma, and sometimes it frightens us when her breathing is laboured, though thankfully that is not often.

Now see what you made me do?
My longest reply ever, and I'm only NOW getting to wish you better health and peace of mind that it brings!

Get well soon my friend. I'll be thinking of you.

''gentle hugs''


Susan at Stony River said...

The closer we are to someone who dies, the weirder the things that are said, at least at first glance. But it's a strange moment to be in, that first day without someone.

I get pneumonia regularly and I know that drowning feeling too. So many of my mother's family have died fighting to breathe that I have a feeling so will I. Every time it comes back I have terrifying moments; not because I feel in mortal danger at the time, but because I know that one day, that's what I'll be feeling like when there's a Mr. Death at the door. (apologies to Monty Python there...)

I think I know where you're coming from, is what I'm trying to say. Keep breathing and giggling!

savannah said...

sugar, talk to your doctor! sounds as if you need an emergency inhaler - i know about this from personal experience! xoxoxo

(short response because this made me tear up remembering all too many bad nights.)

hope said...

Sorry Map! Didn't seem that long while writing it the re-read made me wonder if I knew when to quit. :)

I'm glad you quit smoking [as a daughter...this ((HUG)) is for you!] and bronchitis is a crappy way to spend any time! Especially for a singer! I felt the same way last night as you did since Helen died...I wanted to be just exhausted enough to sleep, not think. Sorry your youngest has asthma but glad to hear it's controlled. I've been told besides hereditary factors, stress and other things like pollen can set one off. I work in a building constructed in 1956 and the furnace is from the same year...makes me sneeze something fierce! Combine that with the stress and I think looking elsewhere for employment is the right idea.

Geez, my reply to you is almost as long as this silly thing! Sorry. I accept your hug and the fact that I know you're probably grinning too. :)

Oh Susan, I feel for you! That's something I don't want to have to go through. The best help I've received is from my Insurance Company's nurse! I figured out my "triggers", she sent me a peak flow meter and I can see what's coming at me through the pollen. ;) I've kept it under control until this cold. I do appreciate the sympathy. Everyone's nice thoughts will help me remember to breath... and laugh.

Sorry savannah! It is an awful feeling, isn't it? I do have a "rescue" inhaler, which I did use. But a little medicine goes a long way with me so my "night terror" last night was at that last 2 hours before I was "suppose" to use it again. I've done much better today. It really does help when someone says, "Wow, I know what you mean!"

All the hugs and kisses don't hurt either. ;)

mapstew said...


(No need for 'sorry's' here!)


thingy said...

My daughter has asthma. There was nothing that made me angrier than uncaring doctors, and there were plenty of those, and yes, the fear....I would watch her struggle for a breath.

Wonderful story about your dad, and I hope you feel better soon.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this Hope. It was an excellent tribute not only to your Dad but to you yourself. I really enjoyed it. That being said, I get bronchitis at least once a year, sometimes twice and I'm a smoker. A little digression here, when I was i think about 8 years old my windpipe closed up and I was in the hospital for over a week in one of those tents. I was miserable and that whole summer I couldn't even go outside. I sorta have two points to this. One: The first hint I get that the bronchitis is starting I call my doctor and get an antibiotic. That usually helps me. The second point and really more important is I know smoking is bad for me. I have tried everything under the sun to quit. My doctor prescribed this new drug that is suppose to work miracles. Go insurance wont pay a dime for it and it cots like 140.00 bucks for I think a 2 week supply. So if it gets me and when I die, which I'm not afraid of at all cuz it's my time to go, so be it. I'll go down smoking like a chimney and enjoying every puff. So don't ever beat yourself up that there is something you could have done with the lighter. You can't. It's up to the smoker. We make our decisions and go with it. And that's the only way I know how to live my life. It took me a little farther into the read until you said why you want to punch the doctor. I thought...why? It makes sense after I read why you wanted to. Me on the other hand thought what he said was perfectly aokay. I've had to live with doctors saying things like that to my other half that passed away in 1990. It was four years of pure hell but I just take it as they are doing their job. There's no easy way to present it if you ask me. I've talked to long...oops sorry LOL

Rachel Fox said...

I don't remember you ever mentioning before about your parents' separation.

Sorry to hear you've been having these health worries.


hope said...

Map, you always make me smile. And grin. ;)

thingy, it amazes me how many people have asthma! I really do believe it's an environmental thing...and more folks like me are experiencing ADULT onset asthma. Give that daughter a gentle squeeze for me.

Thom, you know how they say confession is good for the soul? Last night I slept like a baby! Made it tough to get up and cometo work this morning. ;) Yeah, as an adult I know it was Dad's choice. Ironically, the only time he smoked was on his way TO Chemo treatments. I'm glad you saw why the first doctor angered me: he was too coldly clinical, as if we were wasting his time because he had to stop to speak to us. I use to be the "quiet kid"; I learned to speak up in hospitals. Dad once teased me he had no idea I was capable of that until the night I told a nurse in no uncertain terms, "Well if you can't do it, then go FIND someone who can because you're not touching him." I'm sorry you had first hand knowledge of this dance with a loved one and cancer. And I hope you find a way to kick nicotine to the curb, only because I'd like to see you around for a long time! Now, can you tell me why your blog won't let me comment?

Rachel, I ever realized that until I read your remark. I guess it was just odd when it happened. I was already 30 when it occurred and there was just something surreal about going to Mom's to tell her about Dad. They never lived together again, but they never divorced either.

Thanks for the good health I feel somewhat better and last night I actually SLEPT all night!

Peggy said...


What a wonderful and soulfull post. I bet you and your Dad were something to see. Being daddy's girl was something I never would be.
I didn't miss that too much though becaus I was Grand-daddy's girl for sure!

Night-time is hard for me too. It's when all my demons and fears come and visit. I have been struggling with a cold, sore throat, and wheezing this week. I also suffer at times from Bronchitis and newly diagnosed Asthma! Oh joy!
One night this week I was listening to my breathing and thought of the very same term "death rattle" I quickly tossed that thought from my brain. I've gotten real good at diverting my thinking of late!
Thanks you so much for sharing your fears with us. I know that I can't be there to listen to you in person, but I think that posting sometimes does have an advantage over that.
With posting you can reach far down and bring out your deepest memories and fears, and given the light of day, those fears can battle with reason and be defeated!

Anyway, I hope you're starting to feel better, and if you have another bad night, feel free to share it with us. (Someone is always listening here!) :)

hope said...

Thanks Peggy! This "adult onset" asthma stuff is stupid!

It's funny how I went from being a little concerned to afraid once midnight passed. Then after everything leveled out, I started to feel a little silly. But the sensation bothered me enough to put it on paper.

That's like magic for me...put it on paper, get it out of my head and life is better. :)

Hope you're feeling better too! I'm glad I have my "neighbors" here to talk to.

Titus said...

What a terrible, wonderful read. Yes, you are your father's daughter alright, and that sense of humour will carry you through whatever. Perhaps being the eldest daughter too.
The two small boys both had pneumonia when under two, one after the other, which was harrowing, and then after two seperate hospital stays with them, I, of course, got it in both lungs but ignored it until the day I couldn't breathe - so like your faultless description.
Sorry for the loss, and sorry for the cold and cough, but so, so glad to hear you're feeling better now. And writing as wonderfully as ever.
The Zippo lighter and that guilt where there should be no guilt will stay with me a long while.

Enchanted Oak said...

I have my vaporizer going right now as I read your post. And my cigarette. Coughing like an idiot. I'm glad you were there for your dad. That is the most important part of your story.

Nishant said...

I know I will sleep the moment my head hits the pillow! But it's getting easier.

Work From Home