A hundred years ago when Beve and I lived in the Netherlands, I spent about two weeks waiting for word from my family back home about the birth of my sister's first child. Finally, one Friday night (Netherland-time), while we were at what our YWAM base called a 'Love Feast', where the entire community ate together, I was handed a note that said there had been a call from my mother, and that she'd call back in about 30 minutes. There weren't many available phones on the YWAM base, back in the olden days before cell-phones, so Beve and I wound our way up some stairs to someone's office and sat there waiting for the phone to ring. When it did, I fully expected my mother to tell me that I had a new niece or nephew. But the news she had wasn't nearly as celebratory as that. My sister was in the hospital, laboring mightily, but to no avail yet. Even worse, my father was also in the hospital. He had just come out of surgery (home-time it was morning) for colon cancer.
I remember how my hands started shaking as my mother spoke, because I was feverishly writing words on scraps of paper for Beve, who couldn't hear the other end of the phone-call. "Dad--Cancer!!!" I wrote. "Surgery." "No baby." I remember him taking the pen from my hand so he could hold my hand while his other hand stroked my back. I don't remember the rest of the conversation with my mother or hanging up the phone or leaving that office. I do know that the next morning, when I got up, there was a telegram from my family--my niece, SER, had made her way into the world.
It just hit me what symmetry this story really has, because that day was February 4th. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Last Friday morning, Grampie, his oldest son, R (the Finn), and I went to the doctor together. Because I have been the designated person for almost all of the elders' medical appointments, I carry a notebook in my purse just for the purpose of recording such appointments. So I was there to take notes, ask questions, keep things straight, I think. I perched on the seat of Grampie's walker and when the doctor came in, he didn't waste much time in pleasantries. "You have prostrate cancer," he told Grampie. Grampie nodded, somewhat distracted by a complaint he had about a procedure room. Grampie can get high-centered on things at times. What the doctor didn't realize is that sitting beside Grampie was a man who also has exactly the same disease. "Like father, like son," R told me later, shaking his head. It was a strange experience because mostly we spoke of why Grampie probably wouldn't get treatment, what an 86-year-old man should perhaps think about instead. I thought of the panic I felt when I first heard the word cancer with my dad, and how different it was with Grampie. There was none of that in this little room. Just calm questions, from me--about Grampie's appetite, weight, fatigue, which are likely all symptoms of this cancer--and from R, who had the opportunity to ask a few about his own treatment, though the doctor was a little reluctant to offer medical advice to a person not his own patient. R has to wait until he returns to Finland to make the decision about how best to fight this disease. Wait and watch, radiate with beads on the inside, radiate from the outside, cut, whatever. Sounds like an overwhelming array of options. Hopefully, he'll get good advice from a good oncologist--one who stays with him. (I worry a lot about managed care, but R has a few hard words to say about the speed of socialized medicine too.)
As we left the office, the doctor took me aside and said, "Be sure you take his wife and your husband when you see the urologist. He'll need all of you supporting him." He was just sure we weren't properly shocked, teary, overwhelmed or something by this dire news. But when I told Grampie that, he said, "I'm fine. I have to die from something."
My father didn't exactly die from cancer, though my mother used to say he died from the cure (and I'll leave that cryptic comment as it is). But Beve's mother did. And we were up close and personal with the whole long, painful year she lived with it and finally died from it.
J commented, upon hearing about Grampie and his probable choice "Well, I'd rather die of cancer than Alzheimers." I suppose we're in the unique position of knowing how each looks, and the toll each takes--on the person and on their family. The bone-aching, excruciating physical pain of cancer is nothing to sneer at, don't get me wrong. But, like J, given the choice, I'll take having my brain to my last moments on this earth, even if those moment are riddled with cancer. So, like J, I'm glad that something will fell Grampie before the Alz-hammer (as he calls it) in his brain does it.
R has a fight ahead of him. He hasn't even retired yet, seen his daughters marry, let alone dangle a grandchild on his large knee. He has a young wife. Yes, there are plenty of things worth the fight in his life. Grampie says he's already been in enough fights. At his age, every day is 'gravy', as he put it the other day (preferably with biscuits, though he's a bit off his feed of late). It only makes sense that each of these men should respond in exactly these ways. Age makes all the difference.
PS. I told you there was symmetry to this story. The day I first heard of my father's cancer, which was the day my niece, SER (now B), was born, is also the day my dear father-in-law was born 60 years before her. February 4.
PPS. If you're a man, and you're over fifty, please get your PSA checked every year. Thank-you.