07 Jan Our Deadline
Once a month I drive Jill to her oncologist for testing and treatment. Typically the visit takes about two hours. But this week, she was done in 30 minutes. “Wow,” I said when I picked her up. “This is the fastest they’ve ever processed you!” “Because they didn’t give me my shots,” she said. That was always the dreadful highlight of these appointments: two giant hypodermic injections into her buttocks. “No shots–why?” I asked. Then she gave me a look that said, You know why.
Yes, I do: her cancer treatment has exhausted itself and the cancer has returned to her most vulnerable organ, the liver. We knew this was coming. We knew, always, that her reprieve from cancer would be short. Still, we’re disappointed. With treatment, Jill got a year and a half of stability, diminished pain and better mobility (no cane). We had hoped, as her oncologist had hoped, that Jill would get lucky, be the exception to the stage-four story. Alas, she’s right on target.
Here’s how it works (for this kind of metastasized cancer): first, you get hormone-blocking and bone-building medication and maybe some radiation, all of which may give you 1-3 years of stability as the cancer slows or stops altogether. Then you move to the second-best treatment, of a similar type, which usually doesn’t work for long. And then you go to the final option: the chemo drip, where you sit for four hours every week as a frightful poison slowly snakes into your bloodstream. This kills every fast-growing cell in your body. It’s wholly indiscriminate and you become deathly ill because, frankly, this sh*t is killing you as it kills cancer. In fact, it may take you down before cancer does.
Jill has yet to decide if she’s going to submit to the killer chemo. As it is, her oncologist gives her 9-18 months. In comparison to our current options, it seems we’ve been on vacation this past year. Now, it’s time to get serious about our deadline. So we’ve been talking at length about re-writing her living will–and mine too. Her greatest fear, and mine too, is that I’ll die before she does. Her brother, an insurance company actuary, says that this is a too-real possibility because 1) farming is the most dangerous job in America (I’m working regularly around heavy machinery, power tools, chainsaws, felling trees, standing on thirty-foot ladders, etc.), and 2) I’m ten years older than Jill and so, despite my relatively good health, anything could happen, especially given the stress our situation has brought.
This means we have to write out and prepare for any and every contingency; i.e., if I die before her and she’s incapacitated; if I die before her and she’s still functional; etc. A number of metaphors come to mind. Here’s one: we’re piloting a big antique boat whose furnace must be stoked hourly. We’re steaming upstream, against a persistent current, but it’s manageable as long as the ship’s furnace keeps its fire. Unfortunately, a few miles behind us there’s a waterfall. Not a Niagara but a twenty-foot precipice that would wreck the ship and send us flying if we let the current carry us down. Does this sound too dramatic? The point is, there’s no way Jill could pilot this ship without me.
Of course, the most likely scenario is that Jill will leave this world before I. That’s our primary hope, that we can secure her safe passage to the end. When friends have asked me how I’m handling this, I’ve said that I’m on hold emotionally. I mean, I can talk about Jill’s end without falling to me knees and weeping. I’ve pretty much got that down. I don’t feel cheated or persecuted by fate or whatever. Call it bad luck; I’m not going to nit-pick. Mostly I’m grateful that Jill and I have had such a good run and have so much to show for our mutual passion. My greatest fear of life-after-Jill is that she’ll haunt me both in good ways and bad. Even now, when I’m working on a building or striding across a field, I sometimes think I hear her calling, “Ronny! Ronny!”
My grief over her imminent loss has run a gauntlet of mental states. Initially, when we received her terminal diagnosis, I seriously considered the prospect of suicide once she was gone. When it appeared I’d lose everything, this seemed a real option and I spent a good deal of time working out how I’d follow through to my own end. No worries, please, I’ve passed through that phase.
Now, I’m convinced I will survive Jill’s loss, if for no other reason than to honor her memory and sustain the dream we had of this farm. I’m fortunate to have a modest retirement fund to help with our mounting expenses. When I exhaust my retirement fund, I can live on Social Security. Should I mention (again) how 60% of personal bankruptcies in America are caused by skyrocketing medical expenses? Do you ever wonder why so many (conservative) politicians insist that we can’t have “socialized” medicine?
In striving to cope with our situation, I’ve noticed some marked behaviors in myself. First, I’ve been baking and cooking a lot, spending days in the kitchen with the TV on, learning to perfect bread and cookies and trying new dinner recipes. I love to cook, especially for other people. It’s a most gratifying form of nurture. I guess that speaks for itself.
Second, I’ve been binging on rom-com movies. I want a happy ending, obviously. Two recommendations: “Bad Therapy” (Alicia Silverstone) and “Ode to Joy” (Martin Freeman).
Third, I’m having all kinds of dreams about trekking or journeying through new (always strange) landscapes. Sometimes these are trying and frustrating, other times these are wondrous, even delightful. It’s a mixed bag, as if my psyche is exercising in preparation for my imminent, emotional departure.
As for Jill, she continues to show remarkable maturity in the face of her demise. We’ve discussed her last days and how and where she hopes to be. Yes, she has her down times of weeping and regret. But mostly she’s steeled for this final journey, paying attention to detail, looking out for me, writing lists, and so on. We continue to sell our unnecessary belongings and collections at auctions–there’s a lot to clear out.
Jill has admitted finally what we both knew to be true: we won’t be able to fulfill her dream of getting sheep, goats, and chickens. There’s simply no way I can add more to my list of jobs: the domestic chores (shopping, cooking, laundry, cleaning, tending pets. etc.); the farm chores (mowing, weeding, planting, landscaping, etc.); the construction chores (painting, wiring, plumbing, etc.), the nonprofit chores (managing the bills, budget, residences, etc.); and my writing (haven’t written anything in months). This realization is both humbling and heartbreaking, but that’s the lesson of life, as it makes its demands and either you comply or break. So we’ll hunker down and make the best of what we have, which is far from paltry.
Some nights all we do is sit on the couch, surrounded by cats, and watch TV–commenting and joking as we critique the choices someone makes in a house design show or writers make in an adventure narrative or warped politicians make in a public forum. We’ve got plenty to say to the world, via the TV, and lots to laugh about. Every night I delight in making a dinner from scratch for Jill, who is wildly appreciative. Always we eat in the company of our basset hounds, Maisie and Oliver, who stare at us with longing. Our big old tom, Otis, will not leave Jill’s lap. He’s become a papoose pet, often wrapped around her neck or perched on her shoulder as she sits on the couch and does her needlepoint or plays games on her phone, both of which help her relax. I’ve encouraged her to get a “Green Card” for medical marijuana but she says she doesn’t want to spend her last days high. “Just as a backup,” I tell her, “if you have bad breakthrough pain.” She says she’ll think about it. And so it goes, so much to think about.
If you can contribute to Jill’s medical expenses–every bit helps–here’s the link: