10 Jul When Cancer Comes Home: Jill’s Radiation, Sofi Her Cat, and a Bit of Good News

our rose garden

When Jill finished her week-long course of radiation a few days ago, the techs gave her a frameable certificate that said, “This certificate is presented to Jill Eicher for faithfully completing the prescribed course of Radiation Therapy with courage, determination and praiseworthy good nature.” Like a diploma. For some, radiation is a pretty bad deal. Jill got a mild dose that’s supposed to show results in 3-6 weeks, after her bones begin healing from the blasts. She won’t be able to get another round for six months or more because radiation damages bone marrow.

This week she started her heavy-duty drug therapy, which will reduce her immunity by 50% or more–a prospect that unnerves me every time I go out for groceries. Heaven forbid that I bring home even a cold, never mind covid-19. If Jill does catch a cold, or worse, she stops taking the drug immediately. (The monthly doctor’s visit, btw, costs $5K. I guess cancer is a big business?)

Much of what we’re doing now is like getting ready for a big journey–preparing for a move, say, to Antarctica or the Falklands. We’re sorting through paperwork, cleaning out closets, cataloguing goods to sell. Jill’s aim is to leave nothing for me to sort through. It’s a lot to consider, as you can imagine; add to this the other preparations and general business–everything from my getting power of attorney to getting our vehicles emissions-tested. Life goes on, in other words.

And so: sadly, a few days ago we lost our beloved housecat, Sofi, who had been with us for sixteen years. Though still in good spirits, it seemed, still eager to sit with us, still calling for our attention, still curious about food on the kitchen counter, she was nevertheless wasting away, down to six pounds at the end. We took her to the vet to inspect what looked like an abscessed tooth; and the vet said it was time. We knew this beforehand and had been steeling ourselves for the inevitable. But it’s never easy.

Sofi was the kind of cat that even dog-lovers liked. She was unusually inquisitive and friendly but never importuning. Not a lap cat in the least but always nearby, always responsive and ready for a chin rub or a nose-to-nose greeting. She was the most self-possessed, elegant animal, and unusually quiet (though towards the end she started yowling at night as she wandered the hallways, no doubt with a touch of dementia). Also: even when the litter box was overfull and in dire need of cleaning she still padded her way to the cellar and did her business in the box.

Now we’re feeling a bit haunted by Sofi’s absence. When we wept in the car after handing her over to the vet, I knew we were weeping for each other too. Loss sweeps over us sometimes like the shadow of a cloud abruptly blocking the sun. Just yesterday I was standing at the kitchen sink, gulping iced water from a big plastic tumbler, my t-shirt soaked on this too-hot July afternoon–I’d been working on the wildflower meadow, a project that (like all my projects) is far more complicated and time-consuming than I had anticipated. Upstairs Jill was on her couch, watching one of her shows and working on her computer, probably writing notes on a client, the dogs sprawled nearby, the floor fan on high. Always, whenever I return to the house I can hear her upstairs, talking to a client or singing to the Oliver and Masie or (until recently) sweet-calling to Sofi or laughing at an animal video on her phone. Now, as I stared at the shelf over the kitchen sink, where Jill had sat an antique baby doll I’d given her one year for Christmas–its wide-eyed chubby face suggesting a good life, a happy day–I felt myself fall into a dark place, removed to the days of after, when the house would be silent, when Jill would be gone forever. At that moment, torn from the comfort of her company, I couldn’t fathom how I’d survive every day, hour after hour, without her. It filled me with the kind of fright I’d felt as a child when I considered my life without my parents: a kind of abandonment that made me suddenly sick with dread.

Then I think: the dogs, Masie and Oliver, they’ll comfort me–I’ll find some consolation in their sloppy, clamorous love. But then I consider their confusion at Jill’s absence. Perhaps they’ll feel her loss as profoundly as I and they won’t know what to make of it, the moonless night of our grief. I’ll have to be extra kind, extra loving. They may get anxious, they may act out, like abandoned toddlers.

in better days

Let me confess that somedays I feel so overwhelmed–by the farm work, the house work, the many rudiments of daily life, on top of our preparations for Jill’s final time–I lose patience and I’m short with Jill. Anxious because she’s sideline, and worried about getting business done, she’ll ask, “Did you mail that last bill?” “Have you called the insurance agent?” “Did you remember to mow the grass by the front hedge?” and I’ll snap, “Will you please, just cool it–I’m on it, I’m on ALL of it! Just give me a little headroom, will you?” Then Jill gets depressed and says, “I’m a burden–I’m in your way. You don’t have to take me to the doctor’s–I can drive.” And I’ll say, “I want to take you to the doctor’s. I enjoy taking you. You’re NOT in the way, it’s just that I’m not getting enough sleep and I’m stressed trying to find volunteers to help with the farm and somebody to mow the fields and you’re upstairs calling for me to watch TV with you when I’ve got a kitchen to clean and vegetables to pick (because I can’t let all that planting go to waste in the garden) and dinner to make and dogs and cats to feed and phone calls to field. Some days I don’t have time to watch TV, even though there’s nothing I’d like more.”

Someone asked Jill recently why she didn’t seem more scared. Jill shrugged. “Anti-depressants help,” she said. But it’s more than that. She knows that, when cornered by fate, you can either withdraw and rage and make your last days miserable or you can move forward, as best you can, and make the most of what’s left. In doing the latter, Jill is making my time with her so much easier than it might have been–and our time together so much richer. It takes a very mature person to do that, needless to say. And an incredibly loving person.

Thankfully, I have found a handful of volunteers to help with the weeding around the farm. And I think I’ve found a guy to mow the fields for a reasonable $15 an hour. So I’m working hard to get some control over all of this. But it can’t happen soon enough. I’m still trying to finish the Hen House Cottage by August, when Jill’s brother will visit. Then my brother visits after that. And then there’s another project in the wings: our travel trailer.

That’s the good news. A vintage travel trailer–a 1964 Silver Streak–is coming to us from Arizona. Just so you know, most of the cool old travel trailers are out west, where they’ve survived fairly unscathed in the hot, dry climate. It’s going to be another restoration project for us. That’s how Jill wanted it–a last challenge we can take on together. Jill will do the designing; I’ll do the grunt work. We hope to get it on the road in October. I’ll talk about it in detail–with lots of photos–in the next post. Let me close by saying that one of our donors helped us buy it: an incredibly kind gift for which we’re immensely grateful.

Our final project together


Please circulate Jill’s GoFundMe link wherever, however, you can: thank you!

Jill’s GoFundMe