Snapshot - August 2000
As August draws to a close, it seems like I finally have some time to sit down and compose the group update I that I have promised so many times before. I have made many false starts: I am coward. The words I write are difficult, intimate and exposed. My father is dying.
There is no eloquent way to phrase this.
The “undifferentiated mass” the oncologist recently discovered is eating away at his spine and third rib, turning his bones to mush. When my father and I go to the Cancer Clinic to discuss the results with Dr. Chi, the pictures he places in front of us are hypnotizing. As Dr. Chi explains our options, I am silent. My father nods continuously and manages a weak “OK”. I choke back tears and ask about time frames. A vague conversation takes place about time vs. quality ratios. Everything is as muted, as dull, as the gray walls of the examination room. Our talk is very clinical, very short and seemingly non-emotional. All the while my father stares at the stills captured by the CT scan. We will have time, Dr. Chi informs me, to discuss all these things at our next appointment. In the meantime, my father is booked for more tests and I am sent to the pharmacy to sign for morphine.
My education has begun. I am introduced to terms such as “breakthrough medication” and “pain management.” As the week progresses I add the phrase “non-resuscitation order” to my lexicon.
When we finally emerged from the Cancer Clinic, the afternoon August sun had managed to break through the clouds. Our usual five-minute walk back to the house turned into a half-hour as we stopped to look at the houses and gardens in our familiar neighbourhood. I have never felt as close, and as protective of my father, as I did that afternoon. Conversation flowed effortlessly and I found myself ignoring everything around me.
My father and I spent the rest of the afternoon talking continuously. Just being with him filled me with a calm, deep knowledge. There are people with whom you feel mute. In contrast, there are those who can reach straight into your chest and pull songs and stars out of your heart. My father is one of those people.
Talking with my father that afternoon, as we watered the garden, made me feel like I was availing myself to whatever was extraordinary in the world. Like my mother, he has a special interest in the lives of Saints, but unlike her, he takes a special interest in all things botanical. His fig trees (we have four) and his hydrangea bushes are his pride and joy. This year his fig trees are heavy with fruit while his hydrangeas are a sickly lot. He tells me, once again, that in Greek folklore, if you fall asleep under a fig tree you become deathly ill; I secretly wonder whether our bruised blue hydrangeas have suffered because our fig trees are so bountiful. Is there a natural order that my father has somehow interrupted?
All poets I think are natural storytellers too. Our afternoon turns into evening as he shared stories of his long journey to Canada, of love, betrayal, and the importance of family. It is a bittersweet day and we both know that is probably one of the last times we will spend so effortlessly and innocently.
My father is on morphine for most of his waking hours; his moments of lucidity come less frequently now and he tires easily. When I look in his eyes, stroke his head and kiss his cheek, I look for confirmation that he recognizes me, that he understands that I am his daughter - his Christinaki. He is tired, withdrawn.
I want him to “tell me a story”, to laugh so hard that tears stream down his face and he has to hold onto his stomach to catch his breath. Instead, I notice that his attention span is limited; he drifts in and out of conversation. He is fixated on the Odyssey Television Network constantly playing in the background. He likes the mindless “Greek noise” the programming in his mother tongue provides. I watch him struggle as he takes deep breaths and gathers his strength.
As Wednesday becomes Thursday and Thursday turns to Friday, I find I have been, inadvertently, holding my breath. For the first couple of nights I do not sleep at all. I find myself crouching over the air vent that connects my living room to his bedroom. I strain, in the dark, to hear my father’s breathing. When I think I hear him snore, I drag myself back to bed and know that we have cheated death for one more night.
He still has rosy cheeks and his big belly. The home care nurse tells me not to be fooled by his “robustness”. This is a tricky illness.
I know now that from where we sleep, the shadows of secret things lurk, forever calling our names.