Life is for the Birds

Today is a very foggy day on Cape Cod. As I look outside my window, I see the variety of bird feeders and birdbaths we’ve recently put in our yard, filled with many of the most beautiful New England birds we’ve come to love. Oh yes, I keep a list. The birds fly in and out of our yard giving both Paul and I a lot of simple pleasure. We call the morning breakfast shift “the bird show”. It’s amazing to watch and hear. It’s quiet in our neighborhood most days, and around 8 am every day we can only hear the various melodious songs and urgent calls of the local birds. I think the birds know we need to see their beautiful colors, and to hear their gorgeous melodies. They breathe life into our quiet existence and take us away from whatever challenges we might be experiencing in our world of Cancer.

What makes me infinitely happy, is seeing their willingness to sustain their lives by searching and finding the sustenance they need to survive. They are forever vigilant on their perch or branch, making sure that they are not going to be swooped up by a hungry predator and they make courageous attempts to get seed, suet and water, all the while knowing they are in potential danger. They work so hard to make sure they feed themselves, their partners, their community and their young. They have a schedule, a method, a determination and they are on point every day working to sustain their lives. Life is therefore, for the birds. I am trying to take a page out of their feathery book by working harder to sustain life for my husband and myself in only the best way possible. Life is a gift and we need to be vigilant at our perch.

Life on Loan

“None of us are getting out of here alive, so please stop treating yourself like an afterthought. Eat the delicious food. Walk in the sunshine. Jump in the ocean. Say the truth you’re carrying in your heart like hidden treasure. Be silly. Be kind. Be weird. There’s no time for anything else.”
― Anthony Hopkins

Tonight I return from a overnight theater trip into Boston with my sister. As I reflect on the wonderful time we spent together, I am reminded why I chose this special experience as a gift for her 70th birthday. It had to do with time. We have so little of it in life and I wanted to share some precious time with her experiencing something we’d always remember. Time is inestimable and should be treated with respect.

When my amazing father died in a tragic accident in 1984, I was 24 years old and my adult life had really just begun. I was still figuring things out for myself. His sudden death was a completely overwhelming and sobering experience. One day we were laughing together about some joke he heard on t.v. and the next he was gone. I learned then that life was short and something we have on loan.

When my husband received his cancer diagnosis, I was reminded once again that we come into this world with no guarantees are only allowed to exist on this earth for just so long. We come with an invisible expiration date and it’s only a matter of how and when we will move on. So, when Paul first received the dire news about his cancer, I figured his time had come. After all, the Radiation Oncologist said “You should get your affairs in order. Take care of the business of dying so you can go on living.”

Although we understood she was trying to be helpful, the words wrapped around us like a shroud in a tomb. That once familiar overwhelming and sobering feeling simmering on low for all of those years, had returned with familiar force. I knew it was only a matter of time before it would rear its ugly head. Here it was staring us both in the face. I say both, because when you love someone as completely as I do my husband, it is happening to me as well as to him.

Here’s the upside, if there is one. All of those years ago when my father died so suddenly, I learned a grand lesson. “Life is short and you have to live it to the fullest.” Fortunately, in the thirty-four years Paul and I have been together, we’ve done just that. We have loved each other unconditionally, raised a wonderful and loving family, traveled a little bit here and there, made a living doing what we love in the arts, met some wonderful and talented people, have close family and friends whom we cherish, and we moved into our dream house on Cape Cod. We’ve enjoyed each other tremendously and learned a lot of invaluable lessons along the way. We may have even taught some valuable lessons to many along the road as well. Oh, don’t get me wrong. No life comes without some darkness. We’ve had our share of trials and tribulations, but we have been together and have loved each other through every curve in the road.

Tomorrow marks one complete year since we walked into the doors of that Urgent Care facility so Paul could have an X-Ray. As we sat in one of the doctor’s offices and heard those words “get your affairs in order” a few weeks later, we thought Paul’s expiration date had arrived. Although Cancer has come to us like a thief and robbed of us the life we worked so hard for, still, one full year had passed. We didn’t think we’d be where we are right now. Every day for Paul, and for us as a couple is a blessing. Make no mistake about it, I am by his side through every detail of this disease but Cancer hasn’t taken everything away from us.

As I say to Paul, “it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings”. Since he is a voice teacher and a music director, I believe he as the power within himself to decide when that performance or concert will take place.

Learning A New Language Called Cancer

The thing about Cancer and the medical world is, if you haven’t had to navigate your way through it before, it’s like learning a new language. It feels like you are in a foreign country where everyone seems to know what is going on but you.

You see, my husband has this large mass atop his right lung which was spotted in an X-Ray in an Urgent Care Facility almost exactly one year ago. How and why it was detected is a whole other story which I will tell you now.

Paul seemed to be slowing down a bit in the months leading up to our findings. He was slowing down on our walks, resting more and I just assumed he was “buying in” to the fact that he had turned seventy and was “getting old”.

Around Christmas and perhaps even before that, I had noticed that when he sat in this particular chair his neck looked a bit larger. I was thinking that it was probably because we had been enjoying the food of the season and maybe he had put on a little weight or that the chair didn’t have good head support. It was not so noticeable that it made me really think anything more about it, but every once in awhile, I would think “hmmmmm”.

As the New Year came along, I began to notice that his face seemed a bit puffy or swollen, particularly on one side and mostly in the morning. I thought he should check in with a doctor. He didn’t notice it at all and thought I was crazy when I brought it to his attention. It got better as the day went on so he didn’t feel the need to go. I also noticed he was sighing a lot when he exerted himself. I would ask what was the matter, and he attributed it to allergy season etc. I bought it because he has allergies and the seasonal allergies were different on Cape Cod than when we lived closer to Boston. I urged him to have it checked out. When the swelling seemed to get worse on the right side of his face, and his eye was very puffy, I finally called the doctor myself and set up an appointment for him.

I went with him one evening and met his new doctor who decided to treat him for a sinus infection. A little time passed and it got worse. Paul went back a second time thinking his medicine wasn’t working because the swelling had progressed. The doctor added a medicated nasal spray. No changed occurred with the nasal spray.

Next he began waking up with purple colored ears. Then purple spider vein blotches appeared on his chest. Paul didn’t even notice them and there were many. We were in the bathroom together one morning when he appeared from the shower and I saw all of these blotches and was quite alarmed. Paul still didn’t see what all of the fuss was about. One more trip to the doctors occurred to show him these blotches, and the doctor looked at his recent blood work and said that there was no indication of any problems. He didn’t seem concerned.

When he woke up one morning with a very swollen face, purple blotches on his chest, purple colored ears and a purple colored hand, I got extremely concerned and turned to Google. I typed in “purple blotches on chest” under Images. Up popped two pictures of a man with a swollen face and the time stamped on the bottom of the picture as 7:30 am. It showed a second picture of him looking like his normal self. It was very similar to Paul. There were also pictures of purple spider vein blotches on his chest strikingly similar to Paul’s blotches. Then I saw the letters SVCS. Superior Vena Cava Syndrome. “Superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS), is a group of symptoms caused by obstruction of the superior vena cava (a short, wide vessel carrying circulating blood into the heart).”

I called an RN I knew who I had been talking to about Paul’s unusual symptoms and she seemed a bit alarmed when I told her what I found. She said that he needed to go to Urgent Care right away where they would be able to do an X-Ray and that I should tell them what I thought it was. I called home to let Paul know what I had found and that we should be going to Urgent Care that very day and he agreed.

X-Rays were taken. A large mass sitting atop his right lung was found. Our learning of a new language had begun.

(if you read my first blog “Without Our Permission”, you will learn what happened next.)

Without Our Permission

     “Who decided you should come here for an X-Ray?” the Urgent Care doctor asked eagerly.  Paul and I looked at each other for a moment and then I replied, “I did!” “What is your profession?” he asked.  It felt a bit accusatory, so I sheepishly replied, “I’m a theater educator.” “Hmmm…well it was a good call. You were right on!”  His gaze shifted to Paul. “The X-ray showed a large mass sitting atop your right lung.” It was the first time in my life I didn’t want to win the “prize” for being right.

  The word “mass” hung in the air for what seemed like forever, and we were both transported to a place we didn’t want to go.   I’m not sure I remember much of what happened next. We were sent a few miles down the road to the hospital emergency room for further testing. I really don’t remember that ride or the hours of waiting, testing and admittance to a room. After Paul was admitted and asleep, I drove home in the wee hours of the morning. I have a faint recollection of pulling off Route 6 as the realization hit me and I couldn’t see through my tears to drive. I went to bed that night in shock and curled up in a ball.

  I awoke a few hours later and called my sister, knowing she would be awake early. My words spilled out in a flurry of choking sobs.  She could barely understand me. “They found a large mass on Paul’s lung” I tried to say. I was unintelligible. When she finally got the message, she comforted me in the only way she could.

    After the call, I got ready to go back to the hospital. My mind shut down, and the normally organize part of me was overshadowed by that one word…”mass”.  I was numb. In that one fleeting moment in Urgent Care, everything in our lives had changed forever.

    Next, were the difficult and emotional calls to all four children, and then a flood of confusing events. A wave started rolling and picked up speed as my mind tried to catch up and snap to attention.   A whirlwind of family visits began, with doctors and nurses fading in and out. We quickly had to educate ourselves with a new language as we navigated aimlessly through a sea of doctors, nurses, MRI’s, CT Scans, PET Scans, oncologists and radiation oncologists. Hospital trips, a collapsed lung, lost biopsy material, back and forth cancer diagnoses too place, and then finally on to Dana Farber Cancer Institute. “Stage four non-differentiated Thyroid Cancer”. Cancer…the one word which would now define our lives every day.  Words and phrases that also swirl around in my brain continuously are “ metastasize”, “aggressive”, “tumors”, “incurable”, “chemo”, “whole brain radiation” and a plethora of new words and phrases pertaining to my husband’s illness. “Get your affairs in order!” That was the phrase that hit us the hardest.

   Almost a year has passed, and I still shake my head wondering how this could’ve happened to my amazing husband, friend, and the love of my life. This man, who is such a loving father and grandfather, who was and still is loved by his former students and the person who is at the center of my heart.  Paul taught music in a public high school for over thirty years and rarely called in sick. Now, every day we have Cancer at the forefront of our minds as we deal with Paul’s treatment and the havoc it has wreaked on his body and our lives.

   We had moved to Cape Cod just three years ago to enjoy our lives together in a place we love.  It took us years to get there. We spent most of our thirty-four years together giving of ourselves to others and we wanted a little piece of mind in a place we love.  We wanted to walk on the beach, smell the sea air, enjoy the quiet off season and spend real time with each other and our family and friends. This is the script we had written for ourselves. This is what we had to look forward to. The script has been rewritten without our permission.