Today as the children sleep, I look back at the naive girl I once was and wonder what would change if I knew eight years ago what I know today, how those last few weeks would have played differently if I knew that each breath counted, each one was precious, each one fragile. If I knew that within weeks my world would feel like it had suddenly started rotating on a different axis and things that I had considered constant were actually flux, like water, not completely tangible enough to hold on to, what would I have done? What could I have changed? If I could shake the naive me, to wake her up, to yell at her to make each moment count, I would. I would.
To be in remission is really false security. What does that really mean? The doctors joyfully exclaim that they believe they've held the beast at bay, that you are winning the fight. "We've got it this round," they say, high-fiving themselves as they leave your room. It's a god-complex, really, thinking they can fight the demons that are ravaging your body. But they were wrong and I hate them. It's not their fault really. They didn't cause the problem, they just didn't fix it. The false hope, the empty promises and now I'm left with the regret that I spent those last few weeks believing, believing that they were right.For so many years I have needed to apologize. When you were at your worst, I couldn't be with you. You wasted in your hospital bed, just a couple of miles from my house and instead of visiting you everyday, I stayed away. Watching you wither from the strong man that I knew, the man who could do it all, to the frail frame that needed help just walking to the bathroom, it tore me apart. I knew you hated me seeing you like that. Hour after hour as you threw up over and over, I could sense how uncomfortable it made you to watch me cry. I sat on your bed and tried to make you laugh. You made the effort too but it was a game. You were the gentle giant and it killed you to have to ask for help. You were horrified by the vomiting, by the urine that the nurses would leave by your bedside. I watched as your hair fell out slowly on your pillow. We joked about it but we knew that it made you sad. It didn't matter. You were always my dude and I loved you with peach fuzz or your classic balding comb-over. I loved you more than I ever told you. For six weeks you suffered in that horrible hospital. I visited less than I should have. I'm sorry. House renovations, school work, my job all paled in comparison if I only knew how little time I had left with you. I wish I would have been there holding your hand everyday. Please forgive me. You would have done it for me and I feel like I failed you in so many ways.
Finally the doctor gave us hope. You started getting stronger. You could eat without vomiting. You were laughing more. You could watch television with interest and could do more than stare out the window or at the wall. They were able to start your chemo and radiation again. Eventually you were strong enough to be transferred to a care center closer to home. That was a happy day. You had a wonderful friend, a beautiful cat who loved you and would come sleep on the radiator beside your bed. He rarely left your side except to eat. You weren't exactly a cat person, but you welcomed that cat. I could see the twinkle in your eyes when you complained about him. Sadly, I visited you even less often. We put stickers in your window so you had something to look at and patted ourselves on the back for doing that. How pretentious we were for thinking that was enough. One day, I finally worked up the courage to visit you again. Imagine my surprise when I walked into your room and found that instead of you asleep in your bed, a little old woman was hovered under the covers. I quickly backed out of the room, checked the nameplate, and saw your name was gone. I rushed down the hall checking all the doors and you weren't there. I imagined the worst. I rushed to grandma's house, fighting back tears and wondering why no one had called to tell me that you were gone. Imagine my surprise when I found you at the breakfast table, eating biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs and bacon, and looking very much like the man that I had known my whole life. I rejoiced that day while silently berating myself for not even knowing that you had been released. How did I not know? You were the most important man in my life growing up and it was like I had forgotten about you. I hope you never felt that way.
Then there were a couple of good months. I drove you to a chemo appointment once. I remember waiting outside in the lobby while they administered the drugs. The nurse came out to explain to me that you had become ill and that they were going to let you rest for awhile. I was late for work. It was mildly inconvenient. How typical that I would turn something like that into something about myself. But things were looking up. You finished the chemo and the last round of radiation. The doctors said it looked good, that you might beat this thing. They warned after that last round of radiation that things would get worse before it got better but I figured how much worse could it get? You were such a strong person that I knew you had this.
I remember that day very clearly. It was a Tuesday morning when it started and I was sitting in the cash room, counting down registers. I was already halfway done and proud of myself. I remember hearing the phone ring in the store but it stopped fairly quickly so I had assumed one of the dock workers had picked it up. It was always better that way because usually phone calls that early meant someone was calling in sick to work and I didn't want to deal with that right then. I was singing along to Evanescence on the radio and suddenly felt like I really needed to talk to David. I had my cell phone with me so I dug it out out of my bag and was surprised to see that I actually had a couple of bars. The cash room wasn't exactly known as a hotspot for phone signals. He answered almost immediately. He told me that mom had been trying to get a hold of me and I needed to call her now. He also said that he was on his way to come and get me. I was confused but I hung up and went to dial mom's number. She wasn't at work which was a bad sign. I called the house phone and she answered. It was a very brief conversation. "If you want to talk to your grandfather again, you need to leave now," she said. I was irritated. I thought she was overreacting and I didn't want to bother my boss or Alexis, the only one other trained cashier, who rarely got a day off, and who understandably didn't like me that much anyway (oh, the Leslie of 8 years ago). But I left. I didn't even put the money in the safe. I left it on the desk, locked the cash door, and left. We got to the house and I walked in as confused as ever. My grandma's neighbor, who happened to own a cleaning service, was cleaning the house. Women from the church were sitting in the living room and I just wanted to know what the heck was going on. I finally asked mom to take a walk with me and she agreed. As we started down the block she explained that that morning, my grandma had found my grandfather on the floor. He had fallen out of bed and had pulled his mattress down on top of him. Confused, my grandma had called for help and hospice had arrived. They recognized the signs and informed us that he was actually in the process of dying. His remission was a farce. He was no closer to being well than he had been in the care center. I was stubborn. I refused to believe her. After all, the doctors had said it would get worse before it got better. Clearly this is what they meant. This was the same man who had mowed his half-acre lawn on Saturday, had gone shopping with my grandmother just two days earlier. How could he possibly be dying? I truly believed everyone was being melodramatic. I returned to the house and went to his bed. He was only semi-conscious. I squeezed his hand and kissed his cheek and told him I loved him. He looked at me and told me he loved me too. They gave him more morphine and he fell asleep. Through the next few hours, I repeated this process....always holding his hand, always giving him one more kiss, always telling him "I love you, Dude." And he always answered, or at least mumbled an answer in reply. It got harder and harder. I realized they were right and this truly was nearing the end. I couldn't watch when at one point my uncles decided that he needed to eat something. They asked him what sounded best to him. He chose watermelon. If only I could disassociate myself with watermelon now but it will always bring me memories of death.
After awhile, he was placed in a morphine-induced coma. It was merely a tortuous waiting game and I hated every minute of it. I felt like I deserved it for the last few months of leaving him alone to suffer. I needed to be with him now. Oh the irony of that. I started working on writing his obituary. Every paper that I hated writing in high school, that I tortured over in college were a cake-walk compared to this particular assignment. As he lay dying in a nearby room, I searched my heart to find the right words. I knew what I was saying wasn't adequate and I didn't get it right but it was the best I could do for him. We slept in his room as a family, him in a hospital bed pushed against the closets, mom and grandma sharing his bed, Dave and I curled up on the floor. I listened to him labor to breathe, the death rattle that I would so like to forget but that will unfortunately forver be etched in my memory. Again and again I thought it was over as it took longer and longer for him to draw in an inhalation. But it continued until half crazed, I had to leave the room and seek solace in another bedroom and wait it out. But he made it. He made it until we had all left his side and then he quietly slipped away on his own. We received the news at the funeral home while we argued over the embalming process ( I was adamant he should be embalmed) and whether or not we wanted a family limo. Again I failed him for not being with him in those last few precious moments before he passed away. I tried to run away from the pain but I barely reached the lawn of the funeral home before I collapsed on the concrete. I couldn't run away. You can't run away when something, when someone has touched you that deeply.
So many bad memories. Him, for example, calling to tell me when he received the results of the biopsy. "I have cancer," he said. Just saying it out loud made it real, made it permenant. Him calling the temple and asking to be released from his temple assignment because he couldn't work anymore. That was only the second time I ever saw him cry. And those last few moments with him before the mortician came to take his body away. I held his hand through the rail of the hospital bed and felt as it grew colder and colder. It was so hard to see him there, so still and pale, but I didn't want to let go. My world changed when my Dude died. I was no longer the Duchess.
But, even after all that, there were so many wonderful things that I will never forget. You cried on my wedding day. You wore a tuxedo even though you called it a penguin suit and let me know how much you didn't want to. You had blue eyes that gleamed when you tried to make us believe some special story. I see those eyes in my daughter and I'm so grateful that they didn't disappear. I remember a special father's day, the last one I had with you, in fact. You wanted to go fishing so Dave and I hopped into your little red truck and spent the day down by the lake. I engrossed myself in a book while you and Dave waded knee deep in murky water. Everytime one of you would actually catch something, I'd carefully walk out with the creel, refusing to touch the slimy fish but trying to be helpful all the same. Strangely, I enjoyed being the fish carrier on that little excursion. On the way home, you decided we should have a picnic so you pulled off the road into the woods, pulled out some crackers and canned kippers, and we laughed at the fact that Dave sucked at fishing. I remember your insistence on hiking the canyons at Bryce Canyon, despite the fact that you were exhausted. I loved that I had to hold your hand when we went to any type of casino because while we could blindfold you and throw you out in any barren wasteland or forrest and you could easily find your way home, twenty seconds into a building with blinking lights threw you off your game. You were my biggest cheerleader, never missing any races when you could help it. You were the brave one who took us to amusement parks and rode along willingly. You taught me to drive, worked two jobs to help pay for the things I wanted, and loved me unconditionally. You called me Duchess because your life revolved around mine. My life will never be the same because of you.
Had I known eight years ago what I know now, what would I change? Dude, I would have told you each and every day how special you were. I would have thanked you for being you, for loving me. I love you.