About twelve years ago my father suffered a debilitating stroke that left him with limited mobility and, more challenging, a pronounced difficulty speaking. He was not impaired mentally, he simply has been unable to express himself. In twelve years his speech has improved only marginally. He communicates in single words or two to three word bursts, and often gives up with an "I can't do it."
Still, with the help and tireless support of his wife (my dad remarried after my parents divorced when I was in high school), my dad has managed to continue living a fairly full life. He is often on the go, and his house is a hub of constant visitors and telephone calls.
A little over a month ago, after a lengthy period of digestive problems, my dad, now aged 78, was stuck by sudden appendicitis and required emergency surgery. He recovered surprisingly quickly, but was shortly experiencing difficulty keeping food down yet again. More hospital visits and tests revealed a significant intestinal blockage, and despite his protests that he would be fine, surgery was scheduled.
The surgery revealed, and removed, a cancerous blockage in the upper intestinal tract. The surgery was successful, and follow-up tests indicated no signs that the cancer had spread. This is at least my dad's third bout with cancer. He previously survived prostate cancer and a fairly fast-growing melanoma.
Following the intestinal surgery about three weeks ago there was a set-back when his blood pressure dropped precipitously. The doctors suspected internal bleeding and performed an emergency surgery, but found nothing. Gradually his condition stabilized, but digestive function has been slow to resume, so after three weeks he remains in the hospital, and may have to spend some time in a rehabilitation clinic before going home. He is not happy about this.
Over the past several years, while caring for my dad, his wife has developed increasingly severe emphysema. At this point she is confined to home unless she uses a wheelchair, and she requires an oxygen tank most of the time. Additionally, for the past several years she has been troubled by unusual growths on her arm which cause the skin to discolor. Finally, this past week, she had the tumors surgically removed. The expectation by the doctors was that the growths were benign.
Yesterday, however, my dad's wife learned that the tumors removed from her arm were not benign, and in fact are a particularly aggressive form of cancer. The doctor told her bluntly that if she were younger and in good health they would amputate her arm to save her life. Due to her age and lung condition that is not a viable option. She is going in for additional tests to determine if the cancer has spread to her lungs. She has been told that if the cancer has spread, there is nothing that can be done for her, as she is not strong enough to survive chemotherapy. If the cancer has not spread, radiation treatments on the affected arm are an option.
I've been in frequent telephone contact with my brother back in Oregon, my mom, and my dad's wife during the past several weeks, and have been ready to drop everything and make an emergency flight back there if necessary. As it stands, I am going back to Oregon for a week during spring break. I leave this coming Thursday night, March 8.
Fortunately my dad and his wife have adequate insurance coverage at this point to take care of the financial side of their health issues, and they are able to get the care and treatments they need. As my brother said to me today, though, we may be facing some difficult decisions here in the near future, and it will be difficult to know exactly how to proceed, depending on how things unfold.
Of course there are "family issues" involved as well. There has been nothing overt as of yet, but my dad, while not rich, is, I believe, fairly well-off financially. Over the past many years there have been hints and rumors of potential conflict with the children of my dad's wife over any possible estate issues. I really hope nothing like that arises. While my brothers and I get along fairly well with my dad's wife (I get along the best... because I live the furthest away!), we don't know if she, or her children (whom I've met only briefly), really understand that all three of us long-ago gave up any thought of being in any way involved in the financial disposition of my dad's estate. Frankly, he's supposed to outlive all of us. If he doesn't, he's at least supposed to outlive his wife, so it will all go to her, and she can leave everything cleanly to her own kids. My brothers and I are okay with that, we have no expectations in that regard; we just don't want any nastiness to arise.
One of my good friends had to deal with "estate issues" recently, alone and unexpectedly, without the assistance of siblings. That definitely exacts an emotional toll as there is nobody with whom to share the burden, either emotionally or practically. Then again, the potential for "infighting" and long-term animosity was avoided. One of my other friends found herself in the unenviable position of being caught in the middle of "sibling rivalry" following the stress and sorrow of a lengthy parental decline.
My dad's days are numbered. But it's hard to say... he could get through this, like he has other things, and stick around for another ten years. Or, my upcoming trip might be the last time I see him. If... or when, as I actually do expect him to recover from this current issue, although I'm not sure to what extent he will fully recover... he makes it, I don't know what his quality of life will be, or what longer-term living arrangements will have to be made. His wife is trying to remain optimistic, and she really wants to believe that she, too, can recover, but the outlook for her is not good at the moment. Even without the cancer, her increasing frailty has been obvious for quite some time. Additionally, while dealing with her husband's (my dad's) health issues, she has been distraught over her eldest son, who was also diagnosed two years ago with an aggressive form of cancer, and who, as a result of being self-employed, has inadequate insurance and financial resources to meet his needs.
Meanwhile, my "professional life" as a public elementary school special education teacher is full of so much miserable, time-wasting nonsense I don't even want to think about it, nor waste the time of anyone reading this with it. If I didn't depend on that paycheck I would be out of that place and out of that career path in half a heartbeat.
It helps, through all of this, to know that I have friends who have gone through the same things, and who have shared their stories. In a small but significant way that makes the burden lighter. Thanks, guys.