Help Now, Grieve Later
I am cutting potatoes for my visit to Sunnybrook hospital. I’m making potato and leek soup. It is full of minerals and fits the food restriction list for those undergoing chemotherapy. I hope he likes it, I hope it brings nourishment and love.
My step-father is there. He was diagnosed with double-hit lymphoma. A rare cancer that spreads like wild fire through the body. For him it was in the blood, bone marrow and spleen. He is trying his best to be chipper. I am trying my best to honor that, but hospital visits bring more grief than healing.
My step-father is annoyed with his roommate and is happy to receive visitors. He has propped himself up to see me. His legs drape over the side of the bed, and his back is facing the doorway. I can see him, but he cannot see me, yet. The ties of the blue and white hospital gown have loosened, and I can see his exposed skin. It has a translucent quality to it.
The gown parts like a teepee, tight at the top and becomes wider at the base and exposing the elastic waistband of his white undergarment. Even that looks baggy against his boney frame.
I step into the room and a million details of the hospital space rush into my mind and body. The smells of bleach and vomit, the sounds of heart monitors and coughing, the sight of faded yellow walls, caution signs and the translucence of his skin. I absorb each piece of information and pocket it away to be addressed later and put on my strong smile.
There is no time to deal with my experience when I am the caregiver. Supporting others means leaving ourselves behind. Sometimes I get caught in this trap of avoiding my own grief and sadness by focusing entirely on helping those in need.
Dad is expecting me, and I don’t want my fear or assessment of the deterioration of his sickly body to be over pronounced. I master a perfectly crafted smile in place; help now, grieve later.
His mouth is filled with sores from the chemo. It hurts to talk. It hurts to breathe. He slathers on a cream that numbs his mouth. It also takes away the taste of food. The pleasure of food was such a big part of his life. In fact, my step father won over my teenaged heart with his well-cooked steak and perfectly baked frites.
My teenaged heart was scorn from the uncompassionate way my parents divorced. Filled with rage and victimhood I aimed much of my hurt toward him. He was the perfect scapegoat. It wasn’t long before he warmed my heart with his kindness, patience, and love for food. He was a father in that and many ways.
I warmed up his soup in the hospital microwave. Two functions on the microwave, cold and scolding hot. The Ziploc container holding his soup molded into my hands, melting from the extreme heat of the microwave. ‘Fuck, this is hot and now there is probably plastic in the soup,’ I thought to myself, ‘But what does it matter when he is dying from poisonous drugs anyway.’ A harsh opinion for an even harsher experience.
His mouth was successfully numbed so I set the soup out for him. ‘Get it while its hot,’ I tell him. Even if it is too hot it won’t likely burn. Cancer drugs cause mouths to go raw and cankerous. The feeling has been compared to razorblades slashing the inner cheeks and the gums, topped off with a searing hot beverage poured onto the roof the mouth. With a welcome like that the soup should go down pretty easy.
After a few mouthfuls, he gives up. Too much effort needed to feed himself and his mouth hurts. I gleefully tease him and offer to help. Taking the role of the mother for my step-father, I trick him into eating his soup and filling his belly with a promise for a funny story after it is complete. Take his mind off the pain and create some pleasure through laughter. Though in this state, sometimes laughter hurts as well.
When the soup is finished, and I leave to clean the dish, a nurse proudly comments, ‘You sure have a way with him’. ‘Fathers and daughters,’ I shrug in response. I am proud, but I don’t show it. As a caregiver getting someone to nourish themselves is a big win. My duty is complete. I can sleep tonight.
With this win, the grief lessens slightly, ever so slightly.
Jennifer Ross is a mother, a writer and a communicator. She has always identified as a mother; long before she had her own children, she nurtured and took care of those around her. She instinctively knew what others wanted and was resourceful to fulfill those needs. What Jennifer didn’t realize was that all of her energy was spent helping others, and she had precious little left for herself. Today she writes as a way to express and give a voice to all those experiences she put away in order to help others. Jennifer is a poet, an author and absolutely loves those that can bring humor to everyday experiences.