90 Percent of Death, as Life, is Just Showing Up

That’s what a friend of the family said to my mom and I today, in the hospital. My stepfather, Gil, looks very much like he’s in the end game with his most recent cancer, multiple myeloma. (“End game” may not be the right analogy; it might be “overtime” or “extra innings” at this point, but since Gil is the person I’d generally call up to ask about my naive and totally wrong sports analogies, I’m kinda out of luck just at the moment.)


I went to see him today, and got a few good heartfelt interactions. Most of the time he’s hovering just below the surface of consciousness, bobbing up for brief periods when we rub his shoulders or play him some favorite music. He knows where he is and what’s going on, and while he’s uncomfortable, he says he’s not actually in pain. He can’t have many visitors, since his immune system is shot. His obvious pleasure in seeing people and hearing especially familiar CD tracks more than compensates for his being unable to finish sentences longer than 3-4 words. He drifts off mid-phrase, not really asleep, but definitely not awake. Most of what he does talk about are good things: love, family trips, memories and pleasures.

Even in his current state, he’s socializing with the nursing staff, recommending dance albums, and still charming everyone around him. In other words, he’s being exactly who he’s been for as long as I’ve known him.

He’s got both a raging cancer and a whopping big dose of chemo burning through him, nullifying what tatters remain of his immune system and keeping his blood components in the “terrible” range. The palliative care team is talking about hospice and seems clear that he’s winding down. His oncologist, who’s known him longer, is worried, but says there could be a very slim chance he’ll survive the chemo (and bacterial infections) long enough to see the cancer slowed down a bit … but it’s a very, very slim shot. His family is converging, and we’re all just enjoying what we can of the hours and days we’ve got with him right now. That’s the attitude I learned from him, after all.

We’ll have a better sense of any future trajectory for him if he survives through the weekend. I find myself reacting much the same way I did when I was at my low point with the GBS, and simply not thinking about the long term. The short term is almost too much to handle as it is.