Two steps back from the brink, one step forward

First, a memory: in 1989, Gil and my mom and David and I took a summer’s driving trip through the American Southwest. All of us lived on academic calendars, so we had three months to putz around the country and learn that a single VW Golf was starting to be not quite enough room for a family of four. When not driving, however, we hiked into the Rockies, stayed at cheapo campsites, danced around the Four Corners border crossing between Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado … and went to the Grand Canyon.

The thing to understand about this is that Gil has always been petrified of heights and falling. He’s so nervous about it that when we got to one side of the canyon, he insisted that David and I shouldn’t walk to the edge, but rather Army-crawl up to it on our bellies, peer over, and then Army-crawl back. (After we’d spent a few days sightseeing and hiking down into the thing, Gil loosened up a bit about the edge; the three of us eventually held a pissing contest to see who could pee farthest into the canion … but that’s a story for another time.)

The point is, what Gil insisted we initially do with that cliff’s edge, Gil did at death’s Grand Canyon, this week. Army-crawled up to it on his hands and knees, peered over, and slowly backed away, dirty and covered with gravel. It really looked like he wasn’t going to survive last week, but survive he has. It’s no sure thing, but if he continues progressing as he has been, the docs say, it’s possible he could get another year: not exactly what we were expecting last week. Army-crawling back from the brink, indeed.

I’ll tell you,  in the days immediately after we thought he was about to die, his room became the weirdest, most upbeat damn “dying of cancer room” I’ve ever been in. (This will be the fourth one I’ve experienced.) Two Wednesdays ago, we thought he wouldn’t make it through the next 48 hours. Family converged, we all tearfully told him we loved him (and got lots of tears and “I love you” responses); we played him favorite music and treasured the beaming smiles we got from him.

And then he kept on smiling at music the next day. And then his appetite started to come back. His blood remained composed of dirty dishwater and the bags of donated blood the hospital kept pouring into him, but each day he began to regain a little more motion. And then he asked for ribs and corn muffins for dinner, and began to shimmy his shoulders when we played good mambo tunes. Conversations were positive and mostly lucid, though the meds he was on gave him a dreamy, trippy logic that occasionally meant he’d veer off onto tangents about the significance of the hotel-quality art on the hospital wall or the fact that his oncologist knew Zeus personally. Funny, at first, and then upsetting when we thought the effects might be permanent… and then funny again, once they subsided and he more fully rejoined the real world. Kate and I hosted dinners for visiting family, and we all started to talk about both his continued life and death, however eventual or imminent, with a weird mix of humor and confidence.

Once you have what you think will be your final conversation with someone, it turns out that all the next conversations with them can continue to be 100% up front and honest… and if you’re lucky enough that the person isn’t in pain, it turns out conversations involving death can also be very funny. Go figure.

I haven’t seen him in a week, since Piper got a wicked virus and stayed home with me – sick, miserable and virulently contagious – for the last six days, but according to my mom (and her blog about Gil, which updates here ) Gil is going to get out of the hospital this afternoon and go to a rehab center for a week or two, to get his strength back … and then, if his cancer numbers continue getting better and if he gets more mobile on his own, and if he tolerates the chemo he’s on, he might be able to go home. There are a lot of conditionals in that statement, but we’ll take’em.

The cliff’s edge still isn’t all that far away, but hopefully by the next time we approach it, we’ll have had enough time near it to piss off it instead of being so scared.