Riding the cancer coaster

Two trips to The Park this week.  Two visits with oncologists – medical oncologist on Monday and radiological oncologist on Thursday.  The 240 additional miles put on the odometer of my re-animated shit mobile brought very promising news.

Stage 1 (ie: localized) non-small cell carcinoma.  Just a cancer nugget – about an inch and a half long – in the lower lobe of Mom’s right lung.  This was discovered almost accidentally in November as a result of a chest x-ray ordered to see if she had pneumonia.  Accidental discovery. 

Given that Mom has already told us she would not be having any sort of surgery for this, nor did she want to do chemo*, it is even MORE miraculous that the oncologists agree that this particular cancer is quite treatable.  Only radiation.  Stereotactic radiation, to be specific.  Like a ‘gamma knife’ procedure, only using very localized x-rays, it will only hit the cancer, leaving no burns, no systemic effects, and quite possibly no substantial side effects.

One ‘planning’ visit.  Four treatments of 30 minutes each over the course of 2 weeks.  That’s it.

Scheduling is underway, and the radiation oncologist was rather optimistic that this procedure will ‘control’ the cancer.  As in, it won’t spread.  It won’t grow.  It won’t cause her any further trouble.

Whew.

Some snippets from the past week:

– Flipping through Mom’s medical charts, she is classified as a “98 Pack Year Smoker” – given that she smoked 2-3 packs a day for about 65 years.  At 82 years old?  i almost want to ask that cancer nugget “what took you so long?”

– My niece, DQ, is stepping up to the role of “Number One Son” for this particular journey.  She is earning that house.  But it’s frustrating… The docs will ask Mom a question – “Why did you have the initial chest x-ray? What were your symptoms?”.  Mom will start to respond with a long story about how she was sick with some breathing problems, but it was just because of the inhaler, and that stupid breathing machine she has to use to sleep…. and then DQ will jump in with more details, about how Mom didn’t want to go to the doctor, but we made her…  The two of them, full of nervous energy, will go back and forth, overwhelming the doc as he tries to pull the pixels together into something useful.  And i sit on my hands and shut up…

– Waiting for the radiation oncologist to review the PET Scan results, we were asked to have Mom fill out a ‘general health’ questionnaire.  Questions such as “How many surgeries have you had?”, “List your medications”, and “Do you have diabetes?”.  There is also a section on mental health.  As i read through the questions, i asked Mom “Are you generally happy with your life?” and she immediately said “No”.  Improvising a question, without breaking cadence, i asked her “Have you ever been happy with your life?” and she immediately said “No”.

– There was a section of the health questionnaire that asked about pain.  Three questions:  “Do you have joint pain?”  “Do you have back pain?” and “Do you have neck pain?”  She replied affirmative to the back pain question.  i added “Carrier” on the line next to the neck pain question.  i hope someone reads it one of these days and laughs…

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* When talking with my niece, DQ, and me about possible treatments prior to our first visit to the oncologist, Mom stated quite clearly that she would not consider chemotherapy.  Her reason?  “Eating is the only thing I enjoy, and if I can’t eat, or I can’t taste anything?  Life isn’t worth much.”

Let’s Make a Deal

It gave me some satisfaction to hit the ‘ignore’ button on my phone as i pounded pedals down the bikeway last night.  My niece, DQ, had called a few times, failing to leave a message.   That usually means she’d prefer to ambush me…

Apparently her mother, my sister, S, had let her know i’d enquired about having a brainstorming session to see if we could figure out a way to get the renovations on Mom’s house moving again, and get Mom settled into her new digs before she dies.   She’s 82, and in poor health.  Circling the drain?  Ya think?

For over a year, Mom has lived on a twin bed, parked in my niece’s living room.  It was to be temporary, while DQ’s husband BJ renovates Mom’s house next door, and builds an addition on the back with a nice new apartment for Mom, and a master suite for DQ and BJ.

This is a lot to ask of BJ, who is also on the hook to work and earn the cash to support his family.  Mom had laid out a budget for the renovation, and BJ worked on it nights and weekends – and when he didn’t have paying construction jobs.

Given DQs propensity to spend more money than he can shovel into the household, the guy has been working more than full time, and as a result, there has been no progress on the house for months.

Listening to Mom’s passive-aggressive complaints about the lack of privacy, being bored and housebound, and no idea when the house will be done during my weekly phone calls, i became pretty good at shoving that all aside and telling myself there was nothing to be done.  i reminded myself that this is the option Mom chose.

Seeing the whiny facebook updates from my niece, with her passive-aggressive complaints about having no privacy, being watched all the time, and dealing with a crabby old bat in her living room, i chalked this up to caregiver stress and that it was a means of venting her frustration.   i reminded myself that my niece volunteered to do this, and chose this option.  And was being compensated in the form of a virtually new house for her family.

So i have pretty much buried my head in the Trailer Park sandbox, and happily gone about living my life. Haven’t engaged much, nor have i been asked to get involved. 

Life was good.  i was even blogging for fun, instead of therapy!

The last post i put up about the Trailer Park was in June, and it was just an observational riff on my niece, DQ, spending money on a pink Smith & Wesson handgun, so she can be a fashionably armed redneck with her new ‘concealed carry’ permit.

Before that?  A couple of bits last April.  One, on the anniversary of my father’s death, reflecting on the things he missed out on over the past few years.  The other?  Keeping my two sisters from killing each other in another round of “she’s being mean to me!” as performed by alleged adults.

For the most part, other than my weekly phone call home, i haven’t really given it much thought.  But on Sunday, Mom was rather cranky, and i decided that it might be time to see if i could find a way to get things moving, without causing any problems.

Hence the e-mail i sent to my sister, S.  And the frantic (ignored) phone calls from my apparently agitated niece, DQ.  When i finally caught up with S by phone late last night, my eyes were opened to an unexpected twist to the Trailer Park melodrama.

S immediately informed me that any discussions regarding the situation with Mom and DQ should involve them.  i reminded her that i am appreciative that DQ is taking care of Mom, and am quite comfortable with DQ and BJ receiving compensation for all they are doing – just trying to figure out a way to get the house done before Mom dies.

For the hundredth time, i suggested we find additional resources, and either PAY BJ to finish it, or HIRE A WORK CREW for him, so it gets done more quickly.  Since Mom had spent about $50,000 purchasing 17 wooded acres in the country last year when the original plan was to build a lovely new home there, i have made no secret within the family of suggesting that this land be sold to finance accelerated renovations.

Once she was done with the defensive posturing, my sister danced around a bit, but finally said “Look, I probably shouldn’t tell you this – it really isn’t my place.  But Mom has made a deal with DQ and BJ to give them the land as payment for BJ working on the house.  That’s why she won’t agree to sell it.”

Two nanoseconds later, i came a bit unhinged.  i have brought this option up to my mother no fewer than a dozen times in the last few months – basically every single time she complained that things weren’t moving fast enough. NOT ONCE has she said “I’m not going to sell the land.  I want BJ to have it as payment for his work on the house.”

It would have been that simple.  S said that Mom was afraid i’d get mad, and it would cause trouble.  Trouble?  Far from it.  This little revelation has made my life far, far less complicated!

A big ol’ game of Trailer Park “Let’s Make A Deal”, done on the sly.  “Why hide it?” i asked my sister.  “Are they hiding something?  Embarrassed by it?”  It’s quite reasonable that there be compensation – i would have suggested to my mother she pay them after the work is done, rather than before, but it’s her business…

After my initial flash of anger and frustration with Mom’s failure to provide me with all of the information necessary to provide her useful advice, and to serve as her advocate, i found myself relieved. 

No more guilt.  There is nothing more for me to do.  Mom has signed up for this, and my niece has agreed to terms.  Neither the veiled complaints from Mom, nor the venting from my niece are going to keep me awake at night.

“The perils of benefactors.  The blessings of parasites.”*

Mom has made her bed.  She can now lie in it… It happens to be in the middle of her granddaughter’s living room.

~~~~~~~~~~~

* as always, i am reminded of the words of Joni Mitchell, from “Shadows and Light”.

Trailer Paaaaaargh!

Excavations on Mom’s house are completed, and renovations are underway.  New windows installed, new doors/bathroom fixtures purchased, but a substantial amount of work remains* for BJ – even before construction of the addition** begins.

Tensions are mounting, however, amongst the Trailer Park clan.  Mom has now been living on a bed in my niece, DQ’s,  living room for eight months.  Any pretense of civility between them has been dropped and the sniping is virtually continuous. 

From a completely selfish point of view, i am deliriously happy to live 60 miles to the north.  My tolerance for all of it has officially vaporized – it’s become liberating to laugh out loud at the situation when either party brings me the latest ‘snipe’ war intelligence data.

Over the weekend, DQ unloaded some of her frustrations.  When she got to the end of the story, and i busted out laughing, she saw the humor in it, and perhaps won’t be whacking my mother in the head with a skillet any time soon…

DQ:  We were in the home stretch yesterday, clearing out the last piles of crap from her kitchen.  She wanted to keep these two nasty, torn up old skillets.  I told her that I had skillets in better shape, the same size, but she insisted that we keep them because she didn’t know where I kept my skillets.  She said “Can’t I keep SOMETHING?”  So I finally gave up and hauled the damn things over here, scrubbed the crap out of them and got them cleaned up.  I asked her “Where do you want me to put these so you can find them?”  Do you know what she said?  “Just put them with yours…”.

* The raccoons in the attic destroyed the wiring – and an open 220v line was found behind the stove.  Entire house has to be rewired, and it’s a miracle that it didn’t burn to the ground.  Removing the baseboards, BJ discovered that the foundation has settled, leaving at least 1/4″ gap around most of the house.  There is virtually no insulation in the walls.  Combine the lack of insualtion with the open air gap?  You get lots of mold.   Bathroom floor needs replacement – BJ stepped near the head of the bathtub and his foot went through it into the crawlspace….  With only $75K budgeted for the renovation AND building the addition?  i smell massive cost overrun in the works…

** Mom’s house is a three bedroom ranch… maybe 1,000 square feet.  The addition will add an “apartment” for Mom (bedroom, sitting room, bathroom, kitchenette), and a large master suite for DQ and BJ.  Original plans had included adding a basement to the addition, but one of my rants that started with “HOW CAN YOU FUCKING AFFORD THIS?” must have hit paydirt, because that’s now been scrapped…

“Lion King” to “Steel Magnolias”

My oldest sister, S, has a long history of ridiculous self-absorption. But she’s come a long way from weeping and wailing in hospital waiting rooms*.   In fact, during one of Mom’s previous procedures, S gave me enough blog fodder for a week….

Mom stayed with me over the weekend, and was moving slow.  She had pain in her legs, and i was pretty sure there was a blockage (or two) in the iliac arteries.  Again.  The angioplasty procedure has been done several times, and at least partially due to her diet**, her arteries have a tendency to continually re-clog. 

i had suggested a call to the cardiologist on Monday, and the lovely and completely edible Dr. Monica didn’t waste time.  She scheduled another angioplasty.  Waking up at the fuzzy, lint-encrusted butt-crack of dawn, i was on duty to pick up Mom and get her to the hospital for the procedure yesterday. 

But Thursday is scuba class, so i needed to have someone else on call to retrieve her, or stay until she was comfortably encamped at the hospital for the night.  S was able to take the afternoon off work, so i was on duty in the morning.  S made arrangements to arrive mid-day, releasing me by 4:00 pm for the hour drive home… in time to make it to class.

With delays and emergency procedures bumping Mom’s fairly routine roto-rooting, we were told that the doc was at least two hours behind schedule.  That meant Mom and i would be stuck in the pre-procedural holding pen from about 11:00 to at least 1:00.  So we both slept…  S arrived around 12:45 and woke us both up…

Low key, relaxed and light conversation followed until Mom was wheeled out at 2:00.  S and i were both hungry, so we hit the hospital cafeteria for a late lunch.  We had a very rational conversation about the need for S to audit the ‘construction’ expenses as her daughter, DQ, drives renovations on Mom’s house.  We discussed the need to keep the drama to a minimum – as in, nobody fuck with sister, T, in Florida… Let the sleeping pit bull lie…

As we reviewed the status of excavations at Mom’s house, i reminded S that if Mom drops dead before the house is done?  There is to be no guilt.  We are doing the right thing, she has chosen this option, and if she dies before it’s done, so be it… S simply nodded her head and said “I don’t think there’s anything we can do to make her happy”.

After lunch, we yakked a bit in the waiting room.  She asked me “Are you happy?”  Wow.  i don’t think anyone in my family has ever said those words to me before… i said “Very.  And thanks for asking.”  The nurse came out to inform us that Mom had a double-punch procedure, two iliac lard-packs blasted away, and she’d probably need to stay overnight at the hospital.

S and i went to see her in recovery, i bid farewell, and S stayed until Mom was settled in her room for the night.  She also stepped up to the retrieval duty upon Mom’s discharge. 

Not sure how it happened, but S seems to have it together.  Maybe it’s the fact that she’s been up to her armpits in raccoon turds in Mom’s attic for the past two weeks.  In any case, my big sister has at least started to grow up…

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* i usually put in links to prior ‘trailer park adventures’ to help some of the newer visitors track the history… but this one has perhaps the best series of comments ever.  loves me some smart-assed comments!  worth a look…  and more on the “we really miss kyknoord” thread…

** After the last angioplasty, i asked the doc if they’d done a biopsy on the plugs near her heart.  Confused the doctor – until i explained that i’d wager they were comprised of sausage gravy, deep-fried chicken livers and bacon fat… which is about what Mom ordered last Sunday for lunch when i was taking her home.

Another Sunday in The Park

Another Sunday, another ‘day in the park’, excavating Mom’s house.  Snippets… as i can barely keep my eyes open.  They are itchy, burning and raw from the hour i spent in the hallway closet, hauling out first aid supplies from the 1960’s, scores of mismatched pillowcases, and about two dozen tubes of EXPIRED toothpaste, still in the box.  That’s right.  Expired.  It lasts about 10 years.  Most of these expired somewhere between 2001 and 2004…

Overload:  Mom is clearly overwhelmed.  She’s resigned to the process.  She knows it all has to go.  We are being patient, and trying hard to let her ‘touch’ everything and assign the disposition (keep, yard sale, church rummage sale, trash).  We quit early today because she stopped talking…

Progress:  The two-car garage has been completely excavated, and BJ is putting insulation/drywall on the exterior wall.  Amazing.  i haven’t seen the floor of that garage in 30 years.  There is hope.

Treasures:  Dad’s notes for his memoirs.  Found them.  Had a chance to look through them and there are some new items, and a few surprises.  Unfortunately his handwriting was bad, so it may take awhile to decipher them…  And most amazingly?  His tenor sax.  FOUND.  It was buried under boxes of trash in the garage.  Major victory in the excavations.  i take back all most of the nasty things i suspected about my niece’s first husband…

Estrogen:  My car was at the back of the driveway when BJ needed to make a run to the gas station for cigarettes.  Rather than play ‘drive-way hokey pokey’ and move the two cars blocking in his truck, i just tossed him the keys.  Returning, he handed the key back and said “What is that CD you had in?  Indigo Girls?”  A little embarrassed, i said “no, just some mellow chick stuff i was listening to – to keep me calm on the drive down”.  He said “Well, it made me want to go buy a gallon of ice cream and watch ‘The Notebook'”.  Not only is he functional, he’s funny as shit…

Need to go pour something medicinal in my eyes.  i think it was the mouse poo dust that got me today.  Or the mold spores.  Or the cat dander – from two cats ago.  Or…

Scratching the surface

How much stuff can be crammed into about 1,000 square feet?  We’re still not sure…  the archeology continues.

Mom was less snippy today.  Last week, when my niece DQ was throwing fuzzy, expired food away from the fridge, Mom said “I’ve had it! I’m going to bash someone in the face…”.  Definitely less theatrics today.  Since i’m just back home, after about 7 hours of excavations, i’m just gonna ‘hoark’ a bit…

Sainthood:  BJ, my niece’s husband, is a hero.  He was laid off from his construction job last week, and used his time off productively.  Spending at least 10 hours a day at the house, he has sorted, organized, hauled and manhandled at least 4,000 pounds of shit.  All the while, he has shown patience that the rest of us can’t muster with Mom.  Reassuring her that all boxes marked “keep” will be kept, and that we won’t throw away anything she needs…  He is a good human.

Hoarding:  i am not confused about this – it’s clearly a form of mental illness.  i remind myself “she can’t help it” when she tells me to “throw out those pickles, but save the jars” as i balance on a broken chair in the garage, up to my armpits in plastic yogurt containers from the 1980’s.  She’s verging on panic when we spread out in different rooms and she can’t watch every move we make.  She wants to touch each item.  Tell us what it is, why she saved it, why it’s valuable. “These newspapers are worth a lot of money – they’re from the start of the Iraq war…”.  Wondering if upping her Xanax might help…

The cost of chaos:  So far, we’ve found a dozen automotive ice scrapers.  She no longer drives.  Multiple boxes of plastic cutlery, some still in the grocery bags with receipts.  Paper napkins – THOUSANDS of decorative napkins – still wrapped, with the “75% off” tags intact.  Unopened cleaning supplies, purchased with the best of intentions, inaccessible under boxes and bags and buckets of ‘stuff’.  As we were working today, she said “I can’t afford to replace all this…”.  Made me sad.  If she’d have bought what she needed, as she needed it, or even FIND it amidst the rabble… But the result is a stockpile for Armegeddon.  She could have probably saved thousands of dollars over the past decade or so…

But of all the tales from the front, this one perhaps best captures the scale of the disaster area that is my mother’s house…

HazMat:  In the 1960’s, feeding a family of six on a tight budget required taking advantage of sales, and buying in bulk.  A chest freezer in the utility room was Mom’s best friend.  When all six of us were there, she was in and out of the freezer on a daily basis.  But as we moved out, and home cooked meals became smaller and less frequent?  It was an albatross.  But a fully loaded albatross. 

The last time we seriously tried to excavate the house – 10 years ago – we considered the logistics of getting the damn thing out of the house.  Not a small appliance – 4′ wide and 6′ long.  i took a stethoscope to it to see if it was still running – a gentle hum said the electrons were flowing, but we had no idea if it was cooling.  Those excavations aborted, the freezer sat for another decade.  Unopened.

Last week, BJ collected a crew of his biggest friends, and they took the side door off the house and hauled that thing out.  It was sloshing, so they knew there was nothing frozen inside.  As they lifted it to get it past a planter, a black, slimy sludge sloshed out – releasing a horrific odor.  One friend puked, another ran off.  Mom’s neighbor had been helping with the final push, and went home to grab a respirator.  He was able to get the freezer sealed up in plastic.  But not before the stench was released….

Now that it was out?  How do you get rid of it?  Can’t take it to a dump (freon), can’t have it picked up on bulk trash day (suffocation hazard).  Never mind that it was loaded with liquefied rancid animal flesh.  Craig’s List Curb Alert?  Why not!  It took a couple hours, but finally a truck showed up.  They wanted the scrap metal, perhaps worth $100.  They knew what was in it, and even spilled a bit of the goo loading it up.  But they took it… 

Un-fucking-believable to me that anyone would voluntarily take a 500 pound metal tank, full of festering rotted meat.  For free.  But this conclusively demonstrates the blessings of scavengers.  Here’s to the buzzards and dung beetles of the world…

We’re not done yet.  Far from it.  But there is access to every window in the house so that measurements can be taken for new windows.  A 20′ long flatbed trailer was filled with trash, to be taken to the dump tomorrow.  Progress…

Little Chickens – Part Deux

Another day in The Park.   i’m drinking.  Just a little… Ok.  Perhaps a little bit more than a little…

Time for Momma’s check up with her smokin’ hot sex kitten of a cardiologist today – which went very well!  The painfully gorgeous Dr. M pronounced Mom heart-healthy, and as always, took time to chat with her, tell her how beautiful she looked, and generally fussed over her*.   All’s well in Cardio-Town!

Then it was off to the bank to rock the markets.  Last week, Mom mentioned that her “investment fund”-based retirement account was performing terribly, and that the balance had dropped from $90K in 2005 to about $60K this week.  She’s been losing sleep over this, and given dire predictions about the continuing recession, she wanted to move it all out and put it in lower risk certificates of deposit (CDs).

i advised her that it might make sense to let it ride – that we were either at, or approaching, bottom and that with a couple years patience, it would possibly recover.  That, and the fact that there is nowhere else to put it to grow, the best she could hope for was to cut her losses.  She went to the bank in November, intending to cut losses on this account.  At that time the value was around $77K.  She was angry with the financial advisers who talked her into letting it ride as the market continued to plummet.  When i suggested that given two years, it would likely stabilize Mom – now 80 years old – reminded me that she might not have a couple years…

She informed me that she’d spoken with my sister, T – the business professor – earlier in the week, and that T had advised her to pull her money from all investment funds.  Not only that, but to hide at least a years worth of cash in her mattress.  T, of course, has solid connectivity to several economics professors, and their predictions were apparently dire.  Seemed like pretty grim advice** to me… and it surprised me that T would take such a position.  But she’s the one in the know…

Against intuition, i steeled myself to do battle with these financial bullies.  She wants to cut her losses and rest easier.  My job was to let them know that by giving her shit advice, the poor woman was losing sleep, and it was affecting her health… i even considered smudging some mascara under her eyes to enhance the impact.  Momma wanted her money out of the market.  She was counting on me to get it done…

We went through a similar panic drill last summer.  Mom was reassured about her investments – which were fully insured by the FDIC should the banks go tits up.  She’s repeatedly told me that she’s counting on me to provide financial advice, since i’m the only functional member of the family i have durable power of attorney.  But it seemed that all she really wanted today was back-up – her mind was made up.

We arrived at the bank.  My brain cells began to escape my skull via my earholes within 10 minutes… 

The first revelation from the finance manager?  Mom has withdrawn cash from this account for 3 years.  Almost $20K in equal quarterly disbursements.  Momma kinda failed to mention this… She’d been using this retirement account – which was set up as her long term nest egg – to augment her pension and pay her monthly bills.  That’s fine, but it certainly affects the “loss math” just a touch.  She’d only lost about $10K over 3 years.  Not great, but i have friends who can blow that much in a single night at the black jack tables and booby-bars in Vegas.

My second surprise?  The financial manager asked why she was liquidating her “long term” IRA, while leaving her low-interest money market CASH account untouched.  The one with an assload of money in it.  Earning perhaps 1% interest.  Which i had never heard about until today.  He also mentioned the large sum in mid-term certificate of deposits…

daisyfae:  Momma?  i didn’t know about these accounts… Ummm…that sort of changes the situation a bit.

Mom:  Well, i don’t want anyone knowing where all my money is… You can’t really trust anyone these days.

daisyfae: [steam slowly escaping from ears and nostrils, with lip firmly clenched between teeth]  Momma, if i don’t know what you’ve got, i can’t give you good advice, now can i?

Going over the math several times, it became clear that with the cash account, she’ll have 10 years of withdrawals at her fingertips.  And adding in the CD’s?  Another 10 years.  That gets her to 100 years old – so long as her expenses don’t increase dramatically.  i helpfully pointed out that if you pretend like the long term stuff isn’t there?  She’s still fine!

In fact, she should probably up her spending!  The goal is for her last check to bounce.  i even helpfully suggested that she needed to spend more time at the regional casinos, and consider hiring a hot male stripper/nurse to attend to her needs. 

At the end of the day came my favorite revelation.  As we settled in the car and headed off for some grocery shopping, she lobbed this little offhand comment at me:

Mom:  Well, I sort of wondered if T was drunk when I talked to her last week.  You know how she gets really loud, and swears a lot when she’s been drinking?

daisyfae: [sound of head exploding goes here]

it's very difficult to drive when your head explodes.  makes talking on a cellphone look like a cakewalk...

It's very difficult to drive when your head explodes. Makes talking on a cellphone look like a cakewalk...

*This is why i absolutely adore Dr. M…. Not just because she is stunning and smart.  Really.

** and completely out of alignment with any advice i’ve gotten from wealthy smart friends….