I love blogging. I truly do. But I wonder now and then about the point of it. Not about the actual writing part – the fact that I need to write letters to Mom is obvious to me. But where she is, she doesn’t need them to be on the internet in order to get them. I like to think she sees them as they’re pouring out of my head, that she knows my words like old friends and that maybe it is her quiet advice that makes me go back and re-write a sentence that sounds like it was written by an 8-year-old in the throes of a sugar rush.
So, why not just keep these letters between us? Why throw them out here? Is it because, since my book is stalled, I am desperately seeking validation that I am a writer? Am I turning these letters into word-selfies?
“Look at me!! I can write stuffs!”
Ick. That assessment is probably somewhat spot on. Writers like to be read. We’re smart enough, good enough, and gosh darn it, we want people to like us.
But because of Mom’s cancer, I also know there is much more to it than that.
I remember the October day we got her diagnosis like it was yesterday. Doc G, her oncologist, is so tall. He spoke slowly, like each word was a heavy weight he had to lift. His face was solemn and unsmiling. Over the next several months, I would learn that Dr. G always looked and sounded that way. There would even be times when I appreciated his measured honesty and understood that he could be no other way and still continue to do the job he does. But in that moment, as he loomed over us in one of those white doc coats that always made my heart race with anxiety even before Mom got cancer, he looked to me like a harbinger of doom.
Mom had gone into the hospital with pneumonia. Scary, sure. But not nearly as terrifying as the cause that had been rooted out. Pneumonia is a spider that can be squashed. Stage IV lung cancer? It is every monster that ever hid under any of our beds, and some new ones we could never have imagined.
Dad and Jay and Jordyn and I were out in the hallway with Dr. K, her pulmonologist, shortly after we got the news. We’d get to know Doc K well in the coming months too. In some ways he’s as serious and solemn as Doc G, but there’s also a soft-spoken warmth to him. Months later, Mom and I would be sitting in the emergency room because of fluid-build up in her chest. They would be talking about admitting her, and Doc K would come to the rescue and do the thoracentesis procedure that she needed to remove the fluid. It was evening and it was an act of kindness on his part to do it then and there rather than have them check her in and schedule it for the morning.
But Mom was exhausted and in pain, and cranky. So when he arrived, she wasn’t thinking about that fact that he’d come to us in the emergency room after finishing up his long day at the office – that he put off going home to his own family so that OURS could go home too. She was just annoyed that it had taken him so long to get there.
“Bet you’d have come faster if I had big boobs,” she told him. I never thought I’d have a doctor look to me, lost for words and seeking help to find them. But he did. I just shrugged and said “That’s my Momma. She gives us lots of shit too. I think it means she likes you.”
That night in the hallway, our little family didn’t know any of that was to come. Doc K was just the shorter, quieter member of the Doom Squad. But we needed something – anything. They were throwing around words like “palliative treatment.” I didn’t know what the fuck that was, just that it sure as hell didn’t sound as good as “cure.” Dad looked at Doc K, and I have never heard more of a raw plea in his voice than when he asked “do we have any hope?”
And Doc K looked at an exhausted man who had just basically been told his wife had been given a death sentence. He took a deep breath and his eyes were sad as he replied “You will all have to learn to redefine ‘hope.'”
I went home that night utterly confused. Hope was fucking hope. How did you redefine it? All those jokes Mom and I had made about what a mess we’d be when I was her age and she was in her 80’s, and the two of us were still sitting at the pub tying one on and bickering or laughing? That shit wasn’t happening, according to the White-Coated Doom Squad K and G.
So much new information was roiling around in my brain. Lung cancer. Stage 4. Chemotherapy. I desperately wanted more information. But I wanted it in the way that I know how to process it. Even in college, I was never good at absorbing knowledge that was coming at me from a talking head. I left lectures with clusters of disconnected data bouncing around in my pea brain. It was only when I sat down and read the accompanying textbooks that I could connect the dots. I learn best by reading. And now, I had to read about cancer.
I looked at my laptop like it was a fanged thing that would bite me. Because even though we had just been hit by this bus and I knew nothing, I was smart enough to realize that when I pulled up my BFF Google and started my quest for knowledge, the bus was going to back up and run over me again. And again. And again. Stage 4 lung cancer statistics are the stuff of nightmares. I had been sheltered from such monsters thus far in my life, but I hadn’t lived under a rock. I knew enough to know that when I started searching, what I would find would be crushing.
I weighed my options. Dive in and get squashed. Shut down the laptop and rummage up a shot, since sleep would not be coming that night or in many to follow. Finally, I typed “Stage 4 lung cancer survivor stories” or something along those lines into the search box.
And I found Craig Blower.
I found his blog, and I read and read and read. And at some point later that night, I found a few hours of the sleep I thought might never come again.
Craig is about Mom’s age. He also has Stage IV lung cancer. In one of first posts I read, he talked about his own first ventures into what the search engines would tell him about his diagnosis, and how his reaction to the gloomy statistics was a determination to live and live and live. To beat the odds as long as they could be beaten. One day at a time.
And that is exactly what he is doing. It is the journey he shares in his blog. I read his story that night with tears rolling down my face, and a total stranger became a lifeline.
At the hospital the next day, Mom was more alert and reflective. She gathered us around her and asked us how we felt about her having cancer. Instead of answering directly just yet, I talked about Craig.
“He has been fighting this for a while now, and he’s winning. And he isn’t just living in doctor’s offices or laying in bed. He does all kind of stuff. He works. He’s remodeling his kitchen. He plays golf. He does all sorts of things with his wife and family. He’s …living.”
So much of those hospital conversations are blurry now. But I do remember Dad looking up at me and seeing a glimmer of hope in his eyes too – the same glimmer that must have come over mine as I read Craig’s story at 3 in the morning.
Now for the cold hard truth part. We all know Mom’s story did not turn out that way. I would learn in the days, weeks and months to come that while there are common threads to every story, individual experiences with Stage IV lung cancer are unique. Mom would rally for a little while, but not to the point that we would ever know “normal” again. Discovering the blog of a Stage IV lung cancer patient who was surviving and thriving did not mean my mother would do the same.
But it taught me to do what Dr. K said I would have to … it taught me to redefine hope. With or without that blog, I would have been by my mother’s side through the grueling ordeals to come. But in some inexplicable way, it gave me what I needed to not just show up and be supportive, but to carry that new kind of hope with me.
It kept me going. If Craig could go to work with his own cancer, then I could go to work with Mom’s. If Craig could fight his battle and write about it in a way that sometimes even made me laugh, I could try to be a humorous weapon in Mom’s battle. I wasn’t always successful. But the blog of a stranger gave me what I needed to at least try.
That is part of the reason why I am blogging again now. It is my attempt to pay it forward. Someday someone dealing with grief over the loss of a parent may stumble upon this blog and take comfort … or even hope …from the shared experience. Someone may smile because a memory I shared triggers one of their own. Someone may feel a little less alone. Or not. But at least I know that by sharing, I tried.
I still subscribe to Craig’s blog and read every update as soon as I get the email. I am one of many strangers in his corner, cheering him on and sending all the hope I can muster his way. He has recently embarked on a new clinical trial, and I’d appreciate anyone who reads this and wants to join me in sending that hope.
As he says, one day at a time.