Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: The Secret Lives of Levetts

On Friday, Scott finished up moving Jennette from her perch at the Hunt Club Manor.

That move took us roughly 10 hours, and was a lot easier than the last two times we moved her.

The first move was the most challenging. You see, she might have been all of 4 foot 9, but she lived like four people: her mother, who was a keen collector of jewelry and Royal Doulton; her father who was a spirited collector of paper and coins; Roger who was a curator of all things Blue and Jay; and Jennette herself who liked to keep bills, photos and newspapers until they literally disintegrated.

The first move came in 2014, after Roger died. Don't get me wrong, the place was well organized, with small paths that took the couple to the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. Everything was covered by a inch of ash, including the birdcage which had sat in the middle of the living room over the two years since the Cockatiel Digger died.

The aftermath of Digger's death by second hand smoke at the age of 30 was horrific, and landed Jennette in the hospital. She had dropped something, maybe the cage, on her left foot and broke five bones on the top of her foot. She said she had swooned in the bathroom, but that explanation wouldn't have gotten her past the evidence -- a swollen top of her foot, all black and blue. However it happened, the surgeon said it was the worst break he had ever had to repair.

That same surgeon put Humpty Dumpty back together again three times, first when Jennette fell and broke her hip, then her femur, after an heroic rescue by Roger, who had been passed out in the bedroom for six hours. Instead of calling the ambulance, or the super, Roger called Telehealth who sent the ambulance. The hip break was on Jennette, but the femur was broken by Roger who tried to awkwardly pick Jennette up and lay her on the couch, then dropped her.

Roger died in bed, and the place was so bad the cops wouldn't even go in. It was left to the funeral directors to bag him, and squeeze him along the tiny path, out into the fresh air.

There was no question that Jennette needed help, and so I hooked her up with Moving Forward Matters, a company that specializes in hoarding solutions. It took three strong women with kind hearts to pry loose many of  the momentos of Jennette's life. Finally, and successfully, we managed to also pry her out of that dump and into a clean and bright apartment on Kilborn Avenue where she began a clutter free existence. She wasn't bad in this apartment, that was until her Dad died, and then the whole mess started over again.

She literally replicated her father's house in her little place. Seriously, I'm sure anyone who knew her Dad would have thought they had walked into an Amberwood Village time warp.

When J got sick, and we convinced her to move to a retirement home, it was up to me to clean out her place, and I took on the assignment with verve. The place didn't seem nearly as bad as her first abode -- that was until you entered the bedroom where she kept boxes of memorabilia from dear old Mum, and even some of Rogers clothes and baseball crap. There were at least five unopened bags of clothing and two suitcases filled to the brim.

In the closet, I found 20 odd pots of expensive skin cream, 12 unopened palates of eye shadow, all in the same shade and bags and bags of pee pads. There were flashlights everywhere.

The kitchen held a treasure trove of appliances from the 70s, all in avocado and that orange beige that dominated during the M*A*S*H* years as well as new appliances, and enough -- get this -- cleaning products to scour the entire apartment building. Down below, in the locker, were Roger's golf bags, his old magazine clippings from the very few years he was actually committing journalism, and three pairs of women's golf shoes, size 5. (To my knowledge, Jennette hadn't picked up a golf club in 30 years.)

Midway through this horror show, I knew I needed to bring in reinforcements, and Geraldine at the Hunt Club Manor offered to help pay part of the move. She offered up Darling Solutions, who sent out a crew of kindly ladies to gingerly and lovingly pack up J's place and restore Dad's home like a museum in a one bedroom suite -- minus all the crap.

Jennette had been extremely agitated waiting for her stuff to arrive, but her anxiety quickly disappeared when Dad's living room came to life, complete with his cherished oils and water colours.

The final move,after her death, was by no means a picnic. She still had a boatload of useless stuff. You see, every few days the Manor takes the seniors shopping, and Jennette started to expand her inventory of cleaning products, flashlights, Kleenex, and tweezers. She even bought a new iPad even though she had a perfectly good one in working order.

I must admit, I was an accomplice at times, because what can you get the senior who has everything...cancer, osteoporosis, thrush, a body full of metal and the inability to eat solid food?

You get her anything she wants, is what.

Now that the move is complete, my own house looks like a mini version of dear old dad, and mom.

Yesterday, I took mom's jewelry to the pawn shop, traded it in, and bought myself one nice ring to remember Jennette by.

One nice ring.

For the past three years, I have supported my friend, Jennette, who recently died from Stage 4 oral cancer. I agreed to help her on her journey. In exchanged, she agreed to let me document it, warts and all.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: The Smoker's Tumour

Two years ago, when Jennette began her cancer journey, we made a pact. I would help her through it, and she would let me write about it, warts and all.

Today's post is not for the squeamish, but if I'm to tell her story fully, it has to be accurate and truthful. And that means talking about what the doctor's call her "smoker's tumour". Nobody is forcing you to read this blog, so feel free to click the little "x" up on the right hand side of your screen. 

Otherwise, welcome to my room.

Here we go.

Look at this beautiful face. It's the face of the person I looked after for the past two years. Tomorrow, I am going to the funeral home and I won't be able to see that face. The funeral director urged me to allow their restoration professionals to fix her up before I come in to identify Jennette's remains.

I said I didn't think that was necessary. I had been with her through palliative care, and I thought I'd seen everything: the face swollen four times its size on a 95 pound weakling, the frail body deprived of nourishment and water. And who could forget that smell?

Photo by Donna Bartlett

No, the funeral director insisted. The tumour had blasted through her neck and the right side of her face, and there was a gaping hole where she used to put on her blush. Ok, I said. I'm in.

I'd actually seen the ravages of her tumour months ago. It had eaten through her neck and I could see flesh and yellow fat cells. It was pretty gruesome, but tomorrow, I'm expecting much worse.

It got me thinking about smoking. I've never been a smoker, but I had lived my life around them. As a kid, I lived in a house with four heavy smokers, and nearly every relative smoked. I hated it, thought it was a dirty habit, and I was disgusted by how smoke made my hair smell walking out the door to school. After all the relatives died, my mom relocated us to a small apartment in St. Catharines where she smoked and smoked and smoked.

Smoking killed her, of course, and nearly wiped out the entire clan. It has also killed many of my friends including Jennette's husband Roger who actually burned a hole through his lung. Still, he continued to smoke until his dying day.

Jennette told me that she realized she had brought the cancer into her own body. She stopped smoking after her first surgery but the damaged from her own smoking and Roger's second hand smoking had done the trick. She was done, like a breaded and deep fried carnival pickle.

She beat cancer the first time, at least she thought she did. Here she is, the Cheshire Cat, after an eight hour surgery to remove most of the bottom of her mouth.

It didn't take long to come roaring back, like a tornado or a freight train. 

Over the last few months, I've watched that tiny lozenge-size tumour grow into something out of a Ridley Scott horror film. It nestled in her cheek for a while, then last week went in for the kill. 

Her oral cancer was horrendous, disfiguring, and aggressive. I have never in my life seen anything that horrific -- and I spent years editing a pathology journal!

I am not an anti-smoking zealot. A couple of my kids smoke, and I've chided them for it. My philosophy is that people choose their own path.

But every once in a while, I feel the need to speak up, not on behalf of smokers but for the other victims: spouses, moms, dads, kids, and close friends.

Smoker's don't really get it, do they?

Not until they actually get it.

Spend a Thursday afternoon at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Centre. They call it Oral Cancer Thursday. It's pretty disturbing seeing people walking around without their lower jaws or teeth.

Wouldn't it be great if the smokers in our lives thought once or twice about the collateral damage?

I'm talking about the damage done to people like me who have to go and identify their bodies.

Only to see this.

P.S., I know this post will attract trolls. I will not respond, and your comments will be deleted. 

Friday, 5 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: Love Trumps Cancer Every Time

What is hardest to accept about the passage of time is that the people who once mattered the most to us wind up in parentheses. -- John Irving

I told the doctor that I wasn't that person in Jennette's life, I wasn't the one who would be hugging her, and holding her hand at the end. It's not that I was afraid to stare death in the face, it was that I, like Homer Wells in Cider House Rules, felt my time was better spent "being of use".

And so I busied myself yesterday moving Jennette's remainders out of her assisted living apartment. For the past week, I've been spreading the wealth to the deserving: her coat and the brand new clothing she had bought went to Gessie. Gudrun got her collectibles, Marissa got her bedroom set, and we took the electronics and a few tables. It was unbelievable how little was left at the end of her life; as Scott says, "it's the things that fall away".

The move finished, we drove to a little house on Bank Street to cancel her insurance.

"What about the home insurance," the nice woman asked. "Doesn't she still need that?"

I sort of chuckled.

"Not where she's going."

That's me, always making a joke, but it's how I deal, and I won't apologize for it.

Then I turned my laser focus towards executing Jennette's final wishes. She had already paid for her funeral, but had added on a few details, including an afternoon service, red carnations, and some snacks for those bearing final witness.

Scott wheeled into Kelly's Funeral home, and I paid her bill out of her account. She had been adamant that nobody would be out of pocket. 

After a trip to Costco for dog food, and to Mastermind for a few new toys for Squish, I heard my phone ring. It was Gessie.

"You have to come, Rose," she said through her tears. "I don't think she's going to make it through the day."

Oh dear, I thought, as we headed for the Bruyere. Is it really the end, after all these excruciating and painful months?

I rushed up to the 5th floor and found the room full of women, forming a circle around the bed. Nurses bustled in and out, and her doctor stood at the end of the bed.

"Don't give her any water," an efficient nurse instructed. "She'll choke."

I looked at the tiny entity lying on the bed, her head crooked to one side, her eyes glassy, her mouth agape. It wasn't my friend of thirty years. I knew Jennette was in there someplace, but I was looking at cancer in all its glory, and I was smelling its wrath.

I could feel the tiny spirit of Jennette rallying, as she held out her emaciated arms and hands for a hug.

"Rose," she murmured. I rushed to embrace her, wishing I'd brought the Vick's. That smell...

"I love you, Jennette," I said. "But soon you will be with Dad, and Mom, and Roger. Don't worry. Everythng is ready."

And then something miraculous happened. The cancer seemed to disappear into the background, and I saw Jennette emerge from this shell.

"Put my bed up," she said, in a strong voice. She was back.

We sat around for the next hour, joking with her. She smiled and twinkled. At one point, she asked me for her purse. I handed it to her, and she fumbled through it, looking for her lip balm and then pulled out the wallet and handed me a wad of cash.

"Parking," she said.

Like I said, she never wanted anybody to be out of pocket because of her.

At the end of the afternoon, the nurse came to give Jennette her death juice, all those drugs, and Jennette stopped her, and shooed her away. She didn't want to go to Lala just yet. In fact, I know she didn't want it to end at all.

But dogs needed to be fed, and strong drink needed to be poured, so we left her, propped up on her pillow watching Ellen DeGeneres with a wry smile on her face.

It had been a stellar afternoon.

Sure, there was cancer, and it would kill her any minute. But in the hand of life, friendship and love trumps cancer every time. 

Photos by Donna Bartlett

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

The Cancer Diaries: Seasons of Love

The 5th floor of the Bruyere Residence in Ottawa is well known to paupers and princes.
Impending death has a way of levelling the playing field like nothing anyone can imagine. Nobody on the 5th floor was making plans for 2018.
My friend Jennette is in Room 508. It's a lovely room with a comfy hospital bed and large reclining chairs. The nurses seat her every day, looking towards the door; perhaps they hope that someone will come and see her.
She isn't like my friend Viggo who died there recently.
Viggo had a gaggle of kids, and his room was always filled with legacy.
Jennette doesn't have much family to speak of and so it is up to friends to visit her. We do so with checkered regularity. Most of her friends are elderly, and on the bus, and with the wind chill setting record levels, it's hard for them to get around. Her elderly stepmom, Lois, is determined to come, to hold her and tell her she loves her so, but the fates haven't been kind to Lois of late. She's in her 80s, lives half a city away, and has pneumonia.
And so Jennette sits there most days relying on the kindness of strangers, cherishing every visit, every squeeze of her emaciated 90 pound frame, every kiss on the top of the bandage that has become a fixture on her head.
We do our best, but Jennette is depressed and lonely.

Since then, she has taken a turn for the worse. She refused oral medication. She stopped taking her Ensure. She lost interest in her favorite shows, and even in her beloved nightcap.
And so she is here now, on the 5th floor, languishing, waiting to join Dad, Mom and Roger in the ether. Unable to speak, except with her beautiful liquid blue eyes, eyes that have seen a million sorrows, eyes that never gave up on love until just now.

But wait, something happened the other night.
For two nights running, she saw two cherished friends whom she met in her brief stint as a shopgirl.
Gudrun came by first. She walked into the room, and Jennette looked up from her slumber, her eyes glistening with joy. Gudren told her not to talk -- not that she could if she wanted to -- and they held each other.
Yesterday, Gessie came by. She walked into the room and, again, Jennette looked up, eyes glistening, and beckoned her over. They sat for a few minutes, holding hands, and then Jennette laid her head on Gessie's shoulder, and began to snore. Thirty minutes later, Jennette looked up, and saw that Gessie was still there, holding her, loving her.
She smiled, and motioned to the nurse.
"Boost!" she roared.
She hadn't had any nutrition since Christmas Day, after pining for her golden boy, and now she wanted to eat.
Jennette decided, she wasn't giving up after all.
It took cancer for Jennette to realize that love wasn't about blood, or men.
Love came in the most unexpected places. And from unexpected people.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Cancer Diaries: Jennette's Year in Review

On the eve of 2017, Jennette was looking forward to a new life, unencumbered by caregiving, armed with a new set of choppers the doctors said she would never have. Sure, she missed her dad terribly, as she did her husband who had been her wingman and drinking buddy for over 30 years.

But now, she was set. Dad had left her a tidy sum in his will, and she had inherited all of his sunny Florida-themed white furniture. She had bought a new car, and had set herself up in a tidy little apartment on Kilborn Avenue, her little dream palace.

Jennette had survived her own personal war. In her late middle age, she worked two jobs because Roger was too sick to work anymore (largely due to a rum and Camels habit that would have put Hemingway to shame). Soon after she retired from her job as an executive assistant for Canada's electronic spy agency, she found herself out of both jobs -- her other job in a clothing store had been stolen away when retail went bust -- and so she became a full time caregiver to Roger after he spent months in a coma with a hole in his lungs from those damned Camels sitting on him.

When she wasn't schlepping Rog to the hospital and therapy, she was running the roads to care for good old dad who insisted she come to his condo and iron his sheets and make him a freezer full of dinners for the week.

Like all retired persons, she was too busy to take anytime for herself.

Jennette had also survived a bout of oral cancer, and had the battle scars to prove it.

A surgeon took out half of the inside of her mouth, along with most of her lower teeth after which she was given a clean bill of health. Against doctor's orders, she refused radiation, giving me an interesting plot twist I will share with you later.

So Jennette was, as they say, off to the races. She was hoping to meet a nice man, and had been communicating with an army fellow stationed in Afganistan. He had promised to come to Canada to marry her, and set up house with her in her nice and tidy little apartment. The fellow, with the lilting moniker of "Birdsong," had come into some money, and she had gotten herself a passport. Soon they would be together.

Mr. Birdsong had other plans, I'm afraid. He turned out to be an internet scammer who fleeced her for several thousand dollars before Jennette realized, with the help of moi, that he was not an American colonel but instead a Facebook catfish.

Facebookers! If you get a request from this dude -- coordinates here -- report him to Facebook. BTW, I contacted Facebook, and the bugger is still up there.

Moving on, Jennette had followed the doctor's advice, and went under the knife yet again, to have part of a flap reduced to allow her dentures to fit better. The operation was a complete success until it wasn't.

She called me one day to say that her jaw was changing. A visit to the surgeon confirmed that her cancer had returned.

Cancer has a way of ruining your plans especially when you have what the docs call a "smoker's tumor," a little fellow that acts like a thief in the night. His diabolic cells had been resting in the bottom of her mouth all along, and had sprung into life, I believe, while doctors were fiddling with her teeth and her mouth.

Ah, ah! Here I am, catch me if you can, he cried while the doctors were examining the wrong tissue. 

It didn't take long for the thief to completely ruin her game, and she was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer. Before agreeing to undertake treatment, Jennette came with us to the cottage where she drank butter chicken and hot dogs, and copious amounts of hooch. She drew some new pleasure from a vape we had given her, and she spent a glorious week looking out onto the lake. She even tried the pedal boat, though we did go around and around a lot because her legs weren't working very well.

"Why didn't I do this before?" she asked during cocktail hour.

Why, indeed.

Still, she loved her time up at the lake, and vowed to return the next year. But we both knew the cottage wouldn't be on her itinerary.

In the meantime, we had a few laughs, and she even got to meet the comedian Ron James, as part of her very short bucket list.

What a time we had! She laughed til she bled. And that landed her the hospital where
she spent three fun-filled weeks undergoing radiation. The cure was so successful, it blew her face up like a basketball. But at least it kept her symptoms under control.

On the positive side of the column, she was able to reconnect with her brother from whom she had become estranged after she married Roger.

Back in the real world, Jennette got worse, much worse, and we moved her to Hunt Club Manor, where she resided like a modern day queen until yesterday, two years nearly to the day she left the Ottawa hospital after her first bout of cancer.

The circle was complete. The little thief has done his duty.

She will be spending this New Year's Eve under the watchful eye of Elisabeth Bruyere, and her angels. Tonight while the rest of the world is doing champers and nibblies, she will be partaking in water and, hopefully, a snoot of vodka.

She has no plans for 2018. She knows better than to make plans anymore.

Unless, maybe Roger comes back into the picture. -- and then we're all in trouble.

Jennette has asked me to wish her many fans a better year ahead than the one she had last year. Hoist a tall one, in her honor.

And quit the damn cigarettes.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

The Cancer Diaries: Sex, Lies and Videotapes

Last week, Jennette and I had the big talk.
You know the one, the talk where you set everything straight, and confess to past transgressions, lies and half-truths.
If you're a caregiver for a cancer patient, you know what I'm talking about.
Even the most solid gold hearted caregiver sometimes has to lie to the patient, if for no other reason than to keep heart and soul together.

My big lie concerned Jennette's apartment which I had to empty out over the course of about six days when she undergoing radiation at the Ottawa Hospital. Her doctor told us that Jay needed to go into assisted living, and would no longer be able to live the swinging single life at her pad on Kilborn Avenue. The oral cancer was now Stage Four, and it was inhabiting the side of her face like a burrowed squirrel.
"Unless you have someone to care for her 24/7, she might choke to death one night," he explained in that concerned oncologist voice. "You don't want to come to her apartment and find her dead. Let somebody else do that."
The doc did have a way of snapping a person to attention, and that is how Jay, her brother and I decided it was time to make a move.
The trouble was, she didn't remember.
Jay was really, really sick and out of it after the docs gave her a huge bolus of radiation.
One minute, she was her lucid and sharp self, the next she was buzzing around her hospital cubby looking for something that was right in front. Thanks, cannabinoids!
To me, time was of the essence. I needed to find her a place and get her moved -- stat. And so I began the thankless task of sorting through another person's life, and making decisions without her.
It didn't help that Jay was a bit of a pack rat. She had some of her mom's clothes, sleeves of golf balls, and two pairs of golf shoes, size 5 -- and I had never seen her play golf in 30 years!
Finally, I got the job done, and came back to her hospital room.
She leaned over, and put her little hand on my wrist.
"After I'm out of here, we'll go back to my place, and I'll tell you what to keep," she said, trying to focus her rheumy eyes on me.
Holy shit, I thought.
How can I tell her that the only things left in her apartment were the drapes?
And that's when the lying began.
It was heartbreaking, but I promised.
A few days later, we moved her into Hunt Club Manor, and she was surrounded by all her nice things: the paintings, her furniture...everything except all the pack rat stuff.
She was still agitated, and fearful.
She kept insisting on returning to the scene of the crime, the place she left by ambulance with none of her memories.
I kept hoping she'd forget, but she didn't.
Weeks went by, and I kept putting her off.
"We have lots of time," I said. "Your lease doesn't finish til the end of the year."
I felt like a dream thief, a scallywag, and a no-good sinner deserving of anything Dante could possibly throw at me in the afterlife.
I've been known to tell a lie or two, in my life, but this was different.
I was lying to a cancer patient and it was eating me up inside.
I fought with myself, night after night. I reasoned that I wasn't lying for my own personal gain or redemption in her eyes.
I was lying to give her hope.
Then I thought back to a small incident that gave me my own version of hope.
I was sitting on her bedroom floor one afternoon, and sorting through her drawers, as well as bags unopened from her last move, the one she made after Roger died. I was hot, and tired, and dispirited.
I reached into the back of the closet and found a big yellow gym bag.
I opened it, and found a treasure trove of black and white magazines.
It was full of porn.
Not just any porn, but 1970s porn, displaying antics of people all shapes, sizes and genders.
I was stunned.
How could Roger have left this for poor Jennette?
And how could he have left it for me to get rid of?
I began to laugh, harder and harder.
What the hell was I going to do with this?
I marched the bag down to the dumpster in her apartment and the bin was locked.
So I had to leave the bag out in public for anyone to pick up.
I snickered at the thought of the maintenance guys opening the damn thing and seeing a guy with a blonde with his wang hanging out.
I left it, and sped home.
A few days later, I mentioned the incident to my son Stef, who lives in the same building.
He just shook his head.
"Why did you get rid of it?" he asked. "That stuff's worth a lot of money!"
I remember another thing about that day.
I remember thanking Roger for bringing me out of my doldrums. It was as if he had reached down and slapped me on the back of the head.
"Come on, kid," I heard him say. "It ain't all that bad. Go home and have a beer!"

The day I confessed my sin to Jennette -- the lie about her apartment -- we were having some libations in the afternoon after working on some paper work.
"You know, I'm so sorry that you have to go through all of this," I said tearing up. "You are such a good person -- you don't deserve it."
"Well," she said. "I brought it on myself."
Then I saw the sly grin.
"But I don't regret one minute of my life. I enjoyed every damned cigarette. I loved them all."
I can't explain it, but it was as if she'd given me a signal.
Truth or dare. I tell you, you tell me.
I blurted out the whole thing about her apartment.
She just shrugged and took another draw of her cocktail.
"Oh well," she said with a wave of her hand.
After that, I couldn't stop talking. And I had to tell her about the little treasure I found at the back of the closet.
"I do have a funny story," I told her. "When I was packing up, I found a bag of Roger's porn. I mean, really, Jennette...did you know about Roger's porn?"
"What do you mean?" she grinned. "Oh, you mean our porn?"
And then she began to tell me a few stories that I won't share here.
We laughed, and drank, and talked about the good old days.
It was as if we'd gotten the band back together, and we were sitting on their deck, trading stories.
There wasn't much I didn't know about the Levetts. Roger often greeted me in his underwear.
But I hadn't known about the porn until that very moment.
And now the circle of hell was complete.
Me, Roger, Jay, and that damned bag of porn.
It bought us even closer together.
But wait, where was the videotape?