New York City, New York, United States (Spring 2011)
Joe and Maggie Schwarz
“Are you guys watching basketball? Would anyone mind if I brought my dad in here to watch tennis at 3:30?” It is a rainy Father’s Day in the visitor’s lounge on the twelfth floor of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The few boys occupying the lounge tell me it will be okay to switch channels when my dad arrives.
The lounge is a great treat. The large TV set allows us to indulge in Dad’s favorite pastime—now that he can no longer play. Here, we can see the ball, which is impossible on the tiny overhead TV in his room. And finally unattached to an IV, he can actually watch a full-size TV in a room with a sofa and chairs, just like at home. For Father’s Day, a volunteer brings in a cart of tea and cookies, and when dinner arrives, he will be able to eat it at the coffee table. I am thrilled at the fun time he will have. I search for the cable station that the TV listings say will be airing a tournament from Monte Carlo. At first I do not find it on the station the newspaper indicates. Aha! Got it. Before us appears an overhead shot of two pros repositioning themselves on a clay court, the clay dug up in angry tufts. It is as rainy in Monte Carlo as it is here.
The crowd on this floor, including visitors, is young. A walk through the halls, where patients’ ages are posted on ID tags outside their rooms, reveals mostly men in their thirties. This is the group that gets Hodgkin’s disease, the predominant cancer of the twelfth floor, which is dedicated to leukemia/lymphoma patients. Few patients are in their seventies like my dad. The nurses also tell me it is primarily a medical treatment floor; floors that deal in solid tumors are oriented toward surgery. Lymphoma is a liquid tumor; it courses through the blood.
The afternoon is going beautifully. Everyone in the lounge tolerates the blaring volume that I have set on the TV. My dad’s hearing has worsened over the years, and I am not even going to ask him if he has his hearing aid on. The match, between a seasoned Frenchman and a young Slovakian, transfixes Dad. The score is close, and there are two hair-raising tiebreakers. Perfect. The younger, Slovakian player, Dominik Hrbaty, has a round, childlike face—cool, expressionless, fearless. The older, French one, Cedric Pioline, is a gritty, unshaven guy with long hair and a bandana, well into his thirties. He is riled by the ease with which the youngster wins points off him. But experience prevails; Pioline beats Hrbaty.
Dad’s dinner arrives in his room, and I bring the tray into the lounge. By this time the Monte Carlo match is over, and a women’s match from Hilton Head is on. Lately Dad has been enjoying women’s matches more than men’s. Says the angles are sharper. We have been watching tennis now for almost three hours, and Dad is not even tired. Visitors come and go. I yearn to know their stories. Who are they here for? What’s the prognosis? How is everybody holding up? But my dad insists on quiet so he can concentrate on the match, and I acquiesce.
An old man rolls his wife in. He sits behind her wheelchair and strokes her back. Her mouth hangs open; her gaze is fixed at nothing in particular. Raising her gaze from the floor would be too much of an effort. I wonder what flows through her IV; I try to imagine what it is like to be on chemotherapy. Some of the agents, such as cisplatin, are derived from metal. I wonder if they make you feel cold and steely and metallic like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. In the background, I hear patients gagging from nausea.
The match ends. My dad announces he has finished eating despite having picked at his tray. My stepmom instructed me twice in the past 24 hours to force him to eat, but I do not try to dominate him. He is my father after all. He is the boss. As he gets up from his chair, he shouts, “Aagh,” and runs to the bathroom. Explosive diarrhea. He calls to me to bring him a fresh pair of shorts from his room. He emerges, shaken, from the bathroom. It turns out the nurse had given him stool softener to move his bowels. Dad is seething mad.
Two days before, he erupted in diarrhea while eating dinner. Having just returned from a CAT scan, he was warm and comfortable in his plaid, wool robe and cozy-looking slippers. Chatty and optimistic, he mentioned that he would be here for just a few days longer to get rid of water on his lungs. He commented that the food could be worse. As he rose after eating, he dashed to the bathroom, trying to cover his backside. But he could not contain the onslaught. I brought him a towel and soap, and a woman from housekeeping came in to clean up. The diarrhea had been caused by the contrast medium he drank before the CAT scan.
Dad is hospitalized for a complication of a complication. Chemotherapy led to infection, and Dad has been fighting fungal pneumonia for over a month. The antibiotic must be given with two hours’ worth of water infusion because it is toxic to the kidneys. The water fills his lungs, and he coughs, making a gurgling sound. Oral sores are another complication that leads to further complications. Because of the sores, patients do not eat, lose weight, get dizzy on their feet, and become bed- and wheelchair-bound. Are there complications of complications of complications?
Is this what cancer is? Tremendous ups, during which you feel okay—make plans, fill your calendar—followed by sudden declines and gushes of diarrhea. Do you launder your pants or throw them out? Do you send your favorite, now stench-ridden, robe home with your spouse in a plastic bag, or just trash it? You yearn to stay clean and dry, to return to yourself, yet the setbacks arrive faster than the advances.
Dad is 76 and has had lymphoma for four years. He has lived a good life: he built a successful manufacturing business, remained married to my mother for 43 years until she died, raised two kids, played a mean game of tennis for 60 years—measures of success of many men of his generation. He also chain-smoked for 40 years, had a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet, stress, and two heart attacks. Viewed objectively, he is lucky to have lived this long. He has outlived most American men, who reach an average age of 73. Yet I beckon, “Daddy!” It is so scary to see him out of control, and the thought of his not being around is unimaginable. He has always been here, for better or worse, like a rock. Impossibly difficult and cantankerous at times, but very much here.
MAGGIE SCHWARZ is a freelance medical writer living in New York City. She has written pharmaceutical promotion, summarized medical literature, and covered medical conventions for 25 years. She began her career editing medical textbooks and progressed to medical journals and medical advertising. When not writing, Maggie can be found running in Central Park, swimming, or playing tennis.