One More Summer

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My son was in the kitchen, digging through the cupboards for his beloved pots and pans, when I heard him dump a giant bin of spices on the ground. Upon investigation, I saw that one of the canisters had spilled all over his feet and the floor, giving his white socks an ocher hue and the familiar smell of Doug’s cooking filled the air. Doug was an amazing cook: a man willing to rise every morning before my wife went off to high school to make her pancakes, a man who patiently waited for her (and me) to shed our fickle, teenage palates and expose us to real food. Real cooking with real ingredients that we in our provincial lives had never experienced. From fois gras to phở, Doug was our link to a world of food that involved more than sandwiches wrapped in paper or casseroles that stuck like spackle to your ribs. He was an epicure who once opened his own restaurant. Before he got sick, Doug printed and bound a book of his own recipes and gave it to us with a huge supply of his homemade seasoning, a secret concoction of his favorite spices that we used on potatoes and grilled meat and fish. And then there it was: dumped unceremoniously on the kitchen floor. I stared at it as my child wandered away leaving a trail of dust, a comet of cayenne.

It’s been over a year, I thought. How can we still have his spice---cook with it even---but he is gone? I wanted to scoop it up with my hands, but instead I vacuumed up the secret seasoning, acutely feeling the loss of him, the emptiness now occupying the space he’d held in our lives, disappearing like the dust at my feet. In my mother-in-law’s freezer there are still a dozen or so Tupperware containers packed tight with meals he cooked, the frozen slivers of onions he chopped with his own hands mingling with tomatoes he gently inspected in his palm at the market. How can this food still be here, when we’ve been without him for so long? She will not eat this food, even if it means letting it all go to waste. She still needs it in there, taking up that space. His closet is still full of his clothes on their hangers. He died while we were on our way to visit him, and I had to borrow a pair of his nice shoes for the funeral.

* * * * *

Initially they told him it was probably nothing; heartburn, perhaps, a diagnosis the bumbling staff at the small hospital probably makes by default at the tail end of the holidays. When the pain in his leg persisted they thought it might be a blood clot. They still sent him home. Days later, when the pain moved to his right arm a battery of tests showed it to be the unwelcome diagnosis that sent everyone scurrying to google adult leukemia, disbelieving that a man who'd been so healthy and robust for the holidays a week earlier could suddenly be associated with that word.

A cancer diagnosis isn’t what it used to be. There are so many survivors, both high-profile people and those you know in your every day life. When we heard the word cancer our minds started whirring with thoughts of everyone we’ve known who had fought that battle. I thought of my college roommate who’d lost his father to inoperable brain cancer during our junior year and then, years later, watched his own wife fight and defeat breast cancer while still in her twenties. Doug’s diagnosis seemed as grim as could be, at least according to the merciless bedside manner of Dr. Google. Doug had Acute Myelogeneous Leukemia. There was no surgery that could be performed, no cancerous growth to be removed and compared to something you’d find in the produce aisle. This was an enemy hiding in his bone marrow and blood. We were told up front that things were really bad and that he probably only had a couple of weeks. Just like that, it went from a blood clot to two weeks to live. Everything we found on the web reaffirmed that hopes were dim. Even with the most aggressive treatments, less than 15 percent of those diagnosed with this brutal cancer survive more than five years, and we speculated about where he fit in the spectrum of more risky prognostic markers, grasping for anything that sounded remotely positive and secretly despairing at everything else.

Doug refused to believe he would only live for a couple weeks. He immediately agreed to pursue the most aggressive treatment and he was in chemotherapy within a matter of hours after the diagnosis.

For every story of stunning triumph, there are still plenty of staggering loss. That Doug did not survive his battle does not mean his story contains no hope. When you think someone you love only has two weeks left, every day beyond that is another day you didn’t think you’d have with them; as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, despite the ravages of chemotherapy, the doctors were able to give him time. Time to read his granddaughter book after book in the crook of his arm on his hospital bed, on his couch at home. They gave him time to learn that he had a grandson who would be born the following winter, time to see him swell in my wife's belly. They gave him many hours to visit and laugh with good friends. They gave him one more summer with the woman he loved most in the world. There was time to peel back the cellophane on some terrible meals, and time in his own kitchen to cook a few great ones. There was time to think about his life, time to sit with travel books and dream of a trip to Italy with his wife, a trip that never worked out because of the aggressive chemotherapy schedule, but it was a vision that helped get him through the hardest days.

The doctors who led Doug through this battle were warriors who’d seen it time and time again, though they never gave the impression that this disease wasn’t something they could destroy in him. Doug was an electrical engineer and a unabashed computer nerd who found great comfort in charting his own progress with spreadsheets and graphs, rising and falling counts of white blood cells, hemoglobin, and platelets all of which resembled the emotional roller coaster that he and his wife described in those precarious days of treatment that followed fevers and infections but led to the possibility of a bone marrow transplant. His own scientific background helped lead Doug to a dizzying understanding of the drugs that were killing the leukemic blast cells in his bone marrow. Instead of having a patient's eyes glaze over while they described a new "gemtuzumab ozogamicin" and how it might affect "basal metabolic organ functions," the oncologists and hematologists found Doug to be a fascinated patient who held as much hope and confidence in the science as they did, often following up by reading the latest research on his laptop from the hospital bed during treatment.

To the doctors and the patient, this fight was always worth it. Hope was never fruitless. The chemo tore him down time and time again, but he fought on. Every night was another to spend with his wife at his side, while the night nurses looked the other way when she climbed up into the bed to hold him. Every day brought new messages of support and love from all around the country on his CarePage. Even at the peak of chemo side effects, Doug wrote about how wonderful a particular summer day felt on his skin.

There was a brief remission. There was the discovery of a perfect bone marrow match and a willing donor. But as preparations for the bone marrow aspiration progressed in Ann Arbor, even when hope was strongest, everything suddenly took a turn for the worse. Doug suffered a stroke and died just days before his 62nd birthday: ten grueling, blessed months after they first told us he might only have two weeks to live.

* * * * *

It's not my place to talk about grief. My mother-in-law still cries every day. She walks the Relay for Life, still keeps in touch with the doctors and the nurses who tended her husband through those months, and attends gatherings of survivors and those who lost loved ones on the same floor where her husband died.

I'll go whole days where I don't think about those months, days filled with petty worries and trivialities. Then, in the kitchen, I'll see his cookbook on the shelf, and remember all the time he'd spend on food, all the meals we ate with him. I'll remember the advice he gave during those final months. Go outside if it's warm. Hug your loved ones. Enjoy a good meal.

And then sometimes I'll take his cookbook down from the shelf, and start thumbing through the pages.

[The American Cancer Society recently asked my wife and I to write about how cancer has affected our lives in conjunction with a campaign to raise awareness about the good that this organization has been doing for 96 years. Although anyone reading this site for a while knows about the loss of my wife's beloved stepfather over a year ago, we haven't written about it much here. We are taking this opportunity to do so, knowing that so many others have similar stories, with hope that one day even the battles that were lost will be remembered for helping us get to a place where many more are won.]