My dad and I had always been close, but our relationship was suffering from overexposure. In fact, when I called him that morning I didn’t even really want to talk to him. I was in a rush, getting ready to go on a trip and I’d hoped to just leave a message. I just wanted to tell him one quick thing, but when he answered, I forced myself to slow down enough to start with “How are you?”
“Not good. The firemen are here. I gotta go,” he said brusquely, his voice tight with either irritation or stress.
My jolted brain started jumping. Was there a fire? Did something happen to my mom, who’d had a stroke two years earlier and who was still at risk for falls? A false alarm? I didn’t at first consider something could be wrong with my dad himself. He’d had knee surgery earlier in the month but even so, he was more stable on his feet than he’d been in years.
Since my dad had just proven (again) that he was the kind of person who would answer a call in the middle of a fire or medical emergency, I waited 15 long minutes before calling back to see what was going on. He was in an ambulance.
“They think it might be a blood clot,” he said. “My leg is really tight. It blew up last night and I started to get a little concerned, so I called 911.”
I didn’t know what to say or think. It sounded serious. There was also his choice of words: “I started to get a little concerned.” For my easy-going father, this was shorthand for “panicked.” And if he was worried, I was worried. I was worried about him, of course. But I was also worried about my trip. Was this serious enough to cancel my trip to New Orleans – the one my husband and I take without our young children? The one I’ve been looking forward to for months?
I had about 90 minutes to decide, so I called a doctor friend. She reminded me that blood flows around a body and that clots can, too. (Oh. Yeah.) “That’s the reason to worry,” she said. On the other hand, “the only thing to do about it is go to the hospital and run tests, and he’s already on his way there.” That was reassuring. I guess.
“The most important thing is to figure out why he’s clotting,” she said. That sounded more obvious than ominous, probably because I didn’t know anything at the time about possible causes of clotting.
I made a few frantic phone calls and lined up caregivers for my mom since my dad probably wouldn’t be home that night to help her. Then I called my brother, who lived about 40 miles away. He said he’d clear his calendar and come in to help. I knew from experience that there would be scans and other testing to do at the hospital. If I stayed, I’d be spending lots of time waiting bedside. And I’d already done a lot of that in the past few years since my otherwise healthy dad was diagnosed with cancer and my active mom was disabled by a stroke.
After an hour of pacing my apartment weighing options, I decided to go to on the trip. I didn’t expect much news from the hospital, but that didn’t stop me from calling on the way to the airport, at the gate, and after my flight landed.
I tried to relax. Winters are long in Chicago, and our annual trip to the New Orleans Jazz Fest gave us an early taste of spring. The trees were flowering, and the air didn’t smell like ice. Without winter clothes on, I could feel the air swirling around my arms and legs for the first time in months. Usually, I felt the stress start to melt away as soon we checked into our favorite hotel, and the music, food, and street side distractions put me in another world. This trip, though, no distraction was enough to detach me from what was going on in Chicago.
My brother called me with an update: “It’s a massive clot. It’s all the way up his leg and they’re checking now to see if it’s in his lungs.” I’d read by now that blood clots could be fatal. I’d also read that blood clotting is common in patients with cancer.
The details get fuzzy after that. I’m sure they started blood thinners. I’m sure they told me to stay where I was and enjoy the weekend.
The next day, at the fairgrounds, I remember plugging my ear to block out the music and pressing my phone to my other ear as my brother gave me another update.
“They think there might be something else. In his lungs,” he said.
“What?! Like what?” I asked, partly because I thought I couldn’t hear, and partly because I didn’t want to.
“Lung nodules. Like cancer. They’re not sure, though. They’re going to get his last scans and compare them,” he said. Alabama Shakes was playing at the next stage over. I wished my body could produce sounds like Brittany Howard. If I could sing like that would it let the pain out? Would it heal the hurt? A part of me had been dreading this day since my dad was first diagnosed.
Confirmation came the next day, right before The Revivalists hit the Gentilly Stage. Tears rolled down my face as I stood watching the band rip through Criminal. The crowd was jumping and dancing all around me as my brother told me they had confirmed there were in fact lung nodules (and oh yeah, blood clot) in my dad’s lungs, and those nodules were not present on his last scans a few months prior.
Two years ago, after aggressive rounds of chemo and radiation, he’d had surgery which was to remove cancer from his body. His doctor had congratulated him and encouraged him to consider cancer a thing of the past. And yet, by all appearances, here it was again.
I wasn’t surprised, because I had foolishly read a lot of medical research when my father was first diagnosed. Five-year survival rates for patients whose cancer is discovered in Stage III are really low. I had been expecting this day, and assumed it was coming – but I knew that wasn’t true for my mom and dad.
“Five years is the average,” my dad had said when he was first diagnosed. “I’m not average,” he’d joked, after a beat.
My parents had thought we were done with cancer. Apparently, it wasn’t done with us.
NOTE: This is the first in a series. If you’d like to see the next installment, please join my mailing list.