with my dad, it's always thumbs up
It’s been three weeks since my Dad went in for his big surgery. Henry and I spent a few days in Toronto, supporting my mom, visiting my dad, and riding the subways. Baba, as Henry calls him, survived the surgery despite his heart condition and actually convinced the doctors to let him go home after only eight days in the hospital. It was a pretty big surgery and lots of pieces of him had to heal, but he is strong and stubborn and I think he impressed the experts. They, the surgeons, had been overwhelmed by how much cancer there was in his tongue and how much it all could have been prevented if he’d been taken seriously sooner. They looked so disheartened when they came out of surgery and told us that they had removed most of Dad’s tongue – when he had gone in believing that he would lose a chunk of tongue on the left side. The surgeons told us that they had decided to treat him as a forty-year-old instead of a seventy-year-old because he struck them as someone who had plans and goals still at his age. So that meant cutting drastically to beat the cancer instead of just gaining Dad a couple more years. It also meant that he lost his tongue and they replaced it with a chunk of muscle from his thigh. So besides having his tongue cut off, his lymph nodes removed, a trach put in his throat, and a feeding tube put in his stomach, he also had a large incision down his leg where muscle had been removed. And the promise that maybe, in a year, he could hope to speak and eat liquids. Maybe, in a year. It took us a couple of days to really break all that to him. And Dad’s response? His usual pppfffffff and a thumb’s up. This guy is my hero.
Know who else is my hero? My mom. This woman is rising to the occasion like nobody’s business. They’ve always been very realistic about what old age could and would mean for them. They have been gallivanting around the world for the past decade, living the dream, and telling me that they had ‘ten good years or so before it could all fall apart’. My mom has never let her painful rheumatoid arthritis slow her down, even though she’s lived with it for thirty years now. She just keeps on following Dad, wherever the next adventure leads them. And this is their current adventure. Mom told me, as we sat there after receiving the difficult news from the surgeons, that she was grateful. Grateful. She was grateful that if something was going to happen to my dad, that she was still well enough to care for him, that she still had her wits and her strength to do what needs to be done. And she has really gone above and beyond in that department. My mom is a nurse. An old-school nurse. She hasn’t practiced hands-on nursing for many years, but boy is she ever doing it now. She is navigating the medical system like a ninja, keeping experts on their toes, and single-handedly ensuring that my dad will not only survive but thrive. Their house is full of medical supplies and machines. She charts and medicates and suctions and swabs. She takes him back to the hospital when necessary and doesn’t leave until he is cared for. She is his protector and monitor and nurturer and gatekeeper and drugpusher. And we didn’t even razz her when she drowned her phone this week for the umpteenth time. She has earned a new phone and I will have lots of time tomorrow to teach her how to use it.
Because tomorrow they are taking another leap of faith in the interest of ensuring the best possible outcome for my dad. We are going back to Toronto General Hospital for more surgery. All the lymph nodes came back negative for cancer, praise the Lord, but they are still going to do six weeks of daily radiation treatment when Dad has recovered, just to be sure. But Dad has decided to take the surgeons’ advice and return to Toronto for another surgery tomorrow. The transplant in Dad’s mouth is not terrible, but it is not excellent at this point. They typically go back in a year later with another big surgery to tidy things up, but as Dad pointed out, why wait? Why not do the surgery now and overlap recoveries instead of waiting to go through all of this again in a year? So, they are trusting that good can become great with some more surgery and tomorrow is the day. They will take more muscle tissue from his other thigh (might as well go for symmetry?) and also find more arteries and veins to feed the ‘tongue’ in his mouth so that he can have a functioning tongue in the months to come. He has already wowed us with his ability to talk without his tongue (try that sometime!) and I can even understand him on the phone! But it’s hard to live without eating. He spends hours each day putting food directly into his stomach through the feeding tube (even his Tim’s coffee!) but it’s not the same as sitting with friends and eating a homemade meal. So, back to Toronto we go. Tomorrow I will sit with Mom again as we spend another long day with other worried families in the surgical lounge. And we will anxiously wait for Dad to give us that groggy thumbs up after he’s out of recovery. Always the thumbs up, always ready for what’s next. Those two amaze me.
Dad and I went out to inspect our bees this morning, for the last time – at least for a while. Russ and I will carry on with the beekeeping this summer, but my dad is pretty busy for the next several weeks. My dad has cancer. This is new for us and while I am getting pretty good at typing it, I am still not okay with saying it out loud. My dad has oral cancer, and he spent months trying to get his various doctors to help him. They failed him and they failed us, and they said that it was just a sore and that he would just have to live with the chronic pain. It finally took a dentist to take him seriously and we are so very grateful because that dentist did his job and did it well. The dentist said ‘this is cancer’, said ‘come back tomorrow and I will biopsy it’, said ‘we will have the results in five days’, said ‘we will have you into Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in a few days after that’ and he was right. The gulf between negligence and excellence is so very, very wide and deep. The professionals at Princess Margaret have also been mind-blowingly kind and brilliant and efficient and optimistic. They first met him last week and his surgery is scheduled for this week. These people don’t mess around or just wait and see. Dad is scheduled for a big 8-hour surgery this Friday. The surgeon will remove the cancerous tumour at the back of his tongue and he will finally be free of the constant pain in his throat and ear that came from having cancer eating away at the nerve at the back of his mouth. The other surgeon will rebuild his tongue with muscle from his arm and arteries and veins from his leg. It’s a pretty big deal. Throw in dad’s heart condition and this surgery seems pretty scary right now. But my dad is so at peace that his calm courage tends to help the rest of us face this scary thing with a little more faith and a little less fear.
So, what do you talk about on a beautiful summer morning when it’s just the two of you and you don’t want to ruin it by talking about cancer? We talked about honeybees and hazelnuts, Grammie’s doughnuts and flyfishing. We talked about the stock market and ventured just a little bit into what to do with his portfolio should anything happen. But mostly, we didn’t talk. Dad and I never really need to talk. We love our comfortable silence. Today he even let me hold his hand a bit while I was driving, until he reminded me that my hands should be at ten and two. Safety Bob is always on the job.
The bee inspections went off without a hitch. Our homemade hive feeders worked brilliantly. A few naysayers on the beekeeping forums had heckled me for my McGivered hive feeders and told me that many bees would drown trying to get at the syrup. We figured it was worth a try and that we would just wait and see if it worked. Well, the verdict is in and I call it a win. Nineteen hive inspections revealed that only a couple of dozen bees had drowned, and mainly in just a couple of hives. I have no idea why certain hives would have more trouble than others, but so few bee deaths was a relief. Feeding the bees was important to us because the drought has really limited the availability of nectar for our bees this summer. Now, all our hives are growing quickly with gorgeous honeycomb filling up the boxes, frame by frame. For those who have been asking, we will likely start harvesting our first batch of Bishop Family Bees honey by the end of the month.
Pleased with our healthy hives and our own efficiency, we packed up our gear at the last beeyard and were heading home for lunch when I heard from Robyn at Devon Acres. He said that shortly after we had left his farm, they had observed a large black cloud of bees hover over our hives and then head for the woods. A swarm!!! Now, I have been waiting to hear from someone, anyone, about a swarm because this year I think we are equipped to capture one. And if I capture a swarm, it will replace the hive that died. I have the perfect, pretty hive in St George, just waiting for a swarm. But I never wanted one of our own hives to swarm! And that is exactly what appeared to have happened. We raced back over to Devon Acres and located the swarm on a low-hanging branch of a tree at the edge of the woods. It was an ideal scenario for a swarm capture and we quickly gathered the necessary tools for removing the branch and nabbing the bees. But first, we wanted to check and see what was happening at our hives and determine which hive had swarmed. It didn’t really make sense that any of our hives would have swarmed because they aren’t crowded, having started as such small colonies to begin with. And we couldn’t identify any change in behavior for any of the hives, except for one hive that had many bees out front, vigourously ventilating the hive with their wings. Other than that, there didn’t seem to be any bees missing. We trudged back through the long grass to the tree at the edge of the woods where we soon discovered that the swarm had disappeared. It was gone. A few stragglers buzzed around, as if to say ‘Wait a sec, this is the spot, where is everyone?’ But the swarm was gone. After fifteen or so minutes of searching through the woods for the missing swarm (I may have been distracted by some yummy blackcaps), we gave up. There’s no way to know if the bees that swarmed were ours. Some things just don’t make sense and all you can do is wait and see.
When you are a doer and a fixer like I am, the wait and see situations in life are pretty hard to sit through but I am learning to take it as it comes! We Raymers embrace most challenges pretty enthusiastically. As a family, we are ready for this next big challenge and certainly have a great team cheering us on. My parents have always shown up for people, offering support, service, sympathy, and, more often than not, salmon. So their support network is pretty extensive and we are so grateful for all the offers of help and well wishes and prayers. For all those who sent up so many prayers on behalf of Baby Henry three summers ago, I am asking again for your prayers as Dad heads into surgery this Friday morning and as he endures a fairly tricky recovery. He will have a tracheotomy and a feeding tube since the swelling will make breathing and eating impossible for a couple of weeks. Mom will spend the next couple of weeks in Toronto with him, and then he will recuperate at home in Elmira. Henry and I will visit as much as possible, although I’m not sure a hospital can withstand Hurricane Henry. I guess we will find out. So much remains to be seen.
Kari Raymer Bishop
Lover of Jesus, cheeses and tropical breezes... seeking balance in life, even as I embrace new challenges and chase new dreams. I am wife, mother, daughter and friend, as well as teacher, entrepreneur, activist, writer, beekeeper and hostess. Come along on the journey through my long-awaited midlife crisis!