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.
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!