I wrote this blog post quite a while ago. It looks nothing like it once did. Neither does my mind, for that matter. As tightly as I cling to the idea of how cancer punished Jimmy, as much as I want to remember the lesson of how fleeting our chances can be, I still find myself incredulously shaking my head at disbelief at how life doles out its reward and pains.
This blog post was longer by a factor of 5, if you can believe it. I’m tired of seeing it in my draft file, challenging me, reminding me that I’m not supposed to be a perfectionist or concern myself so much with presentation. Jimmy would tell me to “fire that thing off” and light up a cigarette, laughing at me. I deleted about ten minutes of reading; I regret doing it now, but like life, it serves no purpose to focus exclusively on what we lost. I can hit “save” on this blog post and get up to have a cup of coffee. It would be a joy to be able to go have a cup with Jimmy, watching him pace the concrete outside, smoking, chatting, and wondering out loud what might happen next week.
A couple of years ago, I Jimmy was dying of cancer. His journey with the disease was like so many other people’s. He initially was defiant, suffered through the uncertainty and treatments, remission, followed by the punch of a relapse and of the reality of it coming back to get him. I wish he had followed through on his initial plan to write about his experiences, even if all he used was Facebook. Those words would be comforting to me now, even if writing carelessly or negligently. They would be his words, allowing me to hear his voice in my head, walking me through his choices in life. He told me differing reasons as to why he stopped doing it after just a couple of entries. Fear and fatigue were definitely factors in his reluctance to share. When his cancer recurred, I think he knew he might have to admit defeat; defeat as he saw it, anyway. Jimmy didn’t want to write a story of defeat, even if no one else would have read his story in that light. Someone once said that life is inevitable defeat but the game can still be enjoyed.
When Jimmy’s cancer came back, he went through intense denial about the likelihood of dying. I don’t blame him. Jimmy’s faith was supposed to insulate him from further abuse from the disease. In many ways, the cancer returning stunned Jimmy, as he had worked out promises to god in his head about using his new opportunity in life and take advantage of it, more so than he had done before when he had lost focus on the frailty of our lives. I do believe that his intention was to figure out a way to parcel out his experience with cancer and share it in the best way he could – had he survived.
Jimmy was also especially at odds with the idea that smoking, dipping or drinking could have had any effect on his cancer’s development. He continued to smoke during his remission and when the cancer came back to attack him. Jimmy loved to smoke. It defined the personal moments in his life, shaped his day into increments of being alive. It is a habit he learned from his mother, a million cigarettes into her lifetime. To be clear, I don’t fault Jimmy for continuing to smoke after his diagnosis. It would be easy for me to jump on it and preach about it – but smoking isn’t something that is easily set aside. When you are facing your demise, anything that can ease the pain of dealing with it is twice as hard to kick off one’s back. Each of us gets to decide how we would handle the slow death spiral that comes with cancer. No matter what I would write about it now, the truth is that I can’t say definitively what I might actually say or do if I were in his shoes. I know that if smoking is what kept Jimmy saner while dealing with cancer, I will not judge.I always knew that when his urge to smoke waned, he was ready to let life slip past him.
We couldn’t get my cousin to make choices about the rest of his life, as he was so focused on his self-affirmation of survival. Trying to get him directed toward further treatment or hospice was an admission of defeat for him. His stubbornness interfered with the quality of his life in the last few months. He was lucky to have his girlfriend during this – and my cousin misbehaved enough that it was a constant surprise that he kept her around. Jimmy had the infamous Terry attitude and the anger that gave him rein to lash out when he didn’t feel well. The medication he was on liberated his temptation toward anger. For a time, he did his best to drive away his girlfriend. But she stuck with him through it all. Jimmy threw her off her orbit sometimes, but she was still circling, connected to him. Despite Jimmy’s issues before with his girlfriend, I kept reminding him of the urgency of being alive and respecting those who had been steadfast in their support and helping him.
When I went over after work to see Jimmy and discuss hospice and options with him, he knew that I was there to be honest with him. One thing Jimmy could always expect from me was honesty, even if it was the type of truth that made him say “Ouch!” and even when I thought he was being dumb. Jimmy had been missing the doctor’s guidance toward hospice and focus on quality of life for as long as he might continue to survive, and insisted that the decision to discontinue all his chemo and radiation treatments again was a positive sign and that he was going to live through it. After considerable setbacks with another round of chemo and a few hospitalizations, Jimmy’s doctor ended treatments and prescribed hospice, with the expectation that Jimmy follow-up accordingly. When we left the treatment center, Jimmy was already talking about how good of a sign it was that his treatment was ending – that it meant that he was going to get better. It was a terrible moment, one with fangs at my throat. Even for me, it was a minute of two of suffocating desire to run away from it.I aged a year or two in those moments; my normal confidence had fled and I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes.
(In an attempt to be clearer, the objective of me talking to Jimmy wasn’t to dishearten him or to in any way ‘preach’ at him. The objective was to get him to change his focus toward a better understanding of his choices and options for the remainder of his life. His denial of some things was directly hurting his medical situation and those around him.That being said, it was his right to do what he wanted.)
Finding the words to get Jimmy to listen to me was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do. I made an impassioned and heart-felt attempt to get through to Jimmy to take the first step toward accepting hospice treatment and shifting his focus toward making decisions while he still could. Jimmy had already witnessed and suffered the effects of his mom recently becoming ill and dying fairly quickly. She died without much of her wishes, medical or material, known – this in turn, caused Jimmy a LOT of horrible issues with some family, all of which could have been sidestepped with minimal preparation. I never could get Jimmy’s mom to follow through with a living will, a regular will, or any of the other necessary decisions and planning. She was a very smart woman but for whatever reason, didn’t follow through, leaving Jimmy to suffer the consequences with another family member whose motivations were less-than-reputable, in my opinion.
Jimmy felt that admitting he needed hospice was the first step toward acceptance of his death. Jimmy had all the hospice information there at the apartment with him. I walked him through what had happened, what his doctors had been trying to tell him, as well as all his options, where he could live and how he could continue to expect his family and friends to help him.
“You think I’m going to die, don’t you?” was Jimmy’s response. It broke my heart for a while to hear him ask in such a plaintive, accusatory tone. “Yes,” I told him. “Your cancer is going to win, sooner rather than later.” I reassured him that in reality, little had changed – that the only difference between the present and five years ago was that he could be assured his death was to be sooner rather than later. We talked about his renewed faith and how he could use that to focus himself on living the rest of his life the way he needed to.After talking to Jimmy at length, I told him that a pastor was coming over to talk to him and to ask him any questions he might have, and that we could figure out how to help him get as much choice out of his life as was feasible. Praying and offers of comfort were supposed to be part of the equation, too. Jimmy’s outlook was immensely more optimistic and informed. We talked about how beautiful the Hospice Lodge was and Jimmy kept saying he needed to go spend at least one night there. He also spoke of understanding how his medication and frustration were making him lash out at Alissa and the girls and how having Noah see him that way wasn’t what he wanted in his memory. Then, the pastor arrived. The comforting acceptance vanished…
The pastor came over to get my cousin to listen to the necessity of making plans for how to spend the rest of his life in comfort, as well as making all the decisions to take care of his girlfriend and son, as well as all his things, before leaving us. When the pastor arrived, instead of talking to Jimmy as both a comforter and counselor to help him make plans, he used the opportunity to pray with Jimmy, insisting to God that his cancer would be taken from him and to focus only on surviving the disease. No mention was made of hospice, what course of treatments were left, or any discussion of the decisions Jimmy should focus on. The literature regarding hospice was ignored and after the pastor left, no further mention was really made of it. I had hoped, too, that the pastor could make a personal connection with Jimmy about not letting his disease continue to anger him and affect his bond with his girlfriend and her two children. I was very frustrated that the pastor missed his chance to address all the other needs and things Jimmy needed to hear.
His method was full of vocal holy spirit and not focused on counseling. I don’t understand it. Maybe I’m not supposed to.
(Sidenote: If Jimmy could come back for a day and listen and see what the consequences are to his not having made certain decisions back when he could have…To this day, over 18 months later, people he wanted to protect are still dealing with the aftermath of it. Jimmy would not be happy about it. I would look him in the eye and call him a goofball for not taking the lesson of his mother’s death and how his half-sister behaved and using it to make better decisions. I tried and tried from the outset to get him to use his mom’s example to motivate himself to make the decisions he wanted, to disclose them to everyone who would need to know, and to face the mortality. He wanted Noah to have things, but he also wanted Alissa to not have to stress. That’s why he chose to marry her so late into his life. Not out of fear and not out of regret or obligation; rather, as an affirmation of life and the realization that he was going to go ahead of his time, even though he had so much more to live for. I’m both surprised and amused by how a couple of people behaved, even after his passing. Jimmy made his declaration loud and clear when he married Alissa. It would embarrass me to step up and fight against his wishes in this instance, were I not observant enough to look at his life and see that his marriage signaled his priorities and his wishes.)
Until right up before Jimmy died, he would look at me and say “I’m not dead yet,” or more likely, “I ain’t dead yet.” The last few times he was half-joking, just to get a rise out of me. He even asked me the day he got married. When Alissa, Jimmy and Alissa’s dad and step-mom dropped by the house one afternoon, as tired as Jimmy was, he looked me dead in the eyes and said “I ain’t dead yet” and came into the house.
About a week before Jimmy died, I was certain that he was going to be gone that Saturday. He stopped breathing for what seemed like a minute, his skin grew discolored and his condition could not have been worse. When oxygen arrived, he showed vast improvement. Alissa had to make the decision to give him oxygen or not. Had she not, Jimmy would have left us that Saturday afternoon. It would have been a good day to die. The next day, he was outside, smoking, talking about how close to death he had been. It was his Indian Summer, one that afforded him mental acuity and the ability to laugh at the absurdity of it all. “That’s the way to go,” he said. But he wanted to smoke when he work up that next day – a sure sign that he wasn’t ready to dive into death just yet. He had the twinkle in his eye that day.
Someone very close to Jimmy joked that maybe he should have been smoking during his viewing. No disrespect was meant by the comment and it has a harsh truth to it. When I mentioned his mom having smoked over a million cigarettes before her death, it was no exaggeration. Even at 3 packs a day, 365 days a year, over 50 years, it surpasses a million cigarettes.
He died on a March Monday afternoon, in his relatively new home, married, and had not survived long enough to see his son Noah graduate, and without the chance to use the knowledge that cancer had cruelly given him: that all these plans we make, things we hold in esteem are nothing without happiness, health, and people we enjoy in our lives.
Jimmy died months ahead of my mom. For whatever reason, his absence has so far made a much bigger impact on my life than my mom’s passing. I don’t hide this fact or sugarcoat it. I feel like Jimmy could have done a few things so much differently had he lived a few more years. When the cancer came back he was certainly mad and resistant to the idea of dying. But I wonder what might have become of his new marriage and his better job at the Budweiser. It feels like he and might have had a much different appreciation of one another and been around to suffer and appreciate middle age together. Cancer is a scary infection, one which challenges everything you are hoping for and all too easily takes your optimism and burns it in front of you.
I use Jimmy’s suffering to compare how I might react to the same challenges. I know I would not do well.
I work to remember the good and bad times with Jimmy before cancer defined him. His life was a long bookshelf, with cancer being but a blip on one end. It sometimes is so hard to look back and see past the long interlude when cancer start its dance.