This day was the culmination of a couple of intense weeks as we made an old, familiar trek to Baltimore to see My Sweet Mama’s Cancer Doctor.
Ziv Gamliel, of St. Joe’s Medical Center performed an eleven hour surgery on Mama eight years ago yesterday. And through that day and the unbelievably difficult days that followed, he developed a deep respect and resounding affection for this diminutive little woman, pulling out all the stops when it came to his expertise as a doctor, doing anything within his power and within his intuitive acumen to help her through a disease that was, at least eight years ago, fatal in nearly 85% of the cases. In fact, on one of the first visits to Dr. Gamliel, he told Mama and Daddy that if this had been only a few years earlier, his advice would be that she should get her affairs in order, that there was nothing he could do.
As it was, there were some things he could do, but they would come at high cost to her and there were no guarantees.
Mama wanted to live. She was willing to do almost anything that Dr. Gamliel suggested. I remember her sitting in the cubicle that was his office, and the look on her face was hope and longing and even supplication. She wanted that cancer out and she wanted to be well again.
On the other side of the room, my Daddy sat. His face was an entirely different study. Profound sadness and resignation were there as well as a strange set to the jaw. I was surprised by the sudden realization that Daddy did not want Mama to have the surgery.
I’ve thought about that day often since then, wondering just why Daddy felt the way he did. I think that at the very bottom of it all was the fact that he really didn’t think it was going to help. He was sure that we would lose her. And another factor that I am sure went into it was that he was always so proud of how pretty his wife was, and I really believe that he could hardly bear to think of her bald from radiation, sick from chemo and sliced up from front to back and up and down with an esophagectomy.
But Mama wanted to live and she wanted the surgery and she wanted to do it right — first a staging proceedure, then five weeks of radiation, two rounds of chemo and then a “cooling off” period for a few weeks, and then radical, 11 hour series of surgeries. And when Daddy saw that she intended to go through with it, he jumped on the band wagon, and drove her to Baltimore five days a week for five weeks for her radiation therapy. He was as pleased as she was when her hair didn’t fall out (Someone PLEASE tell me why! This never has made sense!). But when the day came for her surgery, April 4, 2005, he balked. He didn’t want to take her. So my sister, Sarah and I were the ones who took her. We came into our Daddy and Mama’s house in the wee hours of the morning. Mama was ready to go. Daddy was in his long sleeved pajamas. We stood there in the living room in a circle, and Daddy prayed for us, for Mama, for the day ahead. I wonder now what it felt like to him. He told us later that he really didn’t expect her to live through surgery.
But she did.
And Daddy, fighting his own battle with lymphoma and fatigue began to believe that she just might come home again. That was a big battle, too, as things suddenly went downhill and Mama ended up in ICU on a ventilator for a few weeks and then ended up with a tracheotomy before being allowed to come home, feeding tube in place, restrictions and round the clock nursing care needed. I suspect that Daddy lost hope many, many times over the next few weeks, but he would get up in the morning, fix her coffee the way she liked it, and tried to keep things as normal as possible.
She got better and better, and he was quietly going backwards. I remember him coming into the kitchen one summer afternoon and sitting at the table and barely eating a thing. Then he put his head down on the table and sat there for a long time.
“Daddy,” I said, anxiously. “Daddy, are you okay?”
“I’m just so tired, Sweetie,” he said wearily. “I’m just so tired.” And then he went to bed and slept. My Daddy! In the middle of the day. In the Summer!
Somewhere in my gut a big old ball of ice began to form that day. I knew something was terribly wrong. We did everything we knew to do — changed his meds, saw some specialists in Baltimore, tried to get him to rest more. But it was if he waited until he knew Mama was going to be okay, and then he went on HOME.
Days like today, I give grateful praise for the miracle of Mama — for Dr. Gamliel and his tender, watchful care over her, for his respect and love for her and affirmation and kindness. He readily says that it was not his doings that brought Mama through — that he was only the tools that God chose to use to help her. And I look at his smiley face, and the beard that is turning grayer every year and see his obvious delight in the fact that she is showing no signs of cancer. I am so grateful.
But on days like today, I miss my daddy acutely. It probably has something to do with the fact that the first of my sweet Mama’s siblings (her oldest brother, Harold Wert) will be buried on Monday. I feel the pensive weight of parting especially much right now. It also is that trip to Baltimore, the memories that I cannot elude, the very voice of Ziv Gamliel and his gentle way of relating to Mama like she is his own sweet Mama. He always catches her up on his five lively children, and who is doing what and he speaks of his wife and their Jewish home with a soft and appreciative tenor, making much of their traditions and family times. (I think, “Daddy would enjoy this so much, but he isn’t here!”) But Mama enjoys the telling of it, her eyes sparkling, her smile genuine, and she goes away wavering in her resolve to not go back next year.
And that is a thing to rejoice about as well. She really doesn’t NEED to go back. She is clear of everything. She has no alarming issues, and today when she suggested that maybe she wouldn’t need to go through this anymore, we had reason to praise again when Dr. Gamliel said, “I cannot say if it would be okay or not. We don’t have enough Esophageal Cancer Survivors that survive long enough for us to compile accurate statistics. If you want to know what I think, I think that you will never have cancer again, and that it will be fine for you not to come back. I will say that it is very gratifying to me to see that I was able to contribute in a small way to another year of miracle for you. It gives me great joy to see you. It is truly a great blessing for me. But I also realize that it is monumental effort for you to get these tests every year and to make the trek over. So, I want you to know that I will not be hurt or take it personally if you decide that it is something you just aren’t going to do. We will make the appointment just like usual, and then see how you feel next year. If you don’t want to come, that will be alright.”
Mama hugged his neck, told him again how much she appreciated him and all he has done for her. And then he went into his office and shut the door firmly behind him. And we got our papers and appointments and came home.
Whew! Another year gone. The last eight years seem like such a short time. And when we are all finished for the year, it really does seem like it would be a shame to not go back. We shall see what another year brings.
In the meantime, this is one tired gal. But not even half as tired as my brave sweet Mama who got a clean bill of health for the seventh year in a row. And not so tired as Certain Man who drove the car faithfully and well, and even now is out working on fence. But still tired.
Methinks a nap just might be in order.