Healing in a Kayak
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Love, Hugs, and Chocolate Chip Cookies

I recently messaged someone who is going through an extremely difficult time and said that things like love, hugs, and chocolate chip cookies are what we can hang onto as a reminder that there are people who care. Now I am thinking this would make a great book title. And yes, I just Googled it and nothing came up. Hmmm……..

Alas, I digress. Today required the baking of cookies because I am trying to process something big. The events affecting the above-mentioned person have brought a whole bunch of big feelings bubbling up to the surface for me. This is about one of the worst periods of my life that lasted just under two years.

It started in February 2015 when my dear friend and business partner was diagnosed with glioblastoma. This is one of the deadliest brain cancers known to humankind with a very grim prognosis. For the details of how this panned out you can read this blog post, but the long and short of it was that my whole professional life was turned upside-down overnight.

https://www.healinginakayak.com/uncategorized/for-the-love-of-glioblastoma/

While I struggled to keep a business afloat on my own, my dad suffered a stroke in July. As I am the medical professional in the family, the burden of decision-making around events such as this always falls to me. I had to make a trip out of town at a time when I didn’t really have the time or the bandwidth to do so, but I would do anything for my dad.

When I got there I had to deal with my mom and brother, from whom I had been estranged for over a decade. This is always a life-sucking experience for me. Fortunately my dad’s stroke wasn’t too severe and he was able to return home. He did, however, lose his license which was an extremely difficult blow not only to his independence, but, as it turns out, also to his very identity. My dad used to back 18-wheelers into tight spaces at work without blinking. He drove us across the country and back without once complaining (well, except the day he got caught speeding on the prairies). Driving was a part of who he was.

Over the following months my dad would fall into a depression. He also lost his filter when he had his stroke. So instead of wordlessly taking all the crap my mom would constantly dish out, he started fighting back. This, combined with early dementia, would mean that their house descended into a verbal WWF ring. I have to admit, I’m grateful I wasn’t there to see that.

At the same time, my then father-in-law’s health deteriorated. The summer before he had discovered that a previous cancer had spread requiring major surgery. What followed was a constant parade of serious complications and his health began to deteriorate significantly.

He also lived in different city about two and a half hours away. As things went downhill it meant that my then partner was away almost every weekend to be with her father. I was doing my best at home with two very young children and a floundering sense of where my business was going. I wanted to be there for them but couldn’t.

We tried to keep things as normal as possible for the kids that summer, even planning a short camping trip for a few days. Unfortunately our trip was cut short when my father-in-law was admitted to hospice in August. As he lay dying my partner was at his side with her brother. She had extended her weekend stay a couple of days and was torn as to whether to stay or come home to the children who needed her. In the end she felt her father would have wanted her to be with the kids so she reluctantly left.

When she was halfway home her brother called and while they were on the phone her father died. When she pulled into the driveway I opened the door, the kids excitedly spilling out around me, took one look at her face and KNEW. I couldn’t acknowledge it with any more than a nod since we didn’t want to freak the kids out with a total breakdown.

Somehow we got through the rest of the day and only had a chance to speak after the kids had gone to bed. A few days later we left town with kids in tow to help plan a funeral and deal with urgent affairs. There was a house to be emptied and a thousand things to deal with, all of which required my partner’s absence on the weekends for months.

Also during the last months of 2015 I had some big business decisions to make. We had overhead insurance to cover my business partner’s half of the expenses but only for one year. I had until March 2016 to figure out what to do. I tossed ideas around and finally came to the conclusion that we needed to pay the penalty to get out of our lease and then I would have to find a smaller place.

The next several months involved finding a suitable space, dealing with an incredibly frustrating landlord, hiring an architect to do the floor plans, applying for permits, finding a contractor, dealing with utility hook-ups, and picking out flooring, fixtures, paint colours, and furniture. As I was juggling all of this I was also watching my dear friend slowly lose function.

In February of 2016 my friend’s condition acutely worsened. At the exact time this happened my daughter was hospitalized with a potentially life-threatening rare illness. We had to juggle a kid in the hospital, another at home, and me wanting to go visit my friend. Somehow I managed to carve out the time to spend with her in her final days.

In April 2016, after months of preparation, I physically moved my business. I somehow opened the doors of my new clinic having barely missed a single day of client care. I had done it all absolutely single-handedly with the exception of two friends who helped move the heavy stuff.

I pushed myself forward, having to establish my business in a new neighbourhood. I started working with a business coach and had to learn things like social media that I had never used before. Marketing became a constant shadowy presence looming over my shoulder all the time. I was acutely aware that relocating a business doesn’t always work out.

In December of 2016 my brother called to tell me that my dad was really not doing well. He was very depressed and not engaging in anything. For my brother to actually call me for help meant that things were REALLY not good. We ended up arranging for my dad to come here for a visit over the holidays. I hadn’t seen him in person in quite some time so it was quite a shock to see how he had deteriorated.

At one point he passed out in the bathroom and cut his forehead open. He had an accident all over the floor in the process and needed to be helped up. It was glaringly apparent that he shouldn’t be living at home anymore but what was I to do from here? I tried to talk to my brother about it but he was living so far in denial he couldn’t even see the window into reality from where he stood.

I reluctantly put him on a plane back home after a few days and started immediately looking into retirement residences. I talked to my dad about moving into one here but I knew in my heart he would never leave my mom despite the fact that they should have divorced when I was a kid.

While I was contemplating how to deal with his living situation he landed in the hospital with pneumonia. That was fairly easily treated. The bigger issue was that his brain then forgot how to swallow. He literally could not eat or drink anything without choking. I was able to visit on the weekend but mostly I was dealing with this at distance. While my dad literally starved, the doctors hemmed and hawed about what to do.

I shouldered the burden of healthcare decision-making again and asked my brother to have the attending physician call me. I was in the waiting room at the Eye Institute about to get checked out for a possible detached retina after getting hit in the face with a soccer ball when she called. She basically offered two options – let him starve to death or put a feeding tube into his abdomen. Um, what? There I was fighting back tears in a room full of strangers.

When I got home (thankfully my retina was fine because I most certainly didn’t have time to deal with that) I spoke to my brother. He asked my dad what he wanted to do and he just kept repeating, “I have no choice. I have no choice.” What the heck does that mean?

Seeing as how my dad was not giving us a clear “no” I made the decision to proceed with the feeding tube. I spoke to the doctor again and his surgery was scheduled for early the next morning. Later that day it hit me hard between the eyes. My dad had dementia that obviously was only going to get worse. The only route out of suffering that is open to someone with dementia in the end is to stop eating, and I had just taken that option away from him. What had I done?

I agonized over the decision and its implications. After a sleepless night I stumbled into work. I had just arrived when my phone rang. It was my brother telling me that the hospital had called to say that my dad was really not doing well. He wasn’t sure what was going on but was heading into the hospital right away.

About an hour later he called to say that my dad was unresponsive and on large amounts of oxygen. ICU had been consulted and while we were talking the intensivist came in. He took the phone and told me that test results indicated that my dad had had a massive heart attack during the night. There was nothing they could do. If I wanted to see him I needed to come immediately.

When my brother got back on the line I told him to put the phone to my dad’s ear. He didn’t see the point as my dad was unresponsive but I barked at him to do it. I told my dad I loved him and that I would be there as quickly as humanly possible. I also told him that if it was too hard to hold on until I got there that it was okay for him to go.

With a Herculean effort I pushed the emotions down and forced my brain into action gear as I told my brother to book the earliest possible flight for me. I had to try to keep my shit together while explaining to my first client of the day that I had to leave right away. I also had to cancel the rest of my clients for the day before I could leave. On top of it all freezing rain was forecast for that day so I needed to get out of there ASAP.

I called my partner and asked her to come home and take me to the airport. I went home and while throwing a few things in a suitcase some detached part of my brain was with it enough to consider whether I needed funeral gear or not. Sometimes dissociation can be handy.

When we got to the airport and went to check in, the agent told me that my ID and the name under which the ticket was booked were not exactly the same. I have a first name that I never use, so on most of my ID it’s just my first initial, then my middle and last names. My brother had booked the ticket with my full name and of course I didn’t think to bring my passport for a one hour flight. I think the agent was going to refuse me boarding but then she took one look at my face and paused. My partner jumped in and explained that I was racing to get to my father’s bedside before he took his last breath. Thank goodness she had some compassion and let me go with a reminder to make sure things matched next time.

I sat on that plane trying not to start crying because I knew if I did I was never going to stop. My brother picked me up at the airport and we wordlessly drove to the hospital. The sight that greeted me in the hospital room nearly stopped my heart. My father was breathing like a steam engine. He was using every last ounce of energy his tiny wasted body had in him just to hold on to see me. Where he got the strength to do that after over a week of not eating I’ll never know. At the risk of sounding corny, I guess that’s the power of love.

I crawled right into the bed and curled up next to him, whispering in his ear that I was there and he could rest. His breathing immediately eased and I knew the end wouldn’t be long. My mom and brother are both diabetic and hadn’t eaten so I sent them to the cafeteria. I cherish that time I had alone with him so very very much. I told him I loved him. I forgave him his shortcomings. I told him I understood why he absented himself so often. I told him I knew he loved me more than anything. I told him to let go and be at peace.

About 90 minutes after I arrived it happened. First his breathing stopped. Then I could see his pulse slowing in his neck.

Beat…..Beat…………………Beat…………………………………………….Beat.

The moment his heart stopped a huge ball of energy left his body through the top of his head. It was so powerful it literally sucked all the air out of my lungs. I know that may sound crazy to some but it happened and it will be forever ingrained in my soul. I gave a huge gasp and then completely lost it. I was vaguely aware of the nurse coming in to confirm his death but I just stayed where I was feeling the last warmth from his body.

I eventually Bambi-legged my way out of the bed and down the hall to start making some phone calls. When I returned to the room my mother was trying to yank his wedding ring off his finger. I couldn’t believe it. It was just too much to bear. I asked her to stop but she just kept tugging with no regard for his poor body. I went running to get a nurse to ask her for some lubricant to get the ring off. Her eyes widened and she said that the funeral home would take care of all that but then she saw the look on my face and ran to help.

My father died on a Tuesday and I managed to have all the necessary pomp and circumstance done by Saturday so I could get the heck away from the crazy people. I came back home and went straight back to work on the Monday. Financially I didn’t have much choice. About a week later I had a complete meltdown that I thought was going to swallow me. I scraped my way out of that hole just barely.

Life has gone on since this horrific period, but how much of me is still stuck there? I really only partially grieved my father’s death and I had absolutely no time to grieve the deaths of my friend and father-in-law. Now it’s all catching up to me, interestingly when I actually have the space and time to process it.

What I thought was the February blahs hitting early seems to be something else entirely. Big feelings that we push down will percolate indefinitely. The heat in the percolator never goes away. It’s always on at least a low simmer that colours our lives subtly but surely. Then at some point an event happening around us suddenly cranks up the burner and over it all boils. Well, my pot spilleth over right now and I’ve got to deal with it.

I need to acknowledge how horribly painful all of these events were for me. I need to have the courage to let myself FEEL all that pain and I’ll admit the thought makes me quake. But I’ve always said that the only way out is through. So here I go, accompanied by plenty of love, hugs, and chocolate chip cookies. I know in the end I’ll be okay, but damn the road is hard sometimes.

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