Week 18: Cancer in the time of COVID

July 28, 2020

Photo by Min An on Pexels.com

Richard’s in the hospital again this afternoon, and honestly, it’s hard to think about anything else.

Richard is my mom’s boyfriend of 15 years. They met in 2004, and shortly after became bridge partners. He was a retired school teacher, a widower with no children of his own. She was a retired real estate agent, with two grown children and four grandchildren (now five — hello, Elle!). She was also still married to my dad — but as I can attest, it wasn’t going very well. She left my dad in October, and six months later, started dating Richard.

Given the history here, I was predisposed not to like her new paramour. But he turned out to be so likable — kind and friendly, easy-going, and difficult to rattle. My mom can run high-strung and stressed out; in him she found a partner who not only refuses to rise her level of anxiety, but who actually calms her down. “Now, Kris,” he often says, “that’s not a big a deal.” And pretty much always, it turns out it’s not.

(No worries about my father. My mother formally moved out in the morning, and he went on his first J-Date that evening. Two dates a day on the weekdays and three dates a day on the weekend, for two months straight, until he met Joyce in December. This past February, they celebrated their 14th wedding anniversary.)

Richard turns out to have two obsessions: bridge and politics. I don’t know too much about his bridge side, though my mother tells me he’s a great player. But I’m well acquainted with his political fixation. At 81 years old, he’s an old-school Democrat (think Biden, pre-pandemic). A measure of his intensity is that I did not notice a particular uptick in his news diet when Trump got elected. The way we’ve all become attuned to every twist and turn of the D.C. drama? That’s how he was about the Iraq War when I met him, and it hasn’t waned since.

But I don’t know if he’s been tracking the details of the Republicans’ latest coronavirus relief bill, or that Trump just claimed that much of the country is “corona free.” He may be too busy fighting to breathe.

A few years ago, Richard did a preventative scan, and to everyone’s surprise, they found cancer in one kidney. So they went in and took out the kidney and honestly, I barely even noticed there’d been a surgery. He just went on as before, as though nothing much had happened. Two or three years passed, and cancer turned up again, in an adrenal gland. Another surgery, another excision, another shrug, and he was back to his life of politics tracking, bridge with my mom, travel with my mom (sometimes bridge and travel together, when they went on bridge cruises) and walking their rescue dog, Sadie.

Then, in January, his back hurt badly enough that he had my mom take him to the ER. I’m picturing excruciating pain, because nothing less seems to catch his attention. It turned out the kidney cancer had metastasized to his spine and his lungs. That was a bad day, and the days have not gotten appreciably better since then.

There’s been immunotherapy. There’s been the side effects of immunotherapy. There’ve been scans and blood work and more scans. Earlier this month, there was a week in the hospital, followed by about 10 days in rehab, where they tried to increase his weight and strength. Then this morning, he could hardly breath. My mom drove him back to UCLA, where’s he supposed to spend the night. When he comes home tomorrow, it will be with a tank of oxygen.

There’s the hope that the oxygen will make it easier for him to breathe, and give him back some ease in his days. There’s the hope that the treatment the oncologist plans to start on Friday will be the magic bullet we’ve been seeking for the last six months.

Hope feels narrower and more tenuous each day, but — maybe — there’s enough still to clutch onto and try to hold fast.

What’s certain is that this is hard to watch. It’s hard to watch Richard suffer. It’s also hard to watch my mom struggle with his illness. She doesn’t whine and she’s been remarkably composed through these last few months. But Richard has made her happier than I’ve ever seen her in my life, and so I’m not surprised that this has been a brutal journey for her, too.

I’m not sure how to end this post. Sunshine does break through cloudy skies, right? Well, we’re all waiting on the sun.