Attitude isn't everything; it's something, but it's not everything. If it were, then all the valiant people who have fought cancer with everything that they had with which to fight, would have won. To even say such a thing diminishes the spirit of too many courageous souls who did not survive it. And what about the ones who weren't brave? The ones who were scared and angry and whiny and lonely and depressed? Are they somehow less deserving of health?
But the ones who fight it with grace and nobility, they are inspiring, aren't they? My Dad is one of them. At 84, with half a lung gone and with a heart working at about 30% capacity, he has sailed through his first chemo treatment with hardly a symptom. He jokes about losing his hair - "All 5 of them." He says to the oncologist at his follow up, "I really have no complaints." And he means it. He visits the audiologist to be fitted for new hearing aids. He intends to need them for a good long while and I have no doubt that he will.
What rattles my father is the notion that there is even the slightest possibilty that he may not be here to take care of my mother. Mom has dementia. Whether it is Alzheimer's or not, I do not know and I am not sure it matters. What matters is that a former champion bridge player stares at the hand of Uno cards in front of her and struggles to make sense of them while my girls politely look away and wait for her to take her turn. That the woman who was a very good and proficient cook, is now puzzled by the buttons on the microwave. That the expert needleworker has unraveled and re-knit the same few rows of stitches countless times over the past many months. She's angry that my Dad sold her car; "I still have a driver's license. Look at it! It doesn't expire until 2013!" She's weary of doctors: "Why do they keep looking for something to be wrong with me?"
Some days she seems to recognize her limitations, on others, not. When we were on the phone a couple of weeks ago she said to me, "I have a kind of personal question for you, if you don't mind." She hesitated. "What kind of soap do you use? I know there is a kind I like, but I don't know what it is called. You have sensitive skin like I do - what do you use? I need to tell your father what to buy." She no longer cooks at all; Dad does it all. He shops, cleans, does the laundry and monitors her medications.
The family has insisted that Dad get help since he has been recovering from surgery and going through chemo. My siblings and I have all made time to pitch in and help as we can, but the day-to-day remains with him.
Last week, the doctors revealed the results of the recent biopsy of lymph nodes in my mother's neck. They found cancer cells; cancer cells of the type that were removed along with half her stomach 20 months ago. Cancer cells of the type that we thought we wouldn't see again because they "got it all". Mom seemed pretty matter-of-fact about it, but Dad, the eternal optimist, was shaken. We still don't know what the treatment plan will be, as the consultation with the oncologist won't be for a couple of weeks.
Last Friday I accompanied them to yet another doctor for yet another procedure. This time it was to be a scope of Mom's stomach to see what is going on in there and if there are any signs of cancer at the site of the previous surgery. While Mom was being prepped and we were alone, I talked to Dad about what Mom's treatment might entail.
"Dad," I said, "Mom's health isn't as good as yours to start with. She may not be a candidate for chemotherapy."
"I know that," he said.
"It might be, Dad, that they will focus more on keeping it at bay for as long as possible and making her comfortable than on curing it, like they are doing for you. It may be that it has spread so far that it can't be cured."
He hung his head a bit and his lip quivered. He looked away and blinked. "I suspect that may be the case."
We turned to watch the news on the TV in the waiting area.
Afterward, as they waited for the health care aide to pull up the car, I asked my Dad if he had food on hand for dinner, as my sisters had made and frozen quite a few meals for them.
"No," he said, "I am going to the store when we get back." He glanced at Mom.
"I'm going to get some king crab legs and fix them for Mom tonight. I think she'll like that."
Oh, she definitely will. Maybe attitude isn't everything, but it is a lot after all.