Is it right to hate what I personified?
Having reached an age I never imagined, I’ve gained some insights more or less profound. One is that I try not to hate anyone and to reach for humor as my first weapon when I have to fight. Hating is ineffective and takes too much out of the hater, so I consider avoiding it the norm.
There’s nothing profound in the observation that we — H. sapiens — leave this world pretty much the way we came, huddled in the fetal position and completely dependent on others for everything. A few years ago, I watched my mother in law navigate hospice and now I’m watching my mother do the same.
There’s not that much navigation involved. Mostly, you just hang on for the downward ride. Cancer is something I have personified as I have watched others do. It took many close friends and relatives, but I didn’t really adopt the personification until it came for me. I’m acutely aware that the status of “cancer survivor” is tenuous.
My mother is losing her third battle with cancer. My mother in law lost the second time after being fairly certain she had won. She was reprieved by an inventive gadget called the cyber-knife that has done away with the horrible burns I remember people getting from radiation therapy at the clinic my grandmother had to visit when Mr. Cancer came for her.
They plant a tiny flake of gold — an element our bodies won’t start a fight with — as close to the tumor as they can get. Then they calibrate several death rays, focusing them on the tumor from different directions using the gold flake as a reference point. That’s the preparation for the violent attack on Mr. Cancer.
A death ray beams at the tumor and just before the healthy tissue around the tumor starts to cook, that death ray goes off and another one attacks from a slightly different angle. The patient is lying quietly on a table surrounded by death rays that click on and off in a deadly relay race until the tumor is cooked while the patient remains unharmed by the elaborate weaponry.
All the cancer treatments I know about address this problem of how to kill a tumor without harming the tumor’s host. Chemotherapy involves taking poison in a precise dose that will kill the cancer but not the host. It gives me a little shudder to type that because it’s been so recently I was a “host” to that evil bugger.
Somewhere in the stacks of paper that follow me around because I have not mastered the art of knowing what to toss, there is a handwritten note from my dear friend John Henry Faulk when he was in his cancer fight at a hospital in Houston. There was another fight dominating the news at the time, a fight of the kind in which John Henry was always a reliable warrior.
“I’ve named my cancer ‘Bork,’” John Henry wrote, “because it’s got to be beat.” Robert Bork, the legal scholar who floated the idea that the First Amendment protects only overt political debate but not artistic endeavors, was beaten in the sense that his nomination to the SCOTUS was denied the consent of the Senate.
Bork’s esoteric reading of the First Amendment — long recanted when President Reagan named him to the Supreme Court — was nothing ordinary voters would know. Bork’s mention in the history books was assured on October 20, 1973 — the Saturday Night Massacre.
President Richard Nixon sought to hide his recordings of criminal conspiracy in the White House behind executive privilege, a position under attack by Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Cox was by law an employee of the Department of Justice, so Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Rather than comply, Richardson resigned.
Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General Bill Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Rather than comply, Ruckelshaus resigned.
Nixon then ordered Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox. Bork complied, and Nixon dispatched FBI agents to secure the offices of Ruckelshaus, Richardson, and Cox to the end of sequestering evidence.
Republicans were made of different stuff in those days, when at least some Republicans viewed their first duty as to the Constitution rather than the man who appointed them. Bork’s first mention in history would be his role as backstop to those Republicans who lacked sufficient loyalty to the party.
Bork fired Cox but he surfaced again in 1987 when Ronald Reagan’s attempt to make him Justice Bork failed in a fight so bitter that his name became a political verb, “to bork.” To be borked is to be taken down by a citizenry aroused to the point that the fight could capture John Henry Faulk’s attention in his final illness.
My mother, in her time, did not understand much about the law but she could smell out a crook a mile away. Donald John Trump has succeeded where Richard Milhous Nixon failed in the project of turning the Attorney General into the President’s personal lawyer, and my mother would, if she were able, snark that Trump will need all the lawyers he can get.
I could picture her turning her sharp tongue toward the perversion of the Department of Justice, but she has shrunk mentally as she has shrunk physically. In the Watergate scandal, she saw comedy where I saw tragedy, but before Mr. Cancer throttled her, she had plenty of serious remarks about the man who sabotaged her chance to vote for a woman President.
Sometimes I think she would have been more upset if Mr. Trump had grown into the office and gone down in history as Donald the Adequate. As it is, his corruption is so flagrant it makes him a sitting duck and she was not above taking her shots.
Now I sit and watch her sleep with her legs and arms curled up to her body and she looks so tiny. I smile at a memory I will carry until my time comes of a happening just before she went to sleep.
She was reporting about the tail end of the 24 hours last week within which she thought she would pass but did not. She finally did have some pain, and when the nurse answered the call button she offered my mother what had been authorized by the doctor. My mother understood the choice to be Tylenol or morphine.
I believed that because it was in her chart at her last care meeting and I complained that in most pain she might have Tylenol would be too little and morphine would be too much. They promised to deal with that when the doctor came around.
When I was sitting with my mother that night she expected to die, she had no pain. After I left, some pain had arrived and my mother chose nothing. I had never discussed the Tylenol to morphine problem with my mother, so it was pleasing to see she had the same opinion I had been pressing on her behalf. I was shocked that nothing had been done but since my mother didn’t know about the previous conversation the shock I expressed to her was:
Why didn’t you take the morphine? It may be overkill but it would kill the pain while we arrange something else.
“I wouldn’t take morphine,” she said, “because it’s addictive.”
Steve the son was pissed off, because I thought I had dealt with this, but Steve the criminal justice professor was shaking his head at the degree to which she had internalized the government’s narrative about drugs. This woman thinks she has hours to live and she’s worried about becoming a drug addict!
When I went down to the nurse’s station to raise hell, the fact turned out to be the doctor had taken care of my complaint. When my mother heard Tylanol, the nurse was saying tramadol. Ironically, tramadol is an opioid and so is probably addictive. I will not be telling her that last part.
From her deathbed, she handed me another Wanda story. I have quite a collection. The colorful personality that gave me stories to tell — my stock in trade as a writer — is now a small lump of skin and bones under the covers of her hospice bed, waiting for Mr. Cancer to come and take the rest.
Did I mention how much I hate cancer?
Mr. Cancer does not respect personalities or intellects. He finally got even John Henry Faulk, a first rate talent already in the history books as the man who beat the blacklist.
I was thinking about how John Henry was at least able to get back to his home in Austin and check out while surrounded by relatives and friends. Then it came roaring back into my memory of how Mr. Cancer does not respect talent — one of those friends watching over John Henry was Molly Ivins, another Texas legend. Years later, Mr. Cancer came for her as well.
I hope this explains my lack of optimism when I got my diagnosis…and why I hate cancer.