The Charmed Life (2015)

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I realize now that I had recently considered myself to be living in a bubble, set to repel all the bad stuff of life. Despite the bumpy beginnings of my childhood, things really have been going well for the last couple of decades. Maybe I thought that I had paid my dues early, and that somehow I deserved the rest of my life to be a little bit charmed. Good health, a strong relationship, a great family, good friends and an enjoyable career all fed my illusion of protection. Then came 2015.

We knew that January would be a challenge.  Our fourteen year old daughter had had a series of orthopedic surgeries, and the big one, the one we had been trying to avoid with the prior surgeries, was scheduled for the first week of the new year. Tom and I propped each other up in the run up to these surgeries, assured each other that we were doing the right thing, walked and talked during the procedures and were each others support throughout her recovery. That January surgery was a tough one.  Two nights in hospital, two weeks in bed, wheelchair for the next two weeks and then six weeks of crutches.  Aoife was in a lot of pain and January took an emotional and financial toll; but it was all for a good cause.

Then came February. My aunt Rita, who had been complaining of back pain for a while, went for tests and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  While I planned a summer trip with our three children to spend time with her in Ireland, her health quickly deteriorated, and two weeks after diagnosis she was dead.  An unplanned trip home for two weeks, an unplanned absence from work, an unplanned abandonment of husband and children, and unplanned heartache.  She was one of our favorite people.  We thought that Aoife’s surgery and Rita’s death would be the extent of the year’s challenges.

Then came March.  Tom gets an in depth annual check up at his Fire Department.  His PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels had been rising for a few years and he was referred to a urologist for a prostate biopsy.  Not for a minute did it occur to me that the biopsy would come back anything but clear.  I was wrong, and the test results told us that Tom had prostate cancer. Tom is my bubble – my protection, in a way, and my barometer of rightness – when we are OK, everything is OK.  But Tom wasn’t OK now, and my bubble felt totally popped.

In May, Tom had a radical robotic prostatectomy which totally removed his prostate.  The run up to this surgery was hard. There was a lot of research and reading, and agonizing going on. And of course, none of this stressing and thinking and research was happening in a vacuum; we still had full time jobs, three children, and graduate school to manage. Finally, the tough realization came that the prostatectomy, with all its risks and complications, would be the best way to go.  Other measures might work in the short term, but in the long term we would always be followed by the specter of cancer returning.

The morning of the surgery Tom and I left the house at 5 a.m., the children all sleeping peacefully. We nervously arrived at the hospital and sat in the ironically named, Rapid In and Out Surgical Check In.  Our company was not cheerful. There was an Hispanic woman in her early sixties, tears running down her cheek. A calm looking man in his early seventies with his hand being squeezed tightly by his daughter – he was in for open heart surgery. Mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, and one old man in a wheelchair accompanied only by a hospital orderly.  “See,” I told Tom, “It could be worse”.

Tom’s surgery was scheduled for 7.30 a.m., which would have given us a mercifully short stay in Rapid In and Out, but it got bumped and it wasn’t until about 10 a.m. when we were brought back to pre-op.  As he got into his surgical gown and they attached various monitors and drips to him, I began to feel my stomach quiver. Suddenly, shit was getting real.  Tom’s spirits were kept up by the seemingly never ending train of pre-op nurses who knew him from the Fire Department and his frequent visits to the E.R. transporting patients. The repeated explanations of why he happened to be there as a patient that day, and the, “Oh man, that sucks” commiserations, finally got to me, and a dash to the loo so I could pull myself back together was needed.  But only once.

Finally the time arrived and the surgical nurses wheeled us down the corridor to the O.R.  As our paths diverged and he wheeled to the left, smiling weakly, while I walked on straight to the waiting room, I realized for the first time, that he wasn’t going to be in the waiting room with me, holding my hand through this.  A few friends had offered to sit with me, but I think I refused, believing that this was a Tom and Cathy thing, and that as long as that was the case, I’d be fine.  I hadn’t fully processed that I’d be alone.  That Tom was the patient.  When I got to the waiting room I fell apart a little.

Tom and I started dating when I was seventeen.  I was dating one of his best mates when we first met. Story goes that Tom encouraged that friend to dump me so that the lads could have a summer of unencumbered fun.  Shortly afterwards we started dating. We were together about a year when our families realized the connection.  Tom’s grandparents and my grandparents had lived cady-cornered to each other in a suburb of Cork city.  Tom’s mother was born one day before my father and both our grandmothers used to take them for walks together in their prams. Then we figured out that while our names were Thomas and Catherine, so were Tom’s parents, Thomas and Catherine, and both our paternal grandparents were Thomas and Catherine. Ah, sure, we were pre-ordained! Sitting on the steps of his house on the day that his father was buried, Tom, only twenty then, told me that he was the 16th and last Thomas Tobin in his family, and that should we ever marry I would have to be prepared to bear a son and call him Thomas! It all seemed very pie in the sky to eighteen year old me.

But we did marry, ten years on, and in Florida, where we had emigrated together. And after a Ciara and an Aoife, we produced the required Thomas.  Even through the challenges of a continent switch, small children, career changes and all the other ups and downs of life, we managed to stay best friends. We both agreed that there was no one’s company we enjoyed more than each others’. Next year we will be twenty years married, and thirty years a couple.  I still think he’s the most handsome guy on the planet, and though he annoys the crap out of me on a regular basis, I just couldn’t imagine a life without him. But sitting in the surgical waiting room, that’s exactly what I was doing.  It seemed forever, but finally the surgeon appeared with the news that all had gone was well as it possibly could, that there were no surprises, and he expected Tom would make a full recovery. Hallelujah!

It’s been almost a month since Tom’s surgery.  It hasn’t been easy on him.  It’s a serious operation and its aftermath has a huge impact on his quality of life.  Tom has been amazingly gracious and good humored through it all, but we have caught ourselves at times, wondering at whether the cure was worse than the disease. But then I log on to an online prostate cancer support group and see someone posting about their 43 year old husband who just died. Tom is cancer free and will be 100% in time.

Even then 2015 wasn’t done with us.  In May my mother went into heart failure, in June our daughter’s car broke down, costing $1100 to repair, and less than a week later she went into a 360 degree spin on a highway on-ramp. It has gotten to the point where we just say, “What now?”, and consider Googling ways to remove a hex!

But here’s the paradox of 2015; though all it’s challenges, we have found ourselves counting our blessings even more: Aoife’s orthopedic problems might not have been reparable, Rita could have suffered for months with cancer pain, Tom could have had a much worse or untreatable cancer, mother could have died, the engine might have blown, Ciara could have been killed. Lots of people have it far, far worse.

The glass has been at 50% steadily for the first six months of this year.  How we have viewed it has very much depended on the day.  My illusion of my charmed life has definitely been redefined, but not totally abandoned.  I am grateful to have so much to lose.  But that’s quite enough now, 2015; the lesson has been learned – thank you.

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How Cancer Got Rita

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How Cancer Got Rita

Rita Walsh was an adventurer.  She was a world traveler and an avid explorer of the wilds of West Cork and Kerry.  Even at 82, she was wildly independent; living alone and tending her half acre garden a few miles outside of Blackpool.  Prior to a Walsh family reunion in the summer of 2013, family traits were being discussed.  Someone offered optimism as a potential.  “Optimism?  I should think so,” said Rita, “I just planted three trees”.  We laughed till we cried.  Rita was going nowhere anytime soon; another Walsh trait is longevity.  Never having had children of her own, Rita was a deeply embedded and adored feature of each of her brothers’ families.  We felt certain we would have the pleasure of Rita’s company for many more years to come.

Shortly after the reunion, Rita was involved in a car accident. She was pretty badly beaten up, and her shoulder and arm hurt.  She applied her usual positive outlook to it all, and we applied our Walsh optimism to her chances of a full recovery. She would be fine.

Rita did heal.  She had physical therapy, and the bruises disappeared.  About six months later, early in 2014, she began to experience low back pain.  She went to see her GP.  He attributed the pain to a remnant of the car accident.  Rita was happy to accept that diagnosis. Like many of her generation, much as she liked her GP, Rita wasn’t a big fan of going to the doctor.  There was always the fear that he’d find something wrong with her.  “I’ll be grand”, she would said.  She wasn’t a complainer.  The pain continued, and Rita didn’t say much about it to anyone.  Possibly, she thought it was just part of getting older. We could sense there was a discomfort though. She didn’t verbalize it, but she would, uncharacteristically, refuse invitations and outings.

By Christmas that year, she began to share more frequently that her back was hurting. We noticed that she wasn’t eating much.  When asked if she had talked to her doctor, and she said yes.   By the end of January she was losing weight, and low on energy.  My father insisted on driving her to the doctor.  “I suppose I’d better tell him everything this time”, she said on the drive in. This alarmed my father.  What hadn’t she been telling him?  What hadn’t she been telling us?

Whatever it was, was sufficiently concerning that her doctor had an appointment for her at Cork Maternity Hospital to have tests done just three days later.  That Thursday Rita went in, for what she expected to be an outpatient visit, but ended up being admitted.  We assume they broke the news to her that she had cancer the next day.  My father, brother and youngest sister were in London for my brother-in-law’s Masters’ graduation from Kings’ College.  My other sister, who lives close to me in Orlando, called Rita in the hospital. She sounded very down, and told her that it was bad, and she didn’t want to talk about it.  Never once, in the coming weeks, did Rita mention the word cancer.  A gamut of tests were run and it became apparent that not only did Rita have cancer, but it was ovarian cancer, and quite advanced.  When Dad, her health surrogate, returned to Cork on Monday, Dr. Matt Hewitt told him that there would be no cure; that it was just a matter of making her comfortable and extending life.

In Orlando, I sent my passport away for renewal, planning on bringing my children home to spend the summer with Rita, just in case it would be her last.  The family plan to all join us in Orlando the following Christmas was also being revised.  Instead we’d go to Cork to spend the season with Rita.

After a few days of tests, Rita was discharged.  Dad invited her to stay with him.  She was in a lot of pain.  She had to prop mounds of cushions behind her in an effort to get comfortable.  She couldn’t sleep well.  She wasn’t eating still, and when she did, whatever she got down, came right back up.  She still managed to smile, and to sound cheerful when I called her. A few days after she was released, some tests results came back showing a lot of fluid on her lungs.  Dr. Hewitt’s nurse called and asked Dad to bring her back into CMH so they could drain it.  She went back in on Thursday.  She began to sound brighter once the fluid was drained, and she was on stronger pain medication.  She had loads of visitors and the nursing staff was wonderful.  She told me all about the parade of handsome doctors.  She mused that being handsome was a job requirement at CMH. Knowing Rita, there was a lot of batting of eyelashes going on!

On Sunday she took a turn for the worse, and things began to devolve with a speed we couldn’t have imagined. Her kidneys were shutting down. They put her on morphine.  I shared this news on a private Facebook page I has started to share news of Rita’s condition with my many cousins who, like me, adored Rita. My brother in law called me from Ireland Sunday night.  He’s a doctor, and he told me that it was time for my sister and I took come home.  That she was being given morphine, he advised, was not a good indicator. Audrey and I were on a plane to Cork on Monday afternoon.

Sadly, disembarking our connecting flight in London, we got the call that Rita had passed.  It was Tuesday, February 17th.  Just over two weeks since Rita had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.  There would be no long summer sitting in her garden with her, and no more Christmas memories. Rita’s adventures had come to an end.

The staff in CMH were amazing.  Dr. Hewitt and the nurses there had become very attached to Rita in her short stay.  They allowed her to remain in her bed until Audrey and I could get there to say goodbye to the woman we had loved so much our entire lives. I sat by her bed, tears flowing, as I read aloud the letters my three children had written to her, and given to me to deliver.

Two days later Rita was laid to rest; the number of people attending her funeral was testament to the lives that her own enthusiasm, energy and love had touched.

We wish she would have spoken up about her symptoms.  We wish she had paid better attention to herself. We wish we had known more. Maybe things could have been different, and my children would, right now, be looking forward to long summer days with Rita, going on picnics and jaunting car rides, instead of knowing that their last communications with her are buried with six feet down in St. Finbarr’s cemetery.

Rita was part of a generation who don’t like to talk about their health, other than in the vaguest of terms.  That is especially true when it comes to female problems.  I do wish that Rita had known the symptoms of ovarian cancer.  I do wish that we had.  Maybe we could have put two and two together a bit faster. Though not doubting the emphatics of her statements of well-being, we wish her doctor had pressed her a little harder about her back pain.  Having no children put her at a higher risk for ovarian cancer. There are a lot of would have, could haves.

If you have a “Rita” in your life, please be sure to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of ovarian cancer.  Don’t be shy when dealing with family members who might be uncomfortable visiting a doctor, or admitting to not feeling well.  If you are a “Rita”, and have concerns about symptoms you are experiencing, please spare your family the pain we are enduring, and go and talk to your doctor, openly and honestly.

Here are the most common symptoms of ovarian cancer, from http://www.SOCK.ie (Supporting Ovarian Cancer Knowledge website):

  • Bloated feeling
  • Persistent swollen abdomen
  • Trapped wind
  • Pain or dragging sensation in your lower abdomen or side
  • Vague indigestion or nausea
  • Poor appetite and feeling full quickly
  • Changes in your bowel or bladder habits. For example, constipation or needing to pass water urgently
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding (rare)

Green-Fingered Belly Dancer Retires

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Rita had a special drawer.  She told my father about it when he took her home for a quick visit the day they let her out of hospital.  She pointed to it, almost apologetically, as though it was self-indulgent for her to bother him with it.  “Just in case”, she said, with feigned lightness.  Dad told her not to be ridiculous, and they watered the plants and collected the post and he took her back to his house in Waterfall.  She stayed there with him, out in the quiet countryside, soaking up the sun by the sliding glass doors in the living room during the day, and watching TV by the fire at night, her chair piled high with cushions to help alleviate the pain in her back.

It didn’t suit Rita to be sick.  Even at 82, she was doggedly independent.  She lived alone, maintained a half acre of garden, and often took off on solo jaunts around West Cork and Kerry.  When she did take a travelling companion with her, the stories were legendary.  Rita not only stopped to smell the roses, she cut slips off them, arranged them and brought them into the nearest pub for a drink.  My cousin Orla once recounted a drive to Ballinskelligs with Rita that took nine hours instead of the usual two; no place of interest along the way was left unvisited and a speed of 60 km per hour was never exceeded.

Rita was not only an adventurer, but she was a rascal.  She had a highly developed sense of fun.  She had the spirit of a child and this drew all my cousins and I to her when we were children. She never married, despite two reported proposals, but she engaged her nieces and nephews with a love at least as deep as a mother’s.  When other adults shoo’d us away, Rita sought us out. She lavished us with tales of the fairies, she conducted countryside tours that filled us with wonder, she sat with us, and listened. Visits to her house in Rathpeacon were magical.  She amassed a huge collection of records on her travels around the world.  Her preference was for jazz, Flamenco and belly dancing music. She had drawers full of scarves and hats and necklaces which we’d adapt into fanciful costumes and dance around her living room, falling over in fits of breathless laughter.

Rita was ageless, as she was timeless. We thought she was eternal. But Rita’s back pain was the result of ovarian cancer. She’d had the pain for a couple of years, but by the time her doctor realized that it wasn’t related to a past car accident, it was too late for Rita. She went into Cork University Hospital for tests at the beginning of February 2015, and they kept her there.  She walked out of her house that morning expecting to be back later that afternoon, and she only ever returned once more, with my father that day when she shyly pointed out “the drawer”.  Two weeks after diagnosis, Rita was dead. My sister and I rushed across the Atlantic to try to get to see her in time to say goodbye, but we were a few hours short.  We were devastated, but our cousins told us that the day before Rita told them that she didn’t want Audrey and I to see her in pain.  She made her exit, stage right, before we had to.  The wonderful staff at CUH, who had fallen in love with the never complaining, always smiling Rita Walsh, allowed her to lie in her hospital bed until we got there to say our good byes. I sat next to her bed and tearfully read aloud the letters my three children in Florida had given me for her. Her magic had seeped through and touched the next generation as surely as it had touched ours.

I’m not sure how we could have truly believed that it could have been contained, but in a way my brother, sisters, cousins and I always felt that Rita’s magic was reserved solely for us. Not only did it spill through the Walsh generations, but it clearly impacted everyone around her. So, as it played out, my father did have call to access the special drawer that Rita had reluctantly pointed to when they visited her house.  Inside were the memories of a lifetime.  Many of the countless documents demonstrated the impact of Rita, but one in particular stood out. When she retired after decades of service at Ernst and Young in Cork city, one of her co-workers composed an newspaper style announcement declaring her departure.  Dad found it in that drawer. Its headline shouted, “Green-fingered Belly Dancer to Quit”. The announcement cited Rita’s “excellent rendition of an Eastern Belly Dancer” at various work functions and also her Folies Bergeres quality performance of “Patricia the Stripper”.  Ah, Patricia the Stripper!  It was Rita’s party piece. While others of her generation might fall to a version of Danny Boy or The Banks, when called upon for a song, Rita would spring to her feet and launch into Patricia. If there was a long curtain in the vicinity, all the better.  She would utilize it as a dramatic prop, arm peeking out, leg extended, hips wiggling.  She gave it gusto and even in her late seventies, Rita’s version of Patricia brought everyone to their feet.

Rita’s funeral services were bound to be a celebration of her life more than a mourning of her death.  It was standing room only at her removal at O’Connors on Shandon Street. People who didn’t know her in life, but who had come out of respect for one relation or another, marveled how an unmarried and childless woman of 82 could pack a house like that.  My brother revealed that in one uncharacteristically fatalistic conversation with Rita during her initial stay at CUH, she had asked him to a favor.  He complied and opened her funeral services in Blackpool church with a soulful version of Abba’s, “I Believe in Angels”.  The priest, concerned about the secular nature of the song, had him sing it before the services officially began.  I had the honor of writing her eulogy, and delivering it, again before the religious part of the funeral began, because though it focused on Rita’s spirit it wasn’t specifically related to her soul.  It seems that separating the secular from the non-secular has become a bit of a thing.  But, in its entirety, the service was beautiful.  Well known Irish soprano, Cara O’Sullivan, soulfully and reverently sang through the mass, giving Rita a heart rendering final serenade.

Later, at St. Finbarr’s cemetery, on a cold, wet and gray Thursday afternoon, Rita was laid to rest with her mother and father. Her coffin was put in with her head where her feet should go, and though most of us noticed, in true Cork style, no one thought to question it. As the mourners started to drift away, my sister, brother and brother in law lingered at the grave, not anxious to speak that final goodbye.  It was a bleak and heavy moment. Suddenly, spontaneously these words slipped out of my mouth; Denis is a menace, with his, “Anyone for tennis?”.  My sister took up the tune and then my brother, and the three of us stood there, ankle deep in the same earth that our Rita had just been planted in, our voices gaining momentum. Hips shook, arms gestured, feet stomped.  We gave it gusto and when we were finished we looked at each other, smiled and knew that we had just stepped out of a moment that we would remember forever.  Though anyone passing by would have thought our performance extremely odd (and likely highly inappropriate), but we knew that the Green-fingered Belly Dancer had just been given the most fitting final tribute possible.