I look at the picture I have in my hand of my family in front of my dorm and I wonder "Who is that man?"
Who is the man I knew before, where did that stout, blond-haired, gregarious and jovial man go? Where did this thin, grey-haired, solemn and tired old man come from? I am still amazed that in a few short months a person can transform into a shell of who they once were.
I guess I should start from the beginning. I was coming down the stairs, calling to my stepfather Eric.
I was part way down the stairs when he stepped out at the bottom of the stairs. I do not remember what I was going to say, ask or why I was calling to him. I do remember him looking upset, me asking "Are you OK?" and him replying "No.I have cancer." in a worried and tired tone. I stood there in shock, dumfounded, that reply is not something you normally hear or ever expect. I do not remember what I said past "Oh."
The news came as quite a blow as I entered my senior year of high school. The time when I was suppose to figure out who I was going to be and how to do everything my parents did for me when I was a kid I was preoccupied with the real possibility of Eric dying. The man who had been the only good father figure I have known could actually die from esophageal cancer that grows in and obstructs the esophagus.
To fight the death growing within him, the doctors put him on Chemotherapy. He wore a pack around his waist with a tube up to his arm, pumping the chemicals into him. I remember the occasion when his fear showed for the first time. Only he and I were at home. He caught the tubing on a piece of furniture and pulled it apart at a junction where a filter was connecting the tubing. He came upstairs flustered and scared telling me he called the medical service and they were on the way. The tube from his arm showed a hint of blood and he paced anxiously while constantly looking out the window.
I was astounded at how he seemed to become a child before my eyes, nervous and scared. He reminded me of a child who was worrying about the trouble he was going to be in when mom got home. He had gone from an authority figure that I leaned on to a weak man that needed my support to keep going.
How could I tell my friends about this? How do you convey what it is like to have your home, your sanction turned inside out by not knowing what to expect and wondering how many days with him were left, especially to people who have never experienced that? I found it hard to talk to my friends because their conversations seemed so trivial.
I was preoccupied by having the thoughts of Eric getting sick and or dying running through my mind all day. I told my four closest friends, each took a minute to absorb what I told them and then told me that they were there for me when I needed them. I left everyone else to think what they liked about my withdrawn behavior. My only sanction was in my shell, letting only my mom and boyfriend in.
He continued for months with Chemotherapy. He had the normal reactions of hair loss and loss of sense of taste. Then the doctors added radiation to his Chemotherapy but that just made eating certain foods more difficult. Life continued on like this for a few months. Over time I began to notice little changes about him, he joked less and he was becoming more and more melancholy. He was then taken off Chemotherapy and then radiation to let his body heal for preparation for surgery.
Surgery was a defining point. There was life before surgery and life after surgery for him and everyone else. His surgery involved removing his esophagus and then pulling his stomach up and attaching it to his throat. I remember the day he had surgery, it was the Monday after spring break. I did not see my parents leave for the hospital. They had to leave at four am in order for Eric to be prepped and ready for surgery at seven am. He was going into surgery when I was getting up in an empty house and getting ready to go to school.
People at school were talking about what they did over spring break, the parties, the tans, the sex, normal teenage vacations. It was all so surreal! No one around me knew what I was going through; they were so busy being wrapped up in themselves. They had no idea that all I could think was "I hope Eric is alive when I get home."
He was alive, but had a long recovery before him. My mom waited the entire seven hours that he was in surgery and stayed with him while he got settled into a room that evening. She went to see him every afternoon and evening then came home and told me about him. I finally got to see him a week later, when he was moved out of the intensive care unit. I remember being anxious going up in the elevator, waiting while my mom went ahead to check on him, and then her coming to get me. I was scared at how sick and weak he would look and be. Even though my mom had prepared me I was still shocked. He reminded me of a squid, a pale lump of a body with tentacle tubes reaching out everywhere. He had lost about fifty pounds in less than five days. Eating through a tube will do that. He looked as if he had aged twenty years in a day, and in a way he had. He had tubes everywhere, up his nose, in his arm, in his chest, in his stomach. He was in and out of being alert because of pain killers and being in bed all day. He saw me, drowsily said "Hi.", tried to smile and promptly fell asleep.
He stayed in the hospital another week then came home and lay in bed or on the couch all day. He was shaken to his core by being thin and frail. He seemed surprised when he would look at himself. I would see him sitting on the couch looking at his calf, turning it over like a child with a strange bug he has caught.
He would not talk much and did not make contact when he did. Slowly over time he started talking a little more and a little more. Eric has become more confident about himself since his hair has grown back and he has learned how to eat normally again. Now I am gladdened when I call home and Eric wants to talk. I smile when he has a cheerful sound in his voice. I hear him talk about things that were important a year ago and I know he is becoming himself again.