Dear Ole Dad

Over the course of the last six weeks, I’ve been off and on caring for my 76-year-old father. He has adult-onset type 2 diabetes, and has lost the majority of his middle toe bone on his right foot in several surgeries over the last few weeks. Tomorrow, we are expecting the results of an MRI, and hoping that the infection in his bones isn’t in any other bones in his foot. We are also hoping that with the removal of the remaining bone of his middle toe, he might be able to move past this without any major life compromises (i.e., the ability to walk).

It’s been a trying couple of weeks. My siblings and I have had an ongoing text string of updates, details and ideas on how to move forward. Is he getting the right advice? Are we on the right path? Do we need to consider alternative advice? Do we have all the details? Can he be left alone?

It’s really not all that different than a cancer diagnosis, to be honest. It’s a different set of drugs, different surgeries, and different long-term prognosis. But, at the end of the day, it’s the smartest people we can find, reviewing film and test results and all of your people rallying around you to be certain it’s the best possible outcome for not only the you, the patient, but everyone who loves you. We want him here with us, without any complications or compromises for as long as possible.

It’s true that a diagnosis like breast cancer or diabetes is an awakening. There is a suspended moment where you step outside of yourself and see all that is happening around you as spectator. You are no longer in control. You’ve been handed a pre-determined path – based on your pathology, tumor size, blood test and/or scan. For me, it was something so many women before me had travelled and shown promising results, so it became my path as well. You’ve got to somewhat relinquish the ability to control your life and put your life in the hands of folks who know more than you – much more – and trust that the research and statistics they’ve told you are enough to let the light shine through on the other end. It can be terrifying, but also liberating.

And now, on the care-giving side of disease, I can see and sense the anguish my dad is feeling as options are laid out and uncertainty lingers. His desire to not disrupt anyone’s life, but his subtle need to have company. “Will you bring the dogs?” he asked. “I dare say I miss their shenanigans.”

It’s difficult from both sides – the patient and the caregiver. It’s difficult to lay your trust in others, to try to make the right decisions and to keep up and communicate with so many well-wishers. I’d say it’s even taxing, especially on a guy who only just learned to send text messages and still signs each one with his initials, “BPM.”

When I was going through treatment, people poured out of the woodwork to help us. I didn’t realize what a vast network of support I’d amassed. How genuinely concerned people were – and how much they appreciated being informed about my progress. I didn’t realize how many people had been touched by cancer. Suffered loss. Been treated themselves. I’m living on the caregiver side now, trying my best to keep all of my aunts and uncles updated – continuing to share concerns with my siblings, and frankly just trying to keep my favorite old guy company.

I’ve seen my dad’s struggle as a different sort of awakening, personally. Losing my breasts to cancer didn’t phase me like the notion that you could lose a toe or foot or part of your leg up to your knee. My dad’s diabetes may have been controllable by diet, but having survived that last 11 years on his own, without my mom to monitor and guide his choices, he’s lost feeling in his feet from neuropathy so bad the doctor suggested he didn’t even need anesthetic to remove his toe bones. Cancer seemed like an uncontrollable reason to remove breasts, but losing toes doesn’t seem uncontrollable. I don’t want this complication in my life, so I’ve adapted a change – become vegan – and I have confidence it will serve me well, not only with avoiding diabetes, but with lots of other potential illnesses.

And I guess that’s the point of this post. Living. Continuing to live. Learning to adapt to what is thrown at you. Being open to change. Embracing it. Reflecting on it. Continuing to question the path. Making sure to communicate with those right in front of you. Call the ones you can’t see. Check up. Show up. Tell them you love them. Let them know you are willing, able, ready to help at a moments notice. Nothing sobers you like the seeing someone you love suffer. I’ve rekindled so many precious friendships over the course of my treatment; it’s my turn to repay the favor.

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