The Waiting

Our Sheltie, Strider, was with us 14-1/2 years, passing in 2011. We’ve had a cat for several years and he’s definitely the guy running the household, but I can still sense Strider. When I stand at the door, fumbling with my keys, I almost always sort-of hear him on the other side.

A pet, like a child, is a barometer for the life cycle. A kid will go from a swaddled mess of helplessness to being capable of doing maybe 80% of the stuff that humans can do in six years. Maybe fewer than six. Maybe more than 80%, too.

And a pet will age faster, giving us a reminder. When I looked at Strider, back in the day, and calculated his anticipated life span, I realized I’d be in my 50s when he died. That sounded so weird. My 50s. I kept thinking of Mr. Wilson from Dennis the Menace for some reason.

At some point, we took him to the vet for something routine, and this man pointed out that Strider had now passed some sort of milestone. “He’s a senior citizen now,” the vet said, not unkindly, just to remind us that we had to take that into consideration. He lived a very long life for a dog of his size. Nothing was imminent.

And I’m not making the human comparison, because it’s too hard and really too dumb. I’m just saying, sometimes we need these reminders, to let us know that we’ve moved on. That we’ve entered another stage. Because there’s not an announcement or anything. The closest most of us get to that is our invitations to join AARP, and those come at 50. At 50, you already know something’s changed, but not much. It turns out to not be such a big deal. You should get a colonoscopy.

If you’re younger than I am and interested, my experience has been that entering my 60s has mostly been provocative. All sorts of things suddenly pop up. Things to think about, dwell on, muse over. It has a different mouth feel, 60. All sorts of things.

It’s still whatever it is. I will say that entering your 60s in good health probably makes a big difference. But it’s hard to pretend, and then there’s the knowledge that this thing is going to continue and not in a fun way. We’re chasing entropy and we’re gaining. Things are breaking that won’t get unbroken.

In minor ways, though, hopefully. Still, looking in the mirror is useful. Also, spending some time in the oncology department of a major hospital. It will help if you can catch your reflection in glass, so if the hospital has glass windows or glass doors, that’ll be useful, and most of them do.

These are my people. I see that now. Or, more my tribe than the young, efficient women running the front desk. As I sit and scroll through my phone, watching the minutes tick by, I know I look like a patient. A patient, or the spouse of a patient. And close enough, I guess.

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Oncology is on the top floor of this hospital, a very quiet place, and it’s filled with stories, of course. I can only observe so much, only absorb so many. It’s a powerful place, populated by people who just want everything to be normal again, or so I assume. Some are familiar faces to the staff, apparently on multiple courses of chemotherapy. Most, I think, are brand-new cancer patients, and some of them are working the positive-thinking angle very hard. Occasionally I’ll see the splash of an exceptional life interrupted, too much personality to be dimmed by malignancy.

Most of them just seem weary, though. Cancer treatment was a minor component of my wife’s trifecta of medical crises in 2010-11; her breast cancer was identified very early, while working her up for what turned out to be a heart attack. Minor surgery and radiation therapy, plus a long-term chemotherapy drug, were all she needed for that.

So my experience has mostly been with radiation, since she had targeted treatment to her brain tumor after surgery in addition to the breast cancer treatment. Similar situations, different experiences. Different waiting rooms.

So I just watch, a little, and imagine the stories. I’m a pretty positive person; I don’t see dead people walking, not at all, although I suspect many of them have limited life ahead. These are not people fighting secret battles; there’s no time or energy to pretend, I imagine.

And they’re mostly people of a certain age. There’s a cross-section, definitely, but the room always leans older, which makes the contrast between the front desk staff, 20-somethings with remarkable people skills, all the more obvious.

The nurses are the special ones, though. They’ve all been female and most have been over the age of 50, I’d say. The combination of kindness and knowledge has been amazing to observe, but then. These are nurses. They’re always pretty amazing.

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Just a note, although hardly news to anyone: When I took him in for chemo on Wednesday, my friend had a vasovagal reaction (he fainted), which has happened before in similar situations and which no one really understands, but when it happens they move really, really fast. These were people who weren’t familiar with him, of course, and I wasn’t around (sitting in the waiting room), and they very nearly admitted him and canceled his chemotherapy.

This would be precautionary and wasn’t necessary, and his oncologist and my friend both assured them that if they just gave him fluids and waited, his blood pressure would rise and he’d be OK.

And as he pointed out, there was an unspoken awareness that he was about to receive a treatment that costs approximately $85,000, and the medicine would have been discarded. He was just speculating, but probably not without cause.

That’s one treatment, one day. It’s about what this house cost, back in 1988 when I bought it, but then I doubt I have to tell anyone how much $85,000 is. Or what it is when it’s doubled, since he has two days in a row. And he will, for months and months.

I also don’t need to tell anyone that getting sick is expensive, particularly in this country. My friend is running up out-of-pocket expenses of around $7000 a month at this point. While covered by Medicare, which is why we all need to have supplemental insurance, but you get it.

Chuck SigarsComment