you know our kids are huge now but still curl up on our laps, at home & in public

Phoenix = "Rockstar Pirate Witch"

There is something indefatigable about an intimate family life, something most beautiful when things are darkest, or most absurd. It’s like, the cynic in me, the girl-then-woman raised in a “militant agnostic” home (my father, anyway), some of the reasons I’ve written here for years is an attempt to communicate what it’s like to live my experience. The more I’ve written, the easier it flows, and the happier I feel. I mean often I don’t even think how valuable or interesting this might be to others, I’m just compelled to try to tell you about it if you want to read. I think there’s a lot to gain in relating to one another.

But yeah, there are these great moments in a family that are kind of … terrible moments. Like yesterday while we drove out to a birthday party, with three kids packed in the back of the car, one kid holding a cake and another a cat in a carrier (for a “pet show” of sorts), and suddenly the cat starts puking. Like you can really hear the chunkage, back there. And then there’s this sudden silence from three previously-rowdy kids and my daughter silently rolls down the window and somberly says, “You in the front: you’re lucky.” I mean I felt terrible for my kitty – who ceased vomiting upon arrival, only hours later to start up again as soon as we got back in the car – but it was one of those deliciously ridiculous FAILmoments that is best experienced with those you love, love, love.

Cake and birthday wishes. An honor to share them with others:

Birthday Cake

“Pet contest”, Harris was given special consideration for his sadness. Those are my two kids at left in the eared-hats.

Harris Really Wasn't Feeling Well

Life has been lovely the last couple days. Today I’m having another painful series of episodes with my kidneys. That is never encouraging. I have accepted my illness in full (except for one nagging caveat, see below), and I am grateful for these repeated bouts of pain as they have taught me a great deal about acceptance. These experiences have also taught me a great deal about unconditional love, to wit: I receive it from many of my friends, and all of those in my close family.

Having this ailment has taught me a lot about humility.

I know it seems like I wouldn’t have anything good to say about a supposedly zero-sum illness, but I do. Still, sometimes the remnants of denial rear their head. I keep thinking, Why me? (not out of self-pity, just a genuine bit of confusion), or thinking, any minute I’ll be “cured” and this won’t be happening any more. Still, these are only blips on my radar, persistant as they are. To the extent I am serene and genuinely grateful through such a puzzling experience, I can put that at the feet of first my alcoholism and then my resultant experience in Recovery.

I know I’m going to learn more about why I’m sick in this way – if not the nuts and bolts or a scientific explanation – and one day I’ll be able to tell you, Why Me.

***

By the way. In honor of Father’s day I’m re-linking a couple posts about my father’s influence on my life (and my thoughts on his death), recent writings if you didn’t see them the first time around. If you have seen them, apologies for redundancy. I didn’t need to write another piece, so soon, and I didn’t make time to write one about Ralph or any other fathers in my life.

i’m grateful for cancer

I know I recently wrote a bit about my father… this piece, however, was written a while back, at the request of the editor of Grays Harbor College’s zine.

I’m grateful for cancer
by Kelly Hogaboom
Originally published in “The Diversifieds”, Grays Harbor College Aberdeen WA, Spring 2012

Happy Father's Day, Dad

Caption: My father and I, Huntington Beach CA

My father was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000. I remember where I was when my mother told me – I was eating a white fish sandwich and fries at, of all places, the Southshore Mall food court. I was stunned to hear the news, although even in that split second it wasn’t the spectre of Death and Doom I sensed. I was shocked, sure, and over the next eight years I’d experience a lot of sadness and sorrrow. But I don’t remember being frightened or angry.

I learned so much during his illness as he received treatment and surgery, then went into remission. During this time I discovered much about him, a lot about my family and friends, and a great deal about myself. I took time out of work when he’d have his first radiation, his first chemo, then his surgery. I travelled to be with him. I do not know how glad he was that I did this, but over time it made me more centered, stronger, calm in my convictions that if I was a welcome presence for someone, I wanted to there for their big journeys. And, thankfully, he was there for mine – I remember he had a fine new growth of hair for my wedding, some months off chemo. That day we all celebrated his life and that of my new family.

Don’t get me wrong, there were disappointments along the way. His illness had been missed a full year before by a doctor who dismissed blood in his stool. I think my mother might have been angry about this. I accepted things as they were – for the most part. Sometimes my mind would churn on the “What if…?” I remember this mind would also hook on strange yet strong desires – like that he could live on and be there when my children graduated high school. Why this particular milestone, I do not know (funnily enough, they’re homeschooled now anyway!).

Always Bitchy
My father, during one of innumerate rounds of chemo. The staff were always so kind and professional.

During this time my grandmother in California fell very ill to a stroke, and my experiences with grave illness were very much with me. I packed up my new husband and baby and we flew down to be with the family, despite some protestations of my employer. She died after five days and I grew all the more. I was living life, not avoiding its terms.

My father’s cancer returned, this time blooming throughout his body. Again: chemo, pills, appointments. He had to stop long-distance running, a passion he’d excelled at since we’d moved to Grays Harbor. In September of 2006 he called us where we were living – Port Townsend, Washington – and let us know there was a job opening in Aberdeen that would be appropriate for my husband. I’m smiling as I write this, because my father rarely called me for any reason. We knew we was asking us to his home, asking us to bring our small children and spend time with him before he left.

When my father died in August of 2008 I was with him. My mother and I nursed him at home with the help of hospice. This too had its surprises and challenges, but it was deeply satisfying work. On August 22nd I stroked his hand and held him and spoke, only a little, and calmly, as he struggled through his last breaths. I felt brave and very Present, filled with transcendant love, shining bright within my body out through my fingertips. When he finally drew his last breath my mother jumped up to make a phone call. It was as if I had all the privacy in the world. I put my head on the bed and cried sobs from the very heart of me, the deepest I have ever cried.

After he died, many expressed sentiments. Some seemed to understand my mind, many did not. A surprising number couldn’t bring themselves to visit, or speak to us at all. I learned a lot there, too.

Brevity prohibits me from listing the many things I learned along the way from my father’s illness, treatment, and death – and especially that year and a half after we moved to be close to him, when every day I saw him I was filled with joy, a knowledge of how precious he was to me. It wasn’t remission or pills or chemo that gave me these things, although I am grateful such options are available to those who want and can have them. But cancer gave me these things, that enlightenment, that knowledge of how deeply I loved, the ability to slow down and savor our time together.

I could write so much and the many moments of deep satisfaction and awareness this process afforded me. But it is not necessarily afforded everyone – my journey was not my father’s, nor my mother’s or brother’s, and they may have very different experiences to report. When it comes down to it, this is what I believe: the journey my father took is one we all take – in some form or other – and I am grateful I do not experience anger about this. Just sadness, and then: gratitude. Life is an incredible blessing and experience.

Kelly

waiting in a car / waiting for a ride in the dark

Just the other day a girlfriend told me a loved one in her life had metastatic cancer. I had the presence of mind to ask her if she’d been through this before – cancer; she said No. She also related she hadn’t been through death of someone close, yet. Over the course of the next forty minutes, we both shed some tears. What I believe, because I know this woman a bit and know some about her past, and know what kind of friends and spiritual practices she has in her life, is that this will be very good for her. And it will hurt very much.

All I have to offer is my own experience, or what others have related to me. I was remembering my dad got pretty low when his cancer returned. It’s like, we’d been all excited years back after he had his surgery (before I got married), and we were so relieved after he went through the gut-rending radio and chemo and all that. The surgery was deeply disturbing and it left him physically changed. Everything changed. He got back up to running but at times was too ill to do so (he was a long distance runner who adored the practice), he couldn’t even walk around in his tightie-whities anymore in the house, as he had a colostomy bag and was of course quite shy about that. His hair changed, his appetite changed. Our hopes for the future were smashed in some cases, or caught jaundice.

In the last year of his life the news just kept getting worse, I guess “worse” is a judgment – I guess what I mean is, we knew his time was ticking down. Anyway I remember visiting one afternoon and he was drinking this huge glass of wine and it was early in the day. My mom, dad, and I all drank alcoholically but my dad and I were a lot the same, drinking at night and rarely acting much different, at least to outside perceptions. Seeing him with a huge glass of Uncle Carlo, and him so quiet and depressed, it hurt. I talked to my mom later, likely unskillfully and without tact. But, I was just worried; it hurt to see him go through depression. The next day my dad showed up at my house and was all pissy. “You’re saying I’m drinking too much?” Believe it or not, this exchange meant a lot to me. We were talking about something real, something intimate. It seems like something families should do.

Some people in our lives viewed my father’s cancer and demise as some kind of pathetic tragedy or whatever. I never felt this way. I felt sad, but I didn’t feel piteous about any of it. My memory is, I felt so gifted to be given this time to reflect, and love and serve, and really really really appreciate my father (and the rest of my family). And yeah, it hurt. It hurt him, I know, in his way, and it hurt me in mine. It hurt lots of people, in their own way.

I was privileged to be there with him while he died. I nursed him and I took it seriously. I learned a lot. I remember the last thing my father ate. A plum. I got to learn, while his appetite waned, that you can’t “make it better” by fixing food. Food is a kindness but there comes a time we are beyond it.

I cry when I think about my father, because I loved him very much. Despite a lot of difficulties, I did well during his death. I don’t know if he did or not; only he can judge that.

Death is like birth, an incredible opportunity to live life and to experience the incredible gift.

***

In my “writings” section, which if you haven’t figured it out is where I’m more likely to be all opinion-y and uppity and tell people how to live their lives, I responded to a question posed: Is unschooling a form of anarchy? I wrote that thing fast, as I had kids swinging off my arms etc. Anyway.

***

A bonfire with friends, just the other day:

Giant-Ass Fire

Skyline

 

“to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with”

This weekend, due to this or another thing, we do not have money for gas for my mom’s borrowed truck – nor groceries. A problem, to be sure. In addition there is a particular sting in not being able to take the kids to the Relay for Life and grab them an elephant ear or whatever, but this sting doesn’t have the maudlin, intense, and guilt-laden feel the way it used to, way back when things were more grim and felt entirely unmanageable – and, in some real ways, were. For some time now we’ve been able to pay our bills, a circumstance which apparently, sadly, was needed for my spirituality and outlook to improve.

I try and mostly succeed in being patient we don’t have running cars (I had to hustle my ass via bike and bus twice yesterday). Working cars will likely come, in time. Yet it is hard to be so sanguine when we don’t have food and I am preoccupied with other work I need to do. This week I am considering what to do regarding the Conch, as there are some changes afoot regarding that enterprise (and you all deserve, and will receive, an update soon). I would very much like pay out for groceries so we can cook for people on Wednesday. I think I will not be able to decide on this, not in the next few hours at least.

The 24 Hour Relay for Life is in it’s 25th year here in Hoquiam (we always used to call it “the cancer run” and I still slip up) and started up last night. I hadn’t been to the Relay since my father died. This year I walked quietly and thought on him, and all in my life he has missed, that I wish he could share in. I miss his advice as it spoke to the heart of me.

Relay For Life, 2011

The Relay here is quite impressive; Hoquiam’s Relay consistently performs in the top ten in America for money raised per capita. It is also now a party-like atmosphere with all sorts of barbecues, food, drunkenness and drug use, hugs and tears, joyful friendships and skirmishes, people fooling around in tents, drama, and grab-assery; in short, the whole beautiful mess of the human condition. I observed parts of the drag show and although it was a funny affair I felt sad to see the hints of mockery evidenced: mocking women, especially trans women, hints of homophobia. If I had the energy – and I do not today – I would (do more research, then) write the organizers with some commentary and advice on how to improve this feature of the Relay (for starters, a drag show that included the possibility of women in drag as men, would immediately benefit inclusivity).

But really, that whole bit was a footnote on an otherwise lovely walk with my husband and daughter – on a beautiful night.

Relay For Life, 2011

I miss my father terribly.

But you know?

It’s a good day, today.

swimming in those waters

This morning while brushing my teeth I discovered a small, irate monster dwelling in my breast: guilt. I’d heard of so-called “survivor’s guilt” but until that moment didn’t realize I’d been mired in it.

It’s useless to try to describe, even though I love to write, I love to come to a point or make a point and feel well-expressed. It’s simple: I feel guilt. I feel guilt no matter how hard I work, how correctly I conduct myself, and especially when I’m not over-working, when I know I could be doing more or better. I feel guilt sometimes (but not always) when I’m going about my business – when I’m telling my mother I’m taking an embroidery class next Monday. What right do I have to make plans, to rub the point in further that I have a life to move on to while my father does not?

I visit my parents this afternoon after the girls I babysat have been picked up by their mother. My mom tentatively feels me out for coming back over at 3:30 to sit with my father while she gets her hair done. I support my mom having time away so much that I’d probably do just about anything to help her acquire it.

So this means instead of coming home and letting my kids play with the new toy I bought them (yay pizza!) while I lie down or take a bath or even sew a little, instead I will come home and take care of my children’s needs quickly then bike back over there and sit with my father and watch him struggle to breathe. This is a decidedly less pleasant affair than watching someone struggle to breathe who is going to recover. This is watching someone over a period of days slowly be strangled, but there’s a lot of free time to say stupid things like, “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” but mostly just sit and feel so completely ineffectual and feel like it’s your fault. True story.

When you are supporting people who are experiencing a loss people will tell you “it must mean so much to them” and “they know you are there and it gives them peace”, but I have no particular knowledge that in any way my presence, my hugs, my deliveries of food or juice or water, my talk, my silence, my prayers do any good at all. I know they comfort my mother; she tells me this. I know in no way if I help my father, at all.

If I wasn’t pressed for time I’d write more: that the idea of “help” is selfish (there is very little I can do), the idea of “guilt” is selfish (it’s all about me!). The concept of being present, while your loved one suffers and dies, is all I can do, and sometimes it’s hard to do even that.

Break time is over. Time to get going back.

i know it won’t mean much to you, but it’s been hard on me.

It’s almost as if I’ve achieved a well-orchestrated balancing act and despite my veteran status it doesn’t take much to knock me off kilter. Yesterday a specialist in Seattle changed the assessment of my father’s lifespan from “months to years” to “weeks to months”. Hearing this today, sitting in the living room with him as he lies on the couch suffering, the worst thing is that sometimes it seems he’s dead already, that the cancer or Death is larger and bigger than the moment we have. I feel double-robbed, robbed now, robbed in the future and soon.

Moments like this are the worst because they take away the most powerful truth we can live in, the moment, something we can agree on regardless of spiritual beliefs or lack thereof – something I tell myself daily and am starting to tell others:

Breathe, you are alive.

chemo cap

Edited December 13, 2009: Today I started on a new knitting project and reflected on how much I love to knit – even if I only make a few items a year.  I wrote this almost five years ago and published it in my first zine, the PT Breeder.

A week ago, I took my friend Jen up on her long-standing offer to teach me to knit.  She has some misgivings on the ambition of my first project (small needles, tight stitches) but helps me in picking out my yarn and loans me her needles.  At my house, after dinner with our two families and a couple glasses of red wine, she casts on 120 stitches and watches as my fingers tremble through their first attempts at an age-old maneuver passed down for centuries.

I have decided to knit my father a chemo cap.

My family has been through this before.  “Secondary cancer” – or “distant disease”— means he has less of a chance of survival than the first time.  His first round with colon cancer a few years ago we got to see what cancer treatment looks like.  He was poisoned and irradiated and large pieces were cut out of his body.  He lost his hair, he lost weight, he had sores in his mouth and was sick all the time.  He suddenly aged.  Wheeling him out of surgery on a gurney he looked as if someone had hammered him flat.  But, we thought we had a success story.  He recovered quickly due to a healthy lifestyle as a long-distance runner and some good Polish prole genes. We thought we had one of those “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” family stories you hear about.  And then we find out, a day before Thanksgiving this year, that the cancer has bloomed again in his chest.  I realize this will probably be the disease that kills him, sooner or later.

I want him to live.  I want him to live to know my children.  I want him to live for my sake and his, too; but I am thinking of my children when I imagine him gone from my life.  The one grandparent I never knew is a mystery to me whereas the other three are each people I know, I have a history with.  I want him to be there for them as they enter kindergarten, play their first soccer games, graduate from high school.

I am powerless to heal him, but I want to believe I can nurture him even here, miles away.  I keep at the knitting, doggedly forcing my hands into yet another repetitious task.  As I inch along I remember suddenly how we called him “Captain Kiwi”  a few years ago in a lighthearted recognition of the fuzzy new hair growing in after they stopped treatment.  I smile to myself as I think of him; my fingers and hands gaining a body memory and the stitches flow like water from my fingers.  I sit down to knit in the quiet times of my day, a few minutes stolen on the couch, kids asleep, no sound except the hum of the heat, and the knitting needles clicking conversationally with the soft strains of the radio.  I think of the Psalm 139:  “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.  With each stitch I am knitting together a healed body; I am holding vigil.  The cap will be about 12,000 stitches when I am done.  12,000 stitches, more than the days I lived in his house, and with each one I am envisioning joining his cells into wholeness, combating the poison that even now is flowing through his veins.

My 2 1/2 year old daughter is up from her nap.  She climbs up to join me at the kitchen table and watches me.  “You’re knitting a hat for Grandpa?” she asks.  Yes, I say.  “Because he’s sick”, she says.  Then looks in my eyes and asks, “Is he feeling better?”  I am suddenly so sad I can’t answer her.  I don’t know if he will ever, in fact, feel much better.  All I can do is hope, and pray, and keep my hands busy.