Chattahoochee Child – Walking Into the Fears of Cancer…


Dearest Readers:

Periodically, I post a few stories from the book, “Chattahoochee Child” — my latest work-in-progress. Hope you enjoy!

 

The morning my father and I learned to forgive each other started like most mornings in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Resting motionless in bed, he reminded me of a frail injured bird with crippled wings. His body was thin. His skin the color of mustard. Peach fuzz of a cotton soft beard kissed his face. My heart broke for him. My arms ached to reach inside his weakened body to pull the cells of cancer away.

Dad was rebelling after the diagnosis, stating in a firm voice that he would not shave his face UNTIL he was given the freedom and luxury of eating food. Meanwhile, the beard continued growing.

Although it was the holiday season of 1997, I could find no happiness or excitement in decking the halls or decorating a Christmas tree. The patriarch of my family tree was terminally ill, destroying my belief in the humanity and meaning of life. Why was it always the good people who suffer the most? Life just wasn’t fair.

During that Christmas holiday spent inside four cold walls of a hospital room, I remember staring outside, watching cars speeding by, ignoring traffic lights. I glanced at Christmas lights blinking off and on, counting the precious moments of life we, as adults, get locked into believing will be forever.

“How much longer do we have?” Suddenly, I shared an unspoken conversation with God as I looked up into the skyline asking why this had to be.

On that particular morning, Dad’s forehead was hot to the touch. I took his temperature. 103.  Sighing, I reached for the phone near his bed. “I’ll get the nurse to check your temp,” I said.

He watched every move I made. “You’re a good daughter,” he said. “I love you.”

I stopped dialing the phone. “I love you too,” I said, realizing he had never expressed those words before. His generation did not believe in showing affections and I was moved to the point of tears.

“Barbara,” he said his voice only a whisper. “I’m sorry for everything.”

I bathed his forehead with a cooling wash cloth, “No need to be sorry for the past,” I said. “You were the parent. I was the bratty, rebellious teenager.”

Dad’s facial muscles struggled to smile. “You always were stubborn and persnickety,” he said as he coughed.

“Just like my father,” I teased. “You rest. We can talk later when you’re stronger.”

“I’m glad you’re here. I can always count on you, even when things are difficult.”

“All of that’s in the past,” I said, brushing a blonde strand of hair from my face with an apricot manicured nail. “The past is history. The future a mystery. This moment is a gift, and that’s why we call it the present.”

Dad’s eyes fluttered. “I’m tired and sleepy.” He said.

“You close your eyes and sleep. I’ll be here when you awaken.”

November, 1997 until July,1999, were years of change, heartache and indescribable fear as I slowly watched my dad melting away from me from the effects of esophageal cancer, the Percutaneous Endoscopic Gastrostomy [PEG tube], commonly referred to as a feeding tube and chemotherapy radiation. I watched his tall, sturdy frame slowly bending into an emaciated body that could no longer fight or walk without assistance. It was truly the most painful time of my life.

After the week of Thanksgiving, 1997 my dad phoned, telling me he was a bit nauseated and thought he had cancer. I snickered. My dad did not have cancer. He was the picture of health. He took care of himself, walking daily, eating healthy foods and he lived a good life. Never drinking or smoking. No, Dad doesn’t have cancer. Not my Dad.

The next morning I took Dad to the Emergency Room at Roper Hospital in Charleston. For over eight hours, we sat while medical professionals took blood samples, x-rays and scratched their heads. Deciding to refer Dad to a gastroenterologist, we left the hospital, got a bit of dinner and I drove him back to his apartment. During dinner, he struggled to swallow his food. He apologized for taking so long to eat. When finished, over half of his meal remained on his plate. He did not request a take-out box. I suppose I knew something was wrong, I just did not want to admit that my dad was getting older and weaker each day.

In early December, Dad and I met with the gastroenterologist. An endoscopy was scheduled for the next morning. I phoned my boss letting her know I would not be at the office the next morning. I detected a bit of disappointment with her but remained firm. After all, my dad needed a test. All of my interviews and presentations could wait. Corporate America simply had to understand. My family was important to me.

The next morning, feeling confident Dad’s tests would be negative, I sat alone in the waiting room of the hospital, watching people passing by in a rush, reading newspapers and magazines, and sitting. How I wish I had remembered to pack a book or magazine. I watched the clock tick away. One hour. Two hours. My stomach growled. I hadn’t eaten anything and it was almost lunch time. My cell phone rang, but I couldn’t answer it since the hospital did not permit them to be used while waiting. And so I waited and waited.

Moments seemed like hours. I glanced up at the clock again, stopping to notice my dad’s doctor was approaching. His eyes did not look at me. He held his head down. He sat down by me.

“We found the problem.”

“Oh. He’s just not eating properly? Isn’t that his problem?”

“No. Your dad has cancer. Cancer of the esophagus. Terminal cancer. I’m sorry to say it, but he probably has less than six months to live. He needs a PEG tube so we can get nourishment into him again.”

I sat motionless. Nothing was fazing me. My mouth flew open and I felt dizzy.

“Are you all right?”

“My dad has cancer. You’re saying my dad is dying? My Dad? This can’t be. He’s taken such good care of himself. You must be mistaken.”

“Have you noticed how thin he is?”

“Yes, I suppose. I did notice he didn’t eat much at Thanksgiving. I’ve been so busy at work. I guess I just didn’t pay enough attention.”

I knew my speech wasn’t making sense. People were passing by me, and all I could think of was the dreaded word – cancer.

I thanked the doctor. When he left, I turned my phone on and called my husband.

“Can you…can you please come to the hospital? Please?”

Garrett knew me well. When he arrived at the hospital, I fell limp in his arms. The tears I refused to cry suddenly poured out of me and I screamed. People stared at me, but I didn’t care. My dad was dying. Cancer. Cancer. CANCER.

The next few days were a blur to me. I returned to work, although my heart wasn’t there. All I could think about was my dad and the approaching Christmas holiday season. How could I possibly celebrate Christmas while knowing my dad is battling cancer? What if he chose not to fight cancer?

My prayers were answered one afternoon after a stressful day at work. I walked into my dad’s hospital room. He was resting while watching TV. An intravenous solution was attached to his arm. I touched his cold, resting arm while watching the IV solution of chemotherapy slowly dripping into his body. An amber colored bag covered the solution as it dripped…dripped…dripped ever so slowly into the veins of my father.

His eyes opened slowly. “Chemotherapy,” he said. “The doctors think it might help me live longer.”

My hand squeezed his and I felt his icy cold skin. “Are you warm enough?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. You stop worrying about me.”

I squeezed his hand again. Tears were dancing in my eyes and I turned away. I did not want my father to see me crying. On that day, I recognized a new closeness and bonding between us. Gone was the angry, bitter-tongued father of my youth, replaced by a kinder and caring man who trusted me.

“We’ll fight this together, Dad.” I said, looking deeply into his eyes. “Together. I will be here for you every day. I love you, Dad. Together we will fight.”

Dad squeezed my hand. “You’re a good daughter,” he said. A tear fell down his face. “Will you wipe my eyes with a tissue. They’re watering.”

Still the tower of strength emotionally, Dad would not admit he was crying. I wiped his eyes and kissed his forehead. “I love you, Dad. Together we will beat this monster of cancer.”

During the holidays of 1997, I watched my dad battle chemotherapy radiation with courage and faith. I visited him daily and with each visit, we bonded. Before leaving at night, I would bend over to kiss his forehead. He whispered, “I love you.” Something he never did before cancer knocked on his door.

Cancer changes people. Suddenly life appears to fall into place. The little things in life become important again. No rushing around. No deadlines to battle. No appointments to break, or arguments to tolerate. All that is important is that one special, precious moment of life. Even when Dad had a rough day, we made the best of it. We strove to see the sunshine and sunrise. Life appeared to be simpler, with one exception. Daily I prayed for God to give Dad and me just one more day. One more day to touch his hand, one more day to kiss his forehead and to whisper three simple, caring words that gave me strength. “I love you.” Eight precious letters of the alphabet that guided me in the mornings, during the unexpected stress of each day, and covered me with a blanket of warmth at night. “I love you.” We expressed those words daily. Every day and moment we shared was precious.

After three chemotherapy treatments Dad was so weak, his blood counts so low, the doctors decided his body did not have the strength necessary to receive additional chemotherapy or radiation treatments. His throat was extremely sore, creating more difficulty with swallowing. The medical terminology I was learning educated me about esophageal cancer and other words I hadn’t learned before cancer knocked at our doors. Dysphagia, the inability to swallow. Skilled medical care – meaning 24-hour medical care and, of course, the detested PEG tube. What Dad and I described as an umbilical cord. Since he had a PEG tube, we decided it was necessary for him to reside at a convalescent center. He made friends at the nursing home and adjusted well. I visited him daily, praying for a miracle.

Our miracle granted him additional time with us although his quality of life weakened. He could not swallow food without regurgitating it, so the PEG tube was used, against his wishes. Slowly every quality of his life ended. The ability to enjoy food. The strength to take daily strolls without the assistance of a walker. The independence to live alone, without the assistance of skilled medical care. Father Time was slowly ticking his life away. Tick. Tock. Tick Tock, until he was almost a vegetable lying in his hospital bed.

On July 6, 1999, I arrived at the nursing home thrilled that I had his checkbook in my handbag. Dad kept close tabs on his checkbook and always asked about it. I was pleased that I had balanced his checkbook, and paid the nursing home for another month of nursing care. I was confident he would be pleased that he did not have to ask for his checkbook this month. I was prepared. Approaching his room, I turned my head, acknowledging a nurse. She was pushing a portable oxygen machine. “Oh, that isn’t a good sign,” I said to her. She did not acknowledge me, but followed next to me. Placing our hands on the door of my father’s room, I exhaled. The nurse suggested I wait outside. I was told I could not enter. I knew the time had arrived, and although I had prepared for this moment, his loss tore into my heart and soul. A woman I had never seen before took my hand, moving me to a chair. I was hysterical. She sat next to me, holding my hand until my husband arrived. I have no idea how he knew that Dad was dying. Someone had called him. Much to my surprise, that someone was me, although I do not remember making a phone call. All I can retrieve from that ‘moment’ was the strange, kind woman holding my hand, whispering words of encouragement to me.

The next morning, I drove to the beach, before sunrise. Standing along the shore, I knew Dad was at peace, and in time, I would be thankful that he had the final say. Walking along the shore, I noticed a sandpiper, appearing to follow me. Was this a sign? I would like to believe it was. The tiny sandpiper running next to me was a symbol that Dad and his spirit were now united with his twin brother and his family. Truly, it was a beautiful sunrise on that morning, July 7, 1999. The first morning of my new life as an orphan.Never would my dad and I harmonize a gospel song. Never would we spell vocabulary words, or whisper ‘I Love You.’  A fresh new morning of life for me, although inside, I felt nothing except a deep, debilitating grief.

 

 

Happy Birthday to the Perkins Twins


Dearest Readers:

Today is a special, melancholic day for me. On this date — 100 years ago – December 19, 1914 – my dad and his identical twin brother, Lewis, were born. Before Uncle Lewis’ death in September, 1941 from Bright’s disease, they were known withini
the State of Alabama as The Perkins Twins. Together they sang, harmonizing, sharing their belief in God and their sermons to all who would listen. It is unfortunate for my Dad, Walter Perkins, that the music stopped for him in September 1941. Never did I have the pleasure to meet Uncle Lewis. Reportedly, he and my dad were inseparable. When he died, according to relatives and stories my dad shared, his death broke my dad’s heart so much that he never was the same. Gone was his spirit and passion to sing and preach the gospel.

Happy 100th Birthday to The Perkins Twins – in Heaven!

Unfortunately, I lost my dad to esophageal cancer on July 6, 1999. Today, I have regrets – regrets for not documenting the stories Dad occasionally shared about his life as an identical twin. Like most children, I listened a bit to his stories, but never wrote them down. Reportedly, The Perkins Twins were so identical people could not determine just who Lewis was and who was Walter. Their handwriting was the same. When one spoke, the other finished the statement. As a child, I found this strange – now, as an adult, I wish to know more. Uncle Lewis never married, but according to my dad, “He loved beautiful women…and…they Loved him!”

In Dad’s diaries I cannot find his deepest feelings about what it was like to lose his twin brother. The only comment listed during September 1941 related to Uncle Lewis and his illness was a passage that ‘Lewis was rushed to the hospital and Uncle Vera, their sister, donated blood for a blood transfusion.’ I cannot find anything else about his condition or death. It is difficult to read his diaries still. Although my family had a tradition of writing in their diaries, many of life’s important and dreadfully sad moments were not recorded.

I suppose I should find an archive to donate all of these diaries to, just to record more about the Perkins Family. Perhaps one day I will but for today, I want to remember The Perkins Twins.

My parents were married in the 1940’s. If my memory is correct, I believe it was 1943. Their marriage was not a happy one…more like a torrential storm of events. When I was a teenager, I listened to their toxic fights – always shouting, cursing and spitting violent poisons of hatred to each other. As hard as I try, I cannot remember them hugging or kissing – EVER! After their divorce, my dad changed all for the better.

Gone was the hatred, replaced by a peaceful, calm and happy man who actually said that he loved me. When I first heard “I love you,” from his lips, I stepped back, recognizing this was a new man. I was so proud of him. Over the years, Dad and I became closer. When I graduated from high school, he stood in the audience, applauding me. When my only child was born, a son, Dad sent me a hydrangea plant, with a card signed with his love.

When we moved Dad to Charleston to be closer to us after his retirement, the bonding between us grew tighter. When cancer knocked on his door in 1997, I became his caregiver. Suddenly I became the parent to my parent and it broke my heart to watch him slowly fading away from me.

Now that he is gone, I still miss him. Today is an extremely sad day for me because it is his 100th birthday. How I wish I could sing Happy Birthday to him. How I wish I could hug him, just one more time.

I suppose all of us who have lost our parents have the same emotions and thoughts in our minds on their birthdays. For me, this day is extremely difficult. I walk through my house; glancing over at the dining room table, looking at “Dad’s chair.” The chair he always sat at during our many Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. After his death, I found myself placing a plate, glassware and silverware by his chair, recognizing moments later that his chair would be empty. I don’t set his place now, but I still look to see my dad sitting there. I can almost hear his laughter and the prayer he always expressed so eloquently during the holidays.

Now, it is his time to be with his identical twin brother. This is their day to celebrate their short life together. Today, I wish the Perkins Twins a happy, glorious 100th birthday. To say I miss my dad is an understatement. I still grieve. I suppose we always grieve over losing someone so important in our lives.

Once Dad described me to others as ‘his shining star.’ During a television interview during his illness, the reporter mentioned that Dad was a poet and a writer. Quickly, Dad interrupted him, stating – “No, I’m not a writer…My daughter…Now – She’s the writer!”

I can still hear his melodic voice ringing in my ears. How I miss hearing the expression, “You are my shining star!”

Tonight during our date night, I will sing “Dance With My Father Again,” in remembrance of my dad.
Happy 100th Birthday, Dad…Uncle Lewis. Happy 100th Birthday to The Perkins Twins! Words cannot express how deeply you are missed.


Dearest Readers:

While cleaning files on my computer, I discovered this story written years ago. I do hope you will enjoy! Perhaps the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, reminds me of simpler times with my dad. Enjoy!

Perhaps a portion of “Chattahoochee Child”

Footsteps: Taking the Back Roads to Alabama

by

Barbie Perkins-Cooper
Copyright Barbie Perkins-Cooper

Dad looks dashing today, so unlike other residents at the nursing home. The green shirt and tie match the hazel-green of his eyes. The khaki pants swallow his emaciated frame. Nevertheless, he walks with his shoulders erect, head held high. A friendly smile frames his face. A hat protects his shiny bald head from the sun. “Hello-ooo, Barbara. It’s good to see you today.” His once boisterous voice no longer rings with a tone similar to Winston Churchill.

With my arm outstretched to brace his slow, shuffling movements, I walk alongside my father. His legs are so weak they remind me of spaghetti. My mind ponders the moment, picturing a small child using a walker to take her first steps, while her daddy’s arms open wide to hold her in case she falls. I feel those same heartfelt emotions now, only I am the daughter holding my arms nearby. My father uses the walker. I’ll be the one to catch him, if he falls.

Today has been a good day for Dad. He laughs, managing to tease me occasionally, by telling me stories I’ve heard a thousand times before.

Sometimes when I visit, no words are spoken between us. His memory is trapped in a timepiece of years past, remembering the bitter divorce and the disappointments in his lifetime. He points his finger in my direction, accusing me of betraying him. He says women cannot be trusted, and since I’m a woman, I fall into that category. On those days, I escape quickly, visiting for just a few minutes. I refuse to respond to his rage, afraid of upsetting him. I know by watching his signals he is angry at this dreadful monster of cancer. He does not want to be around anyone because we might see his pain and suffering. He is detaching.

Today is a different story. The love radiating from his eyes touches me. I make a mental note to cherish this moment for the rest of my life. He moves his hand from the walker to touch my hand. “You’re a wonderful daughter. My precious star.”

Tears rush down my face. I turn my head away so he will not see me crying. He tightens his hands on the walker, shifting his footsteps he moves carefully. “Today’s been a good day,” he repeats. “I kept my food down and I was able to walk a bit. I think we could travel to Georgia and Alabama with Lewis. He loved Georgia, you know,” he says. “Lewis and I planned to take the back roads to Georgia, so we could see the simple things in life.” Dad wets his lips, stares at the tile floor, and speaks carefully. “I never made it to all the places Lewis and I wanted to go, but on a day like this one, I could take the back roads to anywhere.”

“So let’s take the back roads, Dad. You can describe our voyage when we get back to your room. I’ll be the pilot. You‘re the navigator. While I drive, you can describe all the colors and sounds of life along with the scenery.”

He stops for a moment. His eyes glimpse at a delicate, silver-haired lady with a blue bow in her hair. Dad nods to her. She smiles a flirtatious smile at him. I step back, watching the graceful woman my dad has a crush on, and I smile. She’s the first woman I’ve seen my dad take an interest since my parents’ divorce. Such a tiny lady, with a gigantic heart of gold. Her silver hair is neatly combed, swept into a bun. She smells of Chloe cologne. She wears a pretty bow in her hair to match her outfit. Cultured pearls flatter her youthful neck. Diamond and pearl earrings sparkle in her ears.
Today she wears a blue silk dress. Blue pumps with white buckles accent her feet. Her legs are clothed in silk nylons. “I love to look my best. I’ll be ninety years old next month, she says. “I feel fifteen, until I look around.” Tucked by her wheelchair is a white lace crocheted afghan. Her fingers are long, manicured nails painted pink. She wears one cultured pearl ring and a beautiful diamond watch. The nurses say she was a well-known pianist, before her body was attacked with Parkinson’s Disease. Her hands move the wheelchair in his direction. Dad stands taller as she moves closer. “Good afternoon, Ms. Bee,” he says. “It’s good to see you again. Do you remember my daughter?”

Ms. Bee stops the wheelchair. Her hands quiver as she shakes my hand. “Of course I do. Not a day goes by without speaking to her. It’s so nice to see you, dear.”

Ms. Bee has a beautiful smile. Her iridescent blue eyes shimmer like sapphires as she looks at my dad. “Seeing your dad every day makes my day complete,” she says to me. “He’s such a charming gentleman. He likes to kiss me on the cheek. Sometimes I get him to join me in my room for dinner. I offer him a cocktail but he refuses to drink.”

“I’m a teetotaler,” he says, reaching for her hand. The childlike grin on his face expresses a side of Dad I’ve missed.

“Ms. Bee, would you like to take a journey with us?”

She cast a perplexing look at me, smiles and says, Where are we going?”

“Dad’s taking me on a mental journey to Georgia and Alabama. I’ll meet Uncle Lewis.”

“Lewis and I have an engagement for the annual church Family Day, 1941.”

“I’ve always wanted to meet Lewis, Ms. Bee says.

Ms. Bee follows us to the lobby. Dad parks the walker near a chair. Dad speaks eloquently telling us the story of his trip with Lewis in early 1941.

“Today Lewis and Barbara will take turns, driving a 1938 Buick Special sedan. We start our trip on Highway 17 leaving Charleston, driving to Georgia. We’ll spend the night in Savannah. Lewis’ car is a finely tuned automobile, burgundy with black interior. Chrome decorates the front bumper, four new white wall tires. The Buick has an engine that purrs like a kitten as we drive along the road, headed to the First Baptist Church in Mobile, Alabama where Lewis and I will preach and sing the gospel. Afterwards, a church picnic will be served, complete with fried chicken, homemade biscuits, iced tea and desserts made for a king.”

The roads to Georgia and Alabama are narrow in 1941, traffic isn’t bad. Lewis and Dad are in the back seat, snoring. I cruise on the roads, not worried about rushing to get somewhere in a hurry. These are simpler times. I see green pastures, lots of farm land. Deer, cattle, horses, and other animals paint a picture of times past I never knew. While traveling through Georgia, I notice lots of red clay, the Chattahoochee River, cotton fields, barns, and people walking on the roadside. The air smells fresh as it brushes my face. When I get tired, Lewis will awaken me by singing in my ears. The luxury of a radio is not necessary while Dad and the Uncle I never knew entertain me with harmonies equal to a barber shop quartet.

Listening to Dad entertaining us with stories from his past, I long to step back in time, to meet Uncle Lewis, the identical twin brother of my father, the uncle who died in September 1941.

Watching my dad come to life again by sharing his stories encourages me to continue the journey, learning from his wisdom. I have no control over his disease. I cherish every moment we share, but I know soon the sunset will disappear. Dad will be gone, traveling into a promised, eternal life with his brother and family members.

Dad’s always been there for me, holding my hand, teaching me to walk, telling me about the beauty of life, the sunrises, and sunsets. When he’s gone, who will teach me? Will I still see life the way he does, or will I grow bitter? Will someone reach out steadying my footsteps as I travel to my sunset? Will my memory record the pleasant days of life like my father’s memory, or will I be a wilted vegetable?

Later, as I leave the nursing home, I look back at Dad. He stands at the doorway, waving goodbye. A welcomed smile fills his face. I will cherish that wave forever. As I open the exit door to leave Sandpiper Convalescent Center, I see Ms. Bee again. Her words describing Dad as a charming man ring in my ears. I suppose its true — with age comes wisdom. My dad shows me with his kindness and tranquility how people grow, prosper, and improve after adversity. When he’s gone, I’ll remember these irreplaceable contributions of his life. I’ll break away from the rat race of life, taking tiny steps, recording the memories of these special days together.

THE WAKE UP CALL


First North American Rights Only
Total Word Count –1491 words
Barbie Perkins-Cooper
E-mail: barbiepc@bellsouth.net

Arriving in Greensboro, North Carolina, I met Joan at Friendly Shopping Center. I parked the car in the first available spot and headed towards Hecht’s Department Store. Rushing across the parking lot, I waved to Joan. Stopping for only a moment, I admired the Christmas decorations. Early morning bargain hunters were anxious for the doors to open, pushing, and shoving to get to the entrance. Joan and I stepped aside letting an elderly woman in a wheel chair take our spot. Holiday sales meant nothing to me. I’d experienced the worst year in my life, watching my father melting away from the toxic poisons of esophageal cancer and chemo-radiation therapy.

“Crowds bother me,” I said to Joan. “Will I ever laugh again?”

Joan nodded. I turned my back to the street, noticing the trees decorated with bright lights. I’d almost forgotten Christmas was less than a month away.

“How are you doing?” Joan asked.

“Okay. The trees are beautiful this year.”

“Just okay, huh,” Joan said. “It’s been six months. If you need to talk, I’m here.”

Grief is an emotional I do not tolerate well. Normally a boisterous woman, full of laughter and fun, especially at the holidays, my present demeanor was a weakened shell of a woman, bursting into tears at the slightest gesture, especially when someone struggled to move in a wheel chair, or a walker. Too many memories surfaced and I crumbled like a child. I missed my dad more than words could express. My actions revealed how despondent I was, and I truly hated myself for being such a weakling.

When the doors opened, I looked over my shoulder. Something caught my eye. An object was lying in the road. Someone probably dropped a jacket I thought as I moved closer.

“Joan,” I said. “I’ll meet you in ladies wear.”

I didn’t hear Joan answer me. By now, there were hundreds of shoppers pushing and shoving into Hecht’s.
Striding towards the road, I recognized the item by the curb wasn’t a jacket, but an elderly gentleman.
“He must be drunk,” I mumbled, moving closer to him. What if he’s dead? I dialed 9-1-1 on my cell phone.

My mind rewound, stopping at the memories and heartache of July, 1999. That humid Tuesday evening in South Carolina, I was late arriving at Sandpiper Convalescent Center. When I placed my hand on the door of my father’s room, a nurse intercepted me. Nurses were rushing around Dad’s bed.

“Can you get a pulse?” I heard someone say.

“His daughter is here. What should we do?”

Nurse Angie joined me at the doorway. Her eyes locked into mine.

“No, “I screamed. “No! Please God, No!”

Nurse Angie sat me down. She didn’t need to tell me what was going on. I knew the day had arrived, and although Dr. Williams told me I needed to prepare myself, I wasn’t ready to let Dad go. I still needed him in my life. For two years he’d fought and survived. For two years, we’d buried the past, building a newfound respect, love and forgiveness. He couldn’t leave me now.

Nurse Angie whispered. “He’s a DNR. Do you want us to do anything?”

The acronym for do not resuscitate rang in my ears. “I can’t override his decision. Not even if it means—.” I couldn’t finish the words. Since childhood, Dad was my helping hand. Always ready to cheer me up. He and my grandmother taught me about God and prayer. Dad was the provider who encouraged me to stand up for myself and to speak my mind. Dad was the one who glowed with pride when I sang in the choir. Dad was the one who encouraged me to reach for the stars.

“Dear God, give me strength,” I prayed. “Take care of my dad. Let him know I love him.”

A screaming horn brought me back to reality. I stared into the eyes of a driver. “Get the hell out-of-the-way,” the burgundy haired woman shrieked. “I need to turn.”

I walked over to her. She had body piercings in her eyebrow and nose. “I’m sorry to inconvenience you,” I said. “There’s a gentleman unconscious in the road. I’m not moving him until EMS gets here.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she mouthed. “I’m in a hurry.”

“Aren’t we all?”

I kneeled down, touching the elderly gentleman’s forehead, feeling beads of cold sweat. His hair was thin, salt and pepper gray. His face was weathered, hands wrinkled from years of the roadblocks and detours of life. “Dear God please. Don’t let him die. Not today.”

His hands felt like ice. His body was thin. A gray beard covered his face. He wore a gold wedding band.

Inquisitive shoppers moved closer. Removing my coat, I covered him. A young man with spiked hair removed his leather coat, bundled it into a ball, lifting the gentleman’s head.

“Does he have a pulse?” He asked.

“I didn’t check.” My lips quivered.

“It’s okay. I’m a medical student.” He checked for a pulse, nodding yes.

The gentleman coughed.

“Sir, can you tell me what day it is?”

“Saturday. And if you ask me who the President is, I’m gonna scream.”

The medical student laughed. “You’ve heard these questions a lot, huh?”

“Doctors think I’m out of my mind, but I’m not. I’ve been in the hospital a lot. I got weak crossing the road. I must’ve blacked out. Bernice wanted to get here early for the sale.”

“Where’s your wife?” I said.

“Parking the car. I had chemo this week.”

I warmed his freezing hands with mine. “Chemo,” I muttered, understanding his weakness.

Joan joined me, touching my shoulder. “You okay?”

I nodded.

“Cancer,” I said. “You go shopping. I’ll stay with him.”

“Sirens,” someone said. “They’re coming.”

The man squeezed my hand. “Don’t leave me,” he said.

“I’ll be here until we find Bernice.”

“She’s buying me some fishing tackle.”

“You must like to fish,” I said, hoping he’d remain alert. “Is there someone else we can call?”

“My grandson, Hank. His number’s in my wallet.”

The medical student found his wallet, dialed the number.

When EMS arrived, a pretty older woman joined us. She smiled at me and thanked me. “I’m Bernice. His wife. Thanks for helping him,” she said.

While sitting inside Ruby Tuesday’s for lunch, I found myself able to talk. A sudden burst of adrenalin had me chatting non-stop about Dad’s terminal illness, forgiveness and death.

“When I was little, I was hit by a car. My Grammy said I was spared for a reason,” I said to Joan, sipping a steaming French vanilla coffee. “Until today, I never understood what she meant. I couldn’t leave that man in the road.”

“You really have a way with old people,” she said.

I laughed. “Thanks to cancer. I’ve never told you this, but my relationship with my parents wasn’t good. Until Dad got sick, I couldn’t forgive them.”

I looked around the crowded restaurant. “Life is so short. So unfair. I’ve always taken life a bit too seriously… Now, I try to find the rainbows… I’ve started praying every night. That’s something I didn’t do for many years. I was racing on an endless spinning wheel.” I paused.

“Dad’s illness was a wake up call. His faith taught me to step out of that rat race and reach out to others. Two days before he died, I visited him like I always did. I didn’t want him to die without me there. On July 4th he was sitting in his rocking chair, reading the Bible. When he saw me arrive, he raised his voice, asking me what I was doing there. I thought he was angry, so I only stayed a few minutes. I didn’t visit the next day. Now that he’s gone, I realized he was detaching. He knew his days on earth were numbered. Maybe God spoke to him.”

“You were remarkable,” Joan said. The daily visits, the letters you wrote to his family and friends every month. The care you gave him. He was blessed.”

“I was blessed. People come into our lives for a purpose, and God brought Dad back into my life, forcing me to wake up. Rebuilding that relationship gave me the courage I need to live the rest of my life and to make a few changes. Just when we think the door has closed, God opens a window. What more can I ask for?”

My cell phone rang. The medical student shared an updated report about the gentleman in the road. He was stable. Bernice was by his side.

The experience of stopping to help a total stranger during that holiday season opened my eyes and heart to our purpose in life. Each life has a reason for existence. My grandmother always told me to look for rainbows when life gives us detours. As a child, I didn’t understand her wisdom. Now, older and much wiser, I appreciated her words.

When life brings rain, look for the rainbow. Grammy’s wisdom about God, along with my dad’s, was instilled forever inside my heart.

-30-

Born in Columbus, Georgia, Barbie Perkins-Cooper is a talented, award-winning writer of screenplays, fiction, non-fiction, plays, and numerous articles for regional and trade publications. She began her writing career as a child, publishing a science fiction story during third grade in Atlanta, Georgia. Her areas of writing expertise include fiction, non-fiction, articles, plays and screenplays. In 2001, she published a complex memoir based on her father’s battle with esophageal cancer. The non-fiction memoir is titled, “Condition of Limbo.”

As a writer of accomplishment, she works diligently to achieve her goals as a professional screenwriter and playwright. She was selected as a finalist in the teleplay category with her screenplay, the Commish…The Signature Rapist. Additional screenplays were selected as finalist for the Chesterfield Writers’ Film Project and the Goldie Film Awards, Fade In competition, The Writers Network, and America’s Best, The Writers Foundation. In February 2004, she was awarded the Grand Goldie Film Award for her screenplay, Not My Papa.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper is a member of The Society of Professional Journalists and North Carolina Writers Network. SIn her spare time, she likes to kick off her shoes, and relax on the beaches of South Carolina. Writing is her passion.

Caregiving in America


PARENT TO PARENT…CARE GIVING IN AMERICA

by

Barbie Perkins-Cooper

During the holidays of 1997, my life was extremely busy until a shocking reality forced me to readjust my schedule, to make time for a new, unsuspecting emergency when my father needed me the most, during his illness. I was stepping into a new chapter of my life, green and naive of the responsibilities I would endure. The roles of life were reversing, and before the Christmas holidays of 1997 ended, I learned about new responsibilities while serving as the primary caregiver to my beloved, headstrong, and courageous father, Walter W. Perkins.
On December 9, I sat alone at the hospital waiting for the results of an endoscopy, feeling confident my dad would be fine. I flipped the pages of a magazine while waiting for the test results. When his doctor approached, I realized from his body language and the look in his eyes he did not have good news to report. When he whispered esophageal cancer, I screamed.
Later, I regained my composure, while the poisonous words of cancer echoed inside my head. How could this be? I pondered the diagnosis. Dad would need chemotherapy and radiation. I did not know if he would agree to the treatments, realizing that if he found the courage to fight such a dreadful cancer, he would become dreadfully sick. According to the doctors, chemotherapy could help, or because it was so toxic and powerful, it could kill him.
The prognosis was not a positive forecast. The oncologist estimated that he could live possibly six months; nevertheless, he was not able to retain food now and was malnourished. He needed a feeding tube, to pump nutrition into his stomach. If he did not respond and retain food soon, he would probably be dead within two weeks from malnourishment.
My heart palpitated as I realized my role model, mentor and advisor of life was terminally ill with a dreadful disease, and I was helpless to stop it. My father was my guiding light of life, always strong and healthy. Now, he would fight the battle of his life, and I had no doubt that I would be by his side for the duration of his illness. Our roles in life were reversing, only this time, I would become the caregiver to my devoted, charming, and loving 82-year old father.
I was not certain I was ready for this challenge, but I knew I would not allow him to fight the disease without me. Although I failed to understand the true definition of a primary caregiver, I would learn, and change my lifestyle schedule to be by his side. Realizing the nightmarish roller coaster ride I was on was a wake up call I hope to never experience again.
I was a proud, energetic, fulfilled woman of the baby boomer generation, the generation designated to babies born during the years of 1946-1964. I was involved in a demanding career, relieved that my son was grown and living on his own, planning to get married soon. Now, it was time for me to do what I wanted to do, until I realized my father would need me now, more than he needed anyone in his lifetime. I was the parent to my parent.
I accepted the challenge, never understanding how the cycles of life were spinning uncontrollably while I slowly stepped into the dreadful middle age years, stepping into a new chapter of my life as a caregiver.
Americans of the baby boomer generation are aging. Approximately one of four American households is involved in some form of care giving. The number of primary care providers is diminishing because many family members live far away or cannot become involved. Where does this leave the elderly? Who will feed them, dress them, and provide for their needs and companionship? Who will see that their medical, financial, and personal needs are met?
In America, hospital and long-term care is skyrocketing. Medicare will not cover the needs sufficiently. Only a small amount of American families can afford private nursing home care, or long-term medical care. Approximately 36% of primary caregivers are over the age of 65. As the baby boomers reach senior citizen status, the elderly population is projected to increase significantly and will require physical, emotional, assisted living and special needs. Although the majority of caregivers are usually women, many of these women must juggle a full-time job and children still living at home, while managing the care of an elderly parent. These demands can lead to physical ailments, including depression or burn out.
I was under the impression that Medicare would take care of the medical needs of my father, along with the elderly. I was sadly mistaken. Medicare would not pay for his prescriptions, unless he was hospitalized; and if he needed long term care, Medicare would only cover twenty days. Fighting for his life, Dad worried about the bills, along with how he would afford the expense of cancer. He was encouraged to file for Medicaid.
While the toxic brown bag of chemotherapy dripped into my father’s thinning veins, I realized I had to take charge of his life, at least for now. Although I did not feel emotionally strong enough to endure the horrors of filing for Medicaid, I knew I had to become his voice, his nurse, and advocate.
I adjusted my schedule, missing weeks of work, along with months of sleep. When I visited him, I smiled while struggling to camouflage my emotions. Dad was so weak and nauseated from the chemotherapy, he failed to notice, and I was thankful. I wore myself out physically, almost to the point of exhaustion. My emotional life was spinning out of control, trapped in a whirlpool I could not escape.
To my surprise, I found an inner strength within myself, focusing on my father’s medical, financial, and physical needs. We developed a closer relationship, and although we never discussed how it felt for him to suffer a terminal disease, I still remember his poignant words to me during one hospital visit. He reached for my hand, whispering softly, he said, “You know, Barbara, cancer is not contagious.”
Tears filled my eyes as I turned my head away so he could not see me crying. “I know, Dad.” I kissed him on the lips, telling him I loved him. I was proud to be his caregiver, and I was thankful he had confidence in me.
If you serve as a primary caregiver, be good to yourself. Find time to be alone, while juggling the demands of care giving, even if it means you must close the door for a bit of privacy for only a few minutes. Make the most of your days, especially while caring for your loved one. Take charge of your life. Do not feed the doubts, or listen to the negative aspects of your new lifestyle change. Repeat to yourself that you are taking life one day at a time, and make the most of every day, even if it is a dark and dreary day. Be thankful of your blessings and the days that you and your loved are sharing.
Learn to speak up and fight for your rights, and the rights of the terminally ill, or elderly person you are caring for. Watch for signs of depression, in yourself and your loved one. Some of the signs of depression include: inability to sleep, inability to concentrate, and a mind that races constantly, especially at night, sometimes referred to as circular thinking, lack of appetite, irrational behavior, crying, or irritability. I was in denial of my emotions, unable to see the warning signs.
While serving as a primary caregiver, encourage your loved one to be strong, to fight for life, and to be courageous. Let the person you care for make some of the decisions. Most of all, open your heart, your mind, and share your love. Never leave your loved one without a touch of affection and the simple words I love you, because you may not have tomorrow to express those affections. Discover the rights of the elderly. And when the time comes, allow your loved one to die with dignity, if that is his or her wish.
Search on the Internet for care giving issues, publications, and become an advocate about elderly care. I found numerous web sites, and I read them passionately late at night, when I could not sleep. Stand up for your rights, trust your instincts, and support your loved ones wishes. Make the most of every day, without making excuses for mistakes you make, appointments you must cancel, or demands you can no longer meet. Become familiar with the Family Medical Leave Act, and do not allow others, especially co-workers or a boss, to intimidate you.
Walter W. Perkins died on July 6, 1999 and although I am no longer a caregiver, I still consider myself an advocate for elderly care, especially where the rights of residents of nursing homes are concerned.
During Dad’s illness, I never took no for an answer, and I learned everything I could about Medicare, Medicaid and the rights of the elderly. I wanted to be the voice my father could not be, because he was so gravely ill and frail. I have no regrets, and I am proud to say my father was my top priority in life, during his illness, and residency in a nursing home. Although he died while I was walking into his room for my daily visit, I know that he knew I loved him, and I was dedicated to him. He was my life, and now he is my shining star. A few days before he died, he reminded me to make the most of everyday of my life, and I still strive to live life to its fullest, remembering his wisdom, his love, along with the passions he held for others.
You, as a caregiver, or a baby boomer, could be the next family member to walk into a nursing home or a hospital, while your loved one is dying. Live for the moment, hoping to see the sunrise and sunset of a new tomorrow. Never forget to share your love and special times with the terminally ill or elderly.
After the death of my father, I fell apart. As I dug my way out of the darkness of despair, I realized I was lost in a world of depression, unable to confront my emotional well being. It was my darkest moment. I managed to join a grief therapy session, while I learned to accept his death.
Watching my father battle the debilitating disease of esophageal cancer, as he struggled to maintain his dignity, gave me a wake up call I will never forget. Now, I make the time to search for flowers, rainbows and I enjoy the little things in life while enjoying life’s effervescent sunrises and sunsets.
Be proud to be a caregiver, while serving as a parent to your parent, and never look back! Life is too short to be trapped into a spider web of despair and regrets. We must remember to make the best out of a difficult situation, feeding the positive moments, while forgetting the negative and hopeless feelings we as caregivers experience. We must educate ourselves about care giving. We must trust our instincts, and know that what we are doing is not a sacrifice, but an act of unconditional love while we learn to adjust and place our needs aside. We are sharing and teaching, and growing into the citizens and family members that we need and desire to be. We must stand up, not only for our rights, but also for the rights of those who we love during their hour of need. With the support of our families, friends and other caregivers, we are building memories to cherish for the rest of our lives.
May God bless caregivers, the family members, and loved ones we care for; and may we as caregivers continue to find ways to improve the lives of the ones we love and want to remember — one day at a time!

Mammogram 101


I suppose this is an article for women only; after all, I don’t think men would appreciate the subject matter. Here goes. Have you ever had a mammogram?

During the month of October, I scheduled my yearly mammogram. Since I do monthly breast exams, I wasn’t afraid. Nothing was different so I was confident that I would receive a letter telling me to return in a year. When the letter arrived, I was concerned. I needed an additional mammogram and/or ultrasound. I scheduled it immediately. Before the appointment, I got a call from the hospital informing me that I needed to bring $265.99 to pay for the additional test.

“What…I have Blue Cross Blue Shield. They pay for my mammogram.” Surprise — only 80% this time!

I almost cancelled the appointment. After contemplating the additional test, I phoned the Breast Cancer Center again, asking why I needed this appointment. “We can’t discuss that,” the voice on the other line said.

I was furious.

The more I thought of it, the more I realized I needed my Julia Sugarbaker diplomatic style to kick in. “Hello,” I said. “I have an appointment for an additional mammogram and was told no one could discuss it with me. Don’t I have the right to KNOW Why?”

“Of Course, you do,” the kind voice responded.

She transferred me to the radiology doctor where I discovered why. It seems that my yearly mammogram noticed a change…something in the glandular structure. I heard the word “asymmeticral,” or something similar.

“Have you lost or gained weight in the past year?”

“Yes…about 35 pounds. I’m doing Weight Watchers.”

“That could be the reason. It’s nothing to get alarmed about.”

Alarmed? Could we be talking a lump, or breast cancer?

The appointment was scheduled for the next Monday. I had exactly seven days to stress, worry while my imagination went crazy with fear.

I’ve always been told I have a nice chest.  For me, this compliment convinced me years ago that a woman’s chest is one of her most feminine assets. Perhaps some people can’t imagine stating that, but when it is one of the major compliments received, especially from my husband all types of fear entered my mind.

My maternal grandmother developed breast cancer — back in the days when cobalt was the treatment used after a brutal surgery. I had to change her dressings for her when she came home. Her chest was brutalized — like a raw piece of red beef. I was a teenager at the time and I’ve never forgotten how dreadful my grandmother looked. Never did I squint or show her my fears while I cleansed and dressed her wounds. Never did I forget how she looked. My grandmother was a grand lady, an inspirational, loving role model for me, showing me what a lady should always be, how a lady should act and dress. She influenced my life significantly!

What if that happened to me? How would my husband love me anymore IF I lost a breast?

I suppose every breast cancer survivor has felt that fear. I’ve known many women who have battled and won, but I’ve never discussed their fears, or dressed their wounds. I have been told that the incision is much better now, and there is plastic surgery that can be completed.  Before I went for the additional mammogram I researched breast cancer, reconstructive surgery and on and on. I do not recommend others to research. You must ask breast cancer survivors — those who have endured breast cancer. As a writer, I have the tools nearby to find the research. Sometimes a little knowledge can make one frightened out of their minds. Still, I could not pick up the phone to ask a friend. So many women do not want to talk about the experience, and I can certainly understand.

I told myself not to worry. Easier said than done, I assure you. Then, I took my maternal grandmother’s wise advice — I went to my window lifted my eyes up towards the Heavens and I prayed, having a lengthy talk with God. My grandmother’s advice of finding a special window to have God lift a burden has always worked for me. This time, I felt the burden lift. Thank you, Gramma!

An additional mammogram. I’ve had several but I knew this one would be different. Just imagine a portion of your body placed into a paddle where the radiologist pushes, pulls, probes, squeezes, tightens….oops, not the right position so it is time to push, pull, probe, squeeze and tighten again — while attempting to get the muscles, tissues and dense breast materials to tighten, flatten — perhaps like a pancake.

My breast could never become a pancake!

If you are a man, just imagine a tender part of your body pulled into the paddle while having the radiologist tighten…and tighten…and tighten…until there is a pancake size and when the position is intact, she says, “Now don’t move.” Meanwhile your special area feels so tight, uncomfortable, and a bit painful while you attempt to escape into a part of your memory reserved for relaxation.

What? You’ve never heard of a mammogram? A mammogram is an x-ray. Allow me to discuss it further:

According to the American Cancer Society, “Getting a mammogram is one of the best things a woman can do to protect her health. This simple test can find breast cancers early, when they’re small and have not spread. This is when breast cancer is easier to treat and the chances of survival are higher. http://www.cancer.org/healthy/findcancerearly/cancerscreeningguidelines/american-cancer-society-guidelines-for-the-early-detection-of-cancer

If you’re 40 or older, you should get a mammogram every year. Don’t wait. Call your doctor to schedule one today.”

The American Cancer Society strongly recommends that women over 40 have a yearly mammogram. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so when you see women, and those who are close to women, wearing the pink ribbons, or pink clothing, remember to schedule your mammogram.

Remember to do monthly self breast exams every month.  For  thoroughly detailed images of how to do a self breast exam, visit the website: http://women.webmd.com/healthtool-self-breast-exam

Every women should have a yearly physical and have a breast examination by a doctor. While examining your breast, pay close attention to the nipples and if you see any changes, be sure to see your doctor.

In the event you should see a change, a lump or swelling, irritation or dimpling, any pain at the nipple, redness, or a discharge, please see your doctor.

After making the appointment, checking with BCBS, I approached my husband about my letter.  I’ve got to have an additional mammogram/ultrasound. It seems I have a glandular change in my left breast.

He looked up from the computer. Wow! This time, I had his complete attention.

What if…what if I have breast cancer and I lose my breast? I could not live like that.

Phil rushed to hold me. Suddenly the weight of the world lifted as he held me. Those arms of strength and love have gotten me through some rough times in my life.

“Did you speak with the doctor?”

Yes. Let’s just say my Julia Sugarbaker kicked in.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Easy for him to say. What if He was the one who would have a part of his anatomy placed into paddles that desire to flatten the tissues like they are pancakes.

Finally the day arrived. I did my best not to worry; after all, I had a talk with God. I arrived early. The appointment was at 3:40pm. I didn’t leave until after 5pm. This time, the radiologist explained what she was doing. She even allowed me to look over my shoulder. Silly me. I was still attached to the paddle so when I turned to look to the right — well, let’s just say — it wasn’t comfortable!

When will I know the results?”

“I’ll show these to the doctor before you leave. You might still need an ultrasound, but we’ll wait until the doctor says we do.”

Thanks.

Moments seemed like hours as I went back to the dressing room — dressed in a thin bed jacket style of fabric. I couldn’t get dressed until the radiologist said I could. So, the wait began. I know it was only a few minutes, but it seemed like hours. I kept glancing down at my manicured nails. I have a tendency to pull the nail polish off when I am so stressful. I played with my nails and waited. A knock was at the door. I opened it.

The radiologist introduced me to the doctor. “We’ll see you in a year,” she said.

I can go home? I don’t need the ultrasound?

I sighed with delight. Such sweet words to hear.

“It’s just a glandular change. Nothing to be alarmed about.”

How I wanted to hug her but I knew if I lifted my arms, I would be exposed to the world. Instead, I shook her hand.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” she said.

Yes, it will be a great Happy Thanksgiving now.

I suddenly felt guilty while driving home, thinking of the women who have experienced the same tests, only to hear the dreadful six-letter-word that starts with a C.

Somehow. Someway. Someday. Cancer must find a cure. Just when — and at what cost will that day arrive? Every day I pray for a cure while remembering my precious grandmother. Her courage. Her strength. Her love for her granddaughters. How I miss her!