For most of my friends, 2016 will be remembered for the shock they felt when the candidate for president of the United States whom a good many of us felt was thoroughly qualified failed to get enough electoral votes to take office in January 2017. And, to be honest, that shocked me, too. For me, however, 2016 sucked for other reasons.
In September of 2015, my best friend was diagnosed with stage IV parotid gland cancer. Neck and mouth cancers are among the most difficult to treat because they are rarely discovered before they have metastasized (hence, the stage IV) and oncologists and other medical professionals tend to throw everything at the cancer (and the patient) because they apparently have no idea how to stop it.
My friend’s prognosis was six months from diagnosis. She began chemotherapy late in November and within a couple of days had what at first appeared to be a horrible reaction to the poison they’d pumped into her system. On a Sunday morning she called me, painfully distraught. “I feel so sick,” she said. “I can’t take care of the cats. You have to come and take them to the shelter.” And then she named a nearby shelter that she believed was open on Sundays. I asked her if she’d called her doctor. Being the stoic, controlled Midwesterner that she was, of course, she hadn’t. I told her to call the doctor and I’d figure something out with the cats.
When I hung up the phone, I came apart. She was so sick that she was ready to dump her beloved cats? How could she do that? And I was not going to take them to a shelter. I couldn’t. They’d be euthanized. Given the fact that one was eight and the other thirteen or fourteen, they’d never get adopted. Hyperventilating and crying, I called my neighbor and asked her to go with me to my friend’s house. Then I called and begged my sister (who lived nearby) to take the cats on a temporary basis. I brought my cage to keep them in, and my sister, after conferring with her daughter, agreed.
We couldn’t catch the cats that morning. My friend had already headed to the ER at the on-call doctor’s insistence, and my neighbor and I retreated back to my house to regroup. In the early evening, my friend’s neighbor called me. She’d been to the hospital and seen my friend, and my friend had told her to tell me in no uncertain terms that when she got home there’d better not be any cats in the house. Frightened, feeling threatened by the effects of a disease that wasn’t even my disease, I headed back to her house, picking up my sister on the way. Two of my friend’s neighbors showed up, and they succeeded in corralling the cats, and my sister and I transported them (and the litter box—apparently part of the offending problem connected with the cats—along with their food) to my sister’s house.
It took two months to find a home for the cats together. My sister never once complained about caring for them or the intrusion they were on her life. But that’s my sister. In those two months, my friend came home after three days in the hospital where they discovered three masses in her brain—likely the guilty party in her aversion to the cats. Her second chemo treatment was delayed with the plan being to see how she did, and if she felt well enough after, the younger of her two cats would come home. (I didn’t understand that either. Why not both? Only a little extra work. But there was a lot I never understood. It wasn’t my journey, and I could only watch.)
She had her second chemo treatment between Christmas and New Years. Unbeknownst to me and those treating her, she’d developed a severe case of diarrhea on Christmas Eve. She hid it from me to protect my anxious psyche; she hid it from her medical team because, I believe, she didn’t want to delay the chemo any longer. She was strong, determined, ready to take the cancer on again. After the second round of chemo (a cocktail, I might add, that consisted of three most potentially powerful anticancer drugs available), the diarrhea became so bad she ended up in the hospital and stayed for a week-and-a-half. She never went home again. From the hospital she went into “rehab,” and she stayed in that nursing home until her death eight months later. She survived just over a year after her diagnosis.
I had two directives. The first was my own. “Keep her safe.” That meant nursing home care. The second directive came from her early on in her stay in the nursing home. Recognizing that she’d likely never leave, she expressed to me her fear that she’d run out of money if she stayed after her Medicare ran out. So, to keep her there, to keep her safe and to keep her from using up her savings, I contacted a company that manages getting the aging on Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid) to ensure long-term care. There were three of us “watching over” my friend, but none of us could take on the 24-hour-a-day attention we knew she’d require. I took care of protecting her assets. Another one of us saw to selling her mobile home and its contents because all of her income would become “share of cost” with nothing left for the rent on her space or any other expenses. I will always owe this woman a debt that cannot be repaid.
For several months, March through July, I wondered why we even kept her in the nursing home. I mean, I knew I couldn’t have her stay with me; my anxiety disorder wouldn’t let me sleep if she were there. She understood that. But still, she was stuck in a place where most everyone is suffering from some form of dementia, and she wasn’t. There was always someone yelling all night long, and that made it hard for her to sleep. I should have just bit the bullet and brought her home with me, but as it was, I was getting sick (fever, chills, lack of appetite, sleeping all the time) about once a month for 5 or 6 days. I couldn’t take care of her with that going on. (Whether these bouts with illness were merely a product of stress or related to an actual physical cause will soon be determined as I go through testing and referral to a specialist.)
She died on a Monday afternoon late in September of this year (this awful year of 2016) around 4 p.m. It was peaceful and quiet, and I felt privileged to be present. And then came the business matters. She’d organized everything well, so it was fairly simple to close out various accounts and disappear her from the system. The year is nearly done, and all that’s left are her taxes, which can’t be done until next year anyway.
Oh, and my cat died two weeks ago. 2016 sucked.