Category: Death and Dying

Hierarchy

Last week I read an excellent post from Marie Ennis O'Connor on "Is There a Hierarchy Among Cancer Survivors?"

Then this week that discussion was followed by another excellent post and discusssion at Regrounding. Even though the topic has been quite thoroughly and thoughtfully covered in these previous posts, I'd like to add a bit.  

So, is there a herarchy among cancer survivors? Is there one in breast cancer circles?

Having spoken hundreds of times to quite diverse cancer support groups, as well as to oncologists, nurses, and others in the cancer community, I have experienced many layers of:

  • You didn't have chemo, so what gives you the right?
  • Your lymph nodes were not positive, so you're home free.
  • You're lucky it was only breast cancer.
  • You aren't Stage IV. Everything else is a piece of cake.
  • You didn't suffer as much with your treatment; you didn't have chemo before Zofran: you didn't burn and peel with your radiation.  
  • You can't call yourself a victim; that shows you are weak.
  • You can't use battle words; or, you must use battle language.
  • Your chronic fatigue syndrome didn't totally put you in bed for years. (Forgive my straying into another disease. But I've heard this a lot.)
  • You must identify as "survivor," "thrivor." "victor," "totally made it." (Forget about the part that breast cancer can recur years later.)
  • We must be brave, courageous – keep our friends, family, casual passers-by reassured.

 

I've also lived quite a long time. Guess that puts me pushing toward the top of the hierarchy of "I'm older than you and I know better." But maybe I won't play that card, even though with all of this well-earned gray hair and many wrinkles, it is terribly tempting. 🙂 

Let me repeat some of what I commented on Marie's blog (with amplification):

There is always hierarchy. Everywhere. In every circle – family, sports, health, illness, religion, politics, young, old, male, female.

I don’t know if it is more prevalent among women than men; it may seem so in junior high, but it probably just exists in different arenas.

There is something within us that seems to compel us to play one-upmanship. In disease circles, maybe it is self-preservation. If I can figure out what stupid thing you did to make yourself sick or caused yourself to die, I can avoid that and save myself indefinitely.

I try to guard myself against participating in hierarchical maneuvers, but certainly don’t always succeed. I have deservedly been put in my place a number of times.

When I am the recipient, my hope is always that I can find the grace to give the other person the benefit of the doubt – realizing that there is no way I can walk in her shoes or divine her motives or identify her. I simply do not know why he or she has chosen that path or why he or she needs to de-elevate me. 

On the other hand, no one can put me down if I won’t go down.

Declutter – A Faded Poem

And there, in the scrapbook, right next to the newspaper clipping that I typed into my previous post, was the carbon copy of a poem, barely legible with all the smudges, strike-overs, and years.

It doesn't say who wrote it, but judging from the words and the mentioned date, I'm pretty sure it was my Uncle Bill, searching for, hoping in some way to find peace.

Dad never had so much to say;
Jogged along in his quiet way
Driving his horses, Mike and Queen,
As he turned the soil to the golden sheen.
Used to say as he slapped the mare,
One thorny hand in his tangled hair,
"Rest in joy when your work's well done,
So pitch in, son."

Sometimes he and I'd not hitch;
Couldn't agree as to which was which.
Fought it out on the same old lines
As we grubbed and hoed 'mong the runnin' vines;
And his eyes would light with a gentle quiz,
And he'd say in that old soft way of his,
As he idly stroked his wrinkled chin,
"All right, son, you win."

Dad was never no hand to fuss;
Used to hurt him to hear us cuss;
Kind o' settled in his old ways,
Born an' raised in the good old days
When a tattered coat hid a kindly heart,
An' the farm was home, not a toilin' mart,
An' a man was judged by his inward self;
Not his worldly pelf.

Seems like 'twas yesterday we sat
On the old back proch for a farewell chat
Ere I changed the farm and the simple life
For the city's roar and bustle an' strife.
When I gaily talked of the city's charm
His eyes looked out o'er the fertile farm
An' he said as he rubbed where the hair was thin,
"All right, son, you win."

'Member the night I trudged back home
Sinkin' deep in the fresh turned loam;
Sick and sore for the dear old place,
Hungerin' most for a loved old face.
There stood dad in the kitchen door,
An' he says in a voice from deep within,
"Hello, son, come in."

On the sixth of May, after the latest snow,
He went the way that we all must go;
An' his spirit soared to the realms above
On the wings of a simple-hearted love.
An' I know that when I cross the bar
I'll find him there by the gates ajar,
An' he'll say, as he idly strokes his chin,
"HELLO, SON, COME IN."

Yes, looking for a peace that he never found.

Declutter – An Old Newspaper Clipping

As I continue to declutter and scan items from my mother's scrapbooks, I come across a fragile, yellowed newspaper clipping. Even though the accident had happened almost sixty-nine years ago, I remember as though it were yesterday. 

On May 6, 1944, thirteen years old and suffering from German measles, I lay in bed, feverish, headachy, and itchy, unable to sleep. Around 11:00 p.m., I heard the phone ring and my dad answer. He woke my mother; they whispered; she stifled a cry of anguish. More phone calls. After thirty minutes or so, they came to my room to tell me that my beloved Grandpa Nikkel was dead. The next day they traveled to Colorado to attend the funeral; I was left to care for my nine-year-old brother and five-year-old sister (with help from a neighbor). It was the first time that death had come close to me and I was exceedingly sad.

But I had never seen that clipping until today:   

Funeral services will be conducted tomorrow for Bernhard Nikkel who was killed Saturday evening by the compeller of an airplane soon after his son, William Nikkel, had landed the machine near the farm home.

The tragic accident occurred as preparations were being made to moor the plane near the Nikkel house for the night. A landing was made at the Nikkel farm and after an exchange of greetings it was decided to taxi the plane across a fence to place it near the house for the night. The elder Nikkel and the passenger of the plane were holding down the wires to allow the pilot to take the machine to the parking spot and some rocks interfered with the movement of the wheels.

Mr. Nikkel removed one rock and threw it aside and had picked up another. No one saw what happened, but it is presumed that as the man straightened up he probably lost his balance and pitched forward into the whirling propeller. He was struck on the head, the blow severing the top of the skull. A doctor was summoned as soon as someone could get to a telephone, however he had died instantly….

I had always known more or less how it had occurred, but, oh, my God…

My Uncle Bill never fully recovered from the event. Who could?

He tried to find peace. In my next post I will share the poem I found with the clipping. 

A Gift for Those Too Sad for Holidays

This poem is for those of you who are having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit because of the loss of a loved one or illness or some other tough thing in your life.

I wrote this in 2002 when someone very dear to me was struggling with brain cancer:

Christmas does not touch our hearts this year
The externals are here—

Trees alight with shining orbs
Wreaths bedecked with sassy bows
Gifts piled high on every shelf
Music mocks our bleakest woes

Nothing warms the cold, dark fear—
Christmas does not reach our hearts this year

December 21, 2002

 

(Excerpted from This Path We Share, (c)2010 Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad)

Horror at the Airport

On November 27, Les and I arrived at Denver International Airport after a Thanksgiving visit to our son in Michigan. We deplaned at Gate B 95 – miles from where we needed to be. Les walked on the people-carrier and I walked briskly beside it. It was my walk for the day. Les began walking slower and slower. I suggested that he quit walking and just ride. I shouldered one of his bags to add to the two I already commandeered. Finally he said, “I can’t walk anymore. I have to sit down.”

Les looked so haggard and pale that I checked for his pulse. Where is it? I must have a bad spot. An airport cart waited nearby, but the driver said that he was unable to leave that area to take us to the train. “However, your husband can sit on the cart and rest. And there is a wheelchair station right over there,” he pointed.

We waited a while until a young attendant came to settle Les into a wheelchair. She took us down an elevator, then got us onto the train at Station B.

As we sped toward Station A, I suddenly noticed that Les was staring into space. Eyes wide open—nobody home. I called to him, “Les. Les, honey, wake up. Please wake up.” I shook him, and called again. No response. I could get no heartbeat anywhere. One of his arms dropped. The other dropped. I begged him not to leave me and screamed, “My husband is dying. My husband is dying.” I couldn’t grasp that our sixty-four plus years of marriage was ending on a stupid train at DIA.

Someone—another employee?—swooped in and whisked our attendant and Les' wheelchair off the train. I jammed one of my suitcases into the door to keep it from closing with me still in the train, departing for God knows where.

Where are we? I didn’t know. Our young attendant flailed her arms in the air and moaned, “Oh, God, I don’t know what to do.” She didn’t know where we were, either.

I kept calling for help into this huge empty space where I could see only three other people. I grabbed one passerby and begged him to please help me lift Les off the wheel chair so I could do CPR. But I couldn’t even budge Les’ right leg. I doubt if five men could have lifted him.

Then Les moved ever so slightly and the man said, “See, he’s OK. He doesn’t need CPR,” and hurried on his way.

Les was alive. But had he had a stroke or heart attack? Could he stay alive? At some point someone called the paramedics. When the eight burly men arrived, the lead guy said, “Your husband is very ill. An ambulance is coming.” They started IVs and oxygen, working feverishly.

And there we were somewhere in the bowels of a huge airport. Somehow the ambulance men found us and transported us (and our baggage) to a hospital.

When we arrived, Les was more lucid and began to stabilize. I stayed in his room overnight. I couldn’t have thought of leaving him. By the next afternoon, he had returned to his normal health. Diagnosis: dehydration and atrial fibrillation. 

The following Sunday, our pastor spoke of Advent as a time of waiting and preparation. He offered the thought that things we have done in the past can help us in the present and will assist us in the future. He told how, when his wife’s mother died recently, they read Scripture and sang hymns as she lay on her deathbed. The fact they had sung these hymns hundreds of times in the past made it possible for them to sing them at this sad time. The many previous readings of Scripture had girded their souls for such a time. We prepare, sometimes unknowingly.

Did past events help me during this crisis? Will this episode provide any help in the future? Was it a dress rehearsal, a preparation, what?

All I know is that I want never again to feel as I did for those harrowing, however-many minutes.

But I also know that I probably will.

Lois Tschetter Hjelmstad
©12/12/12