Life: A Smorgasbord of Crossroads
Joanne D. Kiggins
Some things are worse than death.
When life dumps a crossroad in front of you at the age of 20, how do you know which direction to take? How do you know if you will make the right decision?
I believe everything happens for a reason; each path we take strengthens us in some way, for some thing. Right or wrong, whatever decisions I’ve made, I’ve learned to forge forward in hope to find the answers. I’m proud I made my decisions by thinking of someone else’s feelings other than my own.
Yes, some things are worse than death. And some things turn out just as they were planned; even when you’ve been placed on death row.
* * *
I watched the fluorescent ceiling lights blur and tried to fight the sedative long enough to ask the doctor if he would keep his promise.
“Please. Remember. Under no circumstances are you to tell them if this surgery confirms a terminal illness.”
“You’re going to be fine,” Dr. Griffith said.
His warm hand touched my shoulder and I drifted off to sleep.
I awoke three days later. Pain surged from my pelvic area to my chest. My nose and throat burned from oxygen and tubes. My wrists and ankles felt raw.
The room was a blur filled with bleeping and swishing sounds. When I tried to speak, a nurse patted my hand and said, “honey, don’t try to talk, you have a tube down your throat.” I twisted my hand in a writing motion beneath the leather straps and wondered why I’d been placed in restraints. “I’ll let the doctors know you’re awake and I’ll get a pad for you to write.” She scurried off.
The clearer my vision became, so too did the horror of the machines and sounds around me. I feared all I felt, heard, and saw meant the worst possible scenario. Scenes, like movie clips, played through my mind. I tried to remember all the events that brought me to this day: constant nausea after eating, tremendous pain in my abdomen, bland diets and baby food for six months, and numerous medications that didn’t subside the pain. Ulcer treatment hadn’t worked.
When all else failed, Drs. Griffith and Liggett recommended exploratory surgery.
“Anything,” I remember saying. “Just find the problem.”
So, there I was hooked up to every machine imaginable, wondering the outcome.
My eyesight had cleared enough to see my mom and dad sitting near my hospital bed. Her eyes were sad, swollen, and bloodshot from crying. His hair seemed a bit grayer than I remembered. Dad scooted his chair closer and folded his arms across his chest; a sign of his stoic stubborn strength. Mom held my strapped hand while tears rolled down her cheeks.
I tried to smile and speak to comfort them, but all the gadgets didn’t allow that. I squeezed her hand and nodded, hoping she’d read my expression as “I’ll be all right.”
Drs. Griffith and Liggett walked in.
“I see our young lady is awake,” Griffith said. His fake smile did nothing for the already hideous atmosphere. “We haven’t spoken to your parents, Joanne, other than to tell them the surgery went well.” The look in his eyes told me it hadn’t.
Dr. Liggett looked at my mom and asked, “Do you know how to sew?”
“My daughter has been in and out of consciousness for three days and you ask me if I know how to sew! What the hell does that have to do with her?”
I squeezed her hand and nodded toward Dr. Griffith, trying to encourage her to listen.
Dr. Griffith took his cue.
“The opening to Joanne’s stomach was obstructed. Dr. Liggett asked if you knew how to sew because that would be the easiest way for us to explain what we did during the surgery. We had to remove half of her stomach and reconstruct the opening with the remaining half. So we used what a seamstress would term as a gusset.”
I had to give Griffith and Liggett credit. They must have been compiling that story during the entire 12-hour operation. I gagged when I chuckled. I wondered how much was true and how much had they left out of their remarkable sewing experience.
“It will be about a week before we can take the tubes out of your throat and abdomen,” Griffith said. “We need to continue to drain and pump to avoid infection while your stomach heals.”
Mom and dad looked satisfied and relieved with their explanation. I was too. For the first time in my life I was happy I was unable to speak for fear I may be forced to answer questions.
Griffith encouraged my parents to go home after their three-day vigil. When they left, he pulled up a chair and sat. Liggett smiled at me and excused himself from the room. Griffith removed the leather straps from my wrists and ankles, explaining they’d been needed to keep me from thrashing.
Then, I wished I were able to speak. A dozen questions formed but I only could write them on a pad of paper.
“OK, What’s the real truth, Doc? How much did you two lie?”
“We didn’t lie,” he answered. “We left a few things out. That’s all. We did exactly what we told your parents. What we didn’t tell them was the obstruction was a malignant tumor the size of a melon.”
“The tumor has been completely removed,” he said. “But the malignant cells in the tissue we used to patch your stomach are still there.”
Before I could scribble another note, he gripped my hand and said, “Joanne, you may have at most six months. Do you want me to tell your parents?”
I scribbled a large “NO” on the note pad and shook my head frantically. Then I wrote, “This would kill them. If they don’t know, they can’t worry or wonder.”
Dr. Griffith wrote something on my chart. His eyes glistened in the fluorescent lighting. He wiped tears from them and said, “I’m sorry, Joanne.”
His compassion touched me. I tried to smile, then wrote, “No worry, Doc, too young to die. You watch, I’ll live. Stubborn as my dad. Treatment?”
“We could try radiation, but if you want honesty rather than hope, I don’t think it will help.” He looked away and rubbed his brow.
“I’m so sorry, Joanne. If this had been diagnosed sooner...”
I clutched the pen and wrote, “Treatment now. The works.”
“You realize it will weaken you?”
“We have to wait until these tubes are out.”
“Why? Will radiation hurt the tubes?”
“No.” He forced a smile.
Griffith jotted another note on my chart. “You are tough, and stubborn, aren’t you?”
His face blurred and exhaustion sent me to darkness.
Two infections, another surgery, and 28 days later I hobbled out of the hospital. I was bandaged from stern to bow with a giant size elastic binder supporting the mid-section of my 72-pound body.
Before the surgery, after a divorce, I’d moved back home with my parents. Within a week of leaving the hospital, against doctor’s orders, I drove myself into town and found an apartment. I stopped at the bank where I worked as a teller to tell my boss I’d be back at work the following Monday.
I had friends move my belongings into my new apartment. I settled in and waited to begin a battle against odds. Up until then I’d been consumed with proving the doctors wrong and living. Now I had to face the fact that hiding the truth from my parents would be just as challenging as fighting the disease. Mom and dad weren’t happy with my decision to move out, but I couldn’t hide my treatment and its possible effects if I didn’t.
Three days a week at noon I left work and drove to the hospital. My lunch hour allowed just enough time for technicians to mark my abdomen with a blue felt tip pen and perform the treatment needed. After three months, thirty-six treatments of radiation, and two different wigs to cover my hair loss, I had some hope.
My dad stopped by the apartment one weekend to make sure I had an ample supply of food. I had to scurry to slip on my wig.
“Why do you wear that damn thing?” he asked. “Your hair is prettier than that piece of straw.”
“I’m having a bad hair day, Dad. Believe me, this straw looks better than my own hair right now.” He had no idea I had to fight back tears to spare suspicion.
Eighteen years later, in 1990 I’d completed my first book, Time Goes On, which I began writing before my surgery. I’d forgotten how much detail I’d gone into about the more serious crossroads that had taken place throughout my life.
One day I let my mom read it. When she’d finished reading, she asked, “How much of this is true?”
Nearly two decades had gone by on my cancer-free body; I finally felt it was safe to speak the secret I’d kept all this time.
“Enough that I need to do a re-write. Mom. There are a few things I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
She burst into tears and hugged me. Arms wrapped around each other and tears flowing, I said, “I’m glad I never told you.”
She barraged me with questions.
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I couldn’t bear for you and Dad to worry yourselves to death.”
“You never smoked until recently, how’d you get cancer?”
“Genes, Mom. Both your parents died of cancer.”
“I wish you would have told us, we could have supported you.”
“I know, Mom, but it was better this way.” I reminded her that Drs. Griffith and Liggett both died of cancer and I managed to outlive them. I still wonder why I was so fortunate. Everything happens for a reason.
Two years later, in 1992, my dad had a stroke. I quit my job and spent hours helping my mom take care of him. Day after day, I’d massage his left arm and leg and help him walk with a walker. We worked on his speech and his memory. He wouldn’t listen to the home therapist; he listened to me. He told me if anyone could help him to be close to normal again, I could, because I’d been through it myself. I’d had a stroke a year before him, but mine wasn’t nearly as severe.
Within six months he was able to limp to his gardens to work, cane in hand, instead of using a walker.
My dad and I talked a lot while I helped him with his gardens. Every opportunity I had, I told him how much I loved him. He was never one to say the words, but I knew he felt the same.
When I’d say, “I love you, Dad,” he’d joke or change the subject.
“You’re tough, like your old man,” he’d say.
“Yep, Dad. And just as stubborn, too.”
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too,” I’d answer with a smile.
Dementia took over my dad’s brain eventually, but when he was in a state of awareness we talked. I’ll never forget those discussions; they were the best we’d ever had.
“You know how you always say everything happens for a reason?” he asked. “Well I believe that too.”
Before I could respond, he’d say, “You also said that you’ve never figured out why you’re still alive.” He placed his hand on my head, pulled me near, and whispered, “You’re alive to be here, now. And you need to stick around to take care of your mom. You understand?” His awareness soon disappeared. I don’t know if he heard me tell him I understood.
That was the last good talk my dad and I had. He passed away on March 21, 1998. Appropriate that he’d die on the first day of spring. To him, spring symbolized a fresh start, new life.
I think of our talks nearly every day as I take care of my mom, who has the onset of Alzheimer’s. I’m in and out of Mom’s house three and four times a day. I cook her meals and spend hours trying to keep her mind from roaming. She’s not yet to the point that I need to pack up and move back home. But whenever than happens, I will.
Dad was right. And I was, too. Everything does happen for a reason, and my reason for being here was to see my dad through his times of need and to help my mom through hers now.
Life has given me a smorgasbord of crossroads. As each plate fills, I receive another taste of life. There hasn’t been one decision I’ve made that has led me in the wrong direction. I’m glad, 32 years ago I forged forward without telling my parents that I had only six months to live. It made me stronger. It made me realize how precious life is. I miss my dad. And as much as I’m certain I’ll miss my mom when she passes, I know that I was here to help them both through their worst times, as they would have been for me.
Some things are worse than death. For me, the most difficult crossroad has been living to watch death happen.
“I love you, Dad. I understand.”