"Thank you for calling the Bergs and the Keens. We're not home right now...". Mom hasn't changed the outgoing voicemail message yet. John's voice is still there, encouraging anyone who wants to leave a message. It's the last vestiage of him, other than what we hold in our memories. The last bit of him that's still real, and even that's just an echo that will fade with time.
Note: this is a deeply personal entry. If you're here for the programming stuff you may want to skip it.
A few weeks prior my stepdad John almost ran his pickup truck into the side of a semi-truck on the highway. That's how these things get noticed, you see. The months, years, of waking up at 5am and not being able to sleep because of the pounding headaches just become part of the routine, but as soon as something catastrophic happens, that's when people sit up and take notice. I must have been at school when Mom called and told me that John had to have some tests done because they think he had brain tumor. After reviewing the MRI his brain surgeon announced that John had a large tumor, almost the size of a golf ball, embedded in his cerebrum. He was to get have it removed as soon as possible.
My sisters and I sat in the uncomfortable waiting area for 12 hours while his surgeon opened up John's skull and removed the tumor. We came back every day for two weeks while he recovered, first in a normal recovery room and then in the ICU when things turned sour for awhile. The first clue was when the nursed asked him if he knew where he was and he said "I'm going to be skating soon". The winter Olympics were going on in Italy that month and my mom and him were avid fans.
Eventually, with time, he got better. The MRI scans became less frequent. They talked about having to go to Madison for the day less and less. Things went back to normal. The tumor they pulled out of his head was benign. He never quite talked the same after that, and his temper was maybe a little bit hotter than it used to be, but by and large he was back to the John we knew and loved.
I was standing in the living room when my phone rang. It was Mom, calling me for our weekly Sunday chat. I could tell she was a little upset, so I asked her what was going on, and she says "Well, John's in the hospital. We went to the ER last night because of some back pain he's been having for a few days and they did a CT scan and found cancer in his kidney. He's having surgery tomorrow. How was your week?". She was clearly in shock. I don't really remember my reaction, but I know I was crying and couldn't talk and had to yell at her to stop talking for a second.
My sister was on a plane that afternoon from Pennsylvania and I was on the next available flight out of Portland on Monday morning. I landed in Milwaukee and drove straight to the hospital, where I found Mom and my sisters waiting in the waiting area. The surgery went fine and he was in recovery. They took out one of his kidneys but they weren't sure what was going on. They knew, or at least they had a pretty good idea, but they didn't want to say without running a bunch of tests. Again, we were at the hospital every day, sitting with him, willing him to get better. After a few days we finally got a diagnosis: stage IV metastatic renal carcinoma in his kidneys and lungs. As soon as he was healed from surgery he'd be starting chemo.
John and Mom came to visit my then-girlfriend Emily and me for a few days. John was in between chemo drugs, since the first one stopped working eventually. We went up to Snoqualmie Falls for the afternoon, took some great photos, and had generally a pretty good weekend. They were supposed to take the train back from Seattle to Chicago, but John wasn't really feeling well enough to go that long so they ended up flying back.
October 31st 2012
Emily had been looking forward to handing out Halloween candy for about a week. It's a thing that they used to do in her family and she's pretty sentimental about these kind of things, so she roped me into it. She picked up two huge bags of mixed goodies a few days prior, and then at the appointed hour on the appointed day we took the camp chairs down to the front porch and set up, waiting for kids to show up.
An hour passed. None did. Not a single one.
Emily's phone rang. It was her aunt, which was pretty weird. Her aunt doesn't normally call, she just sends care packages in the mail filled with candy and bottles of BBQ sauce. Her aunt tells her that her mom is in the hospital, about to undergo emergency surgery to remove part of her colon. She's had a blockage for awhile and the doctors decided that it had to come out, right then and there. They think it's cancer.
Emily was on a plane the very next day and stayed for more than a week, one of the longest times we've been apart since we started going out in 2009. We talked on the phone every night. She came back but without any news about what kind of cancer her mom has. Eventually we find out it's stage IV metastatic colon cancer.
November 28th 2012
While Emily was visiting family I had started to develop some pain in my groin. I attributed it to over-use while she was away, but we were pretty concerned nonetheless. Emily made me promise that if the pain didn't go away, that I was to see a doctor and get it checked out. Well, the pain went away for a few days and I forgot about it, but then came back with a vengance. I made an appointment the next morning to see a GP, which happened a few days later. He looked around, felt around, it was pretty embarassing for both of us I think. He said "I'm pretty sure it's one of two things, neither of which is cancer, but let's get an ultrasound just to make sure." The next day I was in the ultrasound lab, and then I was back at work and trying not to freak out.
The next day I got a call from my doctor. He said that he put in a call to the urology department and they would put their best surgical oncologist on the job and that I would be taken care of. A few days later I finally got an appointment and went in. About two weeks after that I was in surgery. Mom flew out to help Emily take care of me while I recovered and stayed about a week. That's the longest she could stand to leave John, who was steadily getting worse.
December 26th 2012
My first day of chemo was the day after Christmas. About a week prior my diagnosis came back: stage IIa metastatic testicular germ cell cancer. Merry Christmas, everybody! Emily and I went in to the clinic at 8am to get familiar with the setup and for me to get my first treatment. It was... uneventful? I guess I expected it to be kind of dramatic, but really it was no big deal. My chemo schedule was one week of 5 days straight followed by two weeks of one day, repeated three times. Nine weeks. The first we were ok but by week seven I was a slug, barely able to make it into the treatment chair before falling immediately asleep. I got nauseous just getting in the car to go to the clinic. I'm proud to say I didn't throw up once the entire time. I didn't actually go the whole nine weeks. Toward the end my platelet count was too low to get treatment but my medical oncologist was adamant that skipping the last two treatments was no big deal. In March my doctors pronounced me tentatively cured.
April 19th 2013
Mom called while I was out to lunch with coworkers. She said that John was rapidly getting worse. I already had bought a ticket for May and she told me not to change it. Yet. The next day at noon she called again and said that I had to get home as quickly as I could. I changed my ticket, threw clothes in my backpack, and Emily and I were on the road to the airport in 10 minutes so I could catch the last flight of the day to Wisconsin. I didn't speed from Milwaukee to Milton, since it was dark and rainy, but I didn't dawdle either. When I got there Mom and my sisters were all there in the living room with John, watching movies and taking turns holding his hand while he lay in his hospice bed, breathing slowly. At 8am the next morning he passed with all of us around him. He didn't give up, right to the end. Mom said he had been so happy that I was better.
The funeral was that Friday. We spent the week gathering photos and figuring out the arrangements. I'm told it was a nice service, but I don't really remember much of it. Emily was able to be there for a few days which was helpful. John's ashes came back to the house that Wednesday. I won't tell you what him and Mom worked out for when she eventually passes, but I will say it's simultaneously the most romantic and the saddest thing I've ever heard.
June 4th 2013
I had my three-month follow up appointment. My blood markers were completely clear and the doctor said that my chest X-ray was so perfect she could put the scan in a medical textbook. I'm cured. Modern medicine works. Hallelujah.
At this point we don't know what's going to happen with Emily's mom but we're hoping for the best. Emily and I are getting married next year and hopefully everyone will be there, but life might get in the way. I guess we'll find out.
A very good friend of mine asked me on more than one occasion "Have you ever really thought about it?" "It" being death. At the time I didn't really have an answer for him. My mind was generally on other things back then. Girls, computers, cars, moving halfway across the country, etc.
Now, though, I can confidently say that my own mortality has crossed my mind once or twice. If there's a lesson to be drawn from my story it's this: live life how you want for as long as you can, because it may be shorter than you're expecting.
Emily's mom passed away peacefully in her sleep on August 24th, exactly one week after Emily and I got married in an intimate family-only ceremony.