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  • Zeb Carlson

The Shift

It started with a diagnosis.

Phone call. Informing me of a fall in the house. Visit & prep the house for a walker. Weeks go by. Another phone call. Cancer.

Cancer? People offer advice, and while their effort is caring, it tends to be specific to their experience. And their experience might not be the same sort of cancer, or different treatment of the cancer. Added confusion. "He needs to get ready for how sick he'll be when he starts chemo."

"My grandfather lived another 10 years with his cancer."

"He needs to drink a lot of juice."

Again, these are meant to help, to offer me comfort and I'm thankful. The infinite amount of variables make this terribly un-related to what he could/would/will encounter. You try to understand and stay thankful of the gesture offered to you.

Every detail was a fact finding journey.

Multiple myeloma. Bones. Bone cancer.

Broken femur.

Pill that they gave to help morning sickness in the 1960's.

No radiation.

Prostate cancer. Probably untreated and led to bone cancer.

Pill from Walgreens, only pharmacy to sell this pill.

My mother was overwhelmed with the details (who wouldn't be, really), and this led to her reluctance to share more specific information. I made phone calls, extracting from doctors and nurses. I asked about the pills he was taking and the cancer type he has and the treatments and on and on. So many questions. Met with soggy, vague answers. I read everything I could find about these diseases. Understanding the treatments available, and what he would be going through. I tried to understand the pills, what each was intended to do.

Over time the research moved from cancer to death. I don't know when that move was made, but it was necessary for me to realize what to expect. What I started to realize is that while cancer types and cancer treatments vary with almost infinite possibilities, the dying is similar.

In this shift, I understood that I anxious to better understand facts. It seemed that by doing so I would be left alone with my emotions. I can deal with facts. If I have time to start realizing what the body does when it dies, I can truly be there with him.

I know I can deal with the facts. I don't know what my emotions will be. I've never lost a dad.

This is what I learned.

The body shuts down. He needs a last meal, almost rallies to go through the process of dying. Builds energy and starts the prep for death.

The lips will change color. Their legs, you watch their legs frequently. The skin will start to change color.

There is a limbo of sorts, and they twitch a lot. Maybe this is where the saying "fighting for their life" originates from. Maybe? They are restless and it's difficult to watch.

Hallucinations aren't uncommon. Call it the drugs messing around with your brain or a soul lingering between spaces, it's not quite terrifying, sometimes unsettling, and frequently distracting enough to find yourself enjoying the conversation — finally, something that isn't on the topic of death for a change.

They lose their bowels. It's out of their control.

It's also unsafe for them to stand to visit the bathroom. So going in the bed is OK. Having a conversation with him to reassure that it's OK to "just go here" was strange, but not knowing this is common and in turn, having the conversation without any understanding would be totally worse.I guess I was prepared. Maybe a little bit, ever so slightly prepared? Here's what blew my mind.

In the time reading this post, imagine how many people have died in the world. How the hell do we not talk about this? How do we not prepare for the death? In reading about this final stage of life, I understood that some people see this as their loved one starting to get better, as a turn in the road. It's a false hope that seems to make the death that much more difficult. And it made me terribly sad to think about how we just don't understand death.

The facts related to death actually brought me comfort. This comfort of educating myself and then seeing the steps unroll in front of me gave me a greater sense of understanding and following a process that is part of all of our lives.

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