As Dad stepped into the car, he handed me an article from Atlantic Monthly called "Letting Go of My Father." "I've got nothing to say other than 'Don't let it get this bad,'" he said, as we pulled away from the curb and onto a journey to the clinic. The oncologist had requested a second blood test in a week.
I haven't read the article yet because he only handed it to me a few hours ago, but the meaning is plain: here we are again. We need to get back to the business of cancer, which was suspended for a great, special, amazing while.
But the statute of limitations might be up.
• • •
When we heard that Dad was riddled with cancer last June, now about nine months ago, we were taken down several pegs. Those first weeks were spent at crisis levels of management as we tried to make Dad more comfortable and to make sense of all the medical blah blah. There was a lot of it, as you can imagine, with the diagnosis of Stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer.
But eventually there was no more to say. The hormone therapy tamped down Dad's testosterone which was fueling the cancer engine. His appetite returned. His arthritis/mysterious ailment/bum foot slowly improved and he began taking walks for pleasure again, even entertained getting on his bike once in a while. By the time Christmas rolled around he was positively hale. We all celebrated Christmas together, kissed farewell to the crappy old year, rang in the new one, and planned a trip to Mexico.
"I keep forgetting he's sick," said my husband over Christmas break. It was an easy mistake to make; his appetite came roaring back and he was eating food for both sustenance and pleasure again. He walked with his camera to take photos of the neighborhood so he could spend hours and hours in his studio painting what he found there. He was over the moon with his returned mobility and he maximized it.
He was just Dad again.
• • •
Mexico was the first vacation Dad ever took. When I planned the trip in the first place, I had considered Italy for our big adventure abroad because Dad has always entertained some profoundly irrational dislike for Italy based on his prejudice against Renaissance art. The fact that it was the birthplace of the Roman Empire and the seed for much of the development of the Western world never seemed to enter the equation. He was "Reg" in Monty Python's Life of Brian who asked, "But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"
So, like, whatever Dad.
He seemed up for it. He kept an open mind because he knew that we were bonkers for it. Plus, come on: the Sistine Chapel, the Forum, centuries worth of fountains littering the city in a blanket of cultural detritus. Ancient aqueducts. The Parthenon. Fried artichokes. Gelato.
But I took a step back and realized that because Dad is Dad and Rome is Rome, he would make it his mission, his duty, to see every last single artifact the city coughed up for him. He would visit Rome the way he's visited all the rest, which is to chase down art like a cultural bloodhound in every corner and hallway, and then move on to nearby cities if he had the time.
Rome began to seem like a lot of work. It seemed like it wasn't going to be very relaxing. It was exhaustion wrapped up in the glitter and pomp of history. I changed my tack and mentioned our second vacation love, Sayulita, Mexico.
He readily agreed, mostly because he thought I changed my location because of my son's needs. I was okay with that. Whatever it took to encourage him to take a load off.
• • •
We set down in Puerto Vallarta in February, and the air was so heavy and warm that he instantly fell into vacation mode. Our taxi driver Antonio, with whom we had arranged ahead of time, was waiting for us with a cooler of Tecate and a stream of interesting stories as we drove through the jungle en route to Sayulita. The region and landscape was so utterly "other" to Dad, who had always visited places to see something, somewhere, rather than just being in a new place, that he collapsed into the mood of mellow immediately.
He loved Sayulita. "Never in my life would I have imagined myself in a place like this!" he enthused. Our house was palatial to our standards, came with a dedicated housekeeper, had its own palapa with hammock and dining area, banana trees, coconut palms. A short walk to the idyllic beach. Eighty degree days, sixty-five degree nights. A small stroll into town where we could pick up the best ice cream outside of Italy that we've ever eaten. A restaurant which consisted of a family who spoke no English, six tables, and two hammocks in the jungle; they served the best fish tacos in town. Iguanas were the only traffic at certain points, wandering the roads looking for a new tree to fall out of.
And Dad didn't do a blessed thing. He never pulled out his sketchbook, didn't even contemplate trying to find an art gallery, though there are a few. He sat on the beach and watched the sea. He stared at the jungle hills. He drank Negro Modelo and ate coconut shrimp on three different occasions. He read books. He splurged by drinking coffee for the first time in ten years under our palapa with muffins from the Muffin Lady. That was it.
"I don't think I've ever had a real vacation in my whole life," he said. "This is great."
It was great.
• • •
Back in the bosom of Portland's winter, which is mild all things considering, Dad was feeling well after soaking up the heat and sun of Mexico. But about a week after our return he got a little crotchety again, mostly, he thought, because of the damp. He always feels better when he can read books in his chair by the window, catch a couple of z's there, and have southern exposure cook out the cranky.
I began to suspect that his foe was making its unwelcome return a few weeks ago. He was a little more lethargic. He looked more pale than I remembered. He was complaining of aches and stiffness more regularly and was cursing Portland for its cloudy days, though climate change seems to have eradicated most of them. At dinners he didn't seem pluck, his appetite not as enthusiastic as it was last month. I asked him about it and he was blasé, convinced that his arthritis was flaring up again, though he did entertain the notion that the cancer might be sending up flares. He's coming up on his next Lupron hormone shot, so we thought perhaps the hormones coursing through his system were a little thin and that was the corollary with the timing of his aches and pains.
So last week he went in for his PSA test in preparation for Hormone Shot Number 4. They called him with a request he get tested again because his numbers were elevated (59--they should be below 4) and they wanted to double check.
But I don't think either Dad or I doubt the results: too many inconvenient facts are lining up. All signs point to the Alien's Return. His PSA numbers are elevated enough that it seems the hormone therapy has lost its efficacy, and now we're into the next phase.
Some people last for ten years on the hormone therapy alone. Dad might not be one of them.
• • •
We sat in the car after I had taken him to have the second blood test. We had spoken of "Cancer" and "Illness" again, though it has been many months since we've mentioned it. We've had a reprieve of sorts, a suspension of wartime action, but I have a feeling the armistice has been called off.
"Here we are again," I said to Dad as he was getting out of the car.
"Here we are still," he reminded me.
Here we are. Still.