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The Next Right Thing


Those early days after someone’s been diagnosed with something as serious as lung cancer are harrowing. I had been so focused on not letting work suffer, while tending to a spouseman with a sprained knee and keeping all the other pieces of my life in some kind of balance that I didn’t realize just how tough these past two weeks have been.


The turning point came on Thursday. It rained cats and dogs all day, it was also as chilly and miserable a winter day as they get here in Alabama. This wasn’t the most auspicious of days for a major consult. Dad had had the CT scan and then the biopsy; now it was time to meet with an oncologist. When we went to check him at the Cancer Center of Montgomery, the check-in person must have watched him walking in because she asked him to extend his arm. She proceeded to put the biggest, baddest, yellowest “Fall Risk” bracelet on his right wrist. Of course I’ve noticed my dad getting more unsteady. More than once, Sherod or I have fussed at him about making sure to use his cane. That someone at the reception desk of the Cancer Center was worried enough to give him that bracelet moved me into a new level of awareness.


Our whole time at the Cancer Center was real and surreal all at once. The system there moves more smoothly and efficiently than I am used to. It also moves with remarkable kindness because of a cadre of volunteers that make the process of getting through a visit more human. The nurses, nurse practitioner, and doctor who worked with Dad were warm and kind as well. And, because it is so smoothly run, at first I didn’t realize there’s something of an assembly-line response to patients going on as well.


The conversation with Dad’s core medical staff happened in an examining room where there wasn’t enough seating and no way to gather in the round. It would have helped so much to have a conversation around a table and would have given us all the sense we were becoming a team to tend to Dad. The doctor remained standing or seated at a high stool so he towered over us as he gave us a preliminary diagnosis (at least Stage III squamous cell carcinoma, but quite possibly already at Stage IV—metastatic lung cancer) Then, he launched pretty quickly into a monologue about a treatment plan in 2020; the doctor said it’s even possible to think there may be a cure for my dad. My dad struggled to hear, understand and process what was being said. I tried to ask a couple of hard questions as diplomatically as I could and got very fast, almost glib responses. We left with two more big tests scheduled and a follow-up appointment to discuss “the treatment plan.”


I could almost hear a disembodied voice say, “Next in line. Keep moving, please. Keep moving.”


I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. But to talk about a ‘cure’ for my dad, when at almost 93, his body is failing Dad in so many ways is almost cruel. How do I make sense of a ‘cure’ that prolongs Dad’s life by years and leaves him more and more dependent on others as his hearing, his eyesight, his spinal stenosis and arthritis advance? Dad comes from a generation that would never dream to question medical authority. What is the balance between giving him the right to do what he knows how to do in a situation like this, and using my knowledge of the limits of medicine, to ensure that what is left of his life is as meaningful, has as much peace and comfort as possible, has some real quality to it?


The answers unfold and I have to have the patience and grace to not try to force solutions. Instead, I am learning to focus on doing the next right thing. After the encounter with the receptionist, I realized there were some more things I could do about his risk for falling. On Friday I came into Montgomery and while I was here, bought him a shower seat. His face lit up like a Christmas tree when I gave it to him. He’s become more and more apprehensive about baths and couldn’t quite figure out a solution. We also discussed the value of getting a good walker. My mom had one before she died and called it her Ferrari. I’m going to get a little “Lamborghini” plaque made because when I get that walker for him, I don’t want him to think it represents one more way in which his life is diminished. I am going to do my very best to find every way I can to celebrate life. His life, especially.


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