Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Journey

The Beginning

We were raised in a small town, six boys, parented by two somewhat ordinary parents, ordinary at least on the surface. A father who not unlike many others, had crisis early on in his life when he was 9 years old. His mother died giving birth, and an alcoholic father feeling overburdened, sent the 6 boys off to "Boys Town." My father eventually escaped "Boys town" by being raised by his mother's sister. A life burdened by the depression, he persevered and not only finished his education, but acquired a master's degree in education. Our mother, remarkable in many ways, and episodically crazy in others. She had her own cross to bear. Not sure if it was the first born infant child that she lost at birth, living just a few hours, or the raising of 6 not so holy boys, that attributed to her severe mental illness. She would have yearly encounters with manic episodes that included psychotic thinking and behaviors and would end up the the mental institution leaving the men to fend for themselves. Yet, she would stabilize, return home, and after sometime, life would be good again.

However, the family was able to maintain a sense of wholeness, secured by our father's character and virtue. Our parents we quiet but devout Catholics. Their faith and the sacramental marriage was not taken lightly, it was the foundation of who they were. It was their devotion to prayer, service to each other, to sacrifice, and mercy that fueled them.

The six boys, uniquely different, experienced life in what they perceived to be a rather "Normal Family." Don't we all think what we have is relatively normal until we experience something different in life that we can contrast earlier life with?

The Boys:

Kevin, a handsome and intelligent boy, the first born. Popular and creative, headstrong, motivated, and confident.

Tim, smart and athletic, the second born. Possessed the ability to master almost anything he attempted, sports, music, academics,etc.

Terry, compassionate and focused. Equally athletic with his older brother in sports, yet adventurous.

Pat, an extremely bright boy, creative, and imaginative. Had the ability to excel at anything he desired, athletics, music, and academics, yet headstrong, oppositional, and fighting an internal anger.

Mike, the most creative and charismatic of the all, yet haunted with an inadequate self-esteem, always performing.

Dan, the youngest. Diligent and loyal, consistent and longing to be exceptional. Talented in almost anything he attempted.

These were the boys. All of which had numerous friends, opportunities, and excelled in their unique groups and endeavors.

Kevin, the oldest, led the path as his younger siblings were attuned to his actions, using him as the bench mark, for some to be surpassed, others to sought after as the goal. He continued to blossom and was popular and a real laddie's man. I am sure for many, he was a idle in regard to his ability to come away with the girl. His life seemed to flow with ease and he finished college and them proceeded in a career that eventually lead him to be a Big-wig in life. He worked for a leading Internet sales company and managed their Real Estate / Property all over the world. He truly lived the life of the rich and famous, extravagant possessions, a yacht, a plane, vacation homes, etc.

Tim, Terry, Pat, and Mike all joined the service (Navy) after High School. Tim eventually became a brilliant and highly sought after computer technician. Terry became a manager of a health care equipment company. Pat became a catholic cleric (Deacon) and a psychiatric nurse. Mike became a construction worker, sales person, recycling manager, fast food worker and over whelmed by multiple mental and medical issues, became disabled and struggled through each day of life.

Dan, opting to not follow in his 3 older brother's footsteps, chose to make pizza's while he pursued and obtained a degree in business at the university in the neighboring city.

As the boys ventured through life, they established a degree of separation from each other while then pursued individual interests. They attempted to unite at Christmas each year and then randomly made short visits to return to their childhood home and to see their parents.

Then, their father abruptly died from a massive heart attack. The man who was the quiet and humble rock behind the other 6, and the mother, was gone. It quickly became apparent in his absence just how great this man was. He was the foundation for the family with his steadfast courage, humility, intelligence, and faith that unknowingly comforted and reassured his family. He was buried and then he was gone, only a memory to last.

The mother, endured her loneliness that instantly absorbed her and in many ways consumed her. Continually battled the mental health issues that had become such a routine part of her life, Parkinson's disease became an unwanted partner and slowly devoured the woman that she was. 10 years she lingered until she finally gave in to her withered body, a body that fought as she did throughout her life, resilient no more, allowed the illness to take her. The 6 boys united over the final course of her life and all took individual turns with her, and as one, they all assisted in what they called "walking her home," and were lovingly present during her final breaths.

There was a sense of a void for the 6 boys. Alive yet parent-less. there is a unique feeling when the parents who created you are not present any longer. This void, evident most profoundly during the holidays continues to this day for all of them, and is probably the source of a strengthened desire for the 6 boys to connect with each other more often throughout the year, and especially during the holidays.

The News

Out of the Blue we get the call from Kevin stating that while at the dentist, a spot, actually a lump was found on the back of his tongue. He was referred to a specialist and after a few tests and a few days, it was pronounced that he had cancer.

Stage 4 cancer of the head and neck. Stage 4, what is that? The Internet has almost too much information. We proceeded to the Stanford Cancer Clinic where numerous doctors could poke, stick, examine, and question Kevin while reviewing his records. 3 hours later, it was the consensus of the cancer board that his personal physicians did recommend the proper treatment of chemo therapy and radiation therapy. Although the Internet spoke of a 50/50 chance that this type of cancer (Squamous cell) could be eradicated, no one spoke of prognosis or cure rates.

What does one do with the news that your brother has cancer. How can a vibrant man, so successful in life, physically fit, be struck so suddenly with a hidden assailant that might just take his life. A 50/50 chance, what is that? 50/50 that he will die. 50/50 that the first course of treatment might not work, but a second might be needed? For the first time I felt what a parent must feel when their child is seriously sick. I love my brother, yet have no ability to cure him.

How does one comfort another who has never desired or allowed comforting from another? He had always been the older brother, the one in control, the one who helped others. The idea of being comforted by another was as foreign to him as it was for us to attempt to comfort him.

Not unlike our parents, our spirituality and faith, although present and important to us, remained mostly hidden from others. Through the actions of our parents, we were taught that faith and our relationship with God was a private and personal relationship. But who else or what else can you turn to in situations that appear to be out of one's control? God of course, but beyond my personal prayer for my brother, how can I comfort him?

It is easy to tell our spouses that we love them. It is easy to hug and tell our children how much we care, but for Kevin, who never married, nor had any children, outward expressions of emotion and feelings were not so common nor comfortable. Yet I am sure that needed to know that we cared, that we loved him more than he imagined, that he matters to us not for what he can do for us, but for who he is.

We told Kevin that we would be there for him and would pray for him, and we meant it. We committed (My wife and I) to daily prayer, and to be that loving presence to him, and as needed, to be caretakers as well.
Kevin lives 4 hours away from us. We live in the country at the top of California, and Kevin lives in the center of the state, surrounded by the city. The distance of where we lived also created an unwanted distance and separation from him. Somehow knowing that he lived so far away also created an emotional and spiritual distance as well. This was an uncomfortable feeling and one that i could not shake.

The Treatment Begins

The idea of beginning treatment was like approaching a situation that you have never seen before, at least that was the case for my brother. In contrast, as a nurse for over 25 years, I have seen to effects of cancer treatment, but nonetheless, I was optimistic for my brother. Kevin had plans of working for at least the first 3-4 weeks of the 6 week course and then, attempting to be realistic he would probably have to stay home to endure the rest. Knowing that the radiation would have a serious impact on his ability to eat, he had a feeding tube placed into his stomach just in case that he might to need it to stay hydrated and nourished through the duration of the daily treatments. He was told that he would need 6 chemotherapy treatments, 1 week apart, and daily, 5 days a week radiation treatment to his head and neck for a total of 6 to 7 weeks.

Driving to that first appointment was somewhat similar to being dropped off at kindergarten for the first time. One might think they know what to expect, but the reality is oh so often much different. The radiation was quick, 30-40 minutes and it was over, and then the chemotherapy, which was a much slower process, 5 hours. However, all in all, it was accomplished without much distress and under no duress, until that evening when the nausea and sickness set in. It came as a stranger in the night and flared up like a schoolyard bully that would not go away. The next day was not much better, and the next, just more of the same. It didn't take long to realize that the initial plans of just how to work with this treatment was significantly underestimated and the idea of working through the first 1/2 of the course was not going to come to fruition.

Life immediately took a drastic turn, a turn away from the well thought out plan. Here I now have a brother, who has been so accustomed to working, being productive, now so sick and weak that he is dependent on others for even driving him to his daily appointments. Living so far away, Liz (my wife) and I just needed to be near him. We dropped everything and went to his side. What could we do, this battle was an inner battle of health versus illness. I made sure he had all the adequate medication to attempt to ward off the side effects of the cancer treatments, but that only took the edge off the misery. He was still left in such a fog, that he needed help.

Liz created a driving schedule that included family and friends that would drop Kevin off at treatment each day and then often have a different friend picking Kevin up after the treatment concluded. What an orchestration this was, but effective.

After the first week or two it was evident that this was going to be trial much more difficult than any of us expected. My vibrant and charismatic brother was already reduced to a man weak and uncertain, although there was something beginning to form in him, originating from a deep place within him. This new characteristic seemed similar to something I had seen in him before, but immensely magnified and pure. It was a sense of faith and I believe a connection with the suffering Christ. I would look at Kevin and see this man who struggled to just keep his eyes open, struggle to not vomit, struggle to try to get 1 can or ensure down his feeding tube. Yet, he would post a note on his blog ( that spoke of a spirituality and a faith so magnificent. Even thought his body was failing, his soul was becoming more radiant. His skin was becoming grey, but his soul beamed in brilliant beauty. What was happening?

I Think He Is Dying

As the weeks progressed, Kevin continues to become weaker and weaker. A Oncologist friend of ours stated that the type of Cancer Kevin has is so serious and difficult to treat, that the treatment will need to take him to the edge of death to become effective. He stated that during the course of treatment, Kevin will think for sure that he is dying, and that we will think for sure that his end is near. I am not sure that I actually believed it until I began to see it. A progressive decline was noted in Kevin's ability to function, however strong-willed as he is, he did attempt to maintain a state on Independence in many things. Yet his desire to push through the effort to consume nutrition began to fade. He had quickly lost 25 lbs, was a mere shadow of his former self, and began to withdraw. We would often get calls from friends stating that they were worried about Kevin and we would visit him and be as supportive as he would allow.

Until one day, we received a call from a friend who said that Kevin looked like he was dying. Liz immediately drove to Kevin's and found him severely dehydrated and malnourished. Apparently he had not eaten or taken in fluids for 3 or more days and it was enough to put him over the edge. He had taken a turn to a place that wasn't going to allow him to return. Death had become an imminent reality. The treatment was not only taking Kevin to the edge,of life itself, but the treatment was the force that was killing my brother.

I believe Kevin had given up. He was content to miss his medical appointments and to forgo eating and drinking, it was just a matter of time and he would be gone. Yet, Liz's maternal instinct empowered her to pick Kevin up and rush him to the clinic where bag after bag of fluid and nutrition was fed to Kevin's body through IV's and his life was resurrected. Later Kevin realizing what had happened thanked Liz for saving his life.

Was this the expected course of treatment? Was this what that oncologist meant when he said Kevin will think he is dying and we will think the same? Is it because the treatment really does take the person to that undelineated boarder of life and death to kill the cancer? I don't actually know, but Kevin survived.

Liz establish huge teams of prayer warriors that daily prayed for Kevin's physical and spiritual strength. There were hundreds of people wearing green arm bracelets that read: "Kevin-beats-cancer, truly blessed" in support of Kevin's battle and as reminders to pray for him through out the day.

The prayers must of worked, because there was renewed strength present in Kevin and a desire to withstand the force that almost killed him. A few more weeks lapsed and the treatment concluded.

Where do I go From Here?

Now that the Cancer treatment has finished, what is next? Is the cancer gone? what will life be like now? It took a few weeks for the chemo and radiation effects to diminish. Actually the effects of the radiation lingers for 30 days after the last treatment.

Although the nausea appears to of disappeared, the idea of eating is so very foreign, it hasn't happened for weeks, months. And what about the idea that there isn't any saliva anymore. The radiation destroyed the ability to make saliva. How does one eat without saliva? It might return in a year, but for now it is only a memory.

Is Kevin the same person that he was a few months ago before the cancer was found? How could he be. He had just endured the most difficult trial of his life and left wounded from the battle. He had spiritually connected with God and the crucified Christ from the depths of suffering and despair, and felt the grace and divine love through the Holy Spirit.

How could he be the same? I asked Kevin about the experience and he stated that it will take some time to discern what had occurred and to try to make some sense of all of it. I would guess that it will take a lifetime to try to understand ourselves.

After a few weeks, still wearing the external scars from the battle. Kevin returns to work. He reunited with that old routine and it wasn't long and he was traveling again to distant countries and back into his life previously know as normal. But not normal, because he doesn't look the same, he can't eat the same, and what about his spiritual view, all changed.

A followup PET Scan is completed and there was some shadowing seen but no sign of the cancer. Clear for now, but another scan will be needed in 3 months. Is he clear and clean, or will there be another trial ahead? I guess time will only tell.

Is the cancer back?

Kevin just called and stated that he found two new spots in his mouth and is going to see his physician....... Is the cancer back?

The Coast is Clear!

Kevin visited the doctor and the dreaded spots that gave us such concern, were of little concern to the doctor. After a careful examination and the extraction of information from Kevin, it appears that the spots were more of an irritation than Cancer. The coast is clear, at least for now.

We will take life one day at a time, a week at a time, one month at a time. Hoping for the best, but only time will tell.

Life Is Good

Here is Kevin (7 months after the conclusion of his treatment) with his FiancĂ© Carol.

The Journey that we call "Life" continues!