Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

From The Beginning, “Over The River…”

Thanksgiving with my Grandmother. I certainly have many memories. For most of my childhood, I lived with my Grandmother and her sister (pictured on the left), and come Thanksgiving Day, that meant the most wonderful smell in the world. Unfortunately, that smell began wafting up to my bedroom early in the morning, as the two of them began to make the holiday meal to feed a total of ten of us. Our kitchen table on sat eight of us, so that meant…

the dreaded “kids” table, usually a fold up card playing table. We had another full dining area, with another dining table, but since there were only two kids, the folding table is where we were put. Regardless of being in a different room for the dinner, I still got my hands on my favorite, the dark meat of the turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and something called “stuffing from the bird.” This is when you take some of the already mixed homemade stuffing (it was never boxed), and stuff it into the turkey as it cooks. It was the same stuffing that was being served separately, but cooked inside the carcass, the “bird stuffing” basically is marinated with the flavoring of the turkey, an entirely different stuffing flavor, and SO GOOD! And I cannot forget the homemade pumpkin pie and pumpkin custard.

Eventually I would get promoted to the full table, which by then, was able to squeeze ten around, so perhaps the kid table had nothing to do with the capacity around the main dinner table.

In high school, Thanksgiving would be delayed for us to be able to attend high school football games. The dinner was ready once I got home after the game. I discovered there was a big difference with smelling the dinner being cooked all morning, and walking into the wall of the aroma of the feast to come.

Fives years after my high school graduation, Thanksgiving would never be the same.

In October of 1988, I had an itch on the back of my neck. I had discovered what felt like a huge lump, much larger than what would have been left by a mosquito. I was confused by the mass, as I was a relatively healthy kid growing up. I made a call to the doctor, a general practitioner, who made the diagnosis of a swollen lymph node due possibly to the common cold. He prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug called Naprosyn and recommended I take a break from exercising to give my body some rest it likely needed.

Two weeks went by, and the swollen lymph node did reduce considerably in size. Back to the gym I went. As I am prone to do, I resumed back to the exercise routine I had been doing without easing back into it. The next morning, I believed I had paid for that judgement, as I had developed such a pain in my left armpit, whenever I stretched out my arm. Clearly, I had overdone it.

I had spoken to as co-worker about my new “injury” and how it was likely I was going to miss our city league basketball league game. I mentioned my frustration with having just missed two weeks of the season, and being left-handed and unable to shoot or toss the basketball. He had recommended his physician as being good with sports injuries, so I decided to give him a shot.

I gave him the synopsis of how I got to his office. I noticed a lump. Took a medicine for it. Took a break from exercising. Started exercising. Now my left arm hurts. Simple. Cause and effect, a sports injury.

The doctor examined me and was concerned about the lump more than my arm. The lump had increased in size again. I grew frustrated with the doctor as I was not there to see him about the lump, which had been getting better. I was there because I hurt myself weightlifting. He did some bloodwork, which showed nothing. And I recall throwing in his face, “of course, I know there is nothing wrong with my blood. I have a sports injury.” I would repeat that sentence several more times over coming weeks. The doctor was making a recommendation for me to go see a hematologist/oncologist. Now, if you do not know those terms, do not look them up. I will tell you what they are soon enough. I just asked the doctor, “do they see sports injuries?” and he replied no. But I needed to get that lump looked at.

I stormed out of his office. Two days later I had begun receiving phone calls from that doctor, leaving me voice mails, insisting that I follow through with his recommendation to see the specialist, who was not a sports doctor. I walked over to my co-worker, and asked what this doctor’s deal was, why was he bugging me? He told me, “my doctor is a good guy. If he feels something is of concern, I would trust him.” Looking back at that particular moment, would be a life-changing, life-saving conversation. I made the phone call to that specialist the next day, and made a humble phone call back to my co-worker’s doctor, to inform him that I was following through on his recommendation. Subliminally, I was not doing it because there was something wrong. I was doing it because I wanted to prove to this doctor that I was the one who was right.

It was a rainy, dreary Tuesday, just before Thanksgiving. I pulled in front of the clinic, and there was a sign in the front yard with the doctor’s name that I was going to see, along with the title “Hematology/Oncology.” Still not recognizing the titles, only knowing it had nothing to do with sports, I walked inside, soaking wet from the pouring rain. I was handed at least a half dozen papers to fill out which I thought was a waste of time for a sports injury. Truth be told, having never really been sick, I had never had to fill out all of these forms. As a kid, my mother did it for me.

When I finished, a nurse had taken me back to an office, not an exam room, but an office. Moments later, in walked a man who resembled actor Jeff Goldblum, The Fly version, not Jurassic Park version.

The doctor sat down at his desk, took a glance through my folder. There was no way I was prepared for next. “Hodgkin’s Disease is a very curable form of cancer, especially when it is caught early.” I felt like the cartoon characters when they are caught shocked or in disbelief.

I honestly do not remember another word he said from that point on. I know that I argued that I cannot possibly have cancer. I had a sports injury. He had not even examined me. Who the Hell did he think he was? I have never considered myself an angry or violent person, but for the first time in my life, I felt pure rage. I could not have gotten any further away from what I felt was wrong. I do remember ending up in an exam room eventually, but not a single word of what was said. Literally, I likely only heard “blah blah blah blah blah” from that point on.

A few days later, I had begun receiving calls from the prior doctor, urging me to go forward with additional bloodwork and a biopsy. Biopsy? I do not remember that discussion, but as I said, I tuned everything out the minute the other doctor began talking about cancer.

I went through that Thanksgiving weekend in 1988, with my mind in turmoil and denial. But two more “2nd opinions” later, I had finally been convinced that I needed to undergo the biopsy, if for nothing more than to prove I was right and every doctor I had seen was wrong. Spoiler alert… I was wrong.

Every Thanksgiving after that, this memory gets triggered, the exact scenario playing over and over on an endless loop. I am not able to stop it, or as some have suggested to simply “get over it.” The next Thanksgiving, 1989, I was undergoing chemo for a relapse of my Hodgkin’s, and for the first half of the 1990’s, all I could think around Thanksgiving, “is this the year it is going to come back?”

Simultaneously, as I struggled with my survivorship, the dynamics of our family traditional Thanksgiving dinner began to change. Talk had begun about the bond that at least held us together on this day, my Grandmother. We soon began to realize that without her, we would likely no longer gather together. And in 1998, my Grandmother passed away from her 2nd battle with cancer, this time, ovarian cancer. And just like that, we no longer spent any holidays together with each other.

In the beginning of the 2000’s, if there would have been any hope of me finally getting a grip back on the holidays, it was going to be with the arrival of my daughters. But by then, I had developed a mindset as an employee and provider, that I worked every holiday offered by my employer. That in spite of having two young impressionable children who of course would have loved to spend time with me, it was felt that it was more important for me to bring home the extra cash for the family. We could spend time with each other after I got home.

And there you have it, why holidays mean nothing to me, especially around this time of year. Because even though I consider myself blessed in over 32 years of survivorship, I still carry the trauma of what happened 34 years ago.

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