Monday, April 06, 2009

Uncle J

Three weeks ago I was speaking with my uncle. He lives in Queens and has a PC that he does quite well with, albeit he’s 80 years old. About 2 years ago I set him up using RealVNC so I could simplify remote desktop support. Whenever he has a question or a problem, I connect in and see exactly what he’s talking about. This is the same way I support my parents, and believe me: RealVNC is a sound and safe investment.

So three weeks ago I was cleaning up some stuff on my uncle’s hard drive. He sounded his familiar self, although he had been off and on sick all winter. Still, he was as quick witted as always, and he laughed in his familiar, hearty manner.

About 18 months ago he was diagnosed with colon cancer. After chemo therapy, the prognosis was good: they had said they got it.

A common thread in my family (and extended family) is that all of us tend to keep medical diagnosis close to our respective vests. Another uncle of mine was hospitalized recently; also in his 80s, he became unresponsive while having lunch in a restaurant. After three days in hospital, he was released, and his son (my cousin) said the diagnosis was gout. Now I am neither a doctor, nor play one on TV, but even I know gout is not likely to cause an unresponsive symptom (a stroke would be a good guess from a novice such as myself). I’d be inclined to suggest there was incompetency at the hospital were this sort of vauge description not so common in other family members.

Knowing what any everyday person knows, my Uncle J’s prognosis this was far from a sure-thing. Late last summer, the cancer had returned, and this time had spread to his lungs. Back on chemo again; all this time I was speaking to him ever y few weeks and connecting to his PC about once each month.
After a PET scan in January, the prognosis was less favorable. The cancer had spread to his heart. Here’s a man who never smoked a day in his life, who drank maybe one or two glasses of champagne a year.

Still, the long term plan was a positive, with chemo being the treatment of choice. Silently, at least, everyone had to know where this was heading.

Two weeks ago – a week after I last spoke to him – he got the bad news (compared to all he’s gotten to date): the latest PET scan showed the cancer had spread: to his lungs, liver and brain.

I imagine this affects my father greatly: J is his childhood friend, who later went on to marry my father’s sister. They have travelled together and are as close to each other as my father's brothers are to him. As recently as 3 weeks ago, Uncle J had been helping my father with some light plumbing work. For nearly 60 years, my parents, my aunt and uncle, and three other couples have met monthly (without fail!) to recite the Rosary together. Still, my father will say what a shame it is, but he knows there’s not much more to be said.

I got into to Queens on Palm Sunday; with Easter coming, I had planned on visiting my folks (whom we don’t get to see nearly as often as either of us would prefer), but of course made a special trip to my uncle’s home. His living room is now where he’s limited to: hospice care has provided him a bed, since he’s no longer stable on the stairs. His hearty voice is all but gone, and he looks uncharacteristically frail. Our visit is short, but his spirit is bright; he even managed one of his trademark laughs. He tells me he knows he’s in a win-win situation: every day he wakes up and spends it with my Aunt, and the one day he doesn’t he knows he’ll be in an even better place. How can anyone argue with that view of life?

As we go to leave, he pulls me close and says he needs a little more PC support, and of course I tell him “name it!” He says he needs me to login to his PC and clear all the set passwords; he doesn’t want my Aunt to have to bother with any of them once he’s gone. I’m taken aback at how calm he is, but also how direct he is at what must be so important to him.

I promised him I would take care of it, and of all of her PC needs. He’s relieved: he tells me that’s one less worry he has.

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