Single Digits: Pilot Down

Today I was late to my twenty-fifth appointment and missed visiting with my newest radiation buddy, a happy, upbeat older man.  He’s been diagnosed with cancer on his vocal cords.  Last week he shared his frustration over wasting about 6 weeks  with various medications for possible causes for his hoarseness before his doctor  referred him to an ENT who quickly ordered the biopsy that uncovered his cancer.  I like my friend’s attitude.  He’s very matter-of-fact.  He reminds me of Gene Wyall, a grandfatherly friend I had when I was just out of college.  I affectionately called him Geno. I loved sitting and listening to his stories, too.

My radiation pal and I share an admiration for Dr. Montravadi.  “Boy, he exudes confidence, doesn’t he?” my friend asked me one day shortly after we’d met, his eyes sparkling as brightly as his smile.   I smiled back and offered my hearty agreement. 

The two weeks we’ve been waiting room pals I’ve enjoyed his wit.  He has a smart, sassy sense of humor.  And we’re both agreed that our attitudes will heal us as much as the energy or drugs they might pump into our bodies!  We offer cheers of, “Good luck!” to one another when either is called for their treatment.

Yesterday my friend was telling me and another patient about his son, a 60-year-old commercial pilot who had surgery the previous day for pancreatic, gallbladder, and liver cancer.  My heart sunk when I heard his news.

 “Yep.” he said, twitching his head to the right and making a clucking sound out of the corner of his mouth. 

 “Is his prognosis,” I wasn’t sure how to ask the question, “good?” I finished nervously, knowing that pancreatic cancer is a vicious opponent. 

 “Oh, ya!  That’s…that’s what they’ve told him,” he replied nervously.

He had started twice to try and tell us about his son, but was visibly overcome with emotion.  His eyes filled with tears. He jerked his head again quickly and chuckled.  “You know,” he forced himself to continue, laughing a bit and bouncing his right leg nervously across his left, “my son flew airplanes like he drove my cars!”  My friend broke into a loud laugh now.  “At sixteen he totaled my car,” he said, ticking off the instance on his left hand.  “At seventeen he ran my car into a ditch!” he bragged, this time slapping his hand on his knee, beaming as he retold the story of his son’s youthful exploits.  He was smiling ear–to-ear now animated as he continued, “At nineteen he learned to fly jets.” His last statement sent him into a tight squeaking wheeze of laughter. We all laughed along with him. It was fun to listen to him laugh as much as it was to listen to his story.

“Went over to Nam.  His plane got tore up all to hell.  It looked like a sieve a few times.  Oh, it was tough.  Weavin’ and flyin’ in the jungle.  He got shot down a few times…” his voice trailed off.  His face was visibly strained.  “Ya, he added softly, “that was tough.” 

As I sat and listened I wondered if he meant that it was tough for his son to survive the crash or for my friend and his wife to wait on their child’s return from hell.  I thought about my son, Neelan, just one year younger than his son would have been decades earlier.  As I sat with my friend I couldn’t bear to think of what it would be like waiting anxiously, prayerfully for Neelan if I had been in that man’s shoes in ’68.  Eighteen or nineteen may be the age of adulthood, but for a parent, when it comes to your child age is only a number.  In fact for moms, our 18-year-olds are really just 216 months old.

“He was the one that was flyin’ through the center o’ Mogadishu,” he said, his voice getting louder and stronger again as he spoke.  He swayed his arm left to right in front of his face to demonstrate to us how his son banked his aircraft.  “Only way they got those Rangers out of there.  It was him!  They wrote a huge article about him in the paper,” he said, tearing up again.  He stretched his trembling arms apart vertically to indicate the size of the article in the paper.  “Yep.  Only way they got those Rangers outta there…” his voice broke painfully.  The emotional strain on his vocal cords had to have been made even more painful from radiation’s burn.  He was quiet,  slowly shaking his head from side to side.  His face was solemn.  I imagined that he was ruminating about all the dangers his son had survived so far and calculating his son’s survival against this cancer that had taken root in his organs.  By rights his son should have died a hundred times before now.  But getting cancer?  It’s the cruelest enemy of all.

Each of us was wondering the same thing for his son.  The other man, also a Viet Nam vet, discussed his lung cancer treatments to date.  He wondered aloud if his recurrence was a harbinger of deadlier things ahead. He’d moved from a Stage 1 nearly 2 years ago to a Stage 2 now.  I breathed deep and rubbed my chest through my examination gown as I listened to him.  I’m a Stage 1 DCIS survivor.  (That’s ductal carcinoma in situ for the uninitiated.)  I’m not considering that cancer would dare raise its ugly head in my body again.  We found it early.  I’m cancer free.  I want to stay that way.  And my friend.  He shared his other previous health scares and how his son had helped him survive those.  This same son was responsible for saving his father’s life a little over a year ago.  The three of us sat in the waiting room together but in our own worlds of worry.

I’m disappointed that I missed my friend this morning.  I’ll not be late tomorrow.  I’m anxious to hear an update on his son’s progress.  And tomorrow I’m going to ask my friend’s name.  I’d like to know it.  I’ll be hanging out with him for the next eight treatment days and really want to remember him.