April 04, 2010

The Setting Sun

His steady hands were folded in his lap and his posture was erect, as if he were called to a silent attention when I walked into his room. As I gathered a medical history from him, I was reminded of someone, but I could not quite place it. He was a stoic, strong Army veteran. He fought in the land of the rising sun. In spite of all that he had seen, he tried to keep a positive attitude about everything. Recently, he told me, he had been taking miscellaneous classes at a community college for fun -- computer science, psychology, ceramics, whatever struck his fancy.

He was an old man. He had been smoking ever since he enlisted, as a way of passing the time. In spite of all the PT he had done to stay healthy, his lungs failed him. He grew acutely short of breath a few months ago, barely able to walk across a street on the once strong legs that used to carry large crates of ammunition. His hair was thin and short, a reminder of times past. It was not because of an enforced crew-cut this time. A cycle of chemotherapy took its toll on his elderly body. In spite of all that he had been through, he tried to keep a positive attitude about everything.

He smiled at me, a steady and determined smile when I leaned forward and touched him on the elbow.

“So, how do you feel?”
“I feel okay, doc. I just want to know… when is it going to happen?”

I paused, not quite sure how to answer this question.

My brain was still reviewing the list of symptoms of chemotherapy: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, alopecia, oral ulcers, skin rashes, pain, numbness/tingling/weakness, kidney failure, heart failure… I consciously shoved aside the ticker list scrolling across my mind and focused on the man in front of me.

“The condition you have… the type of lung cancer that it is… is incurable. The chemotherapy only staved off the worst of it that was wrapped around your throat and the blood vessels around your heart. People typically live anywhere from a year to … weeks.”

I looked at him and suddenly caught a glance of my Ojii-san, a man who won a purple heart in the Korean War for valor. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine, according to my mother. All I could remember of my scary grandpa was his raspy breath, stained teeth and the smell of tobacco smoke. He seemed to never move from his recliner and refused to see a doctor when he developed breathing problems of his own. He passed away when I was very young.

“I wish I could give you more specifics, but it is hard to say.”

These men grew up in a different time and likely never thought they would survive the war.
In spite of everything, they had lived past their prime.

I looked out the window where the setting sun flared across the grey clouds on the horizon.
“Well, I’ll come and see you tomorrow,” I said, hefting my backpack over my shoulder.
“I’ll do my best to see you too,” he said with a wink.

Picture by conceptjunkie, c/o flickr