Determined to survive

Chemotherapy drugs were pumped into my arm as a fog settled on my brain.

A woman in her 60s, who still had her hair, was getting hooked up in a corner recliner. She didn’t wince as the needle went in her arm. Awkwardly, I tried to smile encouragement. She didn’t want it.

She’d been in chemo before. The year was 1984. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and all she could think about was how much her daughter, who was in high school, needed her to live.

She followed doctor’s orders through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. It was that last one, she said, that got me. The practice 20 years ago was to beam radiation straight into the hole where her breast was, forgetting that healthy ribs and lungs lay behind it. Two decades later she had lung cancer. She’d never smoked.

Outside a giant picture window, the clouds turned gray and threatened rain. In that cold light she rationalized that this lung cancer was the price she paid for helping her daughter mature, watching her marry and meeting her grandchildren.

I felt a sharp pain as she spoke. In 1984, my father also faced cancer. He died 22 years ago this month.

His death has been with me for every step of my life since.

My dad was more than a dad. He was my best friend, and my only parent since my mother died in a traffic accident in 1971. I was 4.

Single fathers raising children were so rare in the 1960s and early ’70s that only a TV show called “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” could imagine such a thing.

We made it work. He called me “Bud.” I called him dad. When I was a baby he read me Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” Later we settled into more standard fare, and he read me to sleep every night. When I was older we’d listen to record albums that spanned country music to jazz, and he’d talk about when he first heard a song.

He bought me milkshakes, and we learned to stir-fry vegetables together in a healthy-eating binge, which we soon abandoned. He even stood awkwardly in a department store hallway while a sales lady helped me pick my first bra.

Every Sunday afternoon we took drives together through neighborhoods of fancy houses, past fields where newborn colts danced and along rivers that cut through high-desert pine forests around Spokane, Wash.

He grew up there, a blue-eyed, auburn-haired Irish-American. He played first base through school and afterwards in semi-pro summer teams in northern Idaho and western Montana. I still wear his mint-condition letterman’s jacket from Santa Rosa Junior College.

It was in mint condition because soon after he got it, he gave up sports. He had met my mom, a Yakama, who was studying to be a high school English teacher. He followed suit, and by the time I can remember he was teaching black, white and Mexican farm workers’ kids in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

He and my mom had gone to London the summer before I was born. There he was inspired by the Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, where people gave impromptu speeches about issues of the day. In his classroom he instituted Hyde Park days on which his seventh- and eighth-graders could give speeches about anything they wanted as long as they didn’t cuss.

He would laugh recalling how the kids would say “shi” elongating the “I” and stopping short of profanity.

We were living in San Joaquin when my mother died under the tires of runaway bus, the image searing into our brains as if a picture had been snapped by an Instamatic camera.

From that moment on – although he would be a father, a social worker, a business man – his heart would always be broken.

I would be haunted by the memory. It was post-traumatic stress disorder that psychology only recently acknowledged could be possible for someone who wasn’t a Vietnam vet.

In January 1984 my mother’s mother, a retired nurse, visited us. She looked at my dad and said, “You are very sick. You need to see a doctor.” In a matter of days he was diagnosed with cancer and scheduled for a biopsy. The surgeon opened and closed him quickly. In the waiting room, he said six months, tops.

I was newly 18. I was going to college in the fall. I thought he would always be there.

He didn’t last six months, or even three. In a matter of weeks he was dying in the hospital. On his last afternoon I looked into his eyes that were as blue as a lake in summer and said, I will always love you and remember you. He could no longer speak. With his remaining strength he wrapped his hands around my forearms and squeezed hard.

In minutes he lost consciousness and in hours his heart stopped beating. He was 47.

Sitting last spring in a chemotherapy recliner, a different movie flashed before my eyes.

What if he had lived, if he had been there for my college graduation and my career in journalism? Would he have escorted me to the altar at my wedding? Could he have been driving me to chemotherapy and making me laugh at jokes while I took the medicine?

Why did this woman live and not my dad?

My question isn’t entirely fair. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a kind of cancer which the statistics still say has a 99 percent death rate and a three- to six-month survival rate. I don’t believe anyone’s life has to follow the statistics. Now, I read accounts from survivors of this kind of cancer who are living longer and well.

But 20 years ago there were fewer medical options. The relatively new advances in medicine were applied with heavy hands, as my friend from chemo reminded me.

Natural and tribal medicines were not available. The Chinese herbs that I use to prevent future occurrences of cancer – well, you could have gotten them in China, not in Spokane, Wash.

After his death – alone in what had been our house – I determined, “You keep breathing, keep walking and live no matter what.”

Even facing my own diagnosis, I planned it like mapping out an offensive in war. Chemotherapy, yes, but with supplements and herbs. I exercised the chemicals out of my body – causing medicine-scented perspiration to seep out of my pores.

I didn’t want to be like my dad. Giving in, I called it – even though my aunt argued with me that he was struggling to live, even by trying the treatments that sped the end of his life.

Yet, in chemotherapy that woman let me know that there are things beyond our control.

Sometime during one of the nights that I lay in bed letting sickness wash over me, I had a dream. I stood behind a lectern facing an auditorium full of people. They were spellbound as I lectured about the school teacher and social worker who was my dad.

Somewhere in that dream as applause thundered, I decide to forgive him for dying – even while I determined, with everything that’s in my power, to live.

Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she works for The Oregonian. She chronicles her recovery from breast cancer and also writes about national health care issues that concern Native peoples in this biweekly series. She is a former president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the 2004 Award for Investigative Journalism. Contact her by e-mail at briggskm@gmail.com or by mail through Indian Country Today.