“If I stopped and worried about everything that’s wrong with me, all the possible complications and outcomes, I’d never make it through the day. So I don’t. For better or worse, I just push through it,” my father said recently.
For the record, the man is a walking catastrophe: he’s diabetic, he’s lost a kidney to cancer, he’s had a heart attack and stents implanted. Oh, and he has a really rare connective tissue disease (polymyositis). So it really would take him all day to dwell on what ails him if he were so inclined.
“I know you know what I mean, Laurie,” he said.
Of course I knew what he meant, because I follow the same rules. This is not to say I don’t think about my health in the same way he has to on a daily basis, but thinking and worrying are two very different things.
He thinks about what he eats and thinks about his insulin. He thinks about how much exercise he needs to fit in and thinks about when to take his medication, but these types of thoughts are more rote procedure than anything particularly emotional or intellectual. I think about what time my chest PT is when I’m making plans, I think about taking certain meds on an empty stomach and others after I’ve eaten, and I think about what I’m buying at the grocery store in case I can’t find a parking spot and have to carry the bags too far. Nowhere in these deliberations does worry play a role.
Now, I’ve already admitted that I am somewhat of a control freak, something that bears mention in this conversation. I fully admit to being obsessive about certain parts of my life: making the bed, de-cluttering the coffee table, listening to certain music when I am writing, doing exercises at the gym in a particular order, etc. (Are you scared yet?)
I don’t obsess or worry about my health like that, though. Sure, I have moments where I’m genuinely scared or I wonder what it will be like 10, 20, or 30 years from now. Who doesn’t? But day to day, I don’t worry. I just do what I need to do and live my life, accommodating illness when I have to and defying it whenever possible.
But here’s the kicker: I worry about my father’s health. A lot. More than we each worry about our own combined. I inquire about his liver function often since the chemotherapy he takes is hard on the liver. I always ask for his latest cholesterol readings. I feel like there are so many moving parts involved in keeping him healthy (ish) and alive and I fear someone will drop one of them. I stress over his kidney function results, and spiral into a chain of what-if’s: Diabetes stresses the kidneys. He’s had it for over twenty years and he only has one kidney to begin with. The dye he needs for his heart catheterizations, angioplasties, and stents also stresses the kidneys, and he’s needed two rounds of the dye lately. What if he needs a transplant? Would he even be eligible, given his other serious conditions? Would his body be able to stand it if we found him a kidney?
“You can have one of my kidneys. If I’m a match, it’s yours. In a heartbeat,” I’ve told several times. Usually these offers of organs have no sequitor, and I get a lot of strange looks.
He always tells me not to worry so much, assures me that he is okay. But every now and then, he admits to the reality of his situation, and that actually reassures me. There is such a fine line between pushing along and getting through each day and plain old denial, and while I completely relate to his desire to just move forward and not focus on what’s wrong, I also think it’s important to acknowledge the long-term consequences…not enough to be dominated by them, but just enough to take them into consideration in the present, like when he's trying to balance his blood sugars or trying to squeeze in exercise.
In the end, I think this goes back to my need for control. I take my meds, I follow my regimen, and though in the end I can’t always control what my body does, I feel better knowing at least I have all the moving parts accounted for. With my father, control of his health is one more step removed from me, and because I care about him so much, I want to be the one to keep it all together.
I’ve promised him I won’t worry quite so much, but I’m not sure he really believes this will happen. After all, as my father, he faces the same challenge in terms of worrying about me no matter how much I assure him I am fine…so I guess we both need to follow each other’s advice.