Our family’s new normal

October 4, 2015: Today, my daughter’s iPod received an upbeat message and a terrific photo from her step-mom. She wanted Jnr to know her dad Christopher was heading out for a walk around the barns in their postcard-perfect Wiltshire village. Look at those new gloves! the photo seemed to say.

The backstory

While the gloves are new, the wheelchair has been with Christopher for about six weeks now. On September 2, his left leg was surgically removed at the hip. With it went an aggressive tumour that had shattered his femur on August 21. He gave his leg to save his own life.

Jnr and I first visited Christopher in Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore on Saturday, Sept. 5 (the first day after surgery he was strong enough to see Jnr). I said then: This was a bullet dodged. Thank god you’re still alive. That lens on this drama resonated with him.

Christopher offered to show us the wound site. I couldn’t look, because at that time the wound wasn’t drying up. I was already worrying about infection, my thoughts leap-frogging ahead of events. Dammit, but events caught up. On Sept. 21, he was back in theatre, under general, so the wound could be washed out. Barrier nursing was introduced either side. Christopher is strong, and he beat the infection.

Throughout this experience so far, Christopher has seemed like an injured, not an ill person. I believe this has helped humour to run high and curtail fear….Jnr’s fear, everyone’s fear.

Getting it wrong

I made a hilarious mis-calculation. I was doing my best to prepare Jnr for that first hospital visit. (She had been with her dad at the hospital when he was admitted by ambulance on Aug. 18, in the room when Christopher received the cancer diagnosis. I was in America and her step-dad took her daily to the hospital to see Chris. But that was weeks before the surgery.) I was sure he’d be changed and I didn’t want her to be frightened.

I told her: Day before yesterday, Daddy had a blood transfusion. That’s very common after people have surgery. They need extra blood. Daddy’s skin may still look a bit ashen. That’s just because surgery can be hard on someone’s body. Once he’s out of bed and getting fresh air, he’ll look better.

I also said: Pain can make people’s faces squinch up. What happens when people squinch? That’s right: their foreheads wrinkle. Daddy may have more wrinkles then the last time you saw him. That’s just from the pain, and nothing to worry about.

When we walked in, Christopher’s colour was high and his face relaxed. Morphine is a wonderful drug to control pain. He looked like he was fresh off an Italian beach. I was so happy to have my cautions proved wildly off-base. His apparent hardiness made me feel we were all extra-resilient.

Five days after surgery, Christopher was upright, taking steps inside parallel bars. A day later, he was taking steps with one bar, and a crutch. Still, the first day I saw him walking inside the U of the zimmer frame, watching a familiar foot rolling as his weight transferred, I felt queasy. His biceps quivered. He had already told me that 20 minutes moving in a U around the foot of his bed would have him drenched in sweat. I could see why.

What’s it like to lose a limb?

Bodies are inherently fascinating, at least to Jnr and to me. Jnr has seen the wound up close. She doesn’t know Barbie dolls, but if she did, she’d easily see that the operation removed her dad’s leg the way a firm twist would detach the doll leg.

The blessing — for Christopher most of all but, by extension, for all of us — is that the surgery was planned. He has been spared the shock or horrific surprise that comes with a car and motorcycle accident, a workplace or battle injury. Spared the assault. Gratitude seems too small a world to express the relief we feel about this mercy.

Tribute to Mark S Hammer (1937–2007)

Nor is acquired limb loss unfamiliar. Those of you who have known me since the 1990s will know that my father, Mark Hammer, was eventually a double amputee reliant on an electric wheelchair. The amputations started with a big toe in 1993, the year I moved to London to live with Christopher.

Mark was in mind from the start of this, and I brought this photo which hung beside Christopher’s bedside throughout his stay at Stanmore.

The other shoe drops

October 6, 2015: My phone rings at 10 past 4. It’s Chris, in the car heading home to Wiltshire after his first assessment at UCH Oncology Department:

The cancer is gone. As a precaution, he’ll have six rounds of chemotherapy. The rounds will start shortly, once cardiac and renal assessments are complete.

The three-week cycle means he’ll have one week feeling well. His well weeks will include his 60th birthday in early December, and Christmas.

During each session, he’ll be attached to a chemo pack and stay three days in an NHS flat in Fitzrovia, walking distance to the hospital and near to Jnr’s school. They’ll see each other as often as they feel up to it. I remind myself (again) to get her flu jab from Boots. The chemo will dampen his immunity. Everyone around him needs to stay well, or steer clear.

Recognition, not pity

Cancer is fearful. It’s also very, very familiar. Lots of us have stories about living with or living alongside someone with cancer. I’m not sharing this story to start a conversation about cancer.

This cancer (now banished) leaves several lives changed, and one of those lives belongs to my daughter. I’m sharing this story because I need you to know that her life has changed, and in supporting her, my life and priorities are changing. I’m asking for your recognition that this is a new normal.

Bluntly, the view from this new normal leads me to say:

  1. We are grateful for the generosity and good wishes people continue to express towards C and his immediate family (his wife and Jnr). If you know Christopher, I’m happy to pass on his address so you can write.
  2. There is not yet a charity where you can express your feelings about this; in due course, I reckon there will be. Please ask again in 6–12 months.
  3. My child doesn’t want to be asked about her dad, or about her summer. Last summer, while Jnr and I were mid-air from Heathrow to DC, my mother dropped dead with no warning. The very next year, this.
    Two data points don’t make a pattern but life experience is still pretty thin if you’re only 11 years old.
“I’m beginning to think summer holidays are bad luck.
First, Nonny. Now Daddy’s leg.”
Jnr in Three Oaks, Michigan, August 2015

I’m writing about my mother’s death. The piece is called “Lost & Found”. The same phrase helps us here: Jnr is both losing and finding, just like her dad. Let’s keep the space for discovery open. Doing so means we resist feelings of pity, and allow compassion and curiosity to take other forms.

Thank you, all.

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