Category Archives: grief

Thank You #1

The shifting cluster of white coats descending upon my cubicle last August was diverse, and most welcome. I explained what’s wrong with me, and they explained what they needed to do. Since I was coming from another hospital, with information about previous tests, they needed time to take a look at the pathology reports and the scans. Give them two weeks, they asked. Tough to wait like that, they said. But necessary, since the previous docs had diagnosed a very rare form of pre-cancerous tumors.

They were almost out the door when Michael recalled the other nagging revelation from the diagnostic test called an “EUS”: there’d been something, a shadow or something, spotted on my liver. What would the GI docs be doing about that? A flurry of murmurs. “Probably nothing,” seemed the consensus, and with general noises of dismissal, they were gone.

I’m a graduate of UAB, half my family’s been working or going to school at UAB my whole life, my friends work for the University, the writers I know write about UAB. I make enough money hosting UAB’s international medical students at my home to call myself a writer. I hear people around the world praise UAB’s prowess as a place of healing, and I’ve never, ever met a cancer patient from UAB who wasn’t receiving impeccable care.

At first, the intersection of my cancer and UAB seemed like a gift. I’d discovered late in the game there was a possibility of cancer, the previous doctor’s office had dropped the ball, and in late August, the earliest available appointment with UAB’s GI Clinic was in early November. Then I got a call: a cacellation could put me in to see Dr W— in just ten days. “Yes, yes, yes,” I sang, because waiting for bad news is such a toxic state of being.

So. Two weeks of waiting. Fourteen days, a mere 20,160 minutes. I’ve learned to live one day at a time and even one minute at a time. I know about mindfulness and compartmentalization and when to take a nice deep breath*. I’ve got my very best friend in the world by my side, family never far away, and not one but two long-standing, deep-rooted support communities available seven days a week. I’ve got a sense of humor, a car that runs, and a reasonably stable (if small) income. I have a bike I just learned to ride in fall 2016. Dragon*Con was a glorious four-day fill of fantasy and fun and loopiness. I decided not to drink any alcohol because I was, a little, worried about my liver. As always, travel beckoned, pocketbook negated the possibility but I dreamed about roller coasters and foreign beaches anyway.

And I waited. Two weeks to the day, ten a.m., I called the GI Clinic. I’m not sure if I spoke with someone physically in the GI Clinic, although I thought I was talking with a medical professional of a sort. I believe now most of my contact was through a UAB call center, a building somewhere on campus surely teeming with polite young men and women who take and relay messages, strictly on a 8 a.m. -5 p.m. schedule.

The person on the other end of the line told me that Dr. W-, my doctor, was on vacation, and would be out for ten days. I stammered a bit. I couldn’t fathom the idea of waiting another ten whole days. Then I told her I was anxious to hear my test results. She perked right up and said Dr. A- was covering for his boss and she’d leave him the message. When the doc picked up my message, she’d call me, she explained. Then she’d call again, a few hours later, to make sure the doctor actually made contact. I was impressed with the thoroughness of this telephone protocol and somewhat mollified.

Twenty-four hours later, I had another operator on the line. Dr. A- hadn’t picked up the message, she told me. And even once he picked up the message I had to allow him 24-48 hours to return my call. I gritted my teeth and politely left a second message. Wednesday, I got teary on the phone, the operator prayed with me and for me, then connected me with an actual person sitting in the GI Clinic. This young woman told me that Dr. A- saw my message and commented out loud to her that he didn’t know what test results I was referring to, so why should he return the call.

By this point, I’d developed a really weird thing about my cell phone. It became a focal point for my anxiety, and I developed a sick sort of love/hate cycle of letting the charge run out, losing the charger, accidentally turning off the ringer, leaving the phone at home or in the car. So this three days I was waiting for the call back from Dr. A- was a frantic dance with and about that fucking piece of plastic, culminated by my actually leaving it on a shelf in Walmart and driving cross-town. It seemed to take a Herculean effort to keep my phone in working order and answering it as painful as a root canal. I still wince when it tweets, pings or rings.

My phone had been lost for a couple hours when Dr. A- finally returned my call, and I was not in a good mood. His first question was this: “Why haven’t you signed up on the patient portal?” Nobody had told me how to sign up, was my answer, this and all other times he asked. He was jazzed about my test results. “It’s really, really rare! We’re going to present it next Tuesday!” I asked him if the UAB pathology report confirmed the findings of the first doctors. “Oh, no, they got it all wrong,” he replied cheerfully. “It’s not a neuropappillarysuchand so at all, it’s a blatheringblahblah.”

“It’s what?”


“Aaah, is that cancer?”

“Ms. Zweifel.” Very stern. “Why haven’t you signed up on the patient portal? It’s very important that your doctors be able to communicate with you.”

Away we went. I answered him, then circled back round to the question of whether this was a cancer diagnosis or not. He asked about the patient portal again instead of answering. It took like three days after having the conversation to put it all together, but every single time I asked that poor doctor if it was cancer, he changed the subject to my noncompliance about the patient portal. He had to know I had pancreatic cancer, but he didn’t want to tell me. And I had no one else to ask. It would be another ten days after this confused and confusing conversation before I saw a doctor, and a month before I spoke to an oncologist.


*whenever it occurs to me, the more often the better


This is me, asking for help.

Hey, is this your image? Artist unknown but appreciated. Stencil on concrete, circa 2013 From my camera.

Hello, my friends. It’s been confirmed. I have fourth stage pancreatic cancer, a type of rare and relatively slow-growing neuroendocrine tumor. The five-year survival rate is 20-25%. I’m getting care at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta; they have a specialty clinic for this type of pancreatic cancer. I am praying and scheming to make my personal 5-year survival rate 100% and you are already drafted as a co-conspirator.

I’m so very fortunate in so many ways! I’m frequently staying with Michael. His new place in Atlanta’s Westside is comfortable, convenient and cat-equipped. I have a decent chunk of life insurance and short-term disability resources, due to my early adventures in advertising (I sold myself on the idea while creating the advertising for it, an occupational hazard). But these benefits take time to line up.

For a year now work has been difficult and symptoms like pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting have made writing to deadline stressful. Since my surgery in October, narcotic painkillers keep some pain at a distance, but with the unfortunate side effect of distancing myself from my brain as well. These same issues, plus geographic distance, are complicating my ability to earn from my other business, hosting international medical students for 3-6 month stays.

So I’m asking for that kind of help, too. Financial. If you can kick in a few bucks, I would really appreciate it. I’ve been shitty my whole life about writing thank you notes, but I will post a thank you note of at least 1,000 words for every $350 raised. I love you.

Redemption Takes Wing

Kai, Corey and KJ visited Zion Cemetery in June 2015 and left just the right gifts for Papa C’Mere. RIP!


My sister and I buried my father’s ashes on a cold gray day last spring. We were at Zion Cemetery in Blaine County, Oklahoma, not too far from the farm my family settled illegally and then claimed in the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. You can see two sets of grain elevators from the graves of my grandmother, great-grandmother, great-aunts and now my dad. There’s not much else to see other than the ever-changing sky, a tiny abandoned church and an honest-to-God outhouse with a crescent moon carved into the rough wooden door.

It was really cold. Two days before, I had stared in amazement as snowflakes spiraled down outside the window. I had planned to camp out; it was the second week in April and who would expect snow right before Easter? On Palm Sunday, I sat in church and felt the earth tremble; an earthquake, my aunt told me brightly, a common occurrence in Oklahoma these days. A few hours later, the tornado sirens howled; a twister was tearing up the plains somewhere south of town. Oklahoma felt apocalyptic last April.

We scraped some dirt over the urn. A prayer would have felt pretentious. I’m not sure my dad even believed in God when he died. My sister and I held hands and sang a chorus of “Amazing Grace,” the wind snatching the notes off our lips.

It was too cold and I was out of kilter. We poked our heads inside the abandoned church; the windows were long gone, leaving only four walls of rough whitewashed brick and a rusty tin roof. Animal droppings littered the empty structure, huge, bigger than my thumb. The thought of an animal that size was frightening.

Two days later it was Good Friday, bright and warm. I was facing a sixteen-hour trip south, but Zion Cemetery called, and I obeyed my instincts.

On my way out of town, I heard bells. It was noon. My lovely little church in Birmingham has a most solemn Good Friday Service at noon; it begins with the church stripped bare of all its banners and fancy drapery and the clergy lying full-out face down on the floor around the altar.

Again an inner voice whispered, just as I passed a church. I pulled into the parking lot and crept inside, late for the noon service. They were reading the Passion Gospel and a lady in the back smiled at me when she handed me a bulletin. As we read the familiar story of Christ’s trial, persecution and crucifixion, my world and my heart began to settle into a rhythm: powerful, soothing and good.

My spirit was almost light as I left the church, and I stopped at a store to assemble a funeral feast. I got two pieces of cake, some bright ripe fruit, a little cheese, a styrofoam cup of macaroni and cheese. On an impulse I grabbed a handful of chunky, beaming sunflowers.

It took an hour to drive north of town, west down the highway past the grain elevators, then bump down the dirt road to the cemetery bounded by a rusty, sagging fence. It looked vastly different, which makes perfect sense: when the sky is nine-tenths of the display, a vivid blue infinity is a remarkable transformation from a lowering blustery gray.

I had a book with me, a funny one, by Terry Pratchett. I spread out a blanket under a splintery old cedar and read my book and laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh. My dad has a wicked sense of humor and he loved to read. I slowly ate half a piece of cake, savoring the joy of my dad’s sweet tooth and a family tradition of “dessert-first day.” I breathed, deeply: cedar, dirt, sky.

Now my heart was so light I was almost skipping. I scattered a few crumbs of cake a few feet away from the tree and invited the ants to my banquet. I laid the sunflowers in a row on the family graves and they smiled back at me: great-grandmother, grandmother, aunt, aunt, father.

I remembered I had a kite tucked away in my camping gear, and that endless sky cried out for a kite. I couldn’t get it up in the air; I have no talent for aerodynamics. But I tethered the string to the gravestone and it kicked around on the ground, yearning for the wild blue yonder. I sang a song from my favorite movie; it felt so good I sang another song, a Bible-thumping camp song from my father’s youth. I remembered his eyes match the Oklahoma sky on a bright spring day.

I thought, for no particular reason, of things that frightened me and decided to look inside the old church one more time.

I remembered the warmth leaving my father’s hands as I wept and let him go.

I leaned into the empty window frame of the old Zion Methodist Church and heard a storm of wings and wind and watched, transfixed, as a Great White Owl burst from the rafters, paused, as if posing for a snapshot, and whirled out the opposite window, an angel of a different kind.

I laid my daddy’s ashes to rest on Good Friday last year. Today, as Lent begins, I wonder where my journey leads me now.