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It had been one of those busy days, where all the errands I had to run took twice as long as they should have.
I’d finally arrived home after my last errand, a trip to the grocery store, and, trying to make only one trip from the car into my house on that cold, grey February evening in Indiana, I loaded all the grocery sacks onto my arms and waddled my way into the kitchen.
When my cell phone rang, I dropped my groceries on the counter and checked who was calling. It was a Texas number that I didn’t recognize. Telemarketer, I assumed, so I let it go to voicemail.
A few moments later my phone beeped, indicating I had a message. That’s odd, I thought, telemarketers don’t normally leave messages. It must be one of those machines that didn’t know it was talking to a voicemail, so I ignored the message.
I put my groceries away, poured myself a much-needed cup of coffee, and listened to the message.
That’s when my heart skipped a beat.
It was the head of neurosurgery at the Brain and Spine Center at Texas Presbyterian Hospital. She said it was urgent that I call her back, and she gave me both the hospital number and her direct number. Doctors don’t give out their direct numbers, I thought to myself. What in the hell has happened?
I called her back, and before I had even finished saying who I was, she was already explaining in quick detail the surgery she had just completed on my father.
She explained it to me like someone might explain how to change the oil in their car—no expression, just the facts. My dad had fallen earlier that day and wasn’t able to stand back up, but had managed to call emergency services. He had already been routed to three different hospitals before landing at the Brain and Spine Center.
He had pressure on his brain, which had caused the instability and fall, and this pressure was from a tumor that had metastasized there. She had drilled a hole in his lower skull to alleviate the pressure for now and save his life for the day, but they had to figure out more about the tumor and what was causing it before they could create a plan of care. He was scheduled for an MRI and CT later that night, and likely a biopsy and perhaps an additional surgery or two in the morning.
I have no medical training, but I did know enough to realize that metastasized meant that he likely had cancer, originating from somewhere else in his body, and that the tumor in his brain was just one of the places it had taken up residence. I also knew it was bad. Really, really bad.
The neurosurgeon asked if I had any other family to contact, and I said not in the area but that I would either be on the next plane into Dallas, or that I would be getting in the car in the next 30 minutes to begin the 14-hour drive.
Luckily, I was able to find a direct flight that left in two hours. So, I quickly threw together some underwear, jeans, and T-shirts, as I talked to my boyfriend and fought through tears to explain what I didn’t understand and that my heart wouldn’t let me comprehend.
Surgeries, Sleepless Nights, and Stress
The next week was a flurry of doctors, nurses, neurologists, oncologists, surgeries, sleepless nights, and stress.
But what was clear was that my dad had cancer, and he had it everywhere. His lungs, his liver, his kidneys, his esophagus, and at least one more spot on his brain.
The good news, or so the doctors thought, was that they had removed the large tumor on his brain. Although he would certainly die from the secondary brain tumor and pervasive cancer elsewhere, he would be able to recover from the surgeries from the last week and live for another three to six months. So home the two of us went, to the house I grew up in, with limited hospice care for two hours twice a week, and me as the primary caregiver.
I’m an only child, and my mother was already deceased, so the caregiving was going to be up to me. This is not to say I was without help. My best friend and her parents stopped by as often as they could—they brought me food, helped with household tasks, and visited with me and my dad. My uncle flew into town a few days later to help, to visit with my dad, to run errands, and to help in many other ways. He was instrumental in making sure that I ate at least one meal a day. My boyfriend, now husband, stayed in town as long as he could, but had to return home to run our small business so that I could stay and take care of Dad.
Even with their help, the stress of caregiving and the situation seemed overwhelming.
Then, I got the flu.
I had already lost almost 12 pounds from the week in the hospital, and being at 130 pounds before these events, that was a lot to lose. Adding the flu on top of the stress of caregiving made what was already overwhelming now seem insurmountable. I was quickly becoming gaunt, lethargic, ill, and so wrapped up in stress that I knew I had to do something to take care of myself so that I could take care of my dad.
It had to be something that I could do at home, as I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to leave the house very often—my dad needed 24/7 care. I had a two-way radio that I kept on me at all times because he needed help with everything from eating, to getting out of bed, to toileting.
One of my best friends suggested yoga. She said it would help me with my stress, and I could do it anywhere in the house where there was enough room to lay down.
Ugh, yoga, I thought. I’ve tried that before, and it was horrible. It was slow, boring, and it gave me a headache.
But I was desperate. My dad’s quality of life depended on my ability to care for him, and I couldn’t care for him if I was sick, stressed, and exhausted. So, without any other options, I reluctantly rolled out a beach towel on the hard tile floor and tried the yoga video that my friend had sent me.
And, it was kind of amazing. It was just a short 20 or 30-minute video, and I don’t even remember what it covered, but what I do remember is that it was powerful. Even after one short practice, I somehow felt like I would be able to do this.
I could take care of my dad. I would be able to survive this.
Yoga during this time didn’t fix me, or put weight back on my bones, or make me a better caregiver. And it certainly didn’t cure my dad’s cancer.
But what it did do was allow me to breathe. It allowed me to move.
I was becoming more and more tense from the stress of caregiving, and yoga seemed to help me move the stress from my neck, shoulders, and back out of my body.
Wrong and Right
The doctors were wrong, Dad only lived 14 days after returning home from the hospital.
But my friend was right; yoga was just what I needed to get me through this.
It helped me cope while I was in an unbelievably horrible situation, and it helped me to process my grief afterward.
I ended up spending about four months after Dad’s death traveling back and forth from Indiana to Texas to deal with the house, estate, and other details. I continued doing yoga during this time and I often felt as if it was the only thing that kept me sane.
And although I don’t think you ever really heal from the death of a loved one, yoga does remind me that I am alive, and equips me to embrace this life that is so dear.