Hump Day: Gradual personality changes were an early warning sign

Hump DayHump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Moncton Times & Transcript
Editorial section

Both my grandmothers knew how to go. And I have an uncle who knew how to go, too. The only problem is that people were left in shock at their sudden deaths. There was no time to say good-bye. There was no time to adjust or prepare for the inevitable.

Most of the rest of my family who have passed away seem to have chosen (or have had it chosen for them, depending on what you believe) a long, slow path toward their entry into the great beyond – one of suffering, illness and a painful gradualness that left everyone around them witness their awful declines and eventual passing.

There’s no easy way to say goodbye to an aging relative. Whether or not they’re in perfect health or in that excruciatingly slow spiral downwards, it all ends up with the same ending: family and friends gathered at a church or in a funeral home’s chapel to pay their last respects. There are tears. There is sadness. There is grief.

I’m currently witnessing my own father’s downward spiral, one that has been gradual but very evident.

Several decades’ worth of cigarettes have taken their toll. Several decades of living have taken their toll, too. Out of all his siblings, however, he’s managed to live the second longest life.

Last week after I wrote about the stroke he had at Tim Hortons when I brought him there for a coffee, I thought the routine of the two previous strokes would just fall into place.

He’d stay in the hospital for a few days and then head back out into the world a little slower, a little older, but with that determination to keep going that has surprised many a person who’s previously counted him down and out. He’s like the Energizer Bunny who just keeps going and going and going.

Sometimes, though, life throws us a curveball. Even the Energizer Bunny needs to have his batteries replaced at some point. So, last week, when the ‘stroke’ he supposedly suffered ended up being a seizure caused by a previously undiagnosed brain tumour (malignancy to be determined after surgery this week), it became clear that this was perhaps not going to be one of those times when my father just bounced back.

Oh, he still may. I’ve learned never to count that man out. For all I know, after this week’s surgery, he’ll end up being better than ever.

I hope so, but let’s be realistic here.

Like the doctor said, the goal of the surgery is to get what they can of the tumour, treat it as required and then hope that the rapid deterioration in his health is slowed considerably.

But, like I said, I’ve learned not to count him out. He’s tough.

In retrospect, the brain tumour diagnosis makes complete sense.

The tumour is in an area of the brain that affects balance and vision. In the past six months, anyone and everyone who knows my father saw that his walking had slowed to a crawl within a relatively short period of time. We all thought it was aging. It was the tumour.

Then, a few weeks ago, he announced that he couldn’t read the newspaper anymore. His off-the-shelf reading glasses weren’t doing the trick, so I brought him to an optometrist for a checkup. Despite the new prescription, he still couldn’t read afterwards. Again it was the tumour, according to the neurosurgeon.

The biggest ‘A-ha! Moment’ (as Oprah says), however, came after a rather sudden personality change that happened around the same time his walking started to slow down dramatically.

My father was a hunter. He would go to the camp in the woods with “the boys” for an entire week. He would bring a bag of sandwiches with him and various other food items and eat them during the week. By the end of it, I’m sure the sandwiches tasted a bit “off,” but he ate them anyway. He was never one to waste food. Fussy eater? Hardly.

Growing up, we ate regular run-of-the-mill food for around here. Chicken. Beef. Soup. Fish. And there was that famous dish made up of macaroni and hamburger with a can of condensed tomato soup mixed in. You, know, the good stuff ! He ate everything.

So, when my father suddenly started hating all the food at his special care home and turned into a major fussbudget, I was perplexed. I even asked him a few times, ‘Since when did you turn into a gourmet chef ?’ He despised everything. He didn’t like chicken anymore. He criticized everything food-related at the home despite my often seeing the other residents happily eating what was offered. I know the food is good there.

These days, the only things he seems to want to eat are Corn Flakes, toast and barley soup. (It has to be barley soup, for some reason.) He would also eat candy all day if he could. At least he’s not diabetic, which would just be icing on the cake at this point.

For those of you reading this who have dealt with a family member or friend with a brain tumour, I think you may agree that the personality changes are the hardest thing to deal with.

Although my father’s newfound fussy eating habits are a drop in the bucket compared to some of the much more dramatic personality changes experienced by other brain tumour patients, it’s still baffling, fascinating and distressing to see itself play out.

I’m not sure what the future holds, but I can tell you one thing: This long spiral is no fun to watch play itself out. And I know by watching my father struggle through it, it certainly doesn’t look like a bowl of cherries to personally experience, either. Living to a ripe old age is highly overrated if your quality of life is rapidly disintegrating.

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