It was the worst of times.
The final weeks of my father's life were spent fluctuating between the grim reality of the salmon pink cell he was imprisoned in and whatever worlds he was invited to while in deep pharmaceutical haze. This included a spaceship manned by aliens.
One morning I entered my father's hospital room to find him wide-eyed and skittish. "Boy did I have a wild night" he stated before telling me about the drug-fuelled adventure he experienced upon waking at 3:00am. With no clue where he was or what all of the intermittent beeping was signalling, his mind raced to the only logical conclusion he could fathom in that altered state: he had been abducted by aliens for interplanetary research. And now he needed to break free.
My father arose from the bed and studied the numerous picc lines in his arms, quickly attempting to remove them and the mysterious substances they were injecting into his body. This only caused more beeping. As he heard footsteps approach from the hallway, panic set in. With mere seconds to spare, he made an attempt to reach for his cane, a solid weapon he could use to beat the alien species with and show them that lifeforms on earth kick ass.
He never got it.
Instead, he got tangled up in the curtain, numerous cords and other medical paraphernalia that surrounded him. Imprisoned him.
The "alien" entered the room.
After untangling my father and gently asking what he was doing at that early hour, the "alien" put him back to sleep with the aid of more of that mysterious substance being pumped through his veins.
My father laughed at this story but also showed serious concern. In the moment, he believed he actually was on a spaceship being tested against his will. He was also anxious about what would have happened had he managed to secure his cane. "I could have seriously assaulted someone" he reflected soberly. "I don't know what they're giving me in here."
Over the past few weeks, I've noticed a word that keeps popping up in my social media feeds (often as part of a dire news headline): Fentanyl. I normally would scroll by something that doesn't pertain to my life, but this word – this drug – has now become a part of it, triggering memories of my father's final weeks. A time spent in-and-out of lucidity.
Winnipeg Free Press, October 15, 2014: Vancouver overdoses linked to Fentanyl, not heroin.
Saskatoon Star Phoenix, October 18, 2014: Kayle Best has done meth, heroin and crack but no drug was as destructive as this.
CBC News, October 24, 2014: Two suspected 'bad heroin' deaths not caused by heroin at all.
Fentanyl wasn't the only pain medication prescribed to my father, although it appears to have been the strongest of all the opioids that were part of his treatment. These included codeine, morphine and oxycodone. Despite this abundance of pharmacological aides, my father continued to suffer from immense pain. So much so that the simple act of turning over in bed or being the recipient of a hug would result in wails of anguish. How much did this combination of drugs help? How much did it hinder? I suppose I will never know that answer but it does give me pause. My father's diagnosis was terminal, but I can't help wonder if the toxicity of the prescribed substances was the final shock to the system for a man that rarely took Aspirin.
Imagine being on medication described as 40 - 100x stronger than heroin and still feeling pain.
This is the life of a cancer patient.
Burned with radiation.
Poisoned with chemotherapy.
At constant war with their own body and forced to hold abstract faith in a world where impiety is more resolute.