How to Catch a Spider
My husband Tom was a teacher of the best kind, a storyteller. His students would listen, entranced, as he told them about the time he swam inside the mouth of a blue whale (that story’s for another day), the time he was baiting sharks to test a new shark repellent, or the time he nursed a starving Laysan albatross back to health (he could bray albatross like no one else). The stories from his experiences as a marine biologist enthralled and engaged his middle school students.
He couldn’t have blue whales or blue sharks in his classroom, so he kept small live animals there to encourage his students to have encounters with, and touch and feel, animals that they might be squeamish about or fear; an aquarium with frogs and swordtail fish, a blond cuddly hamster named Chubby, and always a tarantula. His first one was Harriet (they are very hairy). His last was Charlotte (named by his students). He loved watching the kids, wide-eyed, as he gently cupped his hand over her, picked her up and placed her on a small hand or arm of one of the kids. Her tickling walk always brought “ooohs” & “ahhhs” & “ewwws”.
In August 2017 Tom was diagnosed with liver cancer one week before school started. He went to school to begin the year, but by the end of the first week realized that he didn’t have the energy to teach with the passion that he felt his students deserved. He took a leave of absence, planning to return to teaching after a vital liver transplant, his only hope.
It’s ironic – to qualify for a liver transplant, it helps to have cancer, but be sure it’s not too much cancer. Tom had three tumors in his liver, combined they added up to 7cm in size. They needed to be less than 5cm to be considered for the transplant list. Directed chemotherapy can shrink the tumors, so the plan was to do two treatments – the first treatment, to the largest tumor on one lobe of his liver, then two weeks later, injections into the two smaller tumors on the other lobe. Thirty days later they would do another scan to see if the accumulated size now met the transplant requirements.
His first treatment was September 22, 2017. We were anxious, scared because the word ‘chemotherapy’ brings memories of my sister’s treatments for malignant melanoma years ago and friends’ treatments for breast cancer – debilitating side effects of nausea, weakness, hair loss. We had been told that directed chemo was different, but the experiences we had seen were what stayed in our minds. I remember being in the pre-op room with him, and it was cold, always so cold when waiting in hospitals. They brought Tom a ‘quilt’, a blanket with air tubes that are kept filled with warm air by a pump – his head visible on the pillow, and then the pillowy white blanket covering the rest of him and the bed. He looked like a rectangular Michelin man. I wanted to join him, both to get warm and to hold him.
He came home feeling surprisingly good, a little tired and with slight nausea, easily controlled with the anti-nausea medication they gave him. Now we were anxious for the second treatment, not with fear, but with eagerness to get it completed and start the 30-day countdown to the final scan and hopefully, smaller tumors. Transplant here we come!
The initial days after his second treatment, on a Friday, were like the first. He drove to town and discovered a new place for a great breakfast on Saturday. Our good friend Jess came to visit on Tuesday and we took him to Tom’s new find, almost like a normal giddy time with a friend we hadn’t seen for a while – a Denver omelet and hash browns combined with all of the catching up was a wonderful break from the intense doctor visits. I grinned as I watched him eat a full meal for a change.
But things started changing quickly. Tom had little energy, so Jess and I planned activities during the day, leaving Tom to rest. We went to the grocery store and stocked up on chicken and steaks to barbecue, along with Popsicles for Tom, the one food group that always sounded good to him. Ice cream was another necessity, Tom and Jess were both fiends for any kind of ice cream.
The next morning, October 14, was the Pumpkin Festival! The Pumpkin Festival in Half Moon Bay is an extravagant event, attracting tourists from all around the state. It creates huge traffic jams that locals despise. Tom always avoided the crowds and stayed home, but I relished going early in the day to browse the craft booths and indulge in the food booths that helped fund local organizations. Jess wanted to experience it, so he and I planned on going for the morning.
We were just headed out when Tom said “I don’t feel well, you need to take me to the hospital.”
We changed our plans and headed over the hill instead. Bloodwork confirmed we’d made the right call – his potassium was high, his sodium low, along with other imbalances. The doctors started adding medications and minerals to stabilize him. They said he would go home in a couple of days.
But his numbers got worse, and on day four, a large group of doctors – the hospitalist, his gastroenterologist, and Kaiser’s palliative care team – crowded into his room and announced “with his MELD score (Model for End-Stage Liver Disease), there is a 30% chance of mortality in 90 days”. I know they said more, but that’s all I remember. We crumpled – Jess asked everyone to leave the room and we held each other and cried.
Then we got down to business with filling out an advanced directive.
He was emphatic about refusing treatments or procedures that were uncomfortable. After a couple days with a catheter, he refused to have one any longer. He pulled the feeding tube out several times – they put mittens on him and loosely tied his hands to the bed to prevent that, but he was still able to remove it. I said ‘no more’ to the nasal feeding. I said ‘no’ to a more permanent tube that would be inserted into his stomach. I knew he didn’t want that. We did our best to feed him high protein ice cream. And oh, the smile on his face and shine in his blue eyes when he got a popsicle – his favorite ‘food’ over the last couple of months at home when nothing else tasted good. I wish I had known sooner that the hospital had popsicles available when requested, so I could have seen that look of delight more often.
I went home most every evening so I could get some rest and take care of our cats. I would send him a text before I went to sleep, heart and hug emojis, wanting to be close even while apart. When I woke up Thursday morning, day seven, there was a text from him, sent at 2:17 AM “Are you okay?”.
Kidney dialysis started on day eight – the liver was shutting down, which impacts kidney function. We were told that if he received a transplant, the kidney function would return, so the dialysis was a stop gap measure. He was in triage, waiting, hoping for stabilization and then a scan that would show smaller tumors. But his organs were starting to shut down, and I noticed some disorientation and delirium. While he was lucid some of the time, he was becoming confused. His voice was only a whisper; I had to lean in close to hear what he was saying and frequently ask him to repeat it again and again until we were both frustrated. Then I needed to decide whether his words were part of his delusions or an actual clear thought that needed a response.
One side effect of his liver disease was a fluid buildup in his abdomen, and he always felt that he needed to pee. Late on day nine, as I was getting ready to go home for the evening, he started telling me that the nurse had told him that he could pee if he was able to catch a spider. I stood looking down at him on the hospital mattress, tucked in like a child. I leaned over the cold metal bed rails, puzzled. “How do you catch a spider?” I said. He gently cupped his hand, fingers curled, as if placing it over Charlotte, and showed me how he would safely lift her up.
This was our very last conversation, as he was gone the next day.
Charlotte had been home for summer break, so I continued caring for her after Tom died. Buying live crickets and feeding a tarantula was new to me. One morning I walked up to her terrarium and was startled to see a second spider! Peering in anxiously, I quickly realized that it was her molt standing in her fake log tunnel, and Charlotte was walking around with a shiny new coat. After two years of watching Charlotte stand still most of the time (tarantulas aren’t the most exciting of pets, and unlike Tom’s students, I didn’t thrill in the tickle of her legs on my hand) , she eventually died. I found a small wooden box of Tom’s that had held treasures in the past – a special coin, or perhaps a joint when that was part of his life. It had a hidden latch on the side that when pressed, released with a quick spring, a small hidden drawer. I placed her in his box and buried her next to a sequoia tree planted in his memory.
A couple weeks later I received a message from a friend of Tom’s whom I hadn’t seen in ten years, although he had called me to express condolences after Tom’s death. His exact words to me were:
“Beautiful Sunday to you Linda. I had a dream early this morning that I want to share with you. I am in the process of moving to a new apartment due to some uncomfortable circumstances. In the dream I felt like I was in my new place and for whatever reason I needed to go somewhere so I had locked up my place and started walking I looked up and there was Tom driving down my street it seemed he was headed to my place. I turned around and met him in front of my apartment. The next thing I remember was we were entering my apartment and I was explaining that a little clean-up was needed but that I was ok with it. Then I looked up and there was a big spider web towards the ceiling right above our heads. I then said I wish I could find the spider because the web was strong and large also I was afraid of being bit. As I turned and look towards the floor, the spider (a rather nice sized one) appeared. I kind of panicked for a second because I could not think of anything to catch the spider with and remove it from the apartment. Tom said hold on he calmly reached into his pocket pulled out a very crafted small wooden box, that had a hatch he slid the hatch open placed it in front of the spider and the spider crawled in the box, Tom closed the hatch and said all is well and smiled. and I woke up. Linda this dream was just what I needed to keep moving forward into my new apartment without fear or doubt that the bad experiences in the old apartment are over”
I immediately sent back a message, sharing Tom’s last words and the Charlotte anecdote. His response was “This is Awesome. Tom is with us, watching over us, and letting us know we are never alone”. Tom’s storytelling and teaching continues, and it comforts me.