In the past weeks, those were the most profound words I heard. They also took me to highs and lows that I’ll likely carry for some time.
After surgery, now 3+ weeks ago, I was in recovery and floating between anesthesia-coma and uncontrollable yammering when Dr. Nostril appeared and stated, “No lymphoma!” We shared an emphatic double-high-five and I resumed my napping and babbling. Soon enough, pretty nurses were feeding me pop-sickles and I was stumbling home.
Surgeries. I’ve had a few. But then again, too many to mention. As procedures go, this one was easy. Headache, nausea, and other unpleasantries notwithstanding, I was (more or less) back in a new life state of mind in a matter of days. Best of all, I again got to find out that I’m cancer-free. Whooo-ie! That news is always right as rain.
The clouds thicken
Speaking of rain, the latest chapter in my cancer drama and trauma seems trivial already. Because last week, a dear auntie who was a second mother of sorts—I’ll call her Dear Auntie—passed away. She taught in elementary schools forever, loved to sing and sew and bake (the best sugar cookies ever), and cherished rural culture and nature. So she also loved rain.
I was blessed to be present and help out for some of her final weeks and days. Her goal was simple: To go home. Her care team embraced the challenge and everyone held that faith like a lucky locket. We are tough, feisty Scandinavians, and she hung on and fought fearlessly; I firmly believed she would make it home.
It’s one thing to endure your own suffering. But watching someone you love suffer? That’s much worse. Your own stubbornness becomes powerless, yet you feel every pang and strain. You run out of tough.
The struggle for life
Life can throw nasty fastballs at your head and…everything changes. At this point in the summer, I’m usually in Okoboji enjoying a spirited vacation—after dropping the kids and their friends at a timeless, week-long camp. Instead, I was again in hospitals—reading to Dear Auntie and helping create plans full of hope, but also watching helplessly as promise turned to pain.
A chaplain stopped by on the morning we agreed to transfer her to another city with a noted specialty hospital for her condition. Chaplain put us at ease with her gracious and chatty ways. She was a Gustie, and I’m an Ole. So she sang me a jokey version of “Um Ya Ya” (St. Olaf’s fight song) and I wondered aloud…Willthese Ole sneers and Iowa jokes ever cease? (Nope.)
Then she asked Dear Auntie if there were anything she’d like to pray for. After some thinking, Dear Auntie replied, “Healing, family, and rain.”
Turn, turn, turn
Dear Auntie was right: Much of the Midwest had gone dry and crusty—like over-baked cookies. As lifelong farm-stock, she was always in love with the land, the crops, the theater of weather, and the beauty of the seasons. “To everything there is a season” is more than a Bible verse and a song: It’s a way of life.
The day after we prayed for rain was muggy and gray. I drove from Sioux City to Lincoln to see her in her new facility, and later back again, watching river bluffs and dark skies that churned like distant smoke. Just after sundown, the sky turned black, resounding thunder cracked, and that long-awaited downpour with drops as big as marbles watered the crops and soaked the earth.
So where were we? Oh yeah, the last sinus scans had blortzes. Which they called infections. So I took antibiotics. But that solved nothing. So now I have a date with The Claw. Surgery. They’ll scrape me clean and do biopsies with the scraps, which have now been labeled many things (though never scraps). Oh, the mysteries that lurk within our heads.
Comedy never sleeps
I trust all this is happening to me to provide me with fresh fodder for humor. Which is great, terrific, tremendous, and all that. Yet, to be honest, I’m struggling to find the funny in this development. I’ve resisted the urge to behave like a spoiled toddler and scream, “No! No! No! No! No!” But it could happen. That might be fun, if not funny.
My Care Team does their best to keep me amused. They vary their verbiage and set me up for smart-Alec responses with quips like, “Oh, this procedure isn’t that bad!” “Just stay positive!” and “Well, you look great!” I’ll spare you my comebacks. Until you’ve paid cover.
If a guy spent too much time reading into the spoken and/or body language of caregivers, that alone could mess up your head. So don’t do that. Pay no attention to the way Dr. Scribe averts her face at probing questions. Notice not when Dr. Nostril, from one week to the next, changes his qualifier that comes before optimistic.
If you should ask him about that that lingo change, avoid his eyes—as they might tighten up or lose their usual spark. When Nurse Nice hugs you on the way out, assume it’s because of the sweet bond created over the months, not because she Knows Something. And if Nurse Help-Me-Rhonda becomes even more chilly and harried, well, we all know what that is.
Crush on me
Nurse Help-Me-Rhonda has a crush on me. Anyone can see it. The way she squeezes that blood-pressure monitor until my arm turns blue. The tone of her voice when she says, “Lay down and let me check your…” The force with which she thrusts the tongue-depressor in my mouth and commands, “Say ahhhhhhhh.” Her slam of the door as if we’re having a fracas.
Anyway, it would be unprofessional. Not for me, I suppose. But her career is clearly on the rise—it’s obvious even in the ever-wilder colors of her scrubs. Not to mention that she’s, oh, younger. Much. So I’ve so far resisted the evergreen come-hither line, “Hey, I’m willing to overlook the age difference if you are…”
Summer soothes all angst
But I digress. As much as possible, of course. In summertime, it’s so much easier to tune out life’s responsibilities and cancer crap and find living-is-easy diversions: Lovely lakes; boating and floating; friends old and new; great grub and beverages of choice; excellent music.
In the same week, that music included taking a new generation to see jazz maven marvelous Marilyn Maye (90 years young!) in Okoboji’s Lakeview Room (where I once worked summers—with her!). And catching Queen (+ Adam) for the first time ever—well worth the 42-year wait.
But again I digress. Back at Reality, the surgery literature features lists of DON’Ts for after the procedure. Like, no swimming. For six weeks. Damn. By then, summer’s fading and so’s the water’s warmth. But is floating swimming? This aqua-linguist thinks not. So I shall float—whether alone, with loons, or with friends. I think it will help hasten recovery.
Sunny talk, slow talk, hard talk
When floating on fancy devices with neighbors yesterday, I particularly enjoyed the pace of conversation. It’s like the loons—warbling wildly, then stealth. Silent atop the water now, then disappearing into a long deep-dive. Sometimes the chatter flows fast. Other times, seemingly hours breeze by between thoughts gone aloud.
We caught up on lots of things, which these days can include health stuff. One has a newly torn meniscus. Another’s planning a knee replacement. One just got shots for pinched neck nerves. And then there’s my date with the Claw.
As if on cue, the neighbor on the big blue tube commented. “When we met 20 years ago, did you think we’d be sitting around all these years later talking about our ailments?” Pause. Then came a chorus of, “Nope.” She had the perfect response: “More Pinot Grigio?” There was no pause, and then a healthy chorus of, “Yes!”
Pour. Pause. Sip. Drift. Then the doctor in the group, floating on a ritzy, silver air-mattress, turned toward me and commented, “Sinus scraping? You’re gonna have a headache.”
“Yep,” I concurred. Pause. Slurp. “Already do.” Yawn. “Oughta get a nice nap out of the deal, though.”
“Have the time of your life…”
We floated and sipped and savored summer’s short-lived bliss, wishing it could last forever. But the bottle’s elixir evaporated, the sun slipped behind the oaks, and the talk turned to grilling supper. Everso gradually, in the slow motion of faraway waves, the float ended. For now.
I’m happy to report that the recent tests show I remain cancer-free*. There appears to be no sign of The Bad Thing, which is swell.
Of course, there’s always a * in life. And in my case, that * means infections in sinus areas where the cancer festered—and where they radiated me back to the stone age. So I’m eating antibiotics. And probiotics. And hoping those oxymoronic remedies flush it out and flesh it out back to “normal.” We’ll find out pretty soon via more look-see scans.
If the infection survives the horsey pills, then we’ll expunge it surgically with an instrument called The Claw. (“Oooooooh!”) And then do biopsies on the scrapings. Because good tumor treatment these days is conservative and aggressive. I know: more oxymorons. But one learns to live with that whole yin-yang, red-blue, dog-and–tail thing. Am I right?
The New Normal
People still ask, “So how are you feeling?” And I’m glad they do. “Great again!” is the answer, especially compared to the days of whine and ill noses. But “how do you feel” can be complicated. Because at this point, I’m not sure I know what “normal” feels like. All to say, I was not stunned that scans detected snags.
Neither was Buster—one of the voices that lives in my head. He can be a schmuck, but he suspected something was amuck. So he was barking things like, “Yo, Lump-Head…What’s up with those yucky side effects? Ish!”
Fortunately, Kozmo (the syrupy voice of uber-optimism) also lives in my head and has my other ear—and he he’s been singing, “Not to worry, my dear Kirk…cancer cures take sweet time to work. Tra-la-la …”
Partisan rancor in my head
The sparring continues. Sometimes day and night. Buster and Kozmo rarely reach consensus, and are not opposed to secret, closed-door sessions, filibusters, fake news, or snot-slinging. Here are just a few more examples of their recent spats…
About a possible encounter with The Claw
Buster: Oh that is so freaking cool! Up your nose with a rubber hose stuffed with a jackhammer, a camera and a Hoover all at once. O-o-o-pen wi-i-i-de!
Kozmo: Piece of cake, Kirkiepoo. It’s rather like a nice colon cleansing, but without all the unsavory prep and mess!
About the biopsy
Buster: Yeah, baby. This is better than Vegas! Bring on the fear, loathing, and poker faces. Place your bets!
Kozmo: Worry not, Yoda-Boy. The Zennies say enlightenment awaits at the end of the suffering path…along with rainbows and unicorns! And dollies and llamas!
About living with *
Buster: Say sayonara to certainty, Mushroom-Brain. You’re becoming a walking roulette table that’s losing its marbles!
Kozmo: Hark! What’s that bell I hear? Yes! It’s the alarm clock of courage awakening you to your divine, manifest destinies!
Executing a gag order
Good thing I have both parenting and teaching experience. Because these characters rarely rattle me. For long, anyway. I know de-escalation lines like, “Okay. Let’s just join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’” Or, “Am I going to have to separate you two?” Or if all else fails, “That’s it. I’m going to drown you both in craft beer with stupid names.”
Other updates. My cancer comedy career gets ever-closer to open-mic night. My rock&roll revival continues its practice when no one is watching. And I focus on summer fun and the advice of one 28-year-survivor Cancer Club friend who reminded me, “You never know how many days you have left, so don’t f*ck this one up!”
Being in the Club has, I hope, made me more sensitive and sympathetic to others’ ordeals. So I must note and send healing vibes to a dear friend “summering at the Mayo,” which is our code for his undergoing stem-cell transplants for bone cancer. To a dear relative recovering from major back surgery. To another about to undergo eye surgery again. And to one of my families who are grieving the loss of a 27-year-old jewel who passed in peace this month after a five-year fight with cancer.
I hope your health and wellness (and wealth and what-the-hellness) are doing well. And if you are living with Buster, Kozmo, and *, I trust you are making peace with them. Because summer is short, and, as Saint Neil sings, life is like a Frisbee: “This old world keeps spinnin’ ‘round; it’s a wonder tall trees aren’t layin’ down…”
Infections, voices, and songs in my head: I got this.
My Harpo-Meets-Eraserhead era has ended, or at least gone to the bathroom. It’s too hot for such. And despite some good coaching from curly women, I had a hard time mastering Kinky Management. My lovely stylist, CJ, laughed at my high-rise and went straight for the chain saw.
I’m a handful of haircuts (and a barrel-full of hair) past my chemo chapter. That can mean only one thing: It’s testing week. Yes, my esteemed care team will soon be filling me with nuclear fluids, inserting me into tubes, and sending cameras down my proboscis, among other not-cheap thrills. So I again reach out to you, my dear readers and friends, after what turned into an unplanned Blogging BreakAway.
This first clinical curtain call is new to me, and produces uptight stage fright. I’ve discussed my pre-testing anxiety with some of my team and other AdvisorZ. And they all had this advice: Yep. When I said to one, “I’m still learning to breathe again—I have no idea what I’d do if they told me bad news.” Sagely, he enquired, “What do you imagine you’d do.” I wiped my eyes, paused, and stated, “I suppose I’d put on my tough-guy, Iowa helmet and shout,
Let’s do this!’”
“Yep,” he replied. Is it any wonder we pay these pros the big bucks? So may I offer that same guidance to you for whatever might be freaking you out: Yep.
Meanwhile, this has become a most challenging post to write. Ain’t enough stool softener in Wal-Mart to make it come out. I began it in January—when on an island vacation. Now, the weather’s turned tropical here. In fact, the heat index may hit 110° (not %) this weekend, just in time for my daughter’s soccer tournament in sunny, progressive Wisconsin. Yep, we complain about the cold and the heat around here. It’s our MN Constitutional Right. And yes, we live in extreme, and may I add, anxious, times.
So let’s get right to the point, shall we?
Music saved my life. Countless times—and that was before I got sick. I really can’t imagine going through cancer without music. Oh, and grapes. I ate a lot of grapes.
So I share these songs because they brought vital light during the darkest of daze. And BTW, I know you’re not really going to listen. And that’s okay. It’s not your fault; it’s what the internets have done to listening and overall info overload since the days of, say, the 45, the LP, the sacred mix tape. We’re now so hyper and burnt out on stimuli that even a friend’s, nay—a master’s!—music recommendations become just more noise.
To that I can only say…Covfefe!
What were we talking about?
I must confess one rather embarrassing reason I’ve been unable to finish this bastard: Every time try to write, I watch these (and other) videos and become mesmerized. This, in short, is why I almost never watch my music. The coma hits like Cabernet+codeine. And then I lose whatever I’d imagined in my head—which was much more pure, more musical, more…magical. It’s just too easy to…watch.
If you can watch this and not smile, you need “a whiskey drink, a vodka drink, a lager drink, and a cider drink.” It’s got everything you need from a timeless, yet 20-year-old, Brit-kitsch hit, including booze idolatry and silly karaoke capers. If you had the profound pleasure of stopping by my Survivor Sing-Along party at Honey, the nightclub, you know I opened by playing along with this recording. In my mind, I was gigging with Chumbawamba. And you were my groupies.
Killer Lyric: I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down…
Justin Vernon, a local boy with humble and loyal roots from Eau Claire (where I am right now, though I can’t find him no matter how many bars I go to) fronts this brilliant band. He’s been internationally adored forever. And his come-out show some years back in Minneapolis had people weeping and raving. This hard-ass, wanna-be critic agreed, yet believed Dude had growing pains to endure and then much more to say.
Now he’s saying it. Mr. Vernon has been open about the demons and dramas that have caused him to seek family-cabin seclusion and cancel tours. That makes his shows even more extraordinary, and has also matured his material. Bless.
This performance comes courtesy of Jimmy Fallon. Can you believe they make this sound live? For 3m in a TV studio? And…20-some musicians. (No wonder the tours are intimidating!) Note how the band looks like a bunch of high school mates, because, well, many of them are. I love the reassuring little hug he gives a blown-away Jimmy at the end.
If I had $1 for every time I listened to this album during treatments, we could all go out for steaks and Napa Cab. In my new Porsche.
Killer lyric: I’m standing in the street now… And I carry his guitar…
Let’s go retro. After years of forgetting them and sniffing at their many reunion tours (dumb mistake), I dialed these guys up in the heat of last summer, just when the fan was hitting the shit. I felt like I was back in high school and fell in love again, Give me layers of guitars and huge harmonies any day—two things sadly shunned by today’s pop stars.
This 4.5 minutes of music is so excellent it makes me want to smash my instruments.
Killer Lyric: I have a ship and all her flags are a’flyin’… She is all that I have left, and music is her name…
Best. Breakup. Song. Ever? And—who needs chemo—how ‘bout about that hair!?! This NoCare boy is awesome, suave, and just plain prolific. 17 albums in as many years? More moods than Garbo and Brando and all the Greats? His choruses can keep you awake at night, while his voice makes anyone singing along deserve a slap.
Ryan was divorcing sexy star Mandy Moore when he made this powerful album —which only adds to the tension. So when he asks, “Do you still love me, babe?” We know her answer is, “Hmm, nah.” Hey, Mandy: Your loss.
Killer lyric: Why can’t I feel your love? Heart must be blind…
Beck. A man of mystery, hilarity, and exquisite irony. His following is cult-like, and I’m definitely snorting the Kool-Aid. He finally recently gave us a new song, with an album to follow, and then a hot-ticket tour in smaller venues at laughably low ticket prices. This vid shows that his ever-ready Hollywood posse makes sure we still get twisted characters, freeway dancing, and girls shaking booties. It’s like…Wow!
My cancer posts have featured one link at the end—always to a song that, if I may say so mice elf, fit the arc perfectly. I know you didn’t take the link bait. So I’m giving you another chance at this one. This video (a studio performance with gospel singers that will make you believe) was unquestionably the most inspirational song for me. Over and over.
I know I was blessed with great medical care. Yet I’m pretty certain it was music that cured my cancer.
So let’s get right to the point, shall we?
Music to wow the ears and cool the soul? We got this!
If you listen to these songs, and I so hope you do, well then,
In this cancer Afterworld, life is sometimes a b*tch, but often bliss. Blissy vibes happened the night I threw a spontaneous “Survivor Party & Sing-Along” at Honey, a pal’s suave nightclub. Scores of friends showed up. (They had to, or I’d kill them.) Honey’s sound system rocks, so I brought along guitars and did a short show of songs and stories and snickers and endeavored not to make a fool of myself. Friends sang (and played) along. It felt great.
As one emerges from the blur and body slam of treatment, you peel back the fried & dried skin and open the burnt eyeballs and sense the neglected wreckage awaiting. Things like: Responsibilities. Relationships. Metaphysical laundry. The treatments stop and, ready or not, an impatient waiter presents a Reality checklist. The C card was wild for a while. But even the luckiest cardholder learns it won’t settle these tabs.
Survivor’s guilt and change
Atop the list sits a common psycho-cogitation: What did I do to deserve to win? I know several people suffering with cancer now, and acquaintances still tell stories daily of loved ones they’ve lost. Well, try not to think too much about survivor’s guilt, fear, or remorse. Don’t google it. Don’t google anything: It will just say you have cancer. But there’s some serious conditioning in order when transitioning from fight-fight-fight to taking victory laps.
Perhaps the Afterworld has parallels to post- 9-11, when everyone kept saying—with fervent voices and furrowed eyebrows—“Everything changed!” I was stymied then. And I’m baffled now. What, exactly, changed again? “Everything, man!” Whoa. That’s heavy. I don’t even know what “everything” is. So, I’m working on that. I’m working on everything. It changed.
The “pristine” sinus report
The appointment agenda changed for sure, but it’s still jammy. Dr. Nostril’s camera still goes up the nose and we discuss that mysterious ecosystem. Last time, he loved what he saw—more than ever. “Pristine!” he proclaimed. He was probably ready to scoot me out of the exam room and move on to messier cases.
But being the journalist that I am who increasingly cares about his body’s adventure, I peppered him with a lightning round of Afterworld Q&A: “Doc, what about these dang headaches?” “Perfectly normal!” “My eyelid gets stuck and people think I’m winking.” “Might work wonders for your love life!” “The nagging cough?” “Common. Did you like steroids? We can set you up…” “No-o-o-! Just let me cough!” “As you wish, but it’d be a much smaller dose and you might enjoy mopping the carpet at 2 in the morning.” “About my nose. When I blow it, I still get…” “OF COURSE you do. Give it time. It’s like a fine wine…”
Before departing, I mean signing off, we do need to talk about my hair. But it’s probably best saved for another post. Or thriller novel. For now, please know that it…changed. Really changed. It now redefines kinky. I mean, I wake up in the morning with a hair-ache. Mother Wren is back from Mar-a-Lago and checking me out nonstop.
Even Dr. Zen was shocked. Last time we met, he entered the room with his usual beaming smile, which abruptly fell into a painful frown. And—not in his usual, soothing voice—he muttered, “Oh my, your hair came back, but, but…it really…changed. I did not expect this.” He turned away and started rubbing his forehead. Nurse Parrot bolted from the room, perhaps to get him a stiff cocktail.
Not to worry, I’m seeking professional hair help. I’d show you a recent picture but, well, I doubt it would pass the new internet politeness protocols. So stay tuned…
Until then, get back to your mess, your lists, and your songs. And remember…We got this!
I had The Tests of a Lifetime on Monday morning—ones that could determine your future and test your innermost commitment to cancer comedy. Did all those months of medical genius work…or not? They had said results might take a few days; the doctors would tell me all during upcoming appointments.
But instead, the call came early that very afternoon. In fact, I’d barely gotten home and hunkered down to start my stare-down with the clock.
So I was startled when the clinic number flashed on my cell. And yet, they never call with bad news, right? So I answered. And sure enough, it was Nurse Parrot. (I call her this because she delivers her statement, and if you ask a question, she repeats your question, and then repeats her statement and little more. That’s her role, and I’m always delighted to chat with her and challenge the protocol.)
Her line this time was, “Great news! No evidence of disease! Braaaaawk!” By now I should know better than to ask for more detail. Yet in my joy, I blurted something irrelevant, like, “Fantastic! But what’s your take on all this Russia hoo-ha?” And so she repeated, “Russia hoo-ha? Squawk. No evidence of disease! Brkaw-tooky-tooky!” We carried on like this for a few minutes—just so I could hear the news again.
When I hung up, I was alone and had no idea how to react. So I stared at the frozen lake and then did what any self-respecting, rugged survivor would do: I sobbed like a baby. Then I trudged to bed and collapsed in a fetal position under the covers and let physical and emotional exhaustion wash over me like a warm stream.
Doctors, doctors, give me the news
Over the next days, I met with 3 doctors and sought the information I had resolutely refused before—even when that had meant covering my ears and screaming like a mad monkey. I’m ready now. And as usual, the answers are complicated. They vary. The biggest bet of the week, naturally, was: What are the odds of a crappy sequel?
The first doctor gave one of those answers that makes you bang your head on the wall. She offered, “Good question. But I don’t have the numbers for your specific case.” Fair enough. Then, “Aw, what the heckers. Let’s just say, oh, hmmm, approximately…” And then she rolled some dice and stated a rather enigmatic range.
Dr. Zen, in the next meeting, uncharacteristically shouted a precise answer before I’d finished my question. I liked that number better. So I’m sticking with that one for now. And begging the Fates that Be to skip any sequels to this wretched movie.
Cosmic calm and ill winds
These experts are smart. And their body of research and information are staggering. Intimidating. Yet when you go through stuff like this—and we and our loved ones all will—you become at-one with a cosmic calm that C Club comrades often talk about. A peace that passeth all understanding. You also accept that there are moments, even weeks, when peace passeth like gas and turns into ill wind. Just plug your nose and hope, someday, for a sweet call. I get it, and I got that call.
Still, this news will take some time to set in. I half expect the phone to ring and Nurse Parrot to say, “More news: I was kidding! Kirky want a cracker? Kraaaawwwk!”
With this rapturous report now in hand, what about the future? Now there’s a question for ya. Do I plan on decades or hold tight to the lessons of “Live for today?” I honestly don’t know. But I have…time…to figure it all out. Inasmuch as such is possible.
So meantime, I say Let’s Party! like it’s 2017 with whatever tomorrows remain. And may they be ridiculously, indulgently, absurdly, inexplicably, shamelessly, redundantly, and profoundly plentiful and pleasant. Yet may we also embrace the shrewd poetry of Professor Seger, “We’ve got tonight; who needs tomorrow?”
One page at a time…
Lest I get too cheeky, I must acknowledge the occasional starkness of this journey, which again hit me in clinics this week and reminded me to internalize the compassion lessons. At some point, I’d closed my eyes to the hairlessness. The emaciation. The wheelchairs. The heads in helmets. The families gathered around hating every minute yet praying for more. But for the grace of God…I could only say to myself, as I had from the start.
Truth is, I still need that grace. I’ve still got healing to do. Some numbers aren’t right yet. And my care crew will be monitoring me like a just-freed felon. I’m not sure I know “normal.” (Does anyone?) And this effing boomerang crud-virus comes and goes like the ice on the lake that thawed, refroze, and is now thawing again.
But as a friend said upon hearing my good news, “DUDE! Shut up! Crud? Schmud!?! You just kicked cancer’s ass!”
Well, yes, I did. They did. WE did. (Thank you.)
I have a big, blank page that, every day, I’ll write things on with disappearing ink.
Today my heart is anywhere warm and sunny. My body is stuck in Minnesota. And my ass is on the nearest horizontal surface. Because I’ve been hit with that fatigue everyone’s been warning me about since last August when I got a C on a bunch of tests.
What’s there to say about sleep?
What to write about this phase? That’s a tough one. Just looking at the keyboard makes me groggy.
I suppose I could admit that I didn’t much succumb to the lethargy that my care team and other victims warned me about during chemo and radiation. Oh no, I fought through it and got up most mornings and, after getting my daughter off to school, walked a mile or two in subzero temps like some wacko health nut. I rode my torture (bike) machine. I ran errands that could have waited and showed up early for every appointment.
I did the work that crossed my desk, chased the cat, and shoveled snow and chipped away at ice like the characters in Fargo. I ate fruits and vegetables until I wanted to puke. If Dr. Zen told me to take it easy, I made a big project of trying to figure out what that means and then cleaned it up and started all over again. Adrenaline became my addiction.
So maybe it’s just my time. After all, I apparently did catch the flu (or some similarly yucky bug) 3+ weeks ago. And Dr. Walk-in said, “Sorry, but this may drag on for some weeks. Good luck with that!”
The full-on, full-body flu, ew!
That first week brought all the usual symptoms: Clogged nose, worsened by the fact that my breathing machinery remains fried by radiation, so my head just explodes rather than, say, make snot. There were chills that sent me to fill the Jacuzzi for hot, hot, hot. Then would come sweats. My appetite got up and left, yet my stomach would growl like a mad dog. Hallucinations happened. So nights became horror movies.
Hello, nightmares! Every teacher, cop, and animal I’ve ever offended stopped by to wish me hell. One long-lost friend—who used to be funny and a great host—would not shut up or go away for one whole night. And his apparition turned him into a puffy blowhard bore-ass. I could read, pee, get Gatorade, and re-arrange my sweaty blankets. But as soon as I got half-asleep, he’d shuffle back in and say, “Really has been a lovely winter, hasn’t it, Old Sport?” and pick away at his new lame-ass goatee. I still fear he’s lurking somewhere.
Sleeping anywhere, everywhere
Most days featured 1-3 naps. I slept on my office floor. I slept on my other office floor. One unseasonably warm day, I slept for hours on the deck with a towel over my head while a murder of crows, bald eagles, chain saws, airplanes, neighbors’ kids, and tipsy ice fishermen held court and wondered if they should call me an ambulance. (“Okay, you’re an ambulance!” BUH-DUM-BUM!)
I’d start a book and realize 5 pages in that I was completely lost. I’d channel-surf basketball games for hours and think it was all one game. I’d willingly get ready for bed at 7 and lament that I should stay up for another 3 hours. I’d skip that morning walk and instead fall back into bed as if in college and some ravenous lover awaited.
Sleep: literary imagery for: sleep
Speaking of college, a favorite (and long passed) English professor also visited one night and resumed his lectures about the main character in All the King’s Men, a book he adored as he’d worked with author Robert Penn Warren when getting his Ph.D. “The Great Sleep” happened now and then to protagonist Jack. But of course, that “Great Sleep” was symbolism for things. I wish my Big Fat Great Sleep were a metaphor for something profound—but I think it was just symbolism for being pooped.
I’m feeling better now mostly. The strange angels and ghosties have left the building. I’m making my body take walks, picking up the mess that somehow happened, and leaving the house routinely. Feeling so sluggish drove me crazy. But this body’s been though enough to warrant some rest, I guess.
I’d tell you more about all that. But I’m going to nap now.
Time moseys on, though never fast enough in Minnesota winter. I’ve been “healing” from chemo and radiation for about two months, though the first few weeks were more “hell” than “heal.” I’ve been “home” from my island BreakAway (where locals provide the comedy rather than cancer) for nearly one month. Though “home” in winter can occasionally feel like a cold day in hell. I’ve also been avoiding my blog for one month, which is hell on my devoted followers. I apologize—to both of you.
“These things take patience,” said Dr. Nostril when we gathered recently for our ongoing camera-up-the-nose routine. “Easy for you to say,” I replied, “you’re a doctor; those patients bought your Jag.” He fought back, “Nonsense. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Jag…but I love my convertible in Boca.” I could only nod my agreement. He got back to business, “Now open wide. Geronimo!”
“So how do you feel?”
I get asked this question quite often. When I feel good, I say so. When I feel not so good, I sometimes offer alternative facts: “Terrific! Beautiful! Great again!” Because that’s what people want to hear. Many look puzzled if I say, “Not so good today, but thanks for asking.” Perhaps empathy is a dying art. Is there an emoji for that?
Anyway, let’s just call it a good sign; Dude’s got awareness. Attitude. A little sass.You’d have be a blind optometrist, I think, to believe that healing from chemo and radiation is just a chair of bowlies. It’s not. So there. But we march on—in warmie undergarments and big boots and pray that the earth tips to the sunny side someday soon. Like it did, daily, on St. John.
“So how was your Caribbean cancer BreakAway?”
This is the question I long to hear. Because, of course, I’ve been blogging and preaching for years about BreakAways—the idea of taking temporary retirement throughout one’s life rather than waiting until the end when you could be decrepit or, worse, dead. (Heck, Americans leave 658 million vacation days unused annually.) Extended breaks ideally include planning and travel, but also could happen spontaneously due to job loss, family breakup, or health issues of your own or a loved one.
Be prepared. Because extraordinary memories are priceless and rare. Just ask your kids. And because if you don’t schedule your own sabbatical, it’s possible the Gods will arrange one for you. Likely less fun, too.
Back to dee ie-lunn…
The BreakAway on St. John (USVI) worked wonders. It’s a blur mistier than sea spray now. But a few encounters stand out as proof that vacations are a great way to put your problems in the background and focus on a change of scenery, schedules, and faces.
Sadly, the natives are fading away on St. John. I miss them, but those who remain stand out even more. Like the cab (van) driver at the airport (on St Thomas). There was NOT enough time to make the 5:00 ferry. And that’s a bummer. Because if you miss that ferry, you may miss getting your rental car, and things can get very complicated. Especially since we stay on the other side of the St. John, where Johnnie cabs refuse to go. Just cuz.
It’s time to relax…later
Back at the airport, I challenged the driver to make the 5:00 ferry on the other side of St. Thomas, even though some drivers move only on island time and some passengers may turn white(r) twisting through the steep roads and sudden switchbacks. The East Indies patois is beautiful, by the way, and they like to accentuate every syllable of every word. Emphatically.
Our driver was unmoved by the request. “5:00 FEH-REE? HA! 5:00? NONONONONO. DASS NOT TIME E-NUFF. I CAN NOT PRAH-MISS DAT,” she scowled as she packed the endless luggage of three families. But then came the twinkle… “BUT…I…CON…TRY! GEET EEN! LESS GO!”
She drove as if to rescue her mom. When she’d hit a snarl, she’d veer off into narrow side-streets, run down chickens, and honk relentlessly at the omnipresent old men strolling in the middle of road. When a crusty Jeep with a Rasta mon at the wheel got in our way, she rode his ass and beeped at every turn. He loved it, and merely waved his left hand out the window like a beauty queen until he could finally pull over—and then smirked and smoked as he watched us race by.
We got to the ferry dock in record time. But then came the requisite parking lot chaos. “SAY-TUN! SAY-TUN, SA-A-A-AY-TUN!” the driver bellowed out her window with bulging eyes when a fancy hotel van blocked our path. Then another. “SEV-UN-TWEN-TI-WON!” she screamed while laying on the horn as that van (license plate #721) moved slower than a hermit crab. “ACCHHH! STOO-PID HO-TEL VANS TINK DEY OWN DA WORL!”
When she maneuvered us to an unloading spot with one minute to spare, she commanded my (young and strong) son, “GIT OUT AND UNLOAD DA LUGGAGE! GO! GO! GO! CATCH DAT BOAT!” So about 15 people scrambled—and she chased us through the modest terminal to double-check that she’d collected the fares. And, by golly, we made the boat, which is remarkable, since the bored uniforms who run things will sometimes close the velvet rope right in front of you with a semi-evil smirk on their face.
Be polite…or else!
Once on St. John, we had to scamper a few blocks while pulling and schlepping much luggage to get our reserved Jeep before that little, local rental shop closed—something they might happily do when they see you coming. In our panic, we walked through a gaggle of women gathered at Nature’s Nook, a (barely) covered stand where you can pick up local produce (when they’re open).
Scurrying through island ladies without stopping to buy a cassava or breadfruit was not the best strategy. As the last in our line, I received their scolding chorus. “I NEVA DID SEE SO MANY NOSES HIT DA ROOF!” … “EESS AT CHORE DOH-TA? LUCKY SHE. SHE GOT YO’ PRITTEE BLUE EYES BUT NOT DA RESS OF YO FACE!” … “I TINK SHE LOOSE A WHEEL OFF HA SUIT CASE. YOU BETTA GIT ON DA DUTT AND FINE EET!”
Unafraid (and even somewhat charmed) and trained from many visits, I stopped and faced my chastening, “Excuse me, did we do something wrong?” This invited more taunting, “WE-E-E-L-L-L, SOME-BUSSY CUUD OT LEES SAY GUUD AFTA-NOON!”
I slapped my forehead. “Right! I’m so sorry.” (Appropriate pause.) “Good afternoon.” I turned to bolt away, but immediately my luggage and I got stuck between two tightly parked cars. This sent all of them into hysterics, some of them into dancing, and a few of them into making exotic bird calls.
“Just don’t look back,” I said to myself once I finally found a way out of their tourist trap.
Getting cured by the fruit mon
Days later, I definitely had to escape The Fruit Mon in Coral Bay, where we stay. He had a modest but lovely display of fruits and vegetables that, probably, he had grown himself. But he was really selling story. Preaching. And not cheaply. First, he announced that his one and only soursop (a bizarre fruit that tastes like SweeTart and has the texture of cactus) was perfectly ripe. And free! For us! Today!
Delighted, we selected other items, each of which brought a mini-sermon as he’d fondle it, “YOU MUSS NEVVA, EVVA PEEL DA CU-CUM-BAH!” And then came the inevitable bush-tea/eat local /nevva-geet-seek sermon. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it 55 times. Good for them (though I’ve seen a few die from cancer while refusing healthcare). But right about now, it’s more difficult for me to digest.
“I DOAN DREENK WAH-TAH. ONLY BOOSH TEA AND BOOSH WATAH. ALL DAY LONG. EET CLEAN YOU OUT! EET CURE EV-A-RY TING! I HAD DEE CAN-SAH TREE TIME! TREE-E-E-E TIME DEE CAN-SAH! AND LUUK OT ME NOW! PAH-FECK HEALT AND NOT ONCE DO I SEE DA DOCK-TAH!”
Okay, great. Just wait till I tell Dr. Zen, Dr. Ray, and Dr. Nostril. They may quit their practices and move to the islands to make bush tea.
When he stepped back to do “DEE A-DEESH-UN” in his head, the tab was more outrageous than the sky-high grocery stores; stories (and bush-doctor advice) are expensive. As for the soursop? “FO YOU TODAY—BECAUSE YOU BUY SO MINN-EE TING…OWN-LEE WON DOLL-AH. WELCOME TO DEE IE-LUNN!” And he smiled and laughed like the 7-Up man.
Gas-station soul seestah
But my favorite, and final, native encounter came at the (one and only) St. John gas station while filling up before returning the rental Jeep and leaving the island. This place is bizz-ee. And you do things their way. Which includes parking at a pump, getting in line at the kiosk, and handing over your credit card and driver’s license before even thinking of touching a gas pump. Two uniformed ladies—one outside and one inside—run the payment kiosk. They’ve been there for years, and, frankly, do a great (if unorthodox) job.
Reminder again: Be polite and don’t be in a hurry. When your turn comes to hand over cards to the lady in the kiosk, for God’s sake, say “Good afternoon.” Wait for her to repeat that. And then ask, “So how are you doin’ today?” Otherwise, you may stand there, ignored, forever, a dozen harried drivers lined up behind you.
Play your part, and the response is worth it. She leans her head back and answers resoundingly, “I…AM…WELL. PAH-RAISE GOD!!!” You suddenly feel quite touched and humbled by her spirit, and wonder how it’s possible to be so elated working at a gas station. Then she’ll study your cards (and occasionally refuse them), note your name, and slowly reply, “AND HOW AH YOU TO-DAY MEESS-TAH COCK!?!” (I’ve gotten used to that name, which is also what they call me in Italy.) And so it goes. Eventually, you are given permission to fill up. Then you get back in line to settle up.
When back at the window to pay, she stood up and started yelling at me, “MEES-TAH COCK! MEESTAH COCK! LUUK OT DEES!” And she handed me her driver’s license. I had no idea what this was about, so simply smiled and said, “Yes! Very nice!” She beamed excitedly, “LUUK! LUUK! WE WAS BONE ONLY 11 DAYS UH-POTT! JUSS 11 DAYS! GOD SEND US TO DEE EART AT ALL-MOSE EGG-ZACK-LEE DA SAME TIME!!!” She was right. What are the odds? She grabbed my hands and laughed from deep down in her soul, as though she’d found a long-lost twin. I was worried about missing the ferry. Yet I bobbed and babbled back and wondered, Why can’t we be more like this in Minnesota?
The echoes of “I…AM…WELL. PAH-RAISE GOD!!!” continued as she scrutinized every new customer and we left that station—and the island—with a head spinning with sun-soaked memories, a heart hurting from immediate withdrawal, and a brain afraid of returning to America.
There’s no place like away
Back home, people turn to strange activities—like walking Fido in sweaters and boots, bar bingo, and ice-fishing—to pass the wintertime. The daily news—which doesn’t exist on the island—indeed has literally everyone thinking, I’m Afraid of Americans (watch Bowie shred it, dammit). I stay busy in a purgatory that is part bliss and part stress before follow-up tests and scans.
“That’s perfectly natural, everyone worries some before those tests,” my case manager, Nurse Cosmos, said on the phone today. Then she sent me straight to the clinic because I’m sick. Who ain’t? This crap never hits me. Only when my body’s already been through hell, I guess.
But that’s fine. I am not afraid of bugs; bugs come and go, like flakes of snow. Cancer too, right? Meantime, I look forward to the warm season ahead and my next adventure. And I grin at all my BreakAway photos, stories, and souvenirs.
BreakAway memories. I got this. Hope you do too. PAH-RAISE GOD!
Yep, that’s a selfie. One of maybe 5 I’ve taken of myselfie. Ish. But my kids take lousy pics (of their dad) and still don’t do what they’re told, so what’s a guy to do? Anyway, it’s now 4 weeks since that final radiation with bells on. Sometimes, I can even breathe again. Hair is growing back–more salty-dog than I remember. But it’s nice to play with shampoo again.
I’m sure there are some good jokes in all that (a women would dye for this!) once my comedy writers gather and get their snark on. But my own joking has turned rather reflective. Shock and awe. Which is so boring, really. Dude: Could you be almost normal again? (Doubtful.)
The Gods took me to the Virgin Islands to heal. My virgin body says snorkel; my fried head says, “Not yet, idiot.” Still, the vitamin D is jamming like the Mr. Marley don’t-worry-’bout-a-thing songs that still play nonstop down yonder. I try to focus on the sand in my shorts. But as I move on, I’d like to get some things off my unhairy chest. So may I submit my 5 Confessions…
1. I avoided the C Club. If you haven’t noticed—and if you haven’t, it’s because you haven’t been paying attention—the C Club is one of the most cocky, most exclusive, yet most unfettered cults around. Imagine hopelessly-hooked fishermen swapping tales with terrific time-share sales reptiles at a Trump University reunion mixer at closing time. Let’s just say I quickly felt out of my league and forfeited any and all rights to freedom of speech.
Survivors, when cued, will gleefully chirp about their 55 radiations of the tongue while hosting needles stuck in their belly. Or their seven months of blowing chunks out of various orifices while hallucinating Arianna Grande performing the complete suite of all German opera composers. They tend to offer unequaled encouragement and support, which is priceless, but at a cost.
For me, that cost was often too dear. What would start with ginormous hugs of empathy would sometimes end abruptly with me running for the nearest bathroom. And not because of the usual side effects. It’s possible I’ve passed the initiation (or is it hazing?) and earned my C Club rights. But in this case, W.C Fields may be right: “I wouldn’t want to be in a club that would have me as a member.”
2. I played the C card.
C Club cred aside… People mean well. And no one knows what to say (or write or post). So you get dozens of… “If there’s anything I can do…” “I’m there for you.” And “Just let me know how I can help.” I know I’ve done the same thing, whether or not I ultimately delivered any goods.
In most cases, you really do travel this journey alone. In my case, that turned out to be especially true. I was lucky enough to be able to handle nearly all tasks by myself, although the healthcare professionals didn’t like it and sometimes insisted I have assistance. (They’d even ask for names and numbers, geez…)
Yet I’ll confess to manipulating my way to some things I wanted, some things wicked, and some things lazy more than once—rather like my grandma who thought nothing of shooting unwelcome critters from her farm porch in her 90s but wanted help taking out the trash.
Tickets to shows? Yep, and thanks, old friends in high places. Rides to events? Heck, yeah (and the driving-while-texting crowd is grateful, cuz I was in no mood). But my favorite? Definitely calling the chit on about 20 people with those three words every man longs to bellow: Rake my leaves! And boy, did they, one lovely Sunday afternoon in November. I provided beer, brats, and bossiness, and smiled from root to canopy. “You know, this is almost fun!” said one sweaty friend. For me it was. For me it was!
3. I frittered away my education. Some of the smartest people alive are in the cancer business. And the body of information is morbidly obese. But I wanted nothing of it. How tall is the printed homework they assigned me throughout the process? Kareem would squint. How many people wanted to connect me with someone who’s “been through this?” I could start the next LinkedIn. How many support groups did I fail to show up at? I lost count, but it easily surpasses the number of weddings I’ve managed to miss.
Oh sure, I took on info my way, and at times was a voracious learner. Like, during the otherwise tedious all-day chemo day when my excellent (and cute) nurse asked me, “Has anyone had the sex-during-cancer talk with you?” I’d paid not attention to the hand-outs. Had skipped the group sessions. So, not faking it, I replied, “Uh, no. What’s up?” And we had a long, hard chat. Who knew? When your body is being pumped with poisons… Oh, never mind.
4. I sought the answers I preferred. While I’ll admit to shunning information overload, I did ask a lot of questions. I drove my care team nuts. I made schedules run amok. I made a loquacious and precocious three-year-old look mute.
With healthcare issues, that’s always been my easiest route to understanding. But in this case, it became a little game. Because you rarely get the same answer twice. So the best result, really, came by asking, say, five people the same question—and then running an average. Or when that math was too hard (and it usually was), just going with the answer you liked best.
Case in point: Right away, just for yucks, after finding out I’d be on several chemos for several weeks, I asked the highest (no pun intended) professionals just this: “May I ask you something off the record?” “Yes! Of course,” they’d reply. So then came my one-word query: “Marijuana?” After all, I hear it’s prescribed in some states.
You’d think I’d brought up that whole Don/Hill argument again.
The first very high expert practically cut me off while jumping up and down and grabbing a four-foot bong: “YES! Absolutely! And we can put that on the record!” The next one, obviously from a different party, gripped his forehead painfully and nearly started to weep and share secret Betty Ford stories: “Oh. Umm. Oh. Hmmmm. Well, I don’t think we’ll be needing any…marijuana…for this chemotherapy.”
5. I used my condition as an excuse. Only a few times. Or maybe more. But usually, I’m the go-to guy. I try to show up. I’ll host the party if ain’t party lately and everybody be getting antsy. I endeavor to attend the game, the recital, the funeral (if it comes to that, and it always does eventually).
But in this chapter, I often became the curmudgeon who says, “I don’t feel like it.” Because I could. And in truth, sometimes I didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Which is too bad, because after diagnosis, I had this delusional vision of organizing my 49,555 photos. Of binge-watching those TV shows everyone talks about. And of playing guitar and piano daily.
But as my wise, not-yet-old dad (who practices music daily and performs often) said when we discussed this at Christmas, “Yeah, when you don’t feel good, you don’t really feel like playing music.”
True dat. But not to worry: I’m playing now. Music and otherwise. Could you be getting over this? Could you be comin’ in from the cold? Could you be jammin’?