A couple weeks ago I wrote about a cross-country bicycle trip I took back in 1997. These last couple of days of my treatment have reminded me of two or three really hellish days from that ride that threatened to ruin the whole trip. We’d hit these really strong headwinds in eastern North Dakota and had to grind through flat, unprotected rides of up to 100 miles a day going just 8 to 10 m.p.h., spending close to 10 hours a day in the saddle. The last day of the North Dakota segment was a 92-mile ride from a small town called Cooperstown into the city of Fargo and then across the Red River into Moorhead, Minn. The headwinds out of the southeast were predicted at a steady 20-25 mph for the entire way — so it looked like it could take as long as 12 hours to complete the day’s ride. But trip organizers told us at our camp in Cooperstown the night before that anyone still out on the road after 6 p.m. would have to abandon their bikes and hitch a ride in a support van so the tour could stay on schedule. Doing such would have meant surrender and humiliation to those of us going cross-country, because if you got in the van even for just one mile (let alone 10 or 20 miles) it meant you didn’t really ride your bike across the whole country. We wouldn’t have been able to look one another in the eye when we reached the Atlantic. So a bunch of us got together and said, ‘No way we’re getting in the ‘sag wagon’ — no matter how hard the wind is blowing.’ ” We set out extra early that morning and packed a change of clothes on our bikes in case we had to pull off into some small town and hunker down on our own — and then worry about catching up with the rest of the tour a day or two later. It didn’t matter. We weren’t getting in the van no matter what.
But that day’s ride — July 11, 1997 — turned out to be not as bad as expected. We somehow managed to dodge the worst of the winds early in the day and make better headway than we’d expected. By 11 a.m., the winds were blowing hard but we were already more than halfway through the ride. A couple hours later we crossed Interstate 29 and I remember feeling like I’d made it home to the Midwest, because I-29 is a freeway that originates in my hometown of Kansas City and shoots straight north to Canada.
Still, the thing I remember most about that day was pedaling the final 15 miles into the city of Fargo, which was probably the largest city we’d seen since leaving Bellingham, Wash., more than a month earlier. I have rarely been so happy to reach a place in my life. Finally, there were trees, houses and buildings to block the wind. We knew we’d made it. And after that, we knew there’d be nothing on the rest of our coast-to-coast journey that would stop us. The highest mountains, the longest daily rides and the worst potential winds were now behind us.
I’m getting really tired of these days of being tired. Sprawling out on the couch half asleep for most of an afternoon and still going to bed early at night is not my idea of living. It’s just like grinding out a whole day going only 10 m.p.h. into the wind on a bicycle — no fun at all. But I’m down to the wire now. I took my next-to-last chemotherapy pill this morning and went to radiation. Thursday will be the last day for both — at least for awhile.
When I pull into the driveway of my home after that last treatment, I hope I will feel just like I did that summer afternoon 12 years ago when I pedaled my bicycle into Fargo.
My dogs Chopper and Kaley have loved all the attention they’ve been getting lately. Lots of visitors and houseguests have been coming and going to help me out. When that’s not going on I’ve been taking lots of naps and the dogs have been able to just hang out and snooze on the sofa right alongside me. They love it when humans get brain cancer. For them, this gig is a lot better than the old routine of being stuck at home entertaining themselves while I go out for several hours each day to do business or run errands. And now it’s like they have a rolling court of appeal from the regular house rules I set, such as: “no begging for food”, “no treats after dinner,” “no feeding from the table,” etc., etc. Each new houseguest brings the potential for a whole new doggie legal system and my two mutts have been taking every advantage of it.
They’re being petted around the clock, hand fed from the table, and being given unlimited access for licking all kinds of new and friendly faces. All the while, one week has slipped into another. On Monday it dawned on me that a month has passed and they’ve managed to avoid one of the most dreaded parts of their regular routine: Taking a bath.
Chopper and Kaley both hate water in any form: Whether it’s a pool, a lake, taking a walk in the rain, or taking a bath.
I have just three more days of treatment left. Chopper and Kaley’s little cancer party is about over. So I’ve finally put my foot down and started enforcing a few more rules around here. And now they smell great.
Encouraged by my generally positive attitude about dealing with cancer, a number of my married, male friends suggested I seize the opportunity of having a terminal illness and kick it up a notch. This unorthodox approach to hospice care — independently suggested by several — essentially involved turning my modest bachelor pad into a modern-day, suburban version of Caligula’s Rome. The basic idea would be to live out my days in non-stop partying mode, stocking my 1500-square-foot house and surrounding yard with professional female entertainers of all stripes. Some might be outfitted as mermaids frolicking in the pool. Others might be tasked with feeding chemo pills to me and peeled grapes to my friends; fanning us with palm fronds as we watched football on television. Still others might be wearing little more than roller skates as they delivered pitchers of ice-cold Martinis or barons of beef on large platters. And some might even get dressed occasionally in order to take Chopper and Kaley for their twice-daily walks so I could get plenty of rest. You get the picture. All the while, I’d be burning through my savings account, my 401(k) retirement fund and my home equity like a prairie fire roaring across dry, autumn grass. And the party would last until I was dead.
Men. No wonder women hate us.
This was a generally harmless vision. Just idle talk — the sort that is commonly cooked up when married guys kid around and project their wildest fantasies onto the lives of their single buddies.
But one of my friends — John Glionna (pictured at center in Dennis Hopper T-shirt) — had the stunningly bad judgment to share this lusty vision of home health care with my big sister Kathleen during a recent phone conversation. Kathleen was having none of it, even jokingly, and even though she knows John very well and was in no way surprised to hear this kind of perverted idea emerge from his completely unfiltered brain. Still, the conversation didn’t last long. Kathleen just told John to grow up. Then she just hung up. Then she got back to cleaning this, rearranging that and planning the next healthy meal. That’s how women help out loved ones when they get sick.
Now John is visiting me this week with my other longtime buddy Mike Anton. The three of us have known one another and been close friends since the early 1980s, when we were all newspaper reporters in Kansas City. We had lots of fun back in those days, and in subsequent years when we’d get together for regular reunions in places like Las Vegas, Florida or California. John and Mike are both happily married now, both working as reporters for the Los Angeles Times. We’re just hanging out, talking, cooking on the grill, drinking some beers and having fun. I hate to disappoint anyone, but it’s all pretty boring compared to the Caligula scenario outlined above. We are watching some football, of course, but no one is coasting around my house on roller skates. It’s just us. My only nod to decadence was to buy a bottle of Zing-Zang Bloody Mary mix in case we felt like having a drink before noon one day.
So that’s it. That’s what ‘Guy Therapy’ really looks like. It may not be as productive, but in my mind it’s every bit as important as the Kathleen kind.
You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz a million times and you’ve heard Judy Garland sing Harold Arlen’s “Over The Rainbow” a million times. But watch and listen to her sing it one more time in another context, not in a movie but live on stage during a very dark and uncertain period in American history. It’s worth it.
In this version, she’s not in character as pre-teen “Dorothy Gale” or as anyone else but herself. She’s a grown woman, on stage for a 1943 “Command Performance” radio program which was part of a series emceed by Bob Hope and produced to help boost morale of the troops overseas. I tracked down a tape of this whole radio program several years ago to entertain my Mom when she was sick. It’s pretty funny. There’s Bob Hope’s jokes, plus a gag where Lana Turner comes out and cooks a sizzling steak in a skillet that she holds up to the microphone, plus another funny song by Betty Hutton.
But the most moving part of the show is Judy Garland’s performance of this song, which takes on a whole new dimension that it didn’t have in the 1939 movie, all because of the war going on in real life. She looks almost too shy to be onstage as she jokes around with Hope before the song. After she sings, she bows modestly and then glides quickly offstage after patting Hope on the arm. You can see the vulnerabilty of the woman who eventually was pumped full of dope to keep her working through episodes of depression, suicide attempts and broken marriages, then ultimately eaten up and spit out by the Hollywood star/money machine. The irony of that as-yet-to-unfold personal history set against the backdrop of this particular song adds even more poignancy to her performance.
Have a good Sunday.
It is February 1941. Edward B. Holton, age 21, gets two calls that change his life forever.
The first comes from Uncle Sam, telling him he has been drafted into the Army. The second comes a few days later from Lucille Smith, a pretty, 19-year-old college co-ed, who phones to wish him luck in the service and suggest that they stay in touch. Eddie writes his first letter to Lucille from Camp Robinson, Arkansas, February 15, after chancing upon her picture in the Feb. 9, 1941 Rotogravure section of The Kansas City Star newspaper. (the “rotogravure” printing process enabled newspapers in that day to print photo-laden feature sections for publication on Sundays). She was pictured (second from left) among four candidates nominated for the “beauty queen” section of the University of Missouri yearbook.
I can almost picture my Dad as a buck private, sitting on his bunk bed in a noisy barracks, composing this note on a Saturday evening using some old board for a writing desk as his fellow grunts craned their necks to see what he was up to. It’s not clear to me if he ever would have gotten around to writing this letter from boot camp had he not been prompted by seeing the picture of Lucille, or if he had not visited the “canteen” for a beer or two that afternoon. All I know is that it is the first letter that resulted in hundreds more letters going back and fourth during World War II, a correspondence that led to them falling and love and getting married on Feb. 16, 1946 — five years and one day after this letter was written.
Here is that first letter in its entirety. More background from my Mom’s perspective follows:
FROM: Pvt. Edward B. Holton, A.T. Battery, 1st Battalion, 127 Field Artillery, Camp Robinson, Little Rock, Arkansas
TO: Miss Lucille Smith, Women’s Residence Hall, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri
Camp Robinson, Feb. 15, 1941
Here I am reporting from Camp Robinson. I am a veteran here by this time since I have been here for four days. We left Ft. Leavenworth at 3:00 p.m. last Tuesday and arrived here 3:00 p.m. Wednesday. They had a special troop train for us which consisted of about 350 men. We ate three times during the trip and had a Pullman to sleep in. That was not so bad for a beginner was it? The meals have been fine and the tents are not so bad except we just about froze Thursday night. It got very cold and we can not run the stove after we turn in for the evening. I guess they are afraid that we would become asphyxiated (maybe that is not the correct spelling but you get the general idea). When I asked the fellows here to spell that one they looked at me as if I had been down to the Canteen a bit too long and had too much taken. Incidentally, I just have been to that very place doing my Saturday afternoon shopping. You very probably get what I mean, or do you?
If you wonder why this letter is so illegible you must understand that we don’t have a personal writing desk for each private as yet but I just have been in consultation with the Colonel and requested that he have the same down here at once if he expects to keep in my favor. Right now I am doing this masterpiece from a half sitting and half reclining position and using a 2 x 4 board for a writing desk. You know Washington suffered at Valley Forge quite a bit but I don’t believe that he can be compared with myself when it comes to that part of the old Army game.
I sure would like to see the face of a pretty damsel right now. You know it has been over a week since I have beheld the face of one of the weaker sex and at the present time the camp is under quarantine because of an epidemic of the flu and the chances are that we will be here for another month without any leave. Really the only comfort which I have had since I have been in the Army was seeing your picture in the Rotogravure section of the Star last Sunday. I surely am proud that I am able to know anyone who rates a picture in the Rotogravure. The picture was very good. How does it feel to be one of the beauty queens? I knew you the minute I picked up the paper, I knew it was your picture. Pardon me if this letter does seem to be written in bad form but I am trying to watch these guys watch and write to you at the same time.
Well Lucille I am about running out of stationery and I know that you will be tired of trying to decipher this code so I will close with
Lots of love,
P.S.: Write soon. Address: Pvt. Edward B. Holton, A.T. Battery, 1st Battalion, 127 F.A., Camp Robinson, Little Rock, Ark.
My Mom’s immediate response was not preserved, because her letters from February 1941 to May 1942 were lost. But much later in the correspondence, Lucille looks back on the earliest days of their relationship: “I remember a date I had with you before I went to MU and I’ll never be able to figure out why but you were such a disappointment to me that night. And then one weekend in February, Mother told me `Ed Holton has been drafted. He is such a nice boy, I think you should call him and wish him luck.’ So I did and a few weeks later you wrote me a letter from Camp Robinson. At first your letters, although always welcome, didn’t do much to me. But later towards the end of the summer something changed and your letters were most anxiously awaited. I remember one passage in particular written shortly before your furlough that fall. You implied that you thought that our correspondence had changed our friendship into something deeper. And then you came home and – you were right, weren’t you, darling?”
Eddie was right. One day while on furlough in November 1941, he took Lucille to meet his family at their farm in Tonganoxie, Kan. Sometime that day, or on the way back into town that evening, according to their recollections in later letters, Eddie kissed Lucille for the first time and told her he was in love.
What is in the drinking water of North Carolina? Whatever it is, it gives women from that state the ability to make extremely creative get-well presents.
The handmade quilt above was crafted just for me and my brain tumor by my friend Patty Huff, who was born and raised in North Carolina and now lives in Charleston, S.C. It also contains a subtle reference to the name of this blog. And I think I just now noticed something that looks like some kind of Shroud-Of- Turin/Eye-Of-Crazy-Ass combo image just to the left of the center of it. But that might just be a reflection from the camera flash. Or maybe not. Patty? Did you do that on purpose? The dimensions of the quilt are 36″ x 36″. I’ll leave the rest of the oohing and aahing about stuff like color selection, composition and dynamic flow to readers. Enjoy.
Anyway, Patty is an artist who can dash off a quilt of this caliber almost as if it were just a Post-It-Note. When she gave this one to me, she told me just to use it as a “footwarmer.” But I said ‘Hell, no. That’s a piece of art that’s going to be hung on my wall.’ So that’s where it is — right in the middle of the main wall in my living room. (The whole experience was like having someone like Jackson Pollock knock on your door to ask if your house needed repainting.)
Patty handcrafts things like dolls and decorations and other stuff you might see on the HGTV channel. But Patty has her own channel — it’s called The Patty Channel and it kicks HGTV’s butt. The big problem is that the only people who are allowed to subscribe to the Patty Channel are her family and friends, and it doesn’t come in over your TV set, even if you have expanded cable. You can only view it in person. I keep trying to convince Patty to get a website and sell the quilts she makes, but she won’t do it. I don’t think she’s ever sold anything she’s made. So between that and the limited distribution of the Patty Channel, she obviously has some marketing issues to deal with.
Patty is married to my friend John Huff, a brilliant journalist and editor and Duke University (there’s North Carolina again) graduate who taught me pretty much everything I know about how top-notch newspaper projects are conceived, reported, written and put together for publication. Unfortunately, those skills are not as relevant in the marketplace as they once were. I first worked for John in 1987 at the Orlando Sentinel, and so we’ve been friends and beer-drinking-and-golf buddies for 22 years.
They’ve got four great kids — Kelly, Brenny, Neely and Johnny — who I watched grow from ‘throw-em-off-the-diving-board’ sized midgets to beautiful, full-fledged adults. When they lived in Florida, I used to go over to their house all the time and barbecue chicken KC-style. The Huffs also had lots of cats, ferrets, rabbits, gerbils and other critters around the house, including one of Brenny’s guinea pigs, which bit me on the thumb once while I was trying to get two (more) Budweisers out of the refrigerator for me and John.
I chose the North Carolina connection for the headline of this post, but just as easily could have titled it — “Cool People You Meet Because You Worked At A Newspaper.” The personalized get-well cards at left featuring me and my Jack Russell terriers Chopper and Kaley were designed and hand-drawn for me by my friend Santa Bogdon, another native North Carolinian whom I met while she was the art director for the Orlando Sentinel’s Sunday magazine back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Newspapers don’t have Sunday magazines anymore).
Anyway, Santa now has her own successful graphic-design business in Orlando and you can see lots of other great stuff she does at HER website www.santabogdondesign.com (See how easy that is, Patty?).
Before I met her or even knew she existed, Santa was a designer at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo. Here’s a weird twist: After Santa and I got to know each other in Orlando, we compared notes and discovered that we had lived in Kansas City during the very same years, just a block or two away from each other in the Westport area. It was when she was a North Carolina expatriate cranking out Shoebox Greetings cards at Hallmark and I was a hometown boy cranking out crime, fire and sewer-board stories as a reporter at the KC Star. We never crossed paths in Kansas City.
Santa’s husband is Gary Bogdon, the Sentinel photographer I mentioned in an earlier post as the guy I tormented on the Old People project but who now is a freelancer who does stuff like shoot cover photography for publications like Sports Illustrated magazine. You can see lots of his astounding work at www.garybogdon.com (Patty, are you still reading? Santa designed Gary’s website, and maybe she could design your website too.) Gary is a very hilarious man. If my memory serves me correctly, he won Santa’s heart and her eventual hand in marriage at a by-now-long-forgotten Sentinel party one night many, many years ago by sprawling out on the carpet and doing a one-man, theatrical interpretation of what it’s like to be a piece of bacon frying in a hot skillet.
So one thing led to another. That’s how life happens. And now Santa and Gary have two boys — Alex and Marlie. Alex is in high school and is already a better writer than lots of people I knew in the newspaper business. Marlie is a few years younger and rambunctious the way kids used to be back when I was a low-tech kid. The last time I was over at Santa and Gary’s house, it was a beautiful afternoon and there were no TVs or video games or Guitar Hero kinds of things going on inside. Instead, Marlie was running around outside with a wild pack of other kids from the neighborhood. He had an Army helmet on and was carrying a stick. He was in the midst of climbing trees and building a mud castle in the back yard. He came indoors only to ask Gary breathlessly (but still very respectfully) if he could borrow some matches in order to set something on fire, so as to bring some still-imaginary element of the Tree-Climbing-Army-Mud-Castle game to its denouement in all of its physical, non-imaginary, file-your-insurance-claim-right-now glory. Gary, stepping up to the plate to make what was later nominated for Best No-Brainer Parental Command Decision Of The Year, said: “No, Marlie. No matches.”
Even though I kept my mouth shut, I was pulling for Marlie. He made me remember what it was like to be just a kid having fun.
I’m still kicking, just not very hard right now. So I don’t have much new to report. Wednesday was another one of those days where I hardly had enough energy even to think about how little energy I have. The exhaustion from daily radiation comes in waves. I’m still eating well, haven’t lost any weight and the only weird side effect — Crazy Ass Eye — seems to have gone away for good. Plenty of food in the house. Power and water still on. Lawn mowed. Dogs are still happy. Kathleen going home today. More reinforcments coming in. Just one more week to go.
I was able to make only one good joke Wednesday at my weekly checkup: My doctor asked me to remind him if I was taking steroids. I told him no — despite all the criticism in the press about the unbelievable home run totals I have amassed this season. He laughed and said that was a good one.
“That joke’s just been sitting out there for years, waiting for someone to grab it,” the doctor said. “And you’re the first one who has. So congratulations. You made my day.”
I can’t believe I’m the first to have cracked that line. But I’ll take it where I can.
So all in all, a good day. Except tired. Did I mention that already?
I hope to be able to report more tomorrow.
Now that I’m getting close to the last week of my primary treatment, I’m starting to prepare myself mentally for the upcoming maintenance phase. I’ve decided that living with brain cancer will be no worse than living in the United States during the age of the so-called “War on Terror.”
Here’s the main reason why: The primary measure of success will not be in the realization of a positive, but in the avoidance of a negative. Just substitute the phrase “recurring brain tumor” for “major terrorist attack” and you’ll get the drift.
If a brain tumor comes back, I lose. If a tumor does not come back, I don’t lose. But I don’t ever get to win, either. Not even close. Yet, as we all know, not winning is still better than losing. Right? (continued below)
The chart above was an attempt I made back in 2002 with Orlando Sentinel reporter Jim Leusner and graphic-artist Shiniko Floyd to convey visually the complexity of the nation’s so-called “Homeland Security” mission. (This was for a newspaper series we did called The Race For Security.) To do so, we examined the new, unfamiliar and multi-dimensional federal program against that ever-reliable, can-do yardstick that anyone old enough to remember the 1960s could relate to: Putting a Man on the Moon. We broke the two huge federal-bureaucratic endeavours down to their common denominators: Triggering events, political factors, management and operational requirements and finally, major objectives. Then we plotted both missions against the urgency factor of time. I won’t belabor the results — but you can get the basic drift by comparing the Homeland Security chart to the Moon Mission chart (below). Compared to the Race For Security, the Race For The Moon was a relatively linear task. Today, it looks almost the way putting a busted arm in a sling would look if you compared it to stereotactic brain surgery. And we even got the old-school NASA guys who actually ran the Apollo program to agree with that assessment. (continued below)
Homeland Security — with its multiple, gauzy objectives — has always looked as hopelessly complex as a scary, untreatable brain tumor looks in an MRI scan. So now I’m thinking the whole War On Terror deal was almost like the government telling the entire country it had terminal brain cancer and that we’d all just have to learn to live with it. Now, lots of the same folks who were telling us THAT are currently fighting for dear life against the concept of health care for all. They say THAT would ruin the country. So let’s get this straight: An all-encompassing, unbounded, 10-times-bigger-than-the-Moon, federal police-intelligence and law-enforcement apparatus that swallowed up our entire society would have been okay with the Founding Fathers. But universal health care? That’s waaayyyy too much Big Government. Go figure.
Anyway, to keep the spirit of fear-mongering-with-no-hope-for-human-progress alive, here are 10 new rules I’m going to impose on everyone in order to protect my brain from another tumor attack:
1. If you want to be my friend or be around me at all, you will be required to always be afraid that something bad is about to happen to my brain.
2. I am developing a five-tiered, color-coded scheme to keep everyone aware of the current condition of my brain. It will always be set at the second highest level of alert.
3. You may not park your car within 1,000 feet of my brain for more than five seconds, even if you are only using those additional few seconds to kiss your dearest loved one goodbye.
4. If you come near my brain, you must remove your shoes.
5. Anyone attempting to bring more than 3 fluid ounces of any liquid that is not a double Martini near my brain will be immediately arrested.
6. You may not mail any white powdery substances to my brain.
7. Those sending written or verbal communications to the inside of my brain from anywhere outside my brain will automatically be subject to eavesdropping and surveillance without a search warrant.
8. Thoughts that I manage to keep to myself inside my own brain will from time to time be subject to warrantless surveillance, as circumstances require.
9. If warrantless surveillance of my own internal brain traffic fails to yield actionable intelligence, I may be required to subject my brain to enhanced interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation, prolonged stress positions, wall banging or waterboarding. But under no circumstances may any of these techniques be characterized as torture.
10. It may become necessary at some point for my brain to protect itself by invading another part of my body — my liver, let’s say — even if that part of my body has nothing to do with brain cancer. And my brain will declare victory even if such an action yields no evidence of anything even close to cancer, not even Cirrhosis Of Mass Destruction.
Those are just the first 10 rules. We may be adding more or changing them around as the game goes on. So you see? This brain-cancer deal isn’t going to be all that bad after all. We all know the drill. It’s been in all of our heads for eight years now.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s Mission Accomplished.
My sister Kathleen got into town Sunday night, and my dogs are thrilled. She always brings all kinds of great treats with her, and showers Chopper and Kaley with love and affection. I think she’s trying to steal them from me, so her Jack Russell Terrier named Stella can have some nice playmates. But maybe that’s just paranoia talking.
Kathleen treats me pretty well, too. She won’t let me lift a finger to do anything the whole time she’s here. She likes to cook, clean, tidy up and reorganize stuff. The house always looks way better when she leaves than it did when she got here. And I usually feel better, too. Just now, she brought me a smoothie. Tonight she’s making grilled salmon for dinner.
She is called Kathleen only by her siblings and our friends — because that was her name in our household growing up. (My Dad had a thing about full Irish names for all the kids.) Everyone else in her world knows her as ‘Kathy’, including her husband Richie.
She has a way of making me feel good about what I get done any given day, even if I don’t do much. On Monday, for example, I was really exhausted after the radiation treatment and basically slept away the afternoon. Meanwhile, Kathleen went out to run a lot of errands. She’s getting to know her way around Orlando really well. Today, she decoded the mysteries of Bumby Street and Lake Como circle. All by herself.
Of course, if she had no choice but to walk barefoot through a field of molten lava to get to a Bed, Bath & Beyond store, she would have done that too. So Bumby street really never stood a chance.
Anyway, when she got home I told her how bad I felt being sprawled out on the sofa and not doing anything while she was out running around and doing all this stuff. She looked at me in shock when I said that.
“What do you mean you didn’t do anything?” she asked. “You SLEPT? That’s VERY important right now.”
I love Kathleen. Do you wonder why?
You could have fooled me. I would have sworn that the phrase “blessed are the sick” came from the Beatitudes delivered by Jesus Christ in his Sermon on the Mount. But thanks to the wonders of Internet research, I learned instead that the phrase is merely the title of a 1991 album released by the death-metal band Morbid Angel. The album cover is shown at left. To complicate the provenance of the phrase even further, according to my research, Morbid Angel fans later accused the Swedish thrash-metal group Hexenhaus of stealing the 19th-Century-Belgian-symbolist-occult-cover-art idea for its own album, called A Tribute To Insanity. But then Hexenhaus fans pointed out that their album had been released a full three years earlier. So screw YOU Morbid Angel fans!
I guess the main point here is that the sick couldn’t even catch a break in the Bible. The Poor, the Meek, the Hungry, the Persecuted, the Merciful, the Grieving, the Pure of Heart and the Peacemakers all made the cut for the Most Important Sermon Ever. But not the Sick. Apparently they’re never going to inherit anything — except a dumb, overwrought album cover.
I don’t care. I’m going to write about the sick anyway. I always thought I had the ability to empathize with the sick. But that was before I got sick myself. Now I have a little bit of a taste of what it’s really like. Talk about life delivering a major beatdown just to teach me a simple lesson.
Before now, the worst that had ever happened to me was a cold or flu — maybe chickenpox or mumps as a kid, a banged-up shoulder or hip from cycling accidents. I can’t really even remember much about what that was like. Being sick just meant being down for the count for, at most, a week. More recently, I cared for both of my parents through their own sicknesses: Alzheimer’s disease in my Dad’s case and bone-marrow cancer in my Mom’s case. So did that experience increase my capacity for empathy? Maybe a little bit, but not as much as I’d thought at the time.
The truth is that people who were really sick were never on the same path as me. Our paths just crossed from time to time. Sometimes that intersection would be at the bedside of a loved one — like my Mom or Dad — where I would be attentive, indulgent and say all the things a good son was supposed to say. Other times the intersection would be at a place like the dairy case at the grocery store, where some guy in a bulky, motorized wheelchair was taking too long to decide between 1 percent milk and skim milk, holding me up while I quietly cursed him under my breath. In either case — parents or stranger — the encounters would end whenever I decided to put one of my healthy legs in front of the other and just move along.
But here’s the thing about sick people: They are ALWAYS stuck at that unpleasant intersection. They live in it, by definition. They’re always hanging out there, exposed, in the midst of speeding traffic while the world of the healthy surges around them and bumps into them from all directions. Whether they happen to cross paths with me or with someone else hopping down another healthy rabbit trail at some other intersection, there is no choice if they don’t like it. They’re just sick, and they have to stay on their path.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like sick people are all walking and wheeling around out there with halos over their heads. Sick people can be pricks, too. I think after awhile many of them just get fed up with the constant life in the middle of crappy intersections. So some of them start to take advantage of their sickness, in a way. They use it as leverage and begin to treat the indulgences of the healthy as their prerogative. (I have felt the tug of this temptation myself. I have known the pleasures of having someone like my sister Kathleen make me a fabulous sandwich when I could probably have made a serviceable one for myself).
On Sunday, I saw something funny in that vein: Two guys with ‘handicapped’ license plates on their cars pulled into a church parking lot and got into a horn-honking standoff over the last remaining handicapped parking spot. They were red-faced and furious with one another as they jockeyed for position. Almost simultaneously, each of them grabbed the little cardboard handicapped symbol hanging from his rearview mirror, rolled down the car window and then started waving the little blue cards frantically and shouting at each other. The other churchgoers filing by were mortified. You could see the confusion in their faces. It was like: “Which one is sicker? Whose side are we supposed to be on here? What would Jesus do?”
Well, Jesus definitely would NOT have miraculously created two handicapped parking spaces where before there was only one. I’ll tell you what Jesus would have done. He’d just have said: “Goddammit, I’m crossing both of you horn-honking jerks right out of my Prime Time Speech, along with the rest of The Sick!” In fact, that’s probably what did happen right before the Sermon On The Mount: Not enough handicapped parking spaces for donkey carts. Hence, the Biblical omission.
Jerk or not, at least now I know slightly more about what that feeling of being sick is really like. It’s the primal fear of being weak and in constant danger of being cut out of the herd. Being wheeled around on gurneys by ambulance drivers and hospital workers taught me a thing or two about feeling powerless and vulnerable. And as I enter Week 5 of my chemo and radiation, I have learned what it is like to be so exhausted that I guard every minute of my time and every ounce of my energy day after day because I need to spend them wisely. When you are fatigued like this, a “productive day” can consist of accomplishing just one or two basic tasks that healthy people take for granted and do as they go about bigger business. I hunt small prey these days — stuff like paying the bills, doing a load of laundry, going to the bank or post office, having a couple of phone conversations, reading through e-mail, spewing some random thoughts onto this blog…
Still, as much as I’ve learned over the past two months, I can at least see a horizon out there. My last day of therapy will be Oct. 1. After that, I am looking forward to a month of no treatment at all, followed by an indefinite period of “maintenance” treatment in which I take chemo pills for five consecutive days each month with no radiation. I don’t think that will wear me out as much. I’ll still have brain cancer — because the kind that I have is considered only “manageable”, not “curable”. But at that point, I hope, I will have started to get my energy back and will have psychologically moved on from this world of the sick. At least for a little while.
Lots of people will go on living in this world. There is no horizon for them. At least now, because of my experience, I hope to have more genuine empathy for them when they get in my way at the dairy case.
The gulf between sickness and health has everything to do with weakness and power and how a society handles the relationship between the two. In a good society, I think, the weak and the powerful should be able to get along just fine. They should be able to walk the same path instead of just running into one another at intersections.