28

We marked our 28th anniversary this weekend in a multipurpose way: As a celebration of a final pathology report that looks good, still ductal carcinoma in situ, early and easily treatable, and what we see as the end of gloves and knives and general anesthesia; and for the usual but increasingly fun reason: 28 years is starting to really feel like a journey.

Julie was into the nostalgia more than I was, sort of a switching of the usual roles (and the usual conversation; I’m normally the one peppering the talk with wedding day trivia). She brought up how she was up late the night before we got married, hemming my wedding pants. She must have really liked those pants, I’m thinking. I recall they had pleats. It was the 80s.

For various reasons we split our anniversary into two parts, in Deathly Hallow fashion, so Friday night we had a great dinner at John’s Grill in Old Town (Mukilteo). John’s place is almost entirely family run (we never saw him, but we tasted his work) and advertised as “upscale,”which is fair warning but also fair. Spectacular food. Ambience is nice, too, streetfront on a sunny evening (which is a fair Pacific Northwest summer description, of course), although it’s a tiny place and I was irritated by trying not to listen to the loud table behind me, speaking of dumb things (I almost engaged my inner Hobson from “Arthur,” turning to say, “Isn’t there a Denny’s where you’d feel more comfortable?” but I am a nice person and pretty low class myself, so).

And Saturday we saw Harry Potter sign off. More on that later, or maybe not, but it was nice to close it out on a night with my bride after all these years. We’ve seen more than a couple of the Potter films since they’ve tended to conveniently come out in July, when a couple of old folks need something to do on their anniversary.

At any rate, we signed off on another year. A troubling, stressful and financially devastating year (in theory; bills are just now starting to trickle in. I’m estimating that we’re approaching the million-dollar mark. Figure out for yourself what insurance will and won’t cover of that amount. I resist this at the moment).

But we have beautiful roses this year, thanks to our wet spring, so I bought Julie a nice vase to float a flower in, fresh every day if she wants, and I got up early Saturday morning and spliced the following together. The column part was written 9 years ago, right when she was graduating seminary. As I said on Facebook, a lot can change in nine years, but rainbows tend to stay the same, with the same effect. You just marvel, and that’s how I feel about this marriage of mine. I marvel, I’m grateful, I’m more than a little perplexed about how it all worked out, I’m happy we still talk and laugh and enjoy each other. My pants are still hemmed, in other words.

Continue Reading

Serenity

My favorite Reinhold Niebuhr quote is not the one you might think. It’s certainly not the most obvious, and the one that waltzes with me on a daily basis, which would be The Serenity Prayer.

It’s also not this, although my American history inner nerd glows a little at reading it.

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

And it’s not like I collect Niebuhr wisdom.

But at this time in my life, in this particular year and under these particular circumstances, I return constantly to what begins this way:

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”

———-

I watched a couple in the preop waiting room last week, man and woman, husband and wife certainly, scaredy-cats for sure. The man was about to undergo a procedure about as basic and simple as there is, barely invasive, hardly even surgery, and they fussed and worried and asked pointless questions of patient medical personnel, and so I understand.

I understand when people comment that my family has approached our medical situations this past year positively. As with a lot of things in my life, what seemed ordinary and natural only begins to appear like a choice when I finally manage to observe the alternatives.

So yeah. I guess we’ve been upbeat as much as possible, but then. The nicest thing anyone ever said to me, probably, was a neighbor who told me once that she looked forward to spring, when we opened our windows.

“All I hear from your house is music and laughter,” she said. Carve that one on my stone, please. There are worse things.

So we tend to joke anyway, and not pay much attention to alternatives. But a lot of this is found above with Mr. Niebuhr. Who continued:

“Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.”

This is trickier, because it implies a rabbit hole of cause and effect, ultimate meaning, and prayer as currency. I can’t tell you how little interested I am in these notions, that being a faithful person or a believer or a good human being or praying in the right way to the right God makes everything work out in the end. Little children are maimed by drunk drivers every day; once you assume that somebody just didn’t pray hard enough, or else that God has mysterious plans for even the smallest sparrow, you lose me. People shouldn’t drink and drive.

But “faith” is still there, conjugated and defined by everyone but I know it when I see it,

“Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”

Now there we can hang our hats. Find nobility or grace in your solo stuff and you’re bound to end up disappointed in yourself. We need somebody to walk with, somebody as sounding board, somebody to look over our shoulders at the map and point out that it’s upside down.

This is where we’ve been saved, then. I can tell you a bunch of stories, no surprise, over 28 years of marriage. Funny stories but also scary ones, and matter-of-fact stories about living together but not talking, walking out doors and wondering about coming back, silent nights and really cold mornings. This hasn’t been a cake walk, and if you think we’ve had some Disney relationship thing you would be seriously off.

But we know how to love, and we know why, too. Love lubricates endurance, it keeps the inertia of long relationships intact, keeps us from hitting an unmoveable force that creates irreparable problems. Love means never saying stuff you can’t take back, but also taking it back when you do so that everybody moves on. And then

“Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

So this is why I indulge myself today. That, and because it’s my birthday, and I’ve been getting all these sweet comments about “Here’s to a less stressful year!” and so on. Nobody wants another year like this, agreed. But ultimately all of it, all the jokes and stiff upper lips and bravado and digging heels in and digging out of deep holes is really about this.

The world can be harsh. Fate can be bitter. Life can be unforgiving.

But we can forgive life.

We have to forgive the pain and the worry, the stress, the unfairness of what a friend recently said was life piling on. We have to move on and be receptive to small miracles. The alternative to that is something we all recognize, that bitter taste that people we know seem to have now, their sense that life has conspired and done it on purpose. It doesn’t look like fun.

This is what I’ve learned from my wife, then: You need to love life, and you need to forgive it. There’s no other way to move ahead, and this is also why I love how Niebuhr carefully bookended hope and forgiveness; they’re the same thing.

I lost my streak today. My decades of sunny birthdays are over; it’s raining outside. It’s OK. I wish I could send it to some of you who need it, but I’m getting used to accepting the things I cannot change. Still looking for courage, sometimes, to change what I can.

But I can observe my courageous wife, who has been cut and anesthetized and probed enough for one lifetime, and who still forgives and loves, particularly me. And if you’re a person of faith as she is, you might embrace this rainy day, hold your arms up and say, “This is the day that the Lord has made.”

And if you’re not, you might still hold up your arms. The rain makes the flowers grow, and we should all be receptive to small miracles. They can surprise you, and save all of us.

Continue Reading

…Therefore I Am.

Today is July 25th, known in these parts as Birthday Eve, the time of year when I personally believe the world momentarily stops to acknowledge that I, in fact, exist, and also the beginning of summer. What records there are indicate that the last week of July is statistically the driest for western Washington. My personal statistics, gathered over 27 years and counting, indicate that my birthday is always a beautiful day up here, spiritually and meteorologically.

Although the National Weather Service indicates clouds and a chance of rain tomorrow. This has been an unusual year, no doubt.

Still, I’m glad to be around to turn 53, sun or not, and as it turned out sun was present this past weekend. Teeth-clinching, eye-narrowing, heart-stopping sun and warmth, upper 70s with no clouds to speak of, and none spoken of.

I headed for the Burke-Gilman Trail, then, where all good Seattlites go.

The Burke-Gilman is as old as Seattle, a former rail line now extending nearly 30 (or, depending on how you look at it, nearly 50) miles from the Ballard area north to Kenmore (north end of Lake Washington) and then looping around east to Redmond and Issaquah. There is generally peaceful coexistence between walkers, runners and cyclists, although a little boy ran into me yesterday with his bike. It happens.

It was a drop-dead day, though, so a friend and I met at Kenmore and hiked three miles to Bothell Landing and back again, both of us interested in putting in daily miles of advanced-age exercise, hanging out for some conversation, and being outside.

It was spectacular outside, too, walking as the B-G turns into the Sammamish River Trail, parallel to the (wait for it) Sammamish River, a proper name that apparently gave some folks on Facebook amusement. Hey, if you can’t appreciate the culture and heritage then don’t read the updates.

I walked because I could, of course, always good, but also because I should. Breaking free of my neighborhood is a positive, and I needed to change things up anyway. It was a week, y’know?

Thirteen hours we spent at Swedish Medical Center on Thursday, most of them parasurgical, by which I mean waiting, napping (her) and sitting in uncomfortable chairs (me). The surgery was delayed by two hours and the actual procedure was more complicated than expected, but at the end my girl was sitting up in Recovery while I fed her Jell-O, glad to be useful and ready to go home.

And we did go home, that night, and so far so good. Pain has been minimal, according to her, and she made it to church yesterday, although then back to bed while I headed for my trail.

I’ve written an entire unpublished book about walking and me, although for some reason I keep adding chapters, go figure, not to mention countless blog posts and other residue of an unfocused, amazingly nonlinear mind. So just to note: It makes all the difference.

It makes all the difference.

Going outside, getting the blood flowing, letting the mind wander, letting stray music and old muscles do what they do, getting the occasional iPod epiphany (e.g., Neil Young sometimes nailed it). Getting away, getting active, getting stronger.

We are very strong here now. This puny cancer will kill no one, and her heart and brain are in Oz condition, as is her courage. The ordination business has been put on hold for a couple of months, frustrating but all in all not a bad call. It will happen, other things will happen, I will still walk.

Four miles early in the morning, six more on the trail, and I was a little tempted to add another four in the evening, but too much of a good thing can result in angry calves. Better to pretend moderation, but it’s been four years now and still I walk. Partly because I can’t think of anything else to do, partly for the obvious positive reasons, and mostly because it reminds me that I’m moving, I can move, I should.

(View from the trail)

(immediately postsurgical)

Continue Reading

Going Nowhere Fast Enough

The word “neurotic” went out of fashion years ago, at least among professionals, losing the little clinical value it might have once had. It’s been released to the rest of us, then, a meaningless but still vaguely loaded word we can use whenever we want. It’s a public domain diagnosis. I like it a lot.

My latest neuroses include sleep, food, and exercise, all of which seem outside the norm just enough to make them feel odd. I seem to have some form of middle or terminal insomnia, or maybe neither of those, I can’t remember the terms but I used to know. It’s not the most common form but it’s pretty common. I go to sleep immediately, I apparently sleep well for hours, and I wake up about 45 to 60 minutes too early. That’s all she wrote, too, no matter how good my intentions are, so I pad around the house some days at 4 a.m., ready to face whatever but doing it solo for the next few hours.

I make coffee and have a couple of cups, trying to let them linger until I feel it’s socially acceptable to walk around my neighborhood. Anything after 5 a.m. is OK, I figure, and I’m never alone, even if my fellow early risers are few (and mostly runners). It’s cool enough in the mornings (low 50s usually these days) to still wear a sweatshirt, and I normally walk five miles. A fun iPhone app uses GPS to track my distance, and a nice female voice whispers in my ear every 5 minutes, telling me mileage. This is unnecessary but sort of benign coaching, giving me a little incentive to pick up the pace. I rarely break the 15-minute mile over that distance but I’m right there every day, usually completing the walk in 1:16 or so. It’s a brisk speed, purposeful, and it feels good. I’m not strolling here; this is a workout.

I might do it again in the afternoon, or I might hop on the stationary bike, watch a little Jon Stewart and ride. Some days I travel 25 miles to nowhere, all told.

I come home from my walk and eat an omelet, also odd. I’m not a natural egg eater, never cared for them, and even now if Julie makes hard-boiled eggs I leave the room and maybe mutter about the benefits of a trial separation. But I have to hand it to the mighty egg; it packs a punch, protein and energy, and with a little cheese and some well-placed jalapenos I have a good breakfast.

And every two hours after that, I eat something, a whim I started 10 days ago just because. I can do it easily, being at home, and it seems to allow me to keep the calories down and still never feel hungry. Some blueberries here, half an avocado here, a little tuna…it seems to have worked. About 22 pounds down in the past month, 6 inches off the widest part of my stomach. I’m not lean but I’m lighter.

None of this particularly matters to me, except that I like having more shirt options and I feel a little bouncier. My self-quantifying soul gets some pleasure out of logging all of this, miles and calories and inches.

And you don’t have to be a professional who disdains the idea of neurosis to know what’s going on. Stress will kill quicker than calories, and stress likes to hang out lately. Stress and uncertainty and worry and fear, even though I’m pretty sure we’ve got a handle on all this now and it will be fine.

But I do what I can, as we all do, as we wait for another operation, another prep, another recovery room stay, another day in the life of a bizarre turn of medical events that leaves me doing laps around the perimeter of medical centers, waiting for my girl to be done, finally.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot control
The courage to control the things I can
And something else. Still working on the ending.

Continue Reading

Two Names, Twenty Pounds, The Topic of Cancer

“I have a funny story about that,” I said a few weeks ago at dinner with friends, but that’s just an expression and it wasn’t funny at all. Just informative, maybe.

It’s this: When we first moved to Seattle in 1983, my wife got a job at a place where there were two Julies. To differentiate, and because she was at that point talking Texan and amusing everyone with that, her coworkers began using her middle name and calling her Julie Kae. That nice two-plus-one syllable combo strikes us as Southern somehow, although it’s pretty common. Most of us probably know a Mary Beth or Leslie Ann or Debbie Jo, etc. They can be from anywhere. Even here.

It stuck, though, and became a professional name and then it just spread, as you can imagine over nearly 30 years, until the only ones who refer to her as just Julie are family and old, old friends.

And me. Of course.

And you. Or some of you, anyway, the ones who mostly have never met her but hear about her from me. You refer to her as Julie in your comments and emails, and with all the Julie Kae-sayers out there it sounds intimate to me. Friendly and supportive, and I like it. But that’s the not-so-funny story.

***

I’ve lost 20 pounds in the past month, and the month isn’t quite there yet either. This fits perfectly with the image of the stressed-out, scared, worried husband, and although I’m all those things it’s not that. I’ve just replaced a year of eating emotionally with something else, lots of exercise and very deliberate choices. A lot of this has to do with being able to control something in a chaotic situation, but some of it is just ensuring that I can wear everything in my closet, even choosing in the dark.

Not that I see much dark this time of year. But you know.

So that 20-plus pounds I put on since our adventures in tumors and infarctions and stenosis and now cancer all started is pretty much gone. Here’s to starting a tradition of things going away.

***

Finally, you should know that this is a manageable disease process, this cancer, very small and early and a piece of cake in the oncological world. (UPDATE: This is before surgery, just going from the biopsies. I’m aware that there can be surprises. Very aware today). Lots of people have DCIS stories, having been there and moved on. This doesn’t mean we’re not messed up, not emotionally fragile and tired and worried and teary from time to time. But we’re optimistic and want to move on, too.

So surgery is this Thursday, adjuvant therapy later on, and it will still be summer. I have some shorts I’d like to fit into, so I’m motivated about keeping on keeping on, and in the meantime we trust and hope and appreciate all your nice words, all of us.

Continue Reading

We’re Going To Need A Bigger Boat.

Eventually you just are. Live long enough, and things solidify, no matter how often you turn the snow globe upside down and shake. You do what you do and become what you are, and I suspect the secret in all of this is finding some joy in the trip and staying alive.

I’ve spent the past 10 years being a distraction. I’ve documented trivia in a dying medium for people to read while they eat their eggs or try not to listen to the dentist’s drill in the other room. I grab whatever I can, spiff it up and make sure it stays around 800 words. After all these years, I have a good idea of how I fit in. I am a page fold away from irrelevance. Glad to be here.

So you can probably imagine that even when things get dicey, unstable, desperate and maybe a little sad, I still think, “Hmm. At least something to write about.”

Just wanted to say I’m pretty much over that.

It’s too much, it has been, this past year. A little too dramatic; isn’t baseball still being played? Isn’t the band playing somewhere? Life is enough of a struggle without having to read about somebody else’s bad luck at the track.

There’s continuity, though. And a story to finish, or never finish, something. In brief, then.

Six months after brain surgery to remove at least part of a benign tumor that was messy and doing damage, my wife had a heart attack, a minor one in the big picture but tell that to chest pain and rapid breathing. While she was being worked up, before the stent but after the event, she had a general physical. Including mammograms.

So in that one week in May, we had an abnormal EKG and some disturbing x-rays. Probably calcifications. A biopsy would be needed.

A biopsy would not happen, not then, because first things first. First open that coronary artery, and in order to do that she needed anticoagulation and needed to keep that blood thin for at least a month, ruling out incisions. And then there was the need for a 6-month followup MRI to make sure that tumor in her head was behaving, an MRI with a bare metal stent in her body…it got really, really complicated. Lots of conversations between lots of doctors. Timing is everything.

Finally, she went off the anticoagulation for a week and had the biopsies (both sides), a miserable experience, and yesterday we found out the not nice news, although if you have to have bilateral breast cancer this is what you want, early and treatable and maybe not complicated.

We’ve gone, then, from the exotic to the unexpected, to the fairly common. Spit in any direction and you’ll probably hit someone who has personal experience with cancer of some sort.

Don’t really spit on anyone. Metaphor.

And I’ll say this. Harold Pinter, on several occasions during his career, talked about his interest in finding the unfunny chapter break in a story, the point in which comedy started to look like tragedy. It was fascinating to him, that metamorphosis, and we are not there.

We are making with the jokes, not in defiance or in denial or therapeutically or spiritually. Just because it’s kind of weird and funny, this past year. Feel free to laugh along. Smile, at least. We’re OK.

This is summer. This is July. This will be a good month, it will sustain us in the winter, it always has.

July, and friends and family and medical science and jokes. And experience, which says to us that there are ways to approach everything. If the sea is so big and your boat is so small, prayer is good but also it’s time to maybe find a bigger boat. You can turn the page now.

Continue Reading