With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

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One autumn afternoon, I was sitting in my car parked along the border of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, just waiting to rendezvous with someone.  Old Dominion does have ROTC classes, which I remembered when I noticed a uniformed officer walking toward me, coming from the residential neighborhood next to campus.  He was young, maybe in his early thirties; no doubt he was an instructor and on his way in to teach a class.

He was on the other side of the street from me, as was a somewhat neglected house in the early stages of refurbishment.  Outside the house, in the front yard, were three late middle-aged men, apparently employed with the dirty work of the house repair.  Beside their clothes being dirty, dusty, and splotched with paint, it was obvious that their clothes were rather worn, even for work clothes.  They all could have used a haircut or at least a trim, and they all looked a little tired, not tired from the day’s labor but tired from the labor of life.  I had the feeling that these were not the best days these men had had.  They were taking a break, sitting on the front steps with cigarettes and beers.

They also noticed the young officer approaching, coming down the sidewalk on their side of the street.  I saw the guy in the middle give a little elbow nudge to the bigger guy on his left, and then he turned his head and quietly said something to the guy on his right.  Separately, nonchalantly, they put down their beers and dropped their cigarettes on the brick porchway.  Separately, nonchalantly, they stood up.

As the officer walked on the sidewalk in front of “their” yard, the guy in the middle said, “Tennnn-hut!”  The officer ever so slightly flinched in his walking and sharply glanced at them, maybe thinking they were a bit old to be teasing passersby.  But they weren’t harassing him.  All three had snapped to attention, in perfect form.  “Haaand . . . sa-lute!”  All three struck and held textbook salutes, not John Wayne waves but perfect salutes with the bicep horizontal to the ground, wrist straight, hand flat, fingers pointing to the corner of the right eye.  Clearly, these men had been soldiers, or sailors, or Marines, or airmen.  And they probably had been good at it, judging from the way their military bearing just welled up from somewhere deep inside their shabby clothes and from behind their tired faces.

The officer must have recognized this immediately also.  He returned their salute, nodded, and I thought I heard him say a quick, “Thank you.”  He walked on his way, the man in the middle commanded, “Readdy . . . to!” and they brought down their salutes, in unison.  The men picked up their beers and cigarettes, and I continued to sit in my car, smiling to myself because I knew I had just witnessed something special.  I had done a hitch in the service, so I knew, I felt what had just happened.  Military service becomes a part of you, and even if it doesn’t cross your mind much as the years go by, it is always there.  It is a never-ending fraternity.

 

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Little Nudges

H DeeDee and Unckie Monkey

When my niece was about 2 ½ years old she had her first tricycle, a little colorful plastic thing.  Her little legs could push the petals, but she had a hard time getting it started.  To help, we’d position her pointing down any slight grade on the sidewalk or in the quiet parking lot.  On the level or when going up the slight grade, to get her started I’d put my foot on the back of her trike and gently give her just enough of a push to get her going.  It worked a few times, until she noticed what I was doing.  She didn’t like it: she’d reach around to push away at my foot and say, “Me do it!  Me do it!”

Well, you know that saying about how having kids allows you to relive your childhood?  It doesn’t mean that you get to play with toys again.  It means you get an adult perspective on your own childhood years.  Getting caught trying to surreptitiously help my 2 ½ year old niece get her tricycle started made me wonder how many times my parents gave me unseen, loving nudges to help me grow into adulthood . . .

My niece will never remember that one summer evening on the tricycle, but someday, when some child in her life tells her, “Me do it!  Me do it!” she just might suspect that likewise there were many similar moments in her own childhood, many unnoticed moments of love and nurturing that were, at the time, way beyond her understanding.  Maybe this is why when we have children, or when we help raise our loved one’s children, we get closer to our parents.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.  Thanks for everything.

Post Numeral #18

Go to FIRST post –> Diary of My Death, Post #1

Treatment Days 155-168, Chemo infusion #12 (two weeks later)

This cycle was a little bit different.  The treatment was the same, but the experience wasn’t.  The sequence was the same – Monday through Wednesday / Thursday feeling like crap (actually, more like a bucket of thin diarrhea left in the hot sunshine on a windless day: no significant substance but unpleasant nevertheless), Friday through Sunday catching up on sleep – but there were a few new . . . uh, features.  My guess is that it has to do with the cumulative effect of months of chemo.

On Monday my nurse informed me that the anti-nausea meds (steroids, I think) are what cause the sleep disturbance and suggested that I take the second daily dose just 5 hours after the morning pill.  It helped.  (With Monday infusions I come home with a portable pump attached to the port in my chest.  It’s about the size of a tennis ball and continues to load me with chemicals for 48 hours, so for 2 days I take additional anti-nausea meds.)  Still, the second half of the week I was again overpowered with the need for sleep.

Now, understand that I am an avid napper.  After all, I am, in fact, The Dalai Napa.  But I’ve not been recreationally napping or even restorative napping; I’ve been sleeping.  I’d wake up, snack on something, and go back down for another 2, 3, or 4 hours.  Repeatedly.  I didn’t keep track, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I was sleeping 16 hours a day.  The rest of the time I was usually horizontal, doing nothing.

The first few days of the cycle my body is dealing with the chemo, so I’m amped up, fatigued but restless.  I’m able to watch DVD movies, if the plot is simple.  I don’t want to do a damn thing, but I can do small household tasks such as cooking a simple meal.  The second part of the week I am near useless.  I stand up to do the dishes, look at the mess in the sink, and then go horizontal again.

When awake, I don’t want to do a damn thing.  I don’t want to watch movies; I don’t want to listen to music; I don’t want to read.  I do NOT want to do, CANNOT do anything requiring very much effort at all, so anything productive or consequential is simply out of the realm of possibility.  I want NOT to think.  Let me say that again so maybe its importance and flavor sink in: I want NOT to think.  Beside a few random and brief spurts of engagement, I’m alert enough to at most play endless games of Spider Solitaire on my tablet.

All I want is to lie on my bed, stare at the ceiling, and let my brain idle in neutral.  I daydream about whatever comes in to my head from I don’t care where: stranded space aliens who look very much like us secretly insinuating themselves into our politics and industry to save us from ourselves; multi-operator pedal-powered tricycles as 3rd world light-work vehicles; rifle-to-crossbow conversion / attachment kits; and the legal requirements of starting a new religion.  I don’t want to put any effort whatsoever into guiding the thoughts into anything remotely useful.  I let the daydreams gently wash over my mind and carry me away.  It’s more than enough.  I am grateful that I am able to do this because I have a warm bed in a quiet home.  I am like a drowsy dog lying on the front porch, moving only its eyes to watch the squirrels in the yard.  Beyond being physically comfortable, I don’t care about anything.  I.  Don’t.  Care.

A sidebar here.  If or when chemo weeks become every week and the remainder of my life will be only what I’ve described above, frankly I’d rather go ahead and get it over with and be dead.  It’s not that chemo weeks are agonizing torture: it’s that they simply are not life.  The chemo weeks are self-aware existence and nothing more.  Without the reasonable expectation of the better weeks in between, they are worthless.  Just because modern medicine can keep a person breathing does not mean that it is a kindness to do so.

I’ve visited relatives in nursing homes, and what I’ve seen through open doorways and even in the hallways is appalling.  One image that won’t stop resurfacing is that of an elderly woman clutching a baby doll as she lay there most probably drugged to sleep.  The expression on her face was not one of rest and repose.  It was of agitation and fear and childish helplessness and baffling puzzlement.  Yes, maybe I was imagining it, projecting my own biased interpretation.  Even granting that, no one, though, will ever convince me that she was the least bit happy or even minimally grateful to be there.  Just because modern medicine can keep a person breathing does not mean that it is a kindness to do so.

What I guess is the side-effect neuropathy helps with this.  When I lie down, nearly immediately I lose the feeling in my feet and legs, hands and arms, and sometimes my whole body.  Without looking or moving them, I can’t tell if my ankles are crossed or not.  In this relaxed state, I hover on the edge of sleep and lucid dreaming.  Actually, it’s kind of wonderful.

Also, I do not want to be disturbed.  I do not want the least bit to be social.  I don’t want to have a conversation, with anyone, really.  That being said, there is a huge benefit to having someone in the next room, maybe quietly talking on the phone or puttering in the kitchen.  It’s one of those things in life that are so much more valuable than they seem to be on the surface.  I have always enjoyed more solitude than the average bear, but people are not meant to live alone.  I’m okay – it is not the mere presence of others but the degree of emotional intimacy with the people in our lives that keeps us from being lonely.  Flipping back again, though, there is something to be said for basic company.  Sometimes quality arises from quantity.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the new developments.

The first is the increased neuropathy.  It’s been a gradual, subtle advance, but now I have nearly constant tingling in my toes, even indoors where it is a steady 70 degrees or so.  Maybe it’s exacerbated by the blood thinners?  My fingers tingle, too, and they feel strange.  It’s hard to describe the sensation.  The closest I can come to it is a combination of tingling, numbness, and weakness.  I don’t like it, especially when I’m here at the keyboard.  It’s a little scary to think of it going from a strange sensation to worse and then eventually bad, especially when I remember how my mother, near the end of her cancer, had a hard time getting her fingers to hold on to anything.  Brrrrr!

The second new thing is a mouth ulcer.  Every time I get chemo, mouth ulcers are on the checklist of status questions the nurses ask me, so I have no doubt that chemo (or its side effects) can cause them directly.  I may have a different or additional reason.

About two months ago I had a tooth pulled, a back molar on the bottom.  Once my jaw was numb, the dentist was able to extract it surprisingly easily and quickly.  I asked him if that was it, did it break apart, did he have to dig out any roots or fragments, and he said no, all done.  Well, he said no but he must have been confused because he should have said yes, and no, he wasn’t done. It was an easy oversight: I suppose the blood and mess obscured a fragment.  After the minor trauma to my gum and jaw healed, it was still a bit more tender than it should have been.  In about ten days I could see a tiny white dot surfacing through the pink gum: a tooth fragment working its way out.

Normally I would have gone back to the dentist for a zip-zap-zowee fix, but remember that I’ve been spending a lot of time in the funky state of mind described above.  So, I waited, and over weeks the fragment slowly emerged (or grew!)  With the side of my tongue I could feel it, especially it’s one sharp edge (the tooth fragment’s, not my tongue’s), and I figured it was that irritation that was causing the increasing tenderness in that area.  Once a day or so I would shine a flashlight into my mouth and look in the mirror to inspect the tooth fragment, but I didn’t notice any sores or infection.

However, that area of my mouth had become quite bothersome.  The pain of eating was enough to pull my attention from the TV, the video game, or the open book on the table.  Something was up.  Somehow, I got the idea to stick my finger in there to push my tongue to the side, and there it was, hiding under my tongue, just below the tooth fragment: a white ulcer no bigger than a ladybug.  Ah-ha!  I cotton-swabbed it dry while I decided it was time for the tooth fragment to go.  I sterilized the prongs of a needle-nosed pliers (a Leatherman multi-tool, actually, which can be used, according to my Texan friend, to fix anything except a broken heart) and plucked out the offending tooth fragment.  I rinsed with salted water and went to bed.  In the morning, the ulcer was noticeably better.  I suspect they may have been related, perhaps by the tooth fragment expulsion oozing tiny amounts of goopygunk (yes, that’s a medical term.)

Here’s the thing about the tooth fragment and mouth ulcer, and why I wrote all about it.  Each were such small things, both very, very low on the scale of problems in life.  However, after six months of chemo, minor irritants like these (the kind that don’t disappear in a few minutes but stay around to pester you for weeks) become more than minor irritants.  It’s Dark Magic, for sure.  Being chronically ill magnifies annoyances: unnoticeably it wears down your energy, stamina, and attitude, the same way constant drops of water wear down granite.  So, when your chronically ill loved-one erupts over something minor, or seems not to be mustering reasonable and appropriate good cheer, go easy on him or her.

Speaking of life’s little annoyances, on a tangent, to close I’ll borrow the words of Gilda Radner: “Well, Jane, it just goes to show you, it’s always something — if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”  By the way, the title to her autobiographical book about her lethal cancer is “It’s always something!”  She was funny!  If you younger folks aren’t familiar with her, go YouTube her SNL character Roseanne Roseannadanna or at least check out the Wikipedia page.

 

 

The Last Smoke

(This piece is an old one from years ago, one of several I’ll be resurrecting here.)

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My thirtieth birthday was what I call a marker day, a day declared to mark the end of my smoking.  It did, too.  Then, two years later, I thought I’d treat myself to just one hit, or maybe just a couple of drags . . . and before I knew it I was in search of another marker day.

I’ve had a number of them over the past 15 years, but before, they’ve always worked like magic.  At will, I could quit for years at a time.  This year, though, I ran through my marker days like . . . well, like cigarettes outside a courtroom.

A summer’s night, a grilled steak and red, red wine, and loving company quietly sharing easy conversation and slow cigarettes: no doubt about it, a smoke can taste good and feel satisfying.  Yes indeed, a good smoke is one of the pleasures of this world.  Tobacco, however, is one of those funny little things we call a luxury, a treat, a reward for a tough day or tough times, when in reality it is a way of insulting, punishing, and destroying ourselves.

So, after a year of smoking more than I ever had before, I declared my thirty-third birthday to be my final marking day, forever.  For weeks I kept building it up in my mind, probably so I would embarrass the man in the mirror if I didn’t adhere to my declaration.  More than once during that month, as I lit up I would hear myself thinking, “I can’t wait until I don’t have to do this anymore.”

My birthday arrived, and at bedtime I turned to that single cigarette I had saved especially for the occasion.  The Last Smoke, The Lone Smoke.  I turned off the TV, turned off all the lights except the lamp above the stove.  I sat at the breakfast counter, just me and my enemy.  I breathed in and breathed out, blowing smoke rings inside smoke rings, and I carefully tapped the ashes.  As a farewell, I tried to reflect on all the good memories I associate with smoking, and I tried to remember all the reasons why I wanted to quit.  At the end, I took two deep breaths and then one long, final drag.  For the last time ever, I sent the smoke up and away in a stream that pushed through itself and unfurled and hung in the air until it ghosted away into the shadows.  Then, I went to bed.  It was over.

It is never over.  After just a week, I decided that since I was doing so well I’d treat myself to just one more cig.  After a few days of no nicotine, those “one, last smoke’s” never, ever taste as good as you imagine they will.  Never, ever.  Write that down.  If you have one, though, you will have another, and damn if that second or maybe third smoke doesn’t taste better than any cigarette you’ve ever had in your life!

So, I spent October, November, and December claiming and disclaiming marker days.  The Hempfield Service Plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the last stop before my hometown, developed sentimental value: I was “quitting” there with almost every trip home, which during those days was nearly every weekend.  There were some good starts, though, like Thanksgiving.  I didn’t smoke for four days, which is over the hump, but I returned to my condo and spotted the two “last cigarettes” I had left in the crystal candy dish.  New Year’s Day was more than adequately symbolic, but January 2nd was just another day to smoke away.  My favorite attempt was the time my girlfriend and I were returning from visiting my mother.  Maybe an hour into the five-hour trip, she decided she also would quit, and she would do it right then, at that moment.  As I listened to her familiar speeches, I lit two cigarettes, and with a delayed smile to match hers, handed one to her.  The rest of the trip we held a laugh-filled smoke-a-thon, trying to make ourselves literally sick of nicotine.  All we succeeded in doing was recreating the special effects of Cheech and Chong crawling out of a car pressurized with smoke.

One night, talking on the phone with my bed-ridden mother and noticing my overflowing ashtray, I realized I would not be able to quit smoking until I got bored with it all, until it was not enough fun for all the trouble it caused.  I had to outgrow it.  Although powerful, the biochemical addiction wasn’t the hard half to overcome; the psychological component was the tenacious part.  It was near then that I quit assigning myself the flimsy marker days.  Like nicknames, they can’t be forced to last, only recognized when occurred.

I think I’ve made it, too.  I’ve heard a habit isn’t a habit until you’ve had it for a month, so I’m over the line now.  Occasionally I think of smoking, but I remind myself of how I felt with my last smoke on a day that begged to be considered the ultimate and final marking day in my life.  That morning my mother died of cancer, and that night, outside in the January cold and dark, standing alone and trying to enjoy a smoke, I felt kind of stupid.  It didn’t particularly feel like a last smoke, but I suspected it would be.  A last smoke is usually like most broken couples’ last truly tender kiss: it’s in the past long before it is recognized for what it was.

Post Numeral #17

Go to FIRST post –> Diary of My Death, Post #1

Dirge Without Music

By Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely.  Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

 

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.

Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.

A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,

A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

 

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—

They are gone.  They are gone to feed the roses.  Elegant and curled

Is the blossom.  Fragrant is the blossom.  I know.  But I do not approve.

More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave

Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;

Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.

I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

Go to my next post, #18

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