Tuesday, November 30, 2010

#282: Cancer as a Reset Button

I have a Facebook friend who has just started a new blog. It's called ... and she's off! and it's about her journey as a woman and mother who is surviving divorce. She's a good honest writer, and has been a faithful online friend to me through my recent struggles, so I look forward to sharing her travels through her words.

She got me thinking about how rarely we have an opportunity to hit the reset button in our lives. There are certain moments that change everything. We lose a spouse to death or divorce. A parent is gone. A career is taken away. A house is destroyed. The judge declares us to be bankrupt.

Cancer is one of those moments. There were two points in time when everything that used to be true about me changed. First was the moment when the Surgeon confirmed that I had cancer. Then there was the one when the Oncologist burst into the exam room and said, "It's great news!" I was pretty numb both times. I was in the recovery room when they told me I had cancer and slipping into a deep depression when the told me I didn't have it anymore, but somewhere in my mind I knew that things had changed. First I was alive, then I was dying, then I was a "survivor." But that's not a big enough word for what I am. I'm not just surviving. I have a chance to start again.

Team Pennsy, irradiated and radiant.
I made the decision to beat cancer based on two things. I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to be Mrs P's husband. My therapist asked how things were going. I told him I was doing well. Writing. Working out. Rehearsing and auditioning. Getting things done. He asked how things were going with Mrs P. That was harder to answer. I'm not sure we've figured out just who we are now that we've both fought cancer and won. She fought as hard as I did and something big has changed for her too. Having your widowhood snatched away can do that to a person. The truth is, I don't think we're sure where we go from here. But cancer has given us a great opportunity.

So many marriages are about The Rut. Staying on the tracks. Staying together. We get up, go to work, vacations and holidays come and go. Gifts are exchanged. Bills get paid. Chores get done. We become one another's habit, our marriages become routine.

But cancer blows up The Rut. Suddenly the tracks are gone. There is no "normal" left. That's scary as hell, but it's also exciting. Catastrophe is one of the few opportunities we get in our lives to really start again. Everything changes, but that means you have a chance to make choices about what a lot of those changes will be. I can't will myself to be stronger, but I can change the way I exercise to accommodate my weaker muscles and diminished stamina. I can't choose not to be tired from singing, but I can choose to find new ways to sing so my voice will last till the end of a rehearsal or a performance. I can't undo the damage that years of auto-pilot have done to my relationships and my marriage, but I can change the flight plan. Thanks to cancer, there is no more auto-pilot. All routes have been re-scheduled. Now that my arrival times been cancelled, I have a chance to choose new destinations. I may even get off the plane.

Cancer did not kill our marriage. Nothing ever will. But thanks to our victory over a handful of cells that tried to give us the old "death do us part," we have a chance to start being married on purpose again. The way we did when we were courting, only with 21 years of experience behind us. Things don't have to be the way they were before I got sick. We can make them better.

My friend's blog is called ... and she's off! because it reminds her that the gavel at the end of her divorce proceeding  She was afraid it would sound like a shot that would kill her. But it turned out it was actually more like a starter's pistol. Not the death of her marriage, but the beginning of her new race, her new life. Living through cancer is like that. It's a new race. And we're off...

For weeks after they declared me to be in remission, I was haunted by the question, "So now what?" I felt lost in the limbo land between dying of cancer and the rest of my life. Like Scarlett, I didn't know what to do or where to go. How strange and wonderful to realize how much the answers to those questions were up to me. Up to us. Cancer has given me the chance to reorgainize my life around the two things I value the most, the things that kept me wanting to live: my bride and my art.

Plus, I got to lose all that weight.

Almost makes it seem worth the trouble...


Monday, November 29, 2010

#281: Hurts So Good

Have you ever exercised your legs so hard that it made your butt hurt? The cheeks, I mean. I love that feeling. It starts deep down in your hamstrings and runs right up into the small of your back. Nothing can make me feel that burn like squats. Yesterday was the first time I got up the nerve to work my legs hard. Well, not hard exactly. I did two sets of ten squats, dead lifts, and lunges in the living room during the Steelers game yesterday. I only lifted my own body weight. My balance is still a little iffy for dumbbells. When i had finished, I was left rubber legged and wooly headed, but today I feel super. There's just that slight feeling of tightness in my glutes. I'm not used to having kind thoughts about my fanny, but today it feels just as hard as a rock. At least from the inside it feels that way. I look forward to reality catching up with that sensation.

After I finished my workout, and the Steelers did their best to give me a stroke, I went to rehearsal. We are finally putting the show on its feet. What I mean is that we're finally getting away from the reading table and the rehearsal piano and moving around the hall a little bit. This is always such a liberating time for the company. The actors finally find out just how detailed a director is going to be, how much "tolerance" there is going to be for us to find our own way own way. Good directors know how to find a balance between letting the cast flounder aimlessly, and giving so many instructions that the players have no room to play. My favorite directors are the ones who can give you an idea of where the play is moving, then trust you as an actor to find the best way to get there. Thats just my preference. Some directors can't stand it, and it terrifies many actors not to have each move carefully planned and choreographed. Those artists generally hate working with me. My work is very disciplined, but it isn't the same approach they are used to. That's cool. We're better off apart.

Our director "J" is a good one, I think. I've always used this image for the relationship between actor and director: Actors are slalom skiers, and the director helps them to find all the flags on the hill. Together, the playwright, the designers, the actors, the crew, and the director work together to shape the course the production will follow. It's an extremely gratifying process, one that prepares performers and stagehands for the equally gratifying process of playing for an audience. At least that's how I see it. Some people hate performing, but love rehearsal. These people become directors. Others love performing, but hate rehearsal. They become waiters.

So, after a rehearsal during which my pleasantly sore legs and behind trembled like water balloons, I jumped in the car and drove downtown to an audition. Fortunately they were running late, so I had a chance to be seen. It was my first audition in a long time, and it was good to open up my old toolbox. Everything felt so familiar. The script in my hand. The other actors pacing, preparing to show their stuff. The little rush you get when the door opens and your name is called. And finally, there is the audition itself. The stage manager introduces you to the director and anyone else who might be sitting at the table. You smile, maybe shake hands. They might give you some instructions. And you're off. 

You're looking at a script for the first time, maybe reading for this director for the first time, and all you can do is tell the truth. Nothing else matters. You make snap decisions about who the character is, what they want, and how they're trying to get it, and then somebody says "go" and you play. You want the job and you want them to love you and the only way to make it happen is to put all that aside and play the role.

Auditions are my least favorite part of an actor's life. I think that's true for a lot of us. But this one felt like coming home. Its nice when someone just calls and offers you a part without having to audition, and it's flattering. But there's something I love about having to earn the part in an audition. It just feels more respectful somehow. I'm not sure I can really explain it. Maybe I just like competing because it feels so good to win...

The gym was brutal today. Not much of a surprise after yesterday's adventures. But I did take a lot of time off of my mile walk. I added some reps to my lat pull downs, but then I was pretty fried. I completed three sets of very light overhead presses, then after a handful of woodchoppers I was ready to call it a day. The right shoulder is the one where they removed muscles and nerves from my neck and it's going to take while to build up the strength around the hole. 

Nice to be making progress on so many fronts, though.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

#280: Loving Recovery Day

It's recovery day, and I'm pretty stiff. May just do a nice easy walk around the park with Jake later. I realize that yesterday's post may have been a little esoteric, so I thought I'd fill in some blanks for anyone who's interested. First of all, here's a link to the gym/church. I don't know much about this community, but I sure liked the people I met yesterday.

My time in the mile walk was not impressive at all, but I did feel good about a couple of things. I was able to keep good form the whole way. I left my teeth in, and they did not fall out or choke me. My mouth started to dry out at the end, but it only took a little water afterwards to put me back in shape. The best part was that I was able to go full-out the entire time. By that, I mean that I didn't have to slow down or rest along the way and my pace in the second half mile was not much slower than the first. The track is a balcony around a single basketball court and 17 laps make a mile. It takes a little concentration to keep up with the counting, but it's better than walking on a treadmill. I like running on them, but walking a mile on a belt is just a little boring, even if you do get to watch yourself in the mirror the whole time. I didn't measure my heart rate, but I broke a good sweat and felt like I had gotten a righteous first workout, so I'm not too concerned about that data just yet.

One bit of data that I am pleased about is my weight. I had a doctor's appointment yesterday morning and my weight was 319. That's 80 lbs lost since my surgery day. I know that a lot of that was muscle weight, but I can build that up again. It's the fat that I'm so pleased to see gone. Most of my clothes fit better than they ever have, and a lot of them are too big to wear at all. I'll keep the giant jeans for my before/after picture. An advantage of the weight loss are the reduced strain on my heart and joints. Another is my reduced blood pressure. Once I get the meds and hydration issues worked out, that's going to improve my performance and allow me to work a lot harder.

Here is the book I'm using as my guide for resistance training. Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove base the workouts in The New Rules of Lifting on the principle that what goes on in the gym should mirror the actual movements we perform in life. The "six basic moves" are Pushing, Pulling, Lifting, Squatting. Lunging, and Twisting. This is different from bodybuilding. It isn't designed to sculpt the body, but rather to improve overall fitness and strength. Working this way may not turn you into Mr. Olympia, but if the cover photo is any indication, it can make you very pretty.

The authors emphasize complex movements. You can curl a heavy bar from your waist to your shoulder, or you can clean and press a really heavy bar from the ground to over your head in a single movement. These complex moves involve more big muscles and have much more cardio benefit, as well as improving strength. So that's how I intend to work.

So what about all these strangely named machines? Well the Lat Pull Down is a pretty standard one.

This exercise does a lot of things, but I'm only using it for one reason. I want to build up my arm, shoulder, and back strength to the point that I can do pull-ups.

The next one I did was the Converging Inclined Press which is a mouthful for a pretty simple gizmo.

This machine works like a pair of dumbbells. Each arm has to lift independently. The big advantage over free weights for me at this stage is that I can't drop the weight on myself or anyone else. Since I was not at all sure about my strength, this was a pretty good choice for a safe beginning pushing exercise. The next step will be to progress to presses with dumbbells with the goal of doing lots of push-ups before I start work on the bench press. Push-ups are probably the better exercise, but the bench press makes you feel so macho that it's hard to give up.

The last move I worked yesterday was twisting. My favorite exercise for this is called the Woodchopper. It is very simple and effective. As you can see from the photo, this movement involves every major muscle group, from the arms and shoulders through the core, and down to the thighs and calves. It is a great workout and really gets your blood pumping. The biggest benefit is probably the way it strengthens those famous core muscles from the abs all the way around to the small of your back. A strong core girdle is essential for stability. It also helps protect you from injury when you do anything from moving the refrigerator to picking up a sock from the floor. There are other twisting exercises, and I'm sure I'll do them, but I enjoy this one, especially at the end of a workout. It feels great when you're done. And you never know when you might need to chop some wood.

The last apparatus I mentioned yesterday was the Smith Machine.
A lot of people hate this machine. The rigid linear motion is not natural, and it can put you in some pretty weird positions. I've never used one, but I've watched people using them and never wanted to imitate them. A free barbell engages a lot more stabilizer muscles and ultimately allows you to lift more weight safely. On the other hand, I guess I understand the liability reasons for not having free bars in an unsupervised weight room. If you throw your back out, that's your fault. If you conk someone's grandma with a 45 lb Olympic bar doing clean and jerks, somebody's gonna get sued. I'm still not sure how I'll integrate the Smith Machine into my workouts. I don't have a lot of alternatives for squatting. There are a lot of people on the message boards who say that it's impossible to do deadlifts safely using the Smith. The movement for a lunge is very similar to the squat, so I may try to do those. I'm afraid my deadlifts will be limited to dumbbells until I can get access to a big bar. That's OK. It is going to be a while before I'll need to do a lot of weight. Right now I'm concentrating on re-learning how to move without falling over.

Actually, today I'm concentrating on re-learning how to move without screaming in pain. Gotta love recovery day.



Monday, November 22, 2010

#279: Alive is Good

Walk... 1 mi...19:30
Lat pull downs...3 sets of 10 @ 50 lbs
Convergent incline press... 3 sets of 10 @ 50 lbs
Cable woodchoppers... 10 sets per side @ 50 lbs

Ahh, back to the gym at last. Well, back to a gym. We cancelled my membership at Promatx when I got sick. Mrs P has a membership at a local church's health club. The equipment is pretty minimal but in fantastic condition. Don't get me wrong. For a church, it's downright amazing. One of the most vibrant ministries I've ever seen. And because we joined through Mrs P's work, the cost is insanely low. I'm grateful to have the chance to work out in a place so well taken care of.

So what is there? There's a basketball court, a walking track, a studio space where there was a yoga class today. There are several bikes and elliptical machines and treadmills. The resistance machines are all Cybex, some use plates, some cables. There is a smith machine, curling bar, and some dumbbells. There's no free Olympic bar. It's going to take some creativity to do the kind of whole body workouts I want to do, but I'm sure I can make it work.

I don't want to do a lot of "bodybuilding," so I'm not looking to do a lot of curls and bench presses. Instead, I want to do big exercises that work lots of muscle groups at once. I'll talk about that more in due time, but for now I'm just glad to be back to work.

Tonight I feel that old familiar soreness that tells me I've been moving. It's a good soreness, the best kind, the kind you have to earn. I didn't lift heavy weight or run hard miles, but by the end of my last set, I felt as if I had just won the Olympics. My muscles were throbbing and my head was swimming. I sat on a recumbent bike pedaling slowly and sipping water for my cool down.

I felt completely, deliciously used up. I felt alive.

Alive is good.



Wednesday, November 17, 2010

#278: Learning to Love the Climb

I was going to write about the difference between "contentment" and "satisfaction," but nearly every dictionary I've found uses the words to define one another, so that's not going to work.

My friendly neighborhood therapist (oh how Mrs. P hates it when I call him my "head shrinker") has invited me to consider the role that contentment, or the lack of it has played in my life. I have spent so much of my life wanting "more". More money. More importance. More competence. More respect. How many jobs, how many relationships have I damaged because I wanted “more” than I had?

The therapist asked if I could remember a time when I was content. When I felt like I had “enough.” I’m not sure I really could. New jobs. New loves. New homes. New friends. They always seem to have satisfied me, but before long, I wanted more than was there. I would drift away, or worse, try to force some dramatic change that wound up costing me the very thing I loved in the first place.

What is the difference between being content with what you have today and being afraid that you’ll never get what you really want? Partly, it’s serenity. It’s accepting what you can’t change and changing what you can. But it’s more than that. Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles was that his life would be over when he said, “I’m satisfied. This is enough.” We all want to be better today than we were yesterday. And we hope for tomorrow to be better than today. That’s just human, I think. But there’s a difference between ambition and frustration. You don’t have to hate where you are in order to love where you are going. You don’t have to give up on the goal because you hate where you are.

This isn’t easy. It’s sounding more and more like one of those twisty paragraphs St. Paul used to write.

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. --- Romans 7:14-20
Doo-bee doo-bee doo. He seems to be working it out as he goes along, and I know the feeling. How to put this into words?

You can’t get to the mountain top if you hate climbing mountains. You will lose the trail. You’ll ignore the view. You’ll give up. Contentment means enjoying the climb. It means being satisfied with where you are, and knowing that you are on your way towards a new place that you haven’t seen yet. I may not like being ankle deep in mud, hidden from the sky in the cold shade of the trees. I may have dreams of the magnificent view and the breathtaking winds at the top of the mountain, but they will never be more than dreams if I can’t accept the climb. One step follows another. And each is good. Not just because of where I’m going, but because of where I am today.

Try to imagine what it would be like for an actor who had no patience for rehearsal. How would you learn who the character is? How would you know your role? Without giving yourself over to the process of rehearsal, how could you ever be ready to perform when the opportunity came? You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. And even if you somehow made it to opening night, you would not be an actor for long.

This is one of the secrets of depression. It isn’t just when you hate being only half way up the mountain of your life. It’s when you can’t believe there’s even a mountain top to reach. You start thinking that no matter how long you climb, you’re always going to be in the same place you are now. You lose hope. You might stop climbing. You may even want to get off the mountain altogether.

We all have mountains in our lives. We want to be more fit or healthier. To be better spouses, lovers, parents. We want to retire in comfort and feel valued for our work. The raise. The promotion. The diploma. The relationship. We want to be free of debt or a bad job or a destructive marriage. We all have challenges and the desire to be somewhere we are not. But the paradox of contentment is that we cannot get where we want to be until we accept where we are.

I am not doomed to stay where I am. The fears and anxieties that are slowing me down today will not slow me down forever. I am travelling on the road, climbing up the mountain of my life. I am not where I want to wind up, but the question is, can I accept where I am today? Can I accept that this part of my journey is necessary if I’m going to get where I’m going?

Fear makes me think that things will never get better. Giving up guarantees that they won’t.

Today, I am somewhere on the side of my mountain. I can’t see the top from here, but I want to get there. In the meantime, there are a lot of things good about being right where I am. There are things to learn that I’ll need later. And there are some things that are just pleasant to be around, things I won’t be able to enjoy once I reach the top.

I want to be content with today. I want to be satisfied with this part of my journey.

The trick is knowing how to doo-bee doo-bee doo it.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! – Romans 7: 24-25a
Maybe Paul is right. Maybe I should start by trusting the One who built the mountain in the first place. Then I can get back to climbing.


Photos are from our trip to Bachelor Loop, near Creede, Colorado.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

#277: Better Off Alive

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near’, and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ --- Deuteronomy 15:7-11

I haven’t talked about this very much. I guess it makes me both embarrassed and proud at the same time. But mostly it makes me thankful. And I haven’t said “Thank You” nearly enough.

Sometime in the middle of the summer, our insurance gave out. We had exhausted our savings, I hadn’t worked for months, and the coverage I had from my job could not be extended any longer. Mrs. P went to the pharmacy to pick up the drugs I needed for my second round of chemo, and they turned her away. We could pay retail, (about $6000 for the month, as I recall) or we could go without. I posted a brief note on Facebook to the effect that there would be no more medicine since there was no more money.

A friend of mine, Alicia read that status and felt called to action. She contacted a handful of people with whom I had worked in the theatre here in Lexington and asked if there wasn’t something they could do to help. In just a few days, they had contacted every theatre I had ever worked for in town, and several I had not. Our church agreed to administer the funds. Together, they organized benefit performances in my name where money was raised for a medical fund in my name. Our paper’s arts editor, whom I have ruthlessly harassed as an “evil critic” for years wrote a very kind article in the Herald-Leader and posted the address where people could contribute. The acting companies of all three shows produced by SummerFest, the company with whom I first acted in Lexington dedicated their closing night performances to me. The very first fundraiser was held by Actors’ Guild, the theatre company that brought me here back in 1994. Checks came in from old friends and people I had never met. People wrote kind notes, remembering things we had said or done together that had affected their lives. We even got letters from people from out of town who had heard our story from friends and wanted to help.

People prayed for us. People I didn’t know prayed at all. Phone calls from old friends offering to help, bring dinner, do chores became a regular occurrence. Meals would appear on the porch. The lawn would be magically mowed or the hedges trimmed.

One day, after one of these acts of generosity, Mum looked at me with tears in her eyes. “People are so kind,” she said. “I had no idea you had made such an impact here.”

Neither had I.

Thank you for all the kindness. Thanks for the audio books and the tomato dill soup. Thanks for checking in, lending me books, and sitting with me so Mrs. P could get out of the house. Thank you for saying such encouraging things and for recalling such lovely memories. I have always paid lip service to love, but really had no idea how much there was in the world or what a difference it could make. I am convinced that you helped to save my life. Thank you.

I also learned a lesson that’s worth sharing. You have no idea how you are affecting the people you meet every day. The moment you take to speak a kind word may lift them up for years. You make more of a difference than you can imagine. I don’t want to get all George Bailey on you, but you really are better off alive than dead. You are worth more than you know to more people than you can count. I hope you don’t have to get sick to find that out, but I hope someday you feel what I have felt from the people who love and care for me.

And if someone needs to know that you love them, for God’s sake don’t wait till they get cancer to do something about it. There’s no telling how much they need the healing touch of your heart. Give it to them. You’ll get it back when you least expect it.

I did.



Friday, November 12, 2010

#276: Something Useful

It is important to be of use. Even if only to yourself. It is much more motivating for me to be of use to other people. I suppose my hunger for praise is unhealthy in a lot of ways, but I like it when someone else appreciates the things I do. A ham loves applause. It has felt good to drag myself to the drug store or around the dog park, but those things aren't of much use to anyone else. Today Jake and I hauled the rake out of the basement and swept up some leaves in the back yard.

I wouldn't say I finished the job, exactly. There are now three huge piles of leaves and dog poop killing three huge spots in my lawn. I need to bag them up, but I kind of ran out of energy. It isn't urgent. The Maple trees are still pretty full, preparing to undo all our work today. We'll get to it in the next few days. Besides, Jake is going to enjoy jumping in them for a while. Mrs P also likes to jump in the leaves, but since they started falling it has been difficult to clean up after our boy. I wouldn't advise any leaf diving in his yard.

When we were tired from raking, Jake and I sat down on the porch and felt the sun on our faces for a while. How quiet it was. Back in the spring the neighborhood was a symphony. Today all I heard were a few grackles squawking, some squirrels scolding one another, and some sort of constant undertone that sounded like cidadas or tree frogs. A few months ago it took real concentration to pick out individual voices. Today, they seemed to be taking turns, speaking one at a time so as not to interrupt one another.

And under it all is the sound of the leaves. Leaves clinging for dear life to the branches where they spent their green season. They seem to clench the trees, hoping to hold out just a few more hours against the autumn wind. Leaves on the ground, trembling in the breeze, or crunching under Jake's feet as he jumps and runs through them. In the woods, they would stay in their bed beneath the branches. The snow would come and spring would follow and the dust they left behind would nourish the trees from which they fell. But here, where grass grows perversely, right up to the base of the trunk, we have to sweep them up and cart them away. We want forest and meadow at the same time, in the same place. This is the way decent people keep their yards. Weed free. Leaf free. Mowed and edged and manicured. This is why I am such a bad neighbor. I would rather let it grow. I would rather see the grass tall and the trees full of life and the hedges wild and bushy. I know I can't keep my yard like that. My neighbor's property values would plummet. These chores are just part of suburban life.

I love the woods, but I love the city, too. Maybe that's the problem. The suburbs are neither fish nor fowl. Your dog is surrounded by things to bark about and every bark irritates someone. You can get to the store or a movie or the theatre, but you have to drive and park and eat boring burgers out of boring bags. Here I have a house and a yard, but I wonder if this is how people ought to live. Camped out in parcels of earth that they don't really own. Passing neighbors they don't really know. Spending so much time and money just to keep things looking right.

I know, I know. This is the American Dream. It's the way I was raised, and it's how I'll probably spend the rest of my life. But sometimes, I miss the sound of taxis and ambulances. Just as much as I miss fields of snow and the voice of a flowing creek and the songs of more birds than I can recognize at one time. I love walking the canyons of Manhattan. I also love driving the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. This suburban middle ground just doesn't feel like home today. Maybe it'll better when there's snow to shovel. At least you don't have to put that in big brown bags on the curb.

Well, that outburst sort of took me by surprise. Didn't expect to get all worked up about it. I just thought I was going to write about raking leaves with my dog. For now, at least they are in neat piles. That's progress, I guess.



Thursday, November 11, 2010

#275: As the Deer Pants for the Water Brooks

Go on and start reading. The picture doesn't change. And the music is a nice sound track.

Sitting in my therapist's waiting room the other morning I almost gave up on the possibility of finding anything decent to read. When you spend as much time in medical offices as I do, you get just about all the five year old magazines you can stand. I was surprised, while looking over one of the end tables, to find a little New Testament from the Gideons. When I was touring the country playing Shakespeare, I got used to seeing these little books. I also got used to ignoring them. But compared to one more ancient article about Brad and Jennifer breaking up, the scriptures were a welcome change. The book contained the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs. I thumbed into the Psalms and found this old friend.

Psalm 42

1 As the deer pants for the water brooks,
So pants my soul for You, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night,
While they continually say to me,
“Where is your God?”

It is always so shocking to find myself described in the pages of the Bible. Maybe "jarring" is a better word. I've been reading the scriptures too long to be surprised when this happens. It almost always does. During my battle against cancer, I often felt spiritually parched. Ironic that I had so much trouble with dehydration. When my body needed fluids, they just stuck a needle into my arm and filled me up. My soul was not so easy to refresh. It was hard to go to church, hard to pray, hard to believe even. It seemed sometimes as if my own grief was the only companion I had left. My enemy, the cancer growing inside me, seemed to mock my longing. "If I can kill you this easily, how can you believe in a God who knows you and cares about you?"

4 When I remember these things,
I pour out my soul within me.
For I used to go with the multitude;
I went with them to the house of God,
With the voice of joy and praise,
With a multitude that kept a pilgrim feast.

It took me years to find a church where I felt as if I fit in. A place where liturgy was valued and compassion was the rule of life. When I finally found a home, it was as if my heart broke open and the Spirit of God flowed in. Like Tevye, I used to sit in this "synagogue" and pray. We discussed the holy books. We worshiped together and ministered to one another and to the world. It really was the sweetest thing of all. I felt as if I had finally found my place among God's people.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him
For the help of His countenance.

I could not have imagined ever leaving that fellowship. At times Mrs P and I would discuss moving away from Lexington, but the prospect of leaving our church always made us dismiss the possibility. I knew I would never find a place like that again. But the sweetness of those first few years did not last. There were hard times for the church. Money was scarce. A beloved priest left our parish and a new leader was found, one with his own style and thoughts about how things ought to be done. The family split between those who welcomed the changes and those who valued what seemed to have been lost. People fought. People left. Finally it seemed as if being on the right side of the controversy was more important than doing God's work. My heart, once broken with joy, was split by grief. Finally I went to my friend, my priest, my spiritual father and told him that I could no longer bear to be a part of the parish. My health was failing. My sleep was troubled with frightful dreams. I felt I was close to a nervous breakdown. I wanted to trust God, but felt as if I was swimming against a rip tide. I lost my strength. I left my church. It seemed as if God's face had turned away from me.
6 O my God, my soul is cast down within me;
Therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan,
And from the heights of Hermon,
From the Hill Mizar.
7 Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
All Your waves and billows have gone over me.
8 The LORD will command His lovingkindness in the daytime,
And in the night His song shall be with me—
A prayer to the God of my life.

So much has happened since then. I lost my job. I finally got around to having that breakdown. Cancer. I wanted to go back to church. People would call from time to time to ask after me. To tell me they missed me. I wanted to go, but for a long time just being in the neighborhood could make me physically ill. I even had a psychiatrist tell me that it sounded as if I were experiencing PTSD. Even when I tried going to another church, my breath would come shallow and my heart would pound. Everything that I used to love about church filled me with fear. Seeing my old friends or hearing the old music sent me into a panic.
9 I will say to God my Rock,
“Why have You forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a breaking of my bones,
My enemies reproach me,
While they say to me all day long,
“Where is your God?”

My anxiety. My disordered mind. My diseased body. They were my enemies.They did all they could to convince me that God had left me. It seemed to me that there was nothing I could do, nowhere I could go to restore my love affair with my Creator. Mrs P would ask, "Do you pray?" I could only shake my head. I felt betrayed and angry. Mom would tell me how dangerous my anger at God was. How ungrateful. I wanted to agree with her, but in my heart I could only ask the question that David asked. "Why have you forgotten me?"
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.

So what's happened? Have I been delivered from all my doubts? Not really. St. Paul talked about the thorn in his flesh. I guess this is mine. My unquiet soul will always be there, whispering doubt in my ear. Asking, "Where is your God?" I don't think I'll ever be really free from those doubts. I don't know if I'll ever be free from cancer and what it's done to me, or if I'll ever find another church where I feel as much at home. But I do know that like the deer, I will always thirst for God. I will serve my God as best I can, as long as I can, because I have no other hope, no other help. When I could not pray, others prayed for me. I will not forget them, and I will not forget the God who answered their prayers when I could not speak for myself. When I could not bring myself to go the church where the word is preached, God sent the word to me in a little white book from the Gideons.

I went to the therapist looking for help. Who knew I would find so much of it in the waiting room?



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

#274: Walking at the Dog Park

Yesterday's blog scared my Mom, so first of all let me tell you that I've eaten several times today. I"ve also had about two liters of water already. No woozies.

My therapist has been encouraging me to practice "mindfulness." To use my senses to stay connected to the present. I tend to drift off in my mind, but paying attention to the things that I see and smell and hear can help me to stay in reality. So today, Jake and I walked around the dog park in Coldstream Park. There are several of these parks around Lexington, but Coldstream is my favorite. It is huge and rarely crowded. This makes it easy for the dogs to slip quickly into an organized pack, and also makes it easy for the humans to talk or avoid one another, depending on their temperament. (No surprise that the dogs always seem to get along better than the people. Maybe it's all that sniffing.) The park is 12 acres, divided in half so there's a fence between little dogs and big dogs.

It is hard to say how long the walking path is around the big dog side. I've never been able to use a pedometer because my middle jiggles too much. Using the satellite photos on MapQuest and one of my favorite Internet time wasting sites, MapMyRUN, I've estimated that it's about half a mile. If that's the case, Jake and I walked it twice around at 22 minute per mile pace, much better time than we did around the neighborhood.

I'm exagerrating for Jake a little. He only did the second lap with me. During my first lap, Jake was dogging it with the other hounds. Well, hounds and people. Jake has a classic Golden temperment and loves humans as much as canines. He will latch on to one of the people who come to the park and ignore me completely. Dog people tend to love him back because he's cute and friendly and very submissive with the other animals. Like his papa, Jake is definitely a lover, not a fighter.

Which is why I was so surprised when a gorgeous German Shepherd named Gretta took such an aggressive stance toward Jake. We had finished our mile and were resting on a bench when Gretta, her mama, and a little yippy dog named Diego came through the gate. Jake and I shared some water with them, and they went off running and playing together. Gretta and Diego's lady sat down next to me and we talked about our dogs. It became obvious pretty quickly that Jake was worn out. After a few minutes of wrestling and running, he came back to the bench, had a sip of water, then threw himself down at my neighbor's feet in his "Oh, God, I'm exhausted. Please love me," pose. It's a real heartbreaker, especially when he rolls his eyes up at you. So here's the picture. I'm sitting on the bench, drinking from the bottle of water the dogs and I were sharing. The lady is sitting to my left, with Diego between us, yipping to himself. And Jake is flopped down in the pose I just described. Sort of a white trash Norman Rockwell moment.

Gretta was furious. She was clearly not interested in sharing her family with anyone. She started barking and growling at Jake with some ferocity. Like an idiot, he laid in the dust with his head on his new best friend's shoe. The Shepherd barked and snapped. Your inclination in a situation like this is always to yell at the dog, trying to get them to calm down. Of course to the dog, it just seems like you are joining in with the barking. Jake finally got the hint and tried to get up, but Gretta pounced and knocked him down. Finally he rose and walked around the bench with her going ape behind him. When they came around to the front of the bench again, I foolishly stuck my hand between them. Gretta caught the back of my hand with her very large jaws. She was as surprised as I was. I don't think she actually bit me. More like I put my hand where her mouth happened to be going. I was left with a scratch, not a puncture, and we humans decided that it would be best to part.

As their name implies, Shepherds are built to protect helpless things. Jake is no guard dog. If anything, he is built to be a happy idiot. Goldens are delighted to jump into cold water and bring dead birds back to their masters all day long. Shepherds are more likely to be the ones guarding the gun rack. Jake seems to think of everyone as part of a pack. Gretta seemed to see him as an invader in her flock. As usual, everybody was getting along fine until they humans got involved. As for Diego, the whole scene seemed to puzzle her. Of course, a female named "Diego" is probably used to a certain level of confusion.

But back to this business of mindfulness. When I walk, my mind tends to drift. This is relaxing enough, but my therapist is encouraging me to work a little harder. He wants me to be more present in the moment rather than floating away on my imagination. I can't do this consistently yet, but I did practice coaxing myself back to reality as I walked around the dog park. I felt the cool air and the warm sun. I smelled the dust as the dry trail puffed up around my steps. I praised Jake when he walked along beside me without his lead. I heard the traffic as it passed by on the road beyond the trees, and I saw the patches of green grass still holding out against the November temperatures and the long autumn drought. I was sweating lightly and my thighs felt stronger than they actually are. It was a good walk.

About that feeling strong thing. I noticed during this morning's wake up rituals that my muscles have atrophied noticeably. I've always been big and not particularly muscular, but my arms and calves are a lot floppier than they used to be. I'm walking my way toward running and lifting again in the hopes of restoring my body. I'm hoping that doing those things with a greater sense of awareness will help me to restore my mind as well. Come to think of it, I wouldn't mind if I wound up fitter and saner than I was before I got sick. I may insist on it.



Tuesday, November 9, 2010

#273: Faint of Heart

Hey, cool. My beard is growing back. I'm thinking of this shot for the dust cover of my first novel.

But first, we still have some details to work out on the nutrition front. I fainted again last night on the way to the bathroom. The doctors agree that this is a dehydration issue, so I'm dumping quarts of water, shakes, and even ice cream into my belly. I'm gonna be downright juicy.

Have you ever fainted? It is the strangest experience. Here's what happened last night. I woke up around 4:30 with the urge to pee. For some reason I just laid in bed for a while. Didn't want to get up. Finally it became clear that the sensation was not going to go away. I threw back the covers and swung my legs over the side of the bed. I wanted to get this over with. The last thing I remember is opening the bedroom door. Then there was a thump as my head bounced off the floor. I had fallen backwards and landed in a perfectly prone position. I heard Mrs. P's voice in the dark, asking what had happened. I wanted to answer, but it felt as if she were a dream, not really standing over me. I remember noticing that my arms were straight down at my sides. It didn't feel like I was inside myself. Instead, I seemed to be observing my body there in the dark. Mrs P offered me her hand, as if she intended to lift me off the floor. She's strong, but not that strong. I slowly re-inhabited myself, and sort of wiggled over to the quilt rack in the hall. I climbed up the rack and she helped me into the bathroom. Don't tell the He Man Tough Guy Club, but I sat down to pee.

When I was finished, I made my way back to bed as gingerly as I could, and took stock. Judging from the pain in my butt, I must have landed there first. Both elbows were aching, so I guess they hit the floor together. Amazingly, my head did not hurt at all. That's noteworthy for two reasons. First, I distinctly remember my skull bouncing on the hardwood floor. Second, I missed the turned posts on the wooden foot board of the daybed by just a few inches. Given the amount of blood thinners in my system, had I cracked my head enough to bruise or cause a concussion, I would have been in serious trouble. As it is, I don't seem to have any bruises at all. Just sore spots.

The docs and I will discuss all this again. Dehydration is almost certainly part of the problem, but I'm also concerned that my blood pressure medicine may be working too well. It was fine seventy five pounds ago, but I'm wondering if losing all this weight has naturally lowered my pressure enough that the meds are making it too low. I have about five thousand different doctors writing me prescriptions. I see the surgeon next. He and I will talk about messing with the dose on the Metoprolol. These spells always come on me right after I jump up out of bed. Well, jump may be an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

In the meantime, I have to find a way to get more food into me. It's really unpleasant. I can chew, but the food sticks to the roof of my mouth (top plate of my dentures.) This makes it hard to know when to swallow. It also means that eating a half a sandwich can take me twenty minutes. I could spend my whole day eating, or I can drink most of my meals. Neither option is very appealing. Does this sound like whining? It feels like it, a little. On the other hand, it's a real problem when I start flopping down to the ground in my underpants at night. Believe me, no EMT wants to deal with that sight at 5:00 AM.

Who would have ever guessed that the Fat Man's biggest problem would be not wanting to eat? It's a whole new world. On the other hand, Mrs P brought home some apple pie from church last night. It was smooth and delicious. I wonder if I can design a diet based on ice cream and pie?



Sunday, November 7, 2010

#272: Refreshingly Ordinary

It looks like a slow week coming. There is only one medical appointment. I'll need to fill the rest of the time on my own. That is a good thing. For the past few months my days have been filled with one disorder or another. It feels good to make a little order out of life.

Last week was pretty good for me. I got some exercise, put a new faucet in the bathroom to replace the one I broke while trying to fix a leaky tap. I also got rid of some old friends.

Friday morning I finally took the oxygen tanks back to the medical supply place. I don't know what took me so long. I was certainly eager to be rid of the air hose when I had to wear it all the time. Part of the delay was waiting till I was strong enough to lift the condenser up into the back of the Honda. I may have overestimated my strength on that count. It was pretty heavy, though the lift doesn't seem to have done any harm to me. Mrs. P rode along with me and she lifted the machine back out of the car. I try not to get my feelings hurt by these moments when my little wife is so much stronger than I am. Sure I feel better than I did, but I'm still not sure I could beat her at arm wrestling.

After our trip to the oxygen store, we went to Meijer for some drugs and faucet washers. Turns out that the road to perdition is actually paved with little rubber rings. I came home and did all the things I remember my Dad teaching me about sinks, but once I got the thing apart it was full of lots of plastic parts that I did not recognize. I did realize that I had stripped off all the little plastic threads, so we went to Wal-Mart and bought the cheapest faucet they had. It took me an hour to break the old one and about five minutes to replace it. The Pennsy men have always hated plumbing. Plumbing jobs are the only time I can remember my father cussing. It's a family tradition I've been proud to uphold.

Yesterday's rehearsal was fun. We're at the "sing around the piano" stage. That's good since standing for two hours still feels like running a marathon to me. I was soaked with sweat in the first fifteen minutes. On the other hand, as the music starts to sink in, there is time to look up from the notes and sing to somebody. I actually started feeling like an actor sharing a scene. Which is good, since I didn't feel much like a singer. My voice was pretty tired. The advantage to this is that I had to make some different choices about the way I interpreted the music. We found some places where I don't have to be so loud. Even times where I can speak rather than sing. My weary voice forced me to think more about my character and what I'm doing in the story. This will make the guy more interesting and also give me one or two chances to show off when the role calls for it. (No matter how hard you try, you can't take the hambone out of the ham.)

Today I watched some football. The Steelers don't play till tomorrow night, so my interest was purely academic. Mrs P went out for lunch with an old friend, so Jake, Kizzie, Mo and I sat in the living room and watched the games. I enjoy these peaceful afternoons when Jake isn't harassing the cats and they aren't hissing and growling at him. Rare and precious moments.

I guess my days are full of boring ordinary things. It's actually kind of refreshing.



Thursday, November 4, 2010

#271: Once Around the Ballpark, Jake

Fat Man Walking!

First lesson: I'm going to need to learn to run with a water bottle in my hand. Jake and I walked a mile today. It took us about 25 minutes, but that includes a pause to poop and a second one to pee. (Both stops were for Jake's comfort, but I appreciated the breather.) I left my teeth at home figuring that looking like an old goober was better than choking on them half way around the block and having to carry them home in my hand. Still, my mouth dried out very fast. I always knew spit was essential for baseball players, but who knew runners would need so much of it? I made a jug of Gatorade when I got home and am enjoying some now, before the teeth go back in.

It is a fantastic day to be outside. Sunny and 52 degrees. We had some rain yesterday, so the air has that sort of cool, autumn damp that can either refresh the spirit or transmit the first bad flu of the season. They insisted I get a flu shot right after my blood counts stabilized, so I'm feeling pretty cocky. There were a couple of spots where the leaves were just amazing. There's a hedge along one parking lot that looks as if someone painted it red. We didn't see many folks on our journey. Bo the old boxer woofed as we passed his yard. There were a couple of people raking, and we encountered one runner, but mostly Jake and I were on our own this afternoon. There is a baseball park very near our home, so we took a loop around the stadium and back to the house. Right now, Jake is passed out on the floor, looking like I dragged him behind a car. I'd say we both need to get more exercise.

My mind goes to such strange places when I walk or run. I almost always have a song in my head. The iPod isn't charged up, so I had to provide my own theme song. It might be a hymn or an old advertising jingle, or as happened today, one of those corny campfire songs that we sang in Boy Scouts. Don't know if you remember "Make America Proud of You" or not. I think my Dad must have taught it to me. He taught me most of the ones I remember. So that was my music. Jake snatched a lot of my attention. He doesn't spend nearly enough time on the leash, and we have done a pretty poor job of training him to walk along. He does a lot of stopping to check the "pee mail" and I do a lot of twitching on the leash to keep him moving. We'll get lots more practice in and maybe we'll both be able to enjoy our workout more in a couple weeks. I just kept reminding myself, "I'm walking to run. I'm running to live."

That's what really got this blog started. Till I started running, I didn't really have much to say. Mostly I pontificated on things I didn't really understand. When I started working out, I wanted to keep a record for myself. I also wanted to be accountable to someone, even if nobody but Mrs P and Mum ever read it. I guess I still write for the same reasons. I want somebody to know I'm not dead. Maybe that's why everybody writes, when you come down to it.

So, we made it home. More importantly, we made it out of the house to begin with. It took me a couple of hours to get up the gumption, but by dogs, we did it. I started the day by making a task list. I have a million things to take care of, and the list was pretty overwhelming. Mrs P was at work, so Jake and I sat down with our calendar and scheduled the next few days to try to spread all those "to do's" out into manageable chunks. Number one on the list was to take my walk. I stalled. I read Facebook. Checked old e-mails. Looked over the news. But somehow I knew that today was going to be the day. I wasn't avoiding it, I was getting revved up. I don't know if that distinction makes sense to anyone else, but it felt very different to me. The trick now is going to be doing it again.

I'm gonna hit the shower now, before Mrs P gets home. Jake and I both smell pretty ripe. Afraid he's on his own though. There isn't room in there for both of us.



Wednesday, November 3, 2010

#270: Getting Out of My Head

Mrs P hates it when I call him my "shrink." She's a therapist. She takes it a little personally. I understand that, but using words like "crazy pills" and "nut house" takes the edge off a little bit. I don't like being sick in the head, and I don't like having to get treatment for it. Joking makes it a little easier to take.

So the shrink and I met today. It was a good follow up to yesterday's group session. I told him that I was frustrated. I wake up with the intention of doing something, anything. But for some reason I feel paralized. I can sit in a chair for hours telling myself, "OK, time to get up now. Time to walk. Time to sweep the floor. Time to eat." I can spend a whole day intending to do something without doing it.

There were spaces between Donald and whatever he said / Strangers had forced him to live in his head. Not me exactly. Nobody's forced me to do anything. But I know how Donald and Lydia felt. I have always had a tendency to live in my head. When I was a kid, playing with my imaginary friends. When I first moved to New York, waiting alone for late night subway trains. Lying in bed between radiation treatments, imagining myself flying far away from my room, visiting strange places, doing heroic things. I have always had the ability to run away from whatever's going on. Nowadays, I do that a lot. The trouble is, I'm not exactly sure what I'm running away from. Or what I'm running toward.

I told the shrink, "I feel stuck in my head. I can't explain it. I know what I need to do. I tell my feet to go, but something keeps them from moving. I don't know what." He smiled at me. "It's your head. That's what's keeping you in your chair." Which is why it's a pretty good thing for me to see the head shrinker.

"I don't eat." I told him. "I've passed out twice. Once in the bathroom. Once in the living room. I didn't tell anyone about the second one. It happens because I get dehydrated. Because I don't eat. So I have to force myself to eat."

"And so you eat?"



"Because I don't want to faint. I want to stay conscious."

"So you can act when you have a good enough reason?"

That caught me up short. If you want to hide from the world, passing out is a pretty good strategy. All your troubles just fade away into that dizzy haze. But for some reason, I want to stick around. The same way I decided that I was going to live the day they told me I had cancer. I wanted to grow old with Mrs P. I wanted to act again. I had to live to do that.

Some people are good at finding things to do. Mrs P's family are all like this. None of them is any good as sitting around. They have to get up and go. Fix things. Clean things. Explore things. Me? I could sit on the porch and watch the world go by for weeks. I have to talk myself into moving. This is one of the reasons I've always sought out group activities like the theatre. It's just easier for me to get going when someone is depending on me. Now that I can't work, I have to depend on myself. I can't just find something to do. I have to find reasons to do it.

The doc says that "mindfulness" can help. Make a decision about what I want, and then stay mindful of the process of meeting that goal. I want to run again. So I'm going to have to start walking. "Don't just walk," he says. "Be mindful of what you are doing. Smell the leaves. Hear the kids playing. Feel the sunshine and the autumn wind. And remember why you are walking."

I don't understand why I want to hide. So I can spend my days trying to figure it out, or I can do things that I do understand. One at a time. Rake the leaves. Wash the dishes. Exercise. Finish the taxes. It isn't going to be easy getting out of my head. It's safe in there. But if I'm ever going to discover why God saved my life, I'm going to have to start living and hope to stumble onto the answer. Something tells me that I'm not going to find it sitting in my chair.

I'll let you know how the first day goes tomorrow.



Tuesday, November 2, 2010

#269: Talking About It Helps

I haven't written much about the support group I've been attending. Early on in this adventure, a reader mentioned how much meeting with other survivors had helped her mother during treatment. The Markey Center has a lot of groups like that, including one for Head and Neck Cancer fighters and their families.Some of us are just starting radiation. Some have been cancer free for four or five years. We are each on a unique journey, but we share experiences that people who haven't had months of radiation shot into them or gallons of Sisplatin pumped through their veins don't really understand.

The group meets once a month. Some of us appear to be perfectly healthy and "normal." You wouldn't know we'd ever had cancer if we didn't tell you. Others of us have been severely disfigured by our disease and  treatment. We gather together to tell one another the truth. How our food tastes. How the new teeth are fitting or the hearing aids are acting up. We talk about what we do when someone wants to take us to a restaurant or when we try to have sex. Our spouses tell stories of watching us sweat or throw up in the middle of the night while the can only stand by helplessly and watch.

And through it all, we share a common message: you're not alone. Little by little, it's gonna get better. We don't pretend it isn't hard or that it doesn't hurt. Twelve-steppers call it "rigorous honesty." We tell the truth. But part of the truth we tell is that every one of us can beat cancer, even the ones who eventually die from it. It doesn't have to destroy our spirits.

Frequently someone from Markey has a presentation on some issue of particular interest to the group. We might talk about drugs and side effects. One month we had a couple of speech pathologists come in to talk about how treatment can effect talking and swallowing and what you can do about it. Today the team's social worker spoke about an issue close to my heart: "Cancer and Depression." The pattern of the meeting was pretty typical. First the "expert" tells us what the books say. Then the real experts talk about living through it. Now, even though I don't always recognize it, I still love the sound of my own voice. When I know about something, I can talk for hours about it. I have been studying depression for most of my life, so my after dinner speech is at the ready. Today, I resisted the urge to delight the group with my pearls of wisdom. I gave listening a try. I was glad I did.

What I heard took me by surprise. We are used to encouraging one another. It's a very positive group. We share our problems and we share our hope, but it's pretty rare that we really dig down into the dark places in our hearts. With that many wounds in one room, you don't really want to start picking at scabs. Today, each of us took off the bandages and showed what was underneath. Turns out that I am not alone. Sometimes it's the diagnosis that throws us for a loop. Sometimes it's the ordeal of treatment. But most commonly it's the limbo time after treatment is over.

For weeks we have whole teams of people looking after us. Doctors and technicians asking how we're doing. Friends dropping by. Nutritionists checking on our diets and our weight. Even the dentist and the psychiatrist give a friendly prod now and then. Every day there is something to do. Every day you know that dozens of people are working and worrying and praying for you. Then all of a sudden, it's over. You don't go to the doctor every day, you go every three or five or eight weeks. Your spouse goes back to work. The people who checked in so often tell you how happy they are for your positive results and get on with their own lives. You want to join them. But for a million reasons, you can't. Turns out that for a lot of people, that's pretty depressing.

And there's another thing. Unless you're an exhibitionist like Pennsy, it's hard to talk about being depressed. After all, you've just had your life saved from cancer. What do you have to be sad about? People can understand cancer. It's real. It shows up on a CT scan. You can cure it. Mental disorders are a little harder to pin down. You don't have to be ashamed of having a tumor. Staying in bed for a week can make you feel pretty bad about yourself. I may not have many personal boundaries, but it is a lot easier for me to talk about my cancer than it ever was to talk about my depression.

Which is why it was so good to hear other people's stories. So good to tell my own. We reminded one another that even in this, we were not alone.

This is why we all tell stories, I think. Bible stories. Campfire stories. Stories about our families. Plays. Novels. TV sit-coms. We tell stories to let the rest of the world know we are here. We listen to let ourselves know that we are not alone. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietsche said:
Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood, and thou wilt find that blood is spirit.... He that writeth in blood and proverbs doth not want to be read, but learnt by heart.
To write with blood is to tell the truth. Rigorously. The truth is not always obvious to the casual observer, just as it is not always easy to identify a cancer survivor. The face may decieve, but the story - the blood story - tells the truth. Every one of us, no matter what we have endured in our lives, shares certain truths. We all have our own story, but none of us is alone. You can't always see that on the surface. Sometimes you have to peek under the bandages.

Living blood stories isn't always easy. Telling them never is. But sometimes, when you really need to hear them, it helps.



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