The Long Road... #2014reboot

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

#444: Why Would Anyone Want to Run a Marathon?

After finishing the
2011 Iron Horse Half...
Why on earth would anybody want to run a marathon? 


... and then in 2012.
What a difference a year makes.
It takes forever to train. It screws up your system. It makes you cry and puke. Sometimes you pee yourself. Sometimes you fall down and bleed into your $15 socks (socks!) And what do you get when you're done? A tee shirt. A goofy medal to hang on the wall. The knowledge that you finished in 26,493rd place in a race that was finished before you were a third of the way done. Nobody in their right mind would do this.

Ahhhh... we're getting warmer.

So what's the problem? What's wrong with a person's mind that prompts them to lace up a pair of shoes that cost more than a prom dress and run 26 miles, 385 yards?

Marathoners aren't satisfied. Getting by isn't enough for us. We want to go farther. The places we've already been just don't fulfill us. We want to to go where we've never been before. No matter what we've achieved or praise we've received, there's still something missing. Marathoners don't want things handed to them. We recognize that life is full of blessings and gifts. The sun and the rain. Feet that can carry us. Friends who support us. But there is something in them that can only feel fulfilled by something they had to go out and earn.

The face of triumph?
Yes, we run because there's something missing inside of us. But we also run because there's something in there that just has to come out. You know that feeling you get when your favorite song comes on and your feet start moving in spite of themselves? Or when you were a little kid and you finally managed to make it to the top of the ladder for your turn to slide down the big slide? Now multiply that by a couple of hundred times, and you'll have an idea of what the starting line of a marathon feels like. When I was waiting at the back of a pack of 37,000 runners to start the Pittsburgh Marathon last year, Mrs P could see my my bib number flipping up and down. It was my heart pounding. I know what stage fright feels like. This wasn't that. I wasn't nervous, I was ready to explode. Poets write because the words and pictures are too strong to keep trapped  inside their hearts. Runners run for the same reason. Every one is different, but every runner has something to say that only a marathon can express.

Where am I? What's my name?
Why can't I feel my legs?
So why does the Fat Man run?

Remember the story of Saul of Tarsus? The guy who came to write over half of the Christian Scriptures and is called St. Paul? Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus where Jesus gave him his vocation: his calling. Paul became the Apostle to the Gentiles... the witness who testified to the world outside of Israel about the loving power of Christ. I have always identified very strongly with Paul. I am also a witness. I am God's Apostle to the Nation of Survivors. I have been called to serve Christ's gospel of love and endurance and life to the people who know resurrection from the inside out. The suicidal. The addicted. The chronically ill.

I have been called to preach, and the Marathon is my sermon.

Post-race prayers for the Five
Paul's testimony was that nothing could separate us from the love of God. Mine is that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of the life that is God's gift to us. I run the Marathon because I want the world to know that nothing... not sickness, not sadness, not disease, not disorder, not shame nor embarrassment nor poverty nor injustice can separate us from living the life God gave us. From serving. From enduring. From achieving. From LIFE.

Life: The gift of God for the
People of God
Cancer can't do it.

Mental illness can't do it.

Losing your job, your savings, your house;

Nothing can keep us from living unless we allow it.

What does it mean to live strong? Not that you always win. Not that you never fail. Not that you are better than other people, or worthy of praise. I know myself better than you do, and I'm less worthy than anyone. But living strong means never ever ever giving up. Living strong means fighting for your life until the very end.

It means living as if there is something more important than comfort and and safety.
Pennsy, Coach Chelsea, and Darlene:
cancer Warriors.

It means living as if "surviving" just isn't enough.

The Marathon is my sermon, and it's message is this. You can achieve your dream. You can be more than the world tells you you can be - more than you can even believe yourself. You are stronger and braver and more inspiring than you have ever imagined and if a suicidal, bipolar, cancer ridden, blood clot filled, failed salesman, small-time actor, big time egotist, 400 pound Fat Man can run a damn Marathon, then you can do the amazing things that you were created to do, too.

Never, ever, ever give up.
That's why the Fat Man runs. Not so people will be inspired to say nice things about him. But so you will be inspired to find the marathoner inside yourself. The one who wants to run. To write, To start a business. To ask for a date. Your marathoner may not ever pin on a bib or grab a paper cup full of lukewarm Gatorade on the run, but you have your own race, and it scares the hell out of you. Let the Fat Man remind you that you can run it. Nothing can stop you from loving. Nothing can stop you from living.

The ones who give up? They all die.

Cancer can kill us, but it can never defeat us... nothing can... if we live strong.

Peace,
Pennsy

Monday, April 29, 2013

#443: MARATHON WEEK!

Post-time at the 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon
(back of the pack view.)
We interrupt this nervous breakdown for a celebration of life.

You may have heard that there's a big race in Kentucky this week. No, not that one. I prefer a race with a couple thousand runners where nobody ever gets whipped and they don't shoot you if you break your leg. This Sunday, after the horses of Churchill Downs are safely in the barn, Pigs will fly in Cincinnati, and Pennsy will fly with them.

I am counting the 2013 Flying Pig as a Kentucky marathon because there is actually about a mile and a half of the course that  crosses the Ohio River into Covington. The rest is in the friendly confines of Cincinnati, a city that would be Pittsburgh's closest sibling if it weren't for Johnny Bench, Kenny Anderson, and other assorted heroes from the Buckeye state. But for an accident of geography and the whims of an ancient glacier, Cincinnati might also be Kentucky's largest city. So I'm calling this a home away from home race.

I had several friends run in the Kentucky Derby Marathon last Saturday, (the only race that could get me to Louisville during these Bacchanalian weeks.) One knocked an hour off of her first 26.2, which I found really encouraging. I've studied the elevation charts for the Pig, and it's no joke, but not the test that Pittsburgh is either. If I can get to the 10 mile point feeling strong, I have high hopes.

I've spent the last two weeks working in the grief mines, and frankly, I've breathed enough misery dust to last me a lifetime. This week, I'm coming up for air. I'll be doing some light jogging, a little cross training, drinking lots of good liquids, and wearing the slippers Mrs P bought me to keep my tender feet safe from table legs and dog toys. I love talking about myself, but writing about depression depresses me. This week, I'll be writing about the opposite of depression. I'll be writing about love. About hope. About will. About strength.

About life.

The forecast for Sunday is partly cloudy with race-time temps in the 50s.

Gonna be a great day for a run!

Peace,
Pennsy

It's time. Please make your donation to Living Strong at the Y today. It's the reason I get up in the morning, and the reason I'm running on Sunday.


Rather just mail your contribution? Make checks payable to "YMCA" and mail to:
Robert Parks Johnson
Living Strong at the Y 2013
North Lexington Family YMCA
381 West Loudon Ave
Lexington KY 40508



Saturday, April 27, 2013

#442: Spider On A Thread

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. - Jonathan Edwards "'Have a Nice Day' and Other Sermons for Children (Just kidding. Little Calvinist humor, there. It's actually from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. If you are the sort of demented soul who feels the need, you can read the whole Hallmark card here.)


One of the more insulting pieces of good news I've ever received was on a radiology report: "Analysis of the brain shows nothing remarkable." What they meant was that there was nothing bad in there. My oncologist explained that this is a much better comment than: "Imaging of the brain was negative," which means that they looked, but didn't find anything. So sometimes words can conceal positive results.

In the past 30 hours or so, when I've checked my emotional vital signs, the results have been increasingly positive. Reduced tear production. No evidence of chest convulsions, throat contractions, or sobbing. Heart lightening. Creepy-crawlies subsiding. The subject appears to have turned the corner. We are cautiously optimistic.

But still, I'm wary.

Last night, Mrs P reminded me that depression is only half of my diagnosis. My wife the clinical therapist conjured the full name: Type II Bipolar Disorder with Severe Clinical Depression. No wonder it takes so many pills. No wonder I never speak it's name out loud. That is a disorder for a person who is seriously screwed up.

It's not that I hide it, not really. Readers of FMR know that I hide precious little. Much less than any decent person should.  I wouldn't say I'm a Closeted Crazy. But bipolar disorder is the one gremlin in my life that I would just as soon not name. Ever. I remember the first time I read the words, typed into my file at the mental hospital. "Well, son," I whispered to myself, "Looks like you're the Bull-Goose loony in this nut house now." And until they taught me how I could exercise my way back to the light, I pretty much was.

I stay more-or-less stable when the meds and the therapists and the coaches are all working together. People think of me as a little eccentric; a little emotional; loyal; protective; outgoing; you know, a Leo. When things get out of whack - and the whack often comes from sudden, unexpected grief - I can find myself dangling like a spider on a thread in the wind, blown from giddy with optimism to paralyzed with despair in a single gentle gust. A conversation with a friend can put me on top of the world. Burnt toast can lead me to consider suicide. A phrase in a newspaper article. A lick from the dogs. The song of a mockingbird. A paper cut. I don't know of any more helpless feeling than the one you get when you realize that you have no control over yourself or the size of your emotions. Everything is exaggerated. Bipolar disorder means living in hyperbole.The best you can do is remember that depression and manic states are really a set of lies that you tell yourself - they doesn't last for ever - and your only job is to ride them out without hurting yourself or anybody else.

Mixed results, so far. The folks at work have been supportive, without exception - but they are only human. I expect there will be consequences for my two-week disappearance - I know I'll be imagining what they're thinking about me for a while.

I haven't done myself any harm that I can see - other than shaken confidence and the stubborn stains of shame and embarrassment. I kept up with my training. Ate. Slept when I could. Bathed regularly. No boozing, binging, bruising, or burning of bridges. I said my prayers. Gave thanks for my blessings. Asked help for my trials. Kept writing.

Mrs P got the worst of me. She always does. No rage this time. Just angry confusion for both of us about how a husband can get so damn worked up just because his boss goes away. I think Coach was pretty spooked by the whole thing, too. 250 pounds of nervous breakdown is a lot to handle in a tiny office. I'm not sure either of them felt entirely safe alone with me when I was blubbering to them about What Am I Gonna Do? and Please Don't Go and Oh Dear God It Hurts So Much.

Depression is like cancer in that way. It is cruel to carry inside you, but think it's even more cruel to the people who care for you. I wish I had done a better job protecting them, no matter how sick I was.

But, today I'm riding... Not high. Not low. Just sort of cruising along. Had a nice short run today. Seven miles on the treadmill and the Legacy Trail. Smiles and laughter, all appropriate to the conversation. As I'm typing, I feel more human, more like myself than I have in many, many days. If I can keep it up for a week, I'll be able to write about what it's like to finally get over a depressive episode. Today, I'm erring on the side of caution. There are still a lot of vulnerable people around me. And I'm still a bull in their emotional china shops.

Things are good at the moment. But vigilance is needed here. Things can change so quickly for a spider on a thread.

Peace,
Pennsy

Source note: Creepy spider picture stolen from here.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

#439: Why I Need You Now More Than Ever





Update on Living Strong at the Y 2013 Campaign

I wanted to let you know that we’re doing great… but we still have a long way to go before our race is finished.

People have been so generous. We have received over $2700 so far. That’s 40% of our goal with just 11 days to go until the Flying Pig Marathon on May 5th in Cincinnati. I have run just under 180 miles so far to prepare myself. There will be plenty more before the starting gun goes off.

From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank the folks who have given so far.

If I could, I would get down on my knees and plead with the folks who haven’t. Please join us with a contribution.


What We Can Achieve

Last year’s campaign raised over $3600. Let me put that in concrete terms for you. Your contributions alone made it possible for 10 cancer survivors and their families to become members of the Y at no charge. Lifting weights. Running on treadmills. Participating in group exercise classes. Their spouses got to workout with them. Their kids and grand-kids got to swim in the pool. And all that happened because you stepped up with a donation to Living Strong at the Y.

This year, we’re trying to double that amount. If we can, we’ll be able to pay personal trainers and specialists in Yoga, Pilates, Zumba and nutrition to bring our participants even better training and information. We’ll be able to transport survivors to off-site locations for hiking, biking, and activities that their home facility can’t accommodate. We’ll be able to support this summer’s first session outside of Lexington when we bring LIVESTRONG at the YMCA to Georgetown, KY. But we won’t be able to do any of those things without the support of people who believe in our mission: helping cancer survivors to become cancer victors.

Why I Need Your Help in 2013 More Than Ever
Let me get personal for a minute. This summer, for the first time since our pilot program began in 2011, I will not be a part of LIVESTRONG at the YMCA. Severe Clinical Depression has forced me into an indefinite leave of absence from work and the people I love so much. It’s going to be hard sitting on the sidelines while the work goes on without me… but it will be so much harder if we have to cut back our programs because of a lack of funding.

I may be too sick to work for now, but nothing will stop me from running this race on behalf of the people who can’t. Please don’t let anything stop you from joining me in their fight.

We have received donations from $10 to $1000 from people who believe in the work we’re doing. Every one is a treasure. Please add your own gift to theirs.

Online, go to www.crowdrise.com and type “Robert Parks Johnson” into the search box to make your tax deductible contribution.

If you prefer, you can send a check, made out to “YMCA” to

Robert Parks Johnson
Living Strong at the Y 2013
North Lexington Family YMCA
381 West Loudon Ave
Lexington KY 40508

Because cancer can kill us, but it can never defeat us… if we Live Strong.

Peace,
Pennsy

Monday, April 22, 2013

#437: Depression is Emotional Cancer

You need a team. Recovering from a severe depression is a long process.

When they found my cancer, they started by cutting the worst of it out. The surgeon cut away a lot of stuff. But they couldn't be sure they'd gotten it all, so the oncologists went back, first with chemo, then with radiation. If they had stopped after the operating table, I would almost certainly be dead by now.

Depression is emotional cancer, and its cells are the thoughts, the mis-beliefs, the lies that live in your head and try to convince you that you are worthless or evil or stupid or incompetent. That you don't deserve happiness. That you don't deserve to be loved. Your Therapist's job is to help you kill these deadly growths before they take over your mind.

But that's only part of the story. There's also engineering to be done. Plumbing gets blocked. Wires get crossed. The chemistry gets out of whack and somebody has to go in there and troubleshoot all the connections. That's where your Psychiatrist comes in.

His job isn't to shrink your head. It's to bust it open with electric shocks and psych med.s Stuff with scary names like Paxil and Valium and Lamictal and Xanax. I've known people who carried pharmaceutical warehouses in their backpacks - loads of this stuff. It's easy to accumulate, because it's hard to find the right combination. The Psychiatrist's job is almost as much art as science. We try this combo and see if it works. If not, we add a pinch of this, a dose of that, and wait and see. It can take months to get it right. And after a few years, your brain can change on its own, like a virus evolving to overcome a vaccine. Sometimes your meds will just stop working all of a sudden, throwing you into a tailspin that can be as life threatening as any carcinoma.

Brain and Mind. Body and Soul. They are so intimately interwoven that it is absurd to try to describe them separately. How to you describe the difference between what you are and who you are? I have a really good team to help me put myself in order. I'll be visiting them both today. It's going to be a long afternoon.

My Therapist is a sort of Buddhist Evangelical Christian who has amazing listening skills, great compassion, and a deep sense of professionalism. He hears my stories. He gives me homework. He cares. He has talked me down from a few ledges over the years, though never one quite as high or narrow as this one.

I met my Psychiatrist during my stay in the mental hospital, back before I became The Famous Cancer Boy Who Didn't Die. He speaks very softly, and always seems to be seeing just a layer or two deeper than the surface. He also listens to my stories. He asks questions. Then he stares at me quietly, sometimes for an uncomfortable length of time. I once worked with a plumber who would squat down and stare at the empty space where a sink or a water heater or a pool filter was supposed to go. He would stare quietly for a long time, not speaking, not writing anything down. When he was ready, he would walk to his truck and start pulling fittings. Within an hour or so, he could assemble a maze of elbows and joints and valves so complex that I couldn't even follow them with my eye. They fit tight, and they worked. He was just that good.

That's the way my doc looks at me. When he is ready, he pulls out his prescription pad and scribbles something on it. Sometimes he hands it to me. Sometimes he calls it in himself. It's often some stuff that I've never heard of before. And it usually works.

Today, after I see my therapist, I'll be visiting the doc for a tune-up. He hasn't seen me this screwed up in a long time, but working in the hospital, I'm sure he's seen worse. I have two hopes for our meeting today. I hope he doesn't say I have to go back to the nut house. And I hope he can use that x-ray vision of his to find my short circuit on the first try.

You can sometimes just wait out a mild depressive episode. A day under the covers or a walk in the sun can be enough to chase the shadows away and make everything look bright again. But you have to treat the big ones differently. You go into this battle knowing that there won't be a quick solution and the one you do find is liable to hurt like hell. Rigorous honesty can be painful. Once the chemistry is right, you have to start telling yourself the truth, and there aren't many people who can stand that for very long. That's one reason so many people never get better. Sometimes its easier to just live with the pain. That's not a luxury I can afford.

People I love are sick and dying. Every day, it seems. I see their faces when I close my eyes and I feel their prayers when they know I'm hurting. I hear their voices when I run. I have a wife to love. Dogs to feed, Miles to log. Money to raise. Tomorrow, there will be more people diagnosed with cancer. More people in pain. More people afraid. Who need to know there's hope. Who need to share the stories. Who need to live strong.

Last night, I talked to Mrs P about all this. All these people. Especially the fallen ones. I am left alive while good men and women are gone. I feel like I have to justify that somehow. I can't live in a world where such things happen for no reason. I feel as if they purchased my life with their own. I owe it to them to be the best man I can.

And that means I have to get well. I have to take the time to get myself healthy so I can go back to work.

C'mon, doc. Let's reach into this rat's nest get these wires untangled. Please?

Peace,
Pennsy

Sunday, April 21, 2013

#436: The Last Long One Part 2: In Practice

Saturday Morning, 4:30 AM
The alarm chirps me awake. Mrs P breathes softly beside me. My clothes are already laid out in the bathroom. All I need is breakfast and a shower. Pad my barefoot way out to the den, trying not to wake the dogs. In the kitchen, I step on one of those damn cow hoofs that Mrs P gives them to chew on. I whisper my first four letter word of the day and start the coffee maker.

4:45
One cup of coffee. Only one. Two apple cinnamon scones. So sue me. I'll burn a couple of extra calories before this day is over. Check the route one last time. All city streets that I know well. I memorize the places along the way where I can find restrooms and Gatorade.

5:00
Check the page for Living Strong at the Y 2013, hoping for a little inspiration. I find a $1000 contribution from an anonymous donor, in honor of her mother whose cancer battle ended almost 8 years ago. I write the thank you note and feel the steel forming in my will. There are more important things than my depression. I see Coach's most recent message to me, posted last night. "I believe in you." I can only remember two people saying those words to me. One is my coach. The other is the love of my life. One is going away. The other will never leave me. My heart swells. No time for tears this morning. I can't afford to lose the water or the salt.

5:15 
Time to shower. Dr Bronner's Magic Peppermint suds finish the work that the coffee started. I step out of the tub awake and ready to go. I pay special attention to drying off my hair. It's 34° outside.

5:30
Dressing. The new spandex bike style shorts I got from John's. Body Glide everywhere. inner thighs, toes, nips, armpits, collarbones. Sunscreen everywhere. Never know how warm this day might get. Hope springs eternal. Lip balm. Heart monitor chest strap. White, LIVESTRONG tank. Black warm up pants. The gray Y half zip pullover that Coach bought me for the Monumental Half. White terrycloth wristbands. Check to make sure my route is programmed into the Garmin. Grab my race shoes and socks and pad back out to the den, flipping the cursed cow hoof under the kick space of the kitchen counter with my offended foot.

5:45
Pull on the socks, fitting each toe into its individual pocket. Slip into my NikeFrees, and tie them securely.Two pairs of gloves. SPI belt with energy chews and my interval timer set to 2:00 / 1:00. Hydration backpack that I bought last night at Meijer, filled with diluted PowerAde. Flashing red light on my pack turned on. iPod loaded with my favorite running mix. Slip on my John's running cap with my sunglasses over top for later.

6:00
That's the great thing about running. All you really need are sneakers and a tee-shirt.

6:15
Kiss Mrs P. "Be so careful," she says, not really awake. "I love you." "And I love you, my darling." I may have a schoolboy crush on my coach. but I love this woman with every cell in my body. I run for my cancer people, but I run for her, too. She is the reason I chose to stay alive.  She is with me every step of every run. And so, we run.

Mile 1
11:56. Too damn fast. This one is always a struggle. I feel great. Of course you feel great, idiot. You haven't even run two miles, yet. I try to imagine what mile 26 will feel like, and run at that speed instead. I run the second mile in 12:09 and start being a little more deliberate about my walk breaks.

Run for Rememberance
Mile 4
I arrive at John's just a few minutes behind schedule. 300 runners have gathered to honor the dead and wounded of Boston. The mayor is speaking about the generous heart of our city. Then Kieth takes the mic. He has been running for probably 50 years. He speaks of family. He speaks of unity. He speaks of courage. His heart catches in his throat as he declares, "We are sending a message to the people who want to frighten and hurt us. We will run. Today. Tomorrow. Next year. In Boston. On Patriot's day. Every day. Every where.We will run." And run we do.

Mile 7
The North Lexington Family YMCA. I've been dreading this stop. Mercifully, I only see one person I recognize. I don't have much contact with the Saturday morning crowd. A quick pee stop, and add water to my pack. I have drunk a surprising amount already. Much more than I would have carried on my hydration belt. Trot out to the pavillion where the kids will gather for our morning run. 4 miles. Elissa greets me, a little concerned. "Has the doctor cleared you to run?" I wonder which doctor she means. I am paired with two boys, notorious loafers, and we start off in the chilly morning. I finally need my sunglasses.

Mile 11
If I wanted affirmation for my decision to take time away from work, this was it. I spent four miles restraining the urge to cuss out a pair of 10 year-olds for their lack of motivation. They hate it out here. Elissa is waiting at the finish when I cross the line, alone. They are walking spitefully over the crest of the last hill. Their own personal drama of defiance. "Send them home." I tell her, as I run past the group and out onto the road. It was a mistake to come out here with them today. Kids need patience. Mine is gone. A pee break at the gas station on North Broadway, and I head for the gentle rolling hills of East Loudon Avenue. I am beginning the climb toward the highest point in my run.

Mile 14
The good news is that my four miles with the kids have slowed my pace considerably. Just over half-way through a marathon, and I'm finally warmed up and at tempo. The bad news is, the little store where I planned my next water break has been sold and turned into a restaurant. My pack still sounds full, sloshing happily, but I have at least three more miles before I get to the next water. I set my cap and run on.

Mile 18
I was sure there was a gas station here. Instead, I wander into Kroger. Glassy eyed. I buy a liter of Gatorade and one banana. The little guy monitoring the self-checkout lanes seems mystified. I'm carying a back pack with wires hanging out of it. I'm wearing an ear piece, dark glasses, a black cap, and am covered with little electronic devices that beep every couple of minutes. Not the best outfit to wear 6 days after a terrorist attack. I squint at the keypad without my bifocals, and make my way out of the store, find a place to sit down, and pour a jug of sports drink into my back pack. At least now they know I'm not carrying a bomb in there... Mrs P has sent me a worried text. "Where are you?" I tell her back, telling her where to find me on the map I left her. The sun feels nice, and I pull of my soaked warm up pants, tucking them under the cargo net on my pack. I have now gone farther than either of my last two runs. I figure I've consumed about 3 liters of fluid so far, with only two low volume pee breaks. No wonder I crashed last week. This big motor uses a lot more water than I realized. I pop an energy chew into my mouth, and I'm back on the road.

Mile 19.5
The first cramps.First hint of the approaching Wall. They start in my quads, way down above the knees, which is unusual for me. I consider it a triumph of Coach Carrie's training techniques that she has strengthened my calves so much. That's where I started cramping in Pittsburgh, right around mile 15. As if on cue, both calf muscles turn to fists. Now I can barely straighten my knees to take a step as I make my way through the rolling hills. As icing on the cake, my hamstrings join the symphony. I have felt more pain than this in my life, but never during a run. I think of Becky, doing chemo again for the second bout of cancer: the cancer they found in her spinal fluid. Becky hurts worse than this. So I run.

Mile 25
A very strange point for a break in a marathon. I arrive at the Beaumont Family YMCA, the flagship of our association. I always marvel at this place. It seems as if our entire branch at North would fit inside their basketball court. I haven't got my key tag, so I ask the woman at the front desk to check me in. I think we have taken some kind of class together, but I don't think either of us really remembers the other. I make my way to the restroom, and am surprised at how little urine I produce. For the first time today, my pack is empty of water. I have drunk a gallon of fluid, and not processed enough urine to fill a specimen jar. I've learned something very important about hydration today. I refill my ugly green backpack: my new training partner for life. I send my second text of the day, letting Mrs P know that I'm 3 miles from home. My phone is full of messages of encouragement and concern, many from other cancer fighters. If I could feel anything, I would feel love. But right now, I'm so stoned on Endorphin that all I can feel is my leg muscles seizing into petrified meat. Time to run.

"Bob? It's Dave."
Mile 25.3
Running downhill is a challenge with healthy legs. It is torture when your legs are made of stone. I arrive at an intersection, and there is a car waiting at the stop sign for me. I wave thanks and step off the curb. The driver's door opens, and a familiar bald pate pops out. "Well this is perfect," he laughs. Yesterday, when I was at my lowest, my phone rang. I recognized the number was from a YMCA, and answered with apprehension  "Bob, it's Dave. How are you doing?" It was the CEO of the Central Kentucky YMCA calling. I burst into grateful tears. Who are these amazing people and how in the world have I managed to fall into their loving hands? I was still crying tears of gratitude when Mrs P called to tell me she was coming home. I'm crying them again now as I type. And I cried them yesterday, just a drop or two, when Dave stepped out of his car in the middle of the street and threw his arms around me. "It's good to see you out running, " he smiled.

Mile 26.2
There is a park near our neighborhood. Its ball fields are usually empty when I run through. But yesterday, as I reached the marathon distance, I was surrounded by happy kids in brightly colored uniforms. Bats cracked out base hits all around me. I thought of the two boys who hate running so much. I hope they find something they love as much as these kids love kicking the dirt in the batter's box and pounding the pockets of their mitts into spring softness. My legs still hurt, but the pain was bearable now. I'm not sure if they were relaxing into submission, or if I was past the point of caring, but I felt myself rise up taller as I watched the mileage on my watch flip over to 26.2. 06:36 total elapsed time. That included all those breaks and the long stop in the Kroger parking lot. My time in the Pittsburgh was 6:21. I was going to beat that in Cincinnati, but the Buck-a-Minute donors were going to get quite a bargain.

Mile 28.37
It is finished. I run to the last corner in my route, and shut off my Garmin as I pass the stop sign. I am proud. I wish the neighbors who wave as I walk past could know what I just did. On the other hand, it feels good to carry such a secret inside. I didn't do it for them. I walk and trot easily, carefully cooling down. My next-door neighbor is mowing his lawn, and he shuts off the engine to greet me. He has been following me on Facebook. He knows I've been having a hard time. I thank him for his kindness and can't help bragging to this handsome, strong young man. He smiles. "You know. Most people don't ever run 26 miles until the race. But now you already know you can do it." Yes. Now I know.

I step inside and The Pack greets me. They love it when I come home from a run tasting of sunscreen and salt. I receive an enthusiastic leg massage as I make my way to the kitchen table and drop my nearly empty backpack. Strip off the sweat bands, the shades, and the hat. Grab a towel to protect my chair. Walk back to the den, and ease gently into my desk chair to read the loving messages that friends have posted during the 7 hours I have been out on the road.

2:00
Mrs P comes in the door. My heart soars. Her voice. Her tender kiss. Her concerned eyes. She checks me for signs of dehydration, and pronounces me cold, but OK. She mixes a jug of PowerAde for me, and brings me glass after glass of the rejuvenating stuff. She puts some chicken tenderloins on the grill, and warms up a can of beans. Protein and Carbs. Recovery food. I finally have a good long pee. My heart is so full of my wife, I can hardly breath. Here is the love of my life. She is the reason I'm alive at all. We laugh together about our day. We listen to each other's stories. My hands may be cold, but I can feel the fire between us. There are places between a husband and a wife that no one else can be or even understand. It has never been easy, loving me. Many times, I've made it harder than it had to be. But she's never given up on me. No matter how much it hurts. After all my sermons and rants and righteous speeches and altruistic sounding pronouncements, Martha is the reason I run. I run for my life, yes. But I run toward her love. Always.

Sunday Morning
When I woke up this morning, the darkness was back again. A little less than before. A few tears. A few. Just a few. Guess I'm having an endorphin hangover. Time with my dogs. Time with my wife. Time to pray and reflect. I don't understand this journey that we're on. I don't understand why people I love suffer. Why I hurt them. Why they hurt themselves. I don't understand why I can't be the man I want to be: the man people see when they look at me through the eyes of love. I don't know how I've managed to live so long, make so many mistakes, and survive so many consequences. I'm 52 years old, and sometimes I don't think I know a damn thing. Except this. God made me. My Creator gave me deep flaws, but also gave me strength. More strength than I could have ever imagined. Strength to endure. Strength to survive. Strength to serve. Strength to love.

May God grant me the strength to run the race set out for me. And may I never stop loving the people God uses to teach me that strength and that love. May I never stop working to deserve their faith and their sacrifice and their trust. Today. Tomorrow. Next year. Every day. Every where.

The Fat Man runs.

Peace,
Pennsy





Saturday, April 20, 2013

#435: The Last Long One Part 1: In Theory

How the Last Long One Feels
Every run has a purpose, especially when you are training for a long race. Sometimes you're teaching your legs to find the right tempo. Sometimes you're attacking hills to build strength or running intervals of speed and recovery to teach your feet to turn-over faster. There are lots of different kinds of running workouts, but the granddaddy of them all is the one that gets runners out of bed on Saturday mornings in all kinds of weather to hit the roads in pairs, in packs, and all alone. The Long One.

The Long One is about endurance. It's about building the conditioning and the wind and the will to keep going mile after mile. In the off season, the Long One might be 5 or 10 miles, depending on how you feel. When you're chasing 26.2, the Long One is your most important workout of the week, and my favorite of them all is the Last Long One. The biggest mileage you put up before a race.

Conventional wisdom has most runners going for 20 miles three weeks before a marathon. I have two problems with that. First, I found that three weeks of rest actually knocked a little of the edge off of my conditioning. In spite of putting in all the miles before Pittsburgh, I felt under-prepared. I decided last year that my "taper," - the time you spend easing up on the gas before an event - would not be as long this year.

Second, I know from consistent experience that it is very hard for me to add more than 2 miles every two weeks to my previous long run. A 20 miler would have me hitting "the wall," - and yes, the wall is very real - around 22 miles, making those last 4.2 an even more horrific experience than they are designed to be.

So today, I ran my last long one before the Flying Pig Marathon two weeks and a day before the start. and I ran just under 28.4 miles.

Now, if you're a runner, you know that is just insane, but bear with me. I've thought it out. I just have to wait until May 5 to test whether I was right. If I'm wrong, I'm going to have a looong ride on the bus of shame at the back of the pack.

Two weeks is my standard interval for increasing my long runs during training. I run long, then back off a little the next weekend to recover, then add two miles the next Saturday. That's just the way I've learned I respond to training best. If my body holds to form, I should be ready for a 30 mile run on May 5. The marathon  is a lot shorter than that.

But those miles. What's the point? Well, for me, there is only one point to the Last Long One and that is to put your shoulder into the wall and push the sucker back. Doesn't matter if I hit it at 17 miles, at 20, or at 25.5. I have to know that it isn't going to stop me, no matter what. The wall isn't a myth, it's physiology. At 20 miles, your body has used up just about all the resources it has to make you go. If you aren't well conditioned. If your training hasn't prepared you. If you haven't been taking water and nutrition for the first 20 miles. If you don't have the fuel and the guts and the will to endure the pain, your tank will empty and you will seize up like a jeep with a cracked oil pan. The wall hurts, and once you hit it, you only have two choices: give up, or push it back. My run today wasn't about 28 miles, It was about mile 28. I needed to know that I could run the whole marathon and then some before beginning my taper. I didn't run all out. I took long walk breaks. Stopped for water and a pee a couple of times, and once I even sat down and enjoyed a banana in the warm April sunshine for a few minutes. But at the end of the workout, after more or less 7 hours in motion, I had run farther than my legs have ever taken me before. And I pushed the wall out past the point where I will ever have to face it in this race.

I'm not going win any awards in Cincinnati. But I'm going to PR. I won't hit my dream goal of running an hour faster than I did in Pittsburgh, but I'm going to run strong. And I'm going to hit that finish line knowing that if I had to, I could knock out another four miles, just to show off.

Tomorrow, as you might imagine, is a rest day on my training schedule. Mrs P has some chores for me, and I might try to get to the pool for a little water jogging. But I also want to write about the run itself. I don't think I've ever had one quite like it. The combination of depression and distance can make for an interesting morning's work...

Peace,
Pennsy

Friday, April 19, 2013

#434: The Nothing

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour
Paralysed force, gesture without motion
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to deaths other Kingdom
Remember us - if at all - not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men
~ T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I woke up this morning in the land beyond tears, beyond pain. This is depression's more fearful realm: The Nothing.

I haven't been here for a long, long time. But I remember my last visit. It is burned in my memory. When I tell people I've been to the gates of Hell, this is the day I'm talking about.

It began with tears, like so many before it had done. Mrs P trying to start her day, me weeping in the bed, unable to move, unable to quiet my raving inner monologue, or to keep it in. Hate. Anger. Please, help me...

You have to go to the hospital. I'm calling the hospital. She dials and makes the arrangements. She knows the drill. She's taken plenty of sick children there.

And then the sudden quiet. I'm going to the nut house. I am being committed.

Welcome to the nothing.

In the shower, you barely feel the water as it runs down your body. You can't smell the soap. You don't hear the curtain rings as the slide away and the towel barely touches you as you dry yourself off. Clean underwear, of course. Won't need your phone. Won't need your keys. Why have you stopped crying?

It is raining as she drives you across town. How many times have you driven past the place? Wondered what went on there? Who are the poor souls who have to live inside? She slips the car into a parking spot, and you are walking. Opening the door. Reading signs. Payment at time of treatment. Visitors must check in. No phones, electronics, weapons. You sit, and she whispers to the woman at the desk. The TV blinks overhead.  Magazine unopened in your lap. Stare at the plant, your back to the windows.

A buzzer sounds, a door opens, a kind woman steps into the room and calls your name. Martha takes your hand, and you walk together into the hallway. It is empty. Clean. Soft light. Like a hotel. The doors swing silently and the magnetic lock latches behind you. You are not going back through that door. Not for a long time.

You sit together. The three of you. The kind lady takes your medical history. What has brought you here today? You answer with a voice you don't recognize, in tones you can barely hear. The furniture was once pretty, but has seen better days. Chips. Scratches. Little things that more loving hands might have mended. Wallpaper. Upholstery. The room smells of tears. She thinks it would be best to admit you. You agree and she goes to prepare the paperwork. Martha is crying. She is so sorry. "It's OK," someone says from inside your mouth. Why can't you feel your feet? Your face? Your chair? You are disappearing.

A pretty young lady comes in with a clipboard to talk about money. Insurance. Financial arrangements to be made. Her pretty lips move and her pretty face is sympathetic and gentle. Martha talks with her and their conversation seems to be taking place underwater. Now, the kind lady returns with a paper bag. I will need to remove my watch. My wallet. My jewelry. My belt. My shoelaces. They don't want me to hang myself.

One last kiss. Words. Follow me, please. Doors. So many doors. Each one with a buzzer, a metalic 'klunk". Silently opening... closing behind..."klunk." Turn into an exam room. more like a long, narrow closet with a curtain dividing the space in half. Please step behind the curtain and remove your clothes There is a second person here now. Another nurse with another clipboard. I step out. You need to remove your boxers, too. I slip them to the floor without comment, without feeling. Two strange women inspect my body. Noting every bruise. Every scratch. Turn around, please. You may dress now.

More buzzers. More doors. More kind faces. I am in a room with two beds. The mattress is plastic. The wooden shelves are bolted down. There are no rods, no hooks no hangers. The mirror over the sink is a metal plate, bolted to the wall. There are no sharp corners. No secure protrusions. No handle to unlatch the little window. You lie down on the air mattress and stare at the ceiling. Unblinking. Waiting.

And you feel nothing. You don't realize it, because you've never been here before, but you have entered depression's darkest room. You walked in the moment you agreed to come here. You are in The Nothing. It's a merciful place, in a way, because there is no pain here. No tears. No regrets. No shame. Nothing at all. You are invisible here. Unseeing and unseen, you sit alone, eyes wide open, jaw loose. muscles relaxed. This is the There But Not There. The Nothing.

And that's where I woke up today. For the first time all week, I am not crying as I type. I am not feeling anything at all. Twenty minutes ago I looked down and realized I wasn't wearing a shirt. I must be cold. I should finish dressing. Love doesn't hurt today. I'm not sure what could hurt me here.

It doesn't last forever, I remind myself. I am not alone. I am loved. I am a child of God. I am in the darkness, but the darkness is not me. I will not disappear. My light will not go out completely.

The words give me no comfort, though I know they are true. There is an ember of hope inside. An observer with a clipboard would see emotionless stillness. But there is a war raging inside. A war for my soul. Cancer has hardened me. Depression doesn't know who it's messing with. Tomorrow I will run. Today, I will wait here. In depression's darkest room. I do not feel afraid. I do not feel anything at all. The disease cannot touch me. Nothing can touch me here. Tomorrow I will run. For my life.

Peace,
Pennsy

Thursday, April 18, 2013

#434: The In-Between Time

I wish I could explain why Neil Young is stuck in my head these days. In the Bluegrass, we talk about the High Lonesome Sound. Neil is the wild haired Canadian master of that mountain cry. At moments, his strange voice can ache and smile at the same time. His rendition of Long May You Run was one of the highlights of the Calgary Olympics for me. Tonight, he is blessing my tired soul.

I spent the morning calling doctors. Making appointments. Talking with Mum so she wouldn't find out about all this on Facebook. Holding back the tears. "Just keep talking to me," she asked. "I would rather know than worry." I told her things were under control. Mrs P is here. No need to grab the "Bob Bag" and jump in the car just yet. In fact, I might like to spend some time up there, running in the mountains. Reading on the porch. Smelling spring as it wraps itself around the hardwoods. "It's going to take a while for me to get myself together for the drive, though. I don't think I can cry all the way from Lexington to Limestone." Mum's answer caught me by surprise and caught my heart in my throat. "I've done that. It's not much fun." I don't see how there can be anything in the universe as powerful as my mother's love.

Had a nice green salad... left overs from my tearful lunch with Mrs P yesterday. The dogs teased me for croutons, then sprang out the back door woofing at every sound that came in through the open windows. Friends reached out to me with text and email and chat messages. Cyber compassion is as good as the old fashioned kind, I promise you. I wept at the loving words. The tears flow without sense or reason. They wash over me like the spring wind blowing the running shirt hanging on the line.

When I was in the hospital, going to the gym to play volleyball was the first thing that made me feel alive again. I knew that I needed to move. Under the afternoon sun, I started the mower and plowed into the dandelions that filled my front lawn with gold. I hated to see them go, but there's rain in the forecast, and they would soon have gone to seed or grown too heavy with rain to cut. As the engine roared along, I found myself thinking about the Y, the people I had let down. The way I had left... frightened and sobbing. I started to blubber there in broad daylight, hoping that the sound of the mower covered my voice as I pushed on. When I finally finished the yard, I shut off the motor and came inside, unable to muffle my grief.

Mrs P ran in from her office, startled by the sound. "Are you OK? Did something happen?"

"No," I cried. "I just don't want them to remember me that way. Running away."

"That isn't how they remember you. They love you."

She brought me a cold cloth and held it on the back of my neck until my shoulders stopped shaking.

"I didn't cry like this for my father when he died. Not when my high school sweetheart left me or my college lover told me she was seeing someone else. I've never cried like this in my life."

Mrs P said, "Maybe these are tears you should have shed. Maybe your heart has been filling with tears for a long time. For the people you love who have cancer. For the ones who died. For Molly and Buddy and Mo and all the animals we've lost. Maybe your heart has broken open to let all of the tears out."

My God, what a woman I married.

Before dinner, I went out for a run. Oh the sweet mercy of the road. Feet tapping the pavement. Breathing smoothly in time with each step: in-two-three, out-two-three-four. Just two miles of sidewalks, but enough to quiet the grief for a while. I can still run. I am still alive.

Tonight, I type in the den. Neil Young's voice soothes my ears. The dogs soft breathing surrounds me as they stretch out on the couch and the floor around my desk. My eyes are moist, but not flowing. My heart is heavy, but not choking me. This is the in-between time. I don't know why all this is happening, but I am so grateful for the time between fits of sorrow. I am so grateful for the mercy of the friends I've disappointed  and for the understanding of the ones who have traveled this dark road themselves. Can you feel shame and joy at the same time? Humility and humiliation in one gasp?

Part of me wishes I could just go to sleep and wake up and be all better and raring to go. But I know that isn't going to happen. It would be easier for me to wake up and be back to Wednesday morning, before the hurting, before the tears.

I have often said that our hearts break so God can come in. I believe that's true. But Mrs P is also right. Maybe our hearts break so the tears can get out. Maybe that's why my friends' love hurts so much right now. My heart is too full of tears to hold their kindness as well. I pray God will be there to fill it back up again once they have all been wept away.

Peace,
Pennsy


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

#431: Depression: It's The Shame

It's not the sadness that gets you. It's the shame.

It's knowing that when the going gets tough, you will cave.

The People who counted on you, who relied on you to be there? They're going to find out they were wrong.

I cannot remember a day when I felt more ashamed than I do today. I have just walked away from the best job and the best people I have ever known. I sat weeping like a baby in the Director's office, trying to explain how the Miraculous Cancer Boy Who Didnt Die could be beaten by his own broken heart. He was very kind.

"Leave of Absence." Sounds as if I am taking a semester to study in Oxford.

I wrote about every step of my cancer journey on these pages. I. Don't see how I can do that about my depression. There are people who know this pain from the inside. Who might find comfort from my story, the way some have from that other battle. But this isn't about a sick body. My mind is sick. People I love are part of the confused blur in my imagination. I can't trust anything I think or say. I am afraid of things that I can't explain.

It's the sobs that are always stuck in your throat.

The tears that take you by surprise when you're driving your car.

When I wrote about cancer, I felt like a warrior. Now, I just feel like a pathetic exhibitionist. I'm gonna have to stop writing for a while, I think.

This disease is never going away. It has no cure. It wont always be this bad, but it will always be a part of my life. It will not kill me. It has come close in the past. Closer than any carcinoma ever did. But it will not break my soul the way it has broken my mind. As long as I can run, I can live. Mrs P loves me with a power that no chemical brain storm can overcome. I have good docs. good friends. A god who loves me and has brought me here for a reason. I'm not going to die from a broken heart.

But sweet Jesus, it hurts.

And I am so very ashamed.

And I am so very sorry.

Peace,
Pennsy

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

#430: Happy Birthday, Pennsy

Fat Man Sitting



Well, young man, you made it.Three years ago today the doc told you that the lump in your neck was cancer. He said he'd gotten everything he could find. Remember? You thought to yourself, "Wow, that was easy. Cancer isn't such a big deal after all."

April 15, 2010
You've lost a lot since that day. In many ways, you're the same guy you always were. Still pretty selfish. Still love the sound of your own voice a bit too much. Still get depressed sometimes. Death passed you by, but that dark, Presbyterian soul of yours still gravitates toward the shadows rather than the bright sunlight. The temper is still there, lurking. The ego, too. Still want to be the smartest guy in the room. The radiation killed the cancer, but it couldn't kill your pride.

Fat Man Shrinking
But you've gained a lot.. You have a new body. Slimmer. Stronger. Yes, your neck looks a little weird, and there's a hole where the doc cut away a lot of muscle tissue, but from the neck down, you're a new man.  Your face has changed, too. There are cheekbones and a chin where big, round pillows of fat used to hang. The mouth looks a little smaller over your false teeth. The beard is a lot whiter, and there are a couple of places under the jaw where it doesn't really grow any more.

After the Pittsburgh Marathon
You have a new heart, too. You've been looking all your life for a way to help people; a way to change the world. You have that now. They come to you, looking for help. Sometimes they need someone to push them. Other times, they just need someone to listen. You used to wait for payday to tell you why you went to work. Now, you get paid every day. You know why you're alive. You have a purpose. You are a warrior.

You've done things you never even dreamed of. Before, if anyone had told you you could run a marathon, you would have thought it was a cruel joke. You love people for who they are. You still judge sometimes, but more often than not, you see the light under their brokenness. You're a better man, a better son, a better friend, a better husband than you ever were before cancer came into your life.


There are some tough things, too. The teeth are a hassle. You get tired a lot faster. People are always telling you what an inspiration you are, how your story gives them hope and strength. That's a lot to carry on one good shoulder. You worry about what would happen if you ever fall under the weight of all that love.

During your treatment, you once asked a friend, "What if I live through all this, and come out the same asshole I always was?" She smiled. "Don't worry about that. This will change you." And she was right. You have something that you never knew before.

You have joy.
Fat Man Running

Some burdens will always be with you. There will be hard times and losses and disappointments. People will keep getting sick, and some of them will die. Friends will come and go and you will grieve loosing them. The shadows will always be there.

But so will the light.

That doesn't come from you. You know that, now. The light is a gift from God. It is a reflection of the love that people shine on you every day. Mrs P. Coach. Mum. Christy, Steve. Sandy. LaDonna. It would take hours to list them all. You glow in their light and your joy is their mirror. If you are different, it is because you have finally learned how to let their light shine from you. You can't do it on your own. But they can do it for you. And they do.

Happy birthday, Fat Man. You were saved from death for a reason, and that reason reveals itself to you every day. Keep serving it. Keep loving. Keep living. God has more work for you to do. Keep working.

Your race is a long way from being finished, son.

Run on, Fat Man. Run on.

Peace,
Pennsy

Monday, April 15, 2013

#429: What's Past is Prologue

What's past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge ~ The Tempest Act 2, scene 1.

As I conclude this look back at some of the highlights of my cancer journey, I realize just how good a teacher cancer has been to me. So many lessons...


Tuesday, May 18, 2010


#163 What we might be...

Since I became ill, I have experienced mercy, compassion, and generosity in the most remarkable way. People have poured out their hearts, their hours, and their pocketbooks to Mrs P and me in a demonstration of gratuitous love that leaves me awestruck. It occurred to me last night that this is who me might be.

If we choose, we might be a people who share one another's burdens.

Who build one another up and encourage one another to succeed.

We might be a people who treasure and shelter one another from life's unfairness and cruelty.

Had we the will, we might be companions who make one another feel stronger, more capable, more known.

We might create places where our neighbors could bring their fears and find solace and comfort. Maybe not always understanding, but always acceptance.

The world might be such a place. Or the church. Or our heart.

Cancer is teaching me what beautiful, holy people we might be... what a world we might share...



Thursday, May 20, 2010


#166: Don't Tell Mama

She is stronger than I will ever be, and I spent three weeks "protecting" her from the truth. Maybe I wanted to be in control of at least a small part of my situation. Or maybe I was protecting both of us from having to face the possibility. "It isn't real if you don't say it out loud." What actually happened was that I gave her all that time to worry. Helplessly. I realize now how cruel my kindness had been. I gave her no opportunity to help, so all she could do was fear and pray. The people who love us deserve better than that.

Don't tell Mama, but I'd be lost without her. On second thought, go on and tell her. Mum always knows anyway.




Saturday, May 22, 2010


#168: This is Happening to Us

The days between the PET scan and our next meeting with Dr. Colin were distracted. The nights were filled with unblinking stares at the blackness above our bed. Long fearful silences. "Denial" is as good a word as any.

Kammy was the first to notice at work. She is a young woman (nearly everyone is young at work) who pretends to be a silly girl to hide her intuitive compassion.

"You aren't as cheerful as usual today," she observed in that musical Congolese dialect of hers. "What's wrong?"

My candor took me by surprise. "I've been having some tests. The Doctor thinks I might have Cancer." It was the first time I'd said it out loud. Her response was honest and startling.

"I hope you don't. I don't want you to die."

And there it was, out in the air. Together, we had given my silent fear a voice. It was the first of many times I would realize how much I share my condition with the people who know and love me.

The day the Doctor gave us his opinion, Mrs P took it harder than I.

"I can't say for certain that it's Cancer, but if it walks like a duck... There is no time to lose with this. If you delay..."

I finished his thought, bad habit. "It will just keep growing."

The Doc corrected me sternly, "It will take your life." This was not a joke.

It was a lot to take in. We rode the elevator down to the lobby and left. In the car, Mrs P started to cry. I was angry about the insurance. She was frightened about the diagnosis.

"I just don't understand why God is letting all this happen to you.."

I would deal with God later. "This isn't happening to me. This is happening to us."

What Kammy had taught me, what I wanted Mrs P to know was that I knew this was a burden we would share. I would not have the luxury of playing the victim. This was going to hurt everyone who cared about me, starting with her.


Saturday, June 12, 2010


#182: What Cancer Can't Kill


"How are you today, Miss April?"

"Honey, any day I get up out of bed is a good day."

There may come days when getting up is not an option for me. But still, morning will feel like a victory.

I think I'm finding out who Pennsy is. He walks. He walks like an old man, hobbling around the block. Maybe a 10th of a mile, once or twice a day. But by God, the Fat Man is Walking. Morning is best. The night can feel like a coffin, sometimes. Walking feels like life.

I know there may come a time when Cancer takes that, too. It's not something I would welcome. I have yet to come to terms with my own mortality, I promise you. Mrs P's Mamma once told me, "They all say I should stay home like a sick old lady. Well, I'm not gonna do it. When death comes for me, he's not gonna find me lying in my bed, he's gonna have to come looking for me running the roads in my old car."

Well when he comes looking for Pennsy, he's gonna find this Fat Man Running.


Saturday, July 31, 2010


#240: I Know You...

I know you... It's an unspoken nod of recognition. We members of the cancer fraternity can spot one another in the halls, in the waiting rooms. In the parking lot while one of us is waiting for a ride, the other will smile. I know you... Today, waiting for the elevator, the door opened and our eyes met. He was emaciated and was wearing the mask that the hardcore chemo people wear. He avoided touching the buttons or the door has he tried to hold it open for Mum and me. We smiled. "I know you. I know your struggle. Keep fighting."

No words are exchanged.  They are unnecessary between us, and meaningless to others. No matter how devoted our caregivers, they can never know us the way we know one another. A silent nod. Nothing more need be said.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010


#259: What the Old Timers Know

The head and neck cancer support group was much less scary yesterday. They reminded me how really badly I was doing just four weeks ago. I was making progress without even realizing it.

Last month I was scared by the stories of people whose sense of taste took two or three years to get back to normal. Some people never get all the way back. Yesterday those same stories gave me hope. You can recognize the long time survivors because they are so positive and encouraging. Those of us closer to treatment are more worried, but the folks who actually make it for years are the ones who keep hoping for the best. I talked a little about my anxiety, and they just kept telling me, "You're gonna be fine." And I will be fine. Whatever the outcome of today's scan, I'll be fine. I'll still have great doctors and people who love me. I'll still have God, no matter how frustratingly silent God seems to be. And I'll still have this blog to share my story with people who need to hear it.

It's gonna be fine.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


#268: Saying "Yes" to Now


There is something sort of funny about this spiritual awakening of mine. I've spent most of the year angry and doubting God. Just at the time when I would have expected to lean on Jesus the most, I felt the most alone. Now that the danger has past, I've started to realize just how present God has been. God may not have felt close, but the people God sent sure were. They answered "Yes" when God told them to call or send an email or make a casserole. God was present in the faithful people who cared about me.

Maybe that's as good a definition of faith as any. Faith is saying "Yes," to life. "Yes," to love. "Yes," to now.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012


#407: 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon


Mrs P and my sister, Beth had managed to sneak into the VIP grandstands. It wasn't too hard, since the winners had finished over 4 hours earlier. I saw them cheering and snapping pictures just as I passed and their smiles gave me the last boost I needed to run across the finish line. A lady handed me my medal. Two young girls doused me with water. I staggered to a photo area where a man snapped my picture and handed me a business card. I guzzled Gatorade and water and grabbed a banana before wandering to a bench at the entrance of Point Park and prayed that the girls would somehow stumble across me. We embraced. "We did it," I said to Mrs P. "YOU did it," she corrected me. "WE did it," I insisted. "We kicked cancer's ass." My sister looked at the two of us and said, "You sure did." "We did it," I repeated. "F**k cancer." "Yeh," my little sister affirmed, "F**k cancer."

Nobody loves you like your little sister


My God, what a great day for a run.

Friday, April 13, 2012


#403: Getting Cancer is the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

I've only said that out loud a couple of times. Now that I've written it down for the first time, it looks even crazier than it sounds.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2-3)
Look, people go through worse than I did every day. I'd rather go through 10 years of chemo than a day of combat in Afghanistan. Every time a single mom comes into the Y, trying to get financial assistance so her kids can go to camp, or a divorced dad comes in to find a way to help the family he can no longer share a home with, I realize how much worse things could be for me. What if it had been Mrs P, and not me? What if Mum hadn't been able to come and stay with us for half a year? What if there had been no hospital that would treat us when my insurance stopped paying? What if there had been no family to help us when the bank finally foreclosed on our house? Believe me, I know how blessed I am.

But that's not what I mean when I say getting cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me. I'm talking about what happened to me because I got cancer.

Cancer's greatest lesson is patience. Cancer treatment is all about set-backs and changes in plan. I don't think I know anyone whose treatment has gone by the book. To overcome an elusive opponent, you have to be willing to accept the surprises and change your tactics. Cancer teaches you patience, and patience nurtures hope. That's true in the radiation clinic, and it's true in the gym. Healing takes time. You have to trust that truth, and you have to be patient enough for hope to come. Getting cancer taught me that.


There's something else, too. One of my favorite sayings is, "There are an awful lot of things that used to be important to me." 
  • How I look
  • How little money I make
  • The disrespect of strangers
  • Dreams that didn't come true
This stuff used to camp out in my head, filling my quiet hours with shame and regret. Now, when I look at my life all I can do is thank God for the chance to open my eyes; to feel the sun; to hear my wife breathing softly beside me in bed; to spend 10 minutes scouting around the yard picking up dog poop in a plastic bag. Every breath I draw is a blessing: a chance to love my life, my wife, my God, my neighbors. Nothing else is really important.

Jesus prayed for the cup of Calvary to pass from him, and I would have prayed the same words about the cup of cancer. But I could never have imagined the strength and renewal that bitter drink would give me. I know now that there is nothing that I can't live through, no battle that I can't fight to the finish. I have seen that strength in other cancer fighters, and for the first time in my life, I can feel it in myself. It is strength that comes from inside me, but it is also the strength of all the people who love and support me. Their prayers and kindness make me stronger, and together we can endure anything. 


Renewal? Oh, yes. I don't ask, "Why am I here?" any more. I know why I'm here. I've been called to preach. My sermon? Cancer can kill us, but it can never defeat us if we live strong. Every waking moment, that story is my life's work. A day doesn't go by that I don't encounter at least one person who needs to hear it. There are probably a lot more who are sick of me going on and on about it, but there may come a time when they'll need it, and I'm going to make sure I'm here to tell it - to live it.

My prayer for you is that you won't have to get cancer to learn the things it taught me. You are blessed. You are stronger than you can imagine. You are not alone. You were created to do wonderful, amazing things. You can make the world a better place than you found it. I know those things about you, even if you don't know them about yourself yet. And knowing that about you, has changed me in more ways than I can count or recognize. 

Cancer isn't evil. It's just a blob of crazy cells fighting for their lives. Our real opponent isn't disease. Our enemy is death: not just the death that puts you in a box in the ground, but also the death that kills your spirit and leaves you walking around empty and afraid. Getting cancer gave me the antidote to death. The prescription is one part purpose and one part love. Repeat as needed.

Being a cancer fighter means fighting for life. That's why I'm here. That's what getting cancer gave me. I'm not grateful to cancer. And I won't pretend I'm grateful for the days spent puking or the nights spent shivering while I wondered what would become of Mrs P when I was gone. I don't treasure one moment that I spent with the disease in my body. 


But I'm grateful as hell for what it left behind.

Peace,

Pennsy
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