Thursday, April 17, 2014

You got me covered

I'm cold.
I know, things are finally warming up outside. Or at least that's what the calendar indicates ought to be happening out there. But it's gonna take more than a few semi-sunny, 60-degree days to bake the chill from my bones.
Like nearly everything, from my faulty memory to my whirling stomach to my numb and tingly feet, I blame chemotherapy. Because thanks to a head that is suddenly more bare than the bottom half of a bouncing baby boy, and a body style that has gone from pleasing and plump to scary and skinny, I'm absolutely freezing most of the time.
Lucky for me, the chilly-willies, like almost every chemo-effect, have inspired a happy, gratifying display of kindness on the part of many folks around these parts. In other words, they've got me covered in a generous variety of warm, wondrous ways.
Like the hand-me-down I received from one dear friend; a one-of-a-kind electric lap robe that had belonged to her late father. It's the perfect sidekick to my recliner and the wool cap I wear when I'm really shivering. Just plug it in, turn it on, lean back and wait to be enveloped in a soft, soothing cloud of essential warmth.
That same friend was the angel who delivered a handmade prayer shawl from the ladies at the First United Methodist Church in Galva.  It's cool and cozy and remarkably masculine thanks to its unique knitted pattern:
It is, believe it or not, camouflage.
Or what I refer to as a "camo-chemo" blanket.
The FedEx man delivered a surprise gift from my oldest pal, a former childhood neighbor who has remained one of my closest friends through the years, despite the fact that she moved to California with her family way back in grade school. She turned her quilting skills into a thick, cozy blanket with a bright jungle theme that has been such a hit since its arrival that my grandkids and I battle over it nearly every evening.
My youngest grandson, John Patrick, was the bearer of the most recent fuzzy treasure when I received a big, billowy bundle from his class at Visitation School. Mrs. Fite's kindergartners each sent a sweet, special note, which accompanied a message from her explaining that the lovely shawl enclosed was the work of the talented ladies from Kewanee's First Methodist Church.
"Here, Grandpa!" he exclaimed as he thrust the package into my arms.
He watched carefully as I unwrapped it, and crawled into my lap as I looked at the first of the notes, then slowly held the shawl to my face. Like all the blankets that have come my way, it was wonderful and beautiful. I breathed deep and felt myself filled with the love and peace and prayers it contained.
In short, it was pretty well perfect.
Well, maybe just maybe a little damp around the edges.
I think you know what I mean.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Just like kids

Something startling happened the other day.
The sun came up.
The birds sang.
The grass turned green.
The flowers bloomed.
And spring sprung, just like that.
Well, maybe the wondrous transformation from the last stubborn days of winter to the first festive breaths of spring has been a little less instantaneous than all that.
But, by golly, it's happening.
It's happening now.
We've had a great time hanging out with our youngest grandsons in the big old house on the park.  As those final days of winter began to slowly unwind,  they were quick to learn just how great it is to live right across the street from playgrounds, a ball field, basketball courts and a seemingly endless field of greener-by-the-day grass, bushes and trees.
And then there's the kids.
And that's the biggest deal of all.
Our grandboys have always lived out in the country, so the idea of an in-town, residential neighborhood jam-packed with ready playmates is all new to them.
Until now.
Suddenly, they have the sweet freedom to go and do and run and play and have fun.
Just like kids. With other kids.
Doesn't get any better than that.
"Your columns seem a little shorter than they used to be."
I've had a couple of folks tell me this recently, and I'm pretty sure they're right. But, I think I've got a darn good excuse.
Or at least it's kind of interesting.
It's a well-known condition experienced by cancer patients that includes a whole host of enviable symptoms:
• Difficulty concentrating on a single task
• Problems with short-term memory
• Forgetting details of recent events
• Feeling mentally “slower” than usual
• Confusing dates and appointments
• Misplacing objects
• Fumbling for the right word or phrase
Now, if these all sound a trifle familiar, they should, for some of us, at least. But instead of being forced to chalk it up to "life" or "age" or some other convenient excuse, I've got an actual scientific condition to blame it on.
It's a real term used to describe thinking and memory problems that can occur after cancer treatment. It can be called chemotherapy-related cognitive impairment or cognitive dysfunction.  But the best name I've heard for the condition is my favorite, because it gets right down to the point.
Chemo Brain.
Heck, it could have been my nickname in high school.
Speaking of chemo and kids, my last trip to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago included an ample helping of both. With my normal Wednesday-afternoon appointment changed to Friday morning because of scheduling difficulties, we brought along the grandsons, who were out of school due to parent-teacher conferences. Suffice it to say, the presence of an eight-year-old and his six-year-old brother changed the entire scope of the visit, starting with a Thursday-night arrival and a visit to the Lego store at Water Tower Place, which is just up the street from the hospital and the hotel where we sleep when we need to stay over.  The grandma-lady also forced the recalcitrant duo to step into the dreaded American Girl store, though they were quick to dash back out into the hall, gasping for breath and mercy. The evening capped off with dinner at an entirely kid-centric bistro called the Rain Forest Cafe, where animatronic monkeys, snakes, leopards and gorillas stared at me all night, while fake thunder rumbled through the faux-jungle.
I draw the line at making my favorite little boys watch me sit through a slow six-hour chemo drip, so the next day, the boys got to meet the nice people at the 21st-floor cancer center at Northwestern before leaving for the Field Museum and its bountiful bevy of dinosaurs and other great exhibits.
Just like kids.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Call me Dr. Jones

There's a lot to be said for home ownership. Especially, I think, when the house in question is nearly 150 years old. The big old barn of a place we call home is a pretty cool place to live in, no doubt. But when it comes to the never-ending torrent of repairs and cleaning projects needed to keep our ancient abode from crumbling down around our ears, things can get a little dicey.
Did I say "a little?"
O.K. A lot.
After my hard-working spouse retired from over 35 years of elementary school teaching, we enjoyed the opportunity to spend a good part of the next three years on the North Carolina shore, while getting to know our youngest grandsons. The added bonus of a beachfront lifestyle kept us tan, happy and, well, relatively impoverished, too. Meanwhile, the old home place kept getting older.
Just like us.
So now that we're back in the Land of Lincoln for an extended period of time, it seems like we need to get, uh, serious.
Kind of.
Ergo, I've got an answer to the challenging mounds of indescribable stuff I need to sort and sift through. Because, here's the thing...
I always thought it would be kinda cool to be an archeologist, anyway.
It was a dream that faded a bit when I mentioned it to my high school guidance counselor. He, not unkindly, reminded me that archeology, like rocket science and brain surgery, required some talent, or a least interest, in heretofore unexplored subjects like science and math. Wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, he gently sent me toddling off to typing class, the fiction section of the library, and my eventual alternate career path.
But I still thought it would be interesting and fun, even, to dig up mummies, old bones and pieces of ancient pottery.
So, now is my chance.
It's been awhile since we've done a thorough "sort, discover, file & pitch" procedure in the vast, winding depths beneath our house.  Our basement, like the rest of the place, is old and extensive. And while we've cleaned it many times before, there's always a lot of stuff to go through. Part of it has to do with the fact that my sons are the fifth generation of Sloans to live in Galva. My mom's family came to town a little later, in the early 20th century, which just added to the accumulation of clutter, plus we inherited a plethora of papers, letters, books, photos, household items and other miscellanea after my mother-in-law passed away nearly 10 years ago. We've attacked a few tubs full of those treasures now and then, but there's always a more comprehensive bit of exploration a-waiting just around the corner.
"I feel like I'm one of those American Pickers in my own basement," she said, as she waded through a pile.
I, on the other hand, felt more like I was finally getting to live my high school dream.
"These are the ruins of the Galva people," I intoned in my best professorial voice. "They were hunter-gatherers who never, ever threw anything away."
Best, though, was my sudden inspiration for a brand-new Indiana Jones movie.  I couldn't help imagining the evil Nazis pinning Indy against the hot water heater, while grasping the valiant cat Max by the scruff of his neck.
"Zo, Dr. Jones. You vill tell us ze location of ze 1928 Galva phone book, or ze little cat dies."
Yep, there's one of those down there. And more. Lots more.
Now you might think what I really I need to equip myself with would be a rugged leather jacket, a scary-looking bullwhip and one of those cool slouch hats like Indy wore in the movies. But I've got a better idea, i think.
I figure all I really need is a dumpster.
And a stop watch.
Because here's my plan.
Dig deep.
And ditch it.
Before the place gets any older.
Me, too.
Meanwhile, just call me Dr. Jones.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A letter from a friend

You might not believe me, but there are a whole bunch of good things about battling cancer. Like food. because, as I've mentioned before, losing a lot of weight has the undeniable power to make others want to feed you.
A lot.
That fact has happily manifested itself in a steady stream of goodies via many of our friends and neighbors. My health-conscious brother, who normally considers kale chips and desiccated prune pulp a bit wild and reckless, has discovered and shipped whole bagfuls of chocolate chip cookies that claim to be as healthy as they are tasty, while my spouse, who has dedicated big chunks of our married life to making me eat right, has been quick to trot out hearty helpings of things like chocolate-covered, bacon-wrapped jelly beans if I'll just agree to eat them.
But along with the edible goodies that have headed my way are an equally sweet stream of greetings and good wishes and hugs and prayers from those same beloved friends, neighbors and family members. And while they are all much appreciated and entirely treasured, I can't help but find the messages I receive from a certain most special group of people the most amazing of all.
Like the letters I receive from total strangers.
Every once in awhile, a look in my mailbox reveals a note or card from someone I've never met before.
"Who's it from?" she asks.
"Well," I reply. "I don't really know."
But I do. And that's what's good about cancer.
Because I have discovered that I live in a world where some people are nice and thoughtful and just plain good enough to take a minute to do something incredibly kind.
To send good wishes.
To reach out.
To express some hope.
To share a prayer.
And when it happens, I realize just how lucky I am.
"Who's it from? she asks. "A fan?"
Then we laugh.
Not a fan.
A friend.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The first call of a sweet season

We meandered our way over to Bishop Hill last Sunday after church in search of a sandwich and a quick cup of soup at my buddy the baker's place. While still quite a bit cooler than one would hope for on a late-March day, it was sunny, bright and beautiful outside. I found myself feeling a good bit better that morning, and it was just the kind of day made for a slow drive down a country road with something good to eat at the end of it. We got to the colony and pulled in just across from the old park, then sat for a minute to prepare ourselves for the plunge into the cold, windy day.
"Pee-wee, pee-wee."
"Did you hear that?" I asked.
"The birds," I said. “Listen.”
She paused. She listened.
"Pee-wee, pee-wee."
"I hear them," she smiled.
There are certain signs we all look for as spring takes its gentle hold and we anticipate the slow move into early summer and the warm, wonderful days that follow.  For some, it’s the sighting of the first robin, while others wait for tulips and daffodils to make their appearance. The sight of newborn calves in nearby fields is a true sign of what's coming next, as are the new bursts of tiny color along the sunwarmed beds by the foundation of my house. But for me, a first, most reliable harbinger of the sweet season will always be the same.
Peewees, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, are “any of eight species of birds of the genus Contopus named for its call, which is monotonously repeated from an open perch.”
Monotonous or not, my mother loved the sound they made as they joined into the celebratory songfest that returns to our neck of the woods each year.
“Listen, I hear a peewee,” she’d say.
“Pee-wee, pee-wee,” she’d call back in a high, clear voice that always made me imagine the girl she always seemed to be.
Sometimes, they would even seem to answer her, or, at least, that’s what she thought. And the back-and-forth cry would continue on and on into the day and the season.
"Pee-wee, pee-wee,"
I can hear them.
I can still hear her, as well.
Spring is on the wing.
It must be coming soon.

Two day later, I awoke to a fresh blanket of snow. The morning sun dazzled off the roof outside my bedroom as the winter wind rattled the windows.
That's the thing about spring in Illinois.
It comes when it wants to. And not a moment sooner.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ain't so bad

"How are you feeling?"
It's a question I hear fairly often nowadays, and I understand why.
After all, the potent chemotherapy I'm undergoing to fight the super-duper mystery-cancer that is rattling around in my body has got me looking both ghastly and ghostly, a fact that becomes more than clear to me every time I accidently glance into a mirror and see a pale, bald specter who looks--in my opinion--like the unfortunate love child of Tooter Turtle and that scary Lord Voldemort guy from the Harry Potter movies.  Now that I approach the six-months-of-chemotherapy mark, I realize that what they told me about it back in the beginning is probably true, as steadily and inexorably the cumulative effect of dumping powerful, cell-killing poisons into an already battling body takes its toll and leaves me feeling like I've either got a really nasty case of the flu or the kind of cataclysmic hangover that occurred the morning after the first time someone back in my college days convinced me that mixing grape juice and Everclear grain alcohol was a good, fun way to spend a Saturday night. I mean, here's what I can tell you about being sick from chemo.
It's unique.
There's nothing I can say to someone who hasn't experienced it to compare it to any other kind of sickness. Queasy. Nauseous. Achy. Weak. BLAH.
But here's something else I can tell you.
It ain't so bad, after all.
Back before I got into this pickle, if you had asked me what the worse thing would be about taking on cancer, I would have said chemotherapy. I would have said that the thing I feared more than anything else would be having to go through the whole bald/sick/pale/puny experience that is so often part of the medical treatment cancer patients face. Now, thanks to advances in medicine, many of the side effects have been greatly reduced, but frankly, it's still no trip to Disneyland.  But here's what I've got to say about that.
It's worth it.
"Chemo makes you sick, but cancer kills you," is the to-the-point comment I read in one online forum dedicated to the pros and cons of cancer treatment. And, hey, if there's one thing I've learned during this whole life-threatening experience, it's that life is entirely worth living.
It's worth it every time I talk to my sons and share a story, a joke or learn the latest about their jobs and families. It's worthwhile whenever I hear the newest adventures of my older grandchildren, or see the smiling faces of my youngest ones at breakfast or when they come home from their happy, rewarding days at Visitation School.  And it's especially fulfilling whenever she and I laugh and dream and remember and plan for a future we are absolutely determined to spend together.
Meanwhile, I'm feeling kind of yucky today. And I guess there's a pretty good chance I will feel that way again tomorrow, though I think I'm starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
But it ain't so bad.
Ain't so bad, after all.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Giving it up for all the right reasons

"I think I'll give up the X-Box."
For those of you lucky enough to not know, "X-Box" refers to an electronic game system my grandsons possess and squabble over whenever they play with it. For eight-year-old  Cyrus to offer to forego gaming for the season of Lent seemed tantamount to sacrificing life-giving essentials like air, water and peanut butter. This special spring season and the sacrifice it commemorates have already been steady topics around our mealtime table and, I suspect, the happy-blessed little Catholic school both Cyrus and young John Patrick have attended since their arrival in the Land of Lincoln.  And while it's obvious that none of us can come near to matching the kind of supreme sacrifice offered by the Son of God, it doesn't do any of us a bit of harm to give it our best shot. For my spouse, that has meant--for the past million years or so--giving up every single snack food beginning with the letter 'c,' including cookies, chocolate, cake, crackers and chips.
I, on the other hand, have made a major sacrifice by eliminating both beets and turnips from my diet.
Well, actually, I'm gonna try to do my usual no-chocolate thing.  But after losing over 40 pounds due to the effect of both super-mystery cancer and the chemotherapy thingee that has followed, I am commanded to eat whatever sounds even remotely good by both my concerned spouse and the pesky nutritionist assigned to pack a few pounds on me.  This, of course, is not the worse thing that could happen, especially when there is still chocolate chip ice cream in the world.
But really, why do so many folks take the trouble to give things up this time of year?
According to one source that I found both interesting and convincing, Lent has its origin in the early days of the Church. Converts seeking to become Christian spent several years in study and preparation. Because of the threat of Roman persecution, becoming a Christian was serious business, so the process of preparation was intensive and included a final period of “purification and enlightenment” for the 40 days before baptism at Easter. The rest of the Church began to observe the season of Lent in solidarity with these newest Christians, and eventually it became an opportunity for all Christians to recall and renew the commitment of their baptism.
Giving up something for Lent is really just a form of fasting. We can deprive ourselves of some small pleasure or indulgence and offer that sacrifice up to God. Or we might “give up” a bad habit such as smoking or overeating as a way of positively turning our life back towards what God wants for us.
So maybe your mom was on to something when she had you give up Oreos or your favorite TV show as a child. Even an itty-bitty experience of want, however temporary, can help us to appreciate just how much stuff we really have in our lives. And a small positive change can have a big impact that lasts way beyond the 40 days of Lent.
And hey, just in case it seems like it's all too much, remember Cyrus, who had a solution well at hand when the grandma-lady and I asked him if 40 days without X-Box might be a little more sacrifice than he could manage.
"I've always got the Wii!" he said with a grin.
Kinda sounds like turnips and beets.