Thursday, May 29, 2014

There's hair up there

I looked in the mirror the other morning. That's an experience I mostly try to avoid, since over six months of chemotherapy have left me looking more like an aged, wizened chimpanzee than the virile young dude I still imagine in my mind's eye.
But as I gazed at my visage, I noticed something, well, not exactly new, but unexpected.
It's been several weeks since my last chemo-bomb, as my blood counts--both white and red--were too low to go any further with that treatment the last time they tried.
"Your bone marrow is pretty beat up," explained my oncologist.
And so, we waited. And we worried, because the chemo was doing a pretty good job of holding things in check, despite the unavoidable side effects that occur as a part of the package.
Meanwhile, because of the extended interruption in my chemo cycles, I started to actually re-grow some hair.  And while I gamely pursued that all-important task, the brains at Northwestern Memorial Hospital took a closer look at some earlier biopsy results.
They came up with some interesting news. Some good news, even.
"This is as good as it's gonna get," said the cancer doc in charge of an experimental program.
While I'm not  even close to being able to explain it all in scientific terms,  the tests studied mutations, genes and dna, then mixed in a double helping of good luck to reveal that I'm a good candidate for a clinical trial that will hopefully attempt to use targeted therapy to block the cancer and prevent further growth for awhile without the cell damage and nasty side effects that occur with the kind of big-time chemo I've been undergoing.
"We're excited," said the doc.
Me, too.
So now we wait some more while the i's are dotted, the t's are crossed, and the exact medical protocol is determined.
"Go home for awhile," said the doctor. "Rest. Try to gain some weight. Get stronger."
She headed for the door of the examining room, then turned back to us.
"And grow some hair," she smiled.
Will do.
I'm grateful, of course, for all the fantastic things those smart guys up there in Chicago can come up with. But I also know that the real solutions lie in another sphere altogether.
So thank you all from the very bottom of my heart for your positive thoughts and continued prayers.
God is good...all the time.
And so are you.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The wheels on the bus

It's that time again.
You know,
It's time for all those special spring things, like soft sweet breezes, unexpected freezes, baseball teams, swimming pool dreams, birds on the wing
...and one more thing.
You know, that special ceremony where young men and women put on their very nicest clothes, then cover them up with hot, shapeless, rented gowns, while topping things off with funny-looking hats that mostly look like something designed to throw like a frisbee.
"How could this possibly be?" she said, as she scanned the high school graduation photos in the paper. She is often kind of alarmed and always totally bemused by the passing of time, and the end-of-the-year ceremony that marks the end of this special phase of life is generally one of the most startling to her, especially when she spots familiar features in the rows of smiling faces.  As a former elementary school teacher who toiled in the same district for over three decades, she knows a lot of them.
And she remembers them, too.  She remembers the underachievers, the overachievers and the non-achievers.  She loved them all once upon a time, and now finds herself entirely unable to see them without recalling the children they were back then.

"I'm so glad to see he made it."
"I always knew she'd do well."
"I wonder if he ever learned how to tie his shoes."

And so the wheels keep turning. Time passes. Kids grow up. And like her fellow educators, both active and retired, she'll always remember them. Because she'll always be a teacher.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The things we do for love

"Are you going to write about the spitmobile?"
Well, yes. Maybe I will.
I cast a casual glance when grandma and her two most favorite passengers pulled into the driveway the other day. I had expected them to get home quite a bit earlier, but there's nothing especially unusual about a late arrival on the part of that jolly troupe of wanderers.
"Where have you been?" I asked.
"The dentist called right before I left to pick them up from school," she answered. "They had a cancellation, so I got the boys in for a checkup a whole two weeks early."
Lucky boys.
As I walked towards the car, I noticed streaks of a white, paint-like substance spattered on both sides just behind the back windows.
"What's that stuff?" I queried
"I took along their toothbrushes and some toothpaste," she replied.
My eyes were already beginning to roll.
"Well, they had to spit somewhere."
Ah, the things we do for love.
Now, I'm not one to complain.
Well, actually, I am.
But the fact is, our lives have been different ever since our youngest grandsons came to stay. And it's been nothing short of wonderful, especially for this old duffer, who, more than anything, needs the magic kind of medicine only they can provide.
But things have changed.
Like my so-called "man-cave," the set of rooms in the back of our big old house that was a garden apartment once upon a time. It's got a window-lined living room with a TV, a sectional couch and my beloved recliner; plus a bathroom, a teeny kitchen with no stove, but a fridge; and what was once a bedroom, which I gradually converted into a combination project area, computer room and music studio over the years.
Back when my own boys were small, I used it as a home office until they gradually encroached on the space when they entered their teenage years and needed room to eat, play video games and cards with their buddies, eat, drink every cold beverage in the house, eat, watch television and movies, eat, sleep all day every Saturday, and, uh. eat.
After they flew the nest, I cautiously moved back in, kind of like a hermit crab reclaiming a favorite shell.
When the little boys and their dad arrived on the scene, the grandma-lady quickly converted their Uncle Colin's old bedroom into a room the two youngsters could share. It's a large, high-ceilinged place, with windows facing the park across the street and plenty of space for a pair of beds, plus dressers, bookshelves, a desk for homework, and lots of play area.
"This will be perfect for them," she said, and we both blithely dreamed of a wholly unrealistic "Leave it to Beaver" kind of scenario, where quiet, well-mannered children stay and study and play in their rooms until called for mealtimes.
That, of course, was utter nonsense, as they installed their Wi and X-Box games, a foosball table, plus an amazing myriad of other kid-centric stuff into the erstwhile "man-cave" quicker than you can say, "hit the bricks, old man."
The things we do for love.
But fair enough. It's a big house.
The grandma-lady showed what a good sport she truly is when she agreed to celebrate Mothers' Day with a trip to Lou's, my favorite Peoria Drive Inn restaurant, thus giving me a chance to introduce the boys to the whole bot-to-be-missed experience of car hops, chili dogs and ice-cold root beer. From then, it was on to the zoo, where we wandered through a veritable wonderland of tigers, emus, rhinos and giraffes.
Not exactly up to the standards of the high tea I took her to a few years ago on her special day, I know.
But it's the things we do for love.
And she loved it.
Ordinary week days have changed, too, as I have transformed from a follower of a relaxed, robe-and-slippers-and-Charlie-Rose morning lifestyle into a breakfast-time short-order cook, homework-checker, shoe-finder and door-pusher-outer.
The things we do for love.
 But it's OK with me. Mornings are my best time anyway.
I've already whined about my trials as a freezing fan at early-season soccer.  I predicted I'd need to buy a cow, and our fridge and pantry are stocked with frozen waffles and pop tarts and colorful cereal boxes, instead of the grown-up stuff we used to buy. The park is now our main destination in the afternoons, and the movies I now watch before bedtime are likely to be both animated and G-rated.
The fact is, most of our nights have changed.
"Will you lie down with me, grandpa?"
Young John Patrick sleeps in a low, narrow bed that's just right for a six-year-old, but a little crowded for two. If they don't both cuddle in with their dad, it's usually the grandma-lady who gets the call from John, while I more often pile in with big brother Cyrus, who sleeps in a much bigger bed.
"Oh. All right," I said.
I figured I'd squeeze in and hope the little guy would fall asleep quick.
"Will you scratch my back, grandpa?"
"Oh brother," I thought.
I scratched for a minute or two, then gradually stopped. I slowly rolled onto my back and waited for him to settle down next to me. Quietly, in the bedroom darkness, I felt him turn toward me.
Without a word, he slid his warm little hand into mine.
Gently, sweetly, softly the little boy who lay next to me slipped into sleep.
The things we do for love.
Just for love.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The coldest days of all

I've always kind of liked winter sports. In my younger days, I was a dedicated ice skater, hockey player, snowball-maker and cross-country skier, while faithful readers of this column might remember a story I wrote a couple of seasons ago when I fulfilled a long-time dream and attended the U.P. 200, a long-distance dog sled race held in and around the cold, snowy forests of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Others might recall a bit of nonsense I penned back in 2010 regarding my alleged desire to take up the sport of curling after watching it during the Vancouver Olympics, though folks who really know me would surely attest that large sheets of ice and brooms are both things I tend to avoid with great alacrity.
But the fact is, parents and grandparents in the know will quickly agree that the coldest sports of all take place during yet another season.
You know, the one called "spring."
It's a phenomenon I first experienced back in the day when my own kids were young and I had a hand in running the Galva Youth Soccer League. While some dads and moms volunteered to help line the fields, drag the goals into position, or help with the concession stand, I had the worst job of all. Because I was the poor schmo who had to take an early look at the weather on Saturday mornings and decide whether we were going to brave the elements and play that day or not. It was the ultimate lose-lose situation, as half of the parents in town thought I was an absolute idiot when I chose to go ahead and play on those drizzly, extra-chilly spring mornings that seemed to occur almost every Saturday, while the other half questioned my manhood on the days I decided to call things off.
I kind of forgot about those cold April and May days until years later, when I undertook a second career of sorts as a sportswriter for the Star-Courier. Football season saw me wisely waddling up and down the sidelines wearing countless layers of sweatshirts, heavy sweaters and hooded parkas, while the long winter months dedicated to basketball helped me re-discover the fact that a late-night walk across a frozen parking lot after a few hours in an over-heated high school gym is a long walk, indeed.
But it got worse.
Though he was too kind to do it openly, I'm sure editor and sports guru Mike Landis chuckled the first time I showed up to cover a track meet or ball game dressed like I was headed for a day on Waikiki Beach.  But the fact is, nothing changes faster than the weather on a springtime afternoon. A quick shift in the wind is all it takes to change a sunny spring day into a gusty, mid-40s goosebump-fest.
I always wondered why those spring days seemed so darn wintry. Maybe it was because the truly nice weather that occurred now and then was just enough to soften me up from my wintertime toughness. Maybe it was because there's a lot of standing around involved in covering and photographing both track meets and ball games, which made it easier to catch a chill when the breeze suddenly blew out of the north and the sun dipped behind a cloud.
Or maybe I was just too stupid or stubborn to put on a sweater.
Or a stocking cap. Or that parka I wore at football games.
In any case, it's been a few years since I last worked the sports beat, and I guess I just forgot.
Until now.
I'm not the only one who struggles with the need to dress for the conditions. The other night, while watching the extra-innings contest between the Cubs and Sox, my spouse and I both remarked on the mode of dress as seen in the stands.
She: Those people look like they're dressed for the arctic.
Me: They should be. It's Wrigley Field in May.
Now that my young grandsons are on the premises, I find myself, once again, out in the elements as a freezing fan. Soccer season is in full bloom, while baseball practice is just beginning. While the current pickle I'm in with crazy-cancer and its accompanying slow-down side effects has prevented me from attending every single event, I'm doing my best to be a good, supportive grandpa and haul my chilled, rickety bones to the sidelines whenever possible.  Ergo, I found myself at a morning soccer game a couple of weeks ago, shivering in the cold, sunless wind.
Out on the field, the shorts-clad players seemed oblivious to the weather as they darted up and down after the ball.
But I was cold. Darn cold.
"Who," I wondered, "was the idiot who decided to play on such a freezing day, anyway?"
Then I remembered.
Because once upon a time, that idiot was me.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Looking for Dr. Right

(from Western Illinois Family Magazine)

Things change.
Once upon a time, my doctor was a guy my parents took me to on those rare occasions they felt I was suffering from a malady too complex for their considerable skills as untrained, but highly experienced primary care physicians. No, mom and dad didn't actually go to med school, but her background as an elementary school teacher blended well with his training as a pharmacist. In short, she almost always knew when I was faking it to avoid the algebra test I hadn't studied for, and he had a veritable treasure trove of foul-tasting elixirs that would serve to propel me from my sickbed faster than you can say "castor oil."
Back in those thrifty, self-reliant days, an actual visit to the doctor was sort of a last resort. The practitioners in my hometown were, with a single exception, male and possessing of a certain dignity that was unique to their lofty profession. Ergo, it seemed important not to waste their time with minor bumps and bruises or commonplace ills.  So, for us, an actual trip to the doctor's was generally the result of something untoward, and involved stitches, plaster casts and other extreme measures. In addition, most docs delivered babies and wrassled with tonsils and the odd appendix here and there, plus actually made house calls from time to time.
They were wise, relaxed and self-assured.  What's more, they were genuinely good people who truly cared about the patients they saw.
It wasn't until I had kids of my own that I encountered an actual specialist. The 70s and early 80s were probably a good time to choose a career in obstetrics or pediatrics, as the giant generation known as the baby boomers began producing a generation of their own. They were, therefore, often so darn overbooked that making an appointment felt a bit like auditioning for a role in a Broadway play.
They were busy, smart and often more patient with the children they treated than their dumb-brained parents.
Fair enough.
When I battled my way through a bout of advanced prostate cancer a decade or so ago, the kind, generous local specialist I saw recommended I move on up the so-called physician food-chain by seeking help at one of the university teaching hospitals that dot the midwest. Thanks to the internet, I was able to investigate universities, hospitals and doctors alike before finding a person and a place that seemed appropriate to my situation. The docs I encountered there were, on the whole, nice enough, and pretty darn smart, as well. But I was a little surprised to discover they were also a bit over-involved with the politics and quest for funding that often rule such places.
They were capable, ambitious and driven to succeed.
So it goes, I guess.
When some stubborn back pain began keeping me up at night several months ago, I conferred with a young chiropractic physician, who gave me what was probably the best, most important medical advice of my life.
"Go get a thorough scan," he said. "Something's wrong."
He was right.
The resulting CT Scan showed CUPS, a mysterious Cancer of an Unknown Primary Source that had spread to my liver, lymph system and bones.
"Uh oh," I thought. "Now what?"
Here's what.
Yet another internet search led me to a famous Chicago hospital, which was rated as one of the best in the whole world when it comes to cancer and the ways to treat it. I was a little startled when I first met the doctor assigned to my case.
First off, she was drop-dead gorgeous, which is, I know, both unimportant and an unfortunate choice of words when used to describe an oncologist dealing with serious cases. As I got to know her better, I also came to realize that she was an astute physician who, while relatively young, had already began making a name for herself as both a clinician and a scientist.
She had brains, curiosity and determination.
And something more, too.
It was after she called me at home one Sunday afternoon just to see how I was feeling that I understood how much more.  Because, just like those family doctors I first met when I was a boy, she was a genuinely good person who truly cared about me and my family.
She had hope. She had a heart.
Sometimes nothing changes.
Lucky me.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A most memorable May Day memory

Happy May Day, Comrades.
I imagine all of us who have reached a certain age remember seeing those scary news photos of the annual May Day parades that used to take place in Moscow and other cities in the Eastern Bloc. In many countries, May Day has long been a focal point for demonstrations by various socialist, communist and anarchist groups.  It has been an important official holiday in countries such as the People's Republic of China, North Korea, Cuba and the former Soviet Union. May Day celebrations typically featured elaborate military parades in these countries, with giant tanks, huge missiles on trailers, and rows and rows of stern-looking soldiers.
But in many other parts of the world, the first Day of May simply celebrates the first days of spring, like in Germany, where it coincides with the annual spring festival called Walpurgisnacht.  Most of my thoughts of the day are quite happy ones. And even that one year when my little world nearly came crashing down around my ears is now a memory I can look back at with something resembling humor.
Sort of.
The May Day of my youth was celebrated with May Baskets, which were small, usually handmade vessels made of straw or paper and filled with flowers, sweets or both. We would laboriously craft them with construction paper, pipe cleaners, crayons and white school paste, then place them at a friend's door while shouting "May Basket" and running away. The running part was most necessary, indeed, as the recipient of the basket was supposed to chase you.
And if they caught you, they were suppose to kiss you, which was, of course, a fate worse than death when I was ten years old.
So, since very few of us actually wanted to either kiss or be kissed, it all quickly evolved into a pretty well-planned affair. If you were the recipient of a basket, you might sort of explode out of the door so as to make the first few yards of the chase kind of interesting. But chasers in the know knew enough to pace themselves just right so that the deliverer would make it to their mom or dad's car just in time to avoid any gooey physical contact whatsoever. Likewise, if you were the one running away, you knew that you were protected under the same unspoken agreement if you just maintained a reasonable jog on your way to the safety of the family Ford.
One year, I was sidelined by a sprained ankle suffered in a fall incurred during an illicit visit to a mile-high treehouse built by my older brother and his buddies. So I was forced to sit on the porch in the same rocking chair I used while watching the Grampa Happy cartoon show on Channel Four. The May Baskets were a mite hard to come by that year, as most of my friends took one look at me sitting on the porch and feared I had lost my mind and actually wanted to catch and kiss them.  Finally, my mother took pity on my plight and lettered a sign that she put on the top step.
"HE CAN'T RUN," it said, which was just enough to convince at least some of my more daring friends to leave a basket.
I finally met my most memorable May Day one year when Linda Sue came to call. Now, Linda Sue's name wasn't actually Linda Sue, though I'm betting quite a number of my grade school classmates can figure out her true identity without much trouble. She was a nice girl, and pretty good looking, to boot, though I could have cared less about that kind of nonsense when I was in the fourth grade. The problem wasn't with Linda Sue at all.
It was her dad.
Unlike most of our parents, who were a generally dour, no-nonsense bunch, Linda Sue's father actually had a sense of humor.
Or, at least he thought he did.
This, of course, would have normally had no bearing on me, as kids and adults rarely interacted in those days except when absolutely required, like in school, Cub Scouts, church and little league baseball. I don't know what drove Linda Sue's dad to do what he did on that fateful day. All I can do is tell the startling story.
After Linda Sue dropped off her goodies and shouted "May Basket," she played strictly by the rules and scampered towards her dad's waiting car. I burst out the door, then settled into a slow, steady lope that would give her plenty of time to reach the vehicle and hop in right before I caught her and planted a big, wet one on her, an unheard of occurrence that was just about a likely as me literally jumping over the moon. All was going exactly according to plan and the time-honored rules of the game right until the moment Linda Sue reached the car and grabbed the handle that opened the right front passenger door.
She tried again.
Nothing again.
Yes, the cruel fiend had locked the car doors.
What happened next remains sort of hazy some fifty or so years later. I remember seeing the shocked look on Linda Sue's face. I remember watching her dad laugh as she struggled with the door. The rest is still kind of a blur, though I know if I had actually kissed the winsome Linda Sue, I'd remember it still.
"You looked like you were going to faint," said my brother, who was watching from the window.
"I thought Linda Sue was going to throw up," he added.
It's many, many years later now, and I'm thinking that perhaps the old May Day holiday deserves to be resurrected. We have plenty of crayons and I've got a stack of construction paper somewhere. There ought to still be some Easter candy on sale, plus, I'm sure white paste glue and pipe cleaners are still available somewhere in my hometown. So maybe, just maybe you'll see my grandsons and me making the rounds later on today.
They know how to run, that's for sure.
And I absolutely, positively promise I won't lock the car doors.
After all, I do have a sense of humor.