Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ain't no mystery at all

"You take away the fear and mystery."
Close as I can remember, that's the comment I received from a friend and reader awhile back. It took me a minute to figure it out, but finally, I realized what he was talking about.
I have hesitated to talk about it over the past weeks and months, thinking that some folks might think I was looking for sympathy. Or that I was spending way too much time talking about myself and the pickle I find myself in. In my own defense, I guess all I can do is repeat something I said in a column late last year, not too long after I had been diagnosed:
And while I don't by any stretch of the imagination intend to let this whole cancer thing dominate my every waking hour or every column I write, heck, if I somehow suddenly discovered the ability to, say, tap dance or sing Italian arias, I'd talk about that wouldn't I? 
Well, I still can't dance a lick, and I'm pretty sure that wasn't "O mio babbino caro" that I was warbling in the shower this morning.
But the whole cancer thing has surely given me something to talk about.
And if I have come off as whiny or self-involved or afraid, even, I truly regret it. If, on the other hand, if I have managed to remove some of the scary secrets that surround this disease, I'm glad.
Because here's the thing. Cancer doesn't rate the awful hold it has on so many lives.  It doesn't deserve to dominate my life, or yours either.  But what does it do? How does this disease make those of us who battle it feel? And what about those who help and support and love us?
Well, I can't speak for everyone. And I can only mourn those brave, determined souls who are lost every year. But I do know how it seems to me.
(I'll try to keep it brief.)
I'm human. So I can't help being afraid sometimes. Usually, for me, it's during those times when when it hurts and it keeps on hurting.  I'm not afraid of dying. And I'm not afraid of pain, either. But what I do fear is dying in such a way that I fail to enjoy and appreciate all the wonderful things that make life worth living.
"Why me?"
Of course, I get angry sometimes, too. This disease, along with all the treatment side effects encountered along the way, is really annoying. Losing the ability to do things I always could do, like eating record amounts of fried chicken, riding a bike or going out for a long pass, or even just mowing the lawn without taking sixteen zillion breaks along the way really irritates the heck out of me. Really.
Believe it or not, it's boring, too.  I really don't want to take a nap every afternoon. Or watch the grandkids from the porch instead of showing them my super-duper curve ball.
Plus, it's kind of embarrassing sometimes.  I know there are a certain number of folks who see me, my bald head and my skinny bod and say to themselves, "Oh, that's too bad."  Just this morning, when I was picking up my grandsons from swimming lessons, a little kid looked at me and said, "Are you all right?"
It may be hard to believe, but that's not quite the image I hoped to project.
Now, here's the good news.
I'm amused by the whole thing more often than you'd think. If you don't think cancer could possibly be funny, then you've never experienced some of the unique happenings that can come along with this disease. I could go on and on and on, but let me just ask this. Have you ever had your way-too-big pants fall down around your ankles just as you stepped onto the front porch on the way to church?
I didn't think so.
You'd laugh, too.
And I'm hopeful, too. Highly hopeful, in fact. You would be, too, once you realized just how many prayers and good wishes come your way when you battle this dumb disease. It is absolutely, positively, flat-out amazing. So why wouldn't I have hope?
One more thing.
I'm happy.
The best thing about this whole mess is that it has given me pause. It has made me step back and realize how absolutely perfect and appealing life can be. I love my family and my friends, and I know without a doubt that they love me, too.
Tell you what, boys and girls, it doesn't get much better than that.
And that's no mystery at all.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Miracles of modern medicine

"It's alive. It's alive."

-Frankenstein, the movie
From the novel by Mary W. Shelley

If you're anything like me, your idea of experimental medicine is something like what's described in the movie classic, Frankenstein. You know, electric arcs, bubbling test tubes, and a giant green-colored guy with bolts where his dimples oughta be.  Fact is, though, the whole field is getting more amazing all the time. Rarely a day goes by when we don't hear about some friend who's getting a new knee, hip or other moving part. Heart valves, retinas, hearts and lungs, and a whole bunch of other organ transplants are also becoming amazingly commonplace, with full facial transplants and lush new heads of hair also on the list of interesting ideas.
But wait.
There's a whole gaggle of amazing new stuff on the horizon, including supercool concepts like a bionic eye that transmits a signal straight from a teeny-tiny camera mounted in a pair of glasses and linked to the retina of a blind person.  And one of my absolute favorites among the neatest, newest stuff...3-D printer technology that was originally used to create prototypes of various new products like toys and shoes, but is now actually being used to--wait for it--crank out human body parts.
Oncology is another medical field that's getting its share of nifty new notions. If things go right, I'm soon going to be involved in a forward-thinking clinical trial that will use targeted gene technology to go right to the source and block cancer growth and spread. The drug--called Buparlisib, which has got to make you wonder who names the darn things--has been pretty successful so far at blocking metastasis in several kinds of cancer. We're hoping it will work for me, too.
But it gets better.
I had just gotten off the phone with one of the zillion or so docs I've been getting to know in Chicagoland, when I witnessed a bit of highly effective modern medicine that literally took my breath away. My wife and a pal of hers were sitting on the front porch, watching our grandkids and one of their buddies approach on their bikes. Suddenly, before you could say "that's gonna leave a mark," young grandson John accidentally rear-ended his big brother and took a major-league, knee-scraping tumble onto the pavement.
The grandma-lady and her friend rushed to the scene.
John tried to tough it out without giving in to tears, but it was a nasty scrape, for sure. Grandma administered a dollop of antibiotic salve and the medicine she knows best. Meanwhile, her friend bolstered him with encouraging words regarding his manliness and courage. And even I, the old grumpa himself, kicked in with a little help from my treasured trove of White Sox bandaids.
And John?  He got better, too
Pretty soon, he was back on his bicycle, heading for the park.

Because when it comes to little boys and grandmas, hugs are the best medicine of all.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Got those dog-gone blues

Faithful readers of this column might recall that, recently, we've been tending to son Colin's dog while he and his college-prof spouse explored Norway in preparation for a Study Abroad class she'll be teaching starting next year.  While I had my doubts at the get-go, I found that I mostly enjoyed having a dog around the house again. I grew up with a largish roster of dogs and cats, and we almost always had a few of both when our boys were young, too. It's only been the past few years, since the death of our beloved dog Roscoe, that the place has been left in the oh-so-capable paws of the bad cat named Max.
Cami (that's the dog's name, though I'm not sure if I'm spelling it right) is a big black dog of indeterminate breed. She has the bulky body of a lab, the skulky demeanor of a wild Australian dingo, the pointy ears of a Malaysian Fruit Bat, and the relentless courage of a well-fed hamster. I guess I never paid too much attention to her on our visits to Colin and Geri's house, though her enthusiastic willingness to bark at every man or beast moving a muscle within 80 miles of their place has always been a source of some irritation on my part.
"Somebody needs some training around here," I muttered every time she yelped and cursed when I entered a room.
So that's what happened.
She did pretty much cool it on the barking front, though I have to admit that it seemed to be out of a lack of interest in defending me and my home as much as anything. Otherwise, SHE quickly trained ME to walk her in, through and around the nearby park some 80 or 90 times each day and night.
Turns out, that's not a bad thing.
Walking is, I guess, just about the best kind of exercise for me in my current shaky state. My oncologist has made it more than clear that my favorite active stuff like bike riding is more than my brittle bones should encounter, while my current extra-skinny body style makes swimming a painfully frigid experience in even a lukewarm pool. I've never been the type to just walk for the sake of walking, though. I've always needed an interesting woodsy path to follow. Or some exciting urban sights to see. Or, at least, a dog.
What's more, I've discovered an additional benefit to walking besides the exercise it provides. A few years ago, I wrote a column entitled "The Lawn Mower Man," that confessed that many of the ideas I have for my weekly missives occur while engaged in the mindless, back-and-forth process of cutting the grass.  Dog-walking, on the other hand, mysteriously tripped my song-writing trigger, a set of skills that has been mostly dormant since I released a pair of albums several years ago.  Suddenly, I found myself humming snippets of tunes and coming up with fragments of songs and song titles.
A few examples include these gems, for which I accept no special responsibility except to remind you that I'm currently on drugs.
"Got a Black Dog in a Dark Park, Six Hours after a Pork Chop Dinner." came to me late one night when she kept unexpectedly trying to jerk my arm out of its socket while walking near the then-darkened site of the annual Messiah Lutheran Church pork chop supper.
"Walking Poop Blues" was a song title that occurred as I tried to get the blasted cur to stand still while doing her business, rather than making me shuffle bent-over behind her to collect my prize.
And then, there's that plaintive ballad called, "The Whole Town knows I Forgot my Plastic Bag," which describes the shame most every dog owner knows then they suddenly find themselves without a proper receptacle for the natural result of walking a well-fed canine, plus I added a couple of cover tunes, including "Weird Wolf of London" by Warren Zevon and "you Ain't Nothin' but a Found Dog" by the inimitable king of rock and roll himself.
Cami (Kami? Khami? Quami?) is gone now, returned to her rightful owners last weekend in an elaborate, well-planned hand-off that kind of reminded me of a prisoner exchange on the 38th parallel. And while I'm not exactly heartbroken without those midnight rambles and odiferous, well-filled bags, I do feel a certain longing... .
Of course, my sensible spouse has been quick to bring me back to my senses.
"You don't really want a dog of your own, do you?"
Well,  uh, no.  As much as I enjoyed the company, a full-time furry companion isn't really in the cards right now. But nonetheless, there is one more song ringing through my head:
"I got the dog-gone, no-dog blues."
And so it goes.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The pull of the park

It was a wonderful weekend.
Both my brother and sister made the trip down from their homes in Northern Michigan. Mary's hubby, all three of her adult children, and her four grandkids were all a part of the happy crowd on my front porch, while Jim's eldest daughter flew in all the way from L.A. to share her July fourth birthday with us.
I was excited to see my two siblings. I am blessed in the fact that they are both family members and my very best friends, as well, which is a rare, lucky thing, indeed. It was a crazy-busy holiday weekend, with even our old barn of a house almost full to bursting. But despite the sometimes hectic pace, the three of us still found the time to just sit and talk once in awhile.
Nothing real rare there, because although we usually go months and more between visits, our conversations quickly pick up and slip into an easy rhythm based on the childhood we shared and the close friendship we still enjoy.
Mary and I were in the midst of one of those moments, sitting on the deck at the back of the house, when we heard something.
"5-10-15-20, 25-30-35-40... ."
It was the clear, sweet voice of her teenage granddaughter, counting down the start of another round of the complicated hide-and-go-seek game the kids had been playing over in the park across the street all weekend. All the grandchildren--from six-year-old John Patrick to sixteen-year-old Megan--were playing the game as they unknowingly established the kind of first-cousin friendships that can be good for a lifetime.
Ready or not, here I come... ."
Mary and I shared the secret smile we've been passing between us all of our lives.
"The park," she said softly. "The pull of the park."
The park that sits across the street from our big, old house has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I cut through it on my way to school, skated on its frozen rink, played baseball on the field next to the playground, and shot baskets on the blacktop across from the old elementary school. I taught my sons how to ride their bikes on the narrow road that cuts diagonally across the park, and watched them play games of their own over the years.  Now, it's my grandsons who have made that beautiful green space their own special place to be, with their summertime comings and goings often announced by a slammed screen door and a single word lingering in the air.
In fact, the park has been a part of my hometown for as long as there's been a town at all. Local history has it that founder William Wiley stood on that very place and said these words.
"What a beautiful spot. Let's buy the land and lay out a town."
Fact is, his decision may have been at least partly based on something more than simple beauty, as just a few rods away could be seen the surveyor's flags that marked the route of the coming railway that would bring a new kind of commerce and vitality to the region.  Later, that lovely patch of green grass and trees would be given to the new town by a long-time settler named James Bonham, who proposed it as the site of a college that would eventually locate in Rock Island, to be later called Augustana.
I'm back now. After three years splitting our time between Galva and the shores of North Carolina, we are living full-time in our home next to the park again. Of course, there were practical considerations in our decision to leave the beach place and return to the midwest. To effectively battle the rare, aggressive cancer that befell me earlier this year, we would need to live where I'd have access to the kind of advanced healthcare my condition required. We considered staying out east, as teaching hospitals like Duke and UNC offer some of the very best medical minds and treatments available.
Eventually, though, we decided it was time to come home. Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has provided a kind, nurturing expertise that seems to meet both my medical and spiritual needs.
And then, there's the big, old house.
It, along with the park across the street, means life and love.
It means faith and hope and laughter and prayer.
It means friends and family and the town where I grew up.
And, most of all, it means home...and the clear, sweet voices of those children at play.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The very best club in the whole wide world

Something wonderful is going on.
It's happened over the past few months, weeks and days to some of my most treasured friends and family members. It's a special occurrance that absolutely defies my feeble attempts to describe it, although, in fact, it happens all the time.
Because here's the good news.
Those friends of mine have become members of a most happy band; a joyous guild, so to speak.
Because now they are members of a blessed bunch known as grandparents.
And it is absolutely the best club in the whole wide world.
Say what you will about parenthood. There is no doubt that the introduction of children into a happy life together is a wonderful thing, indeed. I remember so well how thoroughly and quickly  the birth of my own two sons changed all my views, attitudes and daily going-ons. But those are busy days. Days filled with work and worries and love and laughter and all the other things that make life so very, very interesting.
So wild and crazy.
So cherished and challenging.
So astonishingly busy.
I know. I remember. And I know and remember that sometimes it seems like a little too much to handle.
But grandparents know better.
Grandparents know that the tiny lives that enter their care are the most precious thing of all. They have the time, the wisdom, the patience and the vision to see what is worth seeing, because, somehow, magically, you can suddenly see better than ever before.
You can see life
You can see love.
You can see hope and change and all the things you wished you had ever seen and done before.
Best of all, you can see the future.
And it is--absolutely, positively--a thing of pure beauty.
And the very best club in the whole wide world.