Saturday, August 13, 2011

Shower The People

Awareness is a good thing, and, when it comes to Cancer, knowing the signs and symptoms to watch for and early detection can literally be a matter of life and death.  

However, what really inspires me right now are groups that provide something tangible.  I like it when a group’s motto reflects my dad’s philosophy of LESS TALK, MORE ACTION, or, as my niece says, “Let’s quit talking about it and DO THIS THING!!”

I just found out about a nonprofit organization that I want to support and spread the word about, The Cancer Card Xchange.  This is basically a one-woman show, and so, unlike the big organizations to which we typically think to give our money, none of the donation money goes to overhead.  

The group was started and is run by Emily Thomas, who was diagnosed with cancer while she was pregnant with her fourth child.  After successful surgery and years of vigilance, she is now considered to be cancer-free.

And so, if you, like me, are roused to support this worthy cause, or, if you, like me, personally know someone who is battling Cancer who needs to have their spirit lifted in this way, here is the website:

Check it out, consider it, give it some thought, put it on your To Do List, because, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said (and I’m pretty sure he was really referring to men and women here), “The life of a man consists not in seeing visions and in dreaming dreams, but in active charity and in willing service.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

When It's Time

About two years ago, my family’s almost 17 year-old dog Clifford passed away after a lengthy illness, and, at the time, his deterioration was the hardest thing I'd ever had to watch up close.

Cliff gave us so much and in many ways got our family started when he joined my husband and me while we were expecting our first child. He taught us many lessons, including and ending with three of the most important:  through him we started to learn about how to care for and comfort to the end; he showed us that love transcends all boundaries, including the difficulties of a terrible disease and even the end of life;  and, finally, he taught us that sometimes the only thing left to do for one so very sick is to them let go. 

Clifford struggled through many months of decline, losing his playfulness, his independence, his dignity, and finally, the light in his eyes.  He had grown up with our children, and, after all he had given to us over the  years, it was my duty to hold his head in my lap and tell him that his job here on Earth was done, that he had done what he’d come to do, and that it was ok if he was ready to go on ahead of us.  As I watched him take one last big breath, a sigh of relief really, I knew in my heart it was his time to go but that one day I would see him again, carrying a shoe in his mouth and running around among the clouds.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


I heard a story once in which some children were playing ball when the ball accidentally got tossed over the fence into the next yard.  There was a young girl whom the other kids did not allow to play in their ball game because she had problems with her eyesight and with her balance, but she was happy enough just to have the job of going to retrieve the ball when needed.  Eager to play her part in the game when given the opportunity, she tediously climbed the fence and dropped down into the next yard.  Once there, she saw something in the shade underneath a big tree, and she called out “Here, Kitty!” to what she thought was a cat.  After getting no response, the girl picked up the ball, struggled back over the fence, and returned the ball to the other children.  The creature in the shade of the tree was actually a skunk, and, after the girl had climbed back over the fence, he sat there in silence, stunned by the friendly way she had called out to him, which was an extreme contrast to every other interaction he had ever had with a human.  He started thinking about how different his life would have been if he had been born different, if he were a cat or a dog instead of a skunk.  He even started to consider how great it would be if he were a young girl, even one with poor eyesight and coordination, but he couldn’t really go so far as to imagine that – it’s just too far-fetched of a fantasy to fathom.

Bargaining is one of the stages of Grief described in the writings of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.  The word itself is technically defined as “negotiating the terms and conditions of a transaction;” I see it as an attempt to gain control, and I have learned over the past nine months that at times it can be a valuable tool in figuring out how to cope with changes, disappointment, and sorrow.

The bargaining that my family and I did while Dad was sick, as part of what I later learned was our anticipatory grief process, was in the form of acting like we didn’t mind or really even notice that he couldn’t do many of the things that he did before his diagnosis, including working, driving, exercising, and even basic things like getting ready for the day, talking to people on the phone, and getting himself something to eat or drink.

We also bargained by letting ourselves believe that if we got what we thought was the best treatment possible for him, managed his medications and his care, had him go to rehab, and set up my parents’ house just right, Dad would get better.  We thought that if we gave it our all, we would get something in return, and, like a child who prioritizes in the letter to Santa according to what gift he or she wants the most, what we really wanted to be given was better health, and a better quality of life, for Dad.

A little further down the road, we even bargained by saying that we’d feel so lucky if we could still have him with us and allow him to enjoy life for just a year or two more, although, since I secretly thought that that part was absolutely possible (probable?), I shot for the stars by hoping and believing that Dad had a chance, maybe even a good chance, at being in the very exclusive group of people who “overcame” brain cancer. 

Dad was always a very practical person; he felt like thinking about far-fetched things like winning the lottery was a big waste of time; "Crazy Talk," he called it, when people spent time discussing what he considered to be outrageous ideas.  But even he joined in on our Bargaining Efforts.  For several days after his initial trip to the hospital, he thought he might still be able to compete in the Ironman triathlon that was two weeks away.  He talked about how he didn’t think taking a few days off from his intensive training regiment would affect his ability to finish the race, even though at that point the sensation on the left side of his body was so impaired that he couldn’t stand up or hold a utensil to feed himself.  He was convinced that as soon as he could get out of the hospital he would be ready to go back to work, without missing a beat.  Several doctors and nurses tried to talk to him about the certainty that he would need to take at least 6 weeks off just to recover from brain surgery, even if no follow-up treatment was necessary and even if he had no symptoms or health problems after the surgery.  Each time, he listened to the person’s spiel, but as soon as he or she turned their back or left the room, he winked at us or stage-whispered “That’s what they think!” to be sure we knew he wasn’t going to follow that plan! 

A couple of days after his surgery, when he was told that he had brain cancer, he said he knew he would need to take time to recover and then he planned to restart his training program and get back to work before his sick days ran out.  He asked me to contact the race organizer for the Ironman and see if he could get a deferment, which is athlete-speak for getting permission to enter the race the following year instead of the current year.  In the meantime, he said, he planned to do some smaller triathlons and to continue his training efforts by running, biking, and/or swimming on a daily basis.  He told us that he would just work from his home office for a couple of weeks so as not to get too far behind on that either.

At one point while he was in the hospital, his neurologist said that Dad would not be allowed to drive until he had been seizure-free for at least six months, and he actually told us out of Dad’s earshot that Dad might never be allowed to get behind the wheel again.  “Whatever!” Dad said after the guy left the room.  “If everybody’s going to be doing all of this Crazy Talk about me not driving, I guess I will just get a ride to work and to wherever else I need to go.  Or maybe I will just ride my bike; that would be a good workout!”

After hearing Dad talk about his plan to ride his bike to get to wherever he needed to go once he got out of the hospital, Mom told him that we'd have to see how safe he would be on his bike.  Dad waited until he thought she couldn't hear him and stage-whispered, "I'll just get one of my son-in-laws to put my racing bike on the spinner in the garage and help me on it, and then she'll see that I can ride just fine!"

About that same time, the oncologist informed us that Dad would probably need to get radiation every day for about six weeks as part of his follow-up treatment.  Dad hated that idea because it seemed inefficient to him; he didn’t understand why they couldn’t just “go for it” and give him a higher dose of radiation to get it over with more quickly.  He had a steady stream of negotiation going about that part of his treatment; he felt like it was not “doable” for him to be going to and from the hospital daily for that long or even just to be restricted from leaving town for all that time.  “It’s like I’m grounded,” he sulked when the radiation oncologist told him he couldn’t travel during the six weeks of radiation that was being planned.  "Oh, well, I guess I can do anything for six weeks if it means I'll get better," he offered, as his part of the negotiation.

In the weeks after that, going through rehab, the trip to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke, and two rounds of chemo, he shifted gears again and again, eventually giving up on the idea of competing and just hoping to be able to work out for fun.  He told several doctors, nurses, and therapists that he no longer believed exercising and eating right could keep a person healthy: “Look at me;” he said.  “I’m living proof that you’ve got to run or whatever just for the fun of it because it won’t necessarily keep you from getting brain cancer or anything else.” 

While Dad was in rehab and even at the Brain Tumor Clinic, when I looked around the waiting rooms and treatment areas and saw people who weren’t as changed as Dad was, who weren’t as impaired as he was, or who hadn’t been given such a devastating diagnosis or prognosis, I was like the skunk in that story; I would have given almost anything to get just a little something more for Dad, more hope, more function, more time, more fun, more independence, more quality of life. I just wanted for Dad to feel ok and to be happy for even a little while longer.  After awhile, I didn’t even dream of the possibility of his ever being just like he had been anymore; it was too far-fetched and I felt like that would have been asking for far too much given our situation.  It would have been Crazy Talk!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Fight Against Cancer

When I was in college, my grandmother (my mother’s mother) was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She had surgery, went through chemo, and made it into remission for awhile.

After I graduated from college, I lived with her and my grandfather for a few months while I did one of my internships at a hospital near their house.  At the time, my grandmother, then out of remission, was struggling through her second course of chemo, which did not do its job that time around.  She held on long enough to give her input during the planning of my wedding and to hold her youngest grandchild in her arms for the first time, and then she went on ahead, two weeks before I got married.  And thus begun my membership in the I Hate Cancer Club!

Spurred on by this over the years, I’ve participated in at least 25 runs benefiting organizations involved in the fight against cancer, including the Race for the Cure, the St. Jude Marathon and Half-Marathon, and various other races.  Each time, I was proud and humbled to be part of the effort and excited to be part of the extended cheering squad for those involved in this war.

Last August, I participated in the Avenue of Hope 5K benefiting the American Cancer Society in honor of Cindy, a friend of mine battling cancer.  It was a small, local charity race, my favorite kind, full of meaning and spirit and camaraderie.  A group of my friends also completed the race in honor of Cindy as well as many other loved ones who are fighting or have fought this terrible disease.

Cindy with her "team" at the ACS race, August 2010
 Only eleven weeks later, taking part in the fight against cancer took on a whole new meaning for me and the rest of my family. 

Last weekend, I ran the Avenue of Hope 5K again, this time with my younger daughter Molly, who proudly wore her grandfather’s racing shirt in his memory and who won her age division.

While my dad was sick, one thing that irritated him was, as he termed it, “too much talking.”  I could never figure out if it was because of the fatigue from which he suffered because of the incessant insomnia caused by the medications he was taking, because of the tumor in his brain, because of the emotional stress he was under, or because of something else that he couldn’t tolerate chaos or noise during that time.  Many times he asked us to be quiet, even though oftentimes he himself would later break into the silence by asking a question or making a comment.  Most of the time, he just couldn’t tolerate someone talking about the same thing for too long or asking him too many questions, and he particularly disliked it when several people around him were having a conversation and when other people were taking what he considered to be too long to figure something out.  He just didn’t see the need for inefficiency, something to which I can certainly relate.  As we talked about schedules and plans and details that we felt needed to be ironed out, Dad often chimed in by saying, “Don’t worry – just hurry!” meaning he thought there should be less discussion and more action.  One of my nieces even paraphrased Dad at one point when we were talking about something we were going to do later in the day and said, “Let’s quit talking about it and just do this thing!”

As much as I am honored and motivated to continue to participate in events to raise money and to promote awareness for this worthy cause, though, and as much as I take notice of the bumper stickers and related paraphernalia for awareness of different types of cancers, I’m pretty sure everyone is aware of cancer and the devastation it leaves in its wake at this point.  What I want - what we really need in this fight - are prevention and a cure.  Now let’s quit talking about it and just do this thing!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Flag Flies

At my dad’s funeral, my mom was presented with an American flag as part of the military funeral service.  Afterwards, she said she wanted the flag to be flown somewhere that had significance to Dad and to the rest of the family.  It didn’t take long for her to think of the perfect place:  at my brother-in-law’s family’s lake house in Hague, New York.

This past week, my mom traveled with my sister’s family to that location, and now, in memory of Dad and in honor of all the memories that we have there with him, the flag flies, near the front porch of the house, nestled in the trees, overlooking Lake George, in one of Dad’s favorite places in the world.


This house holds many good memories for my family.  Traveling there has provided us not only with opportunities to spend time together under the same roof as an extended family but also to do some things we might not have ever had the chance to do otherwise.

Several years ago when we went there, we went tubing on the Hudson River.  Last summer, we attempted the Adirondack Extreme Adventure Course, a very challenging obstacle course of ropes, suspended bridges, rope swings, and ziplines, all nestled high in the trees. 

These pursuits were fun, exciting, and, most of all, full of memories for all of us.  But the things we loved the best were those we did at Lake George every time we went there.  We always boated to a tiny secluded island in the middle of the lake and cooked out.  After supper every year, Dad and anyone else who dared to join in swam to a neighboring island. 

 Dad also challenged anyone in the group to complete the 2-mile swim across the lake each year.  He looked forward to this swim all year long and was so happy to have another notch in his belt by completing it each time. 

 Dad and whoever else was up for it also ran on the trails in the area.  Dad, of course, literally left the rest of us in the dust on those runs, and loved every minute of it.

But, as much of a thrill as Dad got from his athletic pursuits at Lake George, he also thoroughly enjoyed relaxing there and several times commented that he felt it was one of the most peaceful places on Earth.

He loved hanging out down on the dock with Mom and the rest of the family, soaking up the sun and bantering with us about whether or not the water was too cold to jump in.

The very best part of our time there together, though, in my opinion, was when we were just hanging out together in the house and on the porch.  We played board games and card games, took turns cooking and serving meals, talked about memories in the past and our plans for the future, and laughed and laughed. 

On more than one occasion, Dad was the catalyst for the hysterics that erupted there.  His son-in-laws amused themselves every time we got together by plotting to find a time when Dad was unsuspecting to dump ice water on him; he was a good sport about it every time. 

Dad always liked to try to keep up with slang and colloquialisms that were being used by the younger generations; the problem with that, though, was that he often only got the expressions half-right, if even that.  Last summer, he heard us talking about the way that some words could be intentionally substituted for a not-so-appropriate phrase as a kind of decoy.  My sister gave him some examples to demonstrate the effect:  “Mother-Father!” “Shut the front door!” and “Son of a business man!”  Dad thought these were hilarious, and, in an effort to be “with it,” he said he was going to try to start using these expressions sometimes too. 

The last night we were there, Dad decided to go to bed before the rest of the adults, and, as he walked off towards the bedroom, he left us with his attempt at hipness by saying, “Mother Father – shave your legs!”