Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Sparks and Shadows

spark

I hesitate to mention this, but I think there may be sparks returning to my life. I say I hesitate to mention this because there is still the inevitable sadness, anger, and pain. However, for the first time in forever, I’m starting to see the flashes of life returning to me. I know I must go on. I know I must live. I have that option denied to Lisa and must make the best of it.

Friends have helped immensely in bringing me to this point. They have been patient and compassionate, insistent and decisive, unlike me. But I’m getting there.

One effect of these flashes is the shadow it places on my old life. This can be very exhilarating if the flash blots out the pain of these past seven years or if it casts a warm shadow on a pleasant memory. Sparks of a new life are all around me. Now I need to corral them into a consistent fire that will keep me warm and light my way. Wish me luck.

People Actually Read This

“When you’re smilin’, when you’re smilin’ the whole world smiles with you”

                                                                        Larry Shay, Mark Fisher, and Joe Goodwin

13838367_lOne thing I have not considered throughout this grieving process is that someone might actually be reading these missives. I write them for myself, find them cathartic, and assume I am the sole composition of the audience. Yesterday I found out that was not the case. A friend of mine from high school told me she reads each post and, because of the ravages of cancer is also angry beyond words.

Does this new knowledge put added pressure on me to be conscious of this additional audience? Initially, I was worried that I now had an added responsibility to convey healing words sprinkled throughout each post so as not to dampen any recuperative effect any other reader might be building on their own. But upon further reflection, I believe that it is the honesty that initially drew any reader to continue reading past the first post. No amount of succor is going to alleviate the pain an individual feels regarding cancer’s relentless pursuit. So I have decided to remain true to the intention of this blog and post as if I am the only member of the audience reading each post. I hope that anyone reading finds some comradery in our suffering, some solace in knowing they are not alone, and that at the end of the day we will each make it through this process stronger than we were before.

We all have our scars. We are the compilation of the decisions we have made and none of us gets out of here alive. Every decision we make helps craft us into the person we are. Sometimes one decision can cascade into a series of decisions all of which are wrong (in hindsight), but we make the decisions we make based upon the best information we have at the time. Sometimes we are guided by emotion rather than logic. That’s what makes us human. But it is that human quality that also allows us to forgive, although forgiving ourselves tends to be the hardest. Why do we tend to give the benefit of the doubt to others but save our most caustic criticism for ourselves? Why do we give that same benefit of the doubt to strangers but limit its use on family members? Truly, who is more deserving of it? And so I will try to give you the benefit of the doubt if you will reciprocate.

Which brings me back to this blog and its purpose. Allow me to issue a blanket apology to anyone offended by whatever is written here, now or in the future. While I still can’t believe that anyone reads this, I am encouraged that some have read several entries and haven’t “unfriended” me or torched my house. Sometimes I write with the full knowledge of what I want to say. The thought is fully formed (usually these things come to me in the shower for some reason) and my fingers are simply the conduit to allow the thought to be expressed. Other times I am simply pulling at a string and don’t know where the post will take me. I find both forms enlightening and wouldn’t want to limit myself to only well thought out topics or to writing on the fly. It is this combination of methods that keeps me interested in writing. I don’t know how others feel about it or if they can even tell when something is fully formed at the outset or is developed through the process of writing. Certainly, cancer is a vicious enemy and we will be relentless in our pursuit of it as it tries to pluck member after member from our circle of friends and family. I will not apologize for the vitriol I sent its way. And loss hurts more than I ever thought it could. But I will keep writing because it helps me. If it helps others, all the better. Stick with me and buckle up. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

 

 

Phoenix (or Ashes and Brambles)

compass

 

Too often during this process of grieving, I have been angry. As I addressed in the last post, I had been charged with creating an imaginary entity to which I can assign the anger. I chose God. The next chapter in this process is to determine what will make me happy. How do I want my life to look in five years? As one who has been burned by planning in the past, with ashes the only remaining vestiges of the future I once built, this is an immeasurably more difficult assignment.

I want my children to be happy and successful in whatever endeavor they choose. I want them to live wherever they want but I want them to remain close to me emotionally. I want to be the person from whom they seek advice or from whom they seek comfort when life throws them a nasty curve. Outside of that, I want to continue in my job, which brings me joy and satisfaction. I would like to travel. I want Sam to be my tour guide in Italy and Cam to be my guide in the UK. I would like to learn French or Italian. Not because I plan on living there of traveling extensively, but because I have always had problems learning a foreign language and I like the challenge. I would like to learn to play the piano. I would like to read all of the classics. I would like to learn art history.

But will doing these things make me happy? What will people say of me five years from now? Will they say that I survived my wife’s death well? Will they say that I was able to move on and formed a new life outside of my new identity as a widower? Will I be alone? Will I find love again? Will I survive?

The answers to these questions plague me. In many ways, the question is the same: What will make me happy and what will people think of me five years from now? These both boil down to having a fulfilling life following a major upheaval. When I applied for the job I currently hold, I was asked by my boss’s boss where I saw myself in five years. That was four years ago. Rather than dazzle him with my ambition and tell him that I wanted his job in five years, I reflected on the future which lay in tatters before me. And so, I told him that I did not know where I would be in five years. That I respected that I was new to the company and that I would need to learn the company and the industry before laying out a career path. I don’t know if that was the perfect answer, but he told me I was correct to temper my ambitions with reality. I got the job.

Today I feel that I am being asked the same question. Where do I want to be in five years? But rather than a career path question, this is a life path question. Again, I feel that I must have the same response. I need to learn the landscape of this new life, acknowledging that it is new and different than the life I lived before. In many ways, I am newborn. I have the second part of my life before me. But I must respect that I have little in the way of plans or ambitions that bear any resemblance to the life I led before. True, I’ve always wanted to travel, but now I face the prospect of travelling alone or as a third wheel when my children take their eventual families on vacation. This does not excite me. It’s a little like being the afterthought invitation for a party after you’ve heard about the party but hadn’t been originally invited.  Other ambitions (reading, learning a foreign language, playing the piano) are nice wishes, not life plans. True, they will bring me joy and occupy my time, but are these life plans? I don’t know. My life plans before were to work until I was ready to retire, then Lisa and I would travel together around the country and around the world, with or without the kids, depending on their station in life. We would spend our time in our home together or on the Cape. But as I pull at that thread now, there is little desire to travel alone and the thought of an empty, silent home (soon to also be devoid of our little white ball of canine love) terrifies me.

And so, to this question, I have no firm response. The future before me is a blank slate, equal parts terror and excitement. Perhaps over time, I will see the shimmering outline of a path through the thicket, but right now there are only brambles and thorns, silence and loneliness. And so I read my classics, look forward to studying piano, and tackling French or Italian. My future, in ashes, will rise like the phoenix, whether I want it to or not, whether I plan it or not. Better to have a say in the process than be overrun with other’s expectations. To the question, how do I want people to see me in five years, I can only say that I hope they see me as living my life, a different life, maybe a better life maybe not, but a life denied my wife.

Dear God

Creation of Adam“Take your anger and put it into an imaginary being. That way you can yell at the entity and throw it out when you don’t want to feel the pain of the anger anymore or if you don’t have the time to deal with the anger.”

These are the words of the grief counselor, to whom we (the kids and I) have been going since mid-December. I told her that I am angry about the fact that cancer first took my father, then my wife, and now will take my dog. First she said, “Why do you have to do anything with the anger? Aren’t you allowed to be angry? Aren’t you justified?” My response was that there is no outlet for the anger, no target. I cannot remain so angry for so long that I shut down emotionally and socially. I have enough problems being social as it is!

So I, as my homework for this week, am to create an entity, an imaginary being, to whom I can ascribe the evil characteristics necessary to house my anger. I could create a virtual punching bag and anthropomorphize it to the point where it has horns and a tail upon which I can stomp and to whom I can scream. However, that form does not appeal to me and seems shallow and unfulfilling.

As an atheist, I have a better solution. God. How could a benevolent God inflict my wife with a terminal disease that would kill her? How could a caring God do that to my children? To me? How could a loving God condemn a dog to three separate forms of cancer within it’s short life? How could a generous God condemn my father to an incalculable amount of pain in the months before his death? And on a grander scale, how could an altruistic God kill thousands of children each year through malnutrition, starvation, disease, or war? Because I can conceive of no rational reason for such a dereliction of duty, I choose to believe there is no supreme being above. It is easier for me to believe that nature simply evolves in chaos than to believe a God could be so inept or uncaring.

So, if there is a God, I do not believe he/she is omnipotent and all powerful. That said, and as part of my grief counseling homework for this week, here is my creation of an imaginary being to whom I can bequeath my anger. God. And now my letter to God:

Dear God,

How could you? How could you either give my wife cancer or allow her to contract it? How could you do that to my children? How could you make her suffer through the barbaric treatments you have allowed medicine to create in an attempt to counter your unholy and defective DNA? How could you take her when she was still so young and we had a future planned together that now is reduced to ash? How could you? Why?

How could you put my father through so much pain that it killed him? How could you allow that much pain to transfer to my mother who now survives him but cannot live without him? How could you put my brother and sister through the act of watching him suffer with no ability to alleviate his pain? How could you? Why?

How could you give my simple, silly dog, whose sole purpose in life is to love us and make us happy, three different forms of cancer in his short life? How could you take his eyesight and force him to endure countless surgeries to save his back legs from your poor design? Why do you make him suffer so much and force us to euthanize our pets without allowing us to end the suffering of our human loved ones who endure so much pain? How could you? Why?

How could you allow the children of the world to endure unwarranted pain and suffering simply because of the circumstances under which they were born? How could you allow men to create war against one another for, ultimately, silly political, geographic, or religious reasons?  Why do we have to suffer so much on this earth? How could you allow all of these things to occur while remaining unseen and unresponsive? How could you? Why?

Are we simply to fall back on “faith?” A faith that you are really there and listening and that we will be rewarded in paradise for all of our suffering. Well, I don’t buy into it and find that if you do exist, you are either malevolent, uncaring, or incompetent. If you are malevolent, you are not worthy of our deference. If you are uncaring you are also not worthy of our blended knee. If you are incompetent you are to be pitied and not revered. Occam’s Razor demands that the most likely solution is that you simply do not exist. But for the purposes of grief mitigation, I will allow that you exist, but only for the purposes of my derision, my anger, and my pain.

Most sincerely,

Angry

CancerI am so tired of fighting (and losing to) cancer. First it came for my wife, and we moved cross country to fight it. Then it came for my father, and all we could do was poorly manage his pain until he succumbed to it. After fighting for seven years, my wife died in September. Now it is taking my dog, who’s already fought it twice before. What kind of insidious disease comes after a dog? There is no rationale, no justice, and no God. How could God allow my father to suffer so much? How could God steal my wife’s future? How could God punish a dog with three different types of cancer? If there is a god, he’s either feckless or belligerent. This is my version of Pascal’s gambit. If there is a god, he’s malicious. If there isn’t then, chaos theory reigns and so it goes. Those are the only two choices. There is no beneficent God. There is no evidence to support believing in one.

I can’t remember the last “normal” day we had. Every day for the past seven plus years has been lived in the shadow of cancer. The president talks of a “moon shot” program to cure cancer. I don’t believe it will ever happen. Nature is too wily. Nature will always one up science. And we still know so little about it. I think doctors know that they know so little, and I think what they still don’t know they don’t know could fill a football stadium. We are nowhere near curing cancer. I’ve read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Emperor of All Maladies, Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying, and Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality. The only thing in common amongst these books is that we suffer pain and die. Treatment and cure are fantasy.

I am angry, livid, more enraged than sad, more angry than tired. I miss my father. I miss my wife. I can only watch as my dog suffers the painful effects of his squamous cell carcinoma. That’s a fancy name for something that will not kill him, but will force us to euthanize him within the next month or so while causing him extreme pain in his jaw and mouth. Again, what could he have possibly done to deserve this? Fuck cancer. Fuck God. Fuck me.

Bad Poetry and Honest Feelings

Every so often, now and then, cancer takes another one I love.

I am never to see them again. I am told they are living above.

I need them to help me live, I need them to help me love.

I miss the love that they give, but I am limited with them up above.

I am sad now she’s gone. There’s no limit to my grief.

I will be mad now she’s gone. Don’t force me to keep it brief.

Dante and Milton, Shakespeare and Browning, they paint pictures of heaven and smile.

But every day I feel I’m drowning because I miss her over every mile.

There is no comfort, there is no relief. There is no respite for my heart.

There is no solace; there is only grief because I loved her from the very start.

Cancer is evil, twisted and sick. Chemo is barbaric, radiation burns.

Killing from inside, impossible to lick; surgery failed and now my heart yearns.

We built a future, we worked so hard. We built a future full of cash stashes.

We planted the roses, we tended the yard and now I must rebuild from the ashes.

With the future I have now, I know I’ll be alone.

I seek a new path somehow; coming to terms with an empty home.

If I could pick, I would say take me quick. I don’t need to pack.

There’s no reward for being sick. Order me a massive heart attack.

Cancer scares me and makes me shiver, and heaven is a myth to me.

When options are gone, no more arrows in the quiver I know her again I’ll never see.

There is no happiness, there is only pain and I still can’t see them in the stars above.

Every so often, time and again, cancer takes the ones I love.

I wish I could stop my kids’ feeling of pain, their eyes puffy and red from crying.

They’ve lost their mother; there will be no refrain. I’m lost without her, but still trying.

I can only chart a love-filled path for them now, try to make them a new home.

My life is in ruins but I must build it somehow, perhaps near the sea and the foam.

Rhody is home, it could be worse. We will leave the bad memories in our Texas home.

Compared to Texas it is a pain in the purse, but better to live in a land we have known.

So hand me a tissue, allow me to cry. I struggle to move forward, stuck in my head.

She was so amazing I don’t understand why cancer took my life’s love from my bed

Coming Around For Another Bite

Two Novembers ago it took my father. In September it took my wife. Now it wants my dog. I hate cancer. Why won’t it leave us alone? I am reminded of the quote from Christopher Hitchens who, when confronting his cancer diagnosis wrote, “To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?” So it is with my family. And so it goes.

Susan Sontag warns us of anthropomorphizing cancer, but it is so easy to do. Without a face, your foe it is that much harder to fight. What made Jaws so powerful was that the animatronic shark kept breaking forcing Steven Spielberg to come up with other ways to present the omnipresent danger through the use of camera movements and ominous music. The unseen monster is far worse than the seen. So we put a face on cancer and try to fight it from the outside while it destroys us from within.

So now we are awaiting the results of the biopsy which will tell us if the tumor is malignant. If it is, we will be faced with the difficult decision of what to do next. At twelve years of age, my wonderful dog has already battled cancer twice, had both back knees rebuilt, and had his eye repaired in Chicago. He’s been through it all. And yet his only concern in life is that he loves us. We will be faced with the difficult answer to the question: for whom are we going to submit him to more medical treatment? If it is for him, we will proceed, cost be damned. If it is for us, we will need to regroup and face the ultimate question of when is more surgery, radiation, and recovery too much for him leading to the inevitable decision whether to put him down. But I’m ahead of myself. We need the biopsy results first. We’ve been down this road before and will make the right decision when we have all of the facts and in spite of the perturbations it will cause.

We will be forced to answer the tough question: for whom are we going to submit him to more medical treatment? If it is for him, we will proceed, cost be damned. If it is for us, we will need to regroup and face the ultimate question of when is more surgery, radiation, and recovery too much for him leading to the inevitable decision whether to put him down. But I’m ahead of myself. We need the biopsy results first. We’ve been down this road before and will make the right decision when we have all of the facts and in spite of the perturbations it will cause.

I hate cancer. Leave us alone. Even sharks need time to digest their latest meal.

Fools and Politicians

“Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.”     Euripides

Yesterday, the president put forth four executive actions in an attempt to curb the gun violence that plagues our nation. He did so because the congress, with its 11% approval rating, ignored the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the American public three years ago who believed universal background checks on all gun sales is prudent. That support has been maintained. In a December 2015 Quinnipiac University poll, 89% of respondents support legislation requiring background checks on all gun sales (including 84% of households with a gun present). As the president said yesterday, the United States is an outlier in gun violence compared to the rest of the advanced world. And yet we do not have more dangerous individuals than the rest of the world. We do not watch more violent movies or television than the rest of the world. We do not play violent video games more than the rest of the world. And we do not have more mental illness than the rest of the world. There is only one factor which differentiates the United States from the rest of the developed world and that is the number of guns.

It is estimated that there are over 300 million guns in America or 89 guns for every 100 people.  That is far and away more guns than the rest of the world. By comparison, Canada has 31 guns per 100 people. Australia has 15 guns per 100 people. The UK has 6 guns per 100 people and Japan has less than 1 gun per 100 people. That much firepower in the public’s hands translates to a much higher firearm homicide rate per 100,000 people. The United States sees 3.21 homicides per 100,000 people, compared to 0.51 for Canada, 0.14 for Australia, 0.07 for the UK, and 0.01 for Japan. More guns do not make us safer.

And despite these executive orders being modest and common sense, the Republicans have come out against them. House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted, “No matter what President Obama says, his word does not trump the Second Amendment.” This ignores the fact that the president’s actions in no way challenge the Second Amendment, they only clarify existing law and further refine and enhance the current instant background check system, while providing more resources for mental health. Presidential aspirant Senator Ted Cruz reacted by claiming “Obama Wants Your Guns” while asking for a donation. This petulant neophyte is the antithesis of common sense and the darling of the tea party, making the Euripides quote above all the more poignant.

History will show that the president was on the right side of this fight. It will also show that the Republicans came out against anything and everything the president supported. If the president said he liked baseball, apple pie, and Chevrolet, the Republicans would be against all three. And that is the shame the Republicans must carry. Their intransigence and obstructionism have been to the detriment of the country.

I work with some amazing people trying to fight for common sense gun violence prevention legislation, both on the local level and the national. And yesterday, while those standing behind the president and seated throughout the room represented both the victims of gun violence and the family members of those killed, I could not help but to wonder what it will take for the rest of the public to demand their elected officials move to strike against the gun lobby and the horror they bring to our society. It should not just be the victims and their family members who shoulder the weight of bringing about change. It is the average citizen who is sick of the daily bloodshed, sick of the gun lobby and their purchasing of senators and congressmen that must rise up and say enough. Not one more mass shooting. Not one more suicide. Not one more accident. Not one more. Otherwise, we are the fool Euripides warns us against.

Back and Forward

2015 was, quite simply, the worst year of my life. In fact, the 12 month period between November 2014 and October 2015 was a living nightmare. In November of 2014 my father died following a brief but excruciatingly painful illness. Move ahead to September of 2015 and my amazingly strong wife of 25 years died after a long illness. The illness that took them both? Cancer. It has been the year of cancer and I’m sick of it. I hate it. I am done with it.

As my children and I try to forge a new life out of the ashes of our previous life we do so knowing we will do it together. For that, I am most grateful. No amount of money or privilege can replace family as the most important and precious commodity. I know Lisa would be incredibly proud of the kids in the way they have handled her death and remained grounded while pulling in amazing grades over the past semester. I hope my father would be proud of the way I’ve handled this past year with logic, compassion, and determination. It has not been easy but, as I’ve said and lived by these past eight years with Lisa’s cancer, “we do what we have to do.”

2016 will bring college graduations and graduate school applications, a move across the country and a laying of new roots. It will bring unforeseen challenges and hard won victories. And so as we ring in the new year, let us do so with joyous hearts for a happy, healthy future, fond memories culled from a painful past, and no cancer.

The Distraction Trip

imageThe snow is finally falling in Vermont. We seem to have brought it with us. We have been here for two days now and have had a wonderful time with my cousin, Martha, and her partner, Eric. We ate our way through Waterbury and spend a great night at my cousin Mark’s bistro where we had the most amazing seafood etouffee. We were not able to hit all of the top places we wanted to see, nor were we able, because of the lack of snow,  to ski. However, the inn we stayed at was charming and had a fireplace which we kept roaring whenever we were around. Tonight we will have dinner again with my cousin and see a mountain lodge at the base of the ski lift.

Prior to Stowe, VT, we spent four days in NYC and had the best time. We saw three Broadway shows and three movies while we were there and spent a terrific Christmas with Lisa’s cousin Sue and her family. The plays we saw were, in order: China Doll, starring Al Pacino; Therese Raquin, starring Kiera Knightley; and Hamilton, starring its writer and creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. Each play was better then the last and all were wonderful in their own right. We also saw the 70mm roadshow version of Quentin Tarantino’s new film, The Hateful Eight, the limited release new Michael Fassbender/Marion Cotillard version of MacBeth, and the new Tina Fey/Amy Poehler movie, Sisters. The Hateful Eight was terrific and MacBeth was flat out incredible. Sisters was entertaining and that’s usually all I ask for in a movie.

We walked around New York and took cabs when necessary as the rain fell and we witnessed New York’s warmest Christmas ever. We saw the tree at Rockefeller Plaza, ducked into St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a few minutes and spent a wonderful afternoon with Sue, her two girls Bella and Jackie, and her husband Phil, who knows more about the art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art than any docent working there! We also spend several hours at the Museum of Modern Art where Sam took us to the pieces she wanted us to see after having done a considerable amount of homework at the hotel to make the most of the limited time we had at MoMA. Speaking of the hotel, we stayed at the Library Hotel located one block from the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. The New York Public Library had the most beautiful Christmas tree displayed in the lobby’s. Lisa and I had stayed at the same hotel about ten years ago when we first took the kids around NYC. Each floor of the hotel and each room on each floor is based on a specific section of the Dewey decimal system. When we were taken up to our room this time, Sam noticed right away that it was the exact same room we had stayed in the last time, the Law room. And the same as last time, at the end of each night, before we turned in to sleep, we would head to the second floor to have a cookies and a drink. What a wonderful hotel.

This trip was an attempt to distract us from the holiday season at home with all the trappings we usually associat with Lisa. I knew we could not avoid all of the feelings from which we were suffering because there is a giant hole in our hearts where Lisa once lived. Overall, the trip has been somewhat successful as we have had some fun and know that Lisa would want us to laugh. Still, the loss is still fresh and we miss her incredibly. So many times during the day something will happen that we will want to share with her or we think how much she would have enjoyed something. I don’t know when (or if) that feeling will ever subside. We are doing the best we can right now and know we still have a long way to go before the hurt turns to happy memories.

And now we have just tonight left here in Stowe before we head off to Rhode Island to spend a few days with family and friends. We will drive to Rhode Island tomorrow morning leaving behind some great family and great memories. One of the main reasons for our trip to Rhode Island is so I can drive around to look at condos. It is our intention to move back to Rhode Island after the kids graduate from the University of Texas at Austin. Rhode Island is home to us and while I don’t know where the kids will end up for grad school or what their future holds career-wise, it will be good to go home. If home is where the heart is, then we need to get back to Rhode Island. I don’t know where in Rhode Island we will end up, I just know that it’s home.

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