Thoughts At Large

Passionate thoughts on random topics

Tag: family

Sharks and Cancer

quint

So, eleven hundred men went in the water, three hundred and sixteen men come out, the sharks took the rest…”  Quint, Jaws

It has been a very difficult year and a half. First, in November of 2014 my father died after a brief but excruciatingly painful fight with lung cancer which had spread to his bones. Almost one year later, last September, my wife died after a long fight with breast cancer which had spread to her lungs. And then only six months later, my dog died after a painful fight with a soft tissue cancer which had spread to his bones. One year, then only six months, part of me wonders what horror will befall us in three months. But I have to believe that the pain and suffering have ended now.  I can’t help but appropriate Quint’s quote to, “So, five of us went to Texas, three of us come home, cancer took the rest…”

Cancer has targeted my family for far too long now. I don’t want it to have any more power over us. My children have spent fully one-third of their lives living under the threat of cancer taking their mother and then their dog. Almost their entire teenage years, years difficult enough without cancer moving in to live with us, has been spent living under that dark cloud. They are 21 years old now and, in spite of these added pressures, will both graduate on-time from the University of Texas at Austin, each with over a 3.5 GPA. How they have been able to stay focused amazes me and is a testament to their strength of character.

I know people have had it harder than we have. I don’t claim to have a corner on suffering. And I am grateful for the seven years we were able to steal from cancer by moving to Texas and seeking treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I’ll never regret that decision. But if we could have a break from any additional pain for a short time, that would be great.

Each of us is dealing with these losses in our own individual manner. Certainly, grief counseling has helped, but we still face a world in which neither Lisa nor Delbow will walk with us any longer. We have had long discussions about faith, heaven, philosophy, and all of the accompanying topics. We disagree as much as we agree but the discussions are always lively and fascinating. I hope that we can each find some comfort in our positions.

Finally, there is the issue of moving forward. The house, already quiet from Lisa’s absence is now even quieter without Delbow’s rambling about. The kids are on spring break this week, so I have a respite before facing that still house alone. I now have six months of experience without Lisa and living alone. I hope this serves me well when the kids return to school. But before we know it, school will be over, graduations will have been concluded and we will be packing up for our trip back to Rhode Island. I hope it goes well and we can begin our new lives healthy. No sharks, no cancer.

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Inhuman

PainPublilius Syrus in the first century B.C. wrote “when Fortune flatters, she does it to betray.” Plutarch reinterpreted this as “I see the cure is not worth the pain.” Somewhere over the past two thousand plus years we have lost the connection between humanity and the humane.

Setting religion aside and ignoring the politics and ethics of Dr. Kevorkian, it is, none the less, barbaric how we treat our loved ones at the end of their lives.

We have somehow bridged the moral abyss with compassion for our beloved pets by “humanely” putting our beloved pets out of their senseless misery, ending their meaningless pain, answering their pleading eyes with the selfless, heartrending compassion of euthanasia.

We have somehow sanitized capital punishment of the worst criminals from fatal and barbaric corporal punishment to a “humane” (although still debatably barbaric) dream-like sleep out of existence.

And yet, we allow our loved ones to face “natural” death filled with a fear, pain and confusion making anything that happened at Abu Ghraib look like Walt Disney World.

This suffering is multifaceted. Of course, there is the physical pain, which is no better controlled today than it was 50 years ago. The opioids still rule as the best we have to offer. The problem is that they are systemic, meaning that they travel throughout the entire body. If the pain is in the hip, the hip gets the morphine, but so, too, do the little finger, the ear lobe and the brain. The result is that the little finger and ear lobe are no better or worse, the hip suffers an incomplete relief of pain and the brain suffers the confusion, paranoia, nausea and narcolepsy unnecessary to treatment. This is the best medicine has to offer in 2014? The other suffering it brings is to the family members who must endure watching the physical suffering of those they love hampered by the incomplete relief of pain. Meaningless suffering is the worst kind. Love of another means the willingness to shoulder their burden. The helplessness felt by the family member watching their loved one jerk in pain or crying out as they try to move them or comfort them is an indelible stain on their soul.

The suicidal mission of cancer adds to the frustration. Bent on destroying its host, even at its own annihilation, cancer never rests. To paraphrase Siddhartha Mukherjee from his book The Emperor of All Maladies, cancer cuts the brake lines of some cells and jams the gas pedals of others, stopping the natural cell regulation process and sending the cancer cells into a proliferating frenzy steamrolling every other cell in its path. In his or her clearer moments, so too, the cancer patient undergoes a civil war; one side, engrained in all of us, pulls us to live, to continue fighting, while another force, armed with logic, understanding and ultimately love, forces the patient to begin facing the inevitable truth with no regrets and peace.

In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, concentration camp survivor and psychologist Victor Frankl describes inmates of the camps as surviving long stretches if they could find meaning in their suffering.  Some held on to the hope of outlasting the Nazis and returning to their loved ones (should any of them have survived), others found peace looking up at the sky and imagining conversations with their loved ones wherever they might then have been. Life was worth living if they held a kernel of meaning in their suffering.

I have searched and considered and yet find no meaning in the suffering loved ones endure at the end of their lives given the current state of medicine. Pain is pain and on a scale of 1 to 10, anything above a 1 means the medical field has failed. The root word of both humane and humanity is human, from the Latin humanus. However, we reserve those words for our treatment of pets and prisoners, not our loved ones. For them, and for ourselves, it is inhuman what we put them through, for them and for us it is nothing short of torture.

Tipping Point of Possessive Pronouns

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I read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point when it was first published in 2000. At the time, my children were 6. This past weekend, I attended a gallery opening for my daughter whose work from her summer studying in Tuscany was being displayed along with her peers.

At exactly 6:30 on September 19, 2014 I witnessed a seismic tipping point in my life. You see, at that point, the second sentence of the first paragraph ceased being exclusively true. No longer was she “my” daughter as much as I was “her” father. This shift in possessive pronouns is significant in that it, while it may not have closed out my paternal protectionism (that will ever dissolve), it forced me to acknowledge that my daughter is a fully functioning member of society, a woman upon whom the planet can lean for guidance, joy, art and direction. In short, just what the world needs.

The Romans warned us to “cave ab homine unius libri’ (beware the man of one book). Today we call this epistemic closure. We only talk to those who agree with us. We only read (if we read at all) that with which we already agree. The deafening din in America today of people talking over one another instead of to one another is both disheartening and a recipe for stagnation and anger. Congress is the best example of this. The last congress, the 113th, passed just 108 non-ceremonial laws due to infighting among Republicans and the Tea Party and among Republicans and Democrats. Essentially, the Republican/Tea Party mantra became one of “whatever the President wants, we’re against, consequences be damned.” And that included shutting down the government! We don’t debate one another anymore. We don’t discuss anything or seek common ground. “Compromise” seems to be a naughty word now. Every one is screaming and no one hears anything.

My son wants to grab the world by the throat and drag it gurgling and choking into a rational, logical future. I fear most of the world may need this approach. My daughter will need to lead the rest of the world into that same, better future with art and compassion. They will use different tools, but both will move the world toward the same beautiful, peaceful future. And then I will truly be “their” father, “their” friend, someone who has an autograph from way back when, an autograph in crayon with the “a” written backwards, where the foundation of their genius was still forming and I was a fortunate passenger. I am proud of “my” children. Proud to be “their” father. Excited for their future.

Mother’s Day

Mothers Day

 

In honor of my mother, my wife, my sister and all of the mama bears of Moms Demand Action, here are a few quotes on mothers. In short, thank you.

 

“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts.”

Washington Irving

 

 “I realized when you look at your mother, you are looking at the purest love you will ever know.”

Mitch Albom, For One More Day

 

 “Perhaps it takes courage to raise children..”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

 

 “He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark.”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

 

“My mother is a poem that I could never write”

Unknown

 

“Pride is one of the seven deadly sins; but it cannot be the pride of a mother in her children, for that is a compound of two cardinal virtues — faith and hope.”

Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

 

“My mother said the cure for thinking too much about yourself was helping somebody who was worse off than you.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

 

“If I were asked to define Motherhood, I would have defined it as Love in its purest form. Unconditional Love.”

Revathi Sankaran

 

“Sometimes when you pick up your child you can feel the map of your own bones beneath your hands, or smell the scent of your skin in the nape of his neck. This is the most extraordinary thing about motherhood – finding a piece of yourself separate and apart that all the same you could not live without.”

Jodi Picoult, Perfect Match

 

“If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?”

Milton Berle

 

“Having kids — the responsibility of rearing good, kind, ethical, responsible human beings — is the biggest job anyone can embark on”

Maria Shriver

 

“The phrase “working mother” is redundant.”

Jane Sellman

 

“With children the clock is reset. We forget what came before”

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

 

“My most important title is still “mom-in-chief.” My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.”

Michelle Obama

 

“I am sure that if the mothers of various nations could meet, there would be no more wars.”

E.M. Forster, Howards End

 

“A mother’s arms are made of tenderness and children sleep soundly in them.”

Victor Hugo

 

 

A Conversation With My Daughter

feminist

 

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

I am lucky. As a heterosexual, white, American man, I found, out of the millions of available women, the best. Does that sound right? “I,” “I found,” “I am lucky.” Let me try to rephrase that. A strong, compassionate, brilliant woman, a woman with talent and brains and limited tolerance for fools, a woman destined to positively impact the lives of countless people, chose me. Better. Although I was right, I was/am lucky.

I had the most incredible conversation with my 19 year old daughter last night. It was a text message conversation, but, in many ways, the technology was not a barrier to thought or feelings, but an aid. Perhaps it is the inherent delay in responding or the necessity to distill thoughts into typed words. Whatever the cause, the effect was blinding, pure logic bathed in compassion. The subject: Feminism.

Again, I’m a guy. But that does not preclude me from discussing or even embracing feminism. Ultimately, feminism is one wavelength within the light spectrum of equality.

Plato wrote in The Republic,“If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.” That was in 380 B.C.

On October 9, 2012, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the Taliban on her school bus for having the audacity to think, “Let us pick up our books and our pens,” I said. “They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” (I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban)

Clearly, in 2,392 years we have done little to evolve as humans. Why do some (males and females) see feminists as the enemy? Why have some vilified them as militant, anti-men?

To help answer this question, I need to back up to a 30,000 foot view of “civilized society.” My daughter is an artist, and the best kind. She is infused with talent, an incredible work ethic blended with a strong desire to learn and stirred by passion; truly a recipe for greatness, both as an artist and as a compassionate human. As we chatted last night we wandered into a metaphor that, I think carries some veracity. The idea that while seeing all issues in pure black and white is easy (read: requires little or no thought), it is boring and excludes the rainbow of colors that make life (and art) joyful. Seeing (or rather acknowledging) the gray in an issue requires us to pause and consider differing opinions, perspectives and, potentially, shaking the ledge upon which we base our morals. It is neither comfortable nor easy, but it is necessary and should be required! Somewhere along the line, Descartes argument cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) has been bludgeoned into “I am, therefore I need not think.” How sad.

Feminism is not the charge of a select group of women but rather the obligation of all rational thinkers, therefore, all of humankind. Where it is the weak minded and threatened man who disdains feminists, so too is it the weak minded and male-oriented, society-molded female who defends organized subjugation. To subjugate one is to imprison all. Eleanor Roosevelt said it best, “”No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Our willing abdication of thought may inevitably lead to an Orwellian future of newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrimes and perpetual war. How far down this road are we already? Who wants to drive?

I am proud of my daughter. She is strong-willed, passionate and compassionate, thinks for herself and wants to make the world a better place. If that is the definition of a feminist, sign me up.

Gold

Gold barsWe live in a disposable economy; neither secret nor revelation there! We also live in a society where we, through technology and media, demand instant gratification and are easily bored with work and distracted by shiny objects. It is easier to walk away from a problem than wrestle with it, but seldom right. It is easier to think of oneself rather than another, but rarely without consequence. We eschew effort as well as personal responsibility and popular culture celebrates this behavior. The existentialist will tell you that we are all, in fact, islands; that no one can truly appreciate what we, as individuals, think or feel. At the same time, however, we are all cogs in the various and intricate machinery we know as society.

Many of us, either through nature or nurture, seek to live our lives with the company of another; to see if the teeth on our cog mesh with those of another’s, thereby (it is hoped) creating a larger, stronger organism. It is often a disruptive union, calling on an island to expose its perceived weaknesses to another in hopes of reuniting Pangaea and weathering life’s storms together. Marriage forces two individuals to add the moniker “couple” to themselves, making each participant defend the ethos of the other before society while at the same time trying to maintain their own sense of self. And therein, lies one of the two reasons these unions fail. Statistics tell us that half of marriages fail. Maybe “fail” is not the right word. When reduced to basics, the individual cogs simply do not work together, despite love’s miasma and an individual’s sometimes tortuous effort. There are many different reasons for these failures, not all of them assignable to one party or the other. However, “facts is facts.” According to the 2010 census, only 82% of Americans who married reached their 5 year anniversary. Sixty-five percent made it to 10 years. Fifty-two percent made it to 15 years.

Of course, divorce is not the only reason that couples fail to reach these milestones. The other way that marriages end is through the death of one partner. You needn’t look at an actuarial table to see that as people get older the overall number of them still living decreases. You may have graduated 43rd in your high school class, but with enough luck and a genetic lottery winning ticket, someday you will be 1st! George Burns wasn’t the tallest in his high school at graduation, but by living to 99 he assumed that title from all those who were taller but preceded him in death. Consequently, the number of couples reaching higher milestones drops significantly as the years pass. Only 33% of couples reach their 25th anniversary, again, through a combination of avoiding death and divorce. Only 20% of couples reach their 35th anniversary. Of course, while only two things can end a marriage, either divorce or death, not even death can hold sway over love. The remaining cog may still turn as part of society but it forever misses the other.

This September, I will celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary with the woman whose cog fit mine; who softened the rough teeth of my cog and kept our machine moving where teeth on my cog were missing or broken. To reach such a height is to know the wonder, pain, strength and suffering that sharing your life with another affords. Experience can neither be taught nor bequeathed and, for those who make it through, would not be traded for all the world’s gold. The tapestry we have woven together, comprised of the countless threads we call memories, warms me, comforts me and leads me toward tomorrow’s challenges armed with confidence.

Tomorrow also marks a milestone fewer than 5% of couples attain. My parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. In a society where we are encouraged to trade our gold for cash, it is nice to see a couple whose determination to face life’s challenges as one reach their Golden Anniversary, a milestone more treasured than treasure; something forged in life’s furnace like no one else’s, answerable to no one else and more precious than cash. No life is easy, no journey without challenges, but it is the challenges that create character and we celebrate couples who have weathered these challenges and persevered. Thanks to my wife, and the story we are still writing, and my parents whose own book is now gold gilded, I understand a quote from Dr. Seuss today better than yesterday and hope to appreciate it better tomorrow than today.

 “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

Happy anniversary to my parents and Lisa, I love you.

The Wolfe of Main Street

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“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Published in 1940, two years after the loquacious author Thomas Wolfe unexpectedly died, You Can’t Go Home Again belongs to a select group of novels whose title has entered American speech as a catch phrase. Catch-22 also enjoys this status of being a book few have read but we all seem to use the phrase in daily life with a winking acknowledgment.

We all know what “you can’t go home again” means, but a deeper understanding of the sentiment behind the phrase yields a bountiful crop of compassionate undergrowth.

To begin with the obvious, anyone returning to their hometown following a period away notices the changes. Gone is the local drug store, replaced by a pharmacy chain. Gone is the chain toy store you once protested against when it bought out the local toy store. Gone is the barber shop at which you used to get your hair cut, where they had to use the booster seat to allow you to sit high enough for the barber, who doubled as your neighbor. Mom and Pop stores are eaten by chains, which are, in turn, swallowed by larger chains; themselves prey to the threat from the internet and online shopping. Sure, the ice cream parlor still remains, but the menu has changed, the furnishings updated, the uniforms different and the charm captured by childhood gone. Restaurants change name, fields become strip malls and the potato farm beyond the outfield has grown into a neighborhood.

Still, the phrase refers to to time not distance or travel. How often is the frustration of the dieter who weighs themselves daily validated by the comments of those who do not see the individual on a daily basis? How many times do we catch our reflection in the morning mirror wondering who that old person is staring back? So too, is the change of “home” incremental yet perpetual.  Daily life contains checklists, both mental and written, which drive our actions.

  • Get up at 6:00, eat breakfast, shower, shave, dress
  • Run to the supermarket (we need bananas and bread (critical))
  • Must stop at the Post Office to drop off the package to ensure it arrives at Aunt Clara’s before her birthday on Tuesday
  • I’d like to get to Barnes & Noble to pick up that new book Charlie was raving about
  • Dinner with the group tonight (whose house is it at?)
  • Get to bed at a “decent” time tonight. That twitch in my lower eye lid is driving me crazy.

Seldom do we slow down enough to see how much has changed. Perhaps this is done on purpose. Each of us carries a mental picture of everyone else in their mind. Ask yourself, “When was this “picture” snapped?” My image of my grandfather (my father’s father) was snapped in his basement, hovering over his workbench. When was that? 1970-something? My image of my grandmother (my father’s mother) is of her sitting at her kitchen table scratching at the incessant itching in her hands, offering me one snack after another. When was that? My image of my other grandmother (my mother’s mother) resides in actual snapshots; photographs I’ve seen which merge with stories I’ve heard from those older than me, and thus capable of holding a memory. And so it is with everyone I’ve ever met. Name someone and I will unconsciously recall a moment in time and an age of that person at which they are forever frozen. This is one of the conundrums I have with the concept of heaven. Should I die and be admitted to the ultimate club and see my paternal great-grandmother (who, in my youth seemed to be Methuselah’s age when she died), how old would she seem to me? And at what age would she appear to her great-grandmother who died when my great-grandmother was in cloth diapers in Italy?

Memories rush up to meet us without recall demands made; the mystique of “family” softened by the endless waves of time. There is a promontory rock in my hometown against which an endless line of waves crash. This rock has endured wave upon wave since before my birth and will endure them for countless millennia after I die, with little change to the rock. Ovid said, ““Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” Persistence measured in thousands of years eludes my capacity of comprehension.

And while Main Street changes over time, we cannot forget that it is a two-way street. Those exposed to the daily changes accept them as the new “normal.” Times change and we have to keep up! The reinsertion of the returning local into this new equation causes an unintentional sheering of expectations from memory. The resident expects the returning friend/relative to merge with the existing daily life to which they have become accustomed through the gradual hollowing out of the stone of the local landscape. The collision of the returning individual’s memory with the resident’s daily reality, coupled with the mental image we carry of the individual, can yield conflict and confusion. Family mystique is usually best carried by those who have physically had to relocate. A myth develops over time of something the individual perceives as having been taken from them, whereas the reality is simply human beings in one small community clashing and embracing, subject to the baggage we all carry. Grudges are held, “hatred” festers, blame is assigned and emotional distance creates a gulf where no physical distance exists. To the physically removed family member, these animosities seem petty and counterproductive. Consider the view of the astronaut aboard the International Space Station looking through the port hole at the earth as it passes constantly from daylight into night and back again. How meaningless do our conflicts seem from afar? How insignificant do national borders seem, religious differences resulting in warfare, the skin color or sex of one ant from another? Unfortunately, few of us have the ability to step back and observe from such a height, even figuratively. Wolfe expands upon his catch phrase below:

 Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.

The voice of forest water in the night, a woman’s laughter in the dark, the clean, hard rattle of raked gravel, the cricketing stitch of midday in hot meadows, the delicate web of children’s voices in bright air–these things will never change.

The glitter of sunlight on roughened water, the glory of the stars, the innocence of morning, the smell of the sea in harbors, the feathery blur and smoky buddings of young boughs, and something there that comes and goes and never can be captured, the thorn of spring, the sharp and tongueless cry–these things will always be the same.

All things belonging to the earth will never change–the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth–all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth–these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.

The tarantula, the adder, and the asp will also never change. Pain and death will always be the same. But under the pavements trembling like a pulse, under the buildings trembling like a cry, under the waste of time, under the hoof of the beast above the broken bones of cities, there will be something growing like a flower, something bursting from the earth again, forever deathless, faithful, coming into life again like April.”

Can all of this be summarized as “stop to smell the roses?” Maybe, but we never seem to take the time to add it to our list of things to do.

We can go home again, if only in our memories, and there, we have never left.

Observations from a Recent Holiday

Orwell 1984

War is Peace

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

A change in my wife’s chemotherapy regimen recently opened up the opportunity for us to visit Paris and London. It was originally supposed to be an early 25th anniversary gift to my wife last September (our 23rd anniversary), but a sudden, nasty infection forced us to cancel the trip hours before we were to leave for the airport. Crestfallen doesn’t begin to cover our disappointment. When presented with this window of time (before she began a new phase II clinical trial), we decided to schedule a last minute trip and take our twins with us who were home from their freshman year at college.

Armed with my own agenda of sights and attractions I wished to see, I found that instead, I saw the trip through the eyes of my family. My daughter, studying fine art and enamored with art history, provided me with a different appreciation of the architecture, style, culture and art of these cities that I would otherwise have missed. My son, the philosopher, showed me the political and societal differences beyond language that I would otherwise have missed. My wife, showed me that while the Champs Elysses essentially looked like Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street or any chain-choked mall in suburban America, it was the small side streets two blocks removed from the tourist centers that offered the best food, flowers and shopping. And together, they all agreed that while it was important to tick-off as many items from our “bucket list” as possible, we all enjoyed and appreciated sitting at a sidewalk café eating tomato, basil and mozzarella sandwiches on the most amazing bread while watching the world go by the most. To a person, we all agreed that we wished it was our second trip to these wonderful cities so that we could immerse ourselves in the local culture and pace without the pressure of “seeing” everything. I was forcing us to run everywhere, to the detriment of my wife and the chagrin of my children.

Having never traveled outside the country before, it was also interesting to see both how other countries existed, but also how they perceived Americans.

My son noticed (and was not a little bothered by) the soldiers patrolling the Eiffel Tower armed with very large weapons. So too did he notice the constant government monitoring in London via video cameras. These were visible on motorway markers and Tube stations, as well as mentioned repeatedly on notices throughout the city. Ironic, that London (Airstrip 1), would spark this observation in my son. Although to be fair, the only mustachioed poster we saw was not of Big Brother but of Brad Pitt on a poster for World War Z. We neither saw Winston Smith, nor any IngSoc signs.

Rather, I had an interesting conversation (or perhaps only a glimpse of a conversation) with the taxi driver (who was an (East) German expat). Sitting in the passenger seat of the small minivan on the way to the apartment we were renting, he asked me where we were from.

Instinctively, I replied, over the whine of the small engine, “The States.”

“Not Canada?” he asked, shooting me a quick, knowing look.

I admit that it took me a few seconds to digest the meaning of his question. Full of ourselves for being the “world’s police,” United States citizens somehow have managed to believe that we can belittle the rest of the world’s population while assuming  we are both more civilized and, therefore, more entitled and have convinced ourselves that the rest of the world is somehow beholden to us. Apparently, more cautious travelers hide their US heritage beneath a more innocuous Canadian visage.  Surely an interesting question from an ex-East German citizen obviously more sensitive to European viewpoints of Americans than me!

Other, more obvious, observations include the size of the cars driven. Nowhere did we see the parade of Tahoe’s, Suburban’s or tricked-out F-150’s that I see on my way to work here in Houston on a daily basis. Rather, the number of Vespa’s, motorcycles and bicycles moving like fruit flies in and out of traffic in Paris showed that the sudden appearance of a Suburban near the Arc du Triomph would generate both a traffic jam and trigger an enormous number of iPhone photos. All of the cars were very small, and yet, we saw no horrific accidents (or even a fender bender). And while they drive aggressively, there is no animosity in their intentions. It is simply a matter of getting from point A to point B. Perhaps “Road Rage” is an American phenomenon (which, coupled with the number of guns in our population can only lead to more problems). Something else we noticed was the absence of bumper stickers on the cars. There were no French flags or Union Jacks on the rear windows, no stick figures of every family member, no honor roll declarations, no personalized high school football/basketball/baseball/swimming/band/dance stickers, no NRA stickers, no Molon Labe stickers, no Come and Take It stickers, no NASCAR stickers, not even stickers of universities or professional sports teams. Apparently, rear view windows are there to provide visual clearance and bumpers are there to absorb collisions rather than replace our Facebook pages.

Another observation was the amount of complaining we heard. Parisians are very animated in their discussions with those with whom they are dining. And yet, there was, again, no animosity in their demeanor. While I couldn’t possibly understand what they were discussing, the physical cues they exhibited showed them to be in stark difference on whatever subject they were discussing. And while voices were occasionally raised, never once (and this goes for London’s pubs as well) did I feel that a disagreement was about to escalate into a brawl. That cannot be said for most places I’ve been in America. Testosterone and bravado seem to flood the American male much quicker than their European counterparts. In fact, the only complaining we heard in all of the lines we stood in was from Americans.

The gardens at Versailles are enormous, dwarfing the colossal chateau itself. As my wife is saddled with the side effects of chemotherapy (and despite her Herculean spirit), we thought it was a wonderful idea to rent a golf cart to tour the gardens, rather than expend her energy walking the estate. The firm contracted to provide the carts could expand their supply a hundredfold to meet the demand, therefore, the line was long and did not move quickly. As we (finally) reached the front of the line, the young man working there, who spoke English and was of Indian decent) took me aside and said that his family was visiting him in France and he was going to give them the next cart. My first thought was, hey, those are the perks of working here! Good for you! However, the woman from Kansas two couples behind us was not so understanding and went on and on about how she would have done this and that to the kid, blah, blah, blah. Truly, the only complaining we heard was from Americans.

I am not naïve enough to think that everything we saw was perfect, nor that what we did see constituted the “average” life of a citizen of these cities. However, there were stark differences and while I continue to struggle with paralysis in Washington, the torpid national response to everyday gun violence in America, the wholesale abdication of personal responsibility, the vitriol of the Tea Party, the ongoing religious hypocrisy of the right wing, the adoration of celebrity, the acceptance of lower educational performance, the increasing fracturing of societal ethos, epistemic closure as an unintended consequence of the internet and the vapid, ossified acid spewed on AM radio, I am reminded that is up to us to make tomorrow better than today. Our children are watching, and so is the rest of the world, and like our children, they will not wait.

Shadows

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.      – Abraham Maslow, The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance (1966)

A hungry stomach cannot hear.    – Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, IX, The Kite and the Nightingale (1678-1679)

The hungry are forgiven for thinking of nothing but food. Consider the cartoons of your childhood where the starving predator sees something (prey or any inanimate object) and it transforms, in his mind, into a sizzling pork chop or a talking fried chicken leg. So, too, the cancer patient can think of nothing but disease. Every cough, every twinge, every sniffle conjures up images of metastasizing evil reaching its suicidal fingers into new corners of their betraying body. However, unlike hunger, cancer has the ability to cloud the perception of those who love and care for the cancer patient.

Such was the case of our beloved dog Delbow. Stung by the appearance of a cancerous tumor in the muscle on the right side of his neck last year, an incomplete resection of the area was followed by cautious but deliberate irradiation of the area in 21 sessions over three weeks, concluding last spring. As with my wife, whose ongoing war with breast cancer leaves her with scars and nightmares, our dog, blissfully oblivious to the prognosis and baffled by the ongoing medical attention carries the painful reminders of his ordeal.  Suffering from increasing head tremors and restricted head mobility, coupled with teeth gnashing (a new manifestation), we sought answers from his veterinary oncologist.  Examinations were made and tests were run, all in our endless quest for information. Nothing was found to account for the changes.

We were referred to the neurologist, who suggested a myriad of horrible conditions which “may” be responsible for his symptoms. Again, tests were run, information was gathered but conclusions eluded us. Finally, the prospect of a temporomandibular joint condition was proposed and we were referred to the veterinary dentist. As my son and I waited (as my wife was too ill following another round of systemic poison being administered to her), the dentist informed us that it appeared the cancer had returned. In concert with the oncologist (with whom the dentist and neurologist are colleagues in a multi-specialty veterinary clinic), it was revealed that there were at least two, one half centimeter tumors on the back side of his neck. In addition, there was an inflammation in the area of his optic nerve within the orbit of his left eye and a huge mass pushing the lens out of position. The tumors on his neck were excised and sent for a biopsy and we returned home with a beloved family member lethargic from sedation and partially shaved with a four-inch, sutured incision on his neck.

The next few days saw his demeanor change, his energy decrease, confusion increase and us wondering if the end was nigh.  Cancer had again forced every other consideration of our lives to the very distant background. Sadness fought with anger for position as the overwhelming emotion we faced. Like walking out into an August day in Houston from the conditioned atmosphere of our home, the concept of life without Delbow hit us in the face within moments of awakening every morning. Sicknesses, such as cancer, have a way of forcing us to prioritize our lives, jettisoning the trivial matters eating up precious brain activity in favor of the immediate and irreversible concepts surrounding mortality. However, while this is true in the long-term (or even the mid-term) it is not true in the immediate aftermath of learning such news. Rather than prioritize the various weighted obligations we face, all other considerations (all other thought) drown in the dissonant din of this cancer-caused, immediate threat.

Weary from these considerations and exhausted from a lack of sleep caused by us each holding Delbow in shifts throughout the night because of his almost constant, semi-conscious leaps of pain (followed by a desire to stand alone in a corner with ears down, tail down and a sad, empty stare), our arms held him tight against us like living seatbelts, our voices soothing as we spoke tender deceits of everything being “ok.”  A week passed like this and we were finally scheduled to return to the oncologist to review the findings of the biopsy. Unable to convince Lisa to stay home, the four of us and our little, fluffy, white ball of radiating love made the trip together.

The first indication that this would not be just another doctor’s visit came to us upon entering the examination room. Rather than the exam table locked into place like a deployed, closet ironing board center, complete with rubber-backed bath mat for the patient’s comfort, there were simply five chairs in the room. It seemed that any pretense of medical art had been dispensed with and a consultative, group therapy session was about to ensue. What followed was unexpected, bordering on unfathomable.

The biopsy of the tumors from his neck came back as benign, dermatopath lesions, non-cancerous. However, the inability to conduct a biopsy of the optic nerve enlargement left the physicians dubious of its construction or intent. That, coupled with what was originally thought to be a massive, mature cataract on the CT scan was now believed to be a suspected soft tissue ciliary body tumor. One step forward, two steps back. Because of Delbow’s extensive medical history (exclusive of his cancer and treatment), including two TPLO surgeries, one on each back leg, and an emergency retinal reattachment surgery four years ago, it was thought that his ophthalmologist might be able to provide some (if you’ll forgive me the word) “insight” into Delbow’s visual condition. This was at 11:30AM. A quick, frantic call to his ophthalmologist, where I simply needed to drop Delbow’s name (as everyone who knows him finds him beautiful, adorable and memorable), and we were scheduled to meet with the ophthalmologist at 1:00, thanks to a double booking trick of the office staff.

The benefit of having a background in the health insurance field is that no generational or geographical biases prevent us from seeking out the best practitioners (we moved from Rhode Island to Texas to obtain treatment at M.D. Anderson and took Delbow to Chicago to have eye surgery). The “benefit” of having a two inch thick file on Delbow at the ophthalmologists (I put benefit in quotes because to amass such a file necessitates ongoing physical conditions requiring medical treatment) is that this history provides benchmarks against which current issues can be gauged.

It turns out that the enlarged shadow the oncologist saw on the CT scan near Delbow’s optic nerve has always been there (or in the words of the ophthalmologist, “he most likely came that way from the factory”). As for the huge, globular mass distorting the normal position of his lens, it is simply the silicone oil injected into his eye four years ago as part of the retinal reattachment surgery he had in Chicago. It appears as a mass because the silicone oil is now sharing the area inside the eyeball with accumulated tears, and, as we know, oil and water don’t mix.

So, it turns out that sometimes a shadow on a CT scan is just a shadow and not an exposed, nefarious shade. A good lesson and a difficult one to learn outside the painful necessity of experiencing it, the thumping warning signals, the paranoid expectations of the other shoe dropping are not fleeting.  No, but while we’re not out of the woods yet (we still don’t have any plausible explanation for his ongoing pain and behavior changes) we no longer see the forest before us as raw lumber in search of a nail in search of a hammer.