Happy Birthday to Emma!

Fall 1999, somewhere along the Buffalo River in Arkansas on our first cross-country adventure.

Today is my bride, Emma’s, birthday. I am grateful that we have been able to grow together and experience all the adventures, here in the South and abroad, of life with family and friends, career choices, geographic moves, and a slew of canine friends.  Over that time, we have always been there for each other, supporting our mutual and individual dreams.

In our 20 years of knowing each other, she has never seen me drunk or high on illicit drugs – though she has experienced many of the “isms” that the recovering alcoholic continues to deal with one day at a time – like anger, self-righteousness, resentment, pride . . . the list goes on . . . and has never wavered in her love and support.

Besides being my best friend for the past two decades, today Emma is my rock and strongest supporter as I deal with the uncertainties of cancer.  There is no way to know what tomorrow will bring, cancer or not.  We have only today . . . and today, we celebrate the birth of Emma Marie French Connolly, my wife, partner, spouse, lover, confidant, and light of my world as we each travel down that path toward our true selves.

I am truly blessed.

Chemotherapy vs an Alcohol Hangover

Thirty-six hours ago I started my first round of chemotherapy.  After the first 4 hours at the Touro Infusion Center, I came home with a portable apparatus that continues to pump the chemo into my system.  I have spent my time sleeping, trying to sleep, being nauseous, watching the numbers go down of the remaining 5FU cocktail pumping into my system, punctuated by three rounds of reasonably intense vomiting.  As instructed, after the third regurgitation experience in less than 24 hours, I called the oncologist, who ordered another anti-nausea script and instructions if I vomited again before morning to go straight to the ER for a fluid IV to keep from dehydrating.

Suffice it to say chemotherapy has not been pleasant experience.  I expect feeling better by about Sunday, a couple of days after I am off of the pump.  Then the process will begin again in a week or so for three more two-week rounds.  The immediate side effects of the 8-week regimen should be over by the time of Emma and my 19th Wedding Anniversary on December 11.

My oncologist said from the outset that if I could not “tolerate” the chemo regimen, other treatments could be tried.  My response has always been that I was not opposed to chemo so long as it was doing some good and not simply a shotgun approach to treatment.  As I explained in an earlier post, the former is the approach after my recent biopsies.

Today while laying there I compared chemo’s physical side effects with hangovers from my years as a practicing alcoholic.  I thought of one of my last really bad hangover experiences some 30 plus years ago.  I had been working on a project that was very important for me to complete.  It was so important, I had not touched a drop of alcohol for nearly one week so that I could complete the task.  On the final day of the project, I knew that if I spent another 8 hours, the work would be completed to my satisfaction – something I could feel good about.  I got up that Saturday morning and started working.  After consuming a pot of coffee, I knew I only had a few more hours more work.  I would succeed and prove to myself and everyone else that I could function.  I was a bit tense and on edge from all the coffee and went to the refrigerator to find something to calm my nerves a bit.  There were two unopened bottles of beer.  I knew that I could handle two beers without deviating from my project plans.  I drank them.  The last thing I remember was walking to the corner store to get more beer, project unfinished.  I “came to” the next morning about 5:00 AM with my head pounding, gut wrenching, and most importantly, my mind screaming for my failure once again.  Later that day when delivering my incomplete project, I was sucking on antacids and soft drinks just to keep from vomiting while I spoke.  It would be several days before I felt “normal” again.

There are many similar stories I could tell.

While laying in bed just now, I compared that experience with my current physical condition with chemotherapy.  I certainly feel no worse physically today than I did back those 3 decades ago.  And more importantly, today the chemotherapy is based on a reasoned approach to wholeness whereas the alcohol only took me deeper into the depths of despair.

This morning my gratitude list contained the following:

Grateful today for:
– being able to truly appreciate one day at time, and one hour at a time.
– having the time and resources to take care of my illness.
– I keep saying that the best training I have had for dealing with my cancer today is my years of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous!

I do not know where this chemotherapy journey will lead me – perhaps to the ER room before the day is out.  But, one day at a time, one hour at a time, and one minute at a time, I am grateful for the opportunity to live life on life’s terms today, and for the support my community of friends provide on this journey toward true self.

Living One Day at a Time, but Living

I am coming out of a physical downturn of late.  A couple of days ago I had another liter of fluid drained from my lungs, which made me breathe easier.  I went to “chemo school” this week as well in preparation for beginning chemotherapy in the next week.  In both experiences the health care providers emphasized my being proactive with any physical discomfort.  So with some pretty radical lifestyle restructuring – like eating six small meals a day instead of 2-3, I am physically on the mend, which also means my head is in a better place.

About ten friends have joined together to study a book I mentioned before On The Brink of Everything by Parker Palmer.  I am amazed at how true that title is regardless of my circumstances.  I have really no idea what chemo is going to bring but it is truly the Brink of new experiences and possibilities.

This understanding has also shaken me out of a funk I have been in of late.  Although I weeded, fertilized, and prepared a couple of beds for fall crops, I had yet to plant the seeds.  Part of my reluctance was my new limited diet and problems with digesting the high fiber vegetables I intended to plant.  I also had concerns about even being able to keep up the gardens this fall if chemotherapy proves to be a rough experience.

Today, I planted the seeds.  If I can’t eat the bounty, there are plenty who can.  (Speaking of which, if anyone local wants some fresh-cut basil, I got a ton of it – let me know.)  If I cannot maintain the crops alone, other folks can help.

I had two motivating factors in planting the seeds.  First, I did not want December to come with unopened seed packets and overgrown beds, but me being in reasonably good health, regretting my inaction.  This is the very logic that convinced me to go back to school after my first year of sobriety, and it carried me through to a PhD.  I did not want to be sitting here 20 years later regretting roads not traveled.

Perhaps most importantly is the appreciation of the AA slogan One Day At A Time.  In today’s world of mass shootings, genocide, natural disasters, road rage and a myriad of other factors, I can die from many other causes long before my stage four cancer works its own kind of magic.  I truly have only today, this hour, this minute.  When I planted the seeds today I found an enjoyment and a sense of purpose in bringing new life and abundance to the world.  Having a reason to get up in the morning, whether to weed the crops, sit along the River with Emma and Grace, meet refugees with comfort kits at the bus station, attend a worship service with my friends, or work on a new skill in digital design – I know are reasons for living, cancer or not.

As I have written on many occasions, my best preparation for dealing with cancer today is my recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous, and living one-day-at-a-time for the past 30 plus years.

Another Health Update

So today I got a good news/bad news report from the oncologist.  The good news is that the primary source of my cancer is now pinpointed in the stomach.  The bad news is the oncologist is recommending a type of chemotherapy as a treatment. (Note that I will spare the detail of the chemo type pros and cons – all of which Emma dutifully recorded – but is above my pay grade of understanding.  However, the anticipated results made sense to me.

We discussed my past reluctance in going down the chemo road on three counts.  First, I was not interested in a “spaghetti against the wall” approach which would have been the case prior to knowing the primary source.  The proposed approach is very targeted.  Second, I was not interested in a treatment where I would be completely miserable, only to buy a few extra months of life.  We discussed that if I do not handle the drugs well, modifications can be made mid-regimen.  Third, if the chemo was not going to directly treat my symptoms, I was not interested.  The treatment will directly address the nausea, bloating, fatigue, etc. that I have been feeling for the past several months.

As a sort of bonus, before beginning the chemo regimen, I will cycle through a round of antibiotics that will deal with any remnant H. Pylori lurking about in my system.

So having said all of that, in less than three months, my stomach issues of late should be dealt with and I will be able to return to a more normal diet.  Coincidental to which today I fertilized the garden bed where I will be planting the fall crops of collards and kale.

I am not certain what to expect from the chemo.  The drugs I will be taking are tolerated well on average. I am hopeful that my perpetual nausea and bloating over the past few months have prepared me for the average.

My oncologist would not even speculate on a prognosis, as he noted, the doctors have all been wrong thus far – as I was supposed to be wrapping up my life by last Christmas.

I will have a port implanted in the next week or so and then I am thinking by the first of October begin the four, two-week cycles of 3 days on, 11 days off of chemo – hopefully delivering me into the holiday season with the desire to make and ability to eat some of my Grandma Kurtz’s recipes for Sticky Buns and Shoo-fly Pie.

Emma and I discussed today the chemo will mean putting off our vacation plans till after the first of the year.  But we will use the end of each cycle of recovery time to take some 3-4 day trips to visit friends in Jackson, go to Birmingham to the new lynching memorial and museum, along with some other short jaunts through the region.

I remain grateful for the expertise, patience, and bedside manner of all the medical staff at Touro Infirmary over this past year.  They have been spectacular!

I am feeling more hopeful about all of this than I have in a while now.  A couple of affirmations from Bellruth Naparsteck come to mind:

More and More I can understand that I can heal myself and live or I can heal myself and die, my physical condition is not an indication of my wholeness.

I will get well not out of the fear of dying but out of the joy of living.

I am blessed and life is good.

I am grateful to all of my friends, family, their kind words, blessings, and prayers.

On The Brink of Everything

I distinctly remember two years before I retired, my wife Emma said to me, “What are you going to do when you don’t have all those work emails to respond to all day?”  For about five minutes, I was terrorized by the truth of her statement.  But then, I actively began thinking about and planning my post-retirment life.  Today, exactly two years into my retirement, the title of Parker Palmer’s new book On The Brink of Everything precisely describes how I view my life today.

But life has not really gone according to my retirement plan.  As my retirement fling, I intended to spend 12 weeks in Peru during the summer (Peruvian winter) of 2017.  A serious bike wreck that spring cut my trip in half – and I was in considerable pain most of the time I was into Peru.  Into 2017 I had several field and teaching projects lined up that were abandoned with my cancer diagnosis, followed by a heart attack.  I spent less time at my wife’s store working/crafting and more time at Touro Infirmary in treatment.

But today, I am able to bring my experience, strength, and hope to my evolving life – and recognize, I am truly on the brink of everything.  Here is an example: I am a strong believer in the Abrahamic tradition of welcoming the stranger and radical hospitality.  I am disappointed that my fatigue precludes me from many activities around refugee support in Louisiana today.  I anticipate joining with the local Grannies Respond group in the near future and meet refugees traveling through New Orleans at the Greyhound Station.  However, today, from the comfort of my home, I am able to help coördinate a social media and fundraising campaign to support the work – something in which I have skills and there is a desperate need.

Similarly, I suspect that my work in the field with climate extremes are over whether in Peru or the U.S.  But I am skilled and enjoy developing the digital presence and overall coordination for cultural heritage work of Culture and Community in Casma, Peru, an organization I helped launch two years ago.

My gardens have certainly thrived this summer and Emma and I are particularly excited about travel plans with our new directions.  Not to mention the books to read, meals to cook, and so much more.

Truly, the possibility in life today is on the brink of everything.  It does not matter whether I live for another six weeks, six months, or six years, the brink is still there.

I am blessed and grateful for these opportunities on the journey toward true self.

Quick Medical Update

At Touro with my trusty iPad, waiting for the procedure.

For friends and family, here is a medical update from this week.  I had a CAT scan on Wednesday with the intent of seeing how much my cancer had spread since the February scan.  The results would form the basis for considering next treatment steps.

For the past couple of weeks I felt particularly dizzy and short of breath when first standing up from a seated position.  Yesterday I had a particular bad experience with stomach issues.  While I was reasonably content to wait until my next scheduled oncology appointment on August 23rd, Emma sensed things were not going well and called his office today.

In a brief conversation and follow-up call we learned the CAT scan showed very limited cancer growth over the past six months – good news – but, I had fluid in my lungs that caused the problems noted above – also good news in terms of finding the problem.  A host of possible reasons from my heart attack, current meds, and cancer could be the reason for the fluid.

So by 2:00 pm we headed down to Touro to have the fluid drained – a remarkably simple procedure.  By 4:00 pm, we were back home, thanks to the skilled and efficient team at Touro Infirmary.

This evening my shortness of breath and dizziness is completely resolved, and I have less stomach pressure and bloating.

All in all, a very good report.

Life is good.  I am blessed.

Grateful for 34 Years of Sobriety

Thirty-four years ago today I walked into the Care Unit Detox Center in Cincinnati, Ohio to begin a 30-day inpatient alcohol/drug treatment program.  I have remained sober since that day.  In Alcoholics Anonymous, anniversaries are celebrated as a milestone.  Over the years, the significance of these events has hit me differently.  Just a few years ago, when living much more on autopilot, I completely forgot the anniversary until a few days after the fact.  Today, the date looms much larger in my mind.

I have posted many times how my years of recovery from alcoholism proved a perfect preparation for living with cancer over the past year when the speculation about my cancer probabilities turned into a firm diagnosis.  I recollect well-being told I had 3-6 months to live and wondering how to handle that.

The one-day-at-a-time lesson of AA kicked in fully last August as I sat in Audubon Park thinking of what I would miss most.  I thought about the time spent with my wife Emma, our rescue dog Grace, riding my bike, gardening, sitting in the Park reading, and so forth.  While sitting on that park bench It hit me – I best get busy with those things now while I am able.

Fast forward one year to today – although imperfectly, I have not wasted away the last year in dwelling in the problem.  I spent a good bit more time at Touro Infirmary than I planned, but I also had many fantastic experiences in that process.

Emma and I set priorities that are going in the right direction to enhance whatever time we have together on this earth.

My path toward what Thomas Merton refers to as “true self” has produced many wonderful and unexpected vistas thanks to my church home at Rayne Memorial United Methodist and the School for Contemplative Living.

I knocked off some “bucket list” visits like the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, and a handful of other places.  I have continued my “institutionally retired” professional career with many rewarding experiences.

I truly tried to live into the solution and not dwell in the problem of my disease.  I attribute this perspective as the primary reason in my surpassing all of my doctors’ expectations.  Physically, mentally, and spiritually, I feel better than I did one year ago – even two years ago for that matter.

As true for everyone, I don’t know if I will be alive on August 4th of 2019 to celebrate my 35th Anniversary in sobriety.  I firmly believe that were in not for the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the starting point for my personal resurrection, I would not have received the gift of sobriety.  I am truly grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps of Recovery for the last 34 years of sobriety and each day yet to come on the road to happy destiny.