Being Alive for Christmas, 2017

As I walked to church yesterday I recalled this past August when I first received my cancer diagnosis.  A doctor said I could be dead by Christmas.  An oncologist advised that I have a back-up if I planned to teach my scheduled graduate seminar this past fall semester.  Fast forward to today, I taught the seminar, turned in the final grades, and now, on Christmas Day, I am still very much alive.

In my last post I wrote about my Early Christmas Gift – a prognosis considerably more optimistic than back in August.  The past five months have been a journey of discovery.  Here is an affirmation that sums up much of my thinking today:

I tell this cancer these things.  Thank you for teaching me to stop and listen.  Thank you for reminding me what is truly important.  You can go now.  I know that I have things to do, gifts to give, purposes to accomplish.  I require a healthy working body for this.  – Belleruth Naparstek, Health Journey Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer

Toward that understanding, over these past five months:

  • I am considerably more mindful and intentional of how I spend my time.  I do not rush through process, but savor and enjoy each experience more and more.
  • To resolve my overextended existence, I say “No” more often and no longer chase after folks unwilling to respect our mutual time.
  • Today, quality time with my wife takes priority in all things.
  • My standard line that “I am saving that for good” is meaningless as today is as good as it will get.
  • The “forgivability of the error” has never been more pressing when it comes to taking care of myself physically, mentally, spiritually.
  • The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the basis of my sobriety, are as relevant and applicable to my life today as in 1984 when I walked into a detox center.  I share my experience, strength, and hope with others.

As well, over the past five months my attitude of gratitude has deepened:

  • to my wife, Emma, who has been my best friend and mate for nearly 20 years.
  • to my church community at Rayne Memorial UMC where I am spiritually fed every week.
  • to my fellow pilgrims in the School for Contemplative Living with whom I explore and experience the wisdom of the mystics of the past and present.
  • to my colleagues, students, and friends from across the world who have shared their support, prayers, greeting cards, or visited me here in New Orleans.
  • and I am most grateful for the opportunity to walk this earth for the past 65 years along a road toward true self.

So, I am very much alive today.  I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, either in terms of cancer or a myriad of other ways to test my mortality.  But I do know the affirmation I quoted in a previous blog post:

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

is where the action is at for me today.  I look forward to planting and then harvesting the satsuma and lime trees Emma and I gave each other to celebrate our recent wedding anniversary, and all the other experiences that are part of my joy in living today.

An Early Christmas Present

Today I had my monthly oncology appointment.  I got an early Christmas present in:

  • a comparison of my CAT scans from this past August and November show no appreciable, if any, increase in my bone cancer.
  • the tissue removed from my stomach last week was benign.
  • perhaps most significantly, the alkaline phosphatase level in my blood had been more than 10 times the normal rate.  In my blood test from this week, the level is nearly normal.  This means that the monthly x-geva injections to stabilize and prevent further bone loss are working.
  • I will not have any further testing for two months.  Then another bone scan will be done to determine the rate cancer related bone loss.
  • I have been given a provisional green light to plan my trip to Peru in June of 2018!

My oncologist continues to be amazed that I am still riding my bike, am reasonably pain-free, and in good spirits.  He has encouraged me to stay as physically active as I am.  I am grateful to all the medical staff at Touro Infirmary who have so expertly treated me over the past several months.  I am grateful too for the prayers and support of so many friends throughout the world.  Just yesterday, my dear friend Hatice Onay wrote that she lit a candle in my name at the Virgin Mary’s House near Ephesus, Turkey.

I am truly blessed in my life.

Fear of Dying vs Joy of Living

 

More and more, I will get well not out of the fear of dying but out of the joy of living.

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. – Belleruth Naparstek

Lately, I have thought more about these affirmations from the  Health Journey Guided Imagery to Fight Cancer.  Today they express the same sentiment as when I got sober years ago.  When active in my alcohol addiction, I knew I was dying a little bit more every day.  When I finally checked into a detox unit, I did so not from a fear of dying, rather, I saw a glimmer of hope in being able to live.  The past three decades proved a phenomenal witness to that hope.

I have come to the same understanding today with my cancer diagnosis.  I discussed with Emma, my wife, that I do not fear death – in fact, if it gets to the point where I can no longer get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then I am no longer interested in treatments.  And today, I seem a long way from that point.  My back and neck are less painful than one year ago.  I am finishing a round of stomach infection antibiotics that restored my appetite and relieved a good bit of stomach upset.  An endoscopy procedure this past week recovered tissue that might prove useful in developing a genetic-based treatment for my cancer instead of the eventual chemotherapy.

So yes, life is good today.

I realize the goodness is the reason for some of my pushback from the seemingly endless array of medical tests.  I was in a funk the couple days before the recent endoscopy procedure.  When my blood was drawn a week ago, I had a visceral reaction of disgust at being poked at one more time.  But I know the process is necessary.

I seem a bit of a schizophrenic these days.  There is the medical end of things.  And then there is riding my bike to the medical appointments; my Wednesday morning School for Contemplative Living group where we practice centering prayer and are now reading The Book of Joy; my Friday morning book discussion of It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again with a group of dear friends; spending time with Emma at our shop and home; serving the underserved at the Open Table; and much more, including sitting on the back porch with my dog writing this post as a steady rain pours on my winter crops in the back yard.

So yes, it is a joy in living that has sustained me through years of recovery from my alcohol addiction and today is my hope of a life with Stage 4 cancer.

Joy and Suffering in Recovery

I still carry this in my wallet, after all those years!

Discovering more joy does not, I am sorry to say, save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.
~ Archbishop Desmond Tutu

p. 12 The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

My Wednesday morning meeting of the School for Contemplative Living is reading the Book of Joy by The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  The above quote from Archbishop Tutu caused me a good bit of reflection of late.  With my cancer diagnosis, I am finding a sense of peace and contentment unlike anything I experienced before.

At the same time, I accept that:

  • my back and neck pains will always be with me and likely increase through time.  Fatigue, nausea and all of those other cancer things are likely on the horizon too.
  • my doctor visits, medical tests, and medications of today will likely increase in the future.
  • and cancer or not, I cannot beat being mortal.

But I also accept that:

  • there is joy in watching my dog eat its food, sit on the back porch with me, or go into ecstasy at the sight (or sound) of me picking up her leash.
  • there is joy in walking to Casamento’s for half an oyster loaf for lunch.
  • there is joy in still easily biking 10 miles.
  • there is joy in seeing my winter crops of beets, spinach, and bok choy coming along.  We harvested our lemon tree just before the recent cold snap and the grapefruit made it through without freezing.
  • there is joy in coming up with an idea for a new ritual where we will be to buy a fruit tree each year to decorate as an indoor Christmas tree, and then plant in the yard after the first of the year.
  • there is joy in realizing I still do own a leather coat and wool cap that I could wear to keep warm when I walked to church yesterday morning.

I am joyful that the AA Promises (Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 83-84) are in my life, today:

1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. 2. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. 3. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. 4. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. 5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. 6. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. 7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. 8. Self-seeking will slip away. 9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. 10. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. 11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

I know I got the better end of the deal when years ago I traded in the bottle of my addictions to plant the seeds of the joys I can harvest today!

Having Enough in Sobriety

Here is a confession.  For much of my life, I struggled with having enough.  In my addictions to alcohol and food, one drink or doughnut was too many and one thousand were never enough.  Through the 12 Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous, I address the physical aspects of those addictions.  I have continued to deal with the many other manifestations of having enough.

For example, an area of life I focused on extensively in sobriety was my career.  In early recovery, I went back to school and ultimately earned a PhD.  Over the course of my studies, I received grants and fellowships for maintaining a 4.0 GPA and completing my dissertation in near record time.  But, for a host of reasons, largely related to my insecurity, I did not believe I had really succeeded.

In reflecting on the last 20 plus years of my career, I can say with confidence, I always left the place better than I found it.  But that never seemed enough.  I have published widely in my field, chaired committees for national professional organizations, done all the right things and more, but that too has often left me wanting.

Only in the last 5 years have I come to feel really comfortable in my own skin, as it were – where I have begun to experience having enough.  I had a strong “aha” experience over this Thanksgiving holiday weekend.  Here is some of what happened:

  • Our next door neighbors from Memphis, all of my stepchildren and their children were at our house for Thanksgiving Dinner – 18 total.  We never had so many family at our home for a holiday and I was grateful and appreciative.  I am comforted that I do not need anything else from family or friends to demonstrate our mutual commitment and love.
  • A dear friend drove from Austin, Texas to our home in New Orleans for Thanksgiving dinner.  We sat on the back porch after dinner and talked about how we met when she was a Team Leader for AmeriCorps NCCC, and how our relationship grew and continued over the years.  After our conversation, I do not need anything else to validate the value of my career.
  • On Saturday, I received a package from Suzanne Henley a good friend of my wife.  Inside was a creation and card titled Prayer Beads in Thanksgiving for Robert.  The card described the prayer beads (above photo) that contain pieces from Ethiopia, the Afgan Silk Road, Brazil, China, the Dead Sea, and more.  The prayer beads are now a very regular part of my guided imagery and centering prayer life.  After receiving these beads, I do not need any other material object to make my life complete.
  • On Friday evening, Emma and I strolled with our Memphis friends through the French Quarter.  Emma reminded me that such walks along Chartres St., through Jackson Square and beyond were how we spent our earliest days together as a couple.  After that walk, I do not need any more memories to know how wonderful my life has been.

The often quoted “page 449” of Alcoholics Anonymous statement on Acceptance is complimented well by Brene Brown’s understanding that:

Belonging starts with self-acceptance. Your level of belonging, in fact, can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.

Today, I have enough.  If I remain active in my recovery program, I am always rewarded with such profound understandings that enhance my life.  For this I am truly blessed, and grateful.