Sad News

To all:

My husband Robert, the love of my life – my heart and soul – died on August 20. He fought a difficult battle for 2.5 years with gastric cancer. He is now healed and suffers no longer.  This blog will continue in some form, when I am healed enough to write, as he wanted to spread words of love and hope for anyone recovering from any affliction. Please assist by inviting others to read his words.

For now, here is his obituary:

Robert Connolly, an education/museum professional, anthropologist, community activist, and advocate, died Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at his home as a result of complications from cancer. Robert was born on March 26, 1952 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Early in his life he worked as an industrial machinist for various companies, including the General Electric Jet Engine Group. In 1989 he received his B.A., followed by an M.A. in anthropology from the University of Cincinnati. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Robert began his academic career teaching at the University of Cincinnati and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He did field work as an archaeologist for the State of Mississippi and later became the Station Archaeologist for Poverty Point Historical Site in Northeast Louisiana. There he worked to facilitate its designation as a World Heritage Site.

In Robert’s words, he made the best decision of his life when he married Emma in 1999. In Jackson, Mississippi, Robert was the administrator of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Before his institutional and academic career ended in retirement, Robert served as an Associate Professor of the Department of Anthropology and Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Memphis. He also served as director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. He published numerous academic papers, teaching documents, and field reports. He particularly enjoyed working with indigenous communities in Peru, Ecuador, Guatamala, Honduras, Yucatan, Turkey and Panama. After retirement, he was happily involved with Rayne United Methodist Church, in particular teaching and outreach. One of his highest gifts and passions was mentoring students into the best version of themselves.

In his own words, Robert liked most of all being with Emma, living into the process, “aha” moments, facilitating the exploration of big ideas, reading, travel on 2-lane highways, computer graphics, biking, writing, photography, baking, eating, hanging with the grandkids, heat and humidity, recovery, and all those two-room country museums spread across this country. In 2013, Robert began writing a blog (“A Process, Not an Event”) about his long-term recovery from alcoholism and his cancer diagnosis. It was written as a path to understanding and a story of spirituality, acceptance, and life lived on life’s terms.

He is survived by his wife, Emma French Connolly of New Orleans; mother Mary Connolly, brother Bill, sister Kathy, and brother-in-law Tim Grant, all of Cincinnati; stepchildren John Cerami and Alissa Cerami of Jackson, and Jennifer Bogart of New Orleans; numerous nieces, nephews and grandchildren; and Grace, his rescue golden retriever, that was always nearby at the end of his journey.

The family thanks the entire congregation of Rayne Methodist, the staff of Compassus Hospice, and The Neptune Society of New Orleans. A memorial service will be held at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church, 3900 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana on Saturday, August 24, 2019 at 11am, visitation at 10am. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials to Rayne Memorial UM Church, and to The School for Contemplative Living in New Orleans.

 

Health Update & Climbing Out Of A Hole

I had a PET scan this past Monday.  My lay interpretation of the text results posted by that evening sounded positive to me.  Yesterday I met with my oncologist for his professional read. He confirmed my initial impressions that compared the November 2018 and July 2019 scan results:

  •  the metastasis in my bone is “grossly” unchanged over the period.  My oncologist has described the lesions as mostly “dormant” based on a lowered alkaline phosphatase level in large part from my monthly x-geva injections to harden my bones and prevent additional loss.
  • there is a no increased mass growth in the gastric system, though there is some soft tissue thickening in the stomach.
  • no cancer has spread to other organs at this time.
  • I continue to have some “pleural effusion” or fluid on my lungs.

It’s always good for your oncologist to be so pleasantly surprised at the results, especially when my prognosis in August of 2017 was 3 to 6 months!

The “hole” I need to get out is the extreme fatigue, nausea, and weight loss over the past few months – for the most part the result of chemotherapy.

So in my conversation yesterday with the oncologist, we don’t talk about prognosis anymore, but rather I frame my questions as “on the assumption I am going to be around for another year” what can I do to better my quality of life.  In the past month:

  • had blood transfusions to increase my hemoglobin levels to near normal.
  • continued with my regular at home lung drains.
  • began B-12 injections.
  • realized my outdoor activity is going to be limited until September or so, given the brutal heat this summer.  I am making arrangements to visit the Touro Wellness Center to use a treadmill, stationary bike, and such.  This activity was delayed by Hurricane Barry and intense fatigue.
  • eating red meat like crazy, taking iron pills, drinking Ensure and such.

Going forward:

  • I need to put on 10-15 pounds.  To that end, I am now taking a steroid and medical cannabis pills.  I am already noticing an increase in appetite and reduced nausea!
  • I continue to be off of chemotherapy in favor of immunotherapy.  The latter seems to be holding the cancer in check and the side effects are much, much less.
  • And based on all of the above, I plan to spend the cool (relatively speaking) of the early mornings and evenings to get back outdoors a bit.

Some six months ago, my oncologist told me the possibilities my cancer going into remission was so small, it was not even worth proposing a percentage.  I am not terribly interested in debating that point, and am wholly comfortable I will receive regular treatments for the duration. As one of my favorite affirmations notes “I will get well not out of a fear of dying, but the joy of living” and knowing that I am held in the hands of my God.

I remain grateful to my best friend and wife Emma who has been my rock, along with my family and friends.  I know too that my faith community and all of the wonderful studies, social groups, and services are key to my continued recovery.

I am blessed, humbled, and truly grateful.

Being Woke by an Inner Life

I enjoy reading the works of folks who have lived the problems they address.  For example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his book on Ethics in part from the inside of a concentration camp where he was imprisoned and executed in 1945 for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  The book Alcoholics Anonymous speaks to the direct experience of those in recovery from alcoholism.  I am currently reading the diary of Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, that chronicles the last two years of her life as a Jew in Holland prior to her transfer to Auschwitz where she was executed.  A line that stood out to me from her diary is (p. 88):

If you have a rich inner life, I would have said, there probably isn’t all that much difference between being inside and outside of a camp.  Would I myself be able to live up to such sentiments?

I have thought of this challenge a great deal of late.  I equate the “inner life” as my spiritual/emotional/mental state and the “outside life” as my physical state.  There is no denying that my physical existence in line with my eventual mortality and cancer has an unknown expiration date.  I know too that I am less physically able than I was one year ago.  I have lost some 50 pounds, am a bit anemic, sleep more, have not been on my bike for the past month, have more aches and pains, and so forth.

At the same time, I am aggressively dealing with these physical issues, the results of which I have no assurance.

But today, I thoroughly enjoy my “outside life” events even more than before.  I enjoy being able to walk around the block with Emma and Grace as much as a 20-mile bike ride a couple short years ago.  Going out to the movies, spending an hour weeding the garden, eating a simple meal, listening to music, all bring me great joy today.

I attribute this joy to my pursuit of a rich inner life.  Whether it is Emma and I attending the early morning Sunday service at Rayne, serving meals at Mt. Zion, my Wednesday morning School for Contemplative Living meeting, our Friday dream study group, men’s UMC meetings, and all of the relationships, dinners, conversations with family and friends that flow from these activities, my spirit soars as never before in my life.

In the Universal Christ, Richard Rohr writes (p. 153):

It does not mean you are going to heaven and others are not:  rather, it means you have entered into heaven much earlier and thus can see things in a transcendent, whole and healing way now . . .   Saints are those who wake up while in this world, instead of waiting for the next one.”

The rich inner life of which Etty Hillesum speaks is certainly part of that being woke and a goal to which I aspire.

AA’s Fourth Step and Shadow

My Friday morning book study recently read Robert Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche.  Following Carl Jung, Johnson (1993:4) defines the shadow as ” . . . that part of us we fail to see or know.”   One of the study group members commented that their experience with AA and the 12 Steps fit well with Johnson’s notion.  The member noted how fortunate he was to have the 12 Steps as a guiding principal not just in recovery, but in his total life.  His comment got me to thinking of that overwhelming truth.

The Fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” is precisely the introspection that can lead to owning our shadow selves.  The Tenth Step “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it” allows continuing that process on a regular basis.

I recall my early days in recovery and the struggle to accept responsibility for the events in my life, in large part based on a refusal to examine and claim my shadow self.  For example, much of my life was governed by an uncontrollable anger at people, places, and things, but in the throws of my addiction, I refused to examine my part in those resentments.  I had a shopping list of people and actions to readily blame.  However, the Fourth Step began the process of understanding my role in those situations.  Inevitably that led to an examination of my shadow I had failed to see or know.

In claiming the anger that governed much of my existence, I came to become more accountable.  Through the Serenity Prayer concepts of accepting what I cannot change, having the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, my anger transforms into a tool to live life on life’s terms.  Owning this anger is particularly helpful in today’s highly polarized blame game for social, political, and economic issues.  Instead of just pointing out the very real evils of the world today, I can examine my role in creating those evils.  I often find my role comes down to one of inaction and complacency as someone living a privileged social and economic existence.

I do not think claiming and owning one’s shadow means being a doormat or wearing sackcloth in a “woe is me” sort of way.

In The Book of Joy, written about the philosophies of The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Douglas Adams writes (pp. 223-224):

Acceptance, it must be pointed out, is the opposite of resignation and defeat.  The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama are two of the most tireless activists for creating a better world for all of its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is.  The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality.

Acceptance allows us to claim our shadows, as in the Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Step, and begin to deal with life on life’s terms.

 

Living Life on Life’s Terms

I often comment that a key to my addiction recovery is living life on life’s terms.  I find the same is true with cancer and whatever else is going on with my physical state these days.  The fluid on my lungs and related issues cause me to be short of breath for any activity other than sitting or laying down.  Though I am taking the steps and fully anticipate this issue will be dealt with in the short-term, the other day I got to feeling sorry for myself over my mobility limitations.  My thinking then morphed into wondering if this was going to be the new normal.  After a few hours of dwelling in the problem, I was fortunate that my AA recovery mindset kicked in.  Here are some thoughts:

  • I have not been on my bike in a month and my gardening is restricted to weeding, watering, and harvesting – not much expansion these days.  But with restricted physical activity, I have returned to an old love of reading fiction.  A few days ago, while sitting on the back porch with a glass of Red Zinger iced tea and reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, I was overcome with the serenity and joy of the experience.  My friend Ernest’s conversation about Chekhov and Chopin got me to pulling books off shelves that were only gathering dust.  I then thought of my favorite poets – B.H. Fairchild, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and W.S. Merwin and rekindled the delight of their words.  That sparked conversation with my friend Kathleen who introduced me to a favorite poet of hers, Philip Levine.  As I sipped the Red Zinger tea, enhanced with peppermint from our garden, I recognized that this period of limited physical activity had actually opened up avenues of enjoyment and growth that had lain dormant in recent years.
  • After being off of chemo for a couple of months, and with mild increase in stomach and back pain and a catheter on my left side, my comfortable sleeping positions became limited.  Recently, sleeping in bed has not worked.  But I can be comfortable on the couch, relying on the additional back support.  As I lay on the couch the other night, completely pain free and in comfort, I was grateful for the solution.  I luxuriated in the complete and total pain free comfort of my rest and drifted off to a very good night’s sleep.

In his new book The Universal Christ, theologian Richard Rohr writes (p. 83) about the “coincidence of opposites” noting:

How does anyone achieve such a holding together of opposites – things like inner acceptance and outer resistance, intense suffering and perfect freedom . . . God seems to send us on a path toward our own wholeness not by eliminating the obstacles, but by making use of them.

These words certainly resonate with me.  My years in a drunken alcoholic condition ultimately delivered me to the perfect freedom of recovery.  The new health obstacles I face provide me with the opportunity to live into alternative solutions.

Today, I am grateful and truly blessed.

Time and Cancer

Sunday afternoon I was sitting on the back porch when Emma called to me and said a friend had dropped by with a gift.  I went inside and was presented with a copy of the Garden Log Book: A 5-Year Planner.  The contents include worksheets to plan and record 5 years worth of planting, chores, goals, projects, pests, harvesting and more for gardens.  The book is perfect and incorporates much more than notes I had begun in a Word document earlier this season.  I look forward to using the worksheets.

But . . . the “five year planner” got me to thinking.  I have stage 4 stomach cancer, and in fact, I was supposed to be dead over one year ago.  In that respect, planning for things five years down the road seems a bit overly ambitious.

But . . . then too, particularly since the first of the year I have been thinking more that, one day at a time, I will continue to wake up every morning, make my cup of tea, feed Grace, go through my morning rituals, and live my day with no end in sight.  I have noted before that gardening is such a life affirming activity, I cannot imagine dying while I still have crops in the ground that need to be tended and harvested – and given our near year-round growing season here in New Orleans, that mindset ensures life in perpetuity.

And . . . this year I increased the effort put into planning our gardens, expanding space and crops, and starting plants from seeds.  This year too I started twice the number of seeds for each plant type than I planned to grow, intending to give away the extras.  So now there are folks in my neighborhood and as far away as Memphis who have planted seedlings of tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, and squash that started on our back porch.  And just yesterday a friend dropped off some plants for me as my basil seeds had not produced.  I feel totally enmeshed in growth and thoroughly enjoy engaging with others in the process.

If I reflect back over the last year, today some things I do more efficiently and some things a bit slower.  But today I feel more alive and living into my true self more than ever before.  I am leaning more into an understanding that none of us gets out of this thing alive, cancer or not.  There is no guarantee I will even get half-way through the five-year garden log book, but neither would anyone else who received the book.  I am grateful for the gift not just for the practical use of recording my garden activities but for providing me the opportunity to reflect on and live a more full life today.

I am truly blessed.

A Health Update

Cucumbers, Acorn Squash, and String Beans in full bloom!

The past couple of months have not been my best physically, but the future looks good.  Specifically:

  • The last few rounds of chemotherapy have brought me face-to-face with some of the worst effects “chemo brain” and fatigue.  In reality, I don’t think the effects were a lot worse than the first rounds, but there was something distressing this time in checking out from many normal activities for the two months of the treatment regimen.  The good news is that I have finished my chemo regimens, and pending insurance approval, in the next couple of weeks I will start on immunotherapy with KEYTRUDA.  This treatment should have far fewer side effects and be just as effective, if not more than my chemotherapy to date.  All very good news.
  • This past Sunday evening, after being on the road for one week visiting family and friends, I sort of limped back into New Orleans, completely exhausted and severely short of breath.  I could not walk from one end of our house to the other without sitting down midway to rest.  The shortness of breath results from the battle with fluid on my lungs since this past October.  On April 1st, three liters of fluids were drained from both lungs.  Thanks to the excellent care I receive at Touro Infirmary, this past Monday within just a couple of hours of making the phone call, two liters were drained from just my left lung, which brought immediate relief.  I could take Grace for a walk as soon as we returned home from Touro.  The cause of the fluid accumulation is the cancer and the chemo used for treatment.  My pulmonologist convincingly argued that it was time to install a catheter tube so that I could drain the fluid at home every few days as needed.  He installed the tube this past Monday as well.  Today, with Emma’s assistance, I drained another liter of fluid here at home. The ability to keep the fluid regularly drained will be a huge enhancement to my daily life in everything from gardening, bicycle riding, and just walking around the block.

So although my last couple of months have had ups and downs, I am optimistic for the future.  Over the past few months, the likely need for a catheter and switching to immunotherapy were raised by and discussed with the medical team at Touro Infirmary.  I simply cannot say enough about the excellent care they have provided me over the past two years of cancer treatment.

I remain grateful for my life today and the support of my best friend Emma, and all of my family and friends.  My plans are filled with travel, projects, and lots of gardening.

Life is good and I am blessed.