A Christmas I Was Not Supposed to See

Our family at The Fly getting ready for the holiday.

In August of 2017, my gastro doctor told me that I likely had three to six months to live.  My oncologist suggested I get a back-up for the fall course I was teaching as I might not make it to the end of the semester.

So here I am 16 months later, feeling considerably better than I did back then.  I am riding my bike regularly, working in the yard, and going on a cruise in January in preparation for a longer stint of travel this spring.

My four rounds of chemotherapy in the fall were very successful.  My monthly x-geva injection has stabilized the bone deterioration of my metastasized cancer.  I have received excellent medical care from Touro Infirmary.  Now, my oncologist will not offer a prognosis for me as he notes that I have outlived all expectations to date.

But there is much more than the medical and physical to my being alive.  I have reasons to get up every day, one day at a time.  That understanding from my three decades of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous has proven absolutely key.  I thought about this when working in the garden over the past couple of weeks.  We had good crops this year and we are looking to expand in 2019.  As I have cleared for new beds and hacked through some of our tropical backyard jungle, I initially thought if my future chemo proved less effective and I was not able to eat again, then the garden produce might not be of use.  But then I thought too that we have family and friends with whom we already share our crops, and if we could not eat the future crops, we would just share more.  I thought too that our gardens are a small step we can take to support our earth in this time of environmental devastation and our government’s inaction.  But mostly, I thought, today I am able to work in the garden – I cannot predict what tomorrow will bring any more than when told in the summer of 2017 I had 3 to 6 months to live.

And there is more than one-day-at-a-time to my continued health:

  • My wife and best friend Emma has stood by me through the good and bad, particularly in the last year.
  • My faith community at Rayne Memorial is a key to my spiritual path and my cancer treatment.  I have many friends and opportunities for service that feed me physically and spiritually.
  • My weekly meeting with the School for Contemplative Living has led to friendships and a spiritual path that have led me down roads that I would never find alone.
  • The book studies that began at Emma’s store on the Artists Way and now moved into other creative directions also provide a community and insights to grow with.

A couple of weeks ago, Emma and I celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary.  Tomorrow, we will celebrate a Christmas that I was not supposed to see.  Now it is not so much a matter of just being alive, but also to live a life of meaning.  Being able to do so is the best Christmas gift I could receive or give.

I am truly blessed and grateful.

Old & New Tools of Recovery

When I first got sober, I relied on a set of tools to guide me through the early days of recovery.  These tools included regular attendance at AA meetings, service work, daily readings, and going through the steps with my sponsor.  Over the years, I have added more recovery tools to my toolbox.  Other tools I have taken on include making gratitude lists, prayer and meditation, writing, book studies, retreats, expressing my gratitude to others, participating in my faith community.  The list goes on.  Some recovery programs have their own prescribed sets of tools.  For example the nine tools of Overeaters Anonymous include a plan of eating, sponsorship, meetings, telephone calls, writing, literature, an action plan, anonymity, and service.

Based on my experience, I have come to believe that if whatever tool I am using is not working today, then it is time to put it back in the toolbox and try another tool.  Until recently, I had a set of tools that I used to start each day for the past couple of years: journaling, writing a thank you note to someone, a gratitude list, and a reading.  When I began my first round of chemotherapy, that two-year old practice became too much of a rote routine.

I went back to my toolbox and pulled out some unused tools.  A friend had sent me a couple of books with short daily readings that allowed a new reflection on life and recovery.  I began posting my gratitude list to an AA Facebook page and participate in the life of that page.  I have taken on more in service in several aspects of my life.  I have a deeper involvement in my faith community.  These tools are working today.

I found this approach very effective in not just sobriety, but my total life today.  If I think over my three decades of sobriety, much has changed over the years including family, career, retirement, and more recently being diagnosed with a stage 4 cancer.  It makes complete sense to me that different tools fit different life circumstances.  The new tools always bring new understanding and growth toward true self.

I look forward to the new tools that will guide me in the future.

Our 19th Wedding Anniversary

Today I celebrate 19 years of being married to Emma.  Over those we had many adventures that have taken us literally across the world.  Over that period too we both changed our careers, lived into new possibilities, all with the mutual support of each other.  

The “sickness and health” aspect of our wedding vows seems to loom larger for both of us as we age.  My cancer in particular has caused stress and anxiety and a need to reevaluate our priorities.

But over the last two decades, whether good times or bad, and we certainly experienced both, I am grateful that I have never once doubted our commitment to each other as life partners.

I am grateful that as we both have retired from our careers, that we look to spend more time and energy doing those things we did during our first few years of married life – whether traveling, cooking, spending time with the children and grandchildren, or following and sharing our spiritual paths.

My years in sobriety and now my year plus with cancer brought me to a better appreciation of the blessings of the last 19 years with Emma.  To begin with, I know that were it not for sobriety, Emma and i would never have met. Without recovery, I would not have the maturity, insights, or direction to live as a couple through the challenges we faced over the years.

And of late, we both have come to see that our retirement years are taking a shift from our original plans.  For our first few years of retirement, we both continued as though still employed but just not getting the paycheck – Emma in her store, and me with teaching and work in Peru. My cancer has been the wake up call, dare I say a blessing, to let us know that we are not assured of one day more than the breath we are taking today on this earth.

To that end, we are (slowly) slowing down and spending more time in traveling back streets together, getting ready to hit the road in January for new adventures, planning our gardens, and returning more to the pace and existence that brought us together at the start.

We went to a Waffle House for breakfast on the day we got married.  Our logic was that in celebrating future anniversaries, there would always be a Waffle House wherever we were living and that we would be able to afford the meal.  We have not been terribly faithful to that plan over the years, but this morning, we will be off to get some waffles!

My Saturday with Cancer

I have stage 4 cancer and I was supposed to be dead by now.  Here is what I did yesterday:

  • My morning routine of gratitude list and other things to start my day.
  • I edited a few Wikipedia pages.
  • I rode my bike several miles and walked the neighborhood shops for small business Saturday.
  • I stopped at French Truck coffee for a latte and read the chapter for my Wednesday book discussion.
  • I took a nap
  • I finished reading the second half of a book I bought about Lyle Saxon.
  • I rode my bike to the grocery store to pick up some things we needed.
  • I ate three meals.
  • Emma and I went riding looking at Christmas lights and then came home and watched a movie.

I know that dealing with cancer is more than just chemotherapy and medicine.  I am blessed in this knowing.

Giving Thanks and a Health Update

At this time last year, my cancer prognosis was that 2017 would be my last Thanksgiving.  Today I am feeling better than in the past six months.  This year, I have much to be thankful for:

  • I give thanks to the fabulous staff at Touro Infirmary for the excellent care they provided for the past 15 months.  Without exception, my experience has been outstanding.
  • I am grateful for my wife Emma’s continued support and her taking over the lion’s share of our household responsibility.  We will celebrate 19 years of marriage this coming December 11 and I could not be happier.
  • I have written many times in this blog that my 3 decades of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous has proven the best teacher for living one day at a time with cancer today.  I cannot imagine life without the 12 Steps of AA.
  • Family and friends have been extremely important to me in this past year.  From my mother and cousin Walt’s recent visit to New Orleans to the many cards, emails, visits, and phone calls I received, the support has been an important source of inspiration and meaning in my treatment.
  • My spiritual homes at Rayne Memorial UMC and the School for Contemplative Living continue to feed me with the food that offers a wholeness of mind, body, and spirit.  I cannot imagine life without my friends and our book studies and services.
  • I am grateful for the opportunity to live in my favorite city in world, New Orleans.  Just walking through the French Quarter this past week, checking on our soon to be harvested crop of lemons, and drinking a Barq’s Root Beer and eating a muffuletta in Jackson Square remind me why I love this city so much.

My health update is also promising.  Today I get my chemo pump taken off to complete my fourth round of therapy.  I will have a PET scan next week to determine the effectiveness of the chemotherapy thus far.  However, I feel much better than when I started the therapy 2 months ago.  My back and stomach pains are gone and I am able to eat much more food, putting on 10 pounds of the 50 I had originally lost.  The side effects from chemo have lessened throughout the regimen.  Where it was taking me nearly two weeks to recover from the first round, I am now feeling more normal after a few days off the pump.  In fact, although I will be lying low tomorrow, Emma has just returned from the grocery store with turkey legs that will comprise my Thanksgiving dinner.

Life is good and I am blessed.

Letting God be God in Recovery

No, he said, he did not go to church.  “But you do believe in God?” I asked, hardly daring to hope he did not.  He paused for a moment and looked up at the sky, where big, spreading clouds streamed by.  “God isn’t the problem,” he said. – Patricia Hampl, Virgin Time: In Search of the Contemplative Life, p. 43

As I have posted before, when I got sober, I came to grips with God as a higher power, and am quite content with the direction and faith communities in which I seek and travel today.  In his new book On the Brink of Everything Parker Palmer writes (p. 105):

And why have faith, if God is so small as to be contained within our finite words and formulae?  To write and live in faith, we must let God be God – original, wild, free, a creative impulse that animates all of life, but can never be confined to what we think, say, and do.

This understanding resonates with me.  I well recall as an elementary school student being made to memorize the call and response of the Baltimore Catechism.  It seemed a perfunctory chore at the time without any meaning.  I could never memorize the responses correctly until put to the task by two matronly great aunts, who apparently I feared more than the nuns.  Though I got the lines in my head, the words still had no meaning.

My greatest “aha” moment on this journey came 7 or 8 years ago when I was sitting in an AA meeting and heard the Third Step read, though I had heard the same words at least 1000 times before: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.”  My mind became completely focused by understanding this as an action step and one of liberation as well.  I was no longer confined by the Baltimore Catechism or any other dogma of my past.  As Parker Palmer mandates I must let “God be God” without any of the limits imposed by the baggage I collected over the years.

Like so much in my life today, whether dealing with cancer, maintaining an attitude of gratitude, or the liberation to follow a spiritual path toward true self, the genesis was found in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.  For that, I am truly blessed.

 

 

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.