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.

 

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.

Simhah in cancer therapy

Just some of our garden seeds coming up. Thursday will begin transplanting outdoors!

Over the past year I have had several wonderful conversations with my friend Paige about her Jewish faith. My journey is enhanced by incorporating the basic tenets of all three Abrahamic faiths: Jew, Islam, and Christian – along with a healthy dose of other traditions.  Paige recently sent me a book Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Guide for Seekers by Arthur Green.

His first “best idea” is simhah or joy.  I immediately thought of my past blogs inspired by the The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.  The five pages on joy by Green resonated with me on a very direct and applied level.

He tells the story of a Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav who struggled with simhah.  Green writes (p. 6)

Don’t ignore your sadness, he taught, but chase it in order to transform it into happiness.  He offered a parable that describes you, his reader, as a person in a roomful of dancers, but standing on the sidelines because our mood is too dark to let you enter the circle.  Finally, someone grabs you by the hand . . . forcing you to join in the dance.  As you warm up and begin to move, you notice your former sadness still standing back there on the side, looking somewhat disapprovingly at this new behavior and just waiting for you to stumble or feel self-conscious.  The real task, says Rabbi Nahman, is to force that sadness itself into the circle and to make it dance, to see that it too is transformed into joy.

In my recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous I find that making a gratitude list each morning a tool that gives me an attitude of hope to start each day.  I have consistently said that by living one day at a time as a recovering alcoholic for the past three decades has been excellent training for my life today with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis.

Something about Rabbi Green’s words struck a deeper core within me.

Yesterday, I was at the Touro Infirmary Infusion Center for my four hours of chemo, followed by wearing a chemo pump for the next 46 hours.  I arrived home in a rather foul mood.  What else could one expect while having poison pumped into their body?  But consider Rabbi Nahman’s circle of dance where:

  • one of the immediate benefits I always feel from chemotherapy is reduced pain – and this time is no exception.  Before starting my current chemo regimen two weeks ago, I had perpetual stomach cramps – as I write this, I have no stomach pain.
  • last night for supper my loving wife fixed me a grilled cheese sandwich, a food with a greater probability to “stay down” as the poison (specifically a cocktail called 5FU4) works its way through my system.  The sandwich was delicious and perfectly suited my appetite.  I thoroughly enjoyed every bit.
  • my cancer diagnosis has brought me into a circle of dancers who have helped bring me to a peace that passes all understanding extending well beyond the manifestations of cancer.
  • I thoroughly love that I have the energy and desire to work in my garden – which  brings me tremendous happiness.  Gardening is very life affirming for me.  I have taken to saying that so long as I plant a garden in the spring, I cannot die until everything is harvested.  Given our nearly year-round crop cycles here in New Orleans, that belief may prove to be as effective as my chemotherapy treatment!
  • Today is Mardi Gras.  In 1975, Mardi Gras was filled with darkness, despair, and a two-day blackout.  Although I will only listen to the parades from our house today, I am able to participate in the circle of dance that is carnival here in New Orleans.  Quoting Bob Dylan “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.”

This list can go on and on.  Simhah teaches me to fully participate in the dance of happiness, walking this earth for one more day, created in the image of God.

Tattoos on the Heart

The past few days were a bit trying.  I began my second regimen of chemo last week and hoped for fewer side effects.  In fact, the effects are less.  But I really wanted no effects to get my spirit and body back to a “normal” function.  Though nausea is greatly reduced, I have pain that feels like stomach cramps every time I move.  Yet, I sleep well. I reflect that just before the last time I started chemo my stomach pains were so great I could only sleep lying on my back.  In essence, physically, I am grateful to be in a better space this time around – 5 days off the chemo pump.

I need to ask Emma about these things so that she can remind me that yes, 5-days off the chemo pump the first time, I slept all day.  Yesterday, Emma drove me to church, I made the rounds, and walked home.  Still, I spent much of my day in a state of lethargy.  I know I need to eat to keep up my weight, but the Girl Scout Cookies were probably not ideal for my stomach – more pain.  I spent the better part of yesterday doing stuff, trying to be either productive, or just restful, but with a stomach in knots, until . . .

. . . I picked up a different book to read – Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion..  The novel I had been reading and my “contemplative” texts were coming off as just words.  I recently watched an interview of Boyle by Sarah Silverman on her comedy show.  He talked about his 3 decades of work with gangs in LA and the founding of Homeboy Industries.  Click here to watch the interview.

I began reading Boyle’s book the first ime when the School for Contemplative Living here in New Orleans invited him to come and speak.  Fresh from listening to the Silverman interview of Boyle, I picked the book up again.  The experience was like I had never read a word before.  Here is a dialogue Boyle records with one of his homies who calls him on the phone at 1:00 AM (pp. 31):

“Cesar is sober, and it’s urgent that he talk to me.

“I gotta ask you a question.  You know how I’ve always seen you as my father – ever since I was a little kid?  Well, I hafta ask you a question.”

Now Cesar pauses, and the gravity of it all makes his voice waver and crumble, “Have I  . . . been . . . your son?”

“Oh , hell, yeah,” I say.

“Whew,” Cesar exhales, “I thought so.”

Now his voices becomes enmeshed in a cadence of gentle sobbbing.  “Then . . . I will be . . . your son.  And you . . . will be my father.  And nothing can separate us, right?”

“That’s right.”

In this early morning call Cesar did not discover that he has a father.  He discovered that he is a son worth having.

 

The book is filled with such experience, strength, and hope.  It was not until today I noted the subtitle of the book – The Power of Boundless Compassion.  In this era of fear-stoked hysteria on caravans, criminal elements, MS-13, ad nauseum, the very direct experience at Homeboy Industries demonstrates a better success rate than any wall/fence to secure the southern border as a permeable and reciprocal port of entry and exit. The words of American poet Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty reflect this truth I learned in 5th grade civics class:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Oh, and funny thing, but my stomach feels much better.

Self Compassion in Cancer

Painting by Emma Connolly

My Wednesday morning School for Contemplative Living group is reading Boundless Compassion by Joyce Rupp.  She quotes Kristin Neff from the book Self Compassion:

“Self-kindness involves more than merely stopping self-judgment.  It involves actively comforting ourselves, responding just as we would to a dear friend in need.  It means we allow ourselves to be emotionally moved by our own pain . . . With self-kindness, we soothe and calm our troubled minds.  We make a peace offering of warmth, gentleness and sympathy from ourselves to ourselves, so that true healing can occur.”

So, I think about what would I do for a friend with stage 4 cancer, who might also be a recovering addict? Would I do the same for me, given my identical circumstances?  I have thought about my having an “attitude of gratitude” for my life today.  Is that all that I would offer to a friend – be grateful for what you have today?

I don’t have any good answers, but I am coming to appreciate questions.  First, as I have written about extensively over the last year, there is no question in my mind that attitude and activity have as much to do with my cancer treatment as the medical component.  Second, I have an illness, from which I consider myself healed of the causes, but in need of treatment.  In the same way if I do not live the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous my quality of life will deteriorate, I must also continue the medical treatments for my cancer to continue life on this earth.

Two weekends ago I was exhausted.  I called off on several events and activities in which I was to participate.  Instead, I stayed home, and mostly in bed, for three days.  Emma attributes the setback to my overactivity during the preceding warm 80-degree days, followed by the 40-degree overcast and rainy weather.  Perhaps.  Regardless, I was pleased I took the steps toward self-care to recharge.  At the same time, I realize how much I missed the activities including Sunday worship and the Wilderness Sunday School class that are integral parts of my week.

There must be a balance.  In today’s lectionary reading (Luke 7:17-26) is the Sermon on the Plain where Jesus says “Blessed are you who are poor . . . ” and a few lines later “But woe to you who are rich . . .”   

Am I poor or rich? If I consider myself poor, can I live off of my laurels?  If I consider myself rich, must I become homeless to escape the woe?  Do I rationalize my judgment at my convenience?  Or do I live in the tension of never having a definitive answer to the question, but act and live appropriately given a specific time and place?  I think the latter.

I am coming to believe that the same is true for self-compassion – there is no simple answer, but I must live in the tension between the extremes.

Right now, as I sit on our back porch, listen to my favorite crow cawing from the top of the leafless pecan tree, and watch the palm tree branches sway from the monkeys (Emma thinks they are squirrels, but who can tell for sure?) on the chase, I am at peace.