Another Day, Another Procedure

Today, in a couple of hours, I will have a laparoscopic procedure and biopsy to try and determine the primary source of the cancer that has metastasized throughout my bones.  The procedure was supposed to happen two months ago, but I had a heart attack during that pre-op testing.

I am less than pleased about the need for another surgery.  I reflected on my contradictory reactions to the different medical procedures I have undergone over the past year.  I thoroughly enjoy going to my cardiac rehab sessions, now three days per week.  When I was having physical rehabilitation last year, I enthusiastically attended those sessions.  The dietitians at Touro Infirmary provide recommendations that improve my quality of life, immensely.  The monthly blood test and x-geva injection that stabilize bone loss are a highlight of my medical treatment.

On a mental and spiritual level, I know that my weekly meetings of the School for Contemplative Living, Enneagram Study, attendance at Rayne Memorial, and other small groups play a big part in my well-being.  Along with bike riding, gardening, and a relaxed professional role, I feel relatively normal.  My biggest physical symptoms are fatigue and controllable stomach issues.

Beyond the two-week recovery interruption to my regular schedule today’s surgery will cause, I know part of my negative reaction is a certain denial that I have a serious disease/medical condition.  I am inclined to leave well enough alone – no news is good news – why do I need to know the primary source of my cancer if everything is rolling along better than my oncologist’s best expectations?

The best place I am at today is just trusting the process, in the same way I have trusted the process in my recovery from alcoholism for the past three decades.  I know that just working the first three steps and never moving onto the introspection of the fourth step would not have allowed me long-term sobriety.  The ignorance is bliss approach does not work.  So, in a couple of hours I will once again be sedated, opened up, and explored.

When I think back to my prognosis last August, I was supposed to be either dead or in the final stages of cancer by last Christmas.  Neither of those events came to pass.

In a couple of days, and maybe even by tomorrow morning, I will be sitting on the back porch looking out on my earthly kingdom.  In a few days after that, I hope to weed and water my gardens again.

I am grateful and blessed in my life today.

An Anniversary Celebration, of Sorts

This week I celebrate an anniversary of sorts.  One year ago I was riding in the bike lane at Audubon Park when someone I disparagingly refer to as a “Tulane frat boy” lost control of his skate board while doing jumps.  The board hit my bike and I went down, hard.  I knew things were not okay.  As I lay on the ground, my immediate thought was that I was supposed to leave for Peru in three weeks – that was going to be a problem.  After they saw I was not dead, the frat boy and his buddies took off, not wanting to hang around to take any responsibility.  Someone else passing by helped me get back on my bike. I shakily peddled home, got to the front steps of our house and collapsed.  I hobbled around on a walker and then a cane for several weeks.

And what a year it has been!

My first medical visits were not promising.  The bone scans and blood tests did not look good – something else might be going on besides the impact of the wreck.  My primary care physician recommended additional tests to rule out cancer – but that could wait until I got back from Peru.  I ended up leaving for Peru four weeks later than planned, making my way through the airport with a cane. I was physically miserable for the six weeks I spent In Peru.  When I returned to New Orleans in early August I could not lift my duffel bag off the baggage return conveyor at the airport.

Then tests and more tests, and by late August my oncologist’s diagnosis was a stage 4 cancer metastasized throughout my bones with an unknown primary source. Three to six months of life reamining was the first prognosis.  I won’t rehash the next few months of medical process that I blogged about, beginning here.

By February of this year, six months after the initial diagnosis, with the exception of fatigue, I remained without the manifestations that cancer was supposed to bring.  My oncologist referred to the lack of my cancer spreading as a real “head scratcher.”

Then in mid-March of this year I had a heart attack.  And now in mid-May, I am in cardiac rehab and living with my somewhat ambiguous my cancer.

So how do I celebrate this one year anniversary?

  • Though I hate to admit it, the “Tulane frat boy” did me a favor by getting me to a doctor to begin the testing that revealed the cancer.  My monthly x-geva injections have stabilized the bone loss and brought all blood indicators to normal.  I have less back and neck pain than I routinely experienced two years ago.
  • My cancer prognosis remains uncertain at this point.  Taking all things into consideration, I feel good today, but realize that can all come crashing down pretty quickly, as I wrote last week.  The same is true for the heart attack, cardiac rehab, and whatever that future holds.
  • Emma and I reprioritized our lives, not putting off till tomorrow what we are able to do today.
  • Of importance, I continue to explore life’s existential questions and meet fellow pilgrims on that journey.  I particularly enjoy my small group meetings, whether the Enneagram discussion that Emma hosts at her shop each week, the Sunday Wilderness class at Rayne Memorial UMC, or the weekly gathering of friends in the School for Contemplative Living.
  • I have a strong and complete “attitude of gratitude” for my 30 plus years of sobriety that brought me to today.  I consider the folks I have met through my treatments at Touro Infirmary, the outstanding professionals (particularly the RNs) and patients facing the same issues as me, as a recent gift on that road.
  • Asking myself “What matters most?” as I live  each day takes on added meaning.  Today the answer mostly had to do with work in our gardens, sharing out our abundance of herbs, and feeling that wonderful New Orleans sun on my back as I planted a bed of wildflowers.

When Emma and I retired to New Orleans we each had plans about how our lives would go.  Substantive portions of those expectations are now revised.  But, as we celebrate this anniversary, we are certain to take the best of those plans with us as we continue on our happy and meaningful road to our true selves.

 

 

Happy Birthday & Happy Deathday

Outside the Circus School in Lima, Peru

After celebrating her 66th birthday and receiving lots of Happy Birthday greetings, my friend Mary Brown pondered in a recent post whether she would receive Happy Deathday greetings when that time came.  Her post got me to thinking . . .

. . . with my stage 4 cancer diagnosis last year and my heart attack this spring, I have reflected a bit more about being dead.  My initial cancer prognosis of 3 – 6 months was a bit hard to swallow.  Having outlived those expectations to a revised 2 – 3 years quality life, and perhaps longer, gave me with a bit more breathing room to ponder everyday events.

  • I spent several hundred dollars on sorely needed “Sunday go to meeting” clothes as I figured with the revised 2-3 year prognosis I would get a good bit of use from them.
  • The avocado trees we just bought are to remain above ground in aerating pots for a couple of years before being planted.  I realize that may be a job that Emma will have to complete.
  • Emma and I are more intentional about wrapping up loose ends on some projects so that we will be able to travel this fall, and spend more time on all those things we have put off for lack of time and competing commitments.
  • I am quite cautious about further commitments in my post “institutional retirement” era in favor of weeding the garden, participating in community based projects, and in small group meetings with friends.
  • A friend wrote me a couple of months ago that I seemed driven to do more stuff.  He said I had done enough and that I could stop and rest.  That statement got me to thinking more broadly than the scope his comments intended.

There remains considerable ambiguity and unknown factors in my cancer diagnosis.  Emma has joked about my “so-called cancer” because I continue to defy all expectations.  But I know that can all come crashing down pretty quickly.  I procrastinated rescheduling the exploratory surgery that was postponed because of my heart attack, opting instead to revel in feeling healthy and a ‘no news is good news’ mentality – but I did make the call to reschedule.

And, as my heart attack showed, it might not be cancer that gets me in the end.  Or maybe it will be the car that nearly hit me while riding my bike on St. Charles Ave. two days ago.  Or this morning, I heard from a couple of yards over the shouts “drop the gun and get down on the ground.”  We simply do not know.

So coming back to Happy Deathday . . .  Today, I am prepared to not be here tomorrow, if that is how things work out.  My life has been incredibly blessed.  As I often note, had I not gotten sober over 30 years ago, I would have died long ago.  I thoroughly enjoy my life today, but also wholly accept that no one gets out of this game alive.  I am very hopeful that the last day I spend on this earth, I am able to fully embrace a Happy Deathday celebration.

Is It Sadness or Acceptance in Recovery?

This past year, although I roll out of bed in the morning a bit less rested and slower, I continue to start my day with positive and affirming practices.  First, I write my morning pages – a sort of stream of consciousness where I record my dreams if I remember them, or reflect on life, most often on a very positive note.  Next I write a notecard to someone – to catch up with a friend or thank someone for their service or other action.  I then go to an Alcoholics Anonymous Facebook page and post three things that I am grateful for and scan and comment on other posts to the group.  All of the above takes 30-45 minutes and starts my day on a very positive note.

And then something hit me.

This past Wednesday my School for Contemplative Living meeting opened with an “analytic mediation” instead of our usual centering prayer.  The former process is thought focused as opposed to the thought-less centering prayer.

At one point, the analytic meditation suggested to focus on a point of sadness in our lives and our response to the issue.  In discussing the meditation afterward, I commented that the instruction caught me by surprise.  I had been quite intentional over the past year to focus on solutions, opportunities, lessons, and wisdom that could come from my stage 4 cancer diagnosis and my recent heart attack.  I intentionally corrected folks who said I was “dying” and said that I was “living” today.  Recently, I focused on the lesson I could learn from the heart attack, and how grateful I was that it occurred while I was at the hospital for an unrelated issue.  My positive outlook makes complete sense and flows from my over 30 years of recovery from alcohol addiction.

So, I am not certain about this sadness thing.

But in the past two years, my overall physical stamina has notably decreased, though today I was able to buy lumber and bags of soil and build another eight-foot raised herb bed for our front yard.  I then weeded the backyard gardens.  However, less than one year ago, I could not even lift my duffel bag off of the airport luggage carousel when arriving home from Peru.

Until one year ago I owned three bicycles.  I gave away my mountain bike a few months ago because I knew that my bones cannot really withstand the predictable wipeouts I experience on single track dirt paths.  I now think it might be time for me to get rid of my road bike as the days of century rides are likely past.  Instead, my remaining Trek hybrid is ideal for the 10-20 mile jaunts about town these days.  I accept that I will not likely bike the Great River Road from Lake Itasca in Minnesota to our New Orleans home. But I am not certain that these realities make me sad.   I am grateful today as I ride through the streets of New Orleans and smell the jasmine and honeysuckle in bloom – a scent that fills me with revelry of the beauty of creation.

With or without cancer, at the age of 65, my physical, mental, and spiritual life will continue to evolve.  With or without cancer, I discussed with Emma that when I am unable to get out of bed to sit on the back porch, then it is time to stop whatever treatments I am receiving.  I don’t know that I will be sad at that point.  I have a hope, based in faith, that I will be grateful for the wonderful experience I have had on this earth, living life on life’s terms.

A Pilgrimage in Recovery

With my recent cancer diagnosis, I planned some “bucket list” places to visit.  One place on the list is the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio as music has always been an important part of my life.  Another place high on the list in nearby Akron, Ohio is the former home of AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith.  The home is now an AA museum.  As AA is integral to my three decades of sobriety, I imagined that visiting the home of Dr. Bob would be a transformational experience of sorts.

As Cleveland is a 16 to 18-hour drive from our home in New Orleans, Emma suggested that I fly up north and rent a car to visit the area for a couple of days.  Of late, driving long distances wears me out and increases my back pain.  But I also thought about the folks along that route I had not seen in a long while.  To allow me to visit some folks, I came up with an itinerary that divided the driving into manageable 4-6 hour days.

As I pulled out of New Orleans, I envisioned a slow drive up north to Cleveland and Akron – the goals of my pilgrimage.

My first stop was Jackson, Mississippi where I visited an old friend also in recovery.  Our level of contact has ebbed and flowed over the years.  With his recent stomach cancer diagnosis we have had more communication of late.  My visit to their home produced an aura of serenity.  We talked about how our years of sobriety in AA proved the perfect preparation for living one-day-at-a-time with each of our recent cancer diagnoses.  Our visit was a strong confirmation of the 12 Step Program’s value.

My next stop was Memphis, Tennessee where Emma and I lived for 9 years after leaving Jackson and before retiring to New Orleans.  I stayed with our former next door neighbors and enjoyed catching up with them, and sharing our mutual experience, strength, and hope.  I was struck how after being in their home for less than one minute, it seemed we picked up our conversations as though we still lived next door and were talking over the back fence as our dogs barked at each other.

I met with several fellow faculty members, colleagues, and friends with whom I still regularly engage.  The highlight of my Memphis visit was spending time with former students.  It was wonderful to see how they were growing professionally.  I also had the opportunity to meet with a current student who I had only worked with in an online capacity.  She developed a very exciting project that we discussed implementing in Peru this summer.  In seeing how my former students were thriving, I left Memphis with a strong sense of validation for my past decade of work.

After an overnight stay, I arrived in Cincinnati, where I spent my first 20 years of life, and visited with a few family and friends.  On my way out of town I stopped to visit a friend I had worked with and had made recent amends to for incidents that occurred nearly 20 years ago.  We shared a meal and then I was off to Cleveland.

I strategically booked a hotel half-way between Cleveland and Akron.  I was certain to get a good night’s rest as I expected to spend the entire next day at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and fatigue has been my biggest cancer related issue these days.  Then the following day I planned to visit Dr. Bob’s home, the ultimate goal of my pilgrimage.

My visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was less than spectacular.  Here is my yelp review so I won’t rehash that all here.  I ended up leaving the place by noon and decided I might as well head to Dr. Bob’s Museum the same day.  Well . . . it is just a house with lots of ghosts in the walls and stories to tell.  The volunteers there made me feel very welcome and I enjoyed a tour with another couple in recovery visiting from Detroit.  The mystical experience I anticipated at Dr. Bob’s House simply did not occur.

In reflecting, two things struck me:

  • the process was the most important part of the pilgrimage – visiting friends along the way.  The people not the places of my life proved the most meaningful.
  • I recalled an incident that occurred many years ago.  In the late -1990s, I had occasion to drive from Baton Rouge to my then home in Delhi, Louisiana in the late afternoon once each month.  On one trip I was driving north on Highway 15 somewhere between Clayton and Sicily Island, Louisiana when I had a truly a mystical experience in seeing the beauty of the landscape across a flatland of a cotton field.  I pulled off the road to marvel at the place.  On  the next month’s trip, I was struck again by the same landscape.  I called the place Magic Land.  As I prepared for my third monthly trip, I had a camera, notepad, and audio recorder to document the experience.  But that time all I saw was a nondescript cotton field.  The fourth month, no luck again.  I never experienced Magic Land again.  I reflected on Magic Land last week as I drove south from Akron.  I thought about how I have learned to be present for the possibility, and when the time is right, the luminous will happen.  I cannot force the issue.  Two days later as I pulled onto a rain-soaked and chilly Magazine Street in New Orleans, I had a mystical experience of complete wellness and peace . . . of truly being home.  The pilgrimage was complete.

Moving from an Intellectual to Gut Understanding in Recovery

Halloween display on St. Charles Ave & State St., New Orleans.

 

 

First we grasp this knowledge intellectually, and then finally we come to believe it in our hearts

Overeaters Anonymous 12 & 12 pp. 6-7

A substantive shift in how I have come to see addiction over the years is the move from an intellectual to a gut understanding.  When I first got sober, I spent a significant amount of time going through library card catalogs and journals in those pre-Google days searching out articles on the genetic predisposition to alcoholism, including twin studies, relapse treatment, and so forth.  One of my favorite books was the hot-of-the-press in 1984, Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism.  Fast forward to 2018, that information is pretty meaningless to me today and has little to do with my recovery.  Rather my understanding has moved from my head to my gut. My recovery has moved from a false self ego that refused to deal with life on life’s terms to one where I strive to move toward my True Self.

As I reflect often in this blog, my experience with an understanding of God similarly moved from the intellectual to the gut.  As a precocious youth, by the time I hit the sixth grade I proclaimed myself an agnostic, and by the eighth grade, an atheist based on my inability to accept a physical heaven, hell, old man with a white beard sitting in judgement, and so forth.  My approach to the spiritual realm has certainly moved from the intellectual to the gut today.

Now that cancer has come along, my intellectual understanding of the disease is of little importance to me beyond how I take care of myself with diet, exercise, maintaining my immune system and so forth.  My oncologist, who always refers to me as Professor Connolly, acknowledging my PhD and profession, is learning that my academic credentials do not reflect my ability to understand the biology of the latest immunotherapy treatments.  In fact, my comprehension level reminds me of being erroneously asked to judge chemistry student projects at Research Fairs on campus.  I could only smile politely, not having a clue at what the students were talking about.

As with alcoholism, I am coming to a gut-level understanding and acceptance of my cancer diagnosis.  I am not really interested in trying to figure out whether my monthly x-geva injections, increased calcium intake, exercise, diet, daily affirmations, weekly centering prayer group and book discussion, service at the Open Table feeding ministry, or any other factor is the primary reason the cancer in my bones is not spreading as rapidly as expected or that I remain reasonably pain free.  Rather, I see it all as a package deal.  I am comfortable leaving the hard science questions to the medical personnel who have proven themselves truly exceptional on those issues.  I am grateful for their expertise and will continue to focus my energies on that path begun many years ago toward true self.

 

If every (alcoholic, cancer) breath I have ever taken . . .

In April of 2001, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Canal Street in New Orleans while in town to attend a professional conference.  I was in the coffee shop visiting with a former colleague from graduate school days at the University of Illinois.  He spoke of how his career and personal life were not going as he hoped.  After he spoke for a while, I very intentionally chose my words and said “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”  That idea had rolled around in my head for a while, but I never said it aloud until that day.  Today, I affirm the same sentiment – my life has perfectly led me to where I am today.

Let me explain.

Today, through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a life that exceeds the best of any situation I can imagine.  I married my bride over 19 years ago and she is truly my best friend and confidant.  We have racked up some wonderful adventures together and have more to come.  I retired from a rewarding career with a job description completely aligned with my interests and vision.  Step 3 of AA launched me on a now three-decade long spiritual journey that continues to evolve.  My church home at Rayne Memorial UMC along with activity and friends in the School for Contemplative Living are the bedrock for my spiritual existence.  Today, I also live into a life of service consistent with the embryonic values I held over 45 years ago as an inner-city student teacher.  My life has a greater meaning than ever before.

An old friend from high school commented to me once that he never realized I had such a “rough life” early on in battling my demons and alcoholism.  But today, if I truly would not “change a thing” I am blessed by the lessons of my drunken alcoholic past.  Besides sharing my experience, strength, and hope, particularly with students in my classrooms over the years, I know too that those drunken days and the sobriety that followed provide me with the wisdom of how to live today.

Then, this past August, I received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with a still unknown primary source.

I participated in a recent discussion where someone commented about the need to look for the silver lining in such adversities.  I think differently.  I don’t need to look for a silver lining for my cancer diagnosis.  In fact, the diagnosis was a wake-up call for me to prioritize those things that are important in my life.  When I retired in 2016, for the first year, I put nearly the same amount of effort into my career, but I was no longer drawing a paycheck.  My wife had retired from her full-time position to take on another full-time position in opening a business that had been her lifelong dream.  We both could have continued our separate retirement careers for years.

My cancer had other plans.  The original prognosis was that I might be dead by last Christmas.  That did  not happen.  I sat with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago and candidly discussed the unknowability of my prognosis, though he is very pleased with how I am doing.

Cancer has allowed Emma and I to focus on what we want to do in our lives.  We are all mortal and we don’t know when that mortality will be called in – as is clear for the 17 in Parkland, Florida.  So, I am not looking for a silver lining in my cancer diagnosis.  It is all silver and gold and is a wake up call for re-ordering my life priorities in the same way the massacre at Douglas school is an opportunity to take steps to end that carnage.  On a personal level, I will not waste the cancer wake-up call, as we must not waste the lives of the 17 in Parkland, and those before, as a national wake up call.

Alcoholism, cancer, mass murder – the only regret I can have is if I do not learn, absorb, and grow from the implications of these life events.  I must take the appropriate actions in living into the understanding that we are all truly made in the image of God and must treat ourselves and all those in our luminous web of life accordingly.  If I can continue moving in that direction of true self, I will be able to continue saying “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”