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.

My Father and Kon-Tiki

My father died a few years ago.  Over the six decades that we both shared space on this earth, we certainly had our conflicts.  When I went to see him in the VA home for what I knew would be the last time, I thought of how I could make peace with him.  It struck me that if I truly believed the line I often say, “If every breath I have ever taken got me to where I am today, I would not change a thing” then, for the good and the bad, I owed him a debt of gratitude for being a part of who I am today.

I visited him in his room at the VA home and as I was about to leave I said “I just wanted to thank you for everything and say that I love you.”  He was startled like he did not understand what I had said, so I repeated the words.  We hugged and I left and drove the eight hours back to my then home in Memphis.  I spoke to my father once more on the phone before he died.  In that conversation we talked about nothing of great importance – how Cincinnati Reds games were nowhere near as much fun at Riverfront Stadium as the old Crosley Field, and so forth.

When he died, we were at peace.  Since then I have gotten older, had a heart attack, been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and am closer to my own death.  Now I think more about what I have to be grateful for in my life.

Here is an example.  Today I watched the film Kon Tiki, made in 1950s.  The movie documents the adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s attempt to prove that sailors from South America could have traveled to Polynesia in prehistory.  I only recollect seeing the film once before.  I was about 5 years old and my father and I walked the 7 or 8 blocks from our house to the Plaza Theatre on Montgomery Road in Norwood Ohio to see the film.  It is the only time I remember going to the movies with my father.  When we were growing up my parents had maybe 15 books in the bookcase.  One of those books was Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl.

I reflected how important that movie and book must have been for my father as they both stand out as rarities in our 1950s existence.  I don’t know that I can attribute seeing Kon-Tiki at the age of 5 as a seed planted for my own ultimate career as an anthropologist and the associated travel and adventure.  As I watched Kon-Tiki today a feeling of peace and serenity came over me. I was taken back to a time when I went to a Saturday 5-cent matinee, with our own snacks because money was tight, and watched a movie with my father.  If I ever get back to Peru and stand on the Pacific Coast again, I will certainly think of Kon-Tiki, the Plaza Theatre, and my father.

 

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 New Freedom and Happiness in Recovery

Quite worn, but I have carried this in my wallet for over 30 years!

I am thinking of how grateful I am for everything that I experienced over the past 65 years.  The payoff for me in three decades of recovery is contained in the section of the book Alcoholics Anonymous commonly referred to as the AA Promises.  The promises begin:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

Several years ago I wrote about this promise and focused on the freedom from not being obsessed with how I would get my next drink.  That freedom goes beyond the obsession with alcohol as a material substance.  As I wrote last week, sobriety today has less to do with the physical manifestations of being drunk and more the mental and spiritual recovery.  The same is true for the promised freedom.

I made the commitment in 1984 when checking into a detox rehab that I was not going to lie to anyone – I was going to tell my truth about life and addiction.  Since that time, I am consistently challenged to be more rigorously self-honest.  Freedom from self-deception and self-betrayal has led me on a path toward true self.

What is this true self?  Psychology and spiritual literature discuss this point in great detail.  I view true self as the opposite of an ego-driven false self.  A starting point for me is the line from Hamlet that appears on AA coins, “To Thine Own Self be True”.  I understand that first and foremost I got sober for me and not to keep anyone else happy.  However, in sobriety I am able to play a constructive role in community, and be in true relationship with others.  Self-worth is key.  Having self-worth is the difference between getting sober because I have treated all those around me terribly vs. getting sober because I have treated myself terribly and have not lived as a true member of humanity.

For me, the freedom in the promises allows me to take stock of who I am, what I have to offer, and how I might better be able to participate as one of 7 billion humans on this earth.  That is a tremendous freedom to explore!

 

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.”

 

Evolving Perspectives on Cancer and Recovery

In The Book of Joy, The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu discuss the Eight Pillars of Joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity.  I find all eight pillars are relevant to my recent cancer diagnosis and my years as a recovering alcoholic.  I generally view myself as a “glass is half full” kind of person, but the Dalai Lama’s discussion of the “perspective” pillar presents a more complex and holistic approach:

We must look at any given situation or problem from the front and from the back, from the sides, and from the top and the bottom, so from at least six different angles.  This allows us to take a more complete and holistic view of reality, and if we do, our response will be more constructive.  – The Dalai Lama, from The Book of Joy, p. 196

Even from a simple dualistic approach, I find that considering alternative perspectives provides incredible “aha” moments.

Why me? vs. Why me?

I took to sobriety pretty much from the day I committed to a detox unit in 1984.  Although relieved, I asked “Why me?” even though accepting that I was an alcoholic and unable to drink like “normal” folks.   In early recovery, alcoholism became my burden to bear or my lot in life.  When I was 20 years sober, I had an “aha” moment.  I began to ask “Why me?” again.  But now I asked the question because I maintained my sobriety for two decades where so many others had relapsed.  Why was I so fortunate?  I know sobriety does not rely on intelligence, depth of alcoholism, or many other factors.  Since my “aha” moment, I have maintained a new perspective on the “Why Me?” question.

I can’t drink alcohol today vs. I don’t have to drink alcohol today

I vividly recall walking out of my 30-day detox program with a fear that I would be drunk within 24 hours.  However, I stayed sober then one-day-at-a-time with a commitment that I “won’t/can’t” drink for that today.  In the first six months of sobriety I had an another “aha” moment.  I was driving home from my sobriety bowling league feeling good about being sober at 11:30 pm on a Saturday night.  I thought about how I would not wake up hungover the next morning and could spend the day doing something enjoyable.  Life was good.  And then it hit me – if I chose to drink alcohol I would lose that good life.  I no longer had to drink to escape a life I despised.  I came to accept living life on life’s terms.  The I “won’t/can’t” drink today changed to I “don’t have to” drink today.

I am going to die vs. I am alive today

I have stage 4 cancer with an ambiguous prognosis.  The chances are good that cancer will be my cause of death. Today, I look out over the rooftops of the same neighborhood where 40 years ago I stomped the streets in anger, despair, and drunk.  Today the cold snap broke with temperatures in the mid-60s.  I spent the morning raking leaves and branches from our backyard, planted two trees, and began to get ready for our spring gardens.  I am in no pain and my body is functioning as normal.  As I sit on the back porch writing these words, I look out over our backyard which is my kingdom, my Garden of Eden, my heaven on earth.  The sky is incredibly blue today.    I cannot imagine a better way to live my day in my favorite city in the world.  I am at peace and having cancer means nothing to me as I am alive this day.

I am not certain my oncologist agrees with me, but I believe one of the reasons my cancer has not progressed more than it has to date is because I am blessed with a perspective whose seeds were planted over three decades ago when I entered a rehab for my addiction to alcohol and drugs.  Consistently since that time, I learned that feeding the solution and not the problem produces a meaningful and joyful life.  Today I accept the problem of having cancer but also have come to appreciate the lessons and wisdom that my response and solution to the disease has brought me.