Saturday, December 25, 2010
The gift that keeps on giving
It is a fine Christmas morning, and we go back into the hospital for more poison tomorrow; about as concise a metaphor for the human condition as I can imagine--a little ying, a little yang.
New York city has a fine dusting of cynicism, but no snow. N's mother, after a pleasant and calm christmas eve of food, films, and a few presents, has driven off to her next visit, and N and I will spend the day relaxing as we prepare, interspersing down-time with the gathering of cots and shower sandals; books, earphones, Ativan, and a partridge in a pear tree.
I was going to write a post about balance: the difficult with the glorious, the fear with the triumph. A post about not letting the cancer or the treatment ever own you. Don't let it become you. For every vein-ful of Drano, there's a walk with your mother and stepfather. For every gut-searing retch through pancreatitis, there's a quiet moment with your wife--knowing you will get through it, listing heavily toward each other like barges on the East River, sliding upstream, pushed by the tide.
But that post was based on photos, and I lost the camera before downloading them all. A nice little human foible to teach yet another lesson in flexibility--when your plans are fouled, improvise.
I was going to write this post a while ago, as it's been some time since the last post. But I gave myself three or four days to look for the camera. And then one more day to accept my failure. And now it is christmas morning.
Christmas has always been a shadow-and-light kind of day for me. Christmases growing up were sometimes transfer days, when I would shift from one parent to the other. It worked out well because Dad woke up early and Mom preferred to sleep in, so I would get a christmas morning at the crack of dawn, then pack up presents and self for the start of six months at the other house, where I would get a second christmas--positive and negative, just like real life. It wasn't really that rough--my expanded American multi-part family, good people and good parents all, got along fine and lived, at the farthest, within an hour of each other--and most of my life within a few miles. But still, with multiple presents came a sense of leave-taking and homecoming mingled in a grey Baltimore day: hugs hello, hugs goodbye.
And the religious aspect stuck in my craw. As I aged I came to see that not only did christmas delete or overlook the vast majority of the world's population, but that some dipshits, under the banner of Christianity, were using it as a way to overpower voices and cultures different from their own. If there was a Jesus, this would disgust him, of course; but power-hungry, ignorant ethnocentrists rarely think about stuff like that.
At the beginning it was basically a discomfort with some blonde guy in a white bathrobe telling me what to do from the sky, and his hippy-looking son walking around with his empathetic eyes, and this sense that I owed them something. I likely didn't know Patti Smith's "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine' line until much later, but I would have dug it from the get-go. Plus, I'm just a punk-ass, trying to be different. Against the grain.
And that persists. In the above paragraphs I have written and rewritten, trying to use 'xmas' as a less religious way of naming the day. Then editing that out because it looked snotty and had a lesser music in the sentences. But going back one more time to make it lower-case. In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse (trapped again: Eliot was an anti-semite and pretty ruthless Christian, even while inventing modern poetry. A little ying, a little yang.)
So I do not believe in the ghost stories, but I love the time of year when people tend to come together, families (made and blood) gather, give, and maybe give thanks for what they have. I do not believe in the ghost stories, but believe in the feeling. I will bow out of trying to explain it and instead quote my wife, il miglior fabbro, who catches the moment I'm trying to draw in recalling her childhood:
From Christmas Eve to January Sixth, in the old Irish way, we lit a red candle for the Magi to follow. I pictured the Three Men of the East, looking like my father, wandering the desert, following red candles lit by Irish-Catholic women.
-You Have Given Me A Country
And I'll leave it at that. Enough about me: what do you think about me?
Physically, I'm peaking. It is that top of the climb in health and vitality, right before they kick out the stool. So I feel good.
In fact, I'm sore. The good sore, the kind of sore you get from physical activity. I have been running and sweating, swimming and moving, as much as possible since the fever, trying to claw back a little power and take advantage of the good week before the rattlesnake and the drips draw it back out again.
Because we go into the hospital tomorrow I am not in Baltimore this year for the annual Egg-nog run--where a wonderfully motley created family meet at our house and run, bike, or walk to another friend's house, then overeat and drink for a couple hours, before trotting off into the cold again for another few miles to another friend's house for more food and drink, and then plodding back to our place to collapse and enjoy each other's company. Run, eat, repeat.
So I cannot be there for the first time in a long time. But I can at least be in some semblance of shape, run those miles up here over the week. There in spirit, pounding pavement in reality.
My muscles ache from use. My legs are stiff from running. God, it feels good. I consider it a gift, and I am very thankful for it. And miles to go before I sleep.
(For anyone using this blog as some kind of how-to: steal your old self from the jaws of the treatment every second you can. Be an apple tree: when you cut me, I grow; in autumn cold, I bear fruit; I may be twisted and gnarled, but I'm still here. You want this thing to end, you're gonna have to cut me the hell down with a chainsaw. And if you burn me, I will still crackle and roar.)
The fever fell away, like scales from the eyes of those people--I forget who, maybe in the bible; not sure. As soon as it broke and they deemed me out of the woods, off we were sent, and it was like it never happened. There were a couple of days of fatigue and creakiness, I guess, but the speed with which the whole episode became memory was, and is, astonishing. Again--like the agony of pancreatitis and the deepest terrors and weakness--I am a little mad that I cannot completely hold the sensations and memories longer. As an actor I want everything, so I can use it later. As a human, I feel cheated: goddammit, I went through that; the least you can do is let me keep the merit badge.
And since the fever things have been uneventfully OK. A lot of voice-over work to make up for the week I lost to the hospital stay. A trip to PA to visit N's mom, a visit with N's dad to the Holiday Train Exhibit at the Botanical Garden, and N's mom's trip here for christmas eve. Miles running, hundreds of pages read into a microphone, meals and movies and quiet time with N. Hell, I almost felt normal a couple of time: which is, of course, terrifying.
But then a I got a mustache…in about forty minutes. As I have said, I've been achingly hairless, making a baby's ass look like Robin Williams' chest-carpet, for months. The HYPER CVAD seems specifically designed to keep you pumped full of the depilatory chemicals at just the right interval so that you don't even get a shadow of growth; smooth epidermal sailing, stretching to the horizon.
But not this week. Maybe the running, maybe Murphy's Law, maybe the random nature of everything. But one morning earlier this week I had full-grown half-millimeter blonde/white nodes, just above the center of my mouth. And the next morning they were joined by a dark points of whisker. Again, just above my lip.
It's like my follicles made a terrible error in judgment. They were at a poker game hosted by my brain and liver and, shitfaced on 'Vengeance'--a cocktail my brain invented which is a brutal and heady mix of V-8 and Vincristine that can really sneak up on you--barked out "Hey, no, wait, I got it!..What were we talking--oh yeah: totally! I mean, he already looks like a skinhead, right? So, so, I know! Let's give him his facial hair back, but, but, just, like, a little Hitler mustache! Right?! That's hilarious, right?!"
And my brain, corked out of my mind on Valtrex and chicken salad, said "Genius! Seriously, Skinhole, yer a fuckin' genius. We're doin' it!"
And so now I get to relive a puberty I did not have. The odd scarlet-pelt aside, my Norwegian Scottish Irish ancestors were not known for being terribly hirsute. Fairskinned and blonde, my facial hair woes were pretty translucent and not so much of a concern. Braces, sure. Cracky voice lower than everyone else's, you bet. Labial shadowing--not so much. Puberty wasn't all that horrid for me, really.
Payback's a bitch, huh? So now--when I look back at the sprouting pre-manly hedgerows of intermittent stalks and willows on the Eagle Scout who Henry and I used to call "Eyelash Mustache" as we cowered in fear of his bigness and meanness, his burgeoning acne and likely pubic hair--I have empathy.
Not a lot, but still…some.
So one morning I shaved. Electric razor in the predawn light before I went to the gym. And razor-razor that evening in the shower. Four short passes over the spot, then a pathetically non-resistant swipe across the rest of my face for old time's sake: pushing a bar of butter across a searing hot teflon pan would have garnered more friction. It was like I was shaving a big pink marble.
And tomorrow we return, for what hopefully (and hope is, of course, terrifying) the last time.
Not really, because even on maintenance there are chemo stints somewhere near months six and eleven.
But for now, and as far as the 'initial chemotherapy' and the Drs are concerned, that's it.
One and done. On to Maintenance. You've made it. Welcome back.
That's scary even to write. I feel like a dog creeping toward an owner who just kicked him. Like Scrooge future-looking at Tiny Tim's empty stool by the hearth. I'll believe it when I see it.
There will be this stint, and then recovery, and then there should follow another bone-marrow biopsy; another stealing of the soul. The results of that will, as always, be everything. And we'll go from there.
I'll have written more between then and now. I'll check in from the hospital, some time after tomorrow. I'll keep you posted.
Until then, merry christmas.
There are people reading this who have helped me, helped us, get through this. Whose time or interest or care have been a wind blowing us toward health and survival this whole time. I would name you, but it's not that long a list and the rest of you freeloading parasite douche-bags would probably get your namby-pamby feelings hurt.
So, instead, in the spirit of compassion and giving and reaching out instead of in, this christmas N and I have made a donation in honor of everyone to The McKim Center in Baltimore.