Thursday, November 27, 2014

When is a great-grandfather not all that great?

I am not now, nor do I envision a future in which I might be, a great grandfather. And let me be clear... By that, I'm not discussing whether one of my grandchildren will have a child and I will become a great-grandfather in family lineage terms. That may happen, but it has nothing to do with this situation.

No, I mean I don't think I'll ever be a great grandfather in the sense of Facebook/bumper sticker/t-shirt messages. You know what I mean. The Facebook post that says, “'Like' if thinking of your grandchildren brings a big smile to your face.” Or, “Retired engineer, full-time grandpa.” Or even, “Ask me about my grandchildren.” Sure, you can ask me about my grandchildren, but if I have to go much further than their names, we're going to be on rocky ground.

I'm more the, “”Who are these children, why do they keep following me, and why do they keep calling me grandpa?” type. I've also considered a t-shirt that reads “I take my grandchildren everywhere, but they keep finding their way back.”

I'm sure you're smirking a knowing smirk, and telling yourself that would be quite bad if it were true and I wasn't just trying to be funny, while you're harboring the thought that it just might be true, which would allow you to feel at least a little superior. Well, here's the thing. As far as all that goes, it is true. I'm not terribly demonstrative about how I feel about my grandchildren. You should let smugness and superiority out of their cages! And don't waste a millisecond on guilt. Feeling proud of your grandchildren is a good thing.

Still, make no mistake- I happen to think my grandchildren great and I think they know that. I think their parents, my daughters and their husbands, know it too. The grandkids range in age from 17 to eight or nine, four boys and a girl. I do not dote on them, although I might if we all lived closer. I do not spoil them, ditto. I don't smile at the very thought of them, although I often laugh at many of the clever things they've said and done.

The way I treat them is, I think, a continuation of how I treated my girls when they were growing up. I had a difficult upbringing because of the way my mother was treated as she grew up. Her stepfather, my grandfather, was the town drunk, a violent and abusive man. My mother was never taught how to be loving and nurturing. She was taught to stay out of the way and take cover.

I didn't want to be like that, so I tried to strike a balance between discipline and letting them find their own levels. How did I do? My ex-wife would probably tell you I was too easy on them. The kids themselves? I don't know. They seem to have turned into adults I like to hang out with, raising kids who are loved and supported in all that they do.

My older daughter Jennifer, her husband, my son-in-law, Mark, and the three boys were able to visit us for this Thanksgiving. That allowed Jennifer to go with me to my monthly appointment at the cancer clinic to see what that was all about. Her sister Alison had visited me when I was in Brigham and Womens for my stem cell transplant, so now they had both gotten an up-close and personal look at my cancer and its treatment.

Jen's two boys, Jacob and Mathew, have been spending a week with us each summer for the past number of years. They missed this year because of my health issues, so they were very happy to be able to come up now, even if it was only for a couple of days.

By the very nature of those visits, we had developed a relationship with Jacob and Mathew that was different from that of the other kids. Sure, in time, the others will all get the chance to come and stay with us in the summer, but for now it was just the two older boys.

Therefore, when I was diagnosed with cancer, though I was concerned about how all of the kids would react, I had a feeling it could be worse for the two older boys- in part because they were... older, and also because we had spent quite a bit of time together without their parents around, time when my attempts to divert them from the straight and narrow were only mildly successful. They would not watch an R rated movie for example, without calling to get their parents permission. I was all “They're part of The Man and all The Man wants to do is keep you down. C'mon boys. Let's Up the Revolution and watch “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes!”

What did I get for my efforts? “Grandfather... There are rules. We must call mother and father to make sure they give their approval to our movie choice.” Okay, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but only slight. Instead of helping to raise budding revolutionaries, I was helping to raise budding Citizens of the Year.

I love these kids and I love my daughters, who are their mothers, and their dads, who are my sons-in-law. My girls grew into women about the same time I was wrestling with many of my own demons. There were times when, it seemed to me, that they're turning out as well as they did was a pretty close run thing. It wouldn't have taken an awful lot for them to have turned out very different.

So, yes, I love my grandkids, all of them. But, I personally don't need messages on clothing, crockery, bumper stickers or anywhere else, to remind myself of the fact. Besides, let's face it. When we wear the shirts, drink from the cup, put the 30-cent stick on our $25,000 car, those messages aren't for us. We know our grandkids are outstanding. We display those messages for the benefit of those around us. We want everyone else to know what we already know: your grandkids are the best. If you used your Captain Crunch Super Secret Decoder Ring on any of those messages, regardless of medium, you'd unravel some variation of: “My grandkids are way better than your grandkids so you can just suck it!”

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

No more curmudgeon for you

First off, I want to thank you for all the support and caring you offered me last week when I wrote about my “meltdown.”

Over the months I've been writing this, it no longer amazes me when people are kind or supportive about something I write. You have been wonderful about that. But, the compassion that poured down on Sheri and me last week was even more humbling than usual. Seriously. You are generous beyond words. So generous, in fact, that I don't feel comfortable being a curmudgeon any more. If you are going to be so nice to someone you don't know except through the written word, how the heck am I going to be all, “You don't really care. You're just saying that.” Or, “Yeah? Well, life sucks and then you die.” I can't. I've tried. You've taken all the fun out of being curmudgeonly.

Want to buy a “My curmudgeon can out snarl your curmudgeon” tee-shirt. I have plenty!

To update you on all that... As it turned out, the alternative the medical staff came up with worked. They were able to view my gall bladder function and saw that it was normal. That was actually disappointing to me, because I figured that malfunctioning gall bladder would be the solution to what is going on with my stomach. Then, we'd smash that gall bladder, or whatever they do to them nowadays, and let me pay the land of pain free a visit for the first time in over 14 months.

Besides, Thanksgiving is coming up. That would be a great thing to be thankful for! As we all know, my knowledge of anatomy and physiology is sketchy at the very best, but it seems to me that if my gall bladder is gone, not only would I have an appetite again... But, with the extra room, I would be able to cram in more food. Yes! Right, I know I have that extra spleen, but that doesn't take up much room. Besides, I've had that for countless Thanksgivings past. It's just that this year I know it's there.

Well, no. The palliative care doctor remains convinced that there is something wrong with my gall bladder, though, and so I'm scheduled to see the gastroenterologist on Dec. 1. True, that's too late for Thanksgiving, but I'm sure I can scrape up something else for which to be grateful (note the proper grammar??).

Did you see what I did there? Huh? Threw you a little curve ball. Didn't I? I intimated that without the obvious good news of my gall bladder being removed, I was going to have a hard time “scraping up” something to be thankful for. It was a ruse. A ploy, if you will, to get you emotionally involved in what came next. I'm sure they have a name for that sort of ploy in writers' school, but I never went to writers' school, so I couldn't tell you.

Fake ploy not withstanding, obviously, I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for the current state of my life.

The big thing heading into this time period last year was that I had no idea what my cancer was up to. Was it active, thinking about remission, going into remission, or “other.” I had no idea and wouldn't know until the first of the year.

But there were things I did know, and that I was grateful for. The love of my wife and my family and how much support they extended to me. I had friends to help, but at this time last year I had no idea how many nor how connected they were to me and my recovery.

Last Thanksgiving I was facing a tremendous unknown in my potential stem cell transplant. I mean, what the heck was it and what was it going to do for me. The general things I knew about it were both encouraging and daunting. It would help beat back my cancer, true, but it meant spending days in isolation and a long period of recovery.

It meant spending a lot of time in Boston and we had no idea where Sheri was going to live while I was in the hospital. We spent hours making phone calls, trying to keep the expense of spending a month in Boston within our weakening financial grasp. On top of a place to stay, we had to consider the cost of parking and meals, and this was all on top of the medical care I need.

Last year, we believed it would all be okay and that we would manage just fine. This year, we can look back and give thanks for all that was done for us. Friends gave us a place to stay, rent free. We were able to get assistance with the parking which would have cost us hundreds of dollars otherwise. We even were helped with the cost of gas traveling back and forth between home and the hospital.

The stem cell transplant went like a dream and was so successful that I was released a day early, the projected at-home recovery time was seriously shortened and I was able to re-start my life much sooner.

Last year, Thanksgiving was all about hope and trusting. This year it's about saying thank you for the hope and trust being true!

This year, for the first time in 30 years, one of my daughters and her family will be spending the holiday with us. That's one daughter, one husband, and three male grandchildren which = a happy Jim and Sheri. Maybe I should say happier, since we're pretty grateful for what we've been given every day of our lives. We hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and, if I may quote Warren Zevon again, "Just let us be brave, and make us play nice.”

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

OK. Cancel the waaaaahmbulance

Those of you who had Nov. 12, 2014, in the “When Does Arnold Have a Complete Breakdown During a Procedure” pool, congratulations! That's when it happened. The tie breaker, I suppose, would be the actual time the breakdown commenced and that was around 8 am. Good luck.

I cannot begin to tell you how bad the whole experience was. You each know I have been through so much in the 14 months since I was initially diagnosed with cancer. I mean, CAT scans, whole-body X-rays, MRIs, the test where they put a camera down your throat and into you stomach, or someplace nearby, I don't even remember. I've had bone marrow biopsies; note, I said “ies,” not “y,” biops-ies. I've had a Hickman line put in and taken out (although taking out shouldn't really count). I've had countless IVs. I've injected myself with a very painful stem cell fortifier. And, of course, I've had my immune system completely destroyed, along with the accompanying stem cell transplant. I know. We'll serve no whine before its time. Yeah? Call the waaaaahmbulance, right? “Get to Arnold's house, stat!”

But, without laying all of that out for you, I can't lay it out for myself. If I can't lay it out for myself, I couldn't possibly make any sense out of what happened during my hidascan on Thursday. Even at that, we have to back up to the day before.

After 1 pm. on the 11th, I couldn't take any pain medication because it would interfere with the way my gall bladder functioned. Since the whole idea of the test was to find out if my gallbladder was functioning properly, “No pain meds for you!”

Normally, that wouldn't be too bad, but both my stomach pains and back pains decided the 11th of November would be just the right time to come by and say “Howdy!”... at the same time. The end result- and I think this was an important factor in what happened later- was I got no sleep from the time I woke up on the 11th until the afternoon of the 12th. No sleep. None. Not any. Nada. Well, I'm sure you get the point.

The spasms in my back were nonstop; not big rolling spasms, but constant little ones that made it impossible for me to get comfortable. Fine. Lots of times, no sleep, no problem. This time, no sleep, big problem.

I don't know what I expected a hidascan to be, but it was nowhere near what it was. Again, I'm used to walking in to these things and dealing with them, whatever they might be. As soon as I looked at the hidascan machine, I knew I was in big trouble. It looked somewhat like a CAT scanner. I laid on my back and a camera was moved into position above my liver/gall bladder and The Nice Lady told me I had to lay still for 45 minutes. Then, they would put something into my IV, and I'd have to lay even stiller for another 31 minutes.

Honestly, I tried. I really tried, but I couldn't. The pain was terrible. Usually, I would be able to put my brain in a spot that would allow me to be distracted by anything bright and shiny. Nuh uh. Not this time.

After about 15 minutes, I had to call The Nice Lady back in and tell her I couldn't do it. I was embarrassed, slightly ashamed, concerned because I needed to have the test done and I was very emotional. I asked TNL to get Sheri, who was sitting in the waiting room.

When she left to get her, I started to cry. Really, cry. I know, that's not what you've come to expect from me in these situations. But, you know what? I think these tears were 14 months in the making. I have kept going and been cheerful and “tough” through all sorts of things. But this felt like the proverbial “Bridge Too Far.” I just couldn't be brave anymore. So I cried and cried. Then Sheri came in and the crying went to a whole 'nother level. I felt like I'd let her down, on top of everything else. We had put so much hope into this test; that it would find the source of my stomach pains once and for all. And here I was, sitting up, weeping, telling her I couldn't do it. Talk about a low point.

Of course, Sheri was worried about me and me only. The test? Whatever. It's only a test. She'd seen me cry before, but this was different. I'm not sure she'd seen me seem so beaten at any previous point in this ordeal. So, she took my hand, and I got big, soppy tears all over both of us. But that's when I knew I wasn't beaten. I'd just been knocked around... a lot. I mean, there was no “Theme from Rocky,” or even “Theme from The Care Bears Movie.” We simply decided, as we have so many times before, to just get on with it.

And we did. The Nice Lady, and The Other Nice Lady she was working with, were able to come up with an alternative they thought would work. I just had to stand (stand!) completely still for two periods of five minutes each and they thought they'd get the data they needed. Not ideal, but...

Well, in the interest of truth in pony finding, I wasn't completely sure that I was going to be able to do even that. But I did. Good for me!

This is another of those things I needed to write about as quickly as possible. The brain, being occasionally merciful, is already convincing the rest of me that... you know... it wasn't THAT bad.

But it was and, yet again, I thank God for my wife and the medical staff that is working with me as I take this journey. Let me say it again: “I Feel...eel...eel. Like...ike...ike... the luckiest...est.est.est on the face....ace...ace... of the

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Becoming a “better” person is tougher than I thought

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I thought... Well, I thought a lot of things. Diagnosed in September of 2013, I wondered if I would see Christmas. Obviously, that was very early on and was probably one of the first thoughts I actually had about it.

Then, as I became more aware of what I was truly dealing with, I thought having cancer offered me the perfect opportunity to become a better person, which in its own way was just as naive as wondering if I would be around at Christmas time.

And I'm not sure if being a “better” person was what I really meant. I think I was a pretty decent person at the time. I wasn't as angry as I had been for much of my life and I had certainly stopped taking my anger out on other people or pets, for the most part. I think I was a good friend, although you'd have to check with them. I was generous with time and money. I was funny and liked to make people laugh.

But, being sick, I thought I would stop dragging my feet when it came to doing things that were important. If I loved someone, for example, I would be sure they knew it. I think I even gave that advice to you in an earlier column. Turns out that really is a multi-layered task.

I had no trouble telling people in my life now that I loved them. I think, at least on some level, that I knew there wouldn't be too many surprises in that group. I mean, I figured most of them would say, “I love you too.”

See, “I love you” only has two appropriate responses: “Thank you” and, more importantly, “I love you too.” “I don't blame you,” is hardly an appropriate reply, for example. Neither is, “You and God knows how many others.?” And of course, “What's not to love?” is just plain lame.

What really makes saying “I love you” so risky is that your declaration may be met... with silence, or something non-committal like “That's nice.” Wow. If you're like me, you immediately want to take it back. “Yeah? Well, I just said that to see what you would say. I didn't really mean it.” The wrong reply makes you feel like a chump. Sort of like, I suppose, giving some kind of talk in front of a large number of people and realizing that your pants are unzipped, or the female equivalent thereof. What are you going to do? True, it's bad, but how is surreptitiously trying to zip them up going to make anything better?

So, as it became obvious that my multiple myeloma was going to give me time to take care of some of the second-layer “I love yous,” I started to put some serious thought to the task. There were people I had hurt, who had hurt me, or with whom I had just lost touch that I wanted to get to and explain. Explain what? Good question, but I know love was in there somewhere.

There are probably about eight people who would fit in this group. My mom and dad are both dead, so there is nothing to say or do, at least openly. Still, eight is quite a few. Fourteen months down the road, how many have I performed this important act with? Well, counting everybody, and leaving out my parents, that would be... none.

Hey. Don't judge! Besides, it's haaaarrrrddd. I don't even know where most of those people are. The fact that most of them are women who have probably changed their last names doesn't make it any easier. Again, I've done all the skimming-sort of things, mostly Google and Facebook. But, to be honest, I haven't tried real hard. I mean, I don't like feeling like I'm talking to a group of people with my pants unzipped, what's the rush? By the way, I've actually had my pants fall down in front of a group of people two or three times and that's bad enough (don't ask). And that doesn't count the incident in the hospital during my stem cell transplant.

Well, it's all fun and games until you find out someone you've been meaning to contact, someone you've known how to find all along, is very ill and may, in fact, not survive.

Here's what upsets me most about that situation at this point in my life: you'd think that someone with an incurable, albeit treatable, form of cancer would understand that you need to take care of these things now. Haven't I admonished others about doing it? What kind of person in my position fails to do that. Well, me, as it turns out.

I got word earlier this week that the man I have considered one of the most important in my life, since I first met him back in 1972, was sick and there was a good chance he might not recover. Damn! And double damn! All the excuses you've used for not getting in contact for 15 or so years sound... lame? Stupid? Embarrassing? All of the above and more? Yes.

As I tried to decide what to do about it I came up with a solution: don't bother. Don't bother with excuses; there are no good ones. “But, I have cancer.” Yeah, and as my mother would have said, “Have ye lost the powerrrrr o' yer hands?” Well, no, mum. “And whit aboot the otherrrr 14 years?” Yes, mum.

It was a horrible feeling, worse even than when my father died. My dad had been unavailable to me for most of my life; initially his choice, eventually mine (“The Cat's in the Cradle” kind of thing). But this man has guided me through so many difficult times in my life that they defy counting. Why did we drift apart. Me. That's kind of what I meant by thinking having cancer would make me a better person. I would deal with situations like this much better.

Well, no. But, then word came that he had made a truly surprising recovery, and had actually been moved to a facility for rehabilitation. I felt like Scrooge on Christmas morning. So, I did... nothing. Suppose I lay my feelings out and nothing comes back? Oy.

That lasted about another day. I swallowed my pride, ego, embarrassment, whatever and laid it all out to him in a letter. I told him all the things he had done for me, how important he had always been to me, and, yes, I told him that I loved him. I even mailed the letter right away.

Now, not to be crude, but I just need to keep my pants zipped and wait.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”