Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Well... How did I get here?

So, tell me this. Do you find life- sometimes- to be... odd? Funny, but not ha ha. Hard to understand? Best to be accepted as is, with no more thinking than absolutely necessary?

This is a sincere question, or questions. I just find life puzzling sometimes, even when its pieces should make up some obvious whole.

I just lost another friend to cancer. His name is/was Neil and he was a nice man. I spent some time with him and another friend a couple of weeks ago and, frankly, he seemed to be doing well. He had previously had surgery to attack his lung cancer, and now it was back. But he didn't seem overly concerned about it. I got the feeling he thought all would be well.

Now, was that because that's how I wanted it to be, or how it was? Was it how he wanted it to be and was successful in presenting a wish as fact? Or did things just get rapidly worse, regardless of what anybody thought or considered?

He was a man of true faith. He knew God was there for him. One of the nice things he used to do- at least I thought it was nice- was pass out little... em... things, for lack of a better word, to people. Medallions, coins, little gee gaws... things. The common thread among them was that they were designed to make the recipient feel better. One might have had a positive saying on it, some few words to help prevent a stumble by someone he cared about. It might have been something with a religious theme or overtone to help people, literally, keep the faith.

I didn't get the sense it was a one size fits all sort of thing. Usually what he gave fit the person he gave it too, and was something that was likely to give the recipient a boost right there, right then.

Let's face it. We don't really “know” other people, do we? At best, we compare our insides to their outsides and, in the end, only know what we know about them. But, I think people really liked Neil, and his wife Kim. I know Sheri and I did. I know, too, that we wished he could stop smoking, once and for all. You know I've written about that before, though. My father couldn't stop, neither could my sister. It seems that Neil couldn't either.

But, though we had that in common, what was really at the heart of the relationship that Neil and I had began with the fact that we were both about the same age and both born in Scotland. More than that, we were born, as near as I can figure, about 25 miles apart. Greenock was his hometown, while mine was Johnstone. Growing up in Scotland in the early 50s and 60s virtually guaranteed that there was no way we were ever going to run into one another, never mind develop any sort of relationship.

Also, Neil was Catholic and I was Protestant. You have no idea what a big deal that was back then. It may still be for all I know. There was some mixing, but there wasn't a lot.

So, anyway, there Neil and I are growing up a few miles apart and at some point, both families moved to America and at some other point, as adults, we each moved to Maine and then at some other other point, we each moved to be back within about 25 miles of one another again.

Don't you find that... odd? Interesting? Funny, but not ha ha? What do you suppose the odds would be against that happening? If some cosmic bookmaker, in let's say, 1958, decided to make book on the chance of Neil and Jim living within 25 miles of each other, in Maine, United States of America, in 2015... don't you think you could get pretty good odds against that happening? Like eleventy seven gazillion to one?

And, oh sure... Let's also say that we would both end up with cancer in 2015? Whaaaat? If you read that in a work of fiction, don't you think you would be hard put to believe it? Don't you think you, and critics and darn near anyone else who read about that, would say, 'Nah. That's too much to expect us to swallow. I'm willing to suspend disbelief, but only so far.”

And yet... I'm glad it was true. I didn't know Neil super well, but I knew him well enough to be glad I did; well enough to see some of the encouragement and hope he offered to others, including Sheri and me. Look, he and I had both come a very long way to end up with cancer in a wee town in Maine. Still, I do know this: as far as Neil is concerned, a lot of people are very happy that he made that journey. It made a positive difference in their lives that wouldn't end just because he died this week. Besides, a lot of us have gee gaws we can pull out to remind us of the man.

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, September 17, 2015

Fair, schmair

So, here's the thing. You don't really need to put a lot of thought into to it to understand that the belief that life should be fair causes more sorrow than virtually any other factor of our daily lives.

We had to put our cat Kenzie to sleep at the end of last week. There was nothing else to be done, not in fairness to her and her quality of life. She had been born with a birth defect that was going to limit the number of days she would be around to bring happiness to those about her. That was a fact, immutable and harsh. She did not have a full supply of intestine and that was enough to end her life way too soon.

Obviously, this has been very hard of Sheri and me. I hope you know how much a family pet can make difficult situations bearable, hard times less so. That would be a terrible thing to miss out on.

We got Kenzie from the Humane Association in October, just as, unbeknown to us, we were about to enter a difficult phase of my illness and life in general. Sheri had been ready to bring a new cat into our home much sooner, but I was resistant, still suffering from the loss of our Samantha. Still, it was time.

And what a great decision it was. There were times that having Kenzie in our home and in our lives made feeling bad, or sorry for ourselves, virtually impossible...

My point here is not to be maudlin. If you are a pet lover, you know only too well how disheartening the loss can be. I'd rather deal with fairness, loss, hope, faith... you know, all the big ones.

To me, the biggest issue with believing life should be fair is that it makes you think stupid thoughts and if you can think 'em, you can say 'em. For example, Sheri has type one diabetes and I have an incurable form of cancer. We were doing OK with it, and we were able to bring Kenzie in to brighten our lives, and she did. Given that, does it seem fair to you that she would then be taken from us? Does it seem fair to you that she was born without a genuine chance to grow old? Probably not. But, if I'm not looking for life to be fair, I'm not having these thoughts; I'm not saying these things.

My sense of hope has taken a battering lately. No matter what the doctors try, I feel nauseous every day. My wife struggles with her diabetes. And while the big things are hard enough to take, it's the drip, drip, drip of the endless small things that can drive one daft.

How did you feel the last time you were trying to sleep and one of the faucets in the bathroom kept dripping, just one drop at a time? And it was a night when you were exhausted and couldn't stop thinking and every “bad” thing you had ever done picked that night to show up for your nightly thought parade. Each and every loss, big or small, showed up right in your face. “Think about me!!!” “Hey, remember me??? Wasn't this horrible?!?!?” “Life sucks and then you die. You know that now, right??!!”

And drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, drip.

You're wide awake, a scream forming in your mouth, brain and heart. You wish you had a pressure valve like the one Popeye used, just as you thought his muscles were going to blow up.

But, you don't.

Fair? Don't make me laugh. Life is really hard. You have to go through it each day with absolutely no guarantee that “things” are going to get better; that those four bad things that happened are going to be evened out by four really cool, wonderful things. Life is an adult dose, an adult portion, brothers and sisters.

So why bother, right? In this latest round of heavy thinking, I've come to see that we “bother” because it's what we do. It's what makes people wonderful, exceptional. Show me a person, any person, and I'll show you someone who is doing the best they can with what they've got... each and every day. It doesn't mean you're going to like them, or that they're going to be anyone's idea of successful. It just means they're going to be brave, whether they know it or not, and whether they want to be or not.

Right now we miss our Kenzie so bad it hurts. But, we've already started focusing on the happiness she brought into our lives; the happiness we knew because of her. And that's why, ultimately, life being fair or not, doesn't really matter. Added up, we're probably going to find more happiness than sorrow; more laughs than tears. I guess I can live with that.

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, September 10, 2015

Another Labor Day, another health crisis

I think Ye Olde Knights of Yore had a pretty decent idea: cover yourself top to bottom, side to side, in armor and challenge anyone to hurt you.

True, it restricted your ability to interact with your fellow humans. Sure, that was the point, in terms of bad guys. But it also meant you weren't enjoying physical touches from the ladies, or your other friends for that matter. You also were at the mercy of the people who kept you from falling over and who helped work the crane to get you up on your horse, which probably hated you and wished you'd get your fat butt off of him.

And speaking of falling over... if you did, you were screwed. I mean, falling on your knees was bad enough simply because of the effort it took to return your seat to an upright position. But if you fell on your back? Authorities might as well come and draw the white chalk “corpse” outline around your body.

I guess it wasn't so bad when you were in jousting tournaments and such. There were do-overs and second chances galore. If you were on your back, things could be halted while they got the crane out and hoisted you back up, if that's what you wanted. If you took a bad enough beating, you could simply be dragged off by your feet and fixed up to fight another day.

Yeah. So all that physical protection had its moments, but it didn't really do much for the important part, did it. Your heart and your emotions were wide open to assault and it didn't take the medieval equivalent of a can opener to get at your vital spot.

I got to thinking about this when our cat Kenzie got sick over the holiday weekend. Almost two years to the day after I found out I was sick, it became apparent something was seriously wrong with this pet who had become so dear to us.

Two years of carefully constructed top to bottom and side to side armor shattered in no time. This time, I did ask why us? Why did this wonderful, warm little animal have to be sick? Isn't it enough that Sheri has type one diabetes? That I have an incurable form of cancer? That it was less than a year since we recovered enough hope after the loss of our beloved cat Samantha to try again to allow a third into our daily struggles? Evidently not, brothers and sisters. Evidently not.

Being a holiday weekend, we needed to travel about an hour to have her seen on an emergency basis. The hospital wasn't sure what was up, but gave her fluids and anti-nausea medicine and sent her home to see if that did the trick. It didn't.

I've been feeling pretty sick myself lately, so it fell to Sheri to drive even further to an emergency facility in Portland, by herself. Friends may well have been willing to go with her, but she needed to do this on her own.

The news got worse. Evidently Kenzie had been born with incomplete small intestines. That was OK, it seems, until they sort of telescoped into themselves and a portion of them became damaged enough that she had to have 16 inches removed. She stopped breathing during the operation and it was great work by the vet staff to bring her back.

Will she be OK? Will she be able to come home? We do not know. We call down there multiple times a day and, so far, she has been showing progress; small but consistent. Sheri and I have taken the hope and faith we were using for my cancer, and shifted it to Kenzie and her care. We could probably divide it up between us; there should be enough to go around. But frankly, it doesn't feel that way just now. We've managed with what we've been dealt, and I think we've managed pretty well. But this just seems like “piling on.” I know it's not, and I know Sheri and I will be back to being “strong” and “brave” and all that, but right now? Right now I don't have the energy for it, and I'm not sure Sheri does either, but you'd have to ask her yourself.

Speaking of Sheri, let me tell you two things about this latest assault on our family; things that may make clearer my claim that, despite my own health issues, I feel incredibly fortunate, like the you-know-what on earth (hint- Lou Gehrig).

When she had to take Kenzie to the first vet, an hour away, it was on one of the hottest days of the summer. One of our cars has air conditioning, but a manual transmission. The other has windows and is an automatic. Sheri decided to take the automatic because her gear shifting isn't as smooth as she would like it to be and she didn't want to keep jostling Kenzie while shifting gears. It meant she was going to be hot and uncomfortable, but there was no hesitation. She could direct air to keep Kenzie cool and she would just deal with her own discomfort.

The second thing involved a call to the vet after we were told that Kenzie was improving and was at least slightly responsive. Sheri asked the vet: “If you put your phone on speaker and put it next to her, do you think she would know we were talking to her and telling her how much we loved her?” It seems to me that someone like that should get an extra layer of protection over their heart if they're going to give it in love so freely. Doesn't seem to work that way, though.

So, here we are trying to regroup and give life another finger in the eye, rather than vice versa. And it seems that we're managing to get it done. We aren't going to be beaten, not if love has anything to do with it. Three points make a triangle and everyone knows a triangle is one of earth's toughest structures.

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

It's that time of year again... already

We are now just a couple of days short of the official second anniversary of the day I found out I have cancer, multiple myeloma to be precise.

What a couple of years those have been, if I may say so myself, which I guess I just did.

But you can say the same thing too. Right? Haven't the past two years been full of ups and downs, fear and fun, happy and sad for you? That's what life is like, brothers and sisters. We all get our own personal roller coaster and can ride it as often as we want. Unlike their amusement park counterpart though, whether you take or ride on this particular coaster or not isn't up to you. There's no line showing minimum height requirement. Breathing are you? Step right up and take the ride of your life!

Now, I will say that there is very little that has happened during the last two years that I would have anticipated on the day I got my diagnosis. When my doctor said I had multiple myeloma, my first thought was, “What the hell is that?”, followed by, “Did he just say it's incurable?”

All the other initial thoughts and emotions tumbled in on top of those like an unsuccessful game of Jenga.

Obviously, I wanted to know what the prognosis was, but not really; only if it was going to be good. I waited for him to say, and the longer he took, the shorter I figured my time left was going to be. Turns out, he had other things to talk about and in the end not he, nor I, nor Sheri really wanted a guesstimate on this cancer's effect on my lifeline.

I was sick and we were going to do everything in our power to counter whatever moves cancer might have, though I became unfond of any comparisons to chess. This was my life we were talking about, so keep your little horsey thingies to yourself, thank you very much. “Pawn” cliches were also frowned upon.

So, it was September 2013, I was 65 years old and had a rare form of cancer. Now what? I suppose Sheri and I could have looked ahead and seen an endless parade of doctor's appointments, medical procedures and other crappy stuff, especially since Sheri had already gone through it with our son Jason when he was a baby. But the truth was, we just didn't feel like it. Really, one challenge at a time was more than enough. Besides, this really put us into areas where we couldn't possibly have anticipated what was going to happen next.

Initially, a stem cell transplant was in the background, not really talked about, while a combination of chemotherapy and steroids was the treatment of choice. Then, my oncologist retired, my new oncologist and my doctor from Boston joined the team and a stem cell transplant moved front and center, “especially for someone who was otherwise healthy as you,” meaning me.

It was at this same time that I found out I had a damaged chromosome that could affect how my cancer responded to treatment. Oh well, nothing we could do about that; over the side that goes.

We had no idea how much had to be done before the transplant. Drugs had to be administered to bolster the healthy stem cells I did have; that actually hurt. We had to make all these arrangements with the hospital and Sheri needed to prepare to spend the better part of a month in Boston.

I had to have all the blood in my system passed through a machine that removed enough healthy stem cells to go ahead with the transplant. Then I was given killing doses of chemotherapy, my stem cells (sea monkeys as we were calling them by this time) were put back in and we waited to see if they would thrive, which they did.

My hair fell out and my friends and family gave me tremendous support; those were predictable. I spent almost three weeks in isolation in the hospital and had to avoid being around people for another four months after I got home. Those were both harder than I thought they would be.

Given how well the transplant went, I had no idea how much trouble an unknown stomach issue would bring, and continues to bring now. That was definitely an instance of plan the plans, not the outcome. We have struggled and fought with that for months and it still continues to wear me down... bad.

After all, two years ago I was looking at dealing with cancer, fully sure that whatever that might mean, we would deal with it and move on. Well, as it turns out, we are dealing with it. It's the moving on part that's at issue. My medical staff continues to to delighted and amazed at how well my body has reacted to my cancer treatment. My monthly checkups show that the myeloma is truly inactive.

I've even come to realize (about two hours ago, seriously) that my cancer being incurable is a bit of a positive thing. So many people chase exotic cures, often fronted by charlatans who have nothing to sell but false hope ... I've never felt the need to do that. Incurable, but treatable; I focus on the treatable bit.

This other thing though... But, here's the way I am trying to look at it. Two years ago we were on the brink of this scary unknown called multiple myeloma and we have weathered that in stellar fashion. As far as the stomach problem... I guess I'll just keep moving my horsey thingie, sacrifice a few pawns and remove that from our list of worries as well.

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