God the Creator is a plumber… or maybe a gardener

Prolog 1

I have recently had the privilege and deep enjoyment of volunteering various services at a nearby Carmelite Monastery of cloistered nuns.(1) The types of services I provide might be subsumed under the title of “Jack-of-all-trades” (Johannes factotum). They are variable and various.
There is much to reflect upon in the relationship that has formed between me and the community, as well as in the variety of tasks that have been assigned me. Most recently, I was asked to make repairs to the somewhat complicated and undocumented 100-year-old water line serving the large community house and gardens. Plumbing is therefore, the subject of this cancerblog.

 

Prolog 2

But first, I must apologize to subscribers to this blog.
I have demonstrated what may be a widespread trait to prefer pondering and carping about complaints, challenges, puzzles and frightening experiences. Once such issues have been neutralized either by being resolved or because one has become reconciled and accustomed to the “new normal”, people (or at least, “I”) find less motivation to reflect and write about the comparatively settled situation after the chaos of uncertainty and insecurity.
I fear I may have left off posting new essays just at the nadir of what appeared to be largely unexplained and puzzling reactions to my combined treatments for various physical ailments. I feel an obligation to redress the impression I may have, unintentionally, left upon my readers.
Not all the ailments about which I pondered, were directly related to my cancer. But each of the treatment remedies complicated my chemotherapy. So it was a messy set of circumstances that beset me at the time.
The good news is that most of the several complications have been resolved (save, perhaps one: an unexpected “breathlessness” following even very mild exertion.) Apart from being prematurely out of breath from time to time, I feel well, excepting days I experience what I would call intermittent, predictable, and completely manageable side effects from my chemo treatments. My oncologist has modified my chemotherapy protocol. She has reduced my dose by 20% (no doubt minimizing negative side effects).
Better news, still, my periodic CT scans and x-rays conifirm that the treatment is demonstrably effective. My cancer tumors are shrinking, and there is no visible evidence of the cancer metastasizing to other parts of my body.

After a recent welcome and pleasant visit, a dear friend described me to a mutual colleague, writing to him, “Chet may be on his way out, but, honestly, you’d never know it from our visit.”
From the very day of conception we are all, in a way, already “on our way out”. John Lennon described it in a thoughtful way when he penned the lyrics, “He not busy being born, is busy dying.”(2)  I would like to believe that the way my colleague and friend judged that my appearance means I reflected my intention to aspire to the converse of Lennon’s cautioning expression; i.e. to keep busy at “being born”.
To the bad news. After reducing the dose of my chemo, my oncologist prescribed that I report to the Infusion Clinic for a three- to four-hour IV Infusion every other week, indefinitely.
“Every other week” seemed daunting enough, but the word “indefinitely” struck Monica and me as ominous and ambiguous. “Indefinitely” could mean my oncologist expected my treatments to be efficacious for only a limited period of time. Perhaps, statistically, she thought I might be expected to succumb to the cancer sooner than later, and would shortly traverse the mysterious path to “the way out”.
Alternatively, my oncologist might have used the word to suggest that my treatment could succeed in keeping my cancer at bay for years to come, having reached a kind of equilibrium between my cancer’s imperative to expand and grow, in contrast to the chemotherapeutic mandate to surround and contain my cancer and restrain its expansion. In this matter I choose to believe in the second explanation of her words.

What I have learned from plumbing at the Monastery

Few people are unaware of the ditty “Righty-tighty, Lefty-loosy”. My Dad did not know it so he never taught it to me. Instead, he used the metaphor of a clock to teach me that tightening a jar lid, or connecting a pipe required that I turn it “clockwise”. To open a jar, or disconnect a pipe required that I apply “counterclockwise” twisting pressure. After repeated instructions of whatever type, and through personal experience, the proper turning motion becomes ingrained and is second-nature to most children around the world. We all take it for granted.
I’m pretty good at solving those puzzles requiring a person to visualize in 3D, a 2D diagram of complicated objects. The goal of such puzzles is to identify two of five or more drawings that correctly illustrate the shape of one object viewed from different perspectives. Three or more of the drawings describe different objects. Only two among them describe a single object from different views.
Though proficient at the puzzles, I occasionally need tactile help when confronting a faulty pipe break in a complicated water valve manifold.(3) I find myself looking at the assemblage, unconsciously twisting my hand in a clockwise or counterclockwise motion to help me visualize what part I require in order to join a replacement pipe segment to an existing unbroken fixture.

Handedness. Pipes, jar lids, soda-pop screw caps, screw-on wine bottle tops, solvent container caps, automobile gasoline caps, moisturizer cream tops, baby bottle tops, the wind-up spring of a Grandfather clock… even all the fittings for the tubing from the infusion bags containing my chemo solutions to my surgically-implanted access port… all share and conform to the ditty from which our knowledge was inculculated about which direction “opens” and its opposite: which direction “closes”. All over the world it is the same turnings that do the trick.(4)
Besides “handedness” things that twist on or twist off have three other attributes worth mentioning: thread-count or “pitch”, gender, and diameter.
Pitch reminds us that a screw (or pipe, or any of its relations as shown above) is—at its source—an application of a wedge. Wedges are thought to have been first employed by Egyptian engineers in antiquity. And the wedge is considered to be one of six ancient “simple machines” developed by human ingenuity.(5)
A wedge is a solid rectangle that has a triangular elevation on one side. It has the useful property of changing the direction of force by 90º. This means that if you place a wedge under an object and apply a horizontal force to the wedge, it will cause a vertical force equivalent to the changing height of the wedge along the dimension of the wedge’s hypotenuse.
On a length of pipe, twisting threads contain the action of a wedge. The grooves (or threads) at either end of a prepared pipe are, in fact, spiral applications of wedges. Wedges, whether arranged in spirals or straight, perform exactly the same useful function. Admirably, when two wedges are combined opposite one another–as they are on a pipe and the fitting into which the pipe is to be screwed, the effect is doubled. The force required to twist or twist off is efficiently halved.
The threads on the end of a pipe can, themselves, be insized very closely together (lots of grooves within a given dimension), or coarsly (fewer grooves in the same given dimension). The number of threads describes the pitch. Pitch modifies the amount of force needed to achieve a specific vertical displacement.
Gender. Naturally enough, gender is commonly described as “male” or “female”. Male gender components fit ”into” a receptor. Female gender components “fit around” a receptor.
Diameter. Diameter defines the size of a screwable object. Specifying the diameter can be frustrating. Pipe diameters are defined in two ways. One way reports the inside diameter of the space within the pipe walls. A second way is to report the outside diameter of the pipe. The first measurement is important to guarantee sufficient flow volume while the second may be critical for planning how to route pipes through tight spaces.

In the situation I faced in the Monastary gardens, I needed to replace a broken length of water pipe along the courses through the gardens. I obtained a new length of pipe matching the handedness, pitch, diameter, flow, and length of the original. I removed a broken stub of the original pipe from its fitting and screwed one end of my replacement pipe into it. After attaching the replacement pipe it might seem intuitive that I could reverse my gaze 180º along the replacement pipe and repeat the motion; intending to twist the other end, clockwise, into another existing fitting from which the remaining stub of the broken pipe would have to be removed.
Intuition would—in this case—fail me. The original pipe—had it been left unbroken—would have had right-handed threads all along as originally installed. In repairing the break, I couldn’t simply reverse the handedness during a repair (without a fitting called a “union”.)(6)
Furthermore, had I “tried” the reverse-handedness twisting motion would have meant that as I screwed the pipe at one end, it would simultaneously be unscrewed at the other end which would have gotten me nowhere.)
Looking back along the circuitous and very long extent of the water line in the Monastery gardens I could discern that the run was composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of fittings, turnings, and pipe lengths. Moreover, as originally installed, all the connections were made with right-turning threads all the way back to the water meter, and indeed, all the way from the meter back to the municipal water reservoir or other ultimate source of water.
This regressive consistency reminded me of an ageless Hindu myth (echoed in variant forms in China and the East, and repeated even in Native American Cheyenne Indian cosmology and creation myths).(7) The surprisingly widespread mythical explanation of the movement of the Earth asserts that the Earth is carried on the back of a (seemingly quite robust) tortoise. Four elephants, facing the cardinal points on the compass, stand astride the tortoise’s back. The elephants assume the initial burden of holding the Earth. The tortoise supporting the elephants holding the Earth on their backs, stands on another tortoise’s back, and that one stands on another tortoise’s back, which in its turn stands on yet another compliant tortoise’s back, and so on, etc. ad infinitum. As far as the myth asserts, it’s “turtles all the way down”.(8)

Three turtles of varying sizes stacked on top of each other with the largest at the bottom                                                                           Photo from Wikipedia

In plumbing, it’s right-handed threads all the way back (and all the way forward, too).

Plumbers, as well as Johannes factotums, are thoroughly aware of what I’ve explained above (perhaps too exhaustively for most readers). Still, it is curious—especially for those of us capitalists accustomed to an inexhaustible supply of options—that, even in antiquity, engineers had defined a solution for plumbing applications by arbitrarily choosing a single option to the exclusion of alternatives. The chosen option (right-handed connections and fittings) quickly spread and eventually was adopted, universally, for screws, bolts, threads, and all manner of fixtures based on the simple machine, the wedge.
Scientist and author David Deutsch describes this situation in his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World(9) by explaining two limitations to genetic inheritance. (1) nature adopts the simplest workable option that survives the test of “survival of the fittest.” (2) once a genetic function is found to be of use to an organism for sustaining life and propagating itself, that genetic function thereafter resists modification. In fact, most of the genetic modifications that are later introduced to a functioning characteristic are promptly rejected and the original simple solution continues to be isolated from further amendment.

God, the Creator (“Mother Nature” if you prefer) introduced similar limitations against superfluous options into all life on Earth. Evolution capitalizes on adopting particular traits that will contribute critically for survival and propagation. There is seldom a genetic choice offered to the survival of the fittest. (No organism is provided with cells that will produce two equally useful options for, let us say, optical chemical mechanics for sight. Nor are options provided as to where to position eyes on a body). Only a single workable instruction is passed down per organism, even though Nature provides a proliferation of choices among the world’s organisms. It would simply take too much energy to follow a multiple-choice decision tree, and the result might be chaotic incompatibility across a species.
Remarkably, in our lifetime, scientists have discovered a fundamental example of such restraint in the DNA in all organisms living on Earth. The DNA that encodes life on Earth has been verified to be universally and exclusively evolved with a right-handed DNA double helix. All life on Earth shares this same characteristic!(10)
It is theoretically possible that life could have adopted a left-handedness for DNA. But it didn’t.
It is far less likely that some form of latitude could have arisen, letting individual organisms choose to have their DNA encoded for either right or left. But that would have resulted in widespread incompatibility and was not selected for, either. So neither of the alternatives evolved, not left-handedness nor “optional handedness”. Once the right-handed double helix had evolved, nothing altered its development further. And all life on Earth has adopted a right-handed double helix for its DNA, just like plumbing has agreed on the standard of right-handedness.

From seemingly mundane bits of work in the Monastery (this time, in their Gardens), I’ve been blessed by thoughts that make me better appreciate so many of the things I take for granted. Some things, like the handedness of our DNA, we benefit from but have no power over. Other things, like the Sister’s choice to pursue a life more solitary and prayerful than the world typically provides—are under our control.
It is easier to reflect on my blessings than it is to grouse about my complaints when wrapped in the ambiance of such a grace-filled enclosure.

 

Sources

(1) Strictly speaking, the Monastery is better referred to as a “Carmel” since it is home to a Roman Catholic Order of Carmelite Discalced (sandaled or bare-footed) cloistered nuns.  The Carmelite Order finds its historical beginnings in hermetical communities that arose around Mount Carmel in the Crusader States in the Holy Land around the 12th century.
(2) https://genius.com/Bob-dylan-its-alright-ma-im-only-bleeding-lyrics
(3) manifold = a collection of closely-spaced mechanical valves, each controlling a defined series of, for example, sprinkler-heads or remote garden faucets.
(4) Although there are specialized examples where the rule-of-thumb does not apply, I, myself, have only confronted two non-conforming examples in my lifetime of Johannes factotum work. The screw holding my saw blade to its spindle on my circular saw is one. In that instance the rotating left-hand spin of the spindle might dangerously loosen any conforming right-handed screw holding the blade to the spindle. The force of the rotation would likely counteract the resistance of the screw. So a left-handled screw is used for this particular purpose to eliminate the conflict.
Another example is that of a turnbuckle. Turnbuckles are purposely constructed of both right-handed and left-handed turnings to enable modifying tension along a rod or flexible rigging.
(5) http://idahoptv.org/sciencetrek/topics/simple_machines/facts.cfm
(6) In audio electrical wiring, analogous to a pipe’s purpose, an adapter equivalent to a “union” is more descriptively called a “gender changer”. Changing gender is what a union accomplishes in the plumbing application I’m describing.)
(7) http://www.enricophil.it/tales/South_America/Scripts/tortoise.htm
(8) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down
(9) Deutsch, Peter, The Beginnings of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, Penguin, London, 2012. ISBN 978-08-140-27816-3
(10) https://phys.org/news/2014-09-dna-right-handed-helix.html

 

 

 

 

Extraordinary Medical Care

Summary

Last week, Monica and I reported for an appointment made for us with a euphemistically-called group of medical practitioners described to us as belonging to the “symptoms management consultation” team. We were surprised to read that our appointment was scheduled for a full 90 minutes, which left us with the impression we might be attending a group class or discussion group. But when our appointment time came we were ushered into a standard patient examination room. When the doctor arrived, the staff position embroidered on his lab coat indicated that our doctor was a member of Kaiser’s Palliative Care team. The time had come for us to talk.

Detail

Monica and I arrived for our appointment armed with all sorts of questions. We had experienced a kind of breakthrough dealing with my “sporadic wonkiness” and I wanted confirmation of our hypothesis that incipient dehydration might be at the root of my lightheadedness and dizziness upon standing. Earlier, our oncologist had noticed a slight abberation in my liver function lab results. As a consequence she had proactively ordered a bag of saline solution to be added to my chemo infusion protocol. The Infusion Nurse, meanwhile, had been monitoring my dizziness which continued after I arrived at the Clinic for my chemo infusion. When she saw the order, she exclaimed, “Good. This extra fluid will make you feel like a new man!” And so it did.

Dehydration is a tricky matter to diagnose. If I feel thirsty, it could be a sign that dehydration is near. If I don’t feel thirsty, that could be a signal. If I stop sweating when I should be sweating, it could signal I was lacking in fluids. Obviously, if I experienced a good deal of diahrrea (which is a common side-effect of chemo treatment) the rapid loss of fluids through the gastro-intestinal system could hasten the onset of dehydration. The most reliable indicator of dehydration turns out to be dizziness and lightheadedness upon standing. But those same symptoms can equally be caused by other ailments, so it was easy for both patient and doctor not to immediately realize that my dehydration was the underlying cause cause of my current lightheadedness.


Monica found some statistics that indicate how critical is fluid availability and why fluid balance for the body is so obviously important. She found that up to 60% of the human adult body is water. “According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158,” she quoted, “the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are a watery 31%.”

The “symptoms management” doctor proceeded to enlighten us about fluid intake and electrolyte balances. He reviewed my experiences to help us corroborate what we suspected to be true about the probable role of dehydration for my most objectionable side effect experience.(1)

Monica and I were both impressed by the patient thoroughness with which our doctor responded to the rest of our numerous questions fully and completely, all the while evaluating, I suspect, our state of mind and my state of health.

After we had exhausted asking questions from our individual lists, our doctor introduced the topic for which our appointment had truly been made, unbeknownst or all unaware to Monica or me.

“You realize, of course,” he began, “that what all of us, here, are doing for you is only treating your symptoms. Ultimately,” he continued, “barring any accidents or unexpected lightning strikes—you will die of this cancer. It might be a good time for you to think about (and discuss with your family) how you wish to die. What kind of care would you choose to have given to you at the end?”

Our doctor asked this question so candidly, directly and respectfully that I was momentarily taken aback.

I wanted to answer glibly, thinking to include in my answer the catch-all pseudo-sophisticated phrase, “After all, we all have to die.” I caught myself, just in time, recognizing that in this context it would have been a cop-out to say so. It would have been a denial that we were discussing a disease from which, I, personally, will most likely die; possibly earlier than later. The doctor was compassionately opening up a chance to confront end-of-life issues.


I have never given much thought about death. As a Roman Catholic, and inspired by my entire educational experience, I’ve considered death as an inexorable part of life; something natural to expect. The formula of the balance of energy suggests that when my body decomposes it will return to the earth certain minerals, chemicals and energy which the earth can utilize for the sustenance of new life. My faith doesn’t forbid my believing that my body is subject to the laws of Nature.

Science and religion, regrettably, are often cast as opposite antagonists. But such an antagonism is not entirely borne out by the historical record which shows how many experiments and scientific discoveries were advanced by church-men and -women. Perhaps it is because at the point of death, with its naturally heavy emotional overload, science and religion have their most electric disagreement about whether there is life after death; whether there exists some spiritual “soul” identified as “me” that persists after my life on this earth is finished.

It is simply non-productive to pursue this regrettable dispute because it distracts us from a better path of inquiry and because neither side will ever be able to prove its hotly debated polarized position on this subject… not in this life, at any rate.

It would seem to me far better to consider how rich and varied are our ways of learning and knowing, and to endeavor to build upon and expand them. Just by carefully observing nature, I can discover animal species that hear better, see beyond human capability, feel (with whiskers, tails or body hairs), and recognize the nature of their surroundings differently than I do. It is increasingly apparent that botanical life has completely different but impressive means of communication and even collaboration.

I share my creation with these other species. It is not unlikely that humans could learn and improve ways of knowing, that are presently only latent in us. The most important realization is that while humans learn through the application of conscious rationality to solve problems we face, we also learn by deepening spiritual sensibilities and relationships, as well… and each provides us with different growth.

Nor is the latter simply a matter of employing our emotions and feelings to achieve a (perhaps, illusory) sense of spirituality. It is, instead, that we should be open to relationship with the world around us, as well as with the world and with its Creator beyond us. That openness can reveal to us another dimension of perception, sharpen our sense of interconnectedness and let us explore our complicated relationship with our Creator. These activities help us peel away the onion layers of fear, self-protection, envy, and all the other consequences of sinfulness with which humans tend to wrap themselves. Openness to our spiritual dimension, relationship with God, and our created nature, throws open the possibility of dialog, self-introspection, humility, altruism, empathy and all the other graces and virtues with which the Creator has imbued each and every one of us.


I have been especially graced by continuing to be involved in a decade-long project that is just coming to a close. It involves the digitization of, and the making of a facsimile printed edition of a three-volume Bible once owned and annotated by the hand of Johann Sebastian Bach, himself.

Bach produced what most agree is among the most sublime music to enhance scripture and enrich the liturgical seasons of the Church calendar. Observing in the pages of Bach’s Bible the detailed attentiveness to the selection of readings Bach annotated by hand, one gains a deeper respect for how carefully Bach sought to combine his intellectual rational mind and his musically-sensitive creativity in presenting the words recorded in his Bible in an unforgettable and moving way.

Bach’s music adds a dimension of knowledge about the words. Scripture gives greater concreteness to his music.

On the recommendation of the principal leader of the Calov Bible facsimile project, I recently signed up, online, to receive notices from an impressive effort spearheaded by the Netherlands Bach Society. The Society aspires to produce new recordings of each of Bach’s thousands of compositions, long or short, published or fragmentary. They attempt to release one composition each week. Each composition is impeccably recorded and videographed. The releases are typically accompanied by a short commentary on the composition, a live interview with a performer or conductor, and a libretto in both Bach’s original language and in English translation. One can read the words while listening to the performance of each piece.

This week’s new release brought a Christmas dual-chorus motet(2) that seemed perfectly timed for my reflections. The first quotation is from one of the few places in the Bible where we hear God using direct address to speak directly to us. God could be facing me in the Infusion Clinic.(3) Bach’s music underscores the dynamic between trepidation and comfort.

First, God says, directly to me, “Fear not”.

Immediately thereafter He embraces me, the listener, with a bear hug: “for I am thy God.”

And again, in case we’ve missed the point, He says, “be not dismayed” (because God knows that we are truly distressed when confronting illness or being unable to comprehend the answer to our “Why?”).

Following immediately is the prompt explanation for why we should be at peace. It is a mild chiding and an instruction: “for I am thy God… I will strengthen thee and help thee; I will uphold thee…”

It is the interplay of fear and confidence that Bach underscores with his joyous music.(4) The short motet is joyous because of the inspirational message of the text, just as the announcement to the shepherds at Bethlehem opens similarly with the words “Be not afraid…” but announces the birth of the Christ-child. The joy in the motet is in the personal relationship with God that the prophet writes about, and in the confidence that, however low we may feel, God will support us through it. The motet, is known as the “Christmas motet”. But it may have been composed as a funeral melody. It works just as well in both circumstances.

Note the concluding words chosen by Bach for this motet. They are a sigh of relief and a (re)commitment of love for our Creator. The last verses are overlaid with mystery (for it is true that one thing Bach is not, is superficial or simple). This time Bach explores the mystery of the loving entanglement of Creator with creature, as in the last lines of the motet: “Let me… let me attain to where thou me and I thee may lovingly embrace.”

Following are the complete words of the motet. Following the words, is a link to the online performance(5):

Fear not, for I am with thee,
be not dismayed, for I am thy God.
I will strengthen thee and help thee,
I will uphold thee with the right hand
of my righteousness.

Fear not,
for I have redeemed thee,
I have called thee by thy name;
thou art mine.

Lord, my shepherd, fount of all joys!
Thou art mine, I am thine,
no one can part us.
I am thine, for thou hast given
thy life and thy blood
for my sake in death.

Thou art mine, for I embrace thee,
and will not, O my light,
let thee from my heart!
Let me, let me attain
to where thou me and I thee
may lovingly embrace.

http://allofbach.com/en/bwv/bwv-228/


Monica and have not answered the Palliative Care doctor’s specific question (for which question I am entirely grateful). But I know that the components to answering his question will have more to do with relationships than with medical interventions. I will hope, of course, to receive sufficient medical assistance not to struggle unnecessarily with death. But I have great confidence that as I die I will be surrounded by those whom I love and those who love me—whether they be physically present nearby or whether they will be physically distant and only spiritually by my side. We will experience death together. That will comfort me immeasurably.

I hope to meet my Creator infused with gratitude for every day of my life, for each person I have met—especially those closest to me. I wish to be humbly thankful for everything I have experienced and learned through generous teachers and friends. I want to be aware of the Creator’s bounteous generosity to me. I will long for His comforting embrace.

Let me, let me attain
to where thou me and I thee
may lovingly embrace.

 

Czet

_____________

(1) Since our meeting, I have been on a self-imposed fluid intake regimen. (In truth, the regimen is enforced by Monica rather than being mainly self-imposed.) Monica has researched and provides me with liters of enriched coconut water, and has stationed water bottles at all the spots in the house where I typically read, rest or play with Gracie. This makes  it unlikely that I will forget drinking my allotted volume of liquids. In the meantime, my sporadic wonkiness has abated, as has slightly, a persistent and annoying dry cough. Subduing the cough may require some more work. So, All is Well. I am tolerating the mild (thus far) common side effects, and am happy for the cessation of one of my more troubling items of concern.

(2) BWV 228 Fürchte Dich Nicht, Ich Bin Bei Dir

(3) I realize that, theologically, “God” has no gender. It is awkward to use some grammatical circumlocution to replace the masculine pronoun, so I have just kept it, with apologies.

(4) The website includes a conversation with the conductor as well as the principal soprano, in which they both discuss the need to vocalize the differences when singing the words of fear as contrasted with the words of comfort.

(5) According to the “All of Bach” website, the source of the text is as follows: “Verses 1 and 2 are taken from Isaiah 41:10 and 43:1; verses 3 and 4 are taken from Paul Gerhardt’s chorale ‘Warum solt ich mich denn  grämen’ (1653)”.

Thanksgiving reflection – learning to be thankful for cancer

Summary

In my last blog post I was surprised to recall my Dad’s constant reminder, “Nie daj się!” (Never surrender yourself!) I sought to discover what he really meant. Today, on the distinctly American holiday of Thanksgiving, I wondered if I could approach the Thanksgiving table ready to express thanksgiving, even for my cancer! It has, perforce, captured my, and my family’s, worried attention. But maybe there are ways in which it can be a catalyst for some understandings I might otherwise never have sufficient motivation to explore.

Detail

Step into any Catholic Church anywhere in the world. Look around and you will soon find (usually arranged around the perimeter of the nave) a series of 14 illustrated or carved images representing the last hours of Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. These images are used year-round for private meditation, the goal of which is to deepen one’s awareness of the unutterable suffering and agony of Jesus’ passion and death, and—simultaneously—to raise consciousness of one’s own personal sinfulness and subsequent participation in Jesus’ passion. (Sin, in this context, might be defined as an unthinking separation from God and my community. In place of these essential relationships, sin adopts the illusory centrality of my self, what most pleases me, and what most closely conforms to the idea of “on my terms.”)

During the last days of Lent—during what is called “Holy Week”—the “Stations of the Cross”, as they are called, become part of the Church’s public liturgy.

Clearly, this is serious spiritual fare. Yet meditations of this kind lead to, and are components of the central run-up to the great feast of Easter, the most important feastday of the Church calendar. Even for those who disdain spiritual or religious belief, the effort to come to terms with suffering is certainly beneficial. It can result in a deeper understanding of the role of suffering in our person, in nature, and in the world. Suffering, after all, is something with which each of us has intimate experience.

Contemporary Western society finds little value in suffering. In fact, avoiding suffering has become a cultural priority. I might be out-of-bounds to assert that everyone can and should welcome suffering. But it is not impertinent to suggest that for those who may be ready to confront their suffering head-on in spiritual meditation, doing so could prove valuable. The Stations of the Cross can act as a good catalyst… so can be something like a chronic life-threatening disease. Seen in this manner, I could be grateful for anything—even my illness—if it helped me understand who I am and how I want to live.


There’s a virtue to which we are taught to aspire. It is empathy. True empathy is hard to attain. It is too easy to slip into pity or disinterested observation, as if simply observing someone in distress and recognizing their pain is empathy. It is not.

Throughout my experience of cancer, I have been forced to come to terms with my vulnerability, dependence and embarrassment. For me, these have been serious obstacles to reconciling myself to the presence of cancer in my body. (This entirely self-centered reaction is precisely a manifestation of the sinfulness to which I earlier alluded.)

If—with an opposite outward-directed perspective—I observe the attentiveness of Monica and my children to me, in my “fallen condition”, I begin to see why empathy is a virtuous goal.

Let me use a couple of uncomfortable but decidedly real examples.

I don’t know if there is any connection at all with chemo and my olfactory sense. Both in Round One, several halcyon years ago, or this Round Two, that I’ve just begun, my sense of smell seems to have been aroused and heightened. Mainly, what I smell, I don’t like. The predominant offensive smell is, alas, me. I’m embarrassed by it. It is strange that I—who, after all, am intimately acquainted with my own familiar (and, to me, comfortingly pleasant) odors—no longer recognize myself in my normal odors. No doubt this is caused by my body as it naturally metabolizes my chemotherapeutic agents and rids itself of the toxic chemicals pumped into me over a length of hours and even days. Even my excretions contain their chemical smell. My breath and exhalations are different and unpleasant to me. Even my sweat smells odd. I hope no one else notices, but I can’t help believing that they, too, are offended.

I am also experiencing what Monica and I have come to call “Sporadic Wonkiness”. The worst of it is, Sporadic Wonkiness assails me from an unknown etiology. I cannot tell what it is, much less what is causing it. In practical terms, out of the blue, I feel myself being out of breath… but not really, because I am breathing in deeply and exhaling normally. Yet I feel an overall physical weakness, as if my breath is providing its essential oxygenation exclusively to my lungs and no further. The experience is often accompanied by a slight dizziness, even a distortion of my sight. I feel as if I might faint.

So far, the wonkiness has always passed, and I’ve returned to “normal”. But it doesn’t help, psychologically at least, that—just weeks ago—a dear friend/priest/art historian/professor in our parish had just begun his own protocol of chemotherapy. A couple months ago, he was driven home from his Clinic. While walking towards his room, he reportedly turned to his friend who had driven him from his hospital appointment, and said, “Gosh. I can’t seem to catch my breath.” Immediately thereafter, he quietly collapsed and died on the spot. I can’t help wondering if—just as unexpectedly—I, too, might leave this life in the same sudden manner.

“Sporadic Wonkiness” is undeniably frightening. It also frightens those, especially Monica, who observe me when I’m under the thrall of “wonkiness”.

I am dutifully reporting these symptoms both to my oncologist and my cardiologist in the hope they can discern a treatable condition of some kind that can be understood and amoeliorated. My reports are not enough for my wife and daughter.

Throughout this journey, Monica has steadfastly and generously tolerated and cheerfully accommodated herself to my odd culinary preferences, weird schedule, strangely unfamiliar—even to her—smells, and my occasional odd mood swings. But she has also actively participated in applying all her skills and ministrations—physical, psychological and spiritual—to assist me. Importantly, as she has added my special care to her activities, Monica has not allowed my care to displace her own social and professional commitments. This—particularly the latter, I think—is comforting to me.

Similarly, Krysia is not satisfied with what she sometimes considers my over-subtle reports to my doctors. Krysia confidently barges right in—as the capable advocate she is—writing or calling my doctors to say things like “You know those symptoms my Dad discussed with you? Don’t be fooled by his demeanor. They are not merely ‘occasional nuisances’. From my perspective, they are dangerously detrimental. Here’s what I know that he may not have communicated strongly enough. What should we be watching for? What else can we do to help you aggressively care for him?”

Such active involvement signals, to me, the expression of empathy. Empathy is not merely sympathetic observation, but a “living together with” someone in trouble or in pain, contributing when possible whatever may be truly helpful. A critical component of empathy is to avoid crossing the line by which the empathizer “loses themselves” in solving another’s difficulty. Such self-destructiveness is another by-product of sinfulness, one by which we proudly believe exclusively in personal power and claim we can alone accomplish more than is ever possible. Such self-aggrandizement is destined for failure. Scripture records that Jesus, himself, was tempted to believe in his complete and sufficient independence from his Father.

Having someone simply share a burden of illness is more than enough. It provides dignity to both the giver and receiver of empathetic ministrations.

Achieving true empathy is definitely a difficult balance. Being surrounded by empathetic caregivers is something for which I can be truly thankful on this Thanksgiving holiday… and every day.


Can I, in my turn and condition, develop empathy, myself? Here’s a difficult case.

At the very moment of this writing, innocent individuals and families in the cities of Mosul and Aleppo are suffering grievous murderous hostilities over which they have no control. They are victims of their condition in some real way not dissimilar to mine in relation to my cancer. Can my cancer help me empathize with those individuals?

I think the answer is “Yes”. But it takes some reflection to tease out “How?” And it will take humility if I cannot discern any empathetic physical action I can contribute.

The news media gives us sensational sound bytes. The reports of what alone is happening (much less attempting to explain why they are happening) are clearly disconcerting but altogether momentary, squeezed in, as news stories are, between advertising commercials for the newest car and the most attractive Black Friday sale items. Not a bit of empathy, understanding or helpful interpretation is to be found on TV or radio in such reports.

Instead, I can focus my attention on a nameless but personalized individual in his situation in an Aleppo neighborhood. I recognize that the man is exhausted with worry and fear just like I am… Really?…

My worry and fear is shared with my medical caregivers, family and friends. He has lost most of his family to bombardment in the past week and has not even been able to accord them the dignity of a burial. He is surrounded by people, all of whom are traumatized, as is he. There are abundant causes of his distress.

I have the luxury of distracting myself from my fears by contemplating and articulating my observations for myself and for those others who may be interested. He has no place for contemplation. Half his house has been ripped apart. His precious personal and family belongings are scattered in the rubble of what used to be the street where he lived.

If my “Sporadic Wonkiness” ultimately disables me, I am confident someone will call for an ambulance to take me to the closest ER where competent attention will be administered. He can be certain that no such attention will be available to him. Even were he to painfully strain his back or suffer a broken limb, there is no hospital or urgent care center in his neighborhood, much less pain-relieving medications; nothing more potent than the few aspirin tablets he discovers, unaccountably, in his pocket.

Worse still, my, by now, friend, hovers helplessly over his wife, who is wracked in pain from a deep gash in her ankle. He looks toward his granddaughter, trembling in the doorway; a horror-stricken look in her blankly-staring eyes. No mirth. No playfulness. No innocent childhood is being imprinted in her dear memory. He, who has been their reliable protector and provider, realizes he is helpless to offer any assistance whatsoever to either of his most beloved.

The realities of this one man’s life bring tears to my eyes. I am crying not only for the pain of his situation, but for my selfishness in ever thinking my own worries and fears were so vainly important to me.

I cannot do anything to physically help my fellow human in need. Like Job, I cannot even comprehend any rationale or fathom any explanation to account for why he is being tormented so. But there exists a real, though ephemeral, link between the man in Aleppo and myself.

Scientists are discovering similar linkages all around us, in nature. In the midwest there exists a massive mycological network in which individual fungi operate so collaboratively that scientists prefer to call the hugely extensive assembly a single organism. There is evidence of a kind of altruism that can take place among individual trees in a forest where the healthiest trees contribute some of their energy, through their root systems, to weaker trees. Whales participate in their community through audible signals that, reportedly, travel across the widths and breadths of oceans in order to keep the community in touch with one another.

The Dominican Sisters at my grammar school knew what to teach their young charges on this subject. They suggested it was possible—since we were all members of one spiritual body—to consciously “offer up” our (puny) discomforts. It was lasting advice. I can offer my discomforts as expiation for my shortcoming, and pray that—however valuable it may be to offer up my sufferings for this man—I do so gladly and intentionally to alleviate his burden. I hope and trust that he will be sustained in his grief and will experience a glimmer of hopefulness from the energy I send his way. Even such an insignificant glimmer of hope may mean his survival. A glimmer may be equivalent to the minutest measurable bit of energy. But it can travel across the globe to reach my friend in Aleppo. That can serve both me and him.

For this man, I can do no more. But neither can I do anything less. He and I are related in the mystery of our creation. I am thankful, today, that it is possible to transform my discomforts into something so precious.


I am receiving an infusion, among others, of a drug called Irinotecan. Irinotecan is unabashedly described in the Fact Sheet given me at the hospital as an “irritant”. It begins its caustic irritation to the inside of my veins the moment it comes in contact with them. Medical staff handle this drug with extreme care. Even though I realize that medical descriptions carefully list and describe each and every potential side effect of a compound being tested for medical implementation (and even if only one person among hundreds of clinical trial patients experience a particular single negative reaction), the list makes daunting reading. It reminds me of some of the darker of Edgar Allen Poe’s literary oeuvre.

What caught my attention was the fact that Irinotecan is a compound comprised exclusively of botanical molecules. Here’s a single paragraph from several pages of description I was given.

Irinotecan belongs to a class of chemotherapy drugs called plant alkaloids. Plant alkaloids are made from plants. The vinca alkaloids are made from the periwinkle plant (catharantus rosea). The taxanes are made from the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree (taxus). The vinca alkaloids and taxanes are also known as antimicrobule agents. The podophyllotoxins are derived from the May apple plant. Camptothecan analogs are derived from the Asian “Happy Tree” (Camptotheca acuminata). Podophyllotoxins and camptothecan analogs are also known as topoisomerase inhibitors. The plant alkaloids are cell-cycle specific. This means they attack the cells during various phases of division [in the process of which, they also raise havoc with (i.e., kill) a lot of my otherwise innocent and mainly-beneficial fast-growing cells].

I’m grateful that someone at Kaiser believed patients should not be “talked down to” and believed that some might be sufficiently interested in reading this decidedly Latinate and professional scientific description.

Reading this paragraph brought to my mind the Brother Cadfael-like horticulturalists and investigators like Gregor Mendel, Carl Linnaeus, countless relied-upon but persecuted “witches” over the ages [especially them], apothecaries, and botanical scientists of various stripes and specialization whose names are unknown to me, but who have advanced the earlier “primitive” work of their forebears. It recalled for me adventurers like Charles Darwin, Joseph Banks, Alexander von Humboldt and so many other intrepid explorers whose precise and carefully-documented and carefully pressed and dried botanical samples populate our great horticultural herbaria across the globe. The early investigations and hypotheses have blossomed [sorry] into current enthusiasm for agricultural diversity, efforts to preserve heirloom plant varieties and the worldwide effort to establish seed banks. It will come as no surprise that, second only to books of prayer, the meticulously and beautifully illustrated horticultural albums are the most treasured of “rare books”. They are still consulted today.

I sometimes wonder if the Angel Gabriel didn’t show considerable mercy when banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Yes, the angel knew the errant couple and their offspring would be condemned to toil and labor, but Gabriel made certain that all the cures, devices and sensitivities Adam and Eve’s progeny would need for survival and prosperity were to be found scattered around them in plain sight. Thenceforward humankind needed only to look, study and discover the answers to their needs. Doing so, of course, depends upon humankind’s (and my own) attitude of respect, careful preservation, and responsible attention to the natural habitat in which we live. Gabriel was highly respectful of human capabilities. That optimistic opinion forms a challenge to which we continue to aspire.

On this Thanksgiving day I can be—and am—grateful for the mysterious operation of plants in my life, both in their contribution to my nourishment and in their particular contribution to combatting my cancer-cells-gone-amok. Added to my appreciation for plants, specifically, I can add thanks for the individual contribution of dedicated and persistent individuals across time who have pursued their insights and experience. They intuited that plants possessed secrets that could eventually defeat debilitating diseases like mine. Finally, I am grateful for the pharmacists, nurses, and medical practitioners who dare risk exposure to these toxic compounds to corral them for my individual needs.


Can I be thankful for my cancer as I approach the Thanksgiving table today?  At this point in my journey with cancer, I can profess a hopeful “Yes”.  I can’t be certain that I will be able so to claim as time (and my cancer) progresses. I admit to worrying about how I will manage to deal with the ultimate debilitating effects of the disease. But I hope that contemplating it, now; learning about it (to the extent I am able); and discovering and training my own reactions to conform to an ideal about which I’m learning, will serve me to maintain balance into the future. I pray for the grace to incorporate into my interior life what I’m learning about suffering.

I realize I am graced in countless ways. I realize I am not a victim. I know that suffering has much to teach me. I am not alone and am immensely grateful for family, caregivers, friends and to all those who pray for me because they know and care for me.

 

All these make me feel unreservedly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Chet

“Nie daj się!” – a linguistic digression

Summary

I’m oddly “out of synch” with my body this session of my chemo infusion. I’m experiencing a variety of physical effects but can’t relate them to specific causes. I feel my body reacting but I don’t know what, precisely, it is reacting to (aside from the “generic cause”: chemo). Rather than let this incongruity take me hostage, I’m choosing instead to occupy my mind in a mental linguistic exploration. Though I’m no linguist it seems to me likely that such a digression will be more interesting than submitting to an inchoate anxiety creeping over me.

Here’s the subject of my digression. It’s about a frequently-repeated injunction of my Father’s. I don’t wish to paint him as an exclusively forward-thinking child-psychologist, but I remember my Dad’s correcting/guiding me throughout childhood and adolescence by what were mainly positive statements (something that would meet with the approval, I daresay, of today’s expert psychologists). Following are a couple examples:

(1) I would complain, “I can’t figure out this homework!”

My Dad would look over and say, cheerfully, “Of course, we can!” Let’s look at the problem. ‘Locomotive A’ leaves the station at 12:07 and reaches a speed of 85mph. ‘Locomotive B’ leaves an opposite station at 03:12…..  …What do we know about these locomotives?  What do we know about their speed?  How long is the trip….?” Eventually “we” worked out the problem of where, along the track, both trains passed each other.

Deducing the correct mathematical answer had never been been my Dad’s primary objective. The underlying lesson my Dad wanted to convey was a deeper life lesson: i.e., that it most certainly was possible for me to “figure it out”; any problem; any time; simply by applying the God-given mental tools I already possessed… myself.

(2) I was often invited to tag along with my Dad when—in the evenings after supper—he went off to his second job, a machine shop he had established with a friend. (Looking back, I realize that my Dad was providing my Mom with a substantial gift: getting me out her hair so she could have an evening of quiet with my younger Sister). But that’s another matter.

At my Dad’s Machine Shop, I might be set to work on a drill press. I’d complain, “I can’t drill a hole in this steel plate!”

My Dad would reply, “Of course you can. It’s easy if you let the drill do the work of cutting into the plate. If you pull on the handle, trying to force it, you’ll…”  SNAP!…  “Hmmm”, he’d observe, “It sounds as if you may have been pulling on the handle too hard. The drill bit has snapped.  Let me show you how to replace a broken drill bit on a drill press…”

Life lessons are beneficial and important. I have remembered the lesson, of “Yes, I can!” all my life, even though I’ve long ago forgotten, for example, how to solve quadratic equations. (Today I now know where I can quickly find out how to solve them, should I ever find myself needing to do so.)

The one statement of encouragement my Dad used, that might be considered negative, at least grammatically, was a phrase he regularly repeated to me, in all kinds of circumstances. It was the admonition, “Nie daj się!

I understood it colloquially at the time. “Nie daj się” translates to “Don’t give up!” or “Don’t give in!” Today I know from experience that translations are never exact. “Don’t give up!” is not precise. Neither is “Don’t give in!”

While noticing this imprecision, I couldn’t help realizing that the operative verb, daj is a surprising word. It is reliably translated to give… as if “giving” was somehow related to “surrender” or “capitulation”. In addition, the English left implicit, what the Polish makes explicit: the subject of the action. In English, the subject is understood, as in “Don’t [you] give up.” In Polish it is explicit: “Don’t give up yourself.”

All this made me curious. What did my Dad mean to convey? What did it really mean?

Detail

To give up (or to use its synonym “to capitulate”) carries a notion of self-defeat. In the specific context of my cancer, to “give up” would mean I had lost my will to participate in overcoming what is a lethal danger to my life. It means that I acknowledge the overwhelming superiority of my adversary, cancer, and that I have admitted the futility of continuing to defend myself against my illness.

I forget precisely where we first heard the distinction made, but Monica and I have spoken of the transition of nomenclature in the case of my cancer. Once, in our lifetimes, my cancer was described as a “terminal illness.” Today, it is more frequently described as a “chronic disease.” To “give up” confronting a terminal illness can be viewed as “coming to terms with reality”. Whereas to choose no longer to fight against merely a chronic disease is surely to surrender oneself to a tragic and sorrowful defeatism.

To give in (or to use another synonym, “to surrender”) puts the emphasis on the aggressor. In the present context, my cancer would be viewed as having completely dominated our confrontation, and that I have concluded there is no use pursuing the battle. “Giving in” acknowledges my cancer’s inherent power over me. The phrase reveals that I have actually empowered my illness and—at the same time—have diminished myself.

These two interpretations of Nie daj się (“to give up” and “to give in”) may alone be sufficient justification for my Dad to have constantly advised me to avoid either. But, translated in this way, either of these interpretations reduces his admonition to a mere rallying battle cry. Neither of these translations tackle the mystery of the word  daj, “to give”. Neither interpretation addresses what the Polish makes the explicit subject of the admonition się, (which translates as “yourself”). Left implicit, in English, the subject of the admonition is left ambiguous “don’t [you] give up”. Made explicit, in Polish, the admonition is personal and much more significant in two ways.

Nie daj się makes no doubt that what my Dad was emphasizing was my fundamental integrity. (Not [you] implied; but “yourself” specifically.) My Dad had served with distinction in the Second World War. He knew there were times when it was strategic and life-saving to admit to the superiority of the enemy in a given battle. It was tactical to be realistic about one’s dwindling resources and futile to fight from a particular position, when retreating and losing a single position in order to bolster another, might improve the overall chances of “winning the war”.

Parrying, withdrawing, bolstering, joining the battle from another vantage. Those were permitted. What was never permitted was to surrender myself, my inner integrity.

Nie daj się was the one admonition of my Dad’s that I recall him repeating often. He wanted to underscore that I myself was the subject of his admonition because I myself as the subject explains the deeper implication of the verb, daj,“to give.

Giving requires an active subject. “Don’t [you] give up” or “Don’t [you] give in” neutralizes and ambiguates the subject. In turn, it objectifies the action. The admonition is understood as addressing an activity like surrendering, capitulating or losing. When the subject is made explicit, it is me, making the decision. The question is reframed as: “When can I surrender?” My Dad’s answer is “Never to the point when it involves placing my integrity in the balance. Never.” Nie daj się! Never surrender your integrity, your own self.

At this point, I must ask my non-Christian readers some forbearance.

The central tenet of Christian faith is Jesus’ gift of salvation. There are several intertwined implications theologians have been careful to explicate. First, the only way Jesus Christ could have given His life in expiation for mankind’s transgressions is if He was a free and unencumbered actor. Jesus must be identical to us, with no spec of the divine in his DNA any different than ours. Third, Jesus must have complete free will to choose to participate in his passion and death. (Today some scientists seek to question free will at all. Such deconstructionist approaches invariably lead to dead ends.)

For Jesus’ sacrifice to be a sufficiently and satisfactorily complete gift, Jesus must do precisely what my Dad’s admonition forbids. He must freely give over His entire and complete Self… but—in Jesus’ case—not to a perceived adversary, but to His life’s only goal: “Father, not my will, but Thy will be done.”

This understanding gives a deeper meaning to my Dad’s injunction. Because it answers the natural human retort to a negative. “Nie daj się? Never? Are there no exceptions at all?” And the answer is revealed to be: “Only when you follow the example Jesus has given us to follow. Only when we can say, with Him, ‘Father, not my will, but Thy will be done.'” If I can do that, my ordeal with cancer can be transformed from an enduring, to a giving. And that makes all the difference.

Blessings,

Chet

 

In a future reflection, I would like to propose answers to some heretical questions that have been rummaging in my head, of late. “Is it possible for me ever to perceive that my cancer is, itself, a gift? Can I ever be sincerely grateful for this gift? What might that mean to me and those around me?

Pettiness

Summary

Since April 2013, Monica and I knew to expect a recurrence of my cancer. It was a matter of time. We were happy to ignore the eventuality and live our lives in a normal unencumbered way. But the reality was in the back of our minds.

Last week’s recommendation from our oncologist did not come as a complete surprise. Yet, it was, nonetheless, disappointing and disturbing. Monica and I both realized that it would mean a resumption of regular and frequent visits to the hospital, the unpleasant but unavoidable side-effects of the chemotherapeutic drugs, and the diminished energy, reduced mental acuity and physical discomfort that undergoing chemo meant for me. Added to these are the resumed basket of contradictory emotions that we both experience: anxiety, empathy, hopefulness, fear, determination, etc.

Our predominant reaction of the doctor’s evaluation was that of gratitude…  sincere gratitude that there existed a reliable and proven “second round” of chemo to which we could avail ourselves. How fortunate that we live when protocols have been developed over time, adjusted by the experience of previous patients, and made available to me as a known and well-understood treatment. Instead of feeling helpless in the face of our development we have hope that the treatment will be successful in “beating-back” and stemming the unhindered growth of my cancer tumors.

Undeniably, gratitude was what was foremost in my mind as the doctor shared with us her evaluation and reasoning. I was surprised, therefore, in experiencing my first chemo treatment of “Session 2” that I found myself annoyed with petty inconveniences. Why is it that pettiness so often trumps rationality? Why was it so easy to become preoccupied by incidentals and apparently put aside the far more important benefits I would receive?

Detail

This is my schedule:

On a Sunday before my Infusion, I must report to the hospital for lab tests. We already have established a baseline of various components of my body’s chemistry, blood components and counts, cholesterol levels, triglycerides, magnesium and potassium balances, urinalysis, etc.  I only have, to be frank, an embarrassingly vague understanding of how all these components work together, what they indicate, and what my medical caregivers learn from reading the lab reports. But study them, they do. Having established a baseline, they can learn, each time I report for a new infusion, how I am responding to the chemo.

The Monday following the lab tests, I report, early in the morning, to the Infusion Center. I receive a dose of steroids and medications in pill form to counteract the side-effects of the chemo I’m about to receive. Next, the nurse accesses my surgically-implanted port* and connects sterile tubing to it, flushing all the tubes and connections in the process, to make sure there are no obstructions or problems. My port makes it unnecessary for a nurse to implant an intravenous [IV] needle at the top of my hand (a process I distinctly do NOT like). After the tubing is in place, it is carefully secured with a large transparent sterile covering, for it will have to stay sterile and in position for the next 48 hours or more.

Meanwhile, the hospital pharmacy will have delivered my chemotherapeutic drugs. These come double-bagged in the unthinkable event of an accidental puncture. My nurse dresses herself in what I’ll call a “half-hazmat” suit. It differs from a “full hazmat suit” in that there is  no plastic visor covering her face, and lighter weight material is used for the gown. Also, she does not have to wear sterile booties. Apart from those three details, she and her clothing are covered protectively, her hands are protected by sterile gloves and she wears a mask across her nose and mouth.

In a former posting from my first experience with chemotherapy, I expressed shock at the signs that hang in all the bathrooms of the Infusion Clinic. They read: CHEMOTHERAPY PATIENTS – FLUSH TWICE!  This time, it was all these handling precautions that reminded me of the dangerous toxicity of the drugs I was about to receive directly into my heart and thence, pumped throughout my body.

Once everything is ready, the oncology nurse hangs the first of several bags of chemicals on the IV pole and connects them to the tubes going to my implanted port. The “drip” infusion begins. The infusion, itself, is painless. I am being infused with some associated “assistive” chemicals and three chemotherapeutic drugs, one of which (Fluorouracil) I received in my first round of chemo, and two of which (Irinotecan and Avastin) are new to me. The infusion process takes roughly 4 hours, during which I sit in a comfortable chair and read or listen to music.

During this first round, I had a strong reaction to the steroids I received in pill form at the beginning of the morning. Within an hour, I began perspiring furiously, dampening my shorts and my shirt and became decidedly alarmed, given that I’d witnessed the precautions taken in handling the drugs that were coursing into me. My nurse reassured me that I was simply reacting to the steroids. It was “nothing to worry about”. I, however, worried that the moisture would wick up through my khaki trousers making me look as if I was incontinent. I didn’t like the sweaty overheated feeling. I was annoyed that I “was required” to take the steroid pills.

Just before noon, I’d absorbed various bags of the dangerous chemicals. The next step was to replace the connection to the IV pole with a portable pump filled with a supply of the chemo drugs that I would take home with me. The pump is an ingenious device about the size of a fat baby-bottle. It contains an expanded latex or rubber “balloon” filled with chemicals. The pressure of the expanded balloon is enough to continually squeeze the chemicals, within, through the tubes. I would have the pump attached to me for the rest of the afternoon, overnight to Tuesday, all day Tuesday, and overnight to Wednesday. Sometime Wednesday morning, the pump would be empty. I could then go to the hospital to have it removed under sterile conditions.

After that, I’ll have two weeks to recuperate. Then the cycle will repeat: twice monthly for a period of 6 months (i.e. lasting to March/April 2017). Predictably, the chemo will accumulate in my body and predictably, the side-effects will testify to the disruption being caused my tumors. Unfortunately, while the process of beating-back my tumors will be taking place, numerous entirely guiltless but rapidly-growing cells of my body, eg. hair follicles, mouth surfaces, nerve connections, etc. will also succumb to the effects of the chemo. This unintended “collateral damage” is the cause of neuropathy, hair loss, mouth sores, nausea and gastro-intestinal turmoil.

But—cumulative side effects aside—this regimen is certainly “convenient”, especially given the alternatives. I am under the supervision of qualified medical personnel each time I begin an infusion. Proper drugs are available to me. I sit in comfort while each infusion begins, long enough to make sure there are no unforeseen reactions or complications. Having a portable pump gives me a great deal of freedom of movement and flexibility. As I noted, the chemo I’m receiving has been tested, monitored and adjusted for maximum efficacy. And the “assistive” drugs are designed to diminish the worst of the side-effects. There’s everything in this scenario to appreciate and for which to be thankful. I even travel to the Infusion Center, conveniently, by public transportation. It is, perhaps, unwise to drive when under the influence of chemotherapy, especially when the side-effects begin to assert themselves.

I came home Monday afternoon from the Infusion Center, somewhat emotionally tired by the experience and lay down for a nap. It turned out to be impossible because of the effect of the steroids. I was alert all night and dozed off for a maximum of 2 hours, still strangely and unnaturally alert in the morning. Steroids are powerful. Meanwhile, the long night was disconcertingly uncomfortable. I worried that I’d get entangled in the tubes that led from the pump to my port. I worried that I’d turn over and break open the sterile bandage containing the needle that provided direct access to my port. I worried I’d forget about the bottle when I rolled over.  I worried that the pump wouldn’t work properly. I worried myself unnecessarily, but it continued the next day.

In the morning, I was annoyed I couldn’t shower. Then I worried I’d crimped the tubing by tightening the belt holding up my pants. I didn’t like the weight of the pump against the strap around my neck that secured it to my body. I didn’t like the way the pump felt against my chest, so I moved it. I didn’t like how it felt under my arm, so I tried another position.

MAINLY, however, I disliked the fact that I had let myself become preoccupied by petty insignificant inconveniences when I should have been celebrating the opposite: great convenience,  joy in hopefulness, access to caregivers and effective chemicals; that I was under the care of concerned professionals and received their careful ministrations. I am so very blessed.

I don’t intend to exaggerate my preoccupation with pettiness. It’s only that there is such a great disparity between the benefits I am receiving and the petty insignificant nuisances I need to experience, that I am surprised I’d give the nuisances any “standing” to stimulate complaint. Yet, it seems often to be the case that the immediate annoyances of life, however petty, have a surprising power to assert themselves more strongly than rational comprehension and judgement can do.

I suppose this is because the annoyances are closely linked to emotions. The things that annoyed me provoked the side of the brain that works independently of rational and logical thought. They demanded urgent attention, not because there was a rational immediacy to them, but because all the things that bothered me were legitimate dangers. If I tangled the tubes at night, I could possibly dislodge the sterile bandages. If I accidentally crimped the tube, it could interrupt the flow of the drugs. If I didn’t pay attention to where, in physical space, my pump bottle was hanging, I could easily jar or crash into it by accident. So both sides of my brain were clearly working in the face of a dangerous situation.


A friend—on finding out I was undergoing a second round of chemo—asked me, solicitously and hypothetically, what on earth I could have done to deserve my situation. I’ve never thought of it that way. Rather, I’m always conscious that I’ve done nothing, in particular, to DESERVE the wonderful life I’ve been given. Life is a scrabble. And my scrabble has been slight compared to some. No wise person—whether spiritual or secular—has ever suggested that life should be a “walk in the park.” In point of fact, it seems that overcoming challenges and obstacles of life is a way of strengthening one’s character, reinforcing one’s values, and supporting one’s humility and gratitude.

I aspire to maintain a balance throughout the coming 23 more infusion sessions in this “second round” admitting and accepting annoyances and discomforts, but placing them in the context of hopefulness, mercy, gratitude and enormous good fortune. If you would, send a good thought my way that I succeed!

 

Chet

Thoughts on Theatre

Dear Friends,

Summary

I love the theatre. My love for the theatre may initially have been kindled at the Dom Polski(1) to which my parents frequently dragged me along as a child. My mother played the piano. My Dad built impressive scenery for the amateur stage performances. (Nothing he ever built was as awe-inspiring as the ornate wheeled sleigh that was used at Christmas time. The sleigh was beautiful. It was big enough and sturdy enough to carry Swięty Mikołaj(2) and up to three hefty assistants, were they called for. My Dad’s sleigh would have humbled any of today’s sub-compact automobiles.)

Performing seasonal skits and especially musicals seemed to be particularly important for the Polish immigrants. It gave them a chance to vicariously recall their more carefree past and hopefully give expression to their aspirations for the future. At Easter, women old and young, dressed in make-believe costumed finery strutted on the stage singing “In My Easter Bonnet”, which is something they’d never have sung (or worn) in their war-torn homeland. I recall wondering why such a bright song never failed to bring a tear to their eyes.

Detail

Go ahead. Invite me to a Stage Play, Reading, Puppet Show, Mumenshanz, Kamichibai, Opera, Home Play, Magicians, Balinese Shadow Puppets, Musical, Kabuki, Cabaret, Circus, Operetta, Monologue… and I’m “in.” Judging from the length of this spontaneously-generated list, I must not be alone in responding to the allure of the theatre.

Theatre is often described as that place where one “suspends belief.” I prefer the positive description. Theatre is a place where one chooses to adopt the action of a different time and place and experiences it with the intensity of emotion, empathy and amazement as if one were really present there… wherever “there” might be.

I’m blessed with a vivid and active imagination. One of the things I dislike about books-turned-into-movies is that what is portrayed on the screen is the product of someone else’s imagination. The screen rendition rarely matches up with my own imagination, and seldom lives up to mine.

In an earlier age, its possible I might have been diagnosed as mildly autistic. I found it difficult to focus on one task, alone, because there were so many alternative and interesting things with which to be involved. Perhaps I found the theatre appealing because everything about it facilitates focusing only on what is happening on the stage. That made it a bit easier not to be distracted.

As an actor(3) what I enjoyed most was the ability to “try out” different persona and see how I liked them. I could experience how a character I portrayed might have felt and reacted to a situation, and compare that to how I might have felt and reacted to the same situation. In the comparison I learned about my character but I also learned about myself.

The Church has long recognized the important beneficial aspects of theatre. It has seamlessly incorporated many theatrical qualities in its liturgy. It is right that it has done so. For when mere mortals come into proximity with the mysteries of the Sacraments or approach the Altar where the salvific sacrifice is recreated, it is helpful to clothe oneself with the ancient, dignified and comforting cloak of vesture, color, procession, chant, and precious vessels. These embrace the worshiper in a humble protective mantle. At the same time, we are thus invited to enter into a different dimension, relationship and reality. Liturgical drama is a profound application of the best of theatre to the deepest of spiritual experience.

I’m thinking about the theatre because some people ask me how I can remain so blasé in the face of my life-threatening cancer. I don’t know how to answer such a question because I certainly don’t feel blasé about it, even though I’m happy to say that I am in a very calm period after the Christmas surgery that removed two errant tumors, that is called “watchful waiting”. What such questioners observe must surely have something to do with what I’ve learned from the theatre.

An actor typically plays a role. Good actors so invest themselves in the persona of the character whose role they undertake, they study and pick up their character’s mannerisms, stutters, glances and gestures. They remain “in character” even during breaks in rehearsals, and sometimes long into “real life.” They are not the person they are portraying, but they so much desire to be authentic in their portrayal, they almost become a simulacrum of the original person. This is obviously beneficial and is a determining factor, I daresay, in the awarding of many an Oscar.

I find something akin to taking on a persona, similarly beneficial on a personal level. I don’t always possess the disposition I would like to own. Sometimes I feel irritable. Sometimes I feel depressed. Sometimes I feel scared. Who doesn’t experience a range of such emotions, particularly when confronted with something strange and threatening like cancer? I would never counsel anyone to hide or deny the presence of such feelings. Indeed, it is well worth experiencing such feelings; and often worth reflecting upon them. But I don’t feel inclined, at all times, to share such feelings with others (nor to subject others to my feelings without permission).

In those cases, it is useful for me to “robe myself” with a more positive persona. I do not deceive others by taking on this mantle. The persona I adopt is authentically me, all the while. The odd thing is that in robing myself in such a way I find it often coaxes my disposition to change. From irritability comes calm. From depression emerges hopefulness. From fright, prayerful resignation from fear. This modification… assuming an aspect I would like to possess, seems to me to be associated in some way with prayerfulness… or is even one answer to a prayer. One aspect of prayer can be to help me become the person I want to be—even if, at the moment of praying, being that person eludes me. Taking on the mantle of the person I want to be… or taking on the attitudes and behaviors I wish to possess, in this semi-theatrical way, might, in fact, be an effective way for me to move more gingerly towards my goal. I believe I’ve seen others use this technique; it may be a universal benefit that can be applied by anyone.

Perhaps this was the unsuspected lesson I was absorbing from my childhood experiences at the Dom Polski. Perhaps, too, it is significant that I should particularly recall the dark recesses of the back of the stage where I could observe, unseen, the people in the skits, and the dancers on the dance floor. What I saw, were two contrasting demeanors: the often frightened, often depressed, often penniless, often worried adults in the room, who, despite their travails, displayed only brightness, good cheer and confident friendliness, especially when they sang their songs and performed in the skits I found so captivating. The huge majority of those “play actors” became the distinguished, admirable and loving people who mentored me and whom I admired as I entered my young adulthood and continue to admire to this day.

The lesson they taught me was far more important than I easily recognized.

Chet

(1) “Dom Polski” literally means “Polish home”. It is the name of a social club in San Francisco for immigrant Polish families to gather. It still stands on 22nd Street near Mission. These days, the immigrants meeting at the Dom Polski are likely from Latin America. But the importance of gathering together in linguistic harmony and to bask in welcome hospitality, is no less valuable today for the groups gathering there, than it was for the groups that preceded them.

I feel I spent so much time at the Dom Polski as a youngster that my spirit must still be flitting about, from the coatcheck room (where I often earned small pocket change, hanging up coats and scarves) to the library and meeting rooms upstairs, to the stage and dance floor and, of course, to the dark recesses of the back of the stage from where I could observe, unseen, all the people on the stage or on the dance floor, below.

(2) Swięty Mikołaj = St. Nicholas

(3) At Riordan High School I was active on the Speech and Debate Team, and played the role of Buckingham in Shakespeare’s Richard III. I also had a stage part in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. My never-to-be-forgotten stage opportunity came when, in my Senior Year, I won the lead for the King and I. So dedicated was I, that I agreed to completely shave my head for the part! During the intermissions, I needed to apply a lighter shade of pancake cosmetic to my bald head because I’d have developed a “5 o’clock shadow” during the first act. In my adult career, I have been privileged to conduct various classes at the university level, both here and abroad. Teaching, too, benefits from an occasional bit of dramatic or theatrical flair.

The Goodness of Creation and Cancer

“Perhaps you have noticed

that even in the very lightest breeze

you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree;

this we understand is it’s prayer to the Great Spirit;

for not only men, but all things

and all beings pray to Him continually

in differing ways.”

Dear Friends,

Summary

It is doubtful that the philosopher/anthropologist, Pere Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit whose books I read in college, would ever have encountered the quotation, above, which is attributed to the Lakota Native-American, Black Elk [ca 1863-1950]. Teilhard [1881-1955] could have, since he and Black Elk were almost exact contemporaries.

Detail

I can just imagine what kind of conversation Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin might have enjoyed had they met. Teilhard would certainly have endorsed Black Elk’s prayerful insight. Black Elk would have appreciated the lyric phrase the priest used when he posited that all creation “groaned” for the fulfillment of its highest potential.

For Teilhard, the “highest potential,” simply put, was that all creation, animate and inanimate, yearned to render to its Creator whatever was its most appropriate acknowledgement for its very existence.  Black Elk would have understood.

Teilhard also conceptualized a more obscure notion about human consciousness. He predicted a time in the future when there would emerge a “noösphere.” This was a point in time at which human consciousness—across the globe—would somehow become fully integrated and would “converge” as the consciousness of all earthly creation. Such an insight lifted the idea of the interrelatedness of all creation from a commonplace, to a higher level; one when all creation—through the consciousness of humanity—could more completely acknowledge itself as the loving, completely coherent community that was generated and intended by the Creator.

These ideas were heady matter (and inspiring reading) for an idealistic college student of the 60’s. The boldly optimistic image of creation seeking its highest aspiration remains with me, even today.

I remain attracted to the concept that all creation is naturally driven towards achieving its highest potential. I’m attracted to the thought that the human species aims towards the convergence (not dilution) of individuals in a loving community and that humans potentially bring to creation, itself, conscious awareness.

The first is already evidenced, in the biological realm, by the evolutionary push of natural selection (even as it was perceived and originally hinted at by Charles Darwin). Science, and the Church, is slowly discerning a richer understanding of the processes that allow biological species to evolve and adapt to different environmental conditions, perfecting their abilities in the process. We are beginning to see the truth of Black Elk’s understanding, that all of creation, in its distinctive unique way, acknowledges the intentions of its Creator.

The second is in a far different realm. It requires more of us than simply being a part of creation. Scientists do not yet undertand the mysteries of the human mind. They might well be skeptical that minds can communicate in a way that might activate a noösphere. Nevertheless, there are already suggestions of what Teilhard imagined, in the way people all over the world are, for example, using technology to converge more closely… or how peoples of diverse cultures are building communities that are already linked to each other through prayerful awareness. Both types of activity are required, and both examples are already building-up a global consciousness.

Open Source software has made it possible for the world’s software engineers to interact with each other when writing programming code. This is an impressive application of technology in support of human collaboration. It has enabled rapid advances in solving sophisticated mathematical and scientific problems. One result of such work is that there now exist enormous databases of algorithmic code snippets that can be used, freely, by anyone to build even more sophisticated computer programs.

Another example of the way human aspirations are already linked—even over great geographic distances—is the way social networking tools are influencing the geopolitical and social evolutions that are taking place in diverse corners of the world.

Prayerful communities exist on every continent. To the extent that they are genuinely seeking an understanding of our relationship with the Creator, our relationship to one another or our role in creation, they represent an important stage of convergence.

Admittedly, these are very crude examples that only dimly hint at the noösphere. But they help me imagine, in tangible ways, what is otherwise obscure to me in Teilhard’s use of the term “convergence.”

Whether or not I understand its details, what seems clear to me is that we humans live—as I believe the Creator intended us to live—in an existential reality of perpetual potential.

Fulfilling my potential properly, and to the extent possible for me, is my life’s challenge. Our collective success in doing so (or lack of it) is continually reflected in the evolutionary history of our species.

This is a buoyant understanding and joyous response to the goodness of creation. “God saw, and God saw that it was good.”

Which brings me to a conundrum.  What about my cancer?  What role does it play in this good creation?

My cancer is undeniably adept. Scientists believe that the genetic mutations that characterize cancer cells have co-evolved with human beings for millennia. Put another way, cancer cells, genetically speaking, seem to have co-existed in human beings—maybe even required us for their evolution—right alongside the countless “ordinary” cells that give my body its corporeal reality. My cancer is, in this sense, already fully a part of me at my birth.

What we don’t know about cancer would fill the world’s libraries. What we observe, is nothing less than astonishing.

Cancer has developed an ability to avoid the body’s impressive immune system. Cancer can overcome the body’s natural defenses so it can engage in its chosen activity pretty much unrestrained. Cancer adapts itself, specifically, to the environment of different individuals. Each person’s cancer seems largely to be customized to that person (making generalized remedies difficult to achieve). Cancer cells have been successful in overriding the natural cellular ageing process that governs the duration of functionality in “ordinary” cells. Cancer cells have an unrestrained capacity for replication and life.

In many objective ways, cancer can be admired for its manifold adaptations to its environments… except for the fact that what cancer cells have evolved to do—combined with their unbridled life goal—is counterproductive to the life of my own body. Is it just that these particular cells are “out of order”? Is my cancer which has such a long pedigree essentially bad or evil? Is the cancer in my body there for any other reason than to harm me?

None of these questions are easy to answer. What appears to be the case, however, is that these cells have “learned” several techniques about living in my body. Scientists could well learn a lot from understanding what and how they employ those techniques. Indeed, it is also likely that in such learning, not only will researchers be able to design a method to contain and restrict the harmful effects of cancerous activity; they might well learn important processes and methodologies that could be used to enhance the life of persons with other kinds of illnessess and maladies.

These three trains of thought are very satisfying to me in a time of uncertainty and discouragement:

• Creation is an intended initiative of a Creator. Creation is, by definition good. “…and God saw that it was good.” Creation’s natural response to being created is to acknowledge the Creator by naturally striving to be the highest fulfillment of the Creator’s intention. So far as we can tell, only we humans have a choice in this matter.

• The apparently unique gift of humanity is our intellectual capacity, our self-referential awareness as created beings and our ability to choose to direct ourselves towards fulfilling our own special potential. When we do this we do so in concert with all creation, but perhaps also on behalf of creation through our collective manifestation of consciousness.

• In aspiring to act humanly, we can build a community of awareness that can activate our collective potential. This requires a humble attitude of love and recognition of each other’s created brotherhood and sisterhood. It also requires a studied and felt concentrated consciousness of our particular and potential role in creation.

In trying to express this carefully, my words sound pedantic, somewhat abstract and theoretical. In fact, to recognize the goodness of all creation, and to recognize that I can choose to fulfill my role within creation to the best of my ability, represents something joyful and exuberant.

Perhaps one way to understand it is the converse of the way I have previously described our dog, Gracie. I previously wrote that Gracie provides for me unstinting loyalty and constant affection and that she takes me out for health-restoring walks. I get an inkling of what I am to do with respect to creation when I provide food, water and shelter for Gracie. I see my different role vis-a-vis Gracie, particularly when I take her out for a walk, all the while anticipating traffic, watching for potentially aggressive animals on the path and somehow orchestrating her experience to bring Gracie delight. I do this through my conscious attentiveness. I should employ this same attentiveness to all creation around me. But its never a one-way activity; such attentiveness seems always to consist in a reciprocal appreciation of life. Perhaps this mystery is best prefigured by the exuberant prayer of one who pre-dated both Black Elk and Teilhard de Chardin. He wrote a long song whose structure  reads as follows:

Praised be You with all Your creatures…

…especially Sir Brother Sun…

…through Sister Moon and the Stars…

…through Brothers Wind and Air…

…through Sister Water…

…through Brother Fire…

…through our Sister Mother Earth…

…producing varied fruits and colored flowers…

 

 

Chet

Chapter Two

Dear Friends,

Chapter Two…

…….…prior to which our Narrator…
1. …received cautious news that his colon cancer was “in remission”. Hearing this…
2. …he was unaccountably reluctant to share the news or blog about it; when…
3. …shortly (3-4 months later) during a carefully aggressive monitoring using CT scans and followup PET scans, doctors discovered that two marble-sized colon cancer tumors had lodged and grown rapidly in the nourishing environment of his liver, far from easy access to surgical excision; in response to which…
4. …able surgeons, stubbornly immune to mere logistical difficulties, responded with rapid alacrity and admitted our Narrator—almost immediately after discovery of the tumors (and just before Christmas)—to the hospital, to undergo a long and complicated liver resection operation to remove the tumors; in response to which…
5. …Monica and I await our oncologist’s recommendations about next steps; and…
6. …we continue, prayerfully, to stumble into the unknown future.

Detail

I don’t have the necessary medical training to possess easy command of the proper terminology and vocabulary, but… following are a few of the most important things I believe we are, today, understanding about cancer:

Genesis

Microbiologists now understand that specific cancers (there are many different kinds, each with their individual characteristics) have insinuated themselves into the fundamental genetic construct of our DNA. It is quite possible that the initial insinuation into our human genome took place thousands of generations ago. If this is correct, then cancer (which Siddartha Mukerjee defined in his admirable and thorough recent “biography” of cancer as “The Emperor of all Maladies” has, perhaps, co-existed with us humans for millennia. This evokes a very different awareness of Pogo’s “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” The various cultural metaphors that claim that both good and bad resides in each human being are also thus vindicated in the physical biological realm and put in shocking high relief.

Action

Oncologists have long studied the behavior of cancer cells and their unbridled growth. Cancer cells exhibit a unique attribute in that, once stimulated into activity, they appear to lose a normal cell’s inborn mechanism eventually “to die” and cease activity. It is as if cancer cells have discovered a way to achieve a kind of immortality. Indeed, cell biologists, today, study cancer cells in their laboratories that have directly descended from cells originally taken from one woman, a patient who, herself, died, now, decades ago! Certain chemotherapies exploit this constant and rapid replication by targeting rapid cellular growth as loci at which to deliver toxic chemical substances designed to kill the cells. Refinements are continually sought to distinguish the rapid replication of dangerous cancer cells from the rapid generation of beneficially evolving cells like hair follicles or digestive wall membranes.

Apart from the incontrovertible biological evidence about the workings of cancer cells, there are cultural echoes, again, principally in mythology, cautioning against the lure of the “fountain of youth” or describing the unintended consequences of Midas’ touch.

  Pathways

A focus of increasing attention for epidemiologists are the biological/cellular pathways through which cancer cells appear to communicate with one another to “stimulate” (one might be inclined to use the word “infect”) other cells. In my case, for example, it came as no surprise to my medical professional care-givers that my colon cancer reappeared, next, in my liver. There exists ample convincing evidence that this is one of the preferred evolutionary pathways colon cancer, particularly, exploits. Just what mechanisms enliven the pathways or stimulate the transmission of cancerous activity at one spot in the body to another are not yet known. The identified preferred pathways exist, at least, as promising targets for future research and therapies.

Stimulants

Finally, biologists are beginning to identify what substances, chemicals, infinitesimal elements can stimulate dormant cancer cells to “life”. These stimulants are more properly known as carcinogens. While the list of known carcinogens is growing (cigarette smoke, second-hand smoke, asbestos particles, certain petrochemicals, soot, some foods, etc.) precisely how they evoke a response in cells that appear to lie in wait in all human beings, why in some and not in others, in what concentrations or under what circumstances, is all rich ground for the minting of future MD’s and PhD’s.

So, for the time being, I will be subject to, perhaps crude, certainly experiential, therapies and remedies that will be prescribed by young doctors and clinicians who wish to find the proper therapies as much as I wish for them to do so. I cannot compete with their sophisticated understanding of what I’ve crudely outlined above, even though I can, perhaps, grow in my appreciation of what scientists have come to understand and how dreadfully complicated is what is not yet known. Be that as it may, I am confident and happy to turn over the care of my medical condition to the experts who have generously eked out a career in this forbidding territory.

What I may be better able to learn from, for my own well-being, if not specifically my body’s, is to examine the cultural and spiritual echoes that seem to resonate and whisper with each scientific discovery.

We’ll see… in future cancerblogs.

Chet

Courtesy and Blessings

Dear Friends,

Summary

I was well-taught by my mother in the precepts of courtesy. This is why, until today, I have felt increasingly guilty.

Details

Monica and I have been receiving very encouraging and important-to-my-well-being, notes, cards, e-mails, letters and phone calls expressing wishes for my health and inquiring about our progress in addressing the cancer that is so much a part of our attention lately.

    A family experience

I am particularly grateful for those notes that recognize that it is Monica and our children—far more than I, alone—who bear the weight of this disease. While I, as “the patient”, must contend with the physical, emotional and real consequences of being ill, my family and other loved-ones experience the same illness in ways that can always trump my personal challenges. It is because they possess the curiously human quality of “empathy”.  Empathy, which is a “sharing in” or “living with” another person’s experience, seems inevitably to do so with a heightened intensity. In the case of illness, with greater regret, greater sensitivity, greater anger and greater objectivity… therefore, with greater experienced sorrow. Those messages that succeed in recognizing this reality are particularly appreciated. They reflect an understanding of how an illness can affect the dynamics within any family, and particularly within our family. They help me articulate an awareness that my illness is not, and can not be, in any sense, solitary or isolated. They help me realize I cannot be selfish about these received communications of encouragement that so assists me in dealing with my cancer. Properly speaking, each of these messages assist every one of us, Gryczes, in dealing with our collectively experienced cancer.

    Creativity

Several notes contain creative ways for friends to provide day-to-day respite, one of my favorites being an offer of occasional dog care or dog walking if we were unable to easily fit that into our schedules. In our case, our dog, Gracie, deserves such pampering. She is, herself, contributing a great deal to the recuperation from my Christmas operation. Gracie regularly sniffs and checks my bandages to make sure things are mending properly, and she reliably curls up warmly beside me when I take my afternoon (or at whatever time) naps. Despite the presence of cancer in our lives, Gracie is unabashed in expressing her exuberance for life in the moment. She reminds us all that we must revel in the same joy of life, however we might be experiencing it in the moment. She seems to be saying: “Life is always an amazing grace. Acknowledge it.”

    Appreciation

Many notes express appreciation for what we (the author of the missive and we, ourselves) have enjoyed and experienced together. Such notes underscore that none of us live our lives in isolation (recall John Donne’s memorable line: “No man is an Island”, and the meditations of Thomas Merton on Donne’s pithy observation.) Reflecting on happy communal experiences is always a good antidote to the annoyingly necessary self-attention required by recuperation and self-aware health-care.

    Guilt

I can hear my mother’s admonition: “Each of these notes deserves an individual, personal acknowledgment and reply.”
For a while, I kept the correspondence (along with the enclosed prayer cards, bookmarks, Mass cards and other remembrances) in a pile, to answer them, properly, as my Mother taught (and, indeed, as I was inclined to do). Somewhere along the line, I realized I’d probably never get around to acknowledging them, individually. It made me feel a bit depressed to have drawn such an unworthy conclusion.

    An honored place for blessings

On the delayed Christmas festivities our family joyously celebrated in the middle of January, this year, I received from Monica a precious gift. It is a beautifully-decorated, hand-plaited basket from Palestine which was described as a “blessing basket”. Into it, Monica had placed sample printouts from among the e-mails she and I had received over the past 18 months… ones that have done so much to buoy our spirits and have helped keep us in a state of emotional equilibrium, however delicate.
My “blessing basket” now rests in an honored place in our home. Today, I slipped into it, the cards and notes I had piled up to respond to, individually. All those prayers, thoughts and wishes represented by the scraps of paper are blessings, indeed. They are efficacious (I would dare say, essential) to healing. They are certainly required by us. They help us maintain a proper perception towards this stubborn illness. We are greatly indebted to the writers. We also appreciate, very much, the salutary effect we feel on receiving each of them.

    A Spiritual two-way wormhole

There was a delightful “Frank and Ernest” cartoon on the comics page of our newspaper this week. Frank claimed that Ernest was living proof that Descarte’s maxim: “I think, therefore I am” is not reversible. (This is quite true; a truth to which (I can’t resist observing) our Congress almost daily distressingly attests.)  Fortunately, its not true of our blessing basket. When our family recites Grace, or mumbles a prayer-in-passing, we now specifically include all those who are represented by our “blessing basket.” The blessings  we’ve welcomed, thus rebound to all those who so kindly continue to bless us. Thank you!  Know that you are blessed for your thoughtful graciousness and that, on “down days” we gratefully re-read them to regain our “good day” composure.

Chet

What Now?

Dear Friends,

Summary

Writing these reflections has heightened my awareness of how uncertain a task it is to honestly describe one’s emotions. It’s not that I wish to deceive; it’s just that I sometimes wonder if I am expressing what I want my feelings to be, rather than being able to admit to what they truly are.  I do my best; but the question lurks in the background, eventually to be better understood.

As of this morning, there have been scheduled for me, a battery of one-year follow-up tests. I’m writing these thoughts, intentionally, before undergoing the tests. I’m curious how I will feel about these reflections after the test results are returned.

Details

August is an auspicious month for me. It is the month of my birth. In the past, I know I often regarded August with a kind of guilt. Here, came I, into the world, demanding attention and the resources from a more turbulent August. Men and women, that August, were giving up their lives by the score, (even on the very day of my birth) precisely to defend the freedoms, discoveries and self-determinations that were my exclusive self-centered preoccupations as a newborn. I recall one family story—retold laughingly, to be sure; but only many years after the apparent distress/delight of it. My Father had apparently—by some, not small, miracle—been able to acquire a small can of Vienna Sausages in our exile in wartime Scotland. He and my Mom determined to share with me, their infant toddler, a small portion of this precious windfall of scarce protein… only to watch me—all delightedly oblivious of their sacrifice—voraciously gulp down one after another of the compact little cylinders of nutrition, until the very last one was gone. Hearing that story as a teen, I found it difficult to believe I could have given my parents any delight or joy at the miracle of my birth. But they always and consistently communicated just that: that I (and my Sister, who came later—in a more halcyon time—into their lives) were the thrilling individuals who blessed their own lives with a particular joy. They wondered at us and nurtured us, as our personalities emerged and we unfolded as human beings under their good care. What a gift it is to be so loved (despite gulping down a whole tin full of Vienna Sausages!) How wondrous that their love continues and sustains me long after their ministry on this Earth is long over.

Life continues to be a gift. Yet, I also think of this August as the anniversary of my cancer (even though the discovery of my cancer actually was made a little earlier, in June 2011). I’ve just been scheduled for a follow-up colonoscopy and a series of “chest-through-pelvic” CT scans (with little input, I might add, from me… It was just “scheduled, period.” [So,” just show up, Chet!”]). I celebrate the period of a year—which, as Monica explains, “I mostly ‘missed.'” I dare say, with not a little justification, that it was mainly she, and my children, who suffered the greatest anxiety and loss during this past year. My neuropathy has changed many of my habits and behaviors, and continues to inhibit me and draws unwanted attention to itself.

I have been humbled (and nurtured, as well) by my friends. I’ve always recognized that I’ve been blessed to have friends; but never had realized, as much as now, that none of them are alike! Each has personal reactions. Every one responds, fears, grieves and consoles very individually and differently. Every one, in ways that would be intolerably embarrassing for me, were it not for the unguarded sincerity and candidness they each have displayed towards me. I have a shelf-full of amazingly diverse books given and recommended to me, several of which I’ve already enjoyed, and others I expect to enjoy. (The books, in their own right, deserve to be a subject of a future blog posting.) During this past year, too, I have lost a dear friend who was diagnosed at the same time as I, but with a more virulent cancer than mine. I only came to know him more closely through our common trek with our unbidden cancerous companion.

I am looking forward, as always, to the year to come.  For quite some time, I’ve been fond of pointing out that each year I celebrate, turns out to have been the “best year of my life”. It ever must be so if I perceive each and every breath as a gift and an opportunity, as, instinctively, I do (reinforced by the little story of that tin of Vienna Sausages and the context within which I consumed them). The predominant thoughts on my mind, as I approach this birthday, are “What Now?” “What will there be to discover and learn in the year to come?” “Have I changed because of the year gone by?” “What has changed?” “How?”

These call to mind a thought-experiment I was encouraged to ponder as a teenager on retreat: “If you knew that you only had but one more day in which to live, what would you do differently?”

Of course, it’s a trick question expressed the way it is, throwing emphasis on itemizing the things one would do differently. The answer, instead, is aimed at comporting one’s daily life so that it is indistinguishable from one’s last day… so that nothing need be done differently. No regrets for actions taken or not taken. No embarrassment for words spoken in thoughtlessness or anger. No missed opportunity to express, enthusiastically, the joy of life or the pleasurable obligations of companionship. And no cessation, either, of ongoing gratitude for God’s abundant grace.

To be sure, only Saints (and sometimes, I’ll warrant; not even, they) succeed in achieving these goals. Apropos of this, I should mention that Monica and I recently brought home a newly-adopted young dog. She’s a “rescue dog,” named “Gracie”. Without our intending it be so, Gracie has taken to assisting me in my endeavors. It is impossible not to observe that Gracie’s got the solution to the thought-experiment down, pat. It may be more challenging for us, mere humans to master the goals suggested by the though-experiment! Lucky, indeed, then, that I appear to have been given more time to work on mine.

 

Chet

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