Friday, April 30, 2010

D Day Minus 229, July 22, 2009 (Part 1)

“Mom, you were right.” You half smiled as you stroked your chin the way you did when you had a goatee in high school. It was seven-thirty or so in the morning. You met Katie after her all night shift for breakfast at Mimis. I was in a rush to get out the door for work. I needed to get packed up and was a little annoyed that I might not be able to get my contraband - a nice twenty-four ounce bottle of cold Diet Mountain Dew - from the little black fridge with you in my space. I noticed Katie outside sitting on one of the blue stone ledges when I spied my cold little Fort Knox in the corner by the patio door. She was wearing denim capris and a huge smile as she talked on her cell.

“What.” I said. Then you looked towards Katie and raised your eyebrows a few times and smiled so hard I thought your cheekbones might explode.

“I knew it.” I squoze you so hard I thought your port might pop out.

“So what changed your mind?” I asked, but I already knew. I imagined the two of you together after you met in June for an hour lunch that ended early the next morning. I knew you two loved each other since that marathon lunch. The more you insisted that you two were just friends, the more I wondered if Katie may be be the one: Mulan's mom. I always teased that I wanted you to adopt a little Chinese girl and name her Mulan, like Julie Sweeney did in her audiobook, In the Family Way. I smiled as I thought of our list of what we wanted in Mulan’s mom. The list included: someone who is kind, funny, smart, caring, loving, forgiving, and who would stay, if and when, the going got rough. Remember, you dictated and I added to the list when we watched the Changeling, with Angelia Jolie, in May.

“She confessed her feelings from the beginning.” You said. I knew beginning meant the first time around nearly seven years ago. “We both apologized for stupid things we did in the past.” You said. “I do love her.”

“I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.” I repeated to the beat of my classic disco dance moves.

You motioned for Katie to come in from outside. “Only you and Dad know for now.” You cautioned. I rolled my eyes and smiled. I promised to keep mum and let you tell the world when you were ready. I hugged both of you and headed to work.

I ended up stopping by the Shell Station on Algonkian to get a Diet Mountain Dew. I put Lilly Allen’s, He Wasn’t There, on repeat. The song I secretly dedicated to Katie the first time I heard it in June. I took swigs of Diet Mountain Dew as I belted out the chorus, “I’m so glad I never gave up on him,” as I drove my hand me down silver Miata down Route 7 feeling magical.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

D Day Minus 230 (July 21, 2009)

“I’m going down for my powernap.” I said. It was 5:30 in the afternoon in Sterling, which meant it was 3:30 in Houston. You still hadn’t heard anything back from MD Anderson. You spent Monday trying to get your scan results to the right place. Today was Tuesday and I was going out of mind. I’d spent the day warding off calls from Aunt Janiene and Morgan about what was going on. And you spent the day warding off calls from me.

“Get me up when they call.” I kind of barked at you as Katie hovered in the background anxious about what may unfold.

I retreated to my bed, donned my iPod and relaxed to the sound of rain and thunderstorms. I got up as soon as I heard the three gongs. I was surprised you didn’t come and get me. I’d listen for the phone. In fact I had the phone next to my pillow.

“They called my cell.” You said as I rounded the corner to your room. Katie tried not to cry.

"Why didn’t you come get me?” I was pissed. You looked dumbfounded. “I banged on the door—Mom!” I guess I mistook your banging for thunderstorms in my powernap.

“You could have opened the door.” I said as I took a breath and looked into your eyes. “So.”

“It’s back.” I knew, but still hoped. I searched for a better feeling by playing one of our Abraham games. But it didn’t work so I tried Ho’oponopono. I never told you about Ho’oponopono. It is based on ancient Hawaiian teachings, where you take responsibility for everything and everyone that crosses your path. I took responsibility for your cancer among other things. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Thank you.” You’re supposed to say it all the time. It is supposed to help you get to a zero state where you are guided by inspiration. They call it cleaning. I stumbled across it last December during your first round of Dicarbazine. I even wrote down those four lines down on an index card so I wouldn’t forget it. I never told you because you would get mad at me for taking responsibility. You always said it just “is.” And I stilled cleaned.

“They’re talking combo chemo treatment plus interferon.” I could tell you were going into auto pilot. I'd seen it so many times before when you had to explain and re-explain your treatments to Dad and me.

“Can I book flights?” I asked.

“Not yet.” I bit my lip and tried not cry. And started to clean.

Monday, April 26, 2010

D Day Minus 232 (July 19, 2009)

“Am I bugging you?” I asked from our landline in Bassett. I had just texted you, “call if you feel like talking.” Dad warned me to give you some space. I guess I had "Rain Manned" him by asking whether or not I should call you like twenty times. I texted you from my bedroom when Dad was busy making some of his buttermilk pancakes. I just got through yelling from the bedroom to Dad, "Your pancakes always taste better in Basset" so he wouldn't get suspicious.

“You’re fine.” You said. I think you were watching something on the History Channel. “It’s the waiting and not knowing.” I imagined you reclined on the white leather sofa in the family room with the phone cradled by your left ear.

“I know.” I said. I tried not to think about the logistics of treatment in Houston – airfares, hotels, work. We’d already canceled our two week vacation in Bassett just in case. “We’ll figure it out.” I walked to the kitchen and Dad was gave me his 'give the kid a break look.' I mouthed, "he called me."

We talked about you 'maybe' fixing dinner for Katie and doing something outside to enjoy the weather – a bike ride or a walk around the long loop. You asked about Bassett Dad (aka relaxed Dad) and when were we leaving and stopping by to give Morgan the birthday cards. We laughed as we guessed her reaction. Dad gave me his 'time to eat signal' where he holds his right fist and fake eats. "Gotta go." I said. “Believe in Zebras." I hadn't said that in the past week. And I had said it constantly since last January.

Believing in Zebras was my code for believing in miracles – organized religion had been a bone of contention with you throughout your life especially since the cancer—so I tried a little different packaging. You inspired me with your love of Mystery Diagnosis and the line they always used about diagnosis: “"When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” That was last January. You were down to 120. You asked if you looked like you were in a concentration camp. You did— given you were nearly six two. And you were in so much pain – you couldn’t sit on a chair or find comfort anywhere or eat.

I organized the Zebra Event behind your back. You thought I was just handing out the wristbands. You would have killed me if you would have known I had your name plastered on flyers across the country and and to churches of all denominations. The Zebra Event involved hundreds that I know of, and probably thousands in reality with the power of email and Facebook, on February 13th when you were supposed undergo surgery at Loudoun Hospital.

You had a large tumor that was invading your bowel and upper abdomen. Mary Ann, our next door neighbor, researched a TIL trial at MD Anderson, where they harvest the tumor to create TIL cells. We hoped they could inject the TIL cells after your surgery along with Interleukin 2 just in case the melanoma came back. We would have gone to NIH because they were doing the TIL trial, but we had heard stories about the NIH bureaucracy. On the 12th you and Dad, with his fear of flying somewhat under control, took a non-stop flight to Houston for TIL screening. On the 13th, the Zebra event took place as scheduled.

You were getting sicker and sicker each day you were Houston. But you muscled through the litany of tests and procedures. We didn’t know it at the time, but the reason you were so sick was that you bowel had perforated and you were septic. Your actual surgery went down a week later and you had a five percent chance of surviving. To top things off the tumor wasn’t viable for TIL. Dad called me with the news on February 20th. I remember throwing my cell across the car and screaming at the top of my lungs driving down Algonkian Parkway after Dad told me you probably wouldn’t make it.

But you did. And I did believe.

"Now what. Do I still believe?" I thought as I took my first bite of pancakes as I watched golfers through the trees off in the distance.

"I'd better." I thought because not believing made my stomach all butterfly-eee.

Then I smiled and took another bite. Pancakes really did taste better in Bassett.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

D Day Minus 233 (July 18, 2009)

“Don’t get mad.” You said from the landline phone in Sterling.

“You did it. Didn’t you?” I nestled my shoulders back into the mountain of pillows on my bed in Bassett and muted my friend Joel McHale on The Soup.

“Yeah." You were chewing on something. “Katie and I looked at the scan last night.”

“Are you eating?” I said as I rolled my eyes and bit down on my left cheek.

“Cereal.” You said as you took another bite.

“So what did you see?” I thought of us looking at your scan last January, at Starbucks in Roanoke, when we picked up my electric teapot— just after your latest scan. I had my laptop with me so we thought we'd try to read it. We’d zoom in and out to get different views of the scan. There was red, purple, green and white interlaced throughout the scan. I was never sure what color was good or whether it was in the right spot. I had general anatomy but looking at layers and views and zooms was beyond me. You had just had your appendectomy a couple of weeks before so there was also activity from the surgery to consider. You kept asking me what I thought. Then I would ask you what you thought. We were the blind leading the blind or Dumb and Dumber.

“It’s back.” You said. I pressed the off button on the remote and threw it across the bed.

“We still don’t know everything Gregory Michael Jones.”


Saturday, April 24, 2010

D Day Minus 234 (July 17, 2009)

You walked toward me where I waited for you in the common area of the office complex of Virginia Radiology. Your head moved forward and back and you had a little bounce in your step. You were clad in three year old khaki shorts and two year old brown Pumas that looked almost new - thanks to your compulsion to keep your things nice. No one would have ever known the scars you harbored from so many surgeries or the port in your left chest ready for chemo. You had gained nearly forty pounds since your bowel resection last February. The only visible sign of your plight was a small purple scar on your lower right shin from a biopsy to see if a “bug bite” that just "disappeared” after six months was the original lesion.

Katie had on her Believe in Zebra wristband like us and carried the zebra shopping bag I gave her. She stayed five or so feet away from you and struggled to keep up – sort of like the old traditional Japanese wife – making sure to stay a step behind the master.

“Where’s the bathroom.” You asked for Katie. I pointed her in the general direction as she took a deep breath. I think she was counting breaths or something so she wouldn’t hyperventilate.

“I am so hungry. I haven’t been able to eat all day.” You said as you led the way through the smoked glassed doors into the Virginia Radiology waiting room. It was almost identical to all of other waiting rooms we had sat in. You checked in and I claimed seats for us.

“Here.” I said as I shook your hand when you sat down and gave you forty bucks. “So you stay fat.” I knew you were saving for furniture for your apartment. “You can go after your scan. And pig out.” Katie opened the smoked glass door from the waiting room and sat down next to you, got up, then nervously sat on the chair kitty corner from me.

You went back for your scan and left Katie and me in an awkward silence. I used the book you told me she was reading,The Tao of Poo, as the icebreaker. At first our conversation was angular and we collided over sentences. Before long we talked comfortably about our lives since you broke up: she had graduated with a Degree in Psychology; she loved Richmond where she went to school; she wanted to take a road trip with her sisters to Nashville; I had my own business; I was on a spiritual journey and was taking you with me; our trip to Hawaii the year before you were diagnosed; my backpacking trip through the British Isles with my niece Cindy; my trips to England and Hawaii with Morgan. We had a lot of time to fill while you were getting scanned. But we had a lot to say.

“Katie,” I said. “I am glad you are back in Greg’s life.” Katie’s lips quivered and her eyes got all watery. I think we hugged. “He needs all of our support now.”

I tried not to bring up your failed marriage. I was mostly successful. I just said you were both young and that cancer is really hard at any age. I knew you wanted to keep your vibrations high like we had decided last April at MD Anderson when you got a cancer free check up. You wanted to stay downstream and go with the flow.

“I just need to wait for the Radiologist to confirm the scan is good.” You said as you emerged from the ominous door where you had disappeared nearly two hours before.

“You can go Mom. I know you want to head down south to Bassett. Dad is probably waiting.” I kissed your forehead. “I can stay if you want.” You smiled and said, “Go.”

“You need to feed the machine. “ I said as I picked up my fake Chanel purse. “And don't you dare try to read the scan GRREEEGGG. Remember what happened last time.”

Friday, April 23, 2010

D Day Minus 235 (July 16, 2009)

“You need to sign the birthday cards for Morgan.” I said as I retrieved the cards from my to do stack. “I’ll give them to her this weekend.” I dug for a pen from my purse and tossed it to you from across the kitchen table.

You sighed as you shook the pen, “Do you have a pen that works?” I stole one of Dad’s good ones from the counter.

Over the 4th of July weekend, we picked up five identical cards from the Dollar Store at the mall in Martinsville as payback to Morgan for giving Dad his birthday present on the 29th of June instead of his birthday on the 29th of July. Actually, you told her the wrong date. She trusted you. You were also notorious for giving Dad the same card year after year. You claimed is was due to chemo brain -- but you weren't on chemo for ten years. Anyway, you thought it would be funny for Dad, you, and me to give Morgan identical cards with identical messages wishing her the best 23rd birthday ever – even though we knew she was going to be 22. The plan was to give her the cards a week or two before her birthday, which was on the August 5th, as a practical joke.

“Katie is pretty nervous about sitting in the waiting room with you tomorrow.” You said as you finished writing the last birthday day card message.

“Why?” I said. “I don’t bite.” I rubbed my sore left shoulder from doing No Lipo Lipo in hopes of getting killer calves. It was more of a workout than lifting weights.

“She remembers the break up and probably thinks you are still mad.” I knew Katie was afraid to be alone with me in the same room – even though you had hung out for nearly three months. She'd talk really fast and mumble that she was "really nervous."

“I was never mad. You were kids.” I said. “Besides, I’ve always cared for Katie.” I arched an eyebrow. "Are you more than friends?"

"She's just a good friend." You said as you proceeded to tell me what was off limits for discussion in the waiting room.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

D Day Minus 236 (July 15, 2009)

“Wegman’s called asking for another interview.” A little smile betrayed your charade of nonchalance. I planted my book bag and fanned my shirt to catch a bead of sweat as you re-shut the front door that never shut right the first time

“You really think you are going to get an offer?” You had waited two or three months for Wegman’s to start hiring for the new store in Leesburg. You pursued other options, but said you wanted to prove to yourself that you could do it. You gave up and shut people off the first time around – during your Interferon treatment nearly a year and half before. I pictured you, resume in hand, wearing your one and only suit that you barely filled out to let the store manager at Wegman’s know you serious. And had a lot to offer. You said the book I cajoled you into reading –Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich— was your inspiration. I guess it was, you were the persistent little girl from the book who told her mama’s boss that “my momma says send fifty cents” until she got it.

“Yes,” you said, “but should I call them and tell what is going on?” You fidgeted with your water bottle on the counter.

“Wait until you know for sure.” I said. “They stood by you before. And you know that cancer does not happen to you – it affects everyone that is part of your world. So wait until you know for sure.”

“So.” You trailed as you opened the lid to your water bottle. "Wait."

I nodded then looked up as the epiphany took over. “You aren’t meeting on Friday. Are you?” I bit my lip. “That would suck. You can’t eat before your scan and you get so grumpy when they cut into your feeding time. You eating machine.”

“Next week sometime.” You said. “I need to check my email.” You opened the pantry door on cue like Pavlov’s dog.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

D Day Minus 238 (July 13, 2009)

I picked up your call on the first ring. I forced myself not to call at least ten times within the last hour alone.

“What’s the word?” I asked as I doodled on my latest gratitude list. It wasn’t very long

“Raj’s office just sent out the order for the PET scan.” You said.

“What? I thought you’d get the order through Dr. P. at MD Anderson?”

“Like I said the first two times you called. It is going to be faster to go with the locals than coordinating with MD Anderson.”

“I must have missed that part. I’ve been crazy busy all morning with meetings and freeing up my schedule.” Actually it was quiet morning and I had gone down the hall to bathroom and I thought I might have missed your call. So I called just to make sure. Twice.

“The order has been sent to the same place Raj sent me to last Summer before I moved to Roanoke. It's in Annandale. Raj likes them best. They will call me with the first available appointment.”

“But it’s already 3:00. When will you know?” I forced myself to breathe. “Sorry Buddy, I’m going all Rain Man on you.” Ten minutes to Judge Wapner echoed in my mind.

“Mom, I’ve got things under control. It’s sort of like my life depends on it.” You teased. It wasn’t funny.

“So what now?” I asked

“We wait.” 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

D Day Minus 239 (July 12, 2009)

“What was that,” You said as you galloped and creaked down the stairs from your bedroom. I had let loose one of my guttural diet soda burps in the kitchen.

“Mom,” you are supposed to be cutting back on that crap! You know fake stuff is bad for you.” I half smiled as I remembered the night I fell off wagon. You know, last month when you, Dad, and I did the all night caravan to move all Grandma Joneses stuff from Ohio to Bassett.

“I am cutting back.” I said as I crossed my toes. “I know it is full of all kinds of things that cause cancer.” You raised your eyebrows and tightened your lips so they almost disappeared while you turned on Food TV to watch Everyday Italian. I surfed Amazon while you spelunked through the pantry.

“So, how is Katie?” I asked just after I bought some books on writing for my Kindle. We knew the rhythm of waiting, fearing, and hoping since you found the lump on your groin just before finals your senior year at George Mason over two years ago. “She’s freaked.” You said as you dropped Chex mix into your mouth like dispenser.

“Did she Google melanoma?” I asked knowing how I felt the first time I researched it – the dire statistics on mortality, the stages of melanoma, the standards of cares, the maze of clinical trial information, the quacks, the alternatives. It still made me freak. “Probably, she is a smart girl and would want to know for herself.” My throat tightened and I forced myself to breathe in and out. “I love you, Mom.” I smiled.

“Katie wants to come to my PET scan.” I nodded my head yes, but my heart started racing –“Is she going to stick around if things go south? Are you going to be honest with how you feel about her? Are there really second chances?" You touched my arm and said, “She really wants to be there.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

D Day Minus 240 (July 11, 2009)

“You doing ok, Buddy?” I asked as I hugged you in front of passenger pickup at Dulles. You gave me the thumbs up and your half smile. I forced myself not to talk about scheduling the PET scan since we couldn’t do anything until Monday. We talked about starting some type of martial arts class. I broke into my rendition of Kung Fu Fighting. Dad rolled his eyes. And we laughed. Dad talked about doing some more work that weekend on an upcoming proposal. You said you and Katie had plans that night. You mentioned something about maybe going back to Wegman’s for another interview or some type of meeting next week. We talked a lot, but didn’t say anything. It didn't matter. Seeing you smile and having you in the back seat was all I needed at that moment.

While you were out with Katie that night, Dad and I had a heated discussion (I raised my voice - Dad shhhhd me). He warned me that falling apart was not going to help the situation. He said something like, “I have to treat the cancer like a cold or something chronic and deal with things as them come. That is how I have to deal.” I thought to myself,"It is cancer, not a chronic disease – butt munch." I closed my eyes and tried to replace my thoughts about the dire mortality statistics with thoughts of you in your own house complaining about weeds in the lawn. I calmed down and gave Dad the middle finger, which made him laugh. I told Dad that crying was all I could now and that I would be better after a good cry. So he held me while I sobbed for about an hour. I buried my head in a pillow when I really started to wail so you and Katie wouldn’t hear -- just in case you came back. My nose got really red and stuffy – like Rudoph’s. During my last gasps of sobbing I asked Dad, “Do you think the cancer is back?” He didn’t want to commit, but I could tell it was back with his answers when I grilled him about the appointment with Dr. P. “How did he say suspicious? What was his body language? Was surgery an option? If the cancer, comes back what kind of treatment was the most likely? Does it have to be in Houston? What happened with the preventative vaccine trial?”

Dad and I stayed in our room for the rest of the night. Dad brought up his laptop so he could work in bed and stay with me. I watched some trash TV, while I weighed whether to read about epigenetics, meditate, do self hypnosis or listen to an audiobook by Janet Evanovich on writing. I heard you and Katie open the door downstairs. I guess the two of you had fun – I heard Katie’s infectious laugh and knew she was more than a friend – you liar. I reminded myself to breathe when I thought about the possibility of cancer and smiled as I thought about our mock Star Wars light saber fight during the fireworks at Roanoke last week with Morgan on the Fourth of July. I did the Darth Vader breathing and said “I am your MOTHER.” Both you and Morgan shook your head and said, “Yep.”

Dad caught my half smile and asked “What are you up to Animal?” I smiled again and said “I have a date with Kelly Howell.” I put on my earbuds and the track on loud to mask Dad’s mumbling to listen to Kelly’s Healing meditation that I mentally shared with you.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

D Day Minus 241 (July 10, 2009)

“There is something on my scan in my abdomen near the surgical site.” You said as my heart sunk down to my toes. The fear of the roller coaster of nearly two and half years came rushing back.

“It’s probably nothing.” You said. “I have to get a PET scan in Northern Virginia.”

I repeated “I don’t understand. You’ve been feeling so good. You were on the cusp of a new job in management at the new Leesburg Store with Wegman’s.”

“We don’t know anything yet.” You said as I logged off my computer at work. I had been in the middle of one of my fun assignments playing with some new analysis tool and it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I had been jamming to “Roses” by OutKast. Remember having me listen to it on your computer last month and showing me all the dance moves on the video.

I didn’t say much on the other end as I imagined all the possibilities – surgery, chemo, trials, and death.

“You are being very upstream.” You said throwing my words back at me.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked. “He’s in the room at the Rotary House taking care of some stuff for work. I’m on the Sky Bridge.” I imagined you on the Sky Bridge at MD Anderson in Houston walking your lanky walk between the Mays Clinic and the Main Building, navigating doctors who rushed between buildings and patients and families in various stages of hope and fear. I was pissed I wasn’t there with you, because I wouldn’t have left your side. I would have been walking the Sky Bridge with you. I knew Dad had a lot on his plate with work and managing Grandma’s bills and care. Still, I was pissed at Dad too. Or maybe a little jealous. I was very upstream and I wasn’t ready to go downstream. No matter what you said.

You escaped when your friend Katie called you on the the other line. I mumbled something about getting through this and needing some time to get centered and being fine in the end.

I made it to the parking lot at work before I did the full arm snot cry. I called my little sister Janiene and your sister Morgan on the way home and gave them the Reader’s Digest upbeat version of your news. Then I hid for the rest of the day. I cleaned, did my yoga practice with Bryan Kest, called you and Dad a couple of times as you searched for barbecue in Houston, and cried between distractions. Around 3 AM, I fell asleep to track 2 of Kelly Howell’s “Faith” meditation.