Saturday, August 28, 2010

D Day Minus 177 (September 13, 2009): Dark Passengers

“What are you cheesing about?” Dad asked, queuing up the next episode of Dexter, on the FIOS box in our bedroom. We were marathoning through Season 3, so we’d be all set when it started up again on September 27th.  I tucked myself tighter underneath the covers to protect the guilty and institute damage control. Dad sniffed and curled his nose. In total unadulterated disgust, he said, “Nance, what have been eating? It’s the diet crap you’ve been drinking. Isn’t it? You’d better knock that off.” I bottled up my laugh. I didn’t want to anger the beast. That wouldn’t have been pretty. All I can say is you and me, meatloaf, flight from San Francisco to Honolulu, gasping for air, watering eyes, and you trying not to laugh. There! Now you get the picture. But that’s not why I was cheesing – that was just a bonus.

Sometimes you just need to let loose, and I meant that on many levels, and have some fun. Why not? You’d had a great day at Wegmans sharing the good news about your clinical trial appointment on Thursday. Dad and I spent the day catching up on Sterling chores and feeling like we accomplished something--for once. Dad even fixed dinner, steak for you guys and chicken for me (I didn’t want Mad Cow). You were in your room, escaping to Mario Land with Katie and laughing really loud. So loud, Dad turned up the volume on the television. He was a little annoyed, but I loved that you were having fun. What IS the deal with Mario jumping on your head? Never mind. You don’t have to answer, because I’d forget anyway.

Let me get back to why I was cheesing for real. I had this idea hit me between my third eye when I was watching Dexter. I know, you think Dexter is stupid. You told me so. Whenever I mentioned it, you rolled your eyes and asked, “Don’t you have something better to do?” Actually I didn’t. It was fun to escape in Dexter’s world --a sociopathic serial killer, who called his urge to kill, his Dark Passenger. Anyway, his adoptive dad, Harry, was a cop. Harry knew about Dexter’s Dark Passenger and wanted to keep it under control so he’d fit in. Harry developed a code for Dexter. Harry’s code was something like this, stay in control so you don’t get caught, only bad guys who got through the system could be killed (and only if there was no question of their guilt). Deb was Harry’s real daughter and Dexter’s adoptive sister. Deb was jealous of Dexter because Harry paid more attention to him. Harry adopted Dexter after his mother, an informant (he was having an affair with), was brutally murdered in a cargo box. Two year old Dexter and his older brother were left to wallow in their mother’s blood. I know it sounds all brutal, but Dexter really is a dark comedy not a morbid scary show. You probably don’t believe me. Because you refused to checked it out. Like we both said, people don’t learn through words. They learn by experiencing it. All I can say is ---your loss. You didn’t want the experience.

I know I’m like a runaway train with no brakes, but there is a point. There’s a lot more to Dexter, but I’m leaving out the extra parts for now. And I’ll stop with the yada yada. Wait, I lied. I forgot to tell you. Dexter is a forensic analyst who specializes in blood spatter patterns. He works for some Miami Police Department along with his sister Deb.  The same place where his (now dead) Dad, Harry, was a heroic icon.

Dad interrupted my thoughts, so I had to take a break from my idea. He was getting suspicious because I had a cheesy smile super-glued on. When I glanced up at Dad, he braced himself for another wave of dinner after effects- and put a pillow over his nose. I let him think I was stinky. I didn’t want to tell him about my Dark Passenger idea. Not until I told you first. Anyway, you know and I know some things you want to keep to yourself. Some things aren’t worth repeating. And some things are better left unsaid. You decide.

“Did you know Dexter married his sister Deb from the show in real life?” I asked Dad, intentionally trying to annoy him. It worked, because Dad sighed. “I’m trying to watch the show.” I thumbed the remote and paused the show. I babbled, “I thought I heard it on E! and Googled it. They got married last January. Can you imagine them together?” Dad said, “Interesting.” But he really meant, “Shut up Nance, I want to watch the show.” I unpaused the show. Dad’s eyes were front and center once again, like Pavlovian’s dog.

So I know I’ve kept you waiting like forever to hear my idea. Well here it is. Drumroll please – air drumroll will suffice. What if Dexter’s Dark Passenger could kill your Dark Passenger? He could get really small and get into your body somehow. I haven’t figured how he’d bring his kill kit, but that’s just the minor details. Dexter could set up a kill room somehow. He’d have Tom Petty’s , Don’t Come Around Here No More, blaring in the background. Because, I know you like Tom Petty. The plastic laden kill room would be plastered with faces of all the people that melanoma killed. Dexter would tell your melanoma what it did wrong and how it’s going to have to pay for what it did. Then he’d do it -- take his power tools and eradicate your Dark Passenger. Cool, right? If that isn’t working for you maybe your Dark Passenger could be turned into a video game. That way you and Katie could crush your Dark Passenger with theWII. You could find cheats on the Internet and everything. Or what if, you could just reprogram yourself so your body was perfectly aligned and the cancer couldn’t grow? Don’t laugh at me. I’m serious. Maybe we’re looking at the cancer all wrong. And you know it really would be nice, if it were that easy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

D Day Minus 178 (September 12, 2009): If.....................

If.” You said, standing to the side of my yoga mat, dropping a basket of clean clothes next to you. I lost my balance and fell from tree pose. We didn’t know anything about the BRAF trial, except for what we Googled yesterday at Bush International -- after we ate at Pappadeaux. It was only Saturday and we wouldn’t know anything about the trial until Monday. We both knew that! But, it didn’t stop you from checking your MD Anderson account before you left for Wegmans this morning. It didn’t stop me from asking you to check again, when you got home. We wanted a plan today. That wasn’t going to happen. So we coped by distractions. Me with yoga. You with laundry.

If.” You said, handing me the remote, like you read my mind. I thumbed the remote and stopped Bryan Kest in his tracks. Tree pose (on the other side) was just going to have to wait.

If.” You said again. “Things don’t work out.” You scratched your neck with your right hand. “I don’t want a sad funeral. I want a celebration. And I want to go back to Hawaii. I want our family to scatter my ashes in the ocean near Waikiki.” I forced myself not to cry. Then you’d be consoling me. This was not about me! So, I just listened to the rhythm of your voice and took in everything you said.

If I die, I want you to know what I want. You’re the only one I can talk to about this without freaking out.” I flinched when you said the “d” word without a joke attached to it. We knew the odds with melanoma so death, and living life to the fullest, was a constant undercurrent. We just never said the “d” word out loud in the mixed company of melanoma and cancer. It made it too real.

If you die before me?” I said. “Do you promise to let me know there is something more? I hope I’m the one nagging you or torturing you from the other side. But..."I bit my lip and forced myself not to sit down on the weight bench next to the elliptical trainer.

If you die before me, will you let me know if I was right about knowing you before you were born? I know we chose each other. I know there are no accidents.” Then I smiled. “But sometimes, I forget, and I’d like some proof.”

If we really are worm food,” I looked straight into your green eyes and smiled again. “I don’t want to know.” That made you smile too. You believed that when you died, you were just worm food. That was up until you almost died last February. After that you didn’t.

If you don’t get in this trial, we’ll figure something out.” I said. “I’d give up everything for you to be better and to just complain about work and traffic – normal things. I wish money and things could get rid of your cancer. But it can’t. I wish I could give up a body part, because I would. But it wouldn’t matter. Stupid, stupid, stupid cancer.” You hugged me really hard and said, “I know and you already have.”

If we need to move to Houston.” I said. “I will.”

If anything happens.” I added. “I will be there--always.” You hugged me again and picked up your laundry and said, “Finish your yoga.”

Right in the middle of corpse pose, you bounced down the steps to the basement and said, “I’ve got an appointment for next Thursday."  I jumped up and danced for joy.  And so did you. Then I ran to make reservations and dared to think: If...................

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

D Day Minus 179 (September 11, 2009): Every Cloud has a Silver Lining

“The CT Scan reveals a tumor within the root of the mesentery, which is unchanged in size, measuring 5.7 cm in largest dimension. There is, however, progression in the mesenteric lymph nodes, with an example increasing in size from 1.2 cm to 2.8 cm. Additionally, there is another node increasing in size from 1.8 cm to 2.6 cm, as well as increase in size of a portacaval lymph node.” Dr. P said it like we should fully comprehend what he meant. How could we? He sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown, “wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.” And looked like one of the aliens on your old tee shirt. You know -- from your middle school shirt rotation. Remember, it had the pictures of nine aliens labeled so you’d now if they were happy, glad, sad, mad or what have you.  But, they all looked the same -- and showed no emotion. That used to make me laugh because it epitomized your dry humor. But, it wasn’t funny now.

I wanted to ask you, but forgot, do you think detached is an emotion? Because, that is the label I’d put under Dr. P’s picture. It’s how all the doctors look when the chemo isn’t working. Don’t you think?

“So did the chemo work?” You asked with more patience than I could've mustered.

Dr. P shook his head “No.”

I gripped the zebra pen, I brought for good luck so tight, my knuckes were white. I turned to the dog-eared page of my "question notebook" that held my running list of questions. And scribbled down some more.

Dr. P had you lie down flat on the blue naugahyde examination table. Then he poked your belly, felt under your armpits, checked your incision, and did some other checks that warranated privacy and dignity -- so I left the room.  And stood in the hallway. And wondered who's lives are changing behind the doors of the other examination rooms.  Because you and I know lives are changed behind those doors.  Lives are detached or reattached based on some stupid scan and diagnosis.   

“What’s next?” You asked fastening up a faded blue gown. I couldn’t help but think it looked the same as the one you were wearing last April when we were told the cancer was gone. Then I assumed my place in the corner -- pen and paper at the ready.

“You have the BRAF gene. We tested for the gene when they removed the cancer last February.”

“What does that mean?” You asked. I scribble ‘BRAF???’ on my notebook because I didn’t know to spell it.

“There’s a Phase I Clinical trial. It has been getting good preliminary results. Researchers think that if they stop the BRAF gene then they can stop the cancer from growing. The trial drug inhibits the BRAF gene.” Dr. P smiled, just a little. “They just opened up the trial here. I think you are a good candidate. But you’ll be seeing another doctor in Phase I Clinical Trials. I’ll contact him today if you are interested.”

I scribbled more questions down. I pressed down on the pen so hard it left impressions ten pages deep. I squeezed my brain to wrap my head around the thought of Clinical Trials. Not, really but I tried. The minute I heard Clinical Trials, I thought lab rats, red tape, the end of the road, awful tests, and mad scientists. And maybe hope – with a little h.

“What about the TIL Trial and surgery?” You asked, because you knew Dad would grill both of us on it.

“The cancer is in a place where surgery would make it worse. If a tumor develops that we could harvest, maybe some place easier to get to, then TIL might be an option.” Dr. P. said, shoulders relaxing. I noticed your shoulders were relaxing too. Mine, on the other hand, were still up around my ears. That is when Dr. P. gave me an opening for questions and I started firing and my “public” Rainman came out along with my notebook of questions.

“Can we see the Phase I Doctor today? What about insurance? What if this doesn’t work? How much time would we need to spend in Houston? Can Greg still work? What is the treatment like? What do the pharmaceutical companies pay for? Why can’t we come back to you as our doctor? What about insurance? How long until we know? If its growing, why doesn’t Greg feel worse? Is it going to make it worse? What if we did nothing?”

I didn’t ask about alternative therapies, because I was too afraid. But I did think about it. You did too.

Dr. P said we had to wait until next week to learn any answers. Except one. He wouldn't be our primary doctor if you got accepted on the trail.

We only wanted one thing. Hope with a capital H! Could having a defective gene give it to us?  We hoped so and spread the word.  You did when you broke the news to Katie and your posse at Wegmans.  I did when I dealt with Dad's inquistion, Morgan's sadness, and Aunt Janiene's chihuahuasness.

You know without hope, you don't have nothing. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

D Day Minus 180 (September 10, 2009): Oz (Part 6): Toto Must Die

I was dead tired after spending over twelve hours with you in Oz. And I couldn’t fall asleep. I even listened to three of Kelly Howell’s meditations – The Living Prayer; Faith; and Healing.  Nothing worked.  Maybe it was all the caffeine from Diet Coke and Mountain Dew.  Or maybe, it was fear.  Fear of finally knowing. Did the chemo work or not?

Don’t you think it’s ironic?  I’d spent the last three weeks rainmanning “whether the chemo worked.” It went on every day and all day – during meetings at work, talking to Morgan and Aunt Janiene on the phone, talking to Dad talked about his day, doing dishes, listening to random people yammer, driving my hand-me down Miata, and working on stuff at my job.  It only stopped, when I was with you. Now I was just scared – maybe the Wizard wouldn’t have any answers. Or we’d hate them. Then what? No ruby slippers would get us out of this pickle. 

I used my iPod for a night light to make sure you were still there – and breathing.  I was extra careful not to wake you.  I only wanted to see your face, like I did when you were my baby with fire engine red curls.  You were too little to remember.  I’d check to make sure were breathing and end up waking you up.   Dad would get mad, because it took so long to get you to sleep. And we worked crazy hours in the Navy.  Sleep was not an option a lot of the time.  So, don’t get mad at Dad either.  We were both tired and figuring out how to be parents. 

You were sprawled out on the bed with your feet dangling out the end.  I thought about how your feet needed to breathe so the sheets had to be untucked.  It was one of your golden rules.  You didn’t want your feet to get all claustrophobic.  I smiled, then frowned.  It hit me, like the Dorothy’s house hit the Wicked Witch of the East.  You found out you had cancer, the same age I found out I was having you.  Funny where you mind goes in the still of the night. 

Thoughts of CTs, blood draws, MRIs, yellow brick roads, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and Oz were punctuated by flushing toilets and running water from the other hotel rooms.  I folded my arms under my head and laid flat on my back.  Then it was my side. Then I hugged the pillow. Then I pushed the pillow away and did the whole sequence on the other side. Then I had to get up and pee and add to the symphony of running water and flushing toilets.  Then I had to drink some water.  I made sure not to crinkle the plastic water bottle, by drinking so hard, like I usually did.  I tried to be quiet.  Really!  I checked to make sure you didn’t move just to be sure.  I even forced myself not to check email because the tapping of the keyboard would always wake you.  After all that I went back to bed and stared at the ceiling and tried not to listen to some men talking in the courtyard below.

And I still couldn’t sleep. I covered my head with the blanket so you wouldn’t be bothered by the iPod light.  I searched for an audio book to listen to, but stopped. Now that stupid dog Toto wouldn’t leave my thoughts alone. Damn yapper dog nipping at my brain.  You know, I think Toto is the cancer.  If Toto would have behaved, then the mean old lady wouldn’t have taken him.  Then Dorothy wouldn’t have had to leave the house during a tornado to save him. She would have been safe in the shelter with her family.  Damn, damn, damn Toto.  I know they had to tell a story, but that damn Toto wreaked a lot of havoc.  This is what I think.  Just so you know.  Toto must die.

You know how I don’t like to think mean thoughts.  That’s why I forced myself to think of at least ten things to be thankful for just so we’d have some good juju.
  1. I was here with you.  Even if the days are long, I wouldn’t want to be any other place in the world.
  2. You could eat breakfast in the morning at the Hotel.  You’ll get to eat the waffles shaped like Texas like you did last March with Dad.
  3. We got to sleep in until 7:00 in the morning. 
  4. Your appointment with Dr. P was at 9:30, so we had plenty of buffer to get back to Bush International since our flight didn’t leave until 5:00. 
  5. We flew Continental and could change our flight if we had to.
  6. MD Anderson is world class and is the best place for cancer.  We were doing all we could.
  7. Dad, Morgan, Katie, and Aunt Janiene - even though she can be a chihuahua.
  8. You had your own insurance and didn’t need to worry if your soon-to-be-ex continued coverage.
  9. You had Wegmans support and I had my customer’s support.   Both our jobs were flexible and the people cared about us.
  10. You knew how much I loved you.  And I knew how much you loved me.  It didn’t matter if we got on each other nerves.  We knew, we were only annoyed with each other because we weren’t keeping up with ourselves.
  11. I was here with you.
  12. I was here with you.
  13. I was here with you
  14. I was here with you.
I rolled over and checked the alarm clock on the night stand between us.  It  was 11:59. When we see the Wizard tomorrow.  I’m going to tell him, “Toto must die.” Really!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Day Minus 180 (September 10, 2009): Oz (Part 5): Oz Didn’t Give Nothin to the Tin Man

“No buffet at the Rotary House. It’d be a waste. And it’d just go through me.” You said, eyes right, confirming there were no signs of life at the Waterfall Café.  Not even someone cleaning up the tables.

“Will you be okay with Café Anderson again?”  You asked, as we started the quarter mile trek on the Sky Bridge back to the Main Building.  You nudged me to the left side. So the golf carts, shuttling people between destinations, didn't run me over.  

“That’s fine. I’ll get another vegetable platter like I had for lunch. You know how I eat the same thing over and over again.” I said.    

“I know.  You find one thing and eat it until we’re all sick of watching you eat it.”  You said with a lot of sarcasm, the funny kind, not the mean kind.  You closed the half-empty bag of Chex Mix.  The one I'd forced on you a few minutes ago after you finally finished your Brain MRI. And stuffed it back in the zebra shopping bag slung over my shoulder.   

I was relieved, we weren’t going to the buffet.  Then I wouldn’t feel guilty about not getting the lemon cake after paying twenty four bucks a pop.  I’d been stressing off and on all day about getting fat since we couldn’t walk five miles on the Sky Bridge. I know it wasn’t your fault.  Stupid tests and cancer got in the way. I couldn’t leave the waiting room.  I didn’t want you to be alone.  Ever!  
You’d think after so many years, I wouldn’t hear the voices teasing me about being fat.  But I did! I really wasn’t that fat, but when you’re a kid, you’ll believe anything. And names like Fat Freckle stick like super glue. The more I tried not to think about Fat Freckle, the more Fat Freckle things happened.  Jeez!  Have you noticed, the more you try not to think about things like that, the more you do?  Did it happen to you when you thought about cancer and being healed?  Is that why it came back? Wait, I don't really want to know, so pretend I never brought it up. 

Back to happy thoughts.

I liked that you and Morgan believed in magic, not Fat Freckle. Remember, the Secret Admirer, you and Morgan had on Valentine’s Day. Each year, you’d get unexpected surprises left on the front door.  Both of you thought there really was some special magic in the world.  And I let you believe it. In fact, you believed in the Secret Admirer for a long, long time, until you saw empty boxes in the trash can in the garage.  Then you got wise.  At least you didn't blab to Morgan as soon as you found out.  Oh and by the way, I count as a Secret Admirer and I did make magic.  You believed -- for a while. 

Back to my fat fear, before I went off on that last tangent.  I promise.  I really was trying to get a handle on my workouts.  Sometimes working out was the only thing I could control.  Sort of like you and your ‘no food’ policy in the ‘milk truck.’   Yesterday, I did slow and heavy high intensity weight lifting before you and Dad got home so we could go to BWI.  I rushed home from work and did it like it was some secret. It was my second “experiment” with high intensity workouts (ala Nautilus and Mike Mentzer). The workouts were short and could be done once or twice a week with supposedly good return on investment.  I worked out so hard, I thought my benign positional vertigo (BPV) was back.   

Remember when BPV hit me the first time? I was doing donkey kicks during my workout du jour in the basement.  It was during a big snow storm.  You were in middle school playing video games upstairs, happy to miss school.  Dad made me bran muffins for breakfast so the kitchen smelled like bran and applesauce, which was actually a good thing.  Morgan was still in bed sleeping. Dad was shoveling snow, while I worked out.  Come to think about it, his workout was probably harder and maybe I should have helped.  Hindsight is always 20/20, don’t you think?  

When BPV hit, I was so dizzy and nauseous, I couldn’t walk. Instead, I crept up the basement stairs, belly to the ground, like an army infantryman.   Do you remember me sprawled out on the kitchen floor, puking my guts out? I really thought I was going to die. You asked, “What did I do?” like I asked for it because I worked out too hard.  You ran outside and got Dad and made sure I was in good hands.  To make a short story long, my workout yesterday was like that.  Almost, but not quite.  Well, maybe for ten minutes.  But it made me relive BPV, puking, and the snow.  

I didn’t tell you about the BPV feeling because you’d tease me and tell me I was ‘fine’ whatever that meant. Or that I needed to take better care of myself.  I didn't want you to worry about my demons along with me. So throughout, our stay in Oz today, I popped two or three sticks of Dentyne every time I thought that I couldn’t work out.  I had a tic. I know.  I know.  I had a problem! The wad, clenched between my teeth, put me at the two and half ‘plenty-pack’ mark.  I know that’s a lot of Dentyne – each pack had eighteen sticks. 

We walked the Sky Bridge, which was pretty sparse, since it was getting late.  And I yammered about the stupid vegetable platter.  I didn't mention anything about skipping the corn muffin with jalapenos because I didn't want to get fat.  You tugged at the zebra shopping bag, pretending to drink water.  That was your signal that you wanted a bottle of water. I pulled out the second to last bottle of water as we passed the sign with directions to the Rotary House.

A golf cart carrying some fat guy from the administrative office almost ran me over.  I must have crossed the invisible line between pedestrian and shuttle cart.  You pulled me back, but didn’t say anything.  Probably because you were distracted by the ringing of your cell.  It was Katie. She was annoyed you didn’t call all afternoon.  But I knew.  And you knew. You couldn’t. Your cell was in lockdown in the patient lockers because you were waiting for your MRI.  Which was nearly an eternity. Just ask me.  I'll tell you again and again and again.

I dropped back and you walked ahead.  Both of us, creating a semi-private cone of silence—for Katie’s sake and your sake.  You talked until we walked passed the aquarium in the Main Building.  The colors in the corridor and the fish aquarium weren’t so vivid at 6:30 at night.  Nearly twelve hours earlier, I was in awe of the all the blues, oranges, and yellows.  Oz was fading. Or maybe it was just me.   

You got a hamburger at the grill.  I just got the vegetable platter from the Home Cooking line.  Even though I really did want the corn muffin with jalapenos, too. We were able to sit at one of our usual spots, the one in the back corner.  Which really wasn't that hard, because there weren't many people there.  

"Katie doesn't think I care as much as before." You said. "I care more than ever.  Last time I was trying to please her and was not really sure of myself.  This time, I know who I am. And what I want." You put down your hamburger and sighed.  "I know what is important and what matters."  You didn't say because of the cancer.  You didn't have to.

"You really are not the same person as before. None of us are.  We all are constantly changing at different speeds. But you've had to learn a lot and try to keep up more than anyone else I know. And you know, and I know, that you have to love yourself first.  And be a little selfish.  You can't expect someone else to do it. Katie just hasn't had to expand as fast as you.  You didn't have much of a choice."  I said, sort of wishing I got something else to eat.  The potatoes were luke-warm and soggy. So was the cabbage. But the plate was only about 350 calories. 

"You've got to find a way to stop beating that drum." I added. 

"Is your food okay?" You asked because I hadn't eating much off my plate.  "Do you want me to get you one of the corn muffins with the jalapenos?" 

That is when I realized, we were really learning from each other. I didn't have all the answers.  Neither did you.  But, I kept beating the drum of being fat and not good enough and not loving myself enough -- even though I thought I hid it. We were all beating some variation of the drum: Katie, Morgan, Dad, and me.  None of us really took what we preached to heart.  We had the luxury of not having cancer. You were the only who got it.  That you need to love yourself first. Then you could love others unconditionally. Not with perfection. I knew that because we both talked endlessly the past summer about never getting it right, because it never gets done.  And that it is perfectly fine. But like we always said, words don't teach, experience does.  And this was teaching me.

"Get me two." I said, pulling a fiver out of my wallet. "I won't get fat. And I deserve it. It's been a long day." You smiled and trotted off to get me muffins. 

You never knew the lesson of love, corn muffins, Oz, and the Tin Man that just smacked me up side the head. Or maybe you did.  Believe in Zebras. Believe in Yourself. Believe in Love. And Believe in Miracles.  My Tin Man had a heart and the only thing for sure is, Oz didn't give nothing to the Tin Man. That he didn't already have.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

D Day Minus 180 (September 10, 2009): Oz (Part 4): If I Only Had a Brain

I had brain on the mind while I sat in the waiting room, with all the other test subjects and their entourages. Waiting and waiting and waiting for you to finish your MRI. I wasn’t sure why you needed a brain MRI and what it would prove. Did they think the cancer jumped all the way from your abdomen to your brain – even on chemo? It didn’t make sense to me, but then again none of this made sense. I don’t think it was supposed to.

It was really cold in the waiting room. I seriously considered stealing a faded blue straggler hospital blanket (that reminded me of Navy issue bootcamp blankets) someone left on the empty recliner next to me. Then I remembered Aunt Janiene telling me about the Oprah Show with “recycled” airline blankets and other people’s cooties. Maybe the cooties were true. Or maybe Aunt Janiene was tricking me into making her flannel blankets to take to the movies. I reached for the blanket. And stopped. I decided not to take any chances – just in case.

I fired up my zebra skinned Netbook, which made my thighs really hot, but didn’t help my nose or fingers. I hated how cold they kept the waiting room. You’d think it would be a little warmer with all these sick people. I’ll only complain for a little bit more and then I’ll stop. I really do have Reynaud’s and I know caffeine doesn’t help. You don’t have to tell me that again. My son has cancer, I got you trumped. I knew that would shut your pie hole. Do you know how much I love you? To infinity and beyond.

The Hospital Wifi sucked again, as usual, so I broke out my wireless USB to check my email and see how much damage I could do on eBay or Amazon. You knew the drill if I found a good deal or something; don’t tell Dad; hide the boxes in the “spare” bedroom Dad never goes into; and follow standard operating procedures. If you get detained, just give him your name, rank, and serial number. Be a good soldier.

As soon as I got a connected and Messenger was up and running Aunt Chihuahua was at again, with the third degree. I played for a while. How many ways can you say I don’t know? Or we’ll know more tomorrow? Or I’m tired? And scared? I knew -- you knew--exactly what I meant. That’s why I made myself invisible online.

Then I got to wishing I had magical powers and could really make myself invisible and really small. Then I could watch them do the MRI. But then I got to thinking I’d need magical powers to understand what the heck the MRI meant. The only thing I knew for sure was that it was NOT a good thing to light up like a Christmas Tree – most of the time. But then you and I had a tendency to confuse what was normal with what wasn’t. All I am going to say is you and me, Starbucks in Roanoke, disks with latest scan, laptop, January, totally wrong. That sunk in until one of the “blue seersucker jacketed volunteers,” asked for “Family of the Millers,” or some last name that started with an “M.”

Once the “M” family went to some hidden world with the volunteer, I got back to thinking. Wouldn’t it be awesome to see what the radiologists couldn’t see like what you were thinking? How your mind and thoughts and beliefs actually affect the cancer? Is there really mind over matter? Or wouldn’t it be cool to see your memories and play them back with the same feeling you felt? Like when you were two and I was on  maternity bed rest before we really knew Morgan was really Morgan. What was it like for you to have me all to yourself without work or any distractions (except FASTOP, caffeine free Diet Coke and black licorice on our clandestine missions in my blue Mazda GLC at high noon)? Could you play it back like on hologram like R2D2 did with Princess Leia’s plea for help in the first Star Wars?

I couldn’t focus much on eBay or Amazon, no matter, how good the deals were. I was too wrapped up in memories, thoughts and quantum physics. And lots of questions, with no answers. If it all depends whether something in quantum physics is a particle or wave, what does IT depend on? Is it your thoughts? If you could catch a memory in your brain, would it be a particle? If you could wiggle the memory, could it vibrate like a wave? If it was a wave, how could I tune to the freqency? If I imagined your cancer gone, could I make it so? If I thought about it too much, would I make it bigger? If you focus on killing the cancer, are you giving it more ammunition? Are all these tests only making it bigger, because it is all we can think about? Why can they send a man to moon, but they can’t cure cancer? What really is the mind-body connection? Why is there more cancer, the more we fight it? Do people really have spontaneous remissions? Would if come back if you kept testing for it because you were focusing on it again?

I thought in circles for about an hour until Dad called me from work. It was nearly 6:00, and I’d been in the waiting room for three and half hours. Then I saw you walking toward me, lanky and tall like a scarecrow minus the straw. I know you have brain, Scarecrow, but I’m losing my mind.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

D Day Minus 180 (September 10, 2009): Oz (Part 3): Click Your Heels

“Get a table with an umbrella, if you can.” I said loud enough so a lady in a tan suit with matching pumps turned her head. She was about my age, with BIG Houston hair, wearing enough perfume to give me a headache. You nodded and left me to the chaos of the four cashier lines in the Waterfall Café stacked up six people deep. It seemed like an eternity just to pay for the three vegetable platter special that was mostly potato wedges, your “dinner roll,” and my new vice a “BAD” – a big a**ed Diet Coke.

A couple of the really good potato wedges fell off my plate when I tried to break a twenty loose from my wallet. Some big hulking guy in scrubs wearing black Crocs, like I had at home, stepped on them before I could pick them up. I was glad he didn’t notice it was me. I was even more gladder the cafeteria patrol picked them up before the grandma with the royal blue velour leisure suit (complaining about how she didn’t think she could eat “that big of a sandwich”) slipped on them.

You waved me to a table that had a lot crumbs on it and a couple wadded napkins that reminded me of tumbleweeds at high noon-- just like on the old westerns Grandpa Wright always watches. Our table didn't have an umbrella.  All the other tables did, but not ours.

"This is all there is." You said, almost curling your lip like Elvis, in disgust.

When I sat down, you picked up the napkins by the tips of your thumb and index finger so you wouldn't catch any awful disease.  And left to go "find a bathroom to wash the crap off your hands."  I covered up the crumbs with my tray and tried not to watch a family, who had the awe struck, “we’re not in Kansas anymore look of Oz,” chew with their mouths opened. Oh, and I ate “your dinner roll” while you were gone because I felt bad that you still were fasting for your brain MRI.

When you came back, I thought I saw Dr. Patel, your Oncologist, but wasn't sure, since I didn't have my prescription glassess on. You'd just put your phone back in your shorts, so you didn't notice squat.   So I didn't ask.

“I’ve been getting texts all morning from friends at Wegmans and George Mason. Jeremy, who’s another manager from Wegmans. Julie both our boss. And Jessica who I went to school with. She’s the one who’s having a baby girl. Oh, and Morgan.” You said feeling the vibration of another incoming text. “They all were letting me know they were thinking of me.”

The sun peeked out from the clouds and made it really bright so I got out my favorite “successory,” the “professional grade sunglasses.” You kept at your texting, while I finished the last of my roasted potato wedges. I didn’t like the green beans so I filed that away under “never again.”

After I threw away my trash, I decided not to get out my zebra skinned netbook. Besides the wireless signal always sucked on the patio, and I didn’t feel like searching for my USB wireless card. You sat across from me resting your chin in the palm of your hand. And we both took turns trying not to yawn.

We had two more hours to kill.  And I didn’t think you wanted to do too much walking after your fun-filled barium enema infested CT fiesta this morning.

I sighed and said. “I hope we can get a room at the Rotary House next time. At least we could take a nap between appointments.”

“Yeah. That would be a good thing.” You said, shifting your chin to the other hand.  We sat there staring at each other, too tired to make a move. 

I wished Dad were here with me.  I wished Katie were here with you.  I wished you didn't have cancer.  I wished Houston wasn't so far away from Sterling.  I wished you could eat.  I wished I had ruby slippers.  I wished I were Dorothy from Oz. Then I'd click my heels, and  ..................................


Saturday, August 14, 2010

D Day Minus 180 (September 10, 2009): Oz (Part 2): Courage and the Cowardly Lion

“Just cause I can’t eat until this afternoon.” You said after making your final deposit at the lab – the urine specimen. “Doesn’t mean you can’t.” You were kind of snitty, but I knew you were hungry yourself.

“Mom, you need to take care of yourself.” You said that a little more softer. Out of the corner of my eye there was an unbalanced (literally not mentally) man in his fifties trying to steady himself on a walker to take his turn up at bat for labs. Some lady that was with him, helped him get going, but she wasn’t doing a very good job. I wasn’t ignoring you. I was just making sure walker guy was okay.

“I didn’t think my stomach growling was so loud that you could hear it all the way back where they drew your blood draw.” I teased a little and you smiled a little. Seriously, while you were back there, my stomach was growling. It was so loud, a lady with a blue patterned cancer doo rag, smiled at me. I wondered, if she wondered, if I had cancer and couldn’t eat because I had fast for tests like you. I tried to look like I didn’t have cancer—whatever that was —just so she would know.

My stomach growled again so I popped three pieces of Denytne. I tried to make it look like one piece, so the doo rag lady wouldn’t think I was a pig. Then I stuffed the wrappers in the coin pocket of my skinny legged jeans because I was too lazy to go through the obstacle course of people’s feet and bags to get to the trash can. I thought if I took a giant swig of warm Diet Mountain Dew, my stomach wouldn’t growl anymore. But it didn’t really help. I think it made the growling even louder or maybe I just noticed it more.

“I’ll get some real food, if we can stop by the Canteen and get you some snacks so you'll have something on hand to eat, when you can. It’s just down the hall on the right. The snacks are a lot cheaper there because it is run by volunteers.” I said as we turned into the Canteen.

You got your haul, Chex Mix, Gummy Worms, and Skittles, to have just in case we couldn’t get you real food right after your brain scan this afternoon. I smiled when you picked up the Skittles and said, “Skittles fix everything.”

I took the brown paper goody bag and stuffed it into my zebra shopping bag with all my electronics, a couple of warm Diet Mountain Dews, and three bottles of water for you. I had to readjust the straps on the bag a couple of times because they were getting heavy and digging into my shoulder. I didn’t say anything about the bag being heavy, because I didn’t want you to take over.

I led the charge to Café Anderson, but lost my bearings on the second floor by Elevator A. Remember it was the place where they do imaging almost around the clock. You told me that was where you had one of your scans to see if you were eligible for TIL Trial last February.

You said, “Mom, just follow the path on the carpet.” Like the yellow brick road, from Wizard of Oz, I thought, but didn’t say. I was too hungry.

“You always get confused at this place. What’s so hard about it? Don’t you remember?” You yammered on and I let you. Like I said I was pretty hungry. You talked about the merits of the dining at MD Anderson. You said, “Café Anderson was fine, but you like the Waterfall Café in the Mays Clinic better. Then there was the place to eat with a little food court with a Pizza Hut Express and the Chinese food that you wanted to check out. You liked the buffet at the Oaks Restaurant by the Rotary House, especially the lemon cake, but that was expensive, especially if you were too sick to eat.”

I was going to tell you I wanted to go to the Oaks Restaurant buffet to fatten you up if you felt all right after all your tests. But didn’t. I forgot when a family unit clustered around a pre-teen girl attached to an IV with four of five bags of something being pumped through her veins just ahead of us, turned into Café Anderson. Her mother (I think) fussed with her catheter bag, trying to hide it from public consumption. I bit my lip and blinked hard to erase the memory of you last February in the ICU attached to all the monitors that lit up like a Christmas tree. As you recovered, we talked a lot about courage and bravery. You said. “I’m not brave or courageous. I just wanted to live and make the best of it.” Then you’d get quiet. “You do what you have to do.”

“Mom, what are you getting for breakfast?” You tapped my shoulder. I knew the drill and my favorite options: biscuit and scrambled eggs, a slice of breakfast pizza or a kolache with eggs and jalapenos. I ruled out eggs and a biscuit -- the line was long because of pre-teen patient’s entourage. I thought the breakfast pizza would make you even hungrier.

“Kolache.” I said darting passed a guy in blue scrubs who couldn’t make up his mind about breakfast. I did say excuse me and was nice. Scrub guy did say he really was still deciding. So we were good. You really didn’t have to give me that look like you wanted another mother.

I stopped without any warning, while you kept walking to the registers, and got an iced Diet Coke. You can blame it on Diet Coke by default at BWI. I missed the feel of a thirty ounce cup sweating and sloshing in my hand. You didn’t notice I was gone until you were by the napkins and condiments. I yelled at you trying to fuse a whisper and a shout, “Greg,” across the Café Anderson. I wasn’t very good, but I got your attention. And you headed back to me.

I couldn’t find a lid that fit, so you checked the other side and put it on. “Make sure it’s on tight. You don't want it spilling over everything.” You said, channeling Dad.

“Did you tell Katie about kolaches?” I mostly asked because I didn’t want you to give me grief for another form of contraband.

“Yeah.” You said, with a longing look at a fruit bar with all of those fresh strawberries, cantaloupe, and pineapple.

“Did you know kolaches are Slavic or Czech, not Mexican? ” I asked like I was a Kolache Master Chef.

You rolled your eyes and said, “Mom, I told you that. Remember?” I smiled because I did. My diversion worked. You didn’t say anything else about my Diet Coke, even when I took an extra, extra, long swig, like a junkie, getting a fix.

After you watched me eat, we headed to the third floor to the Skybridge. That is where I saw my first lion, near the Gazebo on the third floor – a stuffed one sitting on a chair by itself- abandoned. Then I saw a lion on some girl’s graphic tee as we started our quarter mile trek across the Skybridge to the Mays Clinic. Next, I saw a guy that had hair that reminded me of a lion’s mane. Then I saw a lion tattooed on a guy's lower arm wearing the green scrubs walking towards us. All those lions, got me to thinking about the Wizard of Oz again and how the lion was cowardly throughout the movie, but he was actually brave because he was so afraid and did it anyway.

You didn’t notice that I was preoccupied with lions. You had Katie on the brain. You walked ahead of me talking to Katie on your cell to let her know how you were doing before she went to bed after working all night. Besides, we always got a good signal on the Skybridge, so that is where we usually called from. So it was all good.

We stopped into the Waterfall Café so you could fantasize some more about food. You hoped it would be still be open so you could get the lunch special with two sides and the dinner rolls that were to die for. Your eyes rolled into the back of your head when talked about those dinner rolls.

We rode the "T" Elevators in the Mays Clinic to the twelfth floor. On the way up, I decided, you were like the Cowardly Lion, because you do what you have to do and never give up.

You didn't call yourself brave or claim to have courage. If you did, then it would have diminished it. In fact, you were embarrassed to tell me all the nice things people said to you about how you inspired them, or how brave you were, and how they wish they could be more like you. You didn't feel special. And that is precisely what made you the Lion, you silly monkey. Bravery is not something that you strive for like badge of courage. It is something that you are called to do and it chooses you like this cancer. Bravery comes in the mundane choices you think you are making, that in retrospect aren't so mundane.  You either rise to the challenge or don't. And you were getting ready to rise to the challenge of one the tests you hated most. The abdomen CT scan with the barium enema for contrast.

I called Aunt Janiene while you were getting your scan and talked behind your back. And gave her the short version of you, courage, and the Cowardly Lion.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

D Day Minus 180 (September 10, 2009): Oz (Part 1): Follow the Yellow Brick Road

This morning everything was in black and white: our Believe in Zebra bands, my purse, the zebra shopping bag stuffed with my zebra skinned electronics, my layered tank tops with my black sweater for the cold waiting rooms, your list of appointments all folded and creased, and so was our day:

• 7:30 Blood/Specimen Collection
• 7:40 Check-in/Prep for CT Exam 
• 9:40 CT Scan, Chest/Abdomen/Pelvis
• 10:40 Chest XRay – at time of CT
• 2:30 Preparation/Check in for MRI
• 3:00 Brain MRI with and without contrast 

Even the van idling, but not loading passengers yet, was white with black letters and interior. You were texting Katie back and forth and I didn’t want to bother you with my black and white epiphany so I just kept quiet. Besides, I was talking to other passengers where we all shared the Reader’s Digest Version of why we were waiting for the van. One lady in her fifties, with red hair that didn’t look quite right, just found out she had breast cancer and heard that MD Anderson was the best. Her husband held her hand so tight his knuckles were white. I told them your story and you added a few bits and pieces, and said, “MD Anderson saved my life last February.”

Two other groups of three and four people huddled twenty or so feet away, kept a close eye on the van, but far enough away not to catch our cancers. “Denial,” I whispered not meaning for you to hear. “What?” You asked. “Oh nothing.” I slapped your arm, but not too hard, I finally learned my lesson from you, Dad, and Morgan that my play slaps hurt.

“We’re old timers at this.” I smiled because I understood almost every emotion (the good, the bad, and the ugly) in the cancer lifecycle. You nodded and kept texting Katie. I put on my sunglasses, the ones that you said that were for old people, because I wanted something to put over my prescription glasses to drive. You called them the “professional grade sunglasses” and made little quotes with your fingers almost every time I wore them. At least I didn’t have on my prescription glasses, so my “professional grade sunglasses” were somewhat passable for funk fashion today. I needed something because I didn’t want bigger crows feet and the sun was just giving everything more contrast than I wanted to deal with. But now, thanks to my “professional grade sunglasses” everything was gray and white and muddled.

“Remember.” I touched your arm so you knew I was talking to you. “When we on our way back from Martinsburg, West Virginia where they had the big gigantic toy store -- the biggest toy store ever is actually how you put it. You were six or seven. You asked me if things were gray and white, like the television shows on Nickelodeon, in the olden days when I grew up. Dad thought it was really funny. I’m sure I flipped him off, but made sure you couldn’t see it. I saved my potty mouth and gestures for your adulthood. You and Morgan were stuffed in the back in the little fold out seats of the old Blue Mazda Truck. The one we called the White Trash Truck that Dad drove by people with expensive cars just to see them give him a lot of room on the road.” We both laughed, which seemed a bit out of place, almost irreverent, as the van pulled up so we could finally get inside.

You slid next to me so there was enough room in the van for our group and the passengers we had to pick up at other Marriot Hotels. When you bumped my leg, along with the smell of fear that permeated the van, you shook a memory loose. I asked, “Does this van remind you of anything?” I didn’t wait for an answer before I said, “All we need Jetho Tull blaring, Sitting on the Park Bench, full blast and the markings stripped off this van, and this driver to go like a bat out of hell.”

“And to be in Hawaii at midnight not knowing if you’ll live to see the sunrise.” You said and added. “And the guy that was an even saltier and rougher version of the Captain on Jaws, driving us to our death in shark infested waters.” We both looked around to make sure we weren’t being too obnoxious. No one noticed. They were too absorbed in their reality to notice that we were escaping ours. We went on about our shark adventure until we hit the Courtyard Marriot.

Then we just sat there absorbing and reabsorbing all the medical centers that lined our path to MD Anderson: the scanning centers, research centers, medical supply buildings, nursing schools, hospitals of all types, Shriners, Church, Schools, Children, Womens. I couldn’t think of a disease or denomination that wasn’t called out. All the buildings were gray and muddled. So were the streets and alleys that didn’t have any sunlight because the buildings were so tall. I wondered if maybe you were really on to something about everything being in gray and white like the olden days, because everything was. It wasn’t black and white anymore. Or in color.

The van dropped us off at the front door of the Main Building of MD Anderson. As soon as, the automatic doors opened, I was transported back in time. To the Cinemas at Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City, Utah when I was 8 and Aunt Janiene was 7. We were eating licorice and chocolate we stole from Walgreens in the mall, just when Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz said, “We’re not in Kansas anymore” And the movie went from black and white to Technicolor. I had just been baptized as a Mormon at 8 and had all my sins washed away. And here I was eating candy, thinking about how to repent, and get rid of those black marks. And wanting a second chance to get it right. I shook my head, to make the thought go away, as I put on my sweater.

You asked if I was okay. It took me a second to decide. Then all colors that had been missing all morning were back. In Technicolor. The blue carpet and textures were there. The fish aquarium was there with the pretty blue water with the bright yellow, orange, and blue tropical fishes swimming passed me like they knew something I didn’t. The brown paneling was there and really shiny. The pictures of flowers and nature were more vibrant than I remembered. Even the red piping on the University of Texas Security guards was brighter.

I finally nodded so you knew I was fine and asked, “What would Katie and Morgan think of Oz?” You really didn’t hear the question. You were too busy pointing to the carpets, that were like the yellow brick road, that led us to the lab on the second floor for your first appointment of the day.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

D Day Minus 181 (Sep 9, 2009): Keeping up with the Jonese (Part 6): Welcome to the Twilight Zone

“Bigger.” I said when you put the wimpy twelve ounce bottles of Diet Mountain Dew into the shopping cart. You dumped the biggest size you could find that was the next step down from the two liter bottles and asked with a smart a**ed smirk, “Big enough?” And stuffed it in the cart like a big exclamation point.

I ignored you. I was making a weighty decision: a whole-case or half-case of bottled watered. Half-case won because we had to carry it back to the room. While I wrestled with the water, you disappeared. I found you in the bakery by the individually sliced pies eyeing cherry, apple and pecan pie slices. I said, “Get what you like. You have a weigh-in tomorrow.“ The apple pie won and you placed it gently into the cart.

I leaned against the shopping cart, pushing it toward the front of the store, to the checkout stands. The florescent lights were really bright, which accentuated the dark circles under your eyes. I wondered if I had dark circle too, but was too tired to check or hide them with under-eye makeup anyway. Some lady with black wiry hair in scrubs, from one of the medical center meccas, walked passed us talking on her cell about picking up some baby formula. Some construction workers were laughing and being kind of loud when they walked in the store. A Rent-A-Cop at the front of the store watched them like they might be trouble. You pointed to self-checkout because it was open and handed me your Kroger card. And saved me a buck ninety nine off my Diet Mountain Dew.

We walked through the parking lot and talked about how the weather was almost the same as Northern Virginia this time of year— warm, humid, and muggy. We wondered if others had any idea what all this was really like until we realized we needed our room key to access the gate between the Kroger parking lot and the hotel parking lot. By the time I found my key, you already scanned it and stood there – holding the gate open for me.

We climbed a flight of stairs to our room. When we got to the landing outside our room you said, “I’m pretty sure this is the room Dad and I stayed in last February.” You surveyed the complex and cited all your memories of the room. “Yeah I remember climbing the stairs and the dumpster we passed. And this is where those two guys on treatment would talk across the courtyard. ” You said, pointing to the block of rooms across the courtyard.

“I remember it too. I stayed here with Dad while you were in the hospital.” I opened the door and dropped my bags on the counter and ran around the room just to make sure. I was doing my rendition of the Twilight Zone music do do do do pause do do do do pause as I checked the bathroom and the same spot was there. It was the same room, only it had two double beds instead of the king sized bed. I remember your back hurt so bad before, you slept in the big bed, and dad slept in the foldaway couch.

You laughed at my Twilight rendition. I reminded you about our New Year’s tradition, staying up all night alternating between watching the Twilight Zone marathon, noshing on the Costco spread with deli meats and cheese, and you, Dad, and Morgan playing all the new video games from Christmas.

You abandoned me to go talk mushy to Katie on the balcony. I didn’t really care. I needed to check my email and unwind myself. As soon as I logged onto MSN Messenger, a chat from Aunt Janiene popped up. It wasn’t too bad this time. I only had to answer her questions twice. You were still outside all lovey dovey with Katie, when I took a bath and got ready for bed.

When I got out of the bathroom, I jumped because you scared the crap out of me. I didn’t know you came back into the room. You sat there on the bed like you had the right to -- just laughing, laughing, laughing!  It wasn’t funny, I could of had a heart attack or stroke.

“Are we getting up at 5:00?” You asked trying to change the tone, mostly for my benefit. You were getting ready to set the alarm on your phone. I mentally calculated the time we needed to take the Hotel Shuttle to MD Anderson (so we didn’t have to pay all that money for parking), what I was wearing, what I had already packed up in my spare zebra shopping bag, the fact we weren’t eating breakfast because you had a fasting blood draw at 7:30, and how long it usually took you to get ready.

“6:00.” Should be good. I gave you a don’t mess with me look, but was only teasing.

“5:30.” You said, but I knew you were setting it your clock for 6:00. We started this routine last April when we in Houston. I’d give you a time and then you'd come up with another time just to mess with me. All because I took the schedule so seriously. For some reason you thought it was funny. It was—most of the time.

“So we’re getting up at 6:00.” I said, completing the routine. And you nodded and left to get ready for bed.

I stuffed the earbuds from my iPod and listened to the rest of The Reader. When you finally turned off the lights, I listened to my Healing Meditation by Kelly Howell, to restore my inner balance. I was at the part where I was walking through a healing field of flowers and unleashing all my healing powers on my millions of millions of cells. And I let out a loud gasp for air, that actually scared myself. My spit went down the wrong pipe and I couldn’t breathe.

“Are you okay?” You asked, jockeying the blankets, deciding whether I was really dying.

“Just choking on my spit again.” I said. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

“You do it all the time and I think you’re going to die on me.” You said, super annoyed. “Mom, you’ve got to stop doing that!” You laid back down and punched the pillow back into submission. And the Twilight Zone music faded off in the background of my mind.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Day Minus 181 (Sep 9, 2009): Keeping up with the Joneses (Part 5): Houston - We've Landed

“Houston we’ve landed” I said as soon as we touched down. You fished your cell phone out of the front pocket of your shorts. I thought you were going to behave and wait for the official announcement before you turned on your phone, but you didn’t. You went right ahead like you owned the frequency and lives weren’t at stake. I said, “You’re going to H E double toothpicks for that.” But then shut up so others could hear the announcement for real.

While I powered on my phone (when I was really supposed to) you speed texted Katie first, then Morgan. I called Dad because it was a little after ten in Virginia and didn’t want to call him too late so he could get some sleep. I DID NOT text or call Aunt Chihuahua (Janiene). She could wait until we got to the hotel. Besides, my stomach was in knots. You knew how I hated driving in a new place at night.

It was a little after eight in Houston and was getting dark. And I’d only driven in Houston on the trip last April, over six months ago. The one where we found out you were cancer free. Me, you, and Aunt Janiene had so much fun. Remember the big a**ed 3D glasses we had to wear to watch the 3D movie about the sharks at Moody Gardens. You and Aunt Janiene looked so stupid. (I have pictures, so don’t make me mad.) We were so tired. We fell asleep during the movie because it was so boring. I told you to talk to the hand, when you complained, because you picked it. Not me! Not Aunt Janiene! It was all you.

Anyway, the knots in my stomach were so bad I swear they had a pulse, so I shifted in my seat like I had hemorrhoids. You didn’t notice because you were still going back and forth texting Katie. I checked for my license so I’d be set to rent the car while the plane taxied to the gate. I double and triple-checked to make sure I put my iPod back in my purse. I would have been pissed if I forgot it because I still had about twenty more minutes left on my book, The Reader. Plus, my iPod was my respite from the insanity of our lives.

We got through George Bush International in record time because we’d gotten smarter about where to make our bathroom pit stop. Our record time, didn’t really matter because we got a little lost finding the way to ground transportation since we were at a different terminal. This time, we flew Continental because they would only charge the difference in the flight price rather than a penalty like United did. We learned that lesson the hard way when you and Dad flew to Houston last February, expecting to stay a week, only it lasted eight weeks. But Continental’s flexibility with MD Anderson patients wasn’t any help now. A nice middle-aged man directing people to shuttles was.

Once we got to the car rental shuttle stop, I bragged, “Wasn’t it a good idea to pack light so we could just do carry on.” You smiled a little, but were getting tired. So was I. We’d both worked that morning. I only worked a couple of hours. You worked nearly eight. I kept looking for the shuttle and worried that we were in the wrong spot because six of those Parking Spot yellow and black spotted buses had gone by and we were the only people standing at the rental stop.

When our shuttle came, there was another one right behind it, like they had to travel in pairs. We both rolled our eyes and sighed.  At least we were getting closer to our objective: get car, drive to the hotel, go to Krogers for snacks and Diet Mountain Dew, and get some sleep.

When we got to the Enterprise desk, I made sure they added a GPS, since Dad took ours home. We also learned that you didn’t need me to rent the car because you were a patient of MD Anderson. I offered to let you be the driver, but you said, “Next time.”

Some chipper Enterprise Agent offered us our choice of cars as long as it was a Hyundai. I don’t think the Agent realized what he said. You kind of smirked and pointed to the silver one. While I was checking for dings and dents, you programmed the GPS for the hotel. I signed the agreement and handed it to you to hold on to.

“The car is already started, I told you.” You said it calmly, but I wasn’t. I yelled something like I didn’t hear what you said, being tired, not being an idiot, making many trips over the years on my own all over the world, and yada yada.

“Are you okay Mom? I was just trying to help.” I stared out the windshield and wished Dad were here so I didn’t have to drive at night and be alone if the treatment wasn't working. I knew he was stressed about work, grandma, and us.  I didn't care.  I wanted him with us.

“Sorry. I’m just tired.” I said with a sigh.   

“Take your time and get comfortable. Adjust your mirrors and seat first.” You meant it in a nice way, not a patronizing way. But I was still super annoyed.  At least you didn’t start singing, It’s All Right, like you had so many times today. I would have gone postal on you. Cancer and treatments would be one word – IRRELEVANT.

We headed out of the garage onto the frontage road. I drove slowly waiting for the GPS to pick up a signal. Meanwhile, you waffled between knowing the way without GPS “Go to 59 South then to 288” and calling Dad. But you wouldn’t commit. I told you to call Dad then you said, “No wait, it’s picking up a signal.” But it was taking forever.
It was really dark on the frontage roads. I wasn’t familiar with the car, so I was fumbling with the turn signal, then I turned on the high beams, then I couldn’t figure out how to turn them off. I made a U Turn and parked in an unlit parking lot, probably where something illegal was going on, maybe even something like a body dump. And had a meltdown until the GPS picked up a signal. By then you had Dad on the phone, your lifeline, to talk me off the cliff.

Dad said, “I love you Nance. It will be fine. Call when you get the room. And to Behave.” I started to breathe like a normal person.

It finally hit me. All this was not about getting to the damn hotel room. This was really is about trust and faith. Trust in the play-by-play of the directions from the Garmin chick, you, the doctors, and myself. Faith in getting to the final destination from the hotel room, a remission, or even eternity. 

“I hate you.” I said, giving you the bird. You laughed and so did I.  After that, we worked like a team. That's all it took to make you my favorite travel buddy again. I trusted your navigation skills with your early warnings for turns and exits from our rental Garmin chick. I had faith that we'd make it to our final destination for the night - The Residence Inn by Marriott. We were keeping up with the Joneses.  

Thursday, August 5, 2010

D Day Minus 181 (Sep 9, 2009): Keeping up with the Joneses (Part 4): Secrets

Thirty thousand feet, somewhere over Tennessee, you handed me your earbud, with a big smile. I was a little annoyed because you made me miss part of my audiobook, The Reader by Berhhard Schink. It was at a good part too. But, I played nice and smiled because I didn’t want to rain on your parade.

I exchanged my left earbud for yours. You had our theme song from our Hawaiian trip playing, It’s All Right by Christopher Cross. This time I smiled and it was for real. You’d been humming that song a lot today and it always brought back memories of good times. On top of that, you looked like a confined emu, dancing to the song in your seat. You rocked side-to-side to the beat of the music from the waist up like you were laying an egg. You even craned your neck long enough to make your chin into a beak. I wondered if you’d secretly watched my Facercize DVDs because that last move would’ve really gotten rid of any signs of chicken neck flab. I was never so proud of you. I even tried to emulate your moves. Alas it wasn’t meant to be. You were the master, the sensei. I was but a student basking in the greatness of your goofiness.

You finally let me get back to The Reader after you made good and sure that we’d paid our respects to Christopher Cross. I was really getting into my book, especially since we had some loud talkers behind us. I was almost done with it and wanted to finish before we landed in Houston. The Reader was about a 15 year-old boy who had an affair with a woman twice his age. The woman’s name was Hanna. The name you’re supposed to give your first daughter only with an h at the end. Kate Winslet from the Titanic plays Hanna in the movie. Well, I was at the part where he runs into Hanna years later when she is being tried for a Nazi War crime. She was a guard at a concentration camp, but really didn’t know what she was getting into because she hid the fact she couldn’t read. And probably didn’t know the extent of the role she played in the concentration camp. You would have probably liked it, but I didn’t tell you much about the book because you were staring out the window listening to your iPod. And mostly I wanted to finish the book.

The Inflight Service cart rolled passed me with all of its clackety-clack-clack, barely missing my monkey shoes with me in them. I debated whether to brave the back of the plane. You know how I hate the smell of blue water and disinfectant. I noticed a guy two rows ahead moving around in his seat like he would be competition, so I handed you my iPod and headed to the back of the plane.  So nature could take its course.

“You’d better hurry or you’re going to get stuck back there.” You said, taking both earbuds out of your ears.

“I’ll be fast. If the cart gets there before I do, tell them I want a Diet Coke. You can have my pretzels.” I paused for a second and added. “If it makes you feel any better, you can make something up about your old mother having a bladder problem and forgetting the Depends.” You rolled your eyes and said. “Just Hurry.”

As I navigated to the back of the plane through a little turbulence and people's stinky feet hanging over the aisle, I thought about The Reader. Why didn’t Hanna just come clean about not knowing how to read? What was she afraid of? Why didn’t anyone else catch on? What is a secret? Is it just a thought you’re too embarrassed to share? When does it take on a life of its own? What’s baseball cap guy's in aisle 23 big secret? What’s business woman's in aisle 26 big secret? What's  loud snoring guy's sitting next to business woman big secret? What's my big secret? What's your big secret? What is so secret about cancer? When did it take on a life of its own? Why can't the smartest people in the world figure it out?  When does a secret become a mystery?   

I came up with so many random answers to my questions. But came to one conclusion. It depends on what you think about the secret and a secret is a thought and a thought is a belief and a belief is just a thought you keeping thinking over again.

I was so happy to have part of an answer, I didn't notice that I turned the puny faucet on full force in the bathroom stall.  And gave my zebra top water spots. I said something a sailor would be proud of, but I’ll leave that your imagination. Then I hurried I back to my seat and the obstacle course of stinky feet before the service cart plugged up the aisle.

“Did you miss me?” I asked, buckling my seatbelt, and checking to see if you got my humor. Only you nudged my arm and pointed for me to respond to the Flight Attendant. After I got my Diet Coke and you got your Apple Juice, I patted your hand and leaned over to the left, and whispered, “Do you want to know a secret?”

Monday, August 2, 2010

D Day Minus 181 (Sep 9, 2009): Keeping up with the Joneses (Part 3): Second Chances

You walked toward me, with your Quarter Pounder Value meal in your left hand and your phone texting in the right. I stayed behind with our luggage. I’d texted Aunt Janiene, Dad, and Morgan when you left for Mickey Dees, “At gate in BWI. Will start boarding at 4:25.”

Dad didn’t answer, which I didn’t expect because he was at work or on the road. Morgan didn’t answer because she was at work and is very conscientious. But Holy Cow, Aunt Janiene wouldn’t stop texting. You thought I was bad with Rainman. She was like a Chihuahua, but only I can say it. You can’t because she’s my little sister.

Well, you know I’m not the fastest texter in the world. Aunt Janiene was driving me crazy with her texts. It wouldn’t have been so bad but I know I answered each of her questions at least three times earlier this week. She never listens or pays attention. Did I tell you she’s a Chihuahua, but don’t tell her I said that. Or else! Anyway she wanted to know what time do your appointments start? When do we get in Houston? What did I pack? Where are we staying? When are we coming home? Am I going to call her with play by plays? Am I scared? Are you scared? What time is it there? I’d finally had enough so I texted “ttyl xoxoxo” and turned off my phone.

I downed a Motrin, followed by a Diet Coke chaser. I would have got a Diet Mountain Dew, but stupid BWI, didn’t have any. Before you sat down, you asked if I was okay. All I said was, “Aunt Chihuahua.” You smiled. I didn’t need to say anything else. You knew.

You rifled through you bag and stuffed some fries in your face. And we gave each other a respite from talking, texting, and stressing. We watched, BWI, pass us by – Continental Pilots and Flight attendants coming and going, a mother with an unruly toddler screaming about something, some young thang with her skirt so short, it made you blush, business travelers who were somewhere between harried travelers and major a**es jockeying for first class seats.

After you came back from throwing your trash away, you were texting again. You shook your head like you did when you were really really annoyed, flipped your phone closed, and stuffed it in your shorts. And let out a big sigh when you landed on the seat next to me.

“I don’t think Katie gets it.” You said.

“What do you mean? I asked. “Is the cancer? Is it the treatment? Is it the not knowing? Is it not being able to go on this trip? ”

“No.” You said. “None of those. She says I don’t treat her as special as I did when we dated the first time.”

“Oh.” I said. “I see.” I smiled because it was so normal. The tug of war of a relationship. For crying out loud, Dad and I have been together nearly thirty years and we still do the relationship dance. It’s normal to be annoyed with each other every now and then. You need a little drama or life is boring.

“This time,” You said, “I know what I want and I don’t feel like I need to play dating games. I’m not giving up my friends this time. I don’t expect her to do that either. I’ll invite her to do things, but I don’t want to shut everyone out like I did before. I’m not doing that again. I love her and trust her and I want to be with her. ”

“Do you realize you’ve done a 180 over the past year in your outlook and perspective?” I asked. You really had. I hate that the cancer was the reason, but I really admired the man you'd become.

“Yeah. I have changed.” You said almost shyly.

“You have grown and matured as well as softened your perspective and outlook. You had to for survival so much faster than your peers. I know it. You know it. But, Katie is still adjusting to the new and improved you. You always say that this cancer was the best thing that happened to you. Because it gave you clarity about who you are and what’s important. She hasn’t lived through what you have. And you know and I know words don’t teach, its living life that teaches.” I was kind of surprised that I was so eloquent, but I meant every word I said.

“I know.” You said.

“One question.” I said. “Do you love her?”

“Of course.” You said like I was the idiot.

“Then let her catch up with you so she can learn to trust you.” I raised my eyebrows like you had better listen.  I smiled some more because it wasn't anything about cancer. You sat there thinking about what I said because I didn't tell you what to do very often.  I usually let you figure it out.

When Zone A started to get on the plane we collected our stuff. While we waited for the ticket agent to call Zone B, I got right next to you and said.  “Isn’t it nice.” Then I stopped until I saw your green eyes staring back at me. “That you always get a second chance because we never get it done, because we are always changing."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

D Day Minus 181 (Sep 9, 2009): Keeping up with the Joneses (Part 2): Just a Little Contrast

“Can you take my carry-on?” I asked when the big glass doors automatically opened to the main terminal at BWI. “I think my zebra tank top clashes with it.” I pushed my zebra rollaround in your general direction as if that would make a difference. “Too much zebra?” I wrinkled my nose. 

 “You can’t have too much zebra.” You said with a little chuckle intentionally avoiding my carry-on. We looked at each other and said, “More Zebra.” Just like the old Saturday Night Live skit with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken. It was the one that was a fake rockumentary with Blue Oyster Cult, where they kept saying “More Cowbell” when they were jamming to "Don't Fear the Reaper."

We played a few rounds of “More Zebra,” while I fished for our boarding passes in my backpack. It was sandwiched between pages in a spiral note pad filled with twenty or so questions to ask the doctor. I fanned the boarding passes and made you hold on to them while I got my license. When I couldn’t find my license and started panic.  You said, “We’ve got time. Our flight isn’t for two hours. Dad made good time getting us here.”

It wasn’t that I couldn’t find my license that made me panic, it was the thought of not getting to Houston so we’d know if the chemo worked. After what seemed an eternity (sixty seconds), I found my license right where I left it – in the front compartment of my backpack. I’d put it there for easy access on the way to BWI. I mumbled something about being an idiot.

I decided to put on my black sweater so I didn’t have to repack it. Well that wasn’t entirely true, I still worried that my tank top clashed with the carry-on. That and my stupid panic attack looking for my license, made it so I didn’t want “More Zebra” for awhile.

“What?” I asked a little too defensively while you waited for me to button my sweater. You gave me a look, like you read my mind and knew what was really going on with the cover-up.

“I’m cold. It’s my Reynaud’s Syndrome. I can’t help it if my circulation is funky. Do you want me to turn blue? That would really make me clash with all my zebra stuff.”

“Whatever.” You said with faux annoyance, pointing to the sign for airport security.

“So do you think Dad is going to make it home?” I asked as I tried to get you to take the lead to airport security by stepping back and walking slowly. You didn’t answer my question and insisted that I take the lead. You said something about "trusting me and me being the mom so I should lead.”

“Dad should make it home! That dirt bag.” I said with a bit too much drama. “He took the GPS. Now I have to get one in Houston and set the addresses.” I droned on about that and a lot of trivia for another ten minutes while we waited in line at airport security.

The droning was really a proxy for what really permeated the recesses of my mind: “What if the chemo doesn’t work? What next? Are you going to be all right? Do you know I would give up my life for you? Do you know that you will forever be my baby even when we’re both 100?”

I was glad you didn’t know what I was really thinking. You had enough to worry about, without having to make me feel better. Eventually a lull enveloped us and we waited in queue for a TSA Agent to beckon us. I tried not to eavesdrop on some guy meeting some people in some city for drinks and about it being so great and awesome and about planning some cool vacation next winter. He was about the same age as you. The contrast and dichotomy was a slap in the face. He didn’t have a life threatening disease. He didn’t question his mortality. He got to make plans without cancer and scans in the equation. You didn’t really notice much, you were in the middle of a string of text messages with Katie.

We went through security and stripped off our shoes and disassembled our electronics for scanning. Meanwhile, I struggled to find downstream thoughts like “it’s going to be all right, we don’t know anything for sure, at least I’m here with you – right here, right now.” 

I waited for you --just enough out of the way --not to get dirty looks from other travelers.  Then we walked to the chairs to get reassembled. When you bent over to tie your shoe, you said, “Thanks Mom.”

“What for?” I asked puzzled.

“Thanks for planning the trip. Thanks for coming with me. Thanks for being my mom. Thanks for everything.” I got all misty eyed, but kept it together.

You waited for me to repack my electronics and led the way to Concourse D. On the way there, you started singing your Christopher Cross oldie but goodie, It’s All Right, I Think We’re Gonna Make it, until I smiled.