23 October 2011

Nutmeg and Raleighdon

When Mimi and I first met, I tried to get her to spend the night with me and she wouldn't, saying she had to go home and feed her cats. I said, "Well, I'll go with you then." for some reasson, I'm still not sure why, she let me. Heck, I'm not evern sure why I wanted to. She had a gazillion cats, she wouldn't let me smoke in her car and didn't even like to drink my wine. This relationship obviously had no future.

She was awfully cute, though.

3 months later we were married.

I was NOT a cat lover. I tend to favor dogs over cats since they just have a way of always keeping life entertaining. Our dog Mooch was a great example of this. When our friend Jim was teaching Josiah about roping calves, Mooch had a calf of his own in mind.

mostly, though, I'm just not really into being caretaker to critters. Too much work, can't leave when I want, all the usual excuses. Over the years, we've had many of Mimi's beloved pets (and my goldfish) pass on to the great on beyond, and it is always sad.

Like Lumpy. Mimi took the boys off to Florida, leaving me behind to take care of the cats. While she was gone, the pregnant mama decided it would be a good time to give birth. Could she wait a day or two until somebody got home who actually knew something? Hell no!! She had to do it with me, the one who doesn't like cat puke, cat screeching and all the attendant difficulties to tend to her every need. the result? This litter of furballs that crept all over the house making a general nuisance of themselves. The boys fell in love with one (well of COURSE they did!) and named him LUMPY. Lumpy was the biggest of the litter, and his name fit like a nurse's rubber glove. Unfortunately, he was about the same color as the bedroom carpet. I, of course, wear glasses and don't usually put them on to go to the bathroom. As I walked across the room, I stepped on Lumpy. Poor Lumpy. Poor ME!!! I've never heard the end of that one, to be sure.

We recently lost our 16 year old Barbie Q, who was a lovely little kitten until some of my nieces kids terrorized her and she was never the same after that. We miss her terribly, though, as she was always the one who welcomed new kitties into the house.

During the past 33 years, I went from resistant acceptance ("Love me love my cats" was the operative phrase at our engagement) to peaceful co-existence and even to limited friendships with a few of these furry beasts who always like to puke up hairballs on my side of the bed as a "gift" to me when I get ready to crawl into bed at night. Lovely! And then, too, they also like to bring "offerings" into the house. Enza, the mighty hunter, loves nothing more than to bring her kill in to share. I'm not sure, but I think she wants me to make rat soup.

About a year and a half ago, we were on our way to the Co-op. The lot was full, so I parked across the street in front of the pet store. BIG MISTAKE. She got out of the passenger's side and said, "Ohhhh, they have kittens. Can we go in and visit them?" "Sure. Why not?" I said, somewhat begrudgingly.

We entered the store and there was a huge stack of metal crates. In the upper one, was a little tabby kitten, nothing spectacular or particularly unusual. I looked at her and said, without any aforethought and totally unprepared for what was coming out of my mouth, "We'll be taking that one home." Mimi and the clerk (who knows us) sorta laughed it off, and Mimi said, "He's just kidding."

But I insisted, for some reason that we were going to adopt that kitten. I didn't understand what was coming out of my mouth. It was very confusing. Why would I do such a thing? She was just a plain, ordinary, kitten, like every other furry little beast I'd been forced to go in and look at over the years.

But, for whatever reason, adopt her we did. The tops of her ears were a brown much the color of ground nutmeg, hence her name.

I'd told Mimi for many years that if I ever had a cat, I'd want one I could train to jump up on my shoulder and ride there like a pirate and his parrot. I also told Mimi shortly after bringing Nutmeg home that I wanted to try to get her used to riding free in the car, so we could take her with us easily. We traveled to Portland car shopping once and took her along. We took turns driving as we headed down the highway. Nutmeg decided the safest place was to climb up on whichever of us was not driving and wrap herself around our neck.

She rode that way for a long, long way. A few months later, out of the blue, she "pounced" Mimi, jumping up on her shoulder. She doesn't particularly like being picked up, and the only way we can carry her is over the shoulder. She will, however, jump up onto our shoulders (especially if she thinks we'll give her a piece of dehydrated chicken breast ($17/3 oz pkg). Hell, I'd probably jump on your shoulder if you'd give me a steak for a treat!

Expensive tastes, this cat. She really MUST be "my" cat. Next thing, she'll be wanting a custom bicycle......

But here's the real story I wanted to tell.

I came home the hospital after my second round of chemo and the next morning, Sunday, I woke up not feeling very well. I was planning to ride my bike to Sunday Starters in Fremont (breakfast NA meeting). Not feeling very strong, and barely awake, I thought I had better take a shower and see if I could get woke up. Chemo tends to leave me feeling pretty crappy for a few days afterwards, and I go on some pretty intense emotional roller coasters from time to time. As I stepped out of the shower, I saw my image in the full length mirror and suddenly my legs looked like strands of spaghetti. I suddenly felt very weak and puny. I've worked so hard over the past few years to build strength, and here I was losing ground. Mimi tried to console me over "first breakfast", but to no avail. I found myself in tears at one point, and my way of dealing with the world when I want it to kindly stop so I can get off is to curl up in a ball and put a blanket over my head. It only ever lasts for a moment, and that is about as much feeling sorry for myself as I ever allow.

Then I start my surrender/acceptance/gratitude routine and the world comes back into focus. I was having THAT kind of a moment. I left the breakfast table, went to the sofa, and crawled under a blanket. I was snorting and sniffling and having a very productive pity party when Nutmeg came over, sat down in front of the sofa and began to cry. I lifted up the edge of the blanket and she climbed in under it with me, stretched out the full length of my chest and began to purr. I could feel her healing energy through the ribs and right into my esophagus, the cause of all of this crap that was draining me of my strength and energy. As I lay there with her radiating her warmth, my world was made better in that instant.

I suppose the moral of the story for me is that even in our darkest moments, we can find some peace, solace and comfort if we are open to it. Sometimes, we don't even need to reach out and take the hand that is trying to comfort us; we just need to let that hand of love embrace us and not run away from it.

Since that morning, I have thought a lot about this weird little kitty and wondered what she knew that morning when we walked into the pet store. Did she sense something? Did I sense something? I've thought about Steve Jobs and what he said about connecting the dots. I've been doing that for a long time, knowing that every one of life's experiences brings me to the exact momennt in time I am living. I think a lot about the interconnectedness of everything around me and am filled with wonder.

Life is very interesting. Especially if we can somehow spend just a moment or two reflecting on what makes it special for us right now. Today. This minute. Just this one brief moment in time. What surrounds you that makes you feel special? What or who is there, reaching out their hand or their paw in friendship to give you the boost you need? How can you give that back? What little thing can you do that will let that person, that pet, that teacher, that nurse, that whomever, that you know and appreciate them?

Mimi really was cute, and I know how very special a person she is, and am grateful today for the gift she gave me as, over the years, I have come from resistance to surrender, from surrender to acceptance and finally from this acceptance into gratitude, allowing me to love back. Over the years, she has been the constant companion in my life adventure. She has shared her self with me, and shared her love of her faithful companions, never wavering, yet never forcing. As a result, today I have another loving companion in this silly little cat who knows me and knows when she needs to nurture me.
Every day, when I look at the love of my life, this is still the girl I see:

Excuse me, I need to go give Nutmeg some chicken.

22 October 2011

Round Two

Well, where did we leave off with this little tale? Oh yeah. Donald (aka Raleighdon the Bold) had just jumped up off the stool and answered the bell, ready to score some punches to this cancer crap that wants to knock him down and out.

So, Josiah and I “smuggled in” the bicycle.
Nobody gave us any resistance, in fact the nurses on Swedish Hospital's 12-E Oncology Unit actually encouraged me. None would hop on and give it a try, but they were all impressed at the set-up. We had the music playing. We had unpacked everything and after a nice hearty lunch,
finally the nurses came in and got me going with the pre-hydration, then the steriods and then the chemo drugs. It wasn't long before I was chasing Josiah out of the room and settling myself in.

In Round One, the fatigue of the drugs really hit home for me on Wednesday afternoon and for about 18 hours, it was all I could do to get out of bed. This time around, for whatever reason, I did much better with maintaining a high energy and high spirits. I had lost very little weight, didn't puff up like a balloon with water retention after the steroids and discovered the wonderful world of ATAVAN! One of the things about cancer treatment is that it opens one's world to pretty much anything that will fight off the pain, fight off the nausea and fight off the demons. I found Atavan to work very well on these last two, simultaneously. Every night, when it came time to sleep, I took an Atavan which kept the nausea down and allowed me to get quite a few calories in late in the evening and drift off to sleep and wake up refreshed the next morning. What could be better?

On Wednesday, the hospital's cabbies came and took me away for my second PET/CT scan. I'd been down this road before and found it to be the most uncomfortable of all procedures, having to lay in a dark room after drinking a nasty tasting barium drink that made me feel bloated, then after a 45 minute “nap” having to lie again in a room all by myself while this machine whirred, buzzed and moved around me, keeping my arms overhead and not moving so much as an eyelid. This is tough for a guy like me who can't sit still for a minute without itching, twitching or bitching.

This time was somewhat better, though, since they had some handholds for me, which allowed me to relax better. I found I was able to almost go into a meditative state and take my mind off of the little issues that were coming up. All of the things I have learned in the past were now starting to come back to me and I was beginning to draw on some of my deep inner resources I hadn't thought about for a long time.

I heard not long ago in a recovery meeting that this individual's recovery moves at the speed of pain. I like that analogy, and think it is a bit true in my life, as well. It seems like I've gained a vast amount of some skills over the years that I tend to take for granted, and it is only when I am visited by a great pain that I have to dig down, truly discover them and focus on how to apply them to the situations at hand. Something about lying around in a hospital bed for a few days gives me a lot of time to focus on that kind of thing.

Thursday morning, Mimi came in early as we were anticipating Dr Kapsule coming in and giving us the results of the PET/CT scan. Just before 7:00, in came this wonderful, silver haired doc, wearing a smile as big as a Dutchman's pair of britches, and he told us the news was really, really good. The more he talked, the more the news sounded good, but not quite as good as we wanted to hear. He was talking about this as being a Stage IV cancer, not Stage II as we thought, but with the shrinking of the lymph node in my neck, they had to assume that somehow, that node was cancerous and the chemo was killing it off. He said Louie Louie would be coming in to visit us on Friday to go over the surgery schedule.

I was left with a mixture of elation and depression. Elation because the tumor had shrunk by almost half and the lymph node in my neck showed as normal now, but depressed because I was really a “Stage IV” patient, and I've read all the statistics; I know the odds; I don't want to face that reality. I knew I needed to.

I started to think about the gift again (see my last article), and how this was an opportunity to learn new and wonderful things about myself, an opportunity to grow both emotionally and spiritually, even as my physical body was doing something other than what I wanted it to. I had to reframe my thinking, and spent most of the day Thursday and Friday working through it all in my mind and heart, remembering my agreement with myself that I would not feel sorry for myself, I would not whine and I would keep my sense of humor. Both of those rules needed to be enforced, and I am the only one who could enforce them. I started to look that nasty foe Cancer in the eye, looked deep within myself and found that it is a weak, pathetic, piece of shit disease that can only gain in strength as it saps me from mine. I got on the bike. I rode. I gazed out the window at my office and Puget Sound. I took naps and dreamed of pleasant things. When I woke up, I reflected on the good times I've had and laid on my back envisioning myself next year doing a lot of them again. I started (again) making plans. Cancer got weaker with each moment.

Louie Louie came in late Friday afternoon to talk to Mimi and me. He wanted to do a mediastinoscopy to rule out any involvement of the lymph nodes in the chest. OK, fine. Just another day of surgery. Seems the debate twixt him and Kapsule about continuing treatment included the need to rule out any spread that could not be seen on the PET scan, otherwise they may be doing a surgery that would leave me weaker and not kill the cancer. Not the best approach. OK, doc. I'll take your word for it. I really don't have a choice here, since both of them have been down this road many times and I never have.

Saturday came and it was time to go home. After getting settled in, I decided I needed to ride to the store. Loaded up 35 pounds of groceries at Red Apple and Mimi and I rode back to the house, giving me my first outdoor ride in October, about 9 miles, half of it with my bike fully loaded.

Then came the first knockdown of the round. I thought I had cancer on the ropes and was working to the body really well, figuring I'd start coming on with a few uppercuts in the next few days, but out of nowhere, I took a right hook to the jaw that lay me out on the sofa and that was where I stayed from noon Sunday until sometime Wednesday. Talk about taking the 8-count.

By Thursday, I felt good enough to try to ride my bike again – this was the first time since December, 2008 that I had taken more than 2 days off the bike in a row and it felt very odd, not even wanting to ride, yet wanting to be on my bike in the worst of ways. This was another of life’s little lessons coming at me. Sometimes it is more important to listen to the body than it is to listen to the heart. I decided to ride to work with Mimi, then ride to the Renton Highlands for my therapy appointment.

Right after receiving this diagnosis, I had gone back on anti-depressants in anticipation of a severely decreased level of physical activity and when I do that, it is equally important to be working with a professional to maintain my mental and emotional balance. Dale (aka Happy Trails) has proven to be an excellent match for me, seeing through all of my little defenses and listening very well to my cues so that she can help coach me through some very tough times. Her office is in a quite inconvenient location – for anyone other than an endurance cyclist who loves nothing more than pulling a 1-mile 12% grade first thing in the morning, that is.

Unfortunately, on this morning, just as I was crossing over Sunset at North 3rd, a guy yelled at me from his car, “GET OFF THE FUCKING ROAD, ASSHOLE!” This as I was trying to move across traffic to navigate into the left turn lane so I could do exactly that. Very bright guy, indeed, and obviously well versed in the law as respects bicycles and their rights and duties. As I was fantasizing about making an about face, chase him down, pull him out of his POS car (and it really was a POS!) and beat the living crap out of him, my chain broke, leaving me in the middle of a busy road and nearly falling off before I could dismount and walk through the light. Every other vehicle, of course, treated me with extreme patience and confirmed my belief that for every 100 or so very good people there is one asshole. Sometimes we meet up and life gets “interesting” for a moment in time.

I walked up the hill. I heard Pansy Palmetto cackling and telling me “This is God’s way of telling you that you’re trying to do too much.” Thanks, Pansy, much appreciated. NOW you tell me!

After my therapy appointment, I had the opportunity to try out my tow service, Better World Club, for the first time. Like AAA, our new service will come and tow your car, help you get in if you space out and lock your keys inside, jump start your truck if you are smart enough to leave the key on, the door open, the heater fan running and music playing for 4 hours (not that I’d ever do THAT!), but they will also come and “tow” you and your bike if you have a breakdown. They were great!

Fast response time, courteous service and drove me and my bike right to my garage. Within 45 minutes I was home, taking a nice hot bath. And had a nice 15 mile bike ride to show for it, as well as a grand adventure. People kept telling me they hoped the rest of my day went better. Thinking about it all, though, I thought the first half had gone exceptionally well. I’d ridden and felt better for it. I’d had a nice chat with Pansy. I’d had a great therapy appointment and an adventure. What could be better?

Well, what was NOT better was the nausea. Talk about a pity party. If ever I was going to get through this I had to stop feeling like I was going to throw up every time I tried to eat anything, drink anything or even brush my teeth. After Round One, I’d had very little nausea, but this time was different; it just seemed to go on and on. It was just this constant feeling that cancer had hit me a really good body shot to the kidneys, followed by a punch straight into the solar plexus. Nothing seemed to be helping. I knew I needed to gain some weight, but was finding it difficult to do with wanting to throw up every time I even thought about food.

Then I made Jell-o.

I don’t know what it is about this magical food from my childhood, but it worked like a charm. Cherry jello with cut up peaches. I made it and waited impatiently for it to set, then ate a big bowl. It was like manna from heaven. I went to bed feeling quite comfortable for the first time in a while. An hour later, I was up, eating more jell-o. I did this throughout the night, and by morning was feeling much better. Thanks, Mom, for teaching me about this wonderful, cheap and tasty treat so many years ago.

And there was the fatigue. I wasn’t sure if it was the cancer or the chemo or the radiation. Mimi told me it was all three. REALLY? Wow! I guess that made sense, but it seemed like the radiation and chemo should have been done working their magic by now. Cancer seemed to be having its way with me in the middle days of this round, and I was just trying to take some strategy from my hero Muhammad Ali and play some rope-a-dope with it. Lean back into the ropes and take the punches, allowing some cushioning and letting my body rest while it got hammered on. He did, after all, say some of the most important things that continue to influence my life: things like, “It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” I believe I can beat cancer. With every punch I absorb, I think to myself that it really isn’t so bad. I’m stronger. I’m tougher. I can win.

After a week of feeling the blows as cancer and treatment continued to pummel me, we went out and rode a 100Km ride, giving Mimi her 1,000Km milestone for the year with RUSA and our 10th consecutive month of these 100Km rides together. Dr. Codfish hosted the Pie Run
and a little dinner afterwards. We did it and finished it. At the end, I felt like I often feel after a ride three times that long, and Mimi had to drive us home. It was a beautiful day, riding with friends to the edge of the rain,

turning around and coming back, finishing in bright warm autumn sun. For a few moments in the day, I was able to completely forget about cancer and just enjoy the moment. These seem to be fewer and farther between right now and I was feeling pretty punchy by the time we got home.

The next week, I slept at least 9 hours and sometimes 10 hours every night, and on Monday had my first general anesthesia surgery of this treatment course, the mediastinoscopy to remove and biopsy some of the lymph nodes in my chest. By the time we got the results back on Thursday, we’d met with the surgeon, met with a neck surgeon (who told me the way I ride is just crazy) and met with my oncologist who sprinkled holy water on my esophagectomy, calling it the “mother of all surgeries” and totally rejecting my idea of doing hernia repair surgery at the same time. I’m telling you, these guys go to 12 years of medical school, spend their whole lives dealing with cancer patients and all of a sudden they think they know everything! Sheesh!

With the news that all my lymph node biopsies came back “normal” AND the report that I have a lot of “extra” lymph nodes and they are all “healthy urban lymph nodes”, we were pretty ecstatic and ready to start punching back a little bit. And then I got one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received. Cousin Margy had made me a quilt. I came home from a bike ride to find a package waiting for me. It was soft and squishy. “Whee,” I thought at first, “another tee-shirt or sweatshirt.” I’ve received four really awesome tees from friends and family that have become my principal wardrobe, letting me wrap myself in their love every time I put one on. What a surprise to open the gift and find this gorgeous hand-stitched quilt, with my cousin’s love in every single stitch of the needle. “Donald’s Wild Ride” is the name of this beautiful piece of art. I wrapped myself in it. I went to the sofa and sat there and wept tears of joy and gratitude. I’ve got the best handlers a guy could ever hope for.

I was now starting to get rid of the nausea, starting to pick up a little more energy (and gaining a half-pound a day) and riding almost every day again, even just 10 or so miles.
Little jabs, some good body work and not trying to punch myself out to the point of exhaustion. That was the strategy all my handlers were giving me, and it was starting to work. I knew, though that I needed to take a little bit of a mid-round break. I’d been knocked down pretty good earlier in the round, and needed to be careful not to work so hard in this round that I can’t make it to Round Three, which is going to be really tough.

So I hatched a scheme.

Mimi and I have this wonderful beach we love.

I’ve spent a lot of time up and down the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, and visited beaches in lots of other places, but Ruby Beach is one that I love more than most. I think since I discovered Seal Rock on the Oregon Coast, this is the place I have found that brings the greatest pleasure. It has all of the things I love about the ocean. It has some old grown forests to wander through; it has sea stacks (some of the Quillayute Needles); it has a nice quiet stream; it has wide, long expanses of beach to walk; it has beautiful driftwood and lots of smooth stones. It is “our beach” – I have no memories there except with the light of my life. We took two days, essentially checked out of contact with everyone and went to Kalaloch Lodge

for the night, then the next day, spent time at Ruby Beach. The entire time, we spent our time just holding hands, sitting together and reading/painting, playing on the beaches, watching eagles, and taking turns driving and playing disk jockey with the music we had on board. A truly wonderful honeymoon and exactly what any sensible doctor would order. Even if he would not agree to let me get my hernia repaired at the same time they’re removing my esophagus, gall bladder and all the lymph nodes on one side of my neck.

Coming home, I stepped on the scale Friday morning only to discover that I am now within four pounds of where I was at the start of this little boxing match. Every doc I meet tells me I look really good. I am rested and thinking that I can score a knockout here in Round Three. Like Muhammad Ali, I can not only beat my opponent, I can pick the round. I am the (second) greatest!

I think I just heard the bell ending Round Two. Everything is done and it is time to sit on the stool, take a sip or two of water, let my handlers do their magic and get me ready for Round Three. I feel really strong. I feel really positive. I’m ready for whatever takes place in the next three weeks.

As I sit here, reflecting on my hero, this is another thing he said that has shaped how I view life: “Life is a gamble. You can get hurt, but people die in plane crashes, lose their arms and legs in car accidents; people die every day. Same with fighters: some die, some get hurt, some go on. You just don't let yourself believe it will happen to you. “

Some days, you just gotta believe!

14 October 2011


"When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us." These words by the inventor of one of life’s most troublesome inventions, Alexander Graham Bell, have rung in my ears for years. Is he right? Is he wrong? Who knows.

So, on August 12th at 9:48 a.m., I received a call from Dr. Sanford. The results of the biopsies were positive and I was assured that I had esophageal cancer. There was no surprise. I had already started to deal with the shock and grief that Mimi and I had received the day before when I had my endoscopy and I started to process this new information. I was now a cancer survivor. For the rest of my life, regardless of how long or short that may be, I would be a cancer survivor.

Anger. That was the first real emotion. I wanted to rage against the disease. I wanted to attack it like I attack a long steep mountain pass on my bicycle. I screamed. I cried. I pouted. I paced the floor and wanted to upend all the furniture in the room, throw a chair out the living room window just to hear the crash of glass. This all lasted for about 5 minutes. Then I got on my bicycle and rode to my doctor’s appointment and started working on a solution.

I read many years ago that if I focus on a problem, the problem will increase but if I will focus on a solution, the solution will increase. I set my mind to this task. I’ve done long endurance rides before. I am a Super Randonneur, after all. I’m a tough guy. I am Superman. I can do anything, surmount any odds, overcome any obstacle, bounce back from anything that knocks me down and kick the crap out of anything or anybody that gets in my way.

Yeah? Well, here’s a newsflash, Boothby. Cancer just doesn’t give a shit! It doesn’t care how tough you are. It doesn’t care how many miles you rode this year or how many pretty little medals you have hanging on the wall. It doesn’t care how much money you have, or how many friends you have or what religion you practice, what color you are, where you come from, how pretty your mama is or even how young or old you are. The only thing cancer gives a shit about is killing you and doing it as fast as possible, even though it is a suicide mission. The only way cancer can win is to kill you and kill itself in the process. Now, that there is one hell of a message to roll around in my brain for a weekend. And I did.

By Monday morning, I had myself pretty well worked up into a dither about it all, and after telling my co-workers what was going on, started to set a process into motion for a solution. Over the next week, I began a process that, at least so far, seems to be working for me pretty well. It is the simple application of some of the spiritual principles I have learned by working a 12-step process learned over the years by my involvement in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. In the readings at any NA meeting, there is a statement that says,

“There is one thing more than anything else that will defeat us in our recovery; this is an attitude of indifference or intolerance toward spiritual principles. Three of these that are indispensable are honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. With these we are well on our way.”

Well, over the past 27 years, I have tried to apply these to my daily life as much as possible and have really broken my recovery process down to a simple, oftentimes very difficult process:

• Surrender
• Acceptance
• Gratitude

So here I was faced with my second terminal disease. If I truly accept that the disease of addiction is one for which there is no known cure and that I must remain vigilant on a daily basis to keep it in remission, then can I not apply this same principle to the disease of cancer? It’s worth a shot.

Surrender? Not me. Marines just don’t surrender. We march forward to take the hill. Giving up just isn’t a strategy that wins wars. Or is it? In recovery from the disease of addiction, I have learned that surrendering hasn’t meant giving in to the enemy; it has meant letting go of control and allowing my Higher Power to do for me what I was unable to do for myself. As long as I struggle for control, I cannot surrender into a process of finding a solution. This battle rages on inside of me every day, and I have become used to dealing with each of life’s challenges by first surrendering my control and then working within the bounds of my knowledge, experience and strength to find a solution. And it is almost never done alone.

Acceptance? Once I begin to surrender, it is far easier to become accepting of a solution. In the first step of AA or NA we learn that we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable. If we stop there, it is a feeling not only of powerlessness, but one of hopelessness, so critical to develop new ways of thinking and reacting and feeling and doing so that we build hope. This is done by coming to rely on something or someone outside of our own self-centered being that can help us to make the necessary change in our life. Once we learn to do this with removing the obsession to drink or consume other drugs, it becomes possible to apply the principles to other aspects of our lives. If we develop a manner of living that keeps us doing this on a daily basis, we can have a pretty good life and achieve miraculous things.

Gratitude? Now here’s the biggie. It happens differently on different days; sometimes easy and sometimes not so easy. Here is where “THE GIFT” comes in. On a daily basis for many years now, I have maintained a ‘gratitude list’. It is different every day, but most days it starts out with the fact that I have a roof over my head, a refrigerator full of food, a warm jacket and a good pair of leather shoes to protect me from the cold winter. It includes the love of a good family. It includes the fact that I have all five of my senses, good health, a good job and am surrounded by a whole lot of people I can call my friends. It often includes the fact that I was born in the USA, a white male and grew up in an intact family, albeit one with many problems. I reflect on the incredible advantage I have had over so many other people and try to remember that if not for a lot of other people who have sacrificed much, I would not have the fantastic life I have today.

I try to start my day off thinking about the many, many blessings in my life and in that way, as the day’s stresses mount, I can keep them in perspective, remembering that no matter what happens today, I am still part of a very elite part of human life on planet earth.

And this is truly where the gift comes in.

About 2 weeks after I received my diagnosis, I was meeting for a consult with my dentist. I “owed him” a 1-1/2 hour appointment to do some corrective work I’d been putting off, and wanted to see him and figure out how to schedule this, as time was short before starting cancer treatments. We sat in his office for over a half hour. He very generously gave me his time to talk not just about my mouth, but he also probed a bit into the rest of my life. He, too, is a very active endurance cyclist and before we finished, he said to me, “Don, I’m really sorry you have to go through this.”

Without really thinking about what I was saying, I told him, “You know, Paul, I’m not. And here is why.”

I proceeded to tell him that nearly 27 years ago, I had begun a process of recovery from addiction and that I had learned that each day is a gift. The only thing I had asked for was an opportunity to live life on life’s terms and this is one of those “life’s terms moments” that I needed to be able to surrender into, accept as simply a new challenge, trusting the outcome to be what it is meant to be regardless of whether or not it is what I want or hope for and remain grateful for each and every moment of my life for the gift that they are.

Over the next week or so, I began to explore this gift thing. I’d been in recovery for about 2-1/2 years when my father died of lung cancer. I spent about 2 weeks in central California with my mother and 3 of my 4 siblings. A most interesting time, to say the least. While I was there, I attended several NA meetings and one night, there was a speaker who talked of being a “grateful, recovering addict,” a phrase I’d heard many times. But he spoke of this gratitude in a different way. He said he wasn’t just grateful for his recovery, but for the disease itself. I tried to wrap my head around that and it wasn’t easy. How can we be grateful for a disease that wants to kill us? He talked about his life in recovery and the gift of the spiritual principles that now allowed him a freedom not just from his drug use, but a freedom to make incredible changes in his own life and become a part of a solution in the lives of those about him. He had become a responsible and productive member of his society for the first time in his life and without the disease of addiction; he would never have learned these tools. And from that base, an inner peace is gained.

So with this in mind, here’s the deal we get in life.

Each and every moment is a gift. It is our choice whether we open the gift. Each person we meet provides us with a gift. It is up to us whether we accept or reject this gift, which is not always easy to even see, much less accept. Each and every encounter we have, every one of our experiences is a gift. What we do with that gift is entirely up to us.

I began to think about this after I left Paul’s office. I think what I had told him probably confused him just as much as it had me, though I am confident he went home and looked at his wife and children differently and told them he loved them with just a bit more understanding than he had when he left for work that morning, just as I did when I got home that night and greeted Mimi when she arrived home from work.

That chance encounter with a man I’ve seen for several years, always in a professional sense, got me to thinking more and more about the gifts of my life.

Granted, this gift of cancer came with some pretty dark wrapping, and I really didn’t want to accept it. I wanted to push it back under the Christmas tree for another 20 years or so. I wanted to pretend it wasn’t for me, but for somebody else. I wanted to do anything other than touch that black ribbon and untie the bow. I wanted to do anything else rather than remove the bright red foil wrapping of this gift, but I knew that I must, if I was going to be able to surrender into a solution, accept my life for what it has now become and somehow manage to become grateful for the disease of cancer, not just grateful for the cure.

This is no easy task. How does one become grateful for something that wants to kill them? It is really quite simple; just not very easy. It is done through faith. It is done through trust. It is done through a knowledge that just like every other challenge in life; the outcome will be exactly as it is supposed to be, regardless of what I WANT. It is done by exploring the gift of the moment. And when I was able to see this last bit that I started to get it. Explore the gift of the moment. Living a day at a time. Living an hour at a time. Living sometimes a minute at a time, and then learning to live a breath at a time. In something I read recently, the teacher is discussing “mindful breathing” and says that with every exhalation is a death. If this is true, then with every inhalation is a rebirth, right?

Without the recent diagnosis of esophageal cancer, I would not have the time to relieve myself from a lot of other daily stresses that prevent me from focusing on my spiritual lifestyle. I’ve learned much over the past 27 years, and tried to apply it to my daily life. Recently, I have had an incredible opportunity to apply these principles on a moment to moment basis, coming into a clearer and ordered loving relationship with the woman with whom I have lived for the past 33 years. I’ve been able to re-explore my own belief systems in a way I’ve never been able to before. I’ve gained a clarity of mind and purpose that I never knew was possible. I have watched as my oldest son has gone through some of his own transformation and we have developed a closeness I never dreamed we would get to have. I have learned that I am a man who is much loved and respected.

The gift is in the learning.

I have learned a lot of life lessons over the past 27 years that are being reinforced daily as I continue to recover from addiction and apply those same principles to my work in surviving cancer. I have learned to listen more (and maybe one day will learn to speak less). I am learning to say “I love you” more and “fuck you” less. I have learned to turn off the noise and truly hear the silence. I am learning new lessons every day about letting go and accepting the hand of a friend gently offered. I am learning that it is okay not to be superman some days. I am learning more each day about the importance of community and of giving back what has been so freely given to me.

I have spent hours and hours (far more than my family would have hoped, I’m sure) learning to be an endurance athlete. Those lessons I have learned about hydration, nutrition, determination, making my way to the finish line despite wanting to give up, learning to help others and allow them to help me become a finisher and a winner are carrying me along nicely on this newest and hardest brevet I’ve ever ridden. My friend Larry, with whom I trained for and rode my first STP and shared many hours talking about recovery and cycling, used to say to me that a lot of days, staying sober was just like riding a bike up a long, hard mountain pass. Some days one had to just keep their head down and keep spinning, not looking too far out up the road and becoming discouraged by what lay ahead. Wise words. Neither of us has ever found a need to return to drinking or using other drugs to become something other than who and what we are.

I have learned that there simply is no “I” in this life I live. There is only we. I have never had an original thought, and everything I talk about is something I have learned from one of you. By being willing to surrender into recovery, I gained insight into myself and others. By accepting who I am, what I am, where I am and the process of life as I walk through each moment, I have become a man who can be proud of his accomplishments, yet am daily humbled by how little I know and how much I have yet to learn. It seems that the more I learn, the more I know how little I truly know. This, then, is my gift, and I share it willingly with you.

By remaining grateful for the incredible bounty of my life, I am able to remain clearly centered and focused on what is in front of me, having faith that regardless of the outcome, I will be well cared for and lovingly supported.

I don’t know if Alexander Graham Bell was right when he talked about doors opening and closing, but I do know this one thing to be true in my life. The only constant is change, and it is unavoidable. If I fear change, I fear what is not, not what is. If, on the other hand, I remain open to change, whatever it may be, wherever it may lead, whatever the outcome, and embrace it with open-mindedness and willingness, miraculous new worlds can open for me. Those new worlds are not out there someplace; they are here, deep within. It is up to me to reach out, pick up the gift, carefully and lovingly open the wrapping and see what lies inside.

Thank you.

07 October 2011

Afternoon Recess

The air is warm
Neighborhood sounds drift about the quiet house.

The bell rings.

Slowly at first, then increasing rapidly, the sounds of children fills the air.
Girls screaming in delight
Balls bouncing against the building
Swings squeaking in offset rhythms.
Boys yelling out their adventures.
The sounds run together into a sweet autumn melody.

School is back.
The children are back.

I lie here in the solace of my home, surrounded by a lifetime of memories.
As I listen, my mind drifts back to those days so long ago.
I smile and let the children’s song carry me into my dreams.

Again, the bell rings.

Slowly at first, then increasing rapidly, the sound of the children fades to silence.
An airplane flies overhead.
A bird sings.
A gentle breeze drifts through the house, and the wind chimes bring me back to now.

My heart is full.

9 September 2011