Sunday, April 13, 2014

White lily

New look
We bought a hair clipper, and with thanks to my wife, I now have a whole new look. Here I am just back from a morning walk, most of the rest of me covered, for reasons of an antibiotic that makes me allergic to sunlight. Outside, of course, you’d see me in a skullcap and UV-resistant wide-brimmed hat, plus sunblock.

And here is more of the journal I’ve been keeping since returning home from the hospital and surgery. (I apologize if this installment gets a little mordant, but it’s the way my mind works.)

3/7/14. This morning Laurie Anderson’s piece “White Lily” slips into my dawn thoughts (see below). And for a moment, the days seem to be going by, “endlessly pulling you into the future.” I stand in the driveway a few minutes ago after setting out the trash and recycling bins for pickup. Mockingbirds are singing in the trees on the street; the sky is nearly clear; there’s the lightest breeze, and Venus shines bright in the eastern sky. Far off, down the valley, a ridge of hills is a faint blue shadow.

We collapsed into bed last night shortly after 8:00. The day, which included another drive to the cancer center for more radiation, had in fact seemed endless. By evening I had lost appetite for a meal and skipped ahead to a serving of frozen yogurt. The 6:00 news got turned on, and I am reminded that the world still seems bent on going to hell in a hand basket. Who ever guessed that battle lines would be drawn again in the Crimea? At times I’ve had way too much of this war-torn earth and the endless killing. No more evening news, thanks.

San Jacinto, morning walk about the neighborhood
So I write for my blog, a review of a beautifully crafted novel from 1902, Eleanor Gates’ Biography of a Prairie Girl. And I cruise steadily through Margaret Lawrence’s The Stone Angel, as it triggers more thoughts. I am grateful for this imagined world to retreat to, where killing and death are transformed into words on the page and real blood is not shed. There we can encounter life’s harsh realities without having to succumb to them. Neither we nor our loved ones—or any other living being for that matter. Would that all wars were only wars of words.

In literature, the dead do not fall into an Eternal Silence, as do those who have actually lived and breathed. Gravestones do not mark the resting place of a lifetime of memories, locked away forever. Lives lived in literature remain at least partly open to us, unforgotten. I think of Joyce as getting at something like this in “The Dead.” Spending a holiday evening with a gathering of people, all of them now dead and gone, we are touched by them, their loneliness and sorrows, their heart-breaking memories, their isolation, weaknesses, and failures, their bravery. Yet somehow the words on the page keep them from being forever snuffed out. At least some part of them is still remembered.

And so, these days, I find myself remembering the dead in my own life: parents, family, friends. They are quite a gathering of their own, and I’m surprised at the number of them. I imagine them sometimes hovering around me in the ether, watching maybe kindly or tenderly. Maybe indifferently. I don’t know. When the time eventually comes, how will I be welcomed into their number? I like to think I will be. But there’s no telling. And there’s no skipping ahead to find out. The story of this life of mine is still to be told, one page at a time.

Desert spring sky
3/8/14. Even cancer patients and their caregivers and drivers get weekends. So after two weeks of radiation and chemo, at 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday, only a hint of dawn in the east and a breeze in the palo verdes, I feed the dog so she will let my wife sleep longer, and I am up and about after what has been a long night of waiting for night to be over. At one point, I studied a bedside clockface in the dim light and thought it said 3:00. Waking sometime later, restless, I walked to the kitchen and discovered it was hardly midnight.

Watching a 1990s movie from Netflix last night, Twilight, with an ageing Paul Newman as a PI and Gene Hackman as a dying cancer patient, my wife asked me if I was OK with it. And I truthfully told her that it did not bother me. It’s fictional cancer, not a real person afflicted with real cancer. Gene Hackman will live on to make other movies, though I’m less sure in the film about Paul Newman. Both are just pretending, for an audience that mostly doesn’t know the real thing. It’s make-believe cancer and really has nothing to do with me.

3/9/14. Daylight Savings Time kicks in, and not a moment too soon. The night is now an hour shorter. Waking at what used to be 4:30 PST, it’s really 5:30, and the day is already waiting for me. I like that. Yesterday I vacationed from being a cancer patient by watching two westerns for my blog, while my wife left me at home to do some shopping and get her hair cut.

This, of course, came after a meds-related hiccup, as I discovered when she found a capsule of my chemo on the dining room rug. I’d had some kind of accident while filling my one-week pill dispenser in the morning. A count revealed that I was missing a second capsule that we failed to find after crawling around on the floor with a flashlight. My first concern was the dog consuming it for a “snack,” and I kept a worried eye on her for several hours, while calmly remembering how much she has disliked taking meds of her own unless hidden in a gob of canned dog food.

Palo verde starting into bloom
My wife returns from her haircut with an earful from her hairdresser about the evils of sugar—that it’s what cancer “feeds on.” Having begun to allow myself the solace of eating cookies, I felt my innards sink at the thought of giving them up. Then a look online revealed that there’s no evidence of a connection between the two. But diet recommendations do show I could consume more fish, while sticking with a healthy intake of fruits and vegetables. 

Meanwhile, death continues to stalk my reading and movie viewing. I finished The Stone Angel, discovering that its last chapters are devoted to the hospitalization and death of its central character (and narrator). It triggered the predictable fears of a similar demise, one’s last days at the mercy of “health professionals.” Then we watched The Dallas Buyer’s Club, which has its own story to tell of a virus-infected man’s survival while caught between government and the pharmaceutical companies in league to monetize a public health crisis. The character dies in the end, too, though after a mighty fight that prolongs his life for years after the original prognosis of 30 days.

I realize that each story (and Twilight from the night before) has been written by people imagining death in ways that keep their worst fears at bay, and for an audience welcoming that distancing. Even Ron Woodruff in Buyer’s Club, whose character cowboys his way fearlessly against all obstacles, finally succumbs in a footnote in the last frame of the film. And that was the actual person, not the actor who portrayed him for the past two hours. It’s not easy to learn how to face illness and death from the examples in books and movies. They are made to reassure the living—who are the ones who pay to be entertained by them—as Roger Ebert once sagely observed.

Coming up: Randolph Scott, Rage at Dawn (1955)


  1. I am honored to know you.

  2. The fact that Lana had to stay out of the sunlight as much as possible was something she had a hard time with. I remember it well.

  3. We don't realize how often death is used in literature until it becomes this meaningful. My book group just read THE FAULT IN THE STARS, a YA novel that really brought us to our knees. DItto what RIchard said.

  4. Another great read - and I like the hair.

  5. Ron, I'm with Mr. Wheeler too. This is a thoughtful piece on some of the vicissitudes of life. Thanks for sharing your photograph.