Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bump in the road

Morning sky
Breaking news: After about three months, the TV remote has been found, by chance, in a drawer of the coffee table, and we are both wondering how neither of us ever thought of looking for it there…

A half dozen blood draws over the past couple of weeks reveal that my platelet count has been dropping. This means I bleed easily, as is evident from the purple bruises in my arms where blood was taken for the lab tests. It also means delay of the next round of chemo. The oncologist seems otherwise satisfied with my “progress,” but it is progress without improvement, and that unexpected bump in the road has produced more disappointment than I’m comfortable with. 

Cancer, I’m learning, has all these wonderful lessons for a person. A lifelong perfectionist and for-your-own-good rule-follower, I’m having to learn how to welcome and celebrate each day’s many imperfections. The payoff when I can follow the rules for leading an orderly life has been the reassurance (or fantasy) that I am in control of it. Well, that’s another item on a lengthening list of beliefs I have to let go of. I see that I need a new appreciation of what may not be perfect, but is nonetheless good enough.

New residents on the patio
An outburst of frustration one night, too embarrassing to describe here in detail, got me to see I wasn’t coping at all well despite all my rules and expectations. So I made an appointment with the Cancer Center’s psychologist, who turned out to be a practical practitioner, full of reasonable advice about respecting my limits. She pegged me for an “academic,” temperamentally inclined to push toward goals of productivity that most people would not be tempted to achieve. (Like spending four years researching and writing a book on early frontier fiction, I suppose.)

She showed me ways to keep from using up energy I don’t have, recognizing that it’s a renewable resource only if I am alert to the first sign of fatigue and immediately taking a break. Otherwise, I totally burn out. I also need to stop regarding physical weakness as a sign of failure. Anger, tears, and frustration are signs of grief and loss, which are both legitimate emotions and need expression. Coping requires finding ways to adapt, not stubbornly fighting inconvenient feelings. (Boy, did she have my number.)

Maybe the most reassuring thing she told me is that among my faculties, I can expect intellect to stay with me. I needn’t fear losing that, and I hope I understood her correctly. I can tolerate and adapt to numbness in my left hand and the inability to taste food. The inability to drive a car and being mostly housebound affect me as I read an article in the travel section about a visit to Durham in northern England, a town I last saw in 1964, fresh from college. And I’m missing the Western Writers of America conference in Sacramento this month.

San Jacinto
But I can continue to learn from this journey and take solace in knowing that there’s much still to be grateful for. When the mornings are calm and cool enough to sit on the shady patio by the fountain, writing or reading, looking up to the mountain ridge across the valley and the birds in the trees (including my favorite, hummingbirds), I am thankful for another day of this bittersweet thing called life. I see again that these moments of here and now are all we have—and all we ever had.

I have physical strength again for early morning walks with my wife and our dog. And when the desert heat finally drives me inside, there are currently 20 novels on my kindle and nook with the imagined worlds of writers who take me far from this little one circumscribed by my illness.

Meanwhile, it gets clearer that pushing back cancer means not settling for what I’ve learned so far. Reducing stress is a necessity, and that means learning a kind of deep relaxation foreign to just about everything in me. So I pick up a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh, whose book on mindfulness meditation promises to be a wrestling with habits of mind I will let go of with the reluctance of a child being dragged away from a candy counter.  

But so it goes.

Previously: Missing


  1. It sounds, in a way, as if you are working to change who you've been for most of your life. And I can only imagine how difficult that is. Life long habits of living are not given up easily. I'm glad the psychologist was able to offer some insight.

  2. Bear in mind that even perfectly healthy people our age need more rest. I remind my husband of this every day. Like you, he is used to having boundless energy and ambition. We think of you all the time and take pleasure from your lovely words.

  3. Reading a good book has long been a great solace in my life - keep on reading and keep on getting better.

  4. I'm glad to read that this practitioner has been helpful and if I may be so bold but your essays here on your continuing recovery is nothing short of awe-inspiring, Ron. Another book, perhaps?

  5. Isn't it curious how we never stop learning about ourselves. Beautiful photograph of San Jacinto. As an aside, we waited seven years during my mom's increasing dementia to go on a trip; finally decided we were getting creaky and should take a chance to go to Scotland - and she died while we were gone. Thank goodness for my son making the burial arrangements (and cell phones, texts, and emails). Thinking of you.

  6. Ron, thank you for another thoughtful post. When I mentioned to my yoga teacher that the practice of "deep relaxation" or meditation does not come easily, especially when the mind is forever running a race, she simply said, "Keep at it. Don't give up. Make it a habit. In due time you'll find that you can't do without it" or words to that effect. I can't say I've been paying heed to her advice. I refer to Thich Nhat Hanh's "The Miracle of Mindfulness" quite often as well as the spiritual works of the late Eknath Easwaran, a spiritual teacher of Indian origin who established the Blue Mountain Centre of Meditation and Niligiri Press at Tomales, CA, some four decades ago. He has written some wonderful books. Best wishes, Ron.

    1. The sense I'm getting about meditation is that it switches off the fast-forward on one's mental tape player, so you are not giving attention to stressful expectations about the future (which chiefly exist in the imagination anyway).

    2. Ron, you put that well. I have practised yoga in various forms but I prefer meditation, with or without a mantra, for I find it more relaxing than anything else. In spite of its slow movements, yoga is still physical exercise.