Saturday, December 31, 2011

Thoracic Park

Christmas is a time for telling the old familiar stories of journeys:  Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem, and Wise Men following a star to a manger.  So it was entirely appropriate that at this particular season, we, too, made a pilgrimage.  Our destination:  Houston, affectionately known as “Thoracic Park.”

We prepared for our flight by checking the Heavens for navigational lights.  Then we way over-packed, and stayed in optimal physical shape by squat thrusting our luggage. 
We have never been gone for over two weeks, but we were most willing to hie ourselves to M. D. Anderson for the opportunity to eradicate a significant portion of Dennis’ lung nodules with high intensity radiation.

We met and conferred with the Three Wise Men:  Tom Buccholz, a dear and trusted friend; Dr. Joe Chang, a thoracic wunderkind; and Dr. Robert Wolff, who, as his name implies, is a ferocious oncological canine. 

There was no room at the inns, so we stayed in a local Best Western.  It was adequate, consisting of two rooms (with two beds and a bathroom) and dimly lit interiors.  I began to realize how minimally one can live when great opportunities present themselves.

However, the interior of our particular stable was dimly lit, and the lights cast a grayish, yellowish tint to one’s reflection.  When the post-shower fog on the mirrors vanished, we both looked sicker than we actually were. 

So I resorted to the Kardashian make-up handbook with tips for drag queens and smut mags, and applied several extra layers of mascara and foundation to counter the specter of my ghostly appearance.  I have decided that mascara is the opiate of the masses. The mirrors at the hospital, unfortunately, were truer than those at the motel, and I realized I looked like a geriatric refugee from the Kabuki Theater, gaunt and apparition-like.  I hate mirrors.

Things could not have gone better for the first five treatments. We were high on optimism and egg nog.  Dennis received his daily dose of radiation, and then we spent each day letting our light so shine and seeing the sights of Houston.  At the end of that week, he could have guided Santa’s sleigh. 

But that Friday night, there was an episode of such severity, we rushed him to the ER, where it was determined that he be placed in the ICU immediately.  His blood pressure  plummeted, his lungs became “fluffy,” and throngs of doctors and caretakers swarmed him round the clock.  Of the two of us, I was the only one cogent.  We all panicked.

At one point, in order to avoid a catheter, I decided to try persuasive imaging on Dennis.    After all, I watch “The Mentalist.”  I understand hypnosis.  So I started counting backwards from ten, telling him in my most velvet voice, that when I reached one, he would pee.  It didn’t work the first time…nor the second.  By the third try, I was looking frantically for a bathroom.  Dennis got the catheter.

In spite of all my protestations that we were going to be fine, Erin and Brodi boarded a plane for Texas.  Apparently long-distance “clotting” was insufficient for them. I mark Dennis’ turn-around from the moment he saw their faces.  The light in his eyes was beyond radiation.  And to tell the truth, their faces looked awfully good to me, too.

The three of us went “commando” and never left his bedside, except when hospital rules forced us out after 12 hours.  Then we rocked Houston.  We went to see “Mission Impossible,” and realized just how many impossible things are possible.   

We never felt alone.  In fact, at one point as Dennis lay semi-conscious and wired to every contraption conceivable to the mind of man, I asked him how many angels he thought were in the room with us. I didn’t expect an answer. Most of our conversations are one-sided anyway.  Besides, he was not awake, and I’m used to speaking in monologues.  But this time he responded, saying he didn’t know exactly how many angels were attending, but it must be a multitude.  Wow!  Out of the mouths of the comatose.        

Dennis began to improve dramatically.  He endured, and eventually prevailed.  I was in a constant state of wonderment, but not surprised.  We began to see things in high def.  We witnessed miracles that would astound and confound the Magi.  So many miracles that I lost count…but there were definitely more than 17.   

Our family was gone so long that we lost track of time. When Dennis began to recover, he asked me what just happened.  I asked him what he remembered.  He said not much.  I said good.  One day I’ll give him all the details. But not now. Some things are better left unspoken. We are at peace knowing we were exactly where we were meant to be at this time.

Staring down cancer is a monumental task.  But my New Year’s resolution is singular and simple:  NEVER EVER BLINK.  (Of course, I’m aided in my commitment by copious amounts of caffeine.  I actually CAN’T blink!)

If life is a journey, it is good to travel in multitudes, as in days of old, and to choose one’s traveling companions wisely.  I have.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Houston, We Have a Solution

Stricken by my annual Nesting Instinct, and staking out territory at the top of the food chain, I decided to cook a Thanksgiving turkey.  Personally, I prefer to munch on invertebrates and microscopic algae, but we’re surrounded by a family comprised mostly of carnivores, who become predatory at this time of year.

So I donned my monogrammed “GRILL MASTER” apron and started preparing the feed bag. 

I began the “apocalypse planning for future survival” by freezing the bird’s packaged innards.  I’m not really sure just what each item is, and I do not ask questions.  I don’t know whether to read the entrails or cook them.  So, I simply place them next to the ice trays and wait till freezer burn dictates date of disposal.  Very tidy.  No guilt.

We managed to prepare all the traditional dishes and achieve a degree of nutritional value at the same time.  Thankfully, we live in a country that has decreed pizza a vegetable, so we are able to hit some serious food groups simply by having Domino’s on speed dial. 

As usual, it was a requirement for everyone to tell what they are thankful for.  But with restrictions.  Family, country, etc. were not allowed.  This left the field wide open.

There were some creative and thoughtful things presented.  Josh was grateful for drive-ups.  Without them, it would be more difficult to get a “happy meal” so fast.  I liked his thinking. 

I personally was thankful for thumbs.  Without opposing digits, (and an upright posture) life as we know it would be quite different.  The kids proved my point by trying to eat using utensils with only their fingers.  I stopped the demonstration when most of the contents of their plates ended up on the carpet.  Our daughters went into collective depression when they realized without thumbs, they couldn’t text.  Only MY routine wouldn’t change without thumbs, technologically speaking.

I stuffed the bird and then the bird stuffed us.  As we were hauling out the carcass and hauling in the Christmas tree, our phone rang.  It was Tom Buchholz from M.D. Anderson in Houston.  He told us he had gone over Dennis’ PET scan with Dr. Chang, head of the thorax division and all things lung.  Apparently they decided that high-intense radiation known as SBRT could take out three of Dennis’ five remaining lesions. 

Dr. Chang said he was going after the hot lesion and two of its satellites.  In order to ensure I understood exactly what he was saying, I said, “So, you’re offing three of the little buggers?” He concurred, with only a barely detectable eyeroll.  I don’t think he was aware that whenever I refer to the “lesions,” I am accustomed to dropping the “B” grenades, “bugger” being the only one fit for blogging.   

Of course, this changes the whole equation.  I was overwhelmed. I wish I could master Kim Kardashian’s technique of crying without moistening a single manicured eyelash or dislodging so much as a single layer of carefully applied mascara.  All her tears are contained within the boundaries of eyelids that remain botoxed in cement and unblinkingly carved in an impossibly perfect, vainglorious face…a mutation of inbred narcissism. 

My tears splash out of my lids and mock my claims of eyes of cork.  They wash over my mascara and carve rivulets of India ink down my cheeks, joining the streams of viscous nasal pond scum that compels onlookers to avert their eyes in disgust.  But I mopped up the mess, and couldn’t stop doing the moonwalk as we packed our bags and headed to Texas with less than 24 hours notice.

In spite of all of the above, I landed in Houston looking laudably perky in my sunshine yellow cardigan and pathetically matching saffron shoes.  Thanks to the moisture content of the equatorial atmosphere, I arrived at the doorstep of M. D. Anderson looking like a bedraggled, jaundiced fur ball coughed by a stray cat with toxic dyspepsia.

I heard from a Jesuit priest that yellow is the color of intelligence.  Thankfully, I had packed plenty of burlap, the color of the neuron impaired.

 We met with doctors and technicians, who created a body mould for Dennis, and then did calculations that would stupefy the intelligently elite, to prepare for the two weeks of intense radiation that will eradicate these invading nodules. 

In order not to nothing ourselves to death, we decided to explore some points of interest while we waited for Monday.  We went to Galvaston for a romantic walk along the beach and release our inner sanity.  However, the wind blew so hard, it swaddled my head in platinum and root re-growth, making me look like a cross between cro magnon and the missing link.  Not exactly a Kodak moment.  But somehow none of that mattered.

It has been said that what is past is prologue.  Dennis began his intense and precise treatments today.  For us, it is Christmas.  And perhaps that’s what this season is all about…prologues and possibilities.