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About Traveling

Hey, this will be my last post for a few weeks. Vacation time is nearly here, and I’m heading back out on the road again. Which makes this the perfect time to write about one of my favorite subjects, for the first time in a while: Traveling!

I always find it so weird when people make it sound like there is some “right” way to travel. That you, as the subject, have to travel in some certain way to be a “traveler” and not a “tourist.” That there is some time frame that you have to spend in a place to make it worth your while and to satisfy others that you successfully “saw” something or somewhere. That one person’s way of traveling is superior to another person’s way of traveling. Last thing I knew, travel was supposed to be fun, like an ice cream sundae, with a learning experience on top, like a shiny red cherry, if you so choose to have one. Then again, maybe a trip is simply an escape from the rat race.

Social media is full of “influencers” who will have you believe that their way of traveling is not only better than yours, but that it’s easy and they’ll show you how to be like them, for a price. You can trot the globe while taking odd jobs like bartending and teaching English as a Second Language. Thanks, I got over working in bars when I was twenty-five, and I teach people’s kids every day and love sending them home at 2:15pm, no questions asked. I like my good paying job with paid vacations. I’d pay to see pictures of those “influencers” doing one of their real jobs in between the glossy shots from the pristine mountain top in New Zealand and the beach in Mexico. I want to see the “influencer” mixing a White Russian and looking picture perfect. Really.

Thank goodness for the unfollow button! I recently had to use it on one of the better known globe trotters that I had been following for a couple of years, because she was being pretty insulting to someone else’s way of life. What the heck happened to live and let live?

The other thought that I don’t agree with is that in order to travel in a worthwhile way you have to go to a foreign country. Make no mistake, I love exploring places outside the United States. I’ve done more than my fair share. But in a pinch, and let’s face it, we’ve been in quite a pinch since March of 2020, I’d take a road trip to the American West above all other traveling. I’ve ticked off forty plus countries thus far and have every intention of ticking off more in my own fashion once I deem it safe for me, but give me that road trip every time. It should come as no surprise that I’m heading to the American West this next trip too! I can’t WAIT!!

Here’s a secret about me that makes me different than the garden variety social media travel giant: I love coming home and I love being home, too. The pandemic gave me an excuse to stick close to home and explore my own backyard more. I always said that “someday” I’d do that more and, well, I didn’t expect cancer and COVID19 to give me the opportunity, but I’ve had a heck of a good time! I’ve always scoured New England in between bigger trips, but not like I have in the past two years. In my favorite movie of all time, Dorothy Gale went to great lengths to find out that her heart was in her own backyard. My heart is still and always will be in the American West, but New England is pretty cool too.

Before my cancer diagnosis I spent the better part of twenty years earning my keep as a special education teacher and traveling on school vacations. Maybe taking an extra day or two on either side to make my time away longer, or even escaping on a long weekend. Now that I haven’t done it for a couple of years I realize that it was exactly the way I wanted to travel. Make my money, pay for a trip, enjoy where I was without having to worry about work, and come home to earn money for more fun. After my diagnosis and through the COVID19 storm I continued my exploration as best as I could. Slowly, I’m getting my travel life back on track, though I’ve decided I want to do things and see places that I didn’t take the time to do and see before. Cruises and islands are of high interest, while twenty hour flights to the other side of the world are not really a priority. Oh, and more road trips, of course! Always more road trips!

In short, the Bucket List is officially made. It was time.

And so, I continue to explore as I see fit, and I am unapologetic.

Travel and let travel.

The Value of Extending Life

Recently, I was dealing with the very real possibility that my beautiful sister Jeanne, who has been battling health issues for more than a decade now, was going to lose the fight. Jeanne is the strongest lady I know, and is one of three people in my family that has had to overcome great odds to continue to draw breath. (My niece Amanda and I are the other two, in case you wondered!) Her struggles brought up a wide array of issues, as any health struggle does, but even more for her because Jeanne is disabled. As her sister, co-guardian, and staunchest supporter, I have to be her loudest voice. I also have to be very tuned into whether she’s getting a fair shake or not. More often than not, I am relieved to report that Jeanne does get a fair shake. I’m even more relieved to report that Jeanne pulled through her ordeal and is steadily working her way back to being herself. But it was oh, so close.

So close, in fact, that talk of DNR (do not resuscitate) orders and extending life beyond Jeanne’s comfort was at a maximum. The conversations got me thinking about the value of life and extending it, something I know a little bit about, considering I’ve been living on borrowed time for two and a half years after my lung cancer diagnosis. In those two plus years I’ve traveled and hiked and continued my teaching career and experienced life as fully as possible while also dealing with my illness and a worldwide pandemic. Are those valuable accomplishments? Is my life worth extending? Is anyone’s life worth extending? How about Jeanne’s? Who’s to decide this?

I’ve never been in the position to “pull the plug” on the life of a loved one. I don’t know what I would do. I’m neither fully for or against life support or abortion, but form an opinion based on specific circumstances. No one was making a value judgement about Jeanne continuing on, but some of the things being said struck me as leaning toward her not being able to regain her former status. Jeanne was a different person for months, with few observable signs of deterioration other than somber mood and exhaustion. Because she’s nonverbal, knowing what is going on inside of her can be a mystery. At one time she would make gestures and other outward indications that she was not well, but this time she didn’t. So a major issue festered until it was nearly too late to help her. Several days went by with her life hanging in the balance, major decisions being made, and opinions being shared. Much of what was being said made me uncomfortable, not to mention hollow and grief stricken. Life without my dearest earthly angel was unfathomable, empty. I didn’t and don’t want Jeanne to suffer. But I also wanted her life to matter, to be sure that it did and does, and for her to be able to continue the fight, if that was what she chose to do.

I spoke to my personal guardian angels and put a message out into this plain of the universe: the real decision belonged to Jeanne. If she wanted to fight, she would fight. And Jeanne wanted to fight.

I never stopped believing in her and the value of her life.

My Hero!!

Jeanne will never be able to do the things I can do. Nor will she invent electric cars or send rockets to Mars. She isn’t going to end racial discrimination or cure cancer. Most of us aren’t either. Jeanne will help with household tasks, listen to oldies on her stereo, get her nails done, go for haircuts and for rides to look at bodies of water. She’ll take part in simple activities but will revel more in the attention she’s getting. Most importantly, she will be cherished by a few dedicated family and staff members that adore her.

When I saw her in the hospital, where she lay for nearly a month, the “old Jeanne” seemed lost forever. She was unresponsive, far away, so often on the brink of leaving us. I feared for her and for us, feared that we would cross the line of making her stay when she wanted to go, of dragging her through yet another ordeal that she had no chance of making it through. But the thought of seeing the “old Jeanne” kept me praying for her safe passage back to life.

Jeanne may never do any of what I wrote above, but damn, she’s a survivor in the most incredible sense, and has offered more miracles than most people walking the planet.

Jeanne made it. Jeanne taught a lot of people a lesson about survival and the human spirit. Jeanne is quickly becoming the “old Jeanne” again. Just the way we love her.

I’m in awe of this woman!!

My sister Marie, Jeanne, and I

Dear Mr. Truck Driver…

See? I got your attention. Now you think that I’m about to give my opinion on the trucker convoys in Canada and the U.S. However, that isn’t the focus of my blog. Instead, I’m going to write about a recent experience I had with a trucker on the the Massachusetts Turnpike, otherwise known as I-90, locally known as “the Pike.” From my house due East, the Pike is a dull stretch of seventy miles of highway to Boston, and where bad behavior is at a maximum.

Before I zero in specifically on my good trucker buddy, let me first reiterate a frequent complaint of mine: Some people just lose their cotton picking minds when they get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Where does common sense go? I just don’t get it. It certainly seems that all anger, frustration, and power tripping is released on fellow drivers. Stupidity is at an all-time high. Messing with the lives of others becomes some sick game, all in the name of getting one car length ahead of someone else, or in a preferred lane before someone else does.

Okay, now let me tell the story of my favorite trucker in the world.

On Monday, March 14, 2022, I was heading to Boston for my monthly check-in at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Yeah, you got it. I have cancer. I’m being treated for cancer. I’m not going to Beantown to party, or see the Red Sox, or to an art museum Truth is, I’d rather be working than going to Dana Farber Cancer Institute. I’m going because I have to. If I don’t go I’ll die. I’m tired on said day, and it’s early in the morning. I’m minding my own damn business, going 70 miles per hour in the center lane the way I always do. Other drivers fly by me, getting nowhere faster than me. I know that. They apparently don’t.

I pass a trucker going at a reasonable pace, and take note of it, because I like to see truckers who don’t think they own the road, who don’t think that just because they’re bigger they’re better. This 18-wheeler, from a company that will be named below, was inconspicuous, as all trucks and cars are until they do something off the wall. This one was a few minutes away from doing just that.

Back in the center lane after passing a few vehicles that were going a little slower than me, I settled in. Ten minutes go by, and suddenly Mr. Inconspicuous Trucker is right behind me flashing his lights at me. As a general rule and as a longtime driver with a clean record and hundreds of thousands of miles on all over the United States of America, I don’t allow other drivers, whether they’re bigger than me or not, to decide how fast I go or what lane I drive in. So I don’t budge, which only serves to piss off Mr. Trucker. My line of reasoning is this: There are two more lanes to move into. Use them if you don’t like my driving.

He doesn’t see things my way.

His next move is to start tooting at me and swerving. Then, the worst thing of all: Tailgating. In a tractor trailer truck that can’t stop quickly should I need to put on my brakes for something. But I held my ground, and so did he. I took out my phone and made a video going over my shoulder, showing the lights of this shithead glaring in my rear window, as well as how close he really was to me. Close enough for someone to reach out my back window and touch him.

I get it, you’re saying, just move for him! It’s your own fault for not moving! Here’s where we’re different. It’s against my principles to cater to a moron like this, particularly when I’m not doing anything wrong. And here’s the funny thing: He finally passed me, and then we got tangled up in stop and go traffic. So I had plenty of opportunities to take pictures of the company name and license plates, and Mr. Trucker got nowhere from his dangerous behavior. Just for good measure, he indulged in the ultimate in blameless behavior, and hung his phone out the window to take pictures of me. Imagine!

I eventually lost him, went to Dana Farber, and got all good news. But this experience sat heavily on my mind and still does.

Did I call Goulet Trucking in South Hadley, Massachusetts? Yes, after I read some pretty nasty reviews that indicate that this is a company that really doesn’t care what their truckers are doing. Daryl, the fellow I spoke to, didn’t seem too interested in me, but I asked him to tell my trucker friend some of the items I’ve already expressed above: I was going to Dana Farber. I have cancer. I was going for treatment. If I don’t go I’ll die. This already sucks enough. Why did he have to make the experience even suckier?

You never know who you’re messing with, what they’re dealing with, and how you’re making them feel.

I did the only thing I could. But I know that it won’t do a lick of good. Mr. Trucker will go out and terrorize someone else. Then someone else after that.

This experience brings up a point that surfaces more and more often now: When we’re blatantly mistreated, who can we really turn to if a clear crime has not been committed?

And the bigger question: Can we all just act like decent human beings instead of total brainless careless asshats?

Who’s to Blame?

I feel like I’ve covered this subject in at least one other blog, but it’s worth discussing again.

The subject? Blame.

Whenever I turn around I hear someone else trying to get out of taking blame for anything, even the smallest mishap. As a teacher, this happens countless times per day, and it isn’t always my students denying wrong doing. I’m sorry hasn’t gone down with a fight, it died a quiet death when my bad and I didn’t do it came along, hand in hand. I’m sorry went so quietly, we didn’t see it going. We couldn’t give it a proper funeral. Rest in peace, dear words.

I’m sorry does make an appearance every so often, like a portrait of a long gone family member or lover, but it is usually not very satisfying. Unless it comes from someone whom is an upstanding and sincere person, it reeks of contamination and denial. In this case, I’ll take silence. Even the middle finger works better than a fake I’m sorry.

What’s the hardest place in the world to get another human to accept blame? I’ve been a lot of places, and in my opinion, there is no geographic location where an individual is more likely to say the two golden words. There are decent people everywhere, and there are crappy people everywhere. But I do believe this: if you are fortunate enough to be one of the aforementioned upstanding individuals out there, you live your life and treat others in a way that make it unnecessary in most cases to apologize. Sure, there will be times when you make a mistake (everyone does) because no one, as the saying goes, is perfect, and you will have to speak the calming words that you still have at your disposal and didn’t forget like most have. But you aren’t in the business to need them on a regular basis. You’re better than that. Precious people like you are everywhere in the world. The rest of us just have to find you.

One day several years ago I started to wonder when people started to dislike each other. Was it after World War II? The Civil War? The Industrial Revolution? When? Or was it in my lifetime? The 70’s, 80’s, 90’s? Perhaps it was my childish mind, or the fact that I had a lovely childhood, at least until my father died in 1977, but the 1970’s were still good years. Maybe it was the 1980’s, which were crazy fun, but also brought in technology that would eventually separate us and make us feel safe sitting behind a computer or later, a cell phone, treating each other badly. Whenever it was, we’re in big trouble now.

I try not to live my life around the news. I don’t watch TV and have not for years, but I do read headlines. I don’t read statistics either, but those headlines tell a lot of stories. Crimes against people based on skin color are well publicized. But has anyone taken note of the fact that crimes against helpless children of any and every color are skyrocketing? And against women of any and every color? Mass shootings are nearly an everyday occurrence, to the point that they’re easy to scroll by to get to something more gory. Can you hear the “I didn’t do it” ringing out through the bold print?

I’ve been around the world and around the country largely by myself. I’ve survived cancer and the deaths of the people I love most in the world. I’ve never lived in fear. But let me tell you: the things that I see going on around me make me not want to meet new people. I love and have big appreciation for the intentionally small circle of family and friends that I trust with my life. I plan to keep things just the way they are.

After several paragraphs of complaints, the question must now loom: Do I know how to apologize? Yes, I do. Do I apologize when I’m wrong? Yes, I do. Do I apologize when I feel someone has wronged me just to make peace? No, I absolutely do not. Shouldering blame for something that someone does to us doesn’t help anyone. It makes us feel like dog poop, and it makes the guilty party feel vindicated, and like they can continue their sucky behavior. Don’t do it. Because you already feel wronged over something you didn’t do, and the actual wrongdoer now has an open door to do it again and again. And will.

Let them. Save your honesty and integrity for someone who knows how to return it. You won’t be sorry. You won’t have to be.

Work in Progress: A Thousand Winds

I’ve written and published seven books under the pseudonym Brenda K. Stone. They’re fun and a little frivolous and I am extremely proud of them. Lately, I’ve taken a renewed interest in what I refer to as my “rock and roll series” and plan to read it after a long break away from it. The idea to pick it up and start writing again is a complete possibility. But not much will get in the way of finishing my current work in progress, “A Thousand Winds.”

The best writing I’ve ever done? “A Thousand Winds” is it. Since my cancer diagnosis, I come from a different place, and it’s not always a bad thing. It’s a deeper, more thought-provoking place. Interesting fact: I came up with the outline of the book before my diagnosis, and guess what disease one of the main characters was dying from? You guessed it, cancer. I’ve since changed that to ALS, so it wouldn’t hit too close to home. But like most authors, a lot of me is in the story.

The first few pages of any book are so crucial, and I’ve been reworking the prologues of “A Thousand Winds.” For a limited time, you can still read the “old” prologues here. Please enjoy the “new” prologues below, and drop me a line to let me know what you think!

A Thousand Winds

Janice

The way she looked at me is burned into my memory. The message in her eyes spoke volumes: You’re old. Therefore, you’re worthless.

She has no idea.

She thinks her generation invented sex. Drugs. Rock and roll. Millennials, or Generation Z, or whoever the hell they are, with Facebook and Instagram and TikTok, invented the world as we know it. The generation of youngsters who are afraid to show their faces without a “filter”, because one of their “friends” might see their soul, invented history. The “been there, done that” Me Me Me Generation covering up who they really are with whiskers or a pig nose, think they have the world at their fingertips.

 Will she ever know what it’s like to truly be loved? By the same man, for forty-eight years? Could she find joy in a sandbox? Or playing house in the woods, where the rocks are her toaster, the trees her shower stall? Did she ever have to disappear into that same forest to escape a man that would hurt his own daughter to satisfy his sick fantasies? No, because Jim and I protected her from that.

 I wasn’t so lucky.

 Coachella is a town one stop removed from the nightmare of my childhood, yet her biggest adventure. But was she marching in Selma, Alabama in 1965? Was she in the crowd for the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC, 1963? Did she watch the Beatles land at JFK on February 7, 1964, after hitching a ride from California?

Am I old and worthless now?

There’s so much more to tell. The life I’ve led even overwhelms me, to the point I have to leave it in the past sometimes as I struggle to move forward.

Kimberly doesn’t know any of it. All she knows is that seven years ago she found out that I’m her grandmother, and who her parents really were. She hasn’t spoken a kind word to me since.

Perhaps she’ll never know where her grandmother has been.

Because she hates me. And I’m dying.

Kimberly

“You’re such an asshole.” I toss a soiled napkin at Zac. I can relate to the crumpled paper as it floats to the carpet.

“I’m just gonna sleep through the whole fuckin’ scene,” he moans.

“C’mon, you have to help me,” I remind him.

“Grandpa Jim and me don’t exactly see eye to eye, remember? And you know what happens when a guy doesn’t see eye to eye with ‘ole Jimbo.” Zac makes a horrid noise as he pretends to cut his own throat with his index finger.

I blink, because his words sting. I feel like he should know better, and if he doesn’t, that I should tell him that he should know better. But I don’t.

Instead, I keep the light mood going.

“Do you think Kylie Jenner gets a visit from her grandfather that used to be her father the day after Coachella?”

We have a much-needed howl when Zac quips, “Did you forget that Kylie Jenner’s father is a chick now?”

My mirth is interrupted by the definitive sound of a car door slamming somewhere on the street in front of my apartment complex. A quick glance out the sliding glass door has me snatching up the napkin and running for my bedroom to put on the nearest pieces of clothing I can reach.

“Put a fucking shirt on, you sexy slob!” I shout into the living room.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Zac scratches his belly and yawns, but is soon behind me pretending to hump me doggie-style as I’m putting on my underwear.

“I see Grandpa Jim still hasn’t traded in the Oldsmobile for the Porsche he deserves,” Zac deadpans. He seems to think that Grandpa has a lot of money stashed away in his mattress. In fact, Zac is obsessed with the thought. Maybe that’s why he’s so hard to get rid of?

“Shut up.” I suck on his bottom lip and rumple his hair. He’s so beautiful that I put up with all his other nonsense.

Zac pats my butt and chases me for a few steps as Grandpa’s knock falls on the door. I’m trying to stifle a grin when I swing it open to face the man who used to be number one in my life.

“Kimberly…”

The look on Grandpa Jim’s face forces my smile to disintegrate.

Here I Come Again

I don’t know about you, but 2022 hasn’t exactly been a memorable year for me thus far. I’ve just dealt with six months of intense back pain dating back to September 2021, in addition to stage IV lung cancer dating back to October 2019. Yay, me.

But guess what? I finally got what I needed. Did my six weeks of physical therapy, (well, eight!) then my insurance company ponied up for my steroid injection. As I type, it has been a handful of days, and I definitely feel a difference. I’m hoping that as the next week or two passes, I’ll feel even better. Just as important as the way my body feels, is the way my mind feels: I finally have a stepping stone for turning my life around. Again. How many times will I do this? How many times will I be allowed to do this before my clock stops ticking? Somehow, someway, I don’t think I’m done. I think I can move forward. As some people like to say, “You got this.”

What a sigh of relief.

Funny/not funny what pain does to you. I can almost handle the cancer, because the odd truth is that my life continued much as it did before my diagnosis once I was on the right treatment plan. But this back stuff? It has tormented me beyond anything physical I’ve ever dealt with, has delivered a crushing blow. Add sucky New England weather to the mix and it’s a true recipe for disaster. I have not been to my favorite local hiking haunt in two months! This is horrific news! From September until November I continued my exploration of the trails around Quabbin Reservoir even though my back ached, and it kept me sane. Since the snow and ice shut me out of much of my outdoor activity I’ve been yearning to get back outside with the animals and the trees, to get my feet moving, take some pictures, feel like I’m alive again. Here I wait (impatiently) for a stretch of weather that’s warm enough to melt some of the ice and give me a Saturday afternoon to get back out there and forget about stuff for a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve kept myself busy with my “indoor” loves: writing my latest book, posting to this here blog, doing my special brand of artwork, reading, working on photo albums, continuing my studies of the Polish language. I’m not giving any of that up! I just have to get back to walking off those steps and miles that mean so much to me and keep me grounded. You really don’t know how very much something means to you until you can’t do it.

Know what else I need to do? Plan travel. I’m heading to South Carolina again in a couple of weeks to see my beloved niece. I need more on the calendar after that. I’ve always kept myself going by making plans. I’m seeing Southern Utah, Cape Cod, California, Oregon, and Portugal in the not so distant future. Maybe later in the year I’ll reschedule my canceled trip to Costa Rica, but COVID19 has to look a lot better before I even think about leaving the country. As long as I go somewhere, I’ll be okay. The idea of getting back to globe trotting and country hopping is always a possibility, but is not the necessity that it used to be. I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff, and I’ll do plenty more, but safety is first and doing what appeals to me most runs a close second.

Right now, my number one goal is to drive twenty miles to the north and walk a flat trail down to the edge of the largest inland body of water in Massachusetts, like I’ve done hundreds of times before. Having the sun shining would be a big plus. Melting snow, even better. And silence. Lord, give me silence! Five miles of silence. I have not done a five miler in several weeks. Several weeks too long.

Even though my feet aren’t quite moving yet again, just being able to wrap my mind around the possibility of resuming my active life is a miracle. Maybe 2022 will have some happy memories after all?

Hey, guess what? I got my airfare to Albuquerque, my chosen gateway to Southern Utah, last night. Booked my hotel on Cape Cod earlier in the week. The forecast for this Saturday is for sun and 50 degrees. I’m adding hiking to that forecast. It can’t come soon enough.

Yeah, I got this.

Short Story: Love is For Everyone

I love writing and wish I could do it more. Writing is also really hard work. So it kind of rots when you submit something and don’t even hear back from a publisher or magazine or journal. That’s what happened with the following story, which I offered to a well known magazine early last year. Actually getting chosen for publication was a long shot, but receiving a rejection letter is always better than silence. Their loss is my blog’s gain.

When I sat down to write, I had been pondering the question is love for everyone? Even someone who is living with a death sentence? According to me, apparently so. Please enjoy “Love is For Everyone,” and tell me what you think either way!

LOVE IS FOR EVERYONE

              “Mom, stop thinking like that,” Nellie’s daughter Emma scolded lightly as they pushed through the door of the infusion clinic.

              “Emma, cancer just changes everything. The last thing I want to do is give up on love, but it seems like such a longshot now. I mean, Paul…” Nellie’s voice drifted off as she thought about how her longtime companion had moved away shortly after her diagnosis. They still talked occasionally, but he seemed to like his new life in Florida and wouldn’t be returning to Illinois anytime soon.

              “Mom, cancer has changed a lot of things, but it hasn’t changed everything. You’re still human and you’re still worthy,” Emma reminded her.

              “And this is it, hon. Last treatment.” Nellie shivered as Kathy, the familiar infusion nurse, appeared to greet them.

              “Nellie, you look more and more gorgeous every time I see you!” Kathy bubbled.

              “I agree,” Emma chimed in, tucking her arm inside Nellie’s.

              Nellie’s hand drifted up to the black headwrap she had learned to feel comfortable wearing as her chocolate brown hair thinned from her treatments. She felt attractive in a different and unexpected way now, like she had the beauty of strength, of surviving. She lightly squeezed Emma’s warm arm in return.

              “Thank you. I’m ready to get this done.” Nellie took a deep breath and looked toward the infusion area with its comfortable brown chairs and hospital curtains that many patients left open so they could chat. Her appointments were always early, so only a solitary man with slumped shoulders sat in one of the chairs, staring at the floor.

              “Another first timer?” Nellie asked Kathy.

              Kathy’s eyes pleaded with her for help. Nellie knew what Kathy wanted. Nellie would frequently offer a compassionate ear to patients who were there for the first time. Nellie loved to assist.

              Nellie wondered where the man’s support system was. He appeared to be alone. She moved toward him. The man looked frightened. When he lifted his head, she saw that he was also very handsome.

              “Hi, I’m Nellie,” she said, in an upbeat tone.

              “Hello, Nellie.” The man’s kind almond brown orbs drifted over her headwrap, her eyes, her smile, back to her eyes. “I’m Ed, and well, I’m terrified of chemo.”

              “Take my word, I know exactly how you feel. I was in your shoes eight months ago. And do you know what? Today is my last treatment. So, if I can do it, I know you can, too.”

              “You’re a lot braver than me! And it’s nice that you have family to be with you. I’m just a lonely old guy with no one around.” Ed lowered his eyes again.

              “Guess what, Ed? Forget about lonely! You’re stuck with me now! Emma has to run a few errands, so it’s just you and me!”

              Emma lifted her eyebrows to Nellie in surprise, because she always stayed for the infusions. But she gave Nellie a quick peck on the cheek and disappeared with a knowing wink.

              “I’ve had worse things happen to me!” Ed joked.

              “Kathy, I think we’re ready!” Nellie called, as she sat down in the chair next to Ed.

              His shoulders lifted and he leaned back, looking a little more relaxed.

              Nurse Kathy began to set up their infusions.

              “I admire your positive attitude, Nellie! How do you do it?” Ed asked.

              “Well, in this business, it pays to be positive, doesn’t it? Where would we be if we weren’t? This stuff is hard enough without being down in the dumps!” Nellie answered.

              “You’re right about that. But it sure is tough when you lose your wife, your kids live on the other side of the country, and you get cancer.” Ed shook his head.

              “I’m sorry, Ed.” Nellie sensed that Ed wanted to talk about his life.

              “I lost my Peggy three years ago. Cancer again. Took care of her for a year. And now here I am…” Ed’s voice drifted off as his eyes misted over.

              Nellie reached out and touched the top of his hand briefly before Kathy came over with his infusion bag clipped to a medical stand. “You’re going to do great,” Nellie assured him.

              She saw Ed tense up as Kathy asked if he was ready for her to access the port above his heart.

              “I’ll be good with you here, Nellie. But it sure will be harder after today! You’ll be off celebrating your last treatment and living life!”

              “How about we go get a coffee and a piece of pie once we’re done? You, me, and Emma will celebrate your first and my last!” Nellie gushed.

              “That’s something to look forward to!” Ed agreed.

              “Ready, Ed?” Kathy asked gently, about to start Ed’s first infusion.

              “As ready as I’ll ever be, thanks to this lady,” Ed beamed.

Coming Clean, Round 2.5

It’s always something.

Have truer words ever been spoken?

I’ve been kind of quiet on social media as of late. Busy, yes. Holidays are like that. But there’s another reason: My aching back.

My aching back started its aching in September, shortly after I started my teaching year. The first week of the school year was glorious. I felt great for the most part, then the pain started and has not let up for months now. I’ve been in physical therapy for a few weeks, and was supposed to get a cortisone injection before the holidays, but the insurance company said no, I have to do six weeks of PT first. Let that sink in: I have to live my life in pain for weeks before they’ll let me have something that will allow me to get back to my normal activities. It’s an old, old story. Pay for insurance every month, whilst being at the mercy of the faceless suits living pain free existences in some hidden office, who knows where.

This isn’t a rant about insurance companies. It’s a rant about another old, old story.

It’s always something.

Hey, as far as cancer is concerned, I’m doing great. And you know what? I’d love to be enjoying it right now. But I really can’t, because of my aching back. This pain has been worse than anything cancer has inflicted on me in the past two plus years. I want this to be the worst thing that I have to deal with. I’m not without hope. Somehow, I’m not depressed. But unlike cancer, my back is holding me back from keeping up my level of hiking, walking, and fitness. It has taken a big bite out of what keeps me going. Herein lies the real reason that I’ve been so quiet on social media: I have not done a real hike since late November, and most of my posts are about hiking or traveling. Okay, the New England weather is involved too. But this cycle needs to be broken. ASAP.

I’ve come to accept pain as a normal part of my existence. This realization hit me a few days ago. A real WTF??? moment in my former semi-charmed kind of life. So I carried my new acceptance around briefly before I stopped in the middle of everything and said one word.

NOPE.

I absolutely, positively DO NOT accept this pain as part of my life. This pain has to go buh-bye, and it will. If I can survive Stage IV lung cancer, believe me, I will get through this back crap, too.

Is this a play for sympathy? Another big NOPE. I’ve shunned sympathy from the get go. Not interested, any more than I am interested in being a hero or a warrior, or getting sad face emojis on Facebook. In fact, I have done everything I can to appear myself, even as I struggle to get up a flight of steps or carry things without feeling like I’m breaking in half. I’m well aware that there are people out there who have to deal with this kind of disabling condition for the rest of their lives, who have dealt with worse for longer. Same with cancer. I’ve lost several friends and acquaintances to this hell that I’ve managed to survive in spite of statistics screaming out that I wouldn’t. Truth be told, in a chapter from the “life isn’t fair” department, one of my former students is living his last days on this Earth because of this beast. By the time you read this, he will likely be gone. No, not interested in sympathy. Because many people have it a lot worse than me. And not much is going to stop me from believing that my fun isn’t over yet.

Am I done adventuring? NOPE.

I’m going to get through Round 2.5: The Bad Back. If I can get through Cancer Rounds 1 & 2, I can emerge from this too. Scary thing is, all this struggle for survival is getting sickening. But what’s the alternative? Nothing that I’m interested in. Yet. I wonder though, does the human spirit just finally say, I’m done? Admittedly, I’ve whispered it to myself a time or two, but that lasts about ten seconds. If only I could just get to a point now where this back of mine allows me to enjoy my physical pursuits without pain and exhaustion.

Hey, I can still walk and think and read and write. I’m killing my PT exercises. I sleep like a pro. My house is still clean and my teaching job gets done. The bills are paid. I could name many other blessings that make me keep fighting the fight. Yet after all is said and done, I have to accept that it’s always going to be something. Could I maybe just get a rain check for a month or two?

The Real Meaning of MY Christmas

Happy New Year! Yeah, I know I’ve been absent for a few weeks and am a day late and a dollar short as usual, but like mostly everyone else, my holidays were darn busy. For Christmas 2021, I was supposed to resume traveling internationally by enjoying a trip to Costa Rica. Yet as the day got closer, I knew it wasn’t the right choice. I’ve been experiencing some pretty intense back pain for several weeks now, so that was the first issue that made me question if I was doing the best thing for me. Add the possibility of getting hung up in a foreign country due to COVID19, and the cost of being tested to have the privilege of boarding the plane home, and all arrows were pointing toward exercising my cancellation insurance and waiting until circumstances are better all around.

The decision was still a tough one. I wanted to resume my life of seeing the world, and this was a huge step in the right direction. My last trip out of the U.S. was summer of 2019 in Sri Lanka, before my cancer diagnosis, and I’ve been struggling to be me again since then. Cancelling anything, especially trips, is just not like me. Still, the gnawing inside me said that it wasn’t what I should be doing.

So I cancelled.

Then, a golden opportunity arose.

Even before that, something pretty incredible and highly unlikely took place: no cancer showed up on my last scans taken December 20th! Does this mean that I’m cured? That cancer will never be a part of my life again? That cancer is no longer a part of my life now? That treatment changes or ends? No, it doesn’t mean any of that. It “only” means just what I wrote: cancer cannot be seen. Meaning: it’s probably still there, and will likely come back, but the medication I’m on is controlling it very well for now. How long it will last, no one knows. I can only hope it will be for a long time. This doesn’t diminish the miracle that brought me to this, from where I was a year ago. If you know anything about metastatic cancer, I’m damn blessed. If you knew anything about my cancer specifically, well, I’m a long way from where I was in December of 2020. Read about my roller coaster journey here and here.

The table was indeed set for that golden opportunity.

As soon as I told my niece that I was thinking of cancelling my trip to Costa Rica, she invited me to South Carolina to spend Christmas with her. Yes, this was exactly what I needed: a familiar place where I could rest if necessary, a faithful black dog for quiet company, and maybe even some warmer weather. Not perfect Costa Rica weather, but South Carolina would do! And Costa Rica doesn’t have my niece and her dogs!

I just had to come up with reasonable airfare. From years of traveling at Christmastime, I recalled that December 24th to the 31st are usually the cheap dates. This remains true! I got a great fare and would soon be on my way! But not before wrapping and distributing many presents, falling on black ice, receiving as many presents, seeing friends and family before I left, battling crowds in the stores, starting PT for my back, working full time…

My last two posts are a short story I wrote several years ago. Titled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” it’s a tale about a woman who disdains the holiday, yet finds her own peace in the season. Hmm, sounds like art imitating life! Because of course, that’s just what I did.

Long before cancer, Christmas was a tricky time of the year for me, and remains so. For more than twenty years escaping has been my way to combat ambivalent feelings about Christmas and what it has come to represent in our culture. Most of the time I would run off somewhere and spend the holiday alone, sans blinking lights and jolly men in red suits. South Carolina is my new favorite escape, and I’ve even learned to appreciate my niece’s special brand of hospitality.

We have a routine whenever I go and visit: bowling, a local farm, ice cream, Chinese food. I’ve gotten to know some of the local people and am always made to feel welcome. That naughty blond pup above vies for my attention with her darker brother while her mom spoils her rotten. Usually when I show up the weather gets thirty degrees colder. Not this time! It was in the 70’s all week. My back started to feel a little better, I got lots of sleep and lots of love, collected and gave more presents, and had turkey dinner left over from Thanksgiving, when I couldn’t be there. I found the real meaning of MY Christmas, and made the correct choice for me.

Perhaps I’ll never really love Christmas again, but I’ve made progress.

I had a great holiday, but I’m glad it’s over for another year! Bring on 2022!

The Real Meaning of Christmas, Part Two

Last week I posted the first part of a Christmas tale I wrote back in 2006. It was more popular than expected, leaving me to think that maybe I should continue to make more of my old fiction writing public. You can read the first half of the story here. What follows is part two. Enjoy!

THE REAL MEANING OF CHRISTMAS (CONTINUED)

Christmas morning came. Toni awoke to the sound of Hannah rummaging around in her room; when she opened Hannah’s door, she found the six-year-old filling a white tall kitchen garbage bag full of toys: stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, musical toys.

            “Honey, what are you doing?” Toni asked.

            Hannah looked like a little grown-up as she turned to her mother and said, “I’m findin’ all the toys I don’t play with no more to bring to the kids less lucky than me.”

            Toni was so taken by her little daughter’s gesture, she did not even correct her iffy grammar. Instead, she asked herself, Oh, how have I done so well with this child, how, in spite of being a single mother literally left at the altar when I was five months pregnant?

            Toni backed away from the door, realizing that her six-year-old knew more about compassion than even she did. Her daughter was outdoing her! This thought made her rush into her bedroom and throw open the closet door. She looked with derision at all the clothes that she was saving because she might wear them “someday,” when she knew very well that that day would never come, and that there was someone out there who could be wearing those clothes that just hung there, going to waste.  She went to the kitchen and got her own tall kitchen garbage bag and filled it with clothes.  She was thrilled by the exhilarating feeling of unburdening herself of the clothes and filled another bag. 

            “I’m ready, Mommy,” Hannah’s voice came from her doorway.  She turned to see that Hannah had her full winter gear on and had a bag over each shoulder, like a mini Santa Claus.

            “I thought we were going to have breakfast and open one present?” Toni reminded her.

            “But Mommy, this is so much more important.  Can’t we get there early and be waiting for them?”

            “If that’s what you want, honey.  Let Mommy get dressed.” 

            “I’ll be waiting out front.”

            “But it’s so cold!  Maybe you should wait in the kitchen.”

            “No, it’s okay.  I’ll wait out front.”

            Toni knew that this was Hannah’s way of saying that she was ready and didn’t want to wait for her mother to waste time. So, Toni didn’t. She jumped into some warm casual clothes and met Hannah on the front steps ten minutes later. There was only a little snow on the ground but it was bitterly cold.  Hannah’s nose was red, but she appeared unfazed by the weather. Obviously, the child was on a mission. It was Toni who complained to Hannah about the cold as they defrosted the car, whose backseat was piled with their garbage bags full of “gifts.” 

            They hardly spoke on the drive to the shelter. As they neared, they saw a small line of homeless people had begun to form, their breath almost freezing in the air, their clothes not nearly warm enough to battle the elements.

            “Mommy, they look so cold!  Do you have any winter coats in those bags?” Hannah asked, her little nose wrinkled but warm-looking.

            “No, honey.  No winter coats,” Toni answered, distressed by the memory of the two down-filled jackets she had left hanging in her closet because she had made a split-second decision that she would wear them again “someday” after all.

            It was then that Hannah reached under her coat and took out her piggy bank in the shape of Eeyore, the sad donkey from Winnie the Pooh that they had bought on a trip to Disneyland the previous year.  It was their routine to fill it with spare coins and bills until they couldn’t fit anymore, then they transferred the money to Hannah’s small but growing bank account.  Toni knew that Eeyore was close to being full.  Usually, they had about twenty-five dollars in it by the time they made the transfer.

             “I didn’t want you to be mad at me for bringing this so I hid it ‘til now.  Can we go and buy somethin’ warm for them?  It’s full and I wanna share it.” The child shook the bank for effect.  It was all too much for Toni at that point; tears started rolling down her face and she grabbed Hannah and squeezed her tight. Hannah hugged her back, though Toni knew she did not understand her mother’s tears.

            Toni put the car in drive and told Hannah to find her wallet in her purse and see how much was in it. Hannah did as she was told, though Toni felt her reluctance; Hannah knew better than to go into her mother’s personal belongings unless she had permission.  Hannah took out a handful of small bills and announced that her mother had twenty-two dollars.  Toni made a deal with her daughter: they each would spend ten dollars to buy some nice, hot coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for the people less lucky than them. That way, they would both still have some money leftover. Hannah agreed and they proceeded to the nearest coffee shop and bought as many cups of hot liquid as they could for twenty dollars.  Then, they went back to the shelter; several more people were gathered, waiting for breakfast.

            Hannah was out of the car with the flat box of hot drinks in her little, glove-clad hands almost before Toni could get the keys out of the ignition. Toni only watched from the driver’s seat as the old men smiled like she was a tiny angel sent from heaven and the women patted her head and took a warm drink. Pride was hardly a sufficient word for what she was feeling as she watched her baby; she was learning something about compassion that even transcended what her parents had taught her so many years ago. 

            Not wanting to steal Hannah’s spotlight, she waited until the girl had handed out all the drinks, then she pulled the bags of clothes and toys out of the back seat of the car and brought them over to the gathering crowd. Together, she and her baby girl handed out second-hand gifts to the spellbound poor and homeless that truly looked like they were seeing Santa Claus. Watching their faces, Toni knew that she had not seen sincerely thankful people since those family Christmases so long ago. Suddenly, those days seemed closer, and the real meaning of Christmas was evident for her again. Just as she knew, it had nothing to do with SUVs or Super Soakers or even a million tiny lights on a fabulous tree.  She had found the real meaning of Christmas again and a six-year-old girl whom she had given birth to had helped her to do so.

            Long before they entered the shelter to help serve breakfast, they had won the hearts of the people less lucky than them.  Other volunteers pulled up in shiny SUVs and ran in at the last minute, laughing and talking about the warm fireplace they had left or the piles of presents waiting to be unwrapped. In those final moments, another small miracle took place: Marcy showed up with a huge platter of delightful, homemade pastries. She was dressed to the nines and was in a terrible rush, but Toni hugged her, seeing the satisfaction in her friend’s face for doing a good deed. 

It was a perfect morning now, with the presents and Marcy’s kindness and the hot coffee and the fresh food on the shelter’s stove. Toni and Hannah giggled and joked and felt good about the miracles already performed, while French toast and bacon sizzled and the aroma wafted through the air and the doors were finally opened and the homeless folks entered the shelter already smiling, with toys for their children and warm drinks in their bellies and the smile of a little blond angel on their minds. And mother and daughter waited, Toni with a spatula, her daughter with a stack of paper cups to fill with orange juice, while bells chimed and carols played and real, true Christmas joy filled the rooms of the shelter.

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Merry Christmas.

Thank you for reading!