Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Anne Lamott Gives Us a Reason for Hope

As I often tell people, the writings of Anne Lamott were introduced to me at a time in my life when I was struggling badly. My oldest son was in the throes of addiction. I was battling depression. And I felt like my whole world was falling apart. I was, in a word, hopeless. But my wife was a big fan of Anne Lamott and suggested I take a look at a few of her books. Figuring I had absolutely nothing to lose, I took my wife up on her suggestion. And it literally changed my life.

For someone who was pretty much out of hope, reading Lamott's thoughtful and spiritual musings was the best thing I could've done for myself. It didn't take long to figure out that Anne's words were a beacon that could help guide me out of one of the darkest periods of my life.

"Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up." That passage from Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life made me stand up and take notice. Maybe there was still hope for me. Maybe I could navigate the storm I was in the midst of and find some peace in my world. Another passage about hope, this one from Anne's Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, also resonated with me: "Hope is not about proving anything. It's about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us."

Anne Lamott gave me back some hope. Now she’s given us an entire book about hope. And it's wonderful.

Lamott tells us in the Prelude to Almost Everything: Notes on Hope that the book began as a list for her grandson and niece, "who are both exuberant and worried, as I was at their age and still am some days." "Dearest," she writes. "Here is everything I know about almost everything, that I think applies to almost everyone, that might help you someday."

Yes, we're living in tumultuous times. But that doesn't mean we can't be grateful for the good things in our world, too. Lamott makes that perfectly clear in the first sentence of this book: "I am stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse, even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen." Those paperwhites? They represent hope. We just have to see and recognize it.

"Hope springs from that which is right in front of us, which surprises us, and seems to work."

Amen, Annie.

In Almost Everything, Anne Lamott explores life, death, love, hate, families (aka, "famblies"), food, writing, and more, and she does it with her usual candidness and (sometimes dark) wit. "I have just always found it extremely hard to be here, on this side of eternity, because of, well, other people; and death." She's also not afraid to throw a little self-deprecation into the mix: "Scientists say we are made of stars, and I believe them, although my upper arms look like hell."

Lamott is so adept at reminding us that things are never as bad as they may seem. If we practice gratitude ("Gratitude is seeing how someone changed your heart and quality of life, helped you become the good parts of the person you are") and see the good in everything--and everyONE ("Empathy begins when we realize how much alike we all are")--our lives will be much more satisfying and fulfilling. We have to do the next right thing and "live in the light, not the dark of the sad past." Is that always easy? Of course not. But having Anne remind us through her wise observations and meaningful stories makes it easier; and it is incredibly comforting, too.

I adore everything Anne Lamott writes, because I can relate to her on so many different levels. She thinks so many of the same things I think, which helps make me feel like I'm not alone. And, best of all, she's a master at pointing out the silver linings--no matter how small--that I may not be able to see. 

This book will make you realize that there is always a reason for hope. "If you arrive at a place in life that is miserable, it will change," Lamott promises. "Some days there seems to be little reason for hope, in our families, cities, and world. Well, except for almost everything."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

From Stomach Flu Sufferer to "Cancer Survivor" in 45 Days

In my last post, entitled "Everything Happens for a Reason," I told you the story of how the little angel baby next door gave me a bad case of the stomach flu just before Christmas. That led to a trip to the ER, which led to an X-ray, CT Scan, and MRI of my abdomen, which revealed that I had a small mass (oxymoron!) on my right kidney. Ugh.

On Tuesday, February 6th, I underwent surgery to have that mass removed, not knowing whether it was cancerous or not.  The technical name for the procedure I had done is a "robotic-assisted laprascopic partial right nephrectomy." That's a fancy way of saying the doctor used something akin to a medical video game to go in and cut out a chunk of my right kidney, taking the tumor with it.

My post-surgery belly
The nice thing about this surgery--if there can really be something nice about having part of one of your body's vital organs removed--is that it could be done via four smallish puncture wounds in my abdomen and a small incision in my belly button (through which they removed the tumor). Thank God for robots.

The surgery went as well as it possibly could have, and after an overnight stay in the hospital I was on my way home just about 24 hours later. I was sore and a bit limited in my ability to move for a few days, but I was incredibly lucky to have my amazing wife to take care of me.

Last week, I followed up with my urologist and got the results of the pathology report on my tumor.

Measuring 2.2 cm x 2.1 cm x 1.6 cm, the mass removed from my kidney was indeed cancerous. Officially, it was a "papillary renal cell carcinoma, Type I." But the doctor told me they got all of it--"it just kind of plopped out," he said--and there were no signs of cancer in any of the fatty tissue adjacent to the tumor. In my doctor's words, I'm "gonna be fine." No need for any chemo or radiation. Just a follow-up CT scan in eight weeks or so to see how things look without the tumor there. And maybe a couple/few CT scans down the road just to make sure things continue to look good.

Whew. That's a load off my mind, for sure. Obviously, I was hoping the mass was benign, but if it was going to end up being cancerous, I think this scenario is about as good as I could've hoped for.

When I posted the pathology report findings on Facebook (because that's what we do nowadays, right?), I got a lot of love from my friends. A few of them even referred to me as a "cancer survivor," which made me feel kind of strange. I wondered: Can I be a cancer survivor despite the fact that I didn't even know I had cancer until it was removed from my body? I guess so, but I tend to think of cancer survivors as people who are diagnosed prior to having to undergo surgery, or chemo, or radiation. People who fight like hell to beat cancer and succeed. People whose bodies and minds suffer greatly while they go through the battle of their lifetime. Me? I went from having a bad case of the stomach flu to having a tumor removed in just 45 days. I barely had time to worry about cancer, let alone survive it.

If people want to call me a cancer survivor, I'll begrudgingly accept it. After all, it's way better than the alternative. But I know there are true cancer survivors out there who have been through a hell of a lot more than I have, and who are way stronger than me.

One thing is for certain, though: I will be forever grateful that my little buddy next door--his name is Everett--got me sick so doctors could discover a cancerous tumor on my kidney. If I didn't get the stomach flu from Ev, that tumor would still be growing inside of me. And who knows how long it would've been before it was discovered. Or if it would've been discovered? Or what my prognosis would've been by the time someone finally figured out I had cancer?

I have to admit, this whole serendipitous experience has freaked me out a little. But in a good way. And I am thankful for whatever force, or forces, put it all into motion.

"Can you still have any famous last words/If you're somebody nobody knows..."
--Ryan Adams (from his song "Strawberry Wine")

Friday, February 2, 2018

Everything Happens for a Reason

Author's Note: I started writing this blog post yesterday. And then I tried again today. But the story was getting so long and wordy that I didn't think anybody would want to read it. My dad used to say this about people who talked too much: "You ask 'em what time it is and they tell you how to build a watch!" I didn't want to be that guy, so I decided to try and distill my story down to fewer words, and put it into a format that (hopefully) won't bore people to tears. Enjoy!

"Everything happens for a reason."

I used to have a hard time subscribing to that theory, but as I've gotten old(er) it seems like as good a way as any to explain some of the weird things that occur in our everyday life. Especially the things that start out bad, but end up maybe being blessings in disguise. And the things that make you stop and think hard. Really hard. Case in point...

Afternoon of December 21st: My neighbor sends me a Facebook message asking me if I could come over and give her a hand, because her adorable seven-month-old baby, who was sick, had just thrown up again and it was "everywhere." So she needed help holding the little guy while she cleaned up the mess. I run next door to help--the puke really was everywhere--and eventually my wife shows up, too. My neighbor asks us: "What if you guys get sick?" My wife answers: "We'll just deal with it."

Wee Small Hours of the Morning of December 23rd: I get up to go to the bathroom and I feel super dizzy. A few minutes later, I'm the one who's puking my guts out. Multiple times. After making a mental note to never eat Chinese food again, I wake my wife up and tell her she has to take me to the hospital. I guess this is "dealing with it."

At the Hospital: The doctors and nurses (eventually) take good care of me, and several hours, IVs, and medications later, I'm finally starting to feel like I might live after all. But the powers-that-be decide to keep me overnight for observation. Woohoo!

December 24th: It's Christmas Eve day and I'm feeling reasonably okay. I've even progressed from being on an all liquid diet to eating real hospital "food." My stomach appears to be fine. But wait! The doctors tell me that my stomach x-ray and CT scan seemed to show something abnormal with my right kidney. So now they want me to have an MRI done. Wonderful.

I get the MRI done, but not before I almost throw up in the MRI machine. (Apparently, I had some kind of reaction to the contrast liquid they put in my IV before the test.) Now I'm anxious to go home. But a doctor comes in and says the MRI confirmed that something is indeed amiss with my kidney, and that he doesn't feel comfortable reading the MRI and talking to me about it, so I have to have a urologist do that. And the urologist on call has already left for the day, so I have to spend another night in the hospital and talk to the urologist in the morning. WTF???

December 25th: Merry effing Christmas. I'm in the hospital on Christmas morning, my wife is sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed knitting (surprise!), and we're waiting for the urologist. I, of course, continue to imagine all the most horrible scenarios I can possibly imagine, including the "C" word. The one positive I keep coming back to? At least it's my kidney, because I have two of them, and I'm pretty sure a human only needs one kidney live.

Eventually, the urologist shows up and pulls up my MRI films on his computer. He shows us the mass that has decided to call my right kidney its home. Luckily, it's small (2.0 x 1.8 cm). And it's right on the edge of the kidney, too. (Kind of like a pimple on the end of your nose.) The doctor says it's likely a tumor, not a cyst, and tells us we can either have a biopsy done and go from there, or just have the thing removed, because it should be pretty simple. His suggestion is the latter, and we think that seems like the best way to go.

After the consult, I finally get to go home and open gifts with my family. My favorite Christmas present? A purple paring knife from my wife. My least favorite Christmas present? This goddamn tumor on my kidney! 😢

A few days later, my wife and I follow up with the urologist at his office. We finalize the decision to have the tumor surgically removed, and the next day we're informed that the surgery is scheduled for February 26th. Unfortunately, that's just a couple days before a concert we already have tickets for (Phoebe Bridgers), so we call to see if we can possibly get an earlier date. The surgery scheduler tells us that if we change hospitals, the procedure can be done on February 2nd. Great! Sounds like a plan!

But a week before the 2nd, I get a phone call from the urologist's office. They have to cancel my surgery and reschedule it because my doctor had a meeting come up that he has to attend. Seriously?!? All I can think is that this meeting had better be the most important damn meeting of this doctor's life.

The next day, the doctor's office calls to tell me my new surgery date is February 6th. And after I hang up, I start to freak out a bit.

It took me a little while to put two and two together, but when I finally did I realized this:

February 6th, 2018 = 5 years to the day that my father died...in the same hospital I'm supposed to have my surgery at.


I have to admit, this spooked me out for a few days. I mean, it spooked me out to the point where I was seriously considering calling and having them reschedule my surgery yet again.

The other day, though, I was driving my sister to work--she had fallen and hurt her arm, so she couldn't drive--and we had a conversation about this weird "coincidence." I confessed to her that I was more than a little uneasy about it. That's when she told me about another possibility: Maybe my surgery got moved to the day and hospital it did so my dad could watch over me. "Everything happens for a reason," she said to me, matter of factly. Hmmmmm, I thought to myself. Maybe instead of this being a creepy, scary thing, it's actually a good thing.

To be honest, that hadn't even crossed my mind before I talked to my sister. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt comforted by the notion that my dad might be there with me on Tuesday while my doctor and his robot perform a partial right nephrectomy on me. If you're gonna have someone watch over you in the operating room, it might as well be your dad, right?

So I decided not to change the date after all. Because everything happens for a reason. My neighbor's baby got me sick so I'd go to the hospital and they'd find a tumor I never would've known about otherwise. Then a concert and a meeting caused the date of my surgery to get changed to the anniversary date of my father's death; and the location to get changed to the same hospital that he died in. And my sister hurting her arm resulted in me driving her to work and talking about a fear that she turned into something incredibly comforting.

And suddenly, everything makes sense.

What my Christmas Eve looked like.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Looking Back: January 31, 2007

As I've mentioned here at least once before, my writings haven't always lived in this blog. Before I finally got the guts to go public, my stream-of-consciousness thoughts as the father of a son struggling with depression and addiction were tucked away safely on my laptop, in a big-ass Microsoft Word document that I creatively named "journal.doc".

Sometimes I go back and read the stuff I wrote in that journal. I don't know why I do it. Maybe it's to see how I've weathered the storm. Maybe it's to see how far I've come as a person. Or, maybe, I'm just a masochist. Whatever the reason, a couple times a year I'll double-click "journal.doc" and reflect on was happening on this date all those years ago.

I did that this morning. And for January 31, 2007, this is part of what I wrote:

January 31, 2007

6:43am: You know, I was thinking in the shower…I'm in so much pain internally that I don't even seem to feel it anymore. I know it's there, but it's like I've become numb to the feeling. A very weird sensation. I'm hurting, yet I don't hurt. I wonder what that means. Am I losing my emotions? Have I reached a point where I’m just like Jack Nicholson in Cuckoo's Nest? I don't know. But if pain was a visible entity, and you sliced me open, I'm sure you'd see that I was full of it. I heard some injured Winter X-Games dude say something in an interview the other night after he injured his knee skiing or something: "Pain is just negativity leaving the body." If I no longer feel pain, but I know it's inside me, does that mean the negativity is no longer leaving my body? Does that mean I'm just going to become one big ball of negativity? I hope not.

I remember feeling that way. I remember it like it was yesterday. Being in so much emotional pain that I couldn't even feel it. Completely numb. Like the post-electroconvulsive therapy version of R.P. McMurphy near the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, just before Chief puts the pillow over his face and puts him out of his misery. Devoid of any feelings whatsoever.

That was not a fun time for me. Or my family.

Ten years later, though, I can honestly say I'm in a much better place. Sure, things with my son are better--not great, but better. But I know I've grown as a person, too. (Therapy helped. I highly recommend it.) I don't let things consume me like I used to. And I try to relax and embrace whatever life throws at me, as best I can. Am I perfect? Of course not. I'll be the first to admit that I still have my "moments," when shit hitting the fan can get the best of me. But even when that happens, I am usually able to recover relatively quickly. That, my friends, is progress. And life, like recovery, is all about progress, not perfection.

Thank God I didn't become that big ball of negativity. That means there's hope for everyone.

"We have a choice. We can spend our whole life suffering because we can't relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased." --Pema Chödrön

Friday, December 15, 2017

Can You Help a Family Shattered by a Horrible Tragedy?

I got to write the Causes and Effect: My Year of Giving Daily blog for six days this month and donated to some wonderful causes each day. But there's a cause that, unfortunately, popped up after my Causes and Effect run was over that I need share:

The I-275 Wrong-Way Tragedy" GoFundMe campaign exists because of a horrific accident that occurred the morning of December 12th. A 59-year-old man was driving the wrong way on Interstate 275 in Canton, Michigan, that morning and slammed head-on into another car, killing Nicholas Pare, 33, and his fianceé, Sharon McIntyre, 32.

Police found an open bottle of vodka in the car that was going the wrong way and say that alcohol was possibly involved in the crash.

Nicholas Pare and Sharon McIntyre were innocent victims. So are the three children they leave behind, ages 7, 13, and 15.

Authorities are waiting for toxicology tests to come back before charging the wrong-way driver (who, of course, sustained non-life-threatening injuries). Right now, they won't say if the driver was drunk or not, but you don't have to be a genius to figure out that he probably was. An open container of alcohol in the car and driving the wrong way on a freeway at 10:40am on a Tuesday morning are pretty good pieces of evidence, if you ask me.

Drunk driving sucks. Consider these statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
  • In 2015, 10,265 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (29%) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
  • Of the 1,132 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2015, 209 (16%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver.
  • In 2015, nearly 1.1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. That’s 1% of the 111 million self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among U.S. adults each year.
Those numbers sicken me, and until this country decides to do something drastic to combat our drunk driving problem, they will just get worse.

I don't know what the answer is. Maybe it's mandatory ignition interlock devices on all cars, like I wrote about back in 2015. Or maybe it's a zero-tolerance policy for impaired driving. Or harsher sentences for first-time offenders. Or something no one else has even thought of yet. I just know that something has to be done. Human lives depend on it.

I grew up the son of an alcoholic father, which is one reason why the subject of drunk driving gets my blood boiling. As I wrote in a post about another tragedy back in 2009:

My father was an alcoholic who had more DUIs than I could even count. On more than one occasion, he hit parked cars and all I can remember is thanking God that the cars were parked and empty. As a kid, riding in the car with my dad while he was intoxicated was a regular occurrence. I will never forget how scared I was, wondering if I was going to make it home alive, but too terrified to speak up about it. 

Whenever I hear about an incident like the one that killed Nicholas Pare and Sharon McIntyre, I think about my dad. And I'm grateful that he never physically hurt anyone as a result of his drunk driving.

Today my family made a $20.00 donation to the GoFundMe campaign for Nicholas and Sharon's family. It will help them pay for two funerals and start a fund to take care of three kids who have had their lives completely shattered, just in time for Christmas. If you have any extra money at all this holiday season, please consider making a donation, too. It doesn't have to be a large donation. Just something. Anything at all. Believe me, every little bit will help immensely.

And, as a final reminder... If you drink, please don't even think about driving. Because so often it's other people who end up suffering the greatest pain.

Below is a direct link to the GoFundMe campaign. If you donate, feel free to let me know in the comments below. It will make my heart happy to know that I was able to round up an extra donation or two for a family going through hell this holiday season.

Rest in peace, Nicholas and Sharon.

Click here to donate: I-275 Wrong-Way Tragedy" GoFundMe campaign

This family has been torn apart and the kids need your help.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Causes and Effect, 12/12/17: Help Mark Dahlem & His Family Battle Brain Cancer (YouCaring campaign)

The sixth and final post of my six-day-long stint as writer of the Causes and Effect: My Year of Giving Daily blog can be found over at Tumblr. Here's the link to today's post:

Helping a Police Officer and His Family Battle Brain Cancer

Today, the Help Mark Dahlem & His Family Battle Brain Cancer YouCaring campaign is the recipient of a $10.00 donation from my family.

If you would like to make a contribution to this campaign, you can do so here:
Six down, zero to go.

Thanks again to Melinda Newman for letting me come back and have another chance to participate in this incredibly fulfilling exercise in humanity.


Monday, December 11, 2017

Causes and Effect, 12/11/17: One Spirit

The fifth post of my six-day-long stint as writer of the Causes and Effect: My Year of Giving Daily blog can be found over at Tumblr. Here's the link to today's post:

Today, the One Spirit is the recipient of a $10.00 donation from my family.

If you would like to make a contribution to One Spirit, you can do so here:
Five down, one to go.