Death threat

death threat

My doctor talked recently about the shock of receiving a cancer diagnosis. “One of my other patients,” she said, “compared it to peacefully mowing the lawn on a summer day and then suddenly being hit by a garbage truck that runs off the road. Where did that come from?” (Amen, amen.) “But it’s not like a murder, or a death sentence. It’s a death threat. Keep that in mind. Nothing can ever be the same afterward, but it’s only a threat, not a sure thing.”


Once more: amen, amen.


To be sure, life itself is a death sentence, last I looked. But most of us manage to keep ourselves blinkered, blissfully looking the other way. Once the word ‘cancer’ enters the conversation, however, things become altogether more serious, and more real. Life becomes far more precious. Those we love become far more precious. Death is a curtain with something mysterious on the other side – maybe something nice, maybe something nasty, maybe nothing at all – but all of a sudden I have very little interest in finding out. I’m far more interested in exploring the things Partner and I haven’t done and seen, the places we still want to go. We used to joke that we’d better travel while we’re both still ambulatory. Now the joke isn’t quite so funny anymore.


Hunger, they say, makes food taste better. Maybe the awareness of mortality makes us realize how sweet the things of daily life are.



And I am lucky: lucky to have had a life full of beautiful things, lucky to have known so many crazy difficult wonderful people, lucky to have traveled to so many places, lucky to have found Partner, lucky to have him with me at this awful time.
Most of all I am lucky to have Partner in my life. I am lucky to have someone to love who loves me back.


How could I ever want to give up so many lovely things?


From A. A. Milne:


“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”


The eve of Saint Blaise

The eve of Saint Blaise

Today is Candlemas, when the Catholic Church blesses the candles to be used during its liturgy. Tomorrow is the feast-day of Saint Blaise, patron of ailments of the throat. Some churches still do the Blessing of the Throat, in which the priest uses the newly-blessed candles to bless the throats of congregants.



Saints become patrons in peculiar ways. Clare had a vision on the wall in front of her and became the patroness of television. Joseph of Cupertino levitated helplessly, yelping and crying, and became the patron of aviators. Blaise miraculously made a child cough up a fishbone, thus making him Mister Throat.




The Church asks and answers the question: Why doesn’t God always cure ailments of the throat, even if you pray for it? Why doesn’t he cure everything, while he’s at it? It’s a mystery.




Mystery schmystery. It’s still a pretty good question.




Disclosure: Partner gave a Saint Blaise medal last year, which I carry with me religiously, you should pardon the expression.




What could it hurt?

Attention whore

attention whore

Way back in the 1990s, my mother had her own adventure with cancer. Along the way, she managed to get herself dehydrated, and ended up in the hospital. To my surprise and that of my siblings, she seemed to love the experience. “I call the nurses ‘the girls,'”she told me over the phone. “They are so sweet to me. They know I’m not supposed to have coffee, but oh, I wanted it so much, and one of them brought me a little cup of coffee, and – oh, Loren! – it was so good! And I asked her for one more little cup, and she brought it for me, and – oh, Loren! – it was so good!”


I listened to this story with a thin-lipped expression. Later I repeated it to my sister Susan, who grimaced. “I know,” she said. “The nurses fell for it. Mom can be so damned cute when she wants to be. But you just wait: once the nurses catch on, it won’t be so much fun for Mom any longer.”


Which, in fact, happened a day or two later. “I don’t know what happened all of a sudden,” my mother groused on the phone. “The nurses don’t seem to pay attention anymore. Sometimes I press the call switch and it’s a couple of minutes before anyone shows up. It’s like a whole new staff. I can’t wait to go home.”


This whole thing seemed very strange to me. Mom was normally the soul of staunch individualism; she lived all by herself at the end of a dead-end road, and most days she didn’t see a living soul. Why should it be so much fun for her to be the center of attention all of a sudden –


She finally had center stage with a whole retinue dancing around her, and she was loving it.


She had become an attention whore.


Flash forward to the other day. I’m in recovery, which means I spend days at home alone watching TCM and waiting for the mail. So then I have a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor says, “You could use some fluids. We can give them to you today, in the chemo ward – ”


I nearly knocked her down, I was so eager to get to that chemo ward.


“Chemo ward” doesn’t sound appealing, but it’s nicer and more comfortable than you think. The chairs are all recliners. There’s a TV in every little nook. There are chairs for visitors. The nurses are funny and make light conversation as they poke and prod you and stick needles into you. Snacks and beverages and warm blankets are available upon demand. In short, the staff waits on you hand and foot.


Does this sound familiar?


Ah, but I learned from my mother’s experience. Her mistake was that she overdid it.


I will not overdo it.


I have another fluids day soon, back in the chemo ward with those nice kind attentive nurses. I hope I can maintain my composure.


I don’t want the girls to know what an attention whore I am.


DIY religion

diy religion

Back during chemotherapy, while I was lounging in my recliner imbibing toxins through a tube in my arm and Partner was watching “Let’s Make A Deal” on the retractable TV, a young hospital chaplain named Meredith came around to check on our spiritual needs. We politely let her know that we were all set, thanks very much, but she (like chaplains through the ages) was stubborn enough to chat with us for a while. She complimented us on being such a close couple, and quoted something I’d heard once before about “for better and for worse.” She left before she became too obnoxious, so I liked her. “Did you notice,” I said to Partner after she left, “that she never quite mentioned any one religion? Very non-committal and non-denominational.”

“I like that,” Partner said. “I could get behind a religion like that.”
“I think,” I said,” that there is a religion like that.”
So, a few weeks later, we both got ourselves ordained as ministers in the Universal Life Church.
Ordination is free; you need only provide name and email address. For a couple of bucks, they will send you gewgaws like a wallet card and an ordination certificate and a press pass (evidently for when I’m interviewing the Metropolitan of Constantinople). After that, you need only follow the church’s one dictum, which is “do only that which is right.” (They further define that you must peacefully determine what’s right in every case; no gunplay and no rassling allowed.)
Partner and I are both obnoxiously pleased about this. We are both in the process of determining the dogmas of our new church. Mine is going to involve wearing a lot of pink and purple. (I determined peacefully that I like both, and why not? Also, pink and purple are both perfectly nice devotional colors; look at the candles in any Advent wreath if you don’t believe me.) I will use a lot of multidenominational texts involving silence. (Examples: “Let all the earth keep silence before the Lord,” from Habakkuk in the Jewish Bible; “Sky says nothing,” from the Analects of Confucius; “The way that can be spoken of is not the true way,” from the Tao Te Ching; and maybe also “That which we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence,” the last line of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.) My services will begin with maybe a piece of music, the reading of a text like one of the above, and then a kind of community silent meditation, the way the Society of Friends does it.
Also, did I mention the pink and purple?
Religion should be fun. It should be participatory, and it should be meaningful to the people who participate. If they crave mystery, well, life is crammed full of mysteries; meditate on a few of those. And if they crave certainty, there are lots of those too. Just think about them quietly, would you?
Partner has thought about his church too. He wants it to welcome all comers, and he would allow them to worship any god they please, and intends to forbid proselytizing.


(I hope it also involves hats. Partner and I both look good in hats, and I hope he and I can lead some ecumenical programs down the road, once we’ve established ourselves as pillars of our respective faiths.)

Doctors and nurses

doctors and nurses

I have not since my birth overnighted in a hospital, until this last November. Then my white-cell count crashed and I became neutropenic (no dirty jokes, thank you), and I had to spend seven nights in a nice local hospital.

It really wasn’t so bad. I was often sedated, naturally. The noises at night can be a little unearthly, all kinds of hoots and hollers and cries, but if you think of it as an indoor camping trip, you won’t be too far from the mark.

I learned a lot. I learned that morphine makes me see handwriting on the wall where there is none, and faces where there are none. I learned that only a qualified medical professional can tie and untie a hospital johnny from the back.
Most interestingly, I learned a lot about the difference between doctors and nurses.
If you want to continue the camping metaphor, you might think of the nurses as the flowers on the forest floor, and the doctors as the trees. Nurses are far more colorful; they can and do wear whatever colors they like. Doctors are monochrome – usually white. Nurses are everywhere; doctors sprout up only here and there. Nurses tend to be bright and cheerful (with a few exceptions); doctors are a little on the stiff-and-somber side.
Nurses fall silent when doctors enter the room. We all of us, patients and nurses and guests, wait for the eighty-five-dollar-a-word advice to fall, pearl by limpid pearl, from those doctors’ lips. Nurses try their best not to impede the grave to-and-fro passage of the doctors from ward to ward, floor to floor, room to room. (Questions are met by: “I know they’ve begun rounds. I’m sure they’ll be here shortly.” The nurses try very hard not to get your hopes up; they can do just about everything, but they can’t say the magic words that will pronounce you cured and get you into a speeding wheelchair headed for the exit.)

I was lucky, in that about every single one of my nurses and doctors was wonderful (with a few tiny aberrations, which you generally have to chalk up to being human). I did see one doctor come close to telling off a nurse for something – I think for using an alternate drug protocol; to be fair, I knew the nurse and know that she would never do anything to endanger the life of a patient, and the doctor looked young and sniffy and full of inferiority complex, so we will leave it at that. I know who I was rooting for.
At any rate, during my week in the hospital, I learned enough about medicine to pass some kind of premed exam.
Too bad I can’t stand the sight of blood ‘n guts. Otherwise I’d be a whiz of a medical professional.


Almost better

almost better




I am almost better. I am no longer in treatment, and they are no longer cooking my throat with radiation, and I can actually tell a difference. Chemotherapy is now also a thing of the past, and the nasty side-effects are subsiding. I am still waiting for some of the lingering stuff to pass: the fatigue, the come-and-go voice (I sound, when I speak, something like Tallulah Bankhead and/or Lucille Ball, with maybe a little mid-career Lindsay Lohan thrown in), the inability to swallow. (The latter is coming back a bit; I managed to sip some water and juice the other day without coughing, and I was very excited.)



Anyway. I am also writing again, so evidently my energy is coming back. I can’t promise a daily blog, but I can promise something once in a while – maybe once a week or so – until I am back to my usual rude vigor.



Aren’t you pleased?


R words

r words

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 was the day of my last radiation treatment. I had my final chemotherapy treatment the week before, on Tuesday, December 3.



I am done with treatment. I am now in Recovery.



Recovery would be lovely if it took place in a day, or maybe two. It does not. As one waggish commentator said online: “The radiation doesn’t stop cooking you all at once. It keeps simmering for a while.”






Also, there are the naggingly minor side effects, like the sore throat that makes it almost impossible to swallow, and the bizarrely twisted sense of taste. (I long for real tastes, and for solid food. I was reading the biography of Muriel Spark the other day and found a mention of Muriel having drinks with Edith Sitwell – “iced gin with grapefruit juice” – that almost made me burst into tears.)



My energy is returning, which is not necessarily a good thing. I have lots of get-up-and-go, but very little to do. Christmas is useful, because I can use my time making lists, checking them twice, etc. I can organize books on my bookshelves. I can write little feuilletons like this one, when I can summon up enough brain cells to do so.



And I can day by day think about my improvement. I needed less pain medication today. My throat was less obstructed today. I slept a straight four hours last night!



So much for recovery.



There’s another R word that I don’t even want to think about right now, for fear of jinxing myself: Remission.



Remission is the absence of cancer. My radiation oncologist (who is not normally the soul of Christmas good cheer) tells me, with his gargoyle’s grin, that he cannot see any sign of the original tumor in my throat when he looks down inside. (That is, of course, with the naked eye. He is not Superman and does not have X-ray vision.) This is excellent news, and I will be having several more tests over the next few weeks and months to confirm this. Back in September, when this whole cavalcade began, I had a Stage IV tumor (“roughly the size of a Meyer lemon,” according to another clever little Internet source) under or beside my left tonsil, along with an assortment of nastily swollen lymph nodes. Now – who knows? The whole kit and caboodle appear to be gone.



I say again: they appear to be gone.



We Reassure ourselves with the good cheer of our doctors that the treatments Really Really worked. We don’t ever want to go through that kind of treatment again. (The first month or so was nothing at all. The last few weeks were Repulsive.)



So here’s to the future, and to another day of Recovery.



And you know what? The new season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race begins in a month or so.



So I have something to look forward to after all.



(Also: doesn’t the rhino in the illustration above look like a hippo to you?)


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