A couple of posts ago, I stated that I wasn’t going to do my annual review because I lacked the courage; however, I’ve changed my mind hoping that the exercise might provide some catharsis, serve as a purgative to wash away pity and terror, as I rent my sackcloth and tear out my few remaining strands of hair.
Prophetically setting the tone for horror over the horizon, my very first post this year was a New Year’s Day comparison of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, two doomed cool rocking daddies who both died on New Year’s Day 44 years apart. Click Here.
Of course, David Bowie would die later that month while those undelightful Bundry Boys, who later would be acquitted, occupied federal property in Montana. Instead of going there, I’ve linked the cautionary tale of my first acquaintance with alcohol. Read it and weep. Click Here.
In February my Aunt Virginia died, which led to musing on mortality as my siblings and I scattered her remains to the Folly River. Click Here.
Here’s also a review of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which I listened to driving to a funeral home after a stranger in a bar the previous evening showed me photographs of her husband’s severed finger stumps, which he had acquired a couple of hours earlier. Click here.
Pat Conroy, the father of a close friend, died. She and her sister stayed with us during his hospitalization. Click here.
In addition, March brought us the news of the return of Judy Birdsong’s T-Cell Lymphoma, which, of course, was profoundly disheartening.
This post was created on Good Friday right after finding out the news. Click here.
Teaching Keats while in despair proved quite difficult but do-able. Click here.
And, of course, Prince, whom I dubbed “the Lord Byron of Pop, died. Click here.
Yet another death, this time a student’s. Click here.
And I review Don DeLillo’s just released not-exactly-upbeat novel, Zero K.
Edward Hopper: “Morning Sun”
June brought us a mass shooting in an Orlando Nightclub. Click here.
Ali, a sort of boyhood hero died, which took me back to the early 60’s when my father tried to teach me how to box. Click here.
So I decided to cheer myself up by reading the Brothers Karamazov. Click here.
Also, there was that festival of bad taste known as the Republican convention. Click here.
Adelson’s luxury suite
Okay, how about a little sunshine. I donned my anthropological pith helmet and crashed a bachelor’s party at Chico Feo (click here) and talked a colleague into letting me publish a brilliant letter she wrote to her students (click here).
Chances are if you’re waiting at the so-called International Airport in Charleston, SC for a loved one’s arrival from a cancer treatment junket in Houston the day after you discover water dripping from a lighting fixture over your breakfast bar (the consequence of two tropical storms within 6 days having bitch-slapped the barrier island you call home), you might come to the conclusion that your karma sucks, that the odds of your loved one’s arriving on schedule are about the equivalent of Donald Trump’s announcing he’s dumping Melania for Caitlyn Jenner.
And in my case, you’d be right.
Of course, I could have just sat there among those perhaps Pentecostal women in their fusty Little House on the Prairie outfits and watch them stare into their cell phones, or I could decide to make Amoretto Sours out of lemons, to grab the jazz combo by the horns, to get the hell out of there.
It was 7:30, and the flight was now rescheduled to arrive at 9:00.
Go west, Old Man.
Okay, here’s my advice if what happened to me last night happens to you.
Exit the airport and head straight past the Boeing plant, past the 526 on-ramps, straight on International Avenue towards Montague. Keep going until you see the first brightly lit strip shopping center to your left located on Tanger Outlet Boulevard.
That’s where we’re headed, to La Hacienda, specifically into a small barroom inside the restaurant.
the bar inside La Hacienda
I sat in the fourth stool from the left. Two stools over sat a diminutive African American who reminded me of a hatless Thelonious Monk and to my right stood a tall Ricardo-Montalbán-looking cat who was drinking one of these:
I ordered a small Dos Equis on draft and paid in cash. Thelonious was reading a newspaper, working on some chips, the bartender conversing with Ricardo in Spanish, so I decided to leave my beer on the bar and boogie over to Mr. K’s Used Books and Music, conveniently located two stores down. The joint is brightly lit yet cavernous, feels more like a library than a bookstore. I found the non-fiction section and bought a copy of David Sedaris’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
Back at the bar, Thelonious had been replaced by a different African American, a handsome twenty-something wearing a baseball cap cocked to one side and sporting gold caps on his front teeth.
So I reclaimed my seat and flipped to an essay entitled “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle.” The essay is about Sedaris refusing to change seats on a flight to Raleigh as a favor to a woman “wearing a T-shirt and cutoffs” so she can sit with her husband. The woman is the opposite of gracious. Once in the air, she takes off her shoes, and Sedaris, who’s doing the Saturday Times crossword, notices “her toenails were painted white and each one was perfectly sculpted.”
Eighteen across: “Not Impressed.”
Eleven down: “Whore.”
I wasn’t even looking at the clues anymore.
I chuckled a couple of times, but when I hit this paragraph, I let loose one of my godlike laughs:
It’s always so satisfying when you can twist someone’s hatred into guilt — make her realize that she was wrong, too quick to judge, too unwilling to look beyond her own petty concerns. The problem is that it works both ways. I’d taken this woman as the type who arrives late at a movie, then asks me to move behind the tallest person in the theater so that she and her husband can sit together. Everyone has to suffer just because she’s sleeping with someone. But what if I was wrong? I pictured her in a dimly lit room, trembling before a portfolio of dimly lit X-rays. “I give you two weeks at the most, the doctor says, “Why don’t you get your toe-nails done, buy yourself a nice pair of cutoffs and spend some quality time with your husband. I hear the beaches of North Carolina are pretty this time of year.”
The fellow with the baseball cap to my left said, “You sho seem to be having fun.”
“This book’s hilarious,” I said.
Just then my cell rang. The scoop with Judy, my beloved, is that even though an hour ago her flight was circling Charleston, it had to turn around to refuel in Charlotte. She was calling me to let me know they were getting ready to take off for the thirty-minute flight.
“But I’m having fun at La Hacienda,” I whined. “Why don’t you just take a cab home?”
“I’ll see you in about half hour,” I said.
The man to my left said apropos of nothing that he had beer at home but no liquor and that he just wanted a taste of liquor before he went home. He was drinking something cranberry-colored in a short glass.
I asked the bartender, who called me señor instead of sir, for the tab and told him to add the fellow’s drink to it.
“Thank you,” my friend to the left said. “That’s a blessing.” He shook my hand with the lightest of handshakes. He finished before me and tapped me on the shoulder to thank me again as he walked out.
I asked Ricardo about his drink, which was essentially a margarita getting slow-dripped by a pony Corona. It’s delicious,” he said with an elegant Spanish accent.
“Well, so long,” I said once my Dos Equis was history, having successfully resisted the impulse to say “adios.”
When I hit the airport the arrivals sign now said the flight would arrive at 9: 30, but just then I got the text “landed.”
So I waited for Judy, who eventually appeared, wearing her wig, trudging exhaustedly. Over at the baggage area stood the five pioneer-clad sect members. I told one of them that my wife could literally see the island where we live when the plane turned around to head to Charlotte, that it was like a Marx Brothers movie. They found the entire episode amusing and were happy now that Emily had joined them.
And Judy’s bags were the first two off. Maybe our luck was changing.
 I’ve searched the Dewey Decimal System of my pre-digital vocabulary for a better descriptor than bitch-slapped, but pounded, drenched,scraped, etc. seem too much or too little or too inappropriately concretely rake-like, so I’ve opted for an admittedly sexist cliché rather than going with the weaker synonym backhanded.
On the Sunday night before the Monday morning of my return, given that I had missed seven consecutive days of school, I could have predicted that when I lay me down to sleep in my half-empty bed, I would suffer a potent spell of insomnia.
My wife and I had been on a medical junket to Houston, Texas, where she received a PET scan, an MRI, an extra-scheduled brain MRI, and subsequent “lumbar puncture” (née spinal tap). Add to that existential dread the students’ missed work, the now screwed-up syllabi, my dislike of grog-producing sleep aids, and insomnia was, as Richard Nixon once said, a foregone conclusion.
When that switch goes off in my head and those darkened corridors become suddenly illuminated and I’m instantaneously wide, wide awake, I don my imaginary Sigmund Freud mask with its glasses, white beard, and cigar. A re-visitation and evaluation of recent dreams is in order.
Dream 1: During my absence the government has constructed a road that runs through the marsh and river that are in essence my back yard. So long serenity; hail ceaseless traffic. [Interpretation: cancer invasion].
Dream 2: I’m at a family reunion where my mother and father are among the quick, and some female baby relative cousin is screaming her head off — no one can quiet her — so I pick her up to see what I can do and discover that feces is flowing lava-like from her dripping diaper onto a Persian rug, so I hand her off to my mother and grab rags and paper towels and try to sop up the diarrheic outpouring. [Interpretation: cancer has shitted on our lives].
Dream 3: I’m in some exotic location in the South Seas where a swimming pool overlooks the most pacific of Pacific seascapes. I’m having a conversation with two of my former students, Allen and Willy Hutcheson, and Allen is telling me about his life when I detect some commotion in the pool. I look down and see a dead Macaw lying at the bottom, which I know will upset Willy because he is an ornithologist, but then there’s this terrible thrashing, and low and behold, an exotically neon-hued very alive crocodile has replaced the dead parrot. [Interpretation: sigh].
Okay, perhaps a different mental activity might be in order.
This is probably stupid, but when I have these spates of insomnia, I create overly metric nonsense verse, stupid adult versions of nursery rhymes, and the following is what I came up with last night, and I share it, not because it is any good at all, or even particularly clever, but because of where it leads us next.
Dr. John and I
shared a piece of apple pie
baked by that angel grandma
Chloe of Senegal
who is as scrawny
as the doctor is brawny,
though if I weren’t
bound by rhyme
I might opine
that big-bellied would be better
to describe a waistline so unfettered.
The Great Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack
This exercise leads me to think about English, that hybrid language with its blunt Anglo-Saxon roots, supple Norse syntax, and treasure trove of French words. We’re talking here the assimilation, not of immigrants, but of invaders, yet Anglo-Saxon girls married Vikings, their offspring married Normans, who ate poultry instead of chicken, the combination of the three languages creating such a wealth of ways to express ourselves.
Scrawny, brawny – a potent spell of insomnia . . .
[scrawny – probably from Old Norse skrælna to shrival]
[brawny – from Old French braon fleshy or muscular part, buttock]
[potent – from Latin potentem powerful]
[spell – from Old English gespelia – a substitute, shift work, continuous stretch]
[spell – from Proto German spellam “report, tale, fable. ” From c. 1200 as “an utterance, something said, a statement, remark”; meaning “set of words with supposed magical or occult powers, incantation, charm, first recorded 1570s; hence any means or cause of enchantment.” (Oxford Dictionary of Folklore via Online Etymology Dictionary)
I think of the ad in Back of the Boy’s Life magazines I read when I was a Cub Scout, the ad with the 98 pound weakling sharing a beach blanket his a buxom companion, their outing spoiled by having sand kicked in their faces.
“Hey, you pathetic emaciated excuse for a hominid,” ejaculates the muscular ruffian.
“Hey, you scrawny bitch,” spews the rock-hard bully.
And these thoughts of assimilation lead me to think of how many Muslims I saw in Houston, all the women in hijabs, both at the Galleria Mall and at MD Anderson, one woman sitting in the hospital in a black niqab but also wearing a mask beneath the veil to ward off infection, and then there was the Iraqi veteran who had worked as a translator for the US Army and who was now working as a concierge at the Wyndam Suites, and also we met with a former student and his Pakistani wife, their marriage being the first non-arranged union in the history of her family, and she told Judy and me that even as a coed at the University of Georgia her curfew at her home in the summertime was seven p.m. and, oh boy, a yawn, a good sign, my body hinting to just breathe, and maybe the mind will empty if I pay attention to inhalation and exhalation, if I just let go and allow the swirls of grey behind my eyelids to take whatever shape whatever.
I can’t precisely tell you the last time I had stepped into a mall. I suspect it had been at least twenty years. I remember taking my sons to the Citadel Mall Christmas shopping for their mother, Judy Birdsong, when they were ten or so, but nothing after that comes to mind.
Frankly, malls give me the heebie-jeebies. If I need to go shopping off-line, despite the horror-show parking situation, I drive downtown to King Street in Charleston, SC, fifteen miles from where I live. Even though we’re dealing with some of the same stores, King Street doesn’t throw me into a state of deep depression. The capitalistic concentration isn’t quite as claustrophobic, not as stultifying. So the other day when the other Judy Birdsong, our Texas friend who shares the same name with my wife,* was giving us a tour of her hometown Houston and asked if we’d like to visit Houston’s mega mall, the Galleria, we demurred, which delighted the Houston Judy because “malls are just not [her] thing.”
*It’s a complicated but interesting story you can read about here.
I can, however, tell you the last time I was in Negril, Jamaica; it was June of 1986. It was Judy Birdsong’s and my second visit to that funky north shore village, and we were shocked how much it had changed in the three short years we’d been there. What hadn’t changed, however, were the swarms of street entrepreneurs, eager to trade money or sell you a carved coconut head or some ganga, mon,
Constantly being besieged by and saying no to very pushy people is exhausting. You try, of course, to avoid eye-contact, which means you stare straight ahead and miss out on peripheral pleasures. Finally, someone at our hotel shared the secret of street-hawker repulsion. You simple say, “Winston’s my man. He’s taking care of me.” You see, Winston is a common name in Jamaica. Any number of hawkers are named Winston, so when you say Winston has you covered, they immediately cease their spiels.
Please note that the very first sentence of this post uses the past perfect tense “had stepped” because, despite a lifetime of dissipation, I do remember the very last time I stepped into a mall. It was yesterday. It was the Galleria. The hard drive of of my MacBook Pro had followed Lady Chablis into the dark realm of non-existence on 8 September 2016. The closest Apple Store to our airbnb was located at, you guessed it, the Galleria, so we ubered over, and the nice people at the Apple Store repaired it while we strolled around the mall.
RIP Lady Chablis
Perhaps it’s the fact that on-line shopping is driving these businesses out of business, but now several of the establishments position very attractive women outside their doors who rather aggressively engage you by handing out samples of lotions, etc. Lined up in their miniskirts, these women brought to mind the way old movies portrayed red light districts. Though no one actually shouted at me, “Hey, sailor,” I was being solicited literally right and left.
So I started behaving like I was in Negril, staring straight ahead, frowningly shaking my head no until I heard a young woman say, “Hey, wait a minute. It’s not about a sample.” So we stopped. Her smile was at least 100 watts. “I bet I can guess where you’re from,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“You’re from Australia.”
Judy and I both laughed, shook our heads no.
“Where’re you from?”
“Great. What brings you to Houston?”
“Cancer treatment,” Judy said.
The smiled dimmed to about 10 watts. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Here’s some samples. They’re all natural. Come back if you like them.”
Anyway, it seemed, except for the sales staff, we were the only Anglos in the Galleria, and it also seemed that Muslims and Asians outnumbered Latinos. I don’t know if this distribution has to do with the demographics of Houston or that Anglos do their shopping on-line or these newer immigrants enjoy basking in the seeming prosperity a mall exudes.
I just wish there had been an equivalent of “Winston has me covered” I could have used there.
Several years ago, sometime after the turn of the last century, my wife Judy Birdsong received an invitation to a party in Houston. Judy replied to the email, stating that the cookout sounded lovely, but she was in Charleston, SC, so doubted that she was the targeted Judy Birdsong.
A bit later, she received another invitation, this one to a PTA meeting, and once again, Judy of Charleston replied to to let the sender know she was barking up the wrong aviary.
Then, more exotically, Judy received a host of emails from Ireland, again addressed to the Houston Judy Birdsong.
As it turns out, the Judy Birdsong of Houston is the daughter of an Irish immigrant mother and Lebanese immigrant father, and one of her 70 odd Irish cousins – no, it must have been a great uncle – was commemorating his 60th year as a priest so the clan was meeting somewhere in the Old Sod to celebrate a memorial mass he was officiating.
Of course, Roman Catholicism = Guilt, so the Houston Judy emailed the Charleston Judy a message of abject apology for all the trouble she’d put her doppelgänger through, and, of course, my Judy, the Charleston Judy, said, no, no, no — it was fun!
Thus began the relationship of the two Judy Birdsongs. In their subsequent email correspondence, they discovered, among other things, both were the mothers of sons, worked as counselors in schools, were married to fantastic husbands, . . ..
Throughout these erroneous emails, the Judy Birdsongs learned bits and pieces about each other’s lives, would ask how things were going, and in essence, become e-pen-pals.
Then the email tables switched. The Charleston Judy Birdsong discovered that she must go through a severe regiment of EPOCH chemotherapy, went wig shopping, and emailed herself some jpegs of various wigs that ended up in the mailbox of the Houston Judy Birdsong.
Statements of encouragement and promises of prayers came from Houston.
Judy went into remission, celebrated her older son’s wedding, sent the other Judy photos.
Unfortunately, Judy’s cancer came back, and via the Caring Bridge website, last week the Charleston Judy received following message from Houston Judy on hearing we were headed to the MD Anderson Cancer Center:
Judy Birdsong Moore- our Judy Birdsong story continues. You have been on my mind every single day and today I finally logged in to get an update on you. Holy Moly…..you are coming to Houston? Sweet friend, if you feel up to it (and I will follow your wishes) I would LOVE to come and see you! The 2 Judy Birdsong’s can finally meet! You can’t ask for a better place than MD Anderson….they do amazing things. Please, please give me an update when you are here. After all these years of communicating, I think it’s time for us to meet! Positive thoughts and prayers from me to you. I am back at school too and just dropped off my youngest at UT. All is well here. And HOUSTON is a wonderful place (Hot and humid but I’m sure not as beautiful as Folly
So on Labor Day a knock on the door of our Airbnb apartment produced – you’ve guessed it – Judy Birdsong, who took us on a sight-seeing tour of Houston and to lunch where we could chow down on authentic Tex-Mex, and it was as if we’d known her our entire lives, the conversation as free and natural as it is among soul brothers and sisters.
All in all, no matter the problems that arise – and they will, they will – the world is a marvelous place full of good, compassionate people, and Judy and I feel so very fortunate to have so many people praying, sending thoughts, and caring for us.
It’s very humbling.
Postscript: Alas, my Judy died on Mother’s Day of 1017, but our 40 years of love will live on as long as my boys and I breathe.
 Forgive the pretention, but I just love the mustiness of the phrase.
 Actually, I made up the husbands thing to complete my propensity to adhere to the time honored tradition of series of three. A priest, a rabbi, and an atheist walk into a a crack house . . .
Let’s face it, in this artificially flavored, dioxin-laden world of ours, either you or someone you dearly love is going to get cancer, especially if you manage to dodge the jihadists’ and nativists’ bullets to live long enough.
Obviously, people deal with cancer in different ways. Everyone from scientists to your Aunt Tessie will tell you to be positive, which, of course, is good advice, if not all that easy to take, especially if you’re facing chemotherapy.
For the last 17 months, my wife and I have shared our lives with a particularly rare and more-often-than-not fatal form of lymphoma known as Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, Not Other Specified, or for shortness sake, PTCL-NOS.
Essentially, you can deal with cancer in two ways, the Dalai Lama way or the Woody Allen way, so I thought I’d recap my wife’s journey of the last year and a half focusing on her husband’s behavior, imagining him as either the Dalai Lama or Woody Allen so you can decide for yourself which role you might play if you ever face similar challenges.
9 July 2014
Woody Allen, husband of Judy Birdsong, spends the morning cleaning the house preparing for guests, an artist friend and former colleague who’s bringing an Italian mother and her two teenaged sons to go kayaking.
Judy has gone out “to run some errands,” and Woody is getting somewhat peeved because she’s been gone so long and has left so much of the housework to him.
Finally Judy calls.
“Where have you been?’ Woody asks.
“Getting a chest x-ray.”
“A chest x-ray? What for?”
“I have this lump near my breast bone. The doctor thinks it’s probably just some bone outgrowth. No big deal.”
“Oh, my God,” Woody thinks, “she’s got lung cancer!”
* * *
Tenzin Gyatso, husband of Judy Birdsong, enjoys picking up each individual knick-knack from the shelf and gently rubbing the dust cloth over its surface. Although he knows Judy’s getting a chest x-ray, he concentrates on the task at hand, gently returning the clay statuette of the Indian mother to her place on the shelf next to the hand-painted Mexican fish.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Woody, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He picks up the receiver just as Judy does but doesn’t hang up.
He hears: “The x-ray is inconclusive. It’s cloudy. Have you had any fever? Coughing? We don’t see a mass, but you have something called a pleural effusion, that is, fluid in your lungs, so you’ll need to come in tomorrow for a C-scan.”
Woody hangs up the phone and immediately googles “plural effusion.”
Numerous medical conditions can cause pleural effusions. Some of the more common causes are:
Woody spends a very miserable night, the worst one since his last night in jail (c. 1978), tossing and turning and speculating just what horrible type of cancer Judy has. Finally, because she’s had no symptoms, Woody becomes convinced that it’s metastatic ovarian cancer.
* * *
That evening around six, the phone rings. Tenzin, upstairs in his study, sees on the phone’s screen that it’s the doctor’s office. He waits to see if Judy picks up, and she does.
After the conversation, she comes up and tells him the x-rays weren’t clear, that she needs a C-scan.
He takes a deep cleansing breath, then exhales slowly.
The C-scan did detect a mass, “a primary cancer probably a lymphoma,” according to the radiologist. Woody and Judy arrive at Roper Hospital for Judy’s initial visit with her oncologist. When they arrive, they discover the appointment is at a different facility across town, so they rush to their car and take off. Even though the receptionist has assured them they have enough time, this soundtrack plays in Woody’s mind.
They do arrive on time, and the oncologist, an acquaintance, the husband of a colleague of Woody’s, is a calming presence. He shows them the tumor on a screen and agrees that it looks like lymphoma, and says that’s what he hopes it is because lymphomas are curable. He introduces them to the paradox that the faster a cancer grows, the easier it is to kill.
Woody goes home and googles lymphomas, which indeed are very treatable if it’s the B-cell variety. T-cell lymphomas are a different story.
While Judy’s out kayaking with Tenzin, the oncologist calls and tells Woody they need to run about a thousand new tests on Judy to find out “what type of t-cell lymphoma we’re talking about.”
“Oh no,” Woody says. “T-cells are harder to cure, aren’t they?”
“They can be,” he says tersely.
When Judy returns, she can see it on Woody’s face.
“What’s the matter?”
He tells her. For the first time they weep together.
Tenzin has put Woody in a strait jacket, jammed a sock in his mouth, and locked him in a closet so he can call his sons and tell them the bad news. He also calls his siblings and closest friends.
Judy is stoic as well, suffering through a barrage of tests without a complaint.
They nervously wait to see how far it’s spread.
Good News! It’s Stage 1, confined to that one tumor. No bone marrow involvement. The treatment will be aggressive. 96-hour continuous hospital infusion, two weeks off, then another blast. There will be 6 to 8 cycles, then perhaps a stem cell transplant and even after that radiation.
28 July – Early December
Judy on the 5th Floor Balcony of Roper
Although Tenzin can sometimes hear muffled sounds from Woody’s closet, he – Tenzin – is very much in control. During hospital weeks, he wakes up at 5, walks their doomed dog Saisy, showers, etc., and delivers the paper to Judy on the 5th floor of Roper and sits down to enjoy a cup of coffee. Then he shuffles off in his blue footies, down the hall to the elevator, hitting the first floor, greeting the staff coming on as he heads to the parking garage and to work.
After only four days of chemo, the tumor has shrunk so much that the oncologist says he wouldn’t know it were there by external inspection.
Of course, everyone loves Judy because of her courage and exquisite manners. The nurses try to see to it that she gets the rooms that look out over Charleston Harbor. She walks a lot, dragging the chemo-shit along with her. She continues her work as a school psychologist from her hospital bed, and in the third week goes to work in Berkeley County wearing a wig. In the afternoons when she’s in the hospital, Judy and Tenzin sit on the balcony and note the beauty of the light as it falls upon the steeples of the city.
In October on a Friday, Tenzin returns from work to find a voice message from the oncologist. He’s delighted to inform them that Judy’s scan has come back all clear; there’s not a trace of cancer.
Nevertheless, they’re going to continue for two more cycles of chemo, culminating in a grand total of 6.
Late December 2014 – January 2015
Tenzin’s mother has had a stroke as Judy’s preparing for a stem cell transplant. Tenzin allows Woody to come out of the closet to google stem cell transplants, but marches him right back in there afterwards.
One morning they come downstairs to find that Saisy has died during the night. Tenzin and his neighbor Jim load Saisy’s carcass in the back of Judy’s SUV (Tenzin’s Mini isn’t an option), and she drops Saisy off at the Vet’s to be cremated. She then drives on to work as Tenzin does the same.
Over the next week, Tenzin tries to make it to his hometown to see his fading mother while meanwhile Judy suffers the worst part of her treatment, bone-marrow killing doses of a different type of chemo that incapacitates her.
When Tenzin’s mother dies, Judy’s very ill; she can’t attend the funeral because she’s been hospitalized. The good news is that Judy’s sister and sister-in-law have come to help. Despite all the negativity, spirits are somewhat high.
February – March 2015
Scans again clear. Time for radiation, which is no fun, but it’s much better than chemo.
Judy’s and Tenzin’s son is getting married in June, right after another scan. Woody, who has been released from the closet but remains under house arrest, thinks the scan should be put off until after the wedding, but Tenzin and Judy disagree. How great to hear the news beforehand they say.
But they don’t hear the news. Woody is not allowed to come up to DC for the festivities (though he does text twice). The wedding week is wonderful as Judy and Tenzin reunite with loved ones and enjoy interacting with their new in-laws. All agree the ceremony and reception are a blast.
When Judy and Tenzin return to Charleston, they learn the scan was “all clear.”
17 December 2015
Judy goes in for her six-month scan. Woody has been sneaking around googling, looking for PTCL-NOS success stories, and under that heading what’s below is all he can find:
To date: 17 chemotherapeutic drugs in 8 regimens. 4 of those drugs at least twice.
Knowing the redemptive value of suffering makes all the difference.
Woody also discovers that the median time for relapse is 6.7 months after primary treatment, and it’s been seven months since Judy’s ended. Plus her SED rate is way high at 38 (20’s normal). Woody googles for possible reasons for high SED rate. “Cancers: lymphoma, leukemia.”
18 December 2015
Judy tells Woody (who’s wearing a Tenzin mask) he doesn’t need to accompany her to her 3 o’clock appointment.
As soon as she leaves for work, Woody clobbers Tenzin over the head with a walking cane and shoves him in the closet.
Woody goes to work and grades one set of exams, attends a brunch, then goes home at one-thirty and tries to take a nap.
He falls into a fitful sleep but awakens.
The clock crawls. Three finally arrives. Why didn’t meet her there? Imagine a text message. Or if it’s bad, wouldn’t she call? Imagine her driving back by herself knowing. Poor thing. 3:05. Friday’s NY Times crossword puzzle. It’s impossible. 3:15. He imagines Judy being weighed, getting her blood pressure taken. 3:30, no word. 3:35 goes down to play solitaire. 3:50. Knows Judy might get irritated but calls.
She hasn’t been seen yet!
4:05; Billie Holiday’s text ring tone “Comes Love” sounds. He sees ”scan’s all clear” on the screen. Screams Yes!! Literally dances a jig. Judy calls. “Yes!” He texts his sons “Yes!” He texts friends. “Yes!”
He rides his bike down to the Jack of Cups where he finds the owner Nick sitting at the bar with Tyler, a Chico Feo bartender, sitting next to him, and Samantha, a lovely tattoo-covered “girl next door” stationed behind the bar. He shares the good news. Larry comes in. Lesley, Nick’s wife comes in. They all high five. Nick disappears and returns with six shots.
They raise their glasses and chug.
Meanwhile, Tenzin is just coming to back home. He walks slowly up the stairs to his study and takes from the shelf The Selected Poems of WH Auden. He looks at the index of first lines, flips to the sought after page, and reads:
Okay, I’m on the upstairs porch of Chico Feo the afternoon after a Screamin’ J’s Friday night gig listening to some jamming when Eddie Cabbage asks me if I would like a poem on demand.
I demur, but he insists.
Hank Weed suggests something that incorporates cancer and poison ivy, because Hank claims that last year he asked me how it was going, and I said, “I have a bad case of poison ivy, and, oh yeah, Judy has cancer.”
[cue the Coasters]: Going to need an ocean of calamine lotion (and fifty bags of chemo).
Before I share the poem, here’s Eddie at work yesterday.
And here’s the poem with the warning that the squeamish might find its imagery unpalatable.
365 days later we find ourselves all alone at a picnic area near the summit of Mt. Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont. We’re on the south side looking down at 180 degrees of spectacular scenery, and behind us clouds rush over the summit, revealing a patch of blue sky. A waterfall of light pours through the opening and cascades down the side of the summit, progressively devouring shadows. Or perhaps the light’s more like lava because a waterfall is always there pouring forth, and this light is creeping, shimmering its way down, illuminating boulders and green growth.
I point it out to Judy, whose short, wavy hair ripples in the strong wind. She’s never seen anything like this lava flow of light either. It sure beats last July when we were perched on the balcony on the fifth floor of Roper Hospital, Judy tethered to a chemo dispenser. This light overcoming shadows in the mountains is an apt analogy of how we feel now one year later after six 96-hour sessions of chemo, a stem cell transplant, and radiation. I say we, but it’s Judy who has undergone all of this, Judy who makes Ernest Hemingway look like Woody Allen when it comes to stoicism.
* * *
No one wants to get cancer, but you certainly don’t want to get Non-Hodgkin’s Peripheral T-Cell Lymphoma, Not Other Specified. Its very name sounds as if the doctors don’t know exactly what it is, and they don’t. Googling its prognosis is literally life negating. Here’s the first sentence from an article on the disease from a medical journal called Blood: “Peripheral T-cell lymphomas (PTCLs) are a heterogeneous group of clinically aggressive diseases associated with poor outcome.” (sic)
The five-year survival rate is about 32%. When I mentioned these percentages to Judy’s oncologist, he said, “There are only two numbers, 0 and 100. It’s either going to kill you or it isn’t. It’s curable. Stay off the Internet.”
But I didn’t. I kept searching for success stories, but they were hard to find in the haystack of scientific studies, cancer treatment advertisements, information websites, etc., so I decided to write this piece to offer hope to anyone out there who has been recently diagnosed, and believe me, I know that Judy’s cancer might come back. The odds that it is cured are 50% to 81%, depending on what study you look at. But the ultimate scoop is that anyone can die anytime, and we all should start practicing the Buddhist habit of living in the moment because as my pal Hamlet says
If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.
* * *
Okay, let me get down to business to offering hope.
All of those stats on PTCL-NOS are based in the past, sometimes several years in the past, and based on therapies that have been abandoned or modified. 32% of patients have survived, even with those obsolescent treatments.
Furthermore, percentages are abstractions, and you are not.
For example, 85% of non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas are the easier cured B-cell variety, whose success rate is more like 90%, so going by percentages, you should have the B, not T cell variety. But you don’t. Your projected statistical five-year survival rate is twice that of the chances of having T-Cell lymphoma in the first place, so our oncologist is right. You are you, not an abstraction.
If your physician has you on the CHOP regimen of chemo, ask him why not CHEOPS? Tell him you’ve read that it may offer a better outcome, especially the 96-hour continuous infusion delivery system. In Judy’s case, the chemo was not nearly as bad as we had feared. (The stem cell transplant chemo is another story, but then, at least the end of the tunnel is illuminated). Sure, chemo drains you, affects your palate and appetite, and you lose your hair, but losing hair is a good thing. Hair cells divide quickly, like cancer cells. Losing your hair is a sign that the chemo’s doing its job. New drugs have been developed to help deal with nausea. I liken the 96-hour infusion to sipping a gallon of rotgut whiskey rather than chugging it. Anyway, read the article, and discuss it with your physician.
* * *
Everyone says to be positive, and it’s hard, but now at least you know what you got, and it’s going to be treated, and scientists are working their asses off to find better treatments.
Your life probably seems more meaningful now because you know all too well how ephemeral it is. Your plight offers an opportunity to exhibit grace under pressure, so take every breath and every step with the assurance that it is now, and now is all anyone ever has or ever has had.
Hyperbole – over exaggeration — has always been my go-to cheap way to get a laugh, e.g., Marty Feldman was ugly enough to raise a blister on a bulldog’s ass, ugly enough to back a buzzard off a gut-wagon, ugly enough to send Mother Teresa packing.
However, I’ve decided to forego bombast here and merely say the last eighth months have been difficult. Rather than exaggerating, overreacting, getting all melodramatic on you, I’m merely going to tell it, as they used to say, like is.
[cue mournful violins]
The first of the succession of events thatwould have driven Job into atheism occurred last May when I offered my resignation twice overa miscarriage of justice that makes a Stalinist show trial seem fair over the administration’s insistence that I apologize to an eighteen-year-old for placing him/her in a non-honors class. The forced apology seemed to me likebetrayal like not fully appreciating an employee with three decades of service to an institution he had faithfully supported financially and verbally, an institution that now seemed to him unconscionably unfair to value students’ Kim-Jong-Un bat-shit crazy irrational parents more than its teachers.
Because of my cowardice of the insistence of wives (actually I only have one), colleagues, and my favorite bartender Steve Smoak, I relented and told the student in front of his/her parents in administrative offices and in front of administrators that I regretted hurting the student’s feelings, which I do, though I continue to maintain I delivered the placement news with compassion. Looking back on it, I wish I had doused myself with kerosene and lit a match in an act of self-immolation expressed resentment to the inquisitors assembled audience. Ha, that would have shown them!
Anyway, the incident has left me disillusioned, which, strictly speaking is a good thing (ain’t no Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, Meaning-to-Life) but nevertheless depressing. However, I now realize that incident pales in comparison to the subsequent shit that was about to go down.
The second and third events happened on the same day, 17 June 2014, when my deck caught on fire and I learned that a childhood friend had died. In the blaze, I lost two surfboards, one a Sunshine shaped by Claude Codgen, the loss of which ordinarily I might lament by donning sackcloth, smearing myself with ashes, renting my garments as I howled to the Indifference above by feeling sorry for myself, but Paul’s death prevented that indulgence.
Instead, I wrote this bitter poem, which now seems downright prophetic predictive.
Hit arrow for sound.
In memory of Paul Yost 1955-2014
I’m tearing apart paper,
newsprint, the obituary page,
shredding descriptions of lives:
of fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers,
bachelors, partners, husbands, wives,
shredding their black-and-white
faces, their smiles, their stares,
ripping also the memorial verses
loved ones have left,
wadding it all up
to fuel my charcoal chimney.
Yet not enough.
So here comes the sports page,
the World Cup, accounts of pop flies
dropped, ripe for ripping,
ripped, balled, stuffed, ready
for the match’s fiery effacement.
And that poor chicken! hatched, harried,
pecking its food among hordes,
pulled from transport crates,
shocked for the throat cutter’s convenience,
This one’s also been
deboned, yet not sold soon enough,
skewered by butchers along with
aging onions and overly ripe peppers.
After its scraping, red and black,
slightly rusted, the grill stands ready,
top open, at attention.
I place the chimney
upon the barred metal, pour in
the briquettes, and torch the
shredded lives of others,
their wins and losses,
and watch the smoke
rising into the dissipation
of the silent, cloud-shifting sky.
No, something far, far worse was in store – my beloved Judy’s diagnosis of a virulent strain of T-Cell lymphoma, which you can read about HERE.
So, the incidents detailed above that seemed at the time like the end of the universe so vexing declined in the hierarchy of woe to mere inconveniences.
The good news, the very good news, is that Judy’s treatments have been successful, she’s in remission, and as I write this, she’s getting pumped with bone-marrow killing chemo in preparation for a stem cell transplant that offers real hope for a permanent cure. Of course, I might add, that celebrating getting bone-marrow-killing chemo suggests that your life has been a tale-told-by-an-idiot,-full-of-sound-and fury, signifying nothing less than rosy .
If only I could end the story here, but by far the most tragic event of this narrative occurred, appropriately enough, on Halloween, when my good friend Nancy suffered a massive stroke, she, the beloved wife of my better friend Ed, which brings to mind Frost’s bitter lines:
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
The final three instances of misfortune in this catalogue of woe actually pale in comparison with Judy’s cancer and Nancy’s stroke.
First, my mother is in hospice and suffering mental turmoil in the forms of hallucination and restlessness, but she’s 83, unlike Judy (60) or Nancy (69), and I’ve always thought Ecclesiastics makes the most sense of anything in the Old Testament.
from Robert Crumb’s graphic bible
(Imagine the Byrds recording a hit song using Bible verses from Genesis 38, 9-10:
Onan from his brother’s wife
And for practicing birth-control,
Onan Yahweh slew).
As for my falling off a ladder and wrenching my back last Saturday, I attribute that to my idiocy, carelessness.
However, the last thing, the last fucking thing, has shattered the Hemingway mask of stoicism I’ve been sporting.
On the eve of her transplant, Judy found our dog Saisy dead on the living room carpet, lying there as if asleep, save for the frozen mouth.
Fuck, dear readers, I don’t like to think of myself as a whiner, but fuck.
Because we don’t work from June through July, Judy Birdsong and I tend to take trips to far flung places like Chicago, New Orleans, Lisbon, Paris.
We had planned last summer to head out on a whim in late July to a yet-to-be-decided somewhere, like Nova Scotia or the Pacific Northwest, but just after the 4th, Judy was diagnosed with PTCL-NOS, a more-often-than-not fatal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
I’ll spare you the Lifetime movie of our dealing with uncertainty, calling our sons with bad news, the cheery waiting room posters pushing upcoming studies for the recently relapsed. To make a long, painful story short, after four rounds of in-hospital 96-hour continuous EPOCH chemo, Judy’s last PET scan came back “completely normal.” Although the process is far from over, the quick disappearance of the cancer bodes well for a permanent cure.
Time, then, to celebrate. We hadn’t vacated town since last October’s Leaf Festival to see Dr. John and the New Orleans brass band the Soul Rebels*, so we decided to drive down to Edisto last Sunday before Judy’s fifth round of chemo** and visit Botany Bay, 5,000 acres of what once were cotton fields from plantations that are [cue “Tara’s Theme”] no more.
Botany Bay’s main attraction, though, is a three-mile stretch of pristine beach whose bleached dead trees succumbing to the assault of the encroaching ocean serve as poignant symbols of what the ravager Time has in store for all of us. The copious shells that crunch under your feet and decorate the trees along the strand like grave ornaments offer their own testimony that time, time, time, ain’t on our side.
*Click HERE to see a video of Judy, the Soul Brothers, and Dr. John in action.
** She still has two more rounds of chemo, a stem cell transplant, and perhaps radiation before it’s over.
The Drive Down
This trip down to Edisto took us right past the first house owned, a brick-veneer 3-bedroom ranch-style monstrosity custom-built by a good ol’ boy who couldn’t believe we were taking out the red and orange shag carpet he had just put in last year. We didn’t have the heart to tell him the red sink in the green bathroom was also slated for removal. The house’s redemption was that it overlooked Logbridge Creek, which connected to the Intercoastal Waterway. The view from the backyard and bedroom bay window was like, as my friend Steve Rey put it, a cover off of South Carolina Wildlife.
Judy and Me at our first house in Rantowles
So Judy and I detoured right down Chaplin’s Landing Road to check out those digs of yore.
It’s changed. Our old dirt road is now a paved street lined with handsome houses that make our original seem like an embarrassing uncouth great uncle, you know, the one who wears suspenders that clash with his flannel shirt. A large Beware of Dog sign graced the busy front yard with its un-pruned Azaleas, garden do-dads, and array of automobiles.
Once we got back on Hwy 162 headed towards Edisto, we discovered that things haven’t changed that much since the early ’80’s, in fact, haven’t changed much since I was a boy.
Lining the road stood small modest domiciles, a mixture of wooden cottages, manufactured homes, and dilapidated house trailers. Business establishments include Parry Ruth’s Beauty Parlor, Youmans Natural Gas, small engine repair shops — lots of family owned businesses. The one incorporated town you pass through, Hollywood, hasn’t suffered the ever growing proliferation of traffic lights that plague the Charleston area. However, I don’t remember this antique store whose outside sentinel certainly embodies the theme of the post.
Nevertheless, on the drive down, I felt as if I were once again in the Old South, here where black country folk seem to outnumber white country folk, and what a pleasure to see brothers and sisters in all of their finery chatting on the steps of an AME church.
Well, a couple of things had changed. The house trailer we remember perched on concrete block stilts is gone, along with a full sized mattress that hung like a hammock with four chains dangling from the boughs of a giant live oak, each chain attached to one of the mattress’s four corners.
Hollywood to Botany Bay
Once you’re out of Hollywood, you enter even deeper into the disappearing South, pass through tunnels of moss-festooned live oaks, transverse bridges offering marsh vistas, pass a generous sampling of white-washed churches of various denominations. Genteel establishments like the Old Post Office Restaurant closed on Sunday stand as mute reminders of days gone by.
The Beach at Botany Bay
Natural Resources runs the Preserve, so you have to stop and sign in. The friendly ranger, who looked like he might be a volunteer, provided us a map and warned us of what not to do (collecting a shell can cost you a $470 fine), and gave us a brief history of the plantations that once stood on the property.
The beach is being engulfed by the sea, which has created a sort of graveyard of entangled trees, some blanched white and prone, others with beautiful swirls of root wood, other’s standing alone in the ocean like a crazy old doomed King Canute.
A variety of shells carpet the sand, but a chambered nautilus I saw not among the Darwinian litter.
How wonderful to be alive on this island of the dead! How wonderful to know the little that we know.
The Plantation Ruin Tour
Ain’t nothing left to speak of — an ice house, a tabby tool shed, dikes, and part of a plantation house’s foundation.
I couldn’t help but think of the slaves on this Sabbath, their only day off, nothing much to look forward to. Their cottages used to line the Creek, according to our map. Evil.
The six mile dirt road drive was pretty enough, but after four so hours of unrelenting beauty, I longed for the familiar squalor of Chico Feo’s.
We hauled ass home opting for the short cut via Toogoodoo Road where you can go 60 and not encounter another car for miles and miles.