This past weekend was beautiful, as the majority of our weekends have truly been since we got here. On Saturday, all the boys went fishing with Papa at the end of the furthest pier in Avila. While they were busy drowning bait, I walked almost five miles— starting at the Bob Jones trail and continuing around the bay to meet them. Along the way, I serendipitously watched a mama otter with her baby on her tummy, laughed at a baby sea lion sunning itself on a baby sea lion-sized buoy, and witnessed a SpaceX rocket launch into space. And all before noon.
I spent some time practicing my mindfulness and reflecting. Some of you have probably been wondering, how did all this happen? Where did it start?
Back when James and I went to college here in SLO, he had terrible allergies. I remember my freshman year, I had terrible allergies. One time I sneezed about seventy times from my dorm room to the parking lot— an undocumented World Record I’m sure. So, needless to say, James was bracing himself for a serious case of hay fever.
Coincidentally, his voice started to get a little hoarse and scratchy a week or two after we moved in. How these two events coincided will likely remain one of life’s unsolved mysteries… He went to the doctor, he went to the allergist, his voice stayed scratchy. He had his good days and his less good days. His throat wasn’t sore. There was no pain. There was no lump. He assured me in his best Kindergarten Cop voice, “It’s notta toomah.”
Finally the local ENT took a look and found the source of his hoarse voice. She thought it was a papilloma caused by HPV and scheduled him for surgery. Apparently this is becoming shockingly common in young, healthy, non-smoking Caucasian men. But then it wasn’t. Instead it was a very rare cancer called mucosal melanoma. From the little I read, before my desperate self-preservation tactic of delegating this task to my dear friend Arlene, it doesn’t originate from the skin. They have not yet found a connection to sun exposure, or genetics, or environmental factors. As a health-conscious, non-smoking young adult, this is understandably alarming, but so it goes.
In any case, we were right about one thing… there’s nothing he’s more allergic to than cancer!
Back in high school, two of my friends and I decided we wanted to take a night class at our local community college— some sort of advanced Spanish class that took place after dark.
My parents told me no in no uncertain terms. They were certain I would be accosted in a dark parking lot as I searched for my Geo Metro. Quite an argument ensued. My blood boiled at the hypocrisy of a lifetime of girl power and “strong women” messaging clashing head-on into the realities of being a sixteen year old girl with waist-length hair and a car key bigger than her actual car.
The compromise? I would spend one Saturday attending a class they’d found in the Santa Cruz Sentinel called “How to Kill Men.” I’m not making this up.
So the three of us carted our teenaged selves to a nondescript hotel conference room in the Beach Flats. I remember tips on staring down approaching strangers and noting what they looked like, never checking-in to a hotel room alone under your first name– change it to your initial or something more manly, and uttering assertive deterrents. But what I remember most vividly is the “How to Kill” part… we practiced gouging eyes and knees to the groin and the strength of one’s elbow.
This is also when we were at the peak of our athletic soccer prime– a fierce and dirty band of cutthroat pirates. Our coaches, Gerald and Donnie, had recently put us through “Hell Week,” and we had the thigh muscles to prove it. During the class we practiced kicking our assailants. The beefy instructor took several forceful blows and declared, “You girls in the green Converse should just kick and run.”
My mom loves that line.
This past Friday, I took one of our complimentary fitness classes at work– Power Vinyasa. It was not your gentle, relaxing yoga. It was athletic and empowering and in the midst of Warrior II pose, as I stared down the length of my middle finger (fitting, right?), the words in my head became one, clear message:
I am going to <insert expletive adverb> kick cancer in the teeth.
‘Bout time I get myself another pair of green Converse.
On Tuesday night, James and I headed up to Santa Cruz in preparation for two appointments on Wednesday. The next morning we woke-up, had a cup of tea and some swamp water, and then packed-up for the commute to Palo Alto.
As we were waking-up in my parents’ cozy sitting room with the wood stove, something caught my eye. I looked directly past James, and there, through the towering redwoods, was a column of light– a vivid, perfectly vertical rainbow reaching up into the sky. I’ve never seen anything like it.
We made it over 17 pretty easily, despite the entire northbound stretch just past Vine Hill being shut down as they cleared a landslide. Lexington Reservoir was full to the brim. As we made our way to Stanford, we were astonished by four more separate rainbows. One reaching across the entire sky, from 280 to 101.
Our first appointment was with the radiation oncologist. Although we went in generally expecting her to recommend radiation… I mean when you’re a hammer, everything’s a nail… it still knocked us back a bit. She felt very strongly that radiation was critical and needed to be scheduled immediately.
We had a tough afternoon, wandering a bit aimlessly through the most beautifully landscaped outdoor mall in America, visiting a good friend of James’, and then heading back to meet with the melanoma oncologist. That appointment was better. The nurse was named Jaime and the doctor emphasized the positives– the tumor was small, in the scheme of tumors, and they were able to remove the entire thing with clear margins. In the world of melanoma, surgery is the best treatment. He explained that if it was somewhere below his neck, surgery probably would have been the only treatment recommended at this point, with very frequent scans. But, a person’s head and neck are very important real estate with a lot going on– subsequent surgeries could be much harder. Ultimately, we left Stanford fairly convinced that we should go through radiation, as a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of the cancer coming back or spreading.
We don’t yet have the schedule, but James will likely begin radiation treatment in Los Gatos at the end of January. It will be six weeks of treatment that lasts just a few minutes a day on weekdays, with time off on weekends. It will be hard to have James away for so many weeks, but we feel confident that he will have the highest quality treatment and be in the care of the best doctors.
Wednesday night we drove home to SLO, coasting in at 10PM and falling into bed. It was an exhausting week, but we now have the semblance of a plan. We will still be meeting with an expert in San Francisco on the twenty-third, and another at UCLA on the twenty-fifth. We’ll see whether their recommendations or approaches vary from our current team and continue moving forward.
Although it was an emotionally and physically draining week, I still think about those five rainbows. It’s abundantly evident the universe was overcompensating… practically shouting that no matter what we heard that day, “It’s going to be okay.”
And I know that it is.
A quick update to let you know I’ll post a more satisfying update on Saturday. Running on fumes this week and am coasting into the weekend via gravity and momentum. James and the boys have another four-day weekend and are off adventuring today. Thank you to everyone for your texts, calls and emails. They are small, powerful gifts of love and strength.
Years ago, my dad told me this story where he had two job offers he couldn’t decide between. His indecision led him to wake-up on a Monday morning, get into his car, and start driving without a plan. It was his first day on the job and he needed to make a choice. As he was headed over Highway 17, he had his sunroof open just a few inches. And at the precise moment when he’d made up his mind and chosen one company… *splat*. Like one of my favorite Far Side cartoons, a bird pooped on his head through that minuscule crack in the sunroof. He immediately drove to the other company and never looked back.
These signs… our need for these signs, is fascinating. During that very first weekend after the diagnosis, our house was enveloped in cold, gray rain and fog, with visibility of just a few feet. It was dark, dreary, hopeless weather. Then on Sunday, James took a walk alone down on Avila beach. The sky opened-up and a single beautiful ray of light shown down. Around the same time, I looked out our kitchen window and had the exact same experience. As I’d been wishing to the universe that it would be in one single, small, contained location— only one single hole opened up in the sky. And it made me feel better.
Since that time, little signs, big and small have found me when I’ve most needed it. When I’ve least expected it. We heard Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry Bout a Thing,” on our first trip up to Stanford, and on the way back; A puff-painted rock in the parking lot; a rainbow on the second Christmas break drive home.
For several years, hummingbirds have been my little sign from the cosmos when I need reassurance. And there they are. A fat little red-headed hummingbird making such a racket from a branch, two young walkers stop to see him. Another one hovering over us at the playground. And painted on the electrical box downtown.
As we prepared for surgery, we found it exceedingly lucky that the Stanford concierge was an Indian man named George (Granddad’s name). And on the day of, our intake coordinator’s brother shared the exact same birthday as James. Then his nurse shows-up and his name is Vincent of course (Papa’s name). Vincent had the magical gift of putting people at ease.
There have certainly been days when I was attributing meaning to things that had no meaning. Is #66 at the restaurant good or bad? During our first appointment with the Stanford ENT doctor, we’re sitting quietly in the exam room and the sticker on a piece of machinery says 10/17. I try to ignore it. It’s the date of the Loma Prieta earthquake… after fifteen minutes and without explanation, the nurse moves us to another room.
A couple of days ago I get into my car, start it up, and what is playing on the radio? Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” I’m not making this up. I’m fairly confident, the last time I heard that song on the radio I was in the third grade.
I quickly closed the sunroof.
Not a lot of new updates to provide on the #TeamJames front. That’s the character-building part of this whole situation… getting comfortable with being so excruciatingly uncomfortable… and the waiting. James and I will head-up to meet with the Stanford oncologists on Wednesday. Meanwhile Granddad will come down to hold down the fort and attempt to wean the two ninja monkeys off of Christmas vacation. Not sure which one sounds worse?
So as we’ve gotten comfortable with waiting, and acclimating back to actual winter rain, I’ve watched a couple of movies. I can’t believe how much I enjoy Home Alone— such a hoot!
The next day we were driving in the car and somehow Nate started fantasizing about how great it would be if James and I left him, with his brother, home alone.
Nate: “We could play our Nintendos, and watch our iPads all day!… Well, if Daddy leaves them unlocked.” (We have an app that controls the iPads.)
Me: “What would you eat?”
Nate: “We’ll eat hamburgers.”
Jake: “But how will we get them?”
Nate: “We’ll just drive the car.”
Jake: “We can’t drive the car!” (At least one child appears to have developed some level of common sense…)
Nate: “We already have hamburgers.”
Me: “Yeah, but how will you cook them?”
Nate: “I’ll just use Daddy’s grill. Just turn the button and turn the other button.” (From his carseat, he waves his hands around with some flame-thrower sound effects.)
Me: “Mmmhmm… and how long do you cook hamburgers?”
Nate: “Forty-eight hours” he declares confidently.
THUS illustrating why we need Granddad. Our sincerest thanks Granddad.
Today James took the boys miniature golfing in Santa Maria. I’m told Jacob won and they all had a great time. Apparently there was one hole where two of their balls went into the hole and never came out. After James jammed the end of his club into the hole with no luck, the groundskeeper came over to help. He shoved his leaf blower into the hole and “Pop!” out came a pink ball. And then a green ball. And then another pink ball. And another. Then in one unexpected golf tidal wave, at least twenty-five golf balls came gushing out. It was so supernatural, they all had to come home and watch Star Wars.
And speaking of supernatural, Jake and I are about half way through Book 7 of Harry Potter. We’ve been immersed in the wizarding world all summer and it’s been our special escape— a little slice of heaven. When it’s all over, I’m worried the withdrawals will be so bad we’re going to have to read that new play. I mean, I generally like reading plays, but I’m concerned it won’t really be what we’re looking for… which is to keep our Harry Potter reading club going for-E-ver.
Unfortunately Nate doesn’t like Harry Potter, though he is the undefeated reigning family champion of Harry Potter Uno. No one can beat him, not even Papa. So while we’re reading, he usually plays Harry Potter Uno with James, or spends the time inventing new forms of goofing around. I do know that sometimes he’s listening because he’ll unknowingly break out into a sing-song, “Potter you rotter, Potter you rotter,” imitating every Gryffindor’s least favorite ghost, Peeves.
Meanwhile Jacob spends most chapters acting out the various emotions of each character. I lay against the pillows on our master bed reading from my iPad, while he sits up and portrays Dumbledore being pensive, or Ron acting shocked. Tonight he was especially animated, executing a dramatic interpretation of Hagrid’s giant half-brother, Grawp, fighting Death Eaters and then, when it was all over, kissing his two fingers and saying in his deep, gravely giant voice, “Peace out!”
Broadway here we come…
This last book has gotten decidedly darker and more teenagery. We’ve had a number of deep mother-son conversations on snogging and relationships and appreciating the finer qualities of smart girls. Tonight we’re reading/acting our way through a particularly stressful chapter as the trio of friends is on the lam from You-Know-Who. And I say, “Jake, what’s with all the H’s in this book? Harry and Hermione? Hallows… Horcruxes… Hogwarts… Hagrid! Huh? Huh?”
Jake gets it, of course, and immediately one-ups me, “Ha! Ha ha ha!”
I love how we just get each other.
On Tuesday of this week, James took the boys to see the new Rogue One Star Wars movie. And today they had to wrestle the DVD player out of storage so the three of them could watch the first Star Wars movie, which is technically the fourth? I don’t even know. Fortunately I was at work.
I’m a Return of the Jedi child. I liked ewoks, and Princess Leia (Rest in Peace) and Jabba the Hutt and then I was done. I totally failed some sort of Obi-Wan quiz tonight at dinner. I’m not ashamed.
James started the boys’ Star Wars education years ago. Long before I would have approved watching something with so many lasers and swords and laser swords. I admit, the weekend after the diagnosis we went to the movies to take our mind off things. It didn’t work so well… The Rogue One poster had me in tears as I’m certainly not prepared to take up the Star Wars training. It’s crazy what you worry about when under extreme duress.
I will say though, for the record, back in October I was at a party when I was challenged on my knowledge of certain Star Wars soldiers. It was just before Halloween and the topic of costumes came up. Jake was going to be a ninja for the second year running, and although Nate likes “Dark Vader,” he wanted to be a Clone. Not a Storm Trooper, a Clone. I knowingly clarified, “Clones are the good ones with blue on their faces.”
No one believed me. They questioned whether there was even such a thing as Clones… I was just a teeny bit incensed. I mean really, I’d spent quite some time researching clone costumes on Amazon, aaaaaand I was the proud owner of an SUV named Harrison Ford. Clearly I know something about Star Trek. Ha! I would never make that mistake… C’mon, gimme some credit people.
When I arrived home I consulted the experts.
“So, Storm Troopers are white and Clones are white but they’re totally different, right? Storm Troopers are bad and Clones are good. Am I right or am I right?”
Nate, “Yep. And Clones have blue on their face.”
James got home about an hour ago from Stanford and not a moment too soon. I’ve been cooped-up during today’s incessant deluge with two little people that have been off of school for thirteen days and are starting to lose their minds… Our road is closed due to flooding, the barn is on the verge of flooding, and the number of tears due to too much screen time has me starting on an ark.
On the positive side, James, Granddad and Uncle Brett visited our favorite ENT/surgeon/thespian talent for the post-op appointment today. The doctor was very pleased with how James is healing and said his voice is better than he expected. I have to agree– I noticed it last night over the phone. James expressed his heartfelt gratitude and the doctor was genuinely touched, wondering why he suddenly had a case of the sniffles…
Next Wednesday is our meeting with the oncologists. Let’s just hope we don’t have to get there via ark?
This evening James headed back up to Santa Cruz in preparation for his post-op appointment tomorrow afternoon with our ENT doctor. I hope to have a full #TeamJames report tomorrow. Before he left, we decided he might as well shoot just one more of his “green powder” drinks. As they say: One for the road.
After the diagnosis, James asked us to get him some “swamp water” while we were out at the grocery store. Well, I’m not sure we were calling it swamp water back then. He probably said something more along the lines of “healthy juices with trace amounts of sugar.” So James has been experimenting with the plentiful variety of organic green juices available at your local Von’s. He recommends the ones with ginger.
And in typical James fashion, once he is a connoisseur of something (coffee, denim, shoes, window trim…), he has to take it to the next level. He’s already graduated to green powders. Now for those of us rookies that are new to the supplements aisle, green powders are a phenomenon whereby they somehow take powerfully healthy vegetables like kale, wheatgrass, and alfalfa and vaporize them into a “super food” packet. This packet can then be dissolved into the beverage of your choice and then chugged like a frat boy with a beer bong.
The pretty young green powder expert at my local Whole Paycheck advised me to pick-up a number of different packets so as to conduct our own experiment, allowing James to choose the one he hates the least.
Our highly advanced experimentation system involves me writing a succinct note on the empty packet as James splutters and gags over the sink. So far, here are the results:
- Paradise Brand ORAC-Energy Greens: “Never Again“
- Amazing Grass Brand Green Superfood: “Less Disgusting”
Two down, five to go. Salud!