At Men With Cancer writers group of September 9, the writing prompt was – “I need to say this.” This is what I wrote:
I need to say this…
This experience, having cancer, is just so ambiguous.
Am I ill? Sometimes fatigue and discomfort overcome this old body and leave me narcoleptic and fearful. Other times I feel up for a twenty-mile hike in the hills. Of course, you know that twenty-mile-hike is a pipe dream, but I feel up to it.
Scans help us ground ourselves in reality, but it is a reality seen through the lens of an oncological interpretation. “Your tumors have regressed and statistically if you remain in partial remission for three years, you have only a few per cent chance of recurrence.” More ambiguity.
I know that this state is just an accelerated form of the normal healthy life. We just never know whether or when our lives will end. But with cancer and cancer treatment, one discretely feels the loss of normal healthy vitality, and that makes the potential for loss-of-life loom larger.
Today’s Men With Cancer Writer’s Group began with the prompt: What am I supposed to feel?
This morning I underwent a combination CT – PET scan in the Nuclear Medicine at Providence Cancer Center and this experience influenced my choice of subject matter. This is what I wrote:
Returning from a PET scan at Providence this morning, I am wondering, “how am I supposed to feel?”
The young man, Bill, who operates the PET machine was cheerful and energetic. I liked that he made a special effort to customize the head restraint with a folded pillow case padding because my back tends to hurt if I lie on a flat surface for a few minutes. Then, when the machine detected that my shoes had metal in the last, he offered to remove them saying, “Before this I worked retail sales, as a shoe salesman at Nike, and I have the shoes thing down.”
These pleasant interactions put me more at ease, and I relaxed during the 40 minutes spent on the scanning table.
While lying in the machine, I felt grateful that the PET is the best diagnostic tool available for detecting metastatic melanoma tumors while they are still small, and the combined CT function helps calibrate the waxing or waning of already existing tumors. I felt smug that insurance is paying the cost of this for me, but sad that many in our country do not have medical insurance that covers this type of testing or only covers a fraction of the cost. I also thought about the outcome of my tests and recognized that Dr. Curti and his helpers at Providence are experienced, capable, and caring and I trust him to give me the straight scoop on my test results. If they don’t go as I had hoped, then he can be trusted to discuss my treatment options and help me arrive at the best plan.
As I was leaving the machine room, I asked Dan how he likes doing nuclear medicine compared to retail shoe sales. He responded, “I could go back to selling shoes if I had to, but I prefer this work. When I sold shoes, it was matter-of-fact. I would fit the shoes and tell the customer, ‘these shoes look great on you’. Here, interactions with people are deeper and I value that.”
How am I supposed to feel? Dr. Curti will tell me on Monday.
In this writing, I meant to convey that I experience layers of feelings that are related to the here-and-now, even when the outcome of the experience is in doubt. I also wanted to convey my gratitude for skillful interaction that health care workers like Bill apply to their jobs help us through the experience. The ending is meant to signal that the overriding concern is really whether my cancer is receding or not. Anxiety is the normal feeling arising from that concern, but that doesn’t make for an interesting story.
The prompt for this writing was: take a walk though the park out front of the OHSU Health and Healing Center. Note things that catch your attention. Then return to our writing room and choose one topic to write about.
This is what I wrote:
“I feel so lonely since your father died,” Mabel said to Crystal.
They were seated at the Park across the street from the Mirabella, Portland’s up-scale retirement highrise.
Crystal furrowed her brow as she sensed the sadness in her Mother’s simple statement.
“Yes, Raymond was such a good companion for you, even at the end. It makes sense that you would feel lost without him.”
They sat apart, in the bright spring sunlight, suggesting two independent single women of different generations on cordial, but not intimate terms.
Crystal is slender, tanned, and classy in her casual clothes.Mabel is pale and wrinkled, suggesting too much time sitting by herself in her high-rise living center.
“I wish you lived closer dear. I do so enjoy these moments in the sun, just sitting outdoors like we used to on summer vacation in Neskowin. Would you ever consider moving back to Portland?”
The leader’s prompt was: “Indian Summer, summer days that hang on long into fall – Are these sunny warm days welcome?” This is what I wrote:
I don’t get the Indian Summer label – it detracts from the sovereignty of Fall, stealing the best days of Fall and reassigning them to Summer. What a raw power grab!
I say, “let Fall be Fall: Autumnal beauty of clear blue skies, warm days and colorized forests, with cool nights that require a down-comforter to sleep aside the open window.”
Migratory birds have the best Fall sensibilities: It’s time to hit the road and see the sights of continental flyways with the rest of the flock. No wavering about the change of seasons – just a clear decision, “we go now”.
Perhaps those urban geese that winter-over in city parks started the myth of Indian Summer as they gathered to debate whether bright days are evidence of time to waddle about the park scooping up slugs, spiders and tourist leftovers. I feel sad they have forgotten their identity – migratory fowl.
Ryan’s prompt was: “A man rummages through the contents of our home and discovers who we are based on its contents.” This is what I wrote:
“This place seems bare,” thought the thief. “I was hoping for more electronics – easy to fence.”
Scouting the living room, he realized, “this furniture is really valuable, possibly even antique, but impossible to move without a van and a crew. These people really value durability, this furniture will be in use long after they are gone.”
Peering closely at the coffee table he thought, “They even made themselves each a personal scrapbook – not worth my time to look through these.”
“Times a-wasting, better move to the bedroom and look for jewelry. I am betting on a gold watch and maybe some diamonds”, he said to himself. Entering the bedroom, the thief was struck by the window exquisitely framing a view of Mt. Hood. “Wow, this place must have been designed by an architect. Somebody really has an eye for design.”
The thief quickly checked the drawers of the chest-of-drawers and the nightstands. Nothing. The the closets, more drawers. Still nothing. He spies a wooden jewelry box in the bathroom and lifts the lid. Rectangles are sparsely populated with costume jewelry. “Fakes — all fakes”, he thought. The lady of this house is not into jewels nor gold.
Moving to the study, he sees a bookcase. “Hmm, Travel titles, a smattering of self-help and psychology, and a few titles on death and dying. These people are definitely readers, but no valuable originals , signed copies nor antique books here,” he thinks.
Curiously the art on the walls in the house is an odd collection of primitive pieces. Several pieces depict people, children, small animals in active and interactive poses. “Evocative and pleasing, but not worth taking,” he thought. “Calligraphic pieces, perhaps done by the lady of the house,” also not worth stealing.
“This place is a total waste of my valuable time – time to move on,” thought the thief with disgust.
The prompt for writers group was: “Bring to mind a phenomenal woman in your life and what made her unique. Write a story in her honor.” This is what I wrote:
She was a stunning brunette with brown eyes and a slender young-woman physique. She loved physical activity: basketball, swimming, golf, walking, and hiking in beautiful surroundings. She appreciated beauty, not just natural beauty, but also finely designed and crafted personal objects, art and music.
These attributes were surprising, given that Grace came of age on the high plains of Western Kansas.
Had I been a young man in that place and time, my heart would have leaped from my chest when I caught sight of her on the dusty streets of Leoti. That role was left to my father, the lanky, bashful, earnest and hard-working young man, who was 4 years her senior. It was reported that Father made a trip to the Post Office every weekday just to buy another stamp and steal a moment with Grace.
Unlike most rural young women of that time, Grace went to college and graduated with a Bachelors Degree in home economics. Having training in diet and nutrition, she qualified for a direct commission in the Womens Army Corps, where her tour of duty included hospitals in the South Pacific Saipan and Denver Colorado.
Born in 1947, I was her first. She was a talented mother, who molded and civilized my childish willfulness with encouragement rather than punishment. She taught me empathy rather than aggression, inspired me to do music, literature, and crafts in addition to going outside to play. This, despite having four children, a demanding husband and a farm-wife’s role.
My experience allows no direct comparison; I had only one mother. Nevertheless, I will always see Grace as a remarkable woman for her strength of character and ability to do the mothering role with exceptional intuition and ability.