Phenomenal Woman

harold and grace crouch with children martin and kathleen
Harold and Grace Crouch CA 1951

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.


Aviator Sunglasses
Aviator Sunglasses

The prompt for this writing was a pair of sunglasses motionless on the table. This is what I wrote.

“I have a pair of high-quality sunglasses that I no longer use,” Bill said. “I bought a pair of prescription sunglasses to replace them and if you can use them, I would like you to have them.”

I reached to accept the tan-colored leather and plastic case. “I lost my cool aviator-style sunglasses in an accident,” I said.

Opening the snap case, I’m looking at an old pair of RayBans with the gold frames – the kind we saw on State Troopers and 70’s-era rock idols. “Gee, these are great,” I said as I slipped them on. “The fit is nearly perfect; I’ll take them. Thankyou very much.”

I also notice that these have actual polarizing glass lenses in a green tint that looks very cool with the gold frames. Not often have I such good fortune.

Months pass and the two of us, Eddy and I, are traveling in the car with our son and daughter-in-law. It’s a bright Oregon day and I don my RayBans. My daughter-in-law remarked, “Hey those sunglasses are exactly like the ones my father used to wear. I always liked those glasses on him,” Her father was a state trooper prior to retiring.

I’m thinking that these 40-year-old RayBans are just the ticket for a Fall road trip around the West. Imagine gazing at the Half Dome in the early morning, outwaiting Old Faithful around noon, or watching sunset over the Tetons with my RayBans!

Writers’ Group

men with cancer writing group
OHSU Men with Cancer Writers’ Group, May 2014

Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) offers several valuable alternative-health programs for the public. Following my diagnosis of metastatic melanoma, I joined a Men with Cancer Writers’ Group, which meets weekly on Friday afternoons. The men’s group, facilitated by Ryan Voelker, is one of several groups for writers developed by Dr. SuEllen Pommier. 

OHSU writers’ groups are based on the Amherst Writers Method. At each meeting we write from two to four stories in response to a prompt offered by the group facilitator. Following each writing exercise, we have an optional opportunity to read our writing and receive comments regarding what group members appreciated about our story and writing.

This group helps me explore dormant and present thoughts and feelings— a helpful exercise that will contribute to my healing. I find the experience feels encouraging and safe.

Summer Break

Wuksachi Lodge, Sequoia National Park
Wuksachi Lodge, Sequoia National Park

Our writer’s group prompt was, “Tomorrow is the first day of summer break. Write about your expectations for the summer.” This is what I wrote.

Here’s the plan for Summer 2014: First, I’ll keep the appointment with my oncologist on June 23rd and he will confirm that my cancer continues to regress. He will again say, “You are responding to the IL-2 treatment and your reward is another round of treatment.” I think this is Dr. Curti’s favorite line, and I imagine feeling proud to be part of a happy moment for him.

My last IL-2 treatment will consume the month of July — with all of its discomforting side effects, two weeks in bed, and other indignities.  Dedicating the month of July is better than OK; it’s a reasonable exchange for a stay of the death sentence conveyed by metastatic melanoma.

August will be a month of working to regain strength in preparation for the follow-up CT scan of early September. Then, at summer’s end, I’ll receive my diploma, passport, certificate of merit, my NED finding!

Time for a dramatic celebration followed by a romantic western states road trip — the kind that road trip media presents. High Sierras, National Parks, Canyon-lands, Tetons, Yellowstone … here we come!

Cancer is a Mistress

Seasons and Regions Seafood Restaurant
Seasons and Regions Seafood Restaurant

My friend Susan suggested that, in her experience, cancer is like a mistress. Her mistress metaphor resonated as a splendid writing prompt. This what I wrote:

We are having dinner tonight at a favorite restaurant, Seasons and Regions. I’m ordering the Willipa Bay Oysters with extra vegetables. I say, “Please no bread and hold the potatoes and rice.”

I’m following a mediterranean diet, attempting to avoid nightshades and refined grains. This because the mediterranean diet is believed by my naturopath to be the best all around cancer-discouraging diet. My oncologist says that diet won’t affect the course of your metastatic melanoma; the main thing is to eat a sufficient amount of food to avoid excessive weight change. I prefer to do everything reasonable to discourage the cancer.

Eddy says, “Are you sure you want the oysters? They are breaded in a flour mixture and fried in a skillet. It would be better to order a grilled seafood like the Alaskan salmon.”

I know my wife is concerned about my health and wants to help me exercise control over food choices as way to help me fight cancer. I’m thinking that the idea that foregoing one of my favorite seafood dishes on this special night out is not working for me. I’ve already let go of my beloved bread and butter.

I say, “Could we just put the fight against cancer on hold for tonight? I would love to just have a special dinner evening with you the way we did before we found out that I have cancer.”

She says, “Yes, I would like that too. It’s OK if you want to have the oysters. We will be skipping dessert because you aren’t eating refined sugar anymore. I want you to have an entree that you will really enjoy.”

I’m thinking that her dessert comment doesn’t quite comply with my foregoing request, but I decide to let that pass.

I’m noticing an urge to cough and I try to stifle it. I think, “Damn this dry cough; I should have remembered to take a swig of codeine before we left home.” I fail to stifle the cough and quietly cough into my cloth napkin. She looks at me with a hint of anxiety, and says, “Take some sips of water, it will help with that cough.”

The presence of cancer in my chest has altered our relationship. It’s an ever-present elephant in the room that alters our interactions and is never far from our thinking. This is a bit like being a couple who both know about his mistress. Even though his mistress is not in the room, she is always in the minds of both.

In my case, the mistress brings an unusual, cruel twist. She plans to murder me.

This is Doable


The prompt was: “Write a piece where nothing takes place outside of a small room. Describe the interior and its occupants, but don’t go outside the room.” This autobiographical piece is what I wrote:

The sign on the wall reads “This is Doable” in calligraphed letters decorated with colored pencil filagree. A hospital bed surrounded with medical paraphernalia: monitors, drip cart, oxygen, and hospital work station dominate the floor space.

The man in bed has a tube running from an infusion pump to a portal inserted at a vein between neck and chest. He is resting as an exorbitantly-expensive liquid laced with Interleukin-2 is pumped into his bloodstream. He looks pensive, but does not appear to be suffering pain.

A woman stands by his bedside. She is slender, maybe thin, and the lines on her face seem to say, “Yes, dammit, I am worried!” She fidgets and says, “Are you feeling OK? Can I get you some tea or more water?”

Without waiting for an answer, she hands him the Starbucks cup and says, “Here take this water; you need to stay hydrated.”

The man is thinking, “Amazing that getting medicine by infusion doesn’t hurt. I cannot even feel it. Thank god for small blessings. I’m not thirsty and don’t want this water — best to drink a sip and set it back on the tray. I wish she wouldn’t worry about me so much.”

A week in a small hospital room for IL-2 is like that: Full of tiny interactions and non-events. Minutes go by so slowly…