I’m sitting here, on my back deck, in the late Friday afternoon, beside Susan, trying to take stock of my life over a glass of wine, and read a bit while the light’s still good. I’m 30 days past my surgery and recovering reasonably well, but still three weeks away from my next set of tests, and almost four until I sit down with the urologist and learn if I still have cancer. And what happens next. All the rest of my life is on hold until that meeting.
My father lived to 92, and died of esophageal cancer, caught too late. He might have lived longer, otherwise, although he also had prostate cancer that might have caught up with him instead. It was a horrible death, one that I also saw take my dear friend, Bill, many years later (fall, 2019). My mother died at 95, living long despite her stroke in 1960. Her father died at 94. I always thought I’d live into my 90s. My genes promised it. But of late, I am not sure I’ll even see 75. My father’s mother also lived into her old age, but his father died younger than her of prostate cancer. Maybe I have his genes.
Sure there may be treatment: radiation and chemotherapy, neither of which is appealling. They have nasty side effects. To what end do I go for treatment if it involves a steady decrease in the quality of life and only saves me a short snippet of time? It’s a bit like the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons. Cancer is the Roadrunner that the Coyote never catches, and gets himself blown up in the process of trying. Sometimes I think of it like the Red Queen’s Race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can simply to stay in the same place. I can’t even make up my mind about how I see it until that next meeting.
I sit here with a pile of books beside me, trying to read as much as I can to get through all the to-be-read stacks that litter my house. Every day I sit outside with a small stack, sometimes the same books, often changing one or two. Never less than six, never more than ten, each with a bookmark to guide me back the next time I pick it up. There’s a pile or two beside the bed for my nighttime reading, too. Sometimes I augment them with books from my daytime reading.
I don’t know why it matters, but I just don’t want my life to end with so many unread books. Will I ever finish reading Proust? Or Casanova’s diaries? Will I even get to read the latest Murakami, so recently received? I keep wanting to re-read Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon, a tough enough task should I live to 90. Now it seems so much further from my grasp. I’m pretty sure I’ll never learn to read Latin, either, despite the shelf of textbooks to teach me.
Last year I read Will Schwalbe’s book, The End of Your Life Book Club. In it, he and his dying mother form a “club” to share and compare how they felt reading the same books together. She had cancer and they spent many hours in waiting rooms, in hospitals, in her palliative bedroom discussing their books. His book is a combination of her story, his, and their views on literature, and about shared memories. It’s very touching. I didn’t really appreciate it as much when I read it as I do now.
I have a large collection of DVDs, too. Will I ever get to watch The Thin Man series again? Inherit the Wind? Double Indemnity? Lost Horizon? Seven Samurai? I keep telling myself I’ll re-watch series like Tenko, Rome, M*A*S*H, Darling Buds of May, and West Wing, too. My W.C. Fields collection. And what about all those B-films I bought, but still haven’t seen? Will I have the time to do so?
So many things you think about when you question your own fragile mortality, mixed with the restrictions of the pandemic lockdown. Will we ever return to Mexico for a vacation? Will we ever travel to Nova Scotia to see my old friend again, as we had planned last year? Will I ever even see my grandkids again? Or take that daytrip up to Tobermory? You can’t even have a proper bucket list during a pandemic. But I won’t despair over lost opportunities.
Back in the late 1960s, a man I met on my travels gave me a paperback book by Paul Reps called Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. I still have it, and have read it many times through the intervening years. It was one of the formative books for my maturing. It contains many stories that I recall even today. One of my favourite tales came to mind a few days back that seemed to have resonance in my situation:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
I take no small delight that my health has steadily improved except for one major thing: my urinary tract. As often happens with patients after they have a catheter removed, I came down with a bladder/urinary infection. and had to start taking antibiotics again. Minor in the light of the cancer, but still a step backwards for my recovery.
Another of those things no one warned me about: pay attention to your urine. Because I had had a similar experience years ago, this time around I watched the state of my urine every day and when I saw it become cloudy, I called the doctor. How many other men in recovery don’t know they need to look at it?
I had to stand in the “walk-in” line at the Life Labs office in Wasaga Beach for more than an hour to leave a urine sample. Doing so with a full bladder was a bit trying towards the end. The doctor had faxed a test form to them the day before, so when I finally got in, the whole thing took only five minutes and I was out again. Next week, the Collingwood Life Labs office will re-open, making for shorter lines and shorter travel times.
I have to say kudos to those workers and nurses at the lab. They are understaffed and faced challenges and trials trying to deal with a flood of people. Not least of all were the people in line who were cranky about the wait and complained loudly. The staff were professional, efficient and as friendly as the time and pressure allowed them to be.
Once the doctor confirmed the infection, two days later, I got a prescription for antibiotics filled. Antibiotics always come with potential side effects, depending on which you take, of course: upset stomach, restrictions on what foods or drink you can take, sensitivity to sun, nausea and others. They can also kill your own flora and fauna, which can lead to constipation, something I thought I’d finally gotten past. Lovely.
All I can do is to take the pills and hope they do the trick to clear up the infection. If not, I’ll require something stronger. That’s a bridge to cross later.
Aside from this, my mobility is better, the healing progresses, and I suffer fewer (although still some) pains and aches. My incontinence is a lot better, to the stage where I can wear a single thin pad all day and night without any significant leakage. No need for the diapers or heavy-duty pads. I guess those Kegel exercise work — I still do them, just to be sure. I can’t quite get rid of the pads yet in case I sneeze, or cough, fart, or laugh. The leakage is tiny then, but still there, so until I can sneeze without a squirt, the pad stays.
I’m still trying to sort out the signals my body sends when my bladder needs emptying. At night I sometimes awaken with an odd sense of discomfort but no direct neural twinges as I had pre-operation to tell me I need to get up and pee. I just have to assume my body is sending subtle messages that my sensors are too weak to pick up. Kind of like in Star Trek. I need to upgrade my internal deflector dish to be able to read those signals better.
My dog thinks I don’t love her as much because I can’t play the chase game we used to play so often; running around the house after her, room to room, sometimes hiding, while she carried a toy in her mouth. I don’t run these days; in part because I’m protective of my still-recovering abdomen, but also because the arthritis in my knee seems to flare up more often and more painfully. I’m boring to her. I’ve tried reading to her, but it’s not the same.
At least we can go for walks, wander through the park, along the trails. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of our morning walks under the trees.
It’s early morning and as I write this I’m sitting outside on the back deck with a cup of tea, my laptop, and the usual stack of books beside me. The town is quiet at this hour, with only rare sounds of traffic. The birds make more noise. The crows seemed to be having some sort of loud convention in the skeleton branches of a nearby tree, but they’ve gone now. The sun is hidden behind the trees that envelop our property, but I can see shafts through the small openings. It promises to be another beautiful day.
Last night we went to a local restaurant for the first time in nine or ten months, and had a nice dinner on the outdoor patio. It was a delight, and we have missed it. We ate and talked and laughed. It’s good to laugh and you can’t ever lose your sense of humour even when facing something this challenging.