Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Big John World

My fourth and last round of chemotherapy ended on Friday (the 17th), and the numbers are excellent: my tumor markers are at zero and have been for several weeks. As far as cancer goes, I’m lucky to have been stricken with one that has a pretty effective treatment. As a good friend messaged me, “Better living through chemistry.”
Well, almost.
Now I’m caught between two states—No Longer Sick and Not Yet Normal. Ten years ago when I went through this, I had a total of three rounds. This time I had four rounds, and let me tell you, there’s a universe of difference between Round Three and Round Four.
For one thing, I never felt a full bounce-back after Round Three before I had to go back in again. The side effects were fewer, but the ones—or, rather, the one—that was there was pretty intense. Nausea.
From nearly the get-go of Round Four, I was getting sick. As the week progressed, it intensified to the point where, for the three days following my last treatment, I couldn’t keep anything down. No solids, no liquids. I was down to bile, and that was running out fast. Every thirty minutes or so would find me heaving over a toilet and looking like I needed an exorcist.
All of which is to say that Round Four put me on the business end of a serious ass-kicking.
It’s not that I wasn’t getting anti-nausea meds; the problem was that I couldn’t keep them down.
I finally realized that I wasn’t going to pull out of this on my own; my body was becoming dehydrated, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Shannon drove me to the chemo center, where the nurses took one look at me standing there all pale and woozy, told me to sit down, and began pumping fluid into me.
They threw in some anti-nauseants while they were at it, and they changed up my prescription a bit. That was Tuesday, and I’m happy to report that I’ve most definitely turned a corner. The idea that I was somehow going to make it in to teach this week is laughable to me now.
In the wake of this somewhat rough landing, I decided to go to a support group. I went to one ten years ago and found it very peaceful and affirming. A few weeks ago, I picked up a flier for one being run out of my oncologist’s office on Wednesday nights, but I’d forgotten about it.
I’m glad I went. There’s a poem by Tom Wayman that I like to teach in creative writing called “Did I Miss Anything,” and it’s a teacher’s snarky response to that inevitable question that an absent student will unthinkingly ask upon his or her return. The final lines go like this:

“[Did I miss anything?]
Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered

but it was one place

And you weren’t here”

I remembered this ending during the support group meeting. I could have blown the meeting off, telling myself, Well, I’m through this now, time to get on with my life, and by the way, what’s on TV? But then I would have missed out on meeting Sam (again, no real names here), a guy who’s survived esophageal cancer, and Gladys (a lymphoma survivor and widow who was diagnosed just weeks before her husband died of stomach cancer) and Fred, an octogenarian who’s still waiting for a clear diagnosis of his condition.
And I would have missed out on the meeting the incredible Valdez family, whose patriarch, Rudy, is now facing colon cancer. He’s had his surgery, and now he’s steeling himself for a stretch of radiation and chemotherapy. He didn’t come to the meeting alone; instead, Rudy was flanked by no fewer than a dozen family members—sisters, brothers, nephews, sons, and even his ex-wife—all of them there to support him and ask questions of what to expect. It was an emotional hour and a half, but all of the family members looked visibly relieved—or at least less shell-shocked—than at the meeting’s start.
I don’t envy the journey they’re about to embark on together—for obvious reasons—but I also don’t envy the obvious love and support that Rudy will be surrounded by on this journey. I don’t envy any of that because a person can’t envy what he has.
I can’t even begin to catalog the acts of love, kindness, and support that I’ve been the grateful recipient of these last several weeks. So rather than try, I’m instead going to tell a story that, for me, can better capture what I’m trying to say.
The story comes from my cross-country bike trip back in 2010—a part of my past that seems like a long, long time ago. One leg of the trip took me through Metropolis, Illinois, a small town on the Ohio River. On its outskirts, I passed through a tree-lined section of Highway 45 with a huge factory to the right and a lot of activity going on in front—people, cars, canopy tents, lawn chairs, a big American flag or two, and a large gray shape on the left that looked like one of those gorillas that car dealers use to advertise “King Kong-sized Savings!”
But what I thought was some kind of party or picnic turned out to be something else. As I rolled closer, I saw people holding signs that read “LOCKED OUT,” “HONEYWELL,” “CORPORATE GREED,” and “USW Local 7-699.”
I immediately slowed down.
The members of United Steel Workers Local 7-699 were happy to have someone to talk to. They were all employed at the Honeywell plant—the gigantic, chain-link-enclosed compound behind them—which happened to be the only uranium-conversion facility in the U.S. I didn’t understand the physical or chemical principles involved, but I understood enough to know that it was hazardous work and that the people who do it should have some health protections, which is the very issue that stalled labor talks between the workers and Honeywell and led to the lock out.
  The shape that I thought was a gorilla was actually a giant inflatable rat. It had a sign around its neck that read “SHAW,” a company that was providing scab workers to Honeywell. While business more or less continued at the plant, these workers—and their spouses, sons, and daughters, who were also out there holding signs—had to make do on savings and whatever support the USW or local residents could provide. Mainly food, one of the workers told me.
  Lockouts and strikes are awful things—weapons of last resort that test each side’s will and resolve, and the longer they go the more reluctant the warring sides are to blink. As I looked at this group of people, I knew that they represented just a fraction of the total workers; if a union is going to pull off what might turn into a long-term protest, you need to work in shifts. I could see in their plain t-shirts and torn jeans and scuffed boots that they were going to be harder hit than the Honeywell executives. No one on the other side would go without meals or water or electricity during this struggle, but I could see a future of letters from banks and first- and second-notifications from utility companies in the mailboxes of these workers. I could see boxes packed with loaves of white bread, macaroni and cheese, and cans of soup being dropped off door-to-door or handed out at some parking lot. I could also see that they were in it together.
  One of the kids asked about my bike, and when I said that I rode from California, I was bombarded with questions while a couple of people took pictures of me with their phones.
  “Where to from here?” one man asked.
  One woman in the back looked at me with wide eyes. “You’re not taking 45 over the river are you?”
  I was pretty sure I was, and I told her so.
  A couple of them exchanged looks while she shook her head.
  “You need to flag down a truck and have them drive you across,” she told me. “It’s dangerous.”
  “Someone got hurt real bad out there just last month,” another guys added.
  I told them that I’ve been through some pretty rough terrain already, and even though a few nodded and laughed and one guy even said, “I’ll bet you have,” the woman in the back looked unconvinced.
  “You get a truck to stop for you, hon,” she said again before I pedaled away.

When I finally made it to the bridge, I knew why she was so worried. It looked long, narrow, and had no discernible lines painted on it. There was also a sign warning motorcyclists to keep off. There weren’t any trucks to flag down for a ride; by the time I hit the bridge it was late on a Sunday afternoon, and the few people who needed to cross the Ohio River were probably doing so by way of nearby Interstate 24.  Even though it was drizzling and had been ever since I left the Honeywell workers about an hour and a half earlier, I took a minute to appreciate what I was about to cross.
The structure known informally as the “Brookport Bridge” and more formally as the “Irwin Cobb Bridge” stretched out high above the Ohio River for over a mile before it hit Kentucky soil. Aesthetically, its ten-truss, no-frills, blue steel construction looked strong and solid, just like the people I met from this area. I took a deep breath, started across, and immediately understood the posted warning. If the sign-makers thought for a second that someone would be crazy enough to cross this bridge on a bicycle, they would have extended the warning to them as well. But what biker in his right mind would attempt to ride over a bridge whose floor is made of steel grates large enough to reach an arm through and touch the girders beneath? The sound my tires made on the surface was just awful, and at any moment I expected to get thrown from my bike as my tires shredded and my front wheel locked between the fierce metal squares.
  As much as I wanted to just cross and be done with it, and even though I could feel the drizzle gathering up into a bona fide rain, I stopped halfway across. It was soupy and humid out, and there was little activity on the water except for a couple of long barges that crept across the brown surface. The bridge was empty, so I dismounted my bike and leaned against the side. I could just make out the edge of Metropolis, jutting into my line of sight downriver.
  After I left the workers and biked into town, I was thinking more about what they were going through than the reason that brought me to Metropolis in the first place—Superman.
  The town made sure that I wouldn’t forget for long. About a half mile past the Honeywell plant, I was greeted by a big fence that read “Welcome to Metropolis” below a picture of the Man of Steel in flight. As I rode further, several signs directed me to the Super Museum, and I wheeled my bike inside.
  The museum was at the back of the building; to get to it, I had to first pass through the gift shop. I promised myself that I’d sift through all of the shirts, books, stickers, magnets, cups, postcards, pencils, and anything else they could slap a giant “S” on after I’d checked out the museum.
  I paid my five bucks and went in.
  It was a funhouse of relics and kitsch. Costumes from the movies, action figures, dolls, board games, puzzles, card sets, buttons, and even lamps. There were plastic 7-11 cups from the 1970s adorned with superheroes. My brother and I used to beg my mom for Slurpees during hot Chicago summers when we were kids, and we fought bitterly over the best cups. I would always lose. While he’d get Mr. Mxyzptlk, Braniac, and Clark Kent tearing off his Daily Planet garb to reveal the Superman costume beneath, I’d be stuck with Ma and Pa Kent and Jimmy Olsen.
  There was also a framed photo from the first Christopher Reeve movie, where he saves a train that’s heading for a gap in a bridge. One of the rails is bent down and the other is gone completely. In the photo, the Man of Steel holds one of the rails with his arm and lets his back serve as the other so that the train will pass safely.
  Outside the museum was the town square, and smack in the middle of that was a big statue of Supes. I had a stranger take some pictures of me standing beneath him, striking a similar pose.
  And what is that pose?
  He stands alone, hands on hips, barely the hint of a smile on his face. A generous onlooker might describe him as searching the distance for some wrong to right, but what I saw was someone posing impatiently for a photograph. His expression isn’t the least bit friendly; it’s more like resignation. Or disdain. Something along the lines of, Here I stand above and there you are below. He might have even been counting the minutes until he could soar back to his Fortress of Solitude to sit quietly and stare at Kandor, the shrunken capital city of Krypton that now resides in a bottle, the last remnant of the home he’s lost.
  I wondered what the United Steel Workers of Honeywell—those very real men and women of steel—think of this statue or of the image of Superman’s body, stretched in mythic flight on the “Welcome to Metropolis” sign. Superman isn’t going to make the Honeywell executives do the right thing. He’s not big enough to combat greed.
  Hell, he’s not even the biggest guy in Metropolis; that honor goes to Big John, who stands at least ten feet taller at the other end of town, towering over the parking lot of Big John Foods. John lacks Superman’s classic good looks; yes, the square jaw is there, but his eyebrows are way too thick and his nose bulges across its bridge as if it’s been broken a few times. When I saw him as I left town, I took one look at his mug and those thick arms filled with grocery bags, and I thought he was probably a punchy ex-boxer working the only job he could get—bag boy at the local food store.
  But John’s a member of the community; he’s integrated into the ordinary and necessary ritual of shopping for food. Superman, on the other hand, is exotic, a destination for tourists and curiosity seekers like me. While Superman parks his hands all mythic-like on his hips, John’s using his to deliver food somewhere—to his family, to a customer, to a neighbor in need. Really, if you’re a locked-out worker who’s wondering where the next meal is coming, who would you rather see at your door—Superman with his x-ray vision or Big John with ground beef, bread, apples, and milk?
  The rain started to pick up, but I didn’t move. Because of the bridge, I could head into Kentucky whenever I was ready. But before there were bridges, crossing rivers was a dicey operation. Native Americans and then pioneer explorers would have had to cross the Ohio by canoe. As I looked at the current below, I knew that I wouldn’t want to have been them. Later there were ferryboats, and before the steam engine, those ferries were towed by rowboats. It was a group effort, and even with several hands helping out, people died. Building this bridge was a group effort, too, from the people who designed it to the miners who dug the ore to the millworkers who forged the parts to the workers who riveted and welded it into existence. Anonymous faces working together so that I could cross this river in a few minutes.
  When I was younger, I saw myself as indestructible; when I was building a family and profession, I saw myself powering through any and all challenges; when I had cancer the first time, I felt vulnerable and lost; and when I left on my bike trip, I felt the need to feel strong, to be found.
  We like to romanticize our journeys as solo adventures—I know that I sure did—but the fact is, they’re not. Not even close. Biking across the country reminded me of the connections that give my life texture: the memories that filled my head as I pedaled, the people I met along the way, the ache I felt when I called home, the blog updates that I sent out like a beacon to others, the rush I felt whenever someone left a comment on what I’ve written.
  Cancer—both times—has been more of the same. The phone calls and cards. The visits during chemo, friends sitting with me quietly, holding my hand, making me laugh. The surprise dinners. The never-ending offers to do something—anything—to lighten my burden. When I was still planning to teach this week, my friend called and told me that she was ready to take my classes for me. It wasn’t really a request; there was something in her voice that said, I’m doing this for you, and it broke me. Yes, she was going to do this for me and I would let her.
  Back on that bridge, I hopped on my bike and continued across the river. I was wet, my legs ached, and as soon as I heard that awful sound of bike tire on steel grate, I wondered if I was going to make it to the other side. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to fly? I thought. After all, what’s a river to Superman? If he didn’t feel like flying, he could still leap over the wide expanse without breaking a sweat. Or maybe alter the river’s course with otherworldly strength.
But nobody is more powerful than a locomotive or faster than a speeding bullet. We owe a huge, un-repayable debt to all of those anonymous others who build our bridges and drive our ferries and develop the drugs and treatments that can extend a life. We also need those others who aren’t so anonymous: the people in our lives who remind us where we’ve been, help us imagine the future, and stay with us for a little while along the way. We might think we’re Superman soaring across the sky in magnificent solitude, but it’s a Big John world out here, and none of us is going to make it very far on our own.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. Support groups are like church that works, aren't they? I'm glad to hear your treatment news.