Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Year in the Life

I just wrapped up the fall semester, and it occurred to me that it was very different from my previous two semesters of teaching.

Mainly because I felt like me.

One year and two months ago, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I had surgery in October of 2013 and then began twelve weeks of chemotherapy that stretched from November, 2013, through January, 2014. In March of 2014 I had another surgery--this one pretty major--and a complication developed that didn't resolve itself until late May.

The chemo and that second surgery really kicked my ass. I lost my hair and bloated up through chemo, and then I started to waste away gradually and then rapidly after my surgery and as I dealt with my compromised lymph system. At one point, I weighed a little over 150 pounds, which I haven't weighed since I was about fifteen. I told my classes last fall and last spring that they only had about 80% of me on those days that I was able to make it in. Eighty percent at best, which wasn't very often.

The worst part of those eight months was not feeling like myself. My body--and mind, at times--had been hijacked and replaced with a lesser, confused, infirm version. Rocco negative 2.0.

During that whole time, I took a selfie a day. Sometimes more than one (like when I shaved my rapidly balding head). When I was nauseated and tired, it was hard to do; I didn't really want to look at myself any more than I had to.

I stopped taking the pictures a while ago, roughly around the time that I started to feel as close to normal as I'm going to get. So now I finally got around to putting all of those pictures together into a short video chronicle of a very tough year.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Judging Books by Their Covers

So it’s been a rough two-and-a-half months (that's about the time since my last post). The post-surgery complication I’d been dealing with—chylous ascites, or fluid collection in the abdomen—didn’t resolve as quickly as either my doctors or I had hoped. During this time, I’ve been on a strict no-fat diet and been pretty uncomfortable (massive fluid collection will do that). To be honest, right now I don’t feel like reliving this time, except to say these few things:

I’ll never again take for granted putting on my own shoes and socks, going to the bathroom (normally), and taking a nice deep breath.

A no-fat diet is brutal.

A no-fat diet for two and a half months is very brutal.

A no-fat diet for two and a half months when you’re having bi-weekly drainings (“paracentesis,” for all you medical procedure junkies) to the tune of six and seven and even nine liters of liquid is very, very brutal.

For most of the past several weeks, I’ve felt like this (minus the purple):

Incidentally, a recurring scene for me since last October has been a doctor outlining some new thing to be done to my body and then finishing with the sentence, “It’s a fairly simple procedure” (the one exception to this was my RPLND surgery, which my surgeon told me was “high risk”). Anyway, my response to “It’s a fairly simple procedure” is “Every procedure is simple when it’s not happening to you.”

I’m over all of this now—I’m no longer eating egg whites and beans as my main source of protein, I’m no longer leaking like the Cubs infield, and I’m no longer waddling around like the Penguin. Instead, I’m focused on trying to gain back the thirty or so pounds that I’ve lost, so there may be a fetishistically-rendered food post in the near future.

I’ll write about these post-surgery weeks at some point, but right now I’d rather start a new story.

Which brings me to books. Or rather, to book covers.

The other day I was in Target when I wandered by a book rack and saw that Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl—a novel I’d been eager to read—had finally come out in paperback. What’s more, the cover was a reproduction of the original hardcover’s—stark, black with red lettering, with a few stray wisps of hair invading the image from the left. Overall, a sleek and intriguing cover.

I bought it immediately, but not just because I’d been waiting for the paperback. The bigger reason was that I didn’t want to get stuck later with a “movie” cover that will no doubt feature Ben Affleck’s impossibly square jaw.

Which brings us to what is perhaps my top pet peeve.

There are many bad people in the world, and for the most part, we have punishments in place to deal with their bad deeds. But there is one group of evildoers that have for far too long gone unpunished.

The people responsible for movie tie-in covers.

I find few things more depressing than seeing some movie star’s picture plastered on the front of a book cover. This one here, for instance, makes me throw up a little bit in my mouth every time I see it:

Despite what Ruth Graham wrote earlier this week aboutadults reading young adult novels, I really want to read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. But I will say this: if the only copy I can get my hands on has Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort looking at each other all googly-eyed on the front cover, then I think I’ll pass.


Does this sound unreasonable? I don’t care.

“But how,” one might ask, “can the cover possibly change the words inside? Isn’t it the same book?”

No, it’s not. Books with movie covers are different because those covers change our experience of reading them. First, those covers remind us that the story inside is a commodity, and once you finish it, you’re ready to consume it in yet another venue—your local movie theater. And second, those covers affect how we envision the actors. Instead of creating their own images of Jay Gatsby, new readers of Fitzgerald’s classic will picture Leonardo DiCaprio.

Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t have anything against film adaptations. I disagree with the oft-voiced maxim, “The book is always better.” It isn’t. The Godfather, Jaws, Goodfellas. All better. I don’t even subscribe to the belief that good books make lousy movies; The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Sweet Hereafter, To Kill a Mockingbird are all excellent movies adapted from excellent books. But I don’t want to be reminded, when I’m reading, that there’s another version out there waiting for me and my money. And I don’t want to be told whom to picture as the characters.

Books deserve care, especially with their covers. That’s our first engagement with the author’s story. Consider this one, for Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River (the book I’m currently reading):

The novel is a coming-of-age story of Margo Crane, a poor teenage girl who embarks on a journey up and down Michigan rivers after her mother abandons her and her father is killed. The prose is gorgeous and the perspective is third person, but the brilliance of the cover is how it subtly positions the reader in Margo’s boat. We see the river and horizon over the prow of her boat, through her eyes. If they ever make a movie out of this book, you can bet that the cover will let the reader do no more than stare into the face of some young actress.

Good covers don’t need to be elaborate, just evocative of what’s inside. Even the cover for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is deeply connected to writer’s words. What better way to communicate the bleakness of what’s waiting for the reader than this:

Which is infinitely better than this:

I mean, I like Viggo Mortensen just fine, but come on.

Oh sure, some wiseass might remark. So I suppose that if you sold your bike book and they made a movie out of it and wanted to print up ten thousand copies with a picture of whatever actor they trick into playing you, you’d shout “No way!” Is that right?

Well, I’ll tell you, Some Wiseass. I’m a man of principle. I’m not someone who simply folds on his beliefs when a little cash is waved in his f—wait, did you say ten thousand copies?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

My Hospital Adventures, Part 2

If you haven’t read Part 1, you’ll want to begin HERE.

I came home from the hospital on the afternoon of Friday the 21st, feeling mighty proud of myself to be up and about only four days removed from major surgery. Of course it was difficult to move around easily—I wasn’t yet able to put on my socks and shoes—but my surgeon, Dr. K, and his team of residents warned me that it would take some time.

Meanwhile, I was still waiting for my plumbing to get fully functional. Part of the problem was the pain I felt whenever I tried to go; even deadened somewhat by the Percoset they gave me, it still hurt. The other part of the problem was that everything felt really, really tight. My stomach was swollen, but I’d been told it was due to the surgery. A lot of skin and muscle had been cut and retracted, and it would take time for the swelling to go down.

As the weekend progressed, though, I wasn’t so sure. It became harder to move around. Getting up off the couch was a major physical feat, and I would get some sharp pains in my torso. They had told me to keep walking, so I’d pace around but have to pause and concentrate to get a nice full breath. At first I attributed it to some kind of gas buildup, but then, as I lay in bed Friday night, my imagination took over. I envisioned my bladder expanding into my other organs, restricting their functioning; I pictured my bowels knotted up beyond function or repair. I could feel myself break into a cold sweat of panic.

When a small breakfast of tea and grapefruit came back up, I phoned the on-call urologist, and she told me to sip water throughout the day and keep walking.

Later that day, I noticed that my legs were swelling right above my sock line. A quick trip to the internet gave me the word edema, or water retention. It was a common effect of surgery.

It was a relief, but relief was temporary because I was really, really uncomfortable. I started to worry that I was retaining too much water when I saw that I was bloating out in different parts of my body (more on this later) and when I stepped on the scale to see it read 197 pounds—about fifteen above my normal weight.

Sunday was more of the same, so on Monday I spoke with Dr. C, the Chief Urology Resident who was a member of my surgical team and had been seeing me regularly the week before. I described my symptoms to him.

“Well, I don’t hear anything really alarming, but why don’t you come in today and we’ll have a look.”

Later, down at the office, a nurse practitioner named Teresa inspected my belly.

“This looks like edema, but I’ll have the doctor come take a look.”

“There’s something else,” I said and then delivered those four words that every nurse longs to hear: “My penis looks weird.”

She was unflappable and didn’t miss a beat. “What does it look like?”

I showed her, and she assured me that it, too, was just water retention that would eventually go away. She left to go find my doctor.

A few minutes later Dr. K walked in.

“Well first of all, there’s some good news,” he said. “Everything we took out was mature teratoma. Totally benign.”

Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that the pathology had probably been completed, but I had not allowed myself to think about it. Now here it was, and all the dread that had built up in my mind about it evaporated in a flash. It’s tough to capture the joy of that moment. Shannon and I looked at each other, and on cue our eyes welled up. I could feel my throat go tight, and it wasn’t until then that I realized I had fully expected the news to be completely different; I was convinced that they would see something they didn’t like in the biopsy and that somehow—and I wasn’t at all sure how—I would have to make it through three more rounds of chemo.

But no. No more chemo, no more cancer. Everything benign.

And suddenly everything between that very second and that afternoon back in October when my oncologist walked into the exam room and said, “Your numbers are up” just melted away, and I could feel, for the first time in a long time, my life start to come back to me.

Even now, as I write this, the relief of that moment is so powerful, so palpable, that I can feel the tears rising steady as a chant. Cancer free, cancer free, cancer free.

“Now let’s have a look at that belly,” Dr. K said. He poked around a red patch that I hadn’t noticed before.

“There might be a little infection below the skin. I think I’ll pull a couple of the staples so it can drain, and I’ll send you home with wound care instructions.” He looked up at me and smiled. “After the big news, you can handle that, right?”


“Why don’t you hop up on the table.”

I had been dreading the “staple removal” stage. It didn’t look like they were coming out without some kind of fight, and I worried about just how much of a fight they would put up. When I was in the hospital, I asked one of the residents what it was like, and he said, “No big deal, not a problem.” When I then asked him if he’d ever had staples taken out of him, he looked at me sheepishly and said, “Well, no…”

I lay down on the table, and Dr. K stood over me with the removal tool that looked angular and sharp, like an angry metal bird who liked to bite.

Having staples removed is not pleasant. It’s certainly not the worst thing I encountered—not even close—but it’s not “no big deal.” Each tug was accompanied by a sharp little pinch, and for the several staples that got stuck on their way out, there was a little bit more.

After Dr. K removed a few down where the incision swerved around my belly button, he took a cotton-tipped swab to probe the opening a little.

And then suddenly I was gushing fluid. Like cutting a hole in a waterbed gushing.

It burbled up out of the wound and spread down my pelvis and sides. Dr. K and Teresa started ripping open gauze packages to staunch the flow. At first he thought it was a pocket of infection draining, but it kept coming. I made the mistake of looking down, and I could see that the bottom part of my incision was gaping wide.

“This is a big wound,” Dr. K said evenly. “I’m going to want to readmit you.”

“Readmit me to the hospital?”


Sonofabitch was what flashed through my mind. I was this close to going home…

Then he started talking about a possible torn fascia, which could be serious. He told me that if the fascia below was torn, they’d have to reoperate to close it up. He asked me when I’d last eaten, and I told him that I had a sandwich a few hours earlier.

“I need to look around in there, and to do that I need to get rougher with you than I can here,” he said. “I’d like to get you in an OR tomorrow morning.”

The liquid kept coming, and I have to say that I finally felt some relief from the pressure that had been building this weekend. Still, though, it was a pretty messy. The gauze pads were useless; Teresa had gotten towels which I held over my midsection, and both were getting soaked with this pinkish-yellowish fluid. I just lay there as he told me that he’d get me admitted and be right back.

So there I was, about to be readmitted, looking at (at least) one more trip to the operating room. Once again I was dumbfounded at how quickly things turn. A few minutes earlier I had been told I was free of cancer and was halfway out the door and back to my life. Now, who knew what was coming?

The curtain of the room parted and Dr. C came in. He’d spoken to Dr. K and wanted to have a look of his own.

It became quickly apparent that whereas Dr. K was reluctant to “get rough” with me, Dr. C had no such compunction. He snapped on a glove and started to probe my wound. And by “probe” I mean he really dug around in there. I groaned and clutched at the exam table.

“What’s wrong?” he asked mildly.

Uh, your goddamn FINGERS are in my BODY.

“Hurts,” I managed to squeeze out.

“I’m not feeling a fascia tear,” he seemed to say more to himself than to me. Then he went right back to digging around inside me.

He stopped and told me that he’d like to get something called a wound vac on me when we got to my room. He explained what it was and what it would do, but I was too distracted by the knifing sensation, which was slow to ebb.

“No surgery?” I croaked.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

I was still panting when he returned.

“Okay, here’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’m going to pack your wound with a field dressing and then we’re going to walk briskly over to the hospital. When we get to your room, we’ll get some pain meds in you so that I can do a more thorough exam.”

“You mean like walk walk? Like literally walk?” That “more thorough exam” part also stuck in my head, but I had to take things one at a time here.

He looked at me. “Do you have a better idea?”

I had several, and not one of them involved me getting up on my feet. I had made that walk before when I had some pre-op tests done. It was about five minutes through a parking lot. I looked down at my body. I needed a new towel.

Dr. C packed the wound and started layering big gauze pads on top of me until my wound bulged to about the size of a softball. Then he slapped a giant abdominal pad over it and taped the whole thing down tight. He reached into a cabinet and tossed me a clean towel.

“You ready?”

My sweats were soaked almost to the knees, as was the back of my shirt. I had a gaping, wound in my midsection that was gushing some kind of fluid. And now I was supposed to get on my feet and walk “briskly” for about three hundred yards.

But then I looked at Dr. C, who had not a shred of doubt that I was going to make that walk. Emboldened by his confidence in me, I hiked up my soaking sweats, held the towel close over my dressing, and stood up.

He was a fast walker, and I did my best to keep up. It was a little difficult, because we were barely out of the building when I could feel that the dressing had given way and fluid was dripping down my leg. Halfway across the parking lot I looked behind me and could see a little trail. We hit the hospital lobby and made a beeline for Admissions.

“Have a seat over there,” he said, and turned to one of the admitting nurses.

I sat down for a few minutes and considered my soaked lap. I could feel the fluid rolling down my body, down my legs. When Dr. C called to me, I stood up and cringed at the giant wet spot on the seat. A puddle immediately began to collect on the floor between my legs. I looked over at the one other person in the waiting room—a man who stared at me, wide-eyed.

We hustled up to my room, where a nurse was waiting. He inserted an IV and started some pain meds while Dr. C was fiddling with some equipment.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s have another look at that wound.”

Let me confess here and now that I would not hold up under torture. I always suspected as much, but I didn’t know for sure until I was on the bed in my room and Dr. C had his fingers in my body again. The meds had kicked in—I knew that much because my head was swimming—but it didn’t do much against Dr. C’s insistent fingers.

“Everything feels pretty good,” he said, which I mistakenly interpreted as meaning that he was finished. He wasn’t. He went back in twice more.

Finally, he was done. He packed the open wound with some foam and attached the wound vac, which was a little nozzle taped down tight over my belly and attached by a long thin hose to a portable unit. Once he got it fastened and turned on, pinkish liquid started to fill the reservoir tank on the unit.

It filled fast. Five hundred milliliters in about twenty minutes. When they changed the tank, they had to clamp off the suction, and a few seconds after they did, I could feel liquid seeping out from the tape around my wound and rolling down my body.

I filled a lot of tanks that night. The first couple took 20-30 minutes, and then they held steady at about an hour each. At some point, they brought in a big red box that said HAZARDOUS WASTE, where they deposited the full tanks. I wondered about that “hazardous” part; I had, after all, left a trail of this stuff across the parking lot and downstairs lobby, not to mention the puddle in Admissions.

Once they analyzed the fluid, there was a diagnosis. I had something called chylous ascites (KYE luss uh SITE eez), which was a possible complication of this surgery. What happens is that the channels that convey the lymphatic fluid get compromised during the surgery and don’t seal up, leaving the fluid to continue to flow and collect in the body. It resolves on its own, but timetables vary—days to months. It’s also exceedingly rare, occurring in only about 2% of patients who have the surgery. I knew it was rare because every doctor who visited me in the days that followed—Dr. K, Dr. C, a resident named Josiah and a medical student named Dustin—went out of his way to tell me just how rare it was.

I wasn’t sure what I should take away from that stat. Why should I care that it happens to only 2%? All that mattered right now was that it was happening to me.

Meanwhile, I continued to leak like a tanker run aground.

It was weird watching those tanks fill up. Those times when our bodies betray us have to be the most disorienting sensations there are. Our very identities come under siege, and from within no less—a civil war between our mental and physical selves. We all face it at one point or another and to varying degrees. Maybe we sweat uncontrollably in an interview or have a sudden gas attack in a crowded elevator. Or maybe it’s more serious—some cells decide to start growing and not stop. For sure, I’d been at war with my body since last October, but this last bit here was too much. I lay in bed that night and the next day and watched that fluid collect and collect with no end in sight, and there was nothing I could do except put my head back, close my eyes, and hiss, through clenched teeth, “STOP LEAKING.”

Not very effective.

They put me on a thrice-daily shot of Octreotide, a hormone that would reduce the production of the lymphatic fluid. They also put me on a no-fat diet to help accomplish the same. That’s “no-fat” as in zero fat, which is a lot different from “low-fat.” My meals consisted mainly of juice, tea, skim milk, and a plate of something like this:

They also started to give me a tiny sip of something called MCT oil every three hours, which extended through the night. So, every three hours I’d be awakened to drink a tiny amount of oil.

Eventually, my leak slowed. The tanks started to take about three hours to fill, and then on Tuesday night, they put a new one in that didn’t fill until twelve hours later.

On Wednesday they removed the vac and packed the wound. I kept walking but had to bring a towel along, because the dressing would only hold up for about an hour before it needed to be changed again.

My nurse that day, Juna, found wound bandages that were little plastic bags with a spigot on the end. She figured this would work better than gauze because when the bag filled up, I could just empty it.

We had to empty it twice that afternoon.

Around dinner time, Josiah came in with the new plan. I would have a CT in the morning and they would insert a drain in my side. I wasn’t crazy about the first part and even less enthused about the second. At this point, however, I kept telling myself, cancer-free.

The way I figured it, this was way more annoying than dangerous. In my mind, Cancer was pissed that I won and was giving me one last kick on my way out the door. If I handled everything that had come before, I could handle this, too.

The next morning when I woke up, the bag was almost completely dry.

Josiah was surprised but wanted to see how I did after eating and moving around. In the meantime, he canceled the CT.

After breakfast and countless laps through the hospital, the bag remained dry.

On Friday morning they decided to discharge me. Josiah came in to go over some instructions. Something had occurred to me, and I wanted to ask him about it.

“So I have a question for you,” I said.

“What’s up?”

“Now I know this surgery is pretty rare, and this condition is even more rare, right?”


“So, are you guys a little excited about it?”

I’d expected to encounter an immediate denial and effusive reassurances that my care was foremost in their minds, but he surprised me.

“Oh, yeah. That fluid was really something. I mean, to actually see it. Most of us will just read about it in a textbook.”

Well, glad to have helped out with their education.

Then he got down to the discharge instructions.

“For the next two weeks, we want you to maintain a no-fat diet.”

“No problem.”

“Also, we want you to continue to take the oil every three hours.”

“All right.”

“And you’ll need to give yourself a shot of Octreotide three times a day. Your nurse will show you how to do that.”

“Um, what?”

My friends Barb and Deb were visiting that morning, and I immediately confessed my anxiety about giving myself a shot. They tried to come up with possible solutions—driving to my doctor and having a nurse there do it, talking with someone in the Nursing Department at our college—but the more I thought about it, the more I decided that I  didn’t want to puss out before I even gave it a try.

My nurse that day, Sil, came in with some needles and saline solution. Once she laid out the materials and I saw them right in front of me, I felt myself starting to freeze up. But then I felt something else—something gathering inside me. It wasn’t anger, exactly; it was more like a fed-upness with things. I’d been poked, prodded, poisoned, scanned, injected, cut open, and stapled up over these last several months, and I’d be damned if I was going to let this last wrinkle get me.

I tugged my sweatshirt up and over my head. “Okay, let’s DO this,” I said.

I’ll spare the details of the self-injection, though I will say that sticking a needle into my abdomen ranks very high on my list of things that I hope to never have to do again.

So now I’m back home, eating my zero-fat diet, drinking my oil, changing the dressing on my wound, and giving myself a shot three times a day. I’ve got an appointment next week that I hope will put an end to three of these (I’ll still need to change the dressing), but if they have to go on a little longer, I can do it. And if something else comes up and I need some other procedure, I can do that, too. All of these scars have got to count for something.

Monday, March 31, 2014

My Hospital Adventures, Part I

A lot has happened since I last checked in. At the time of my last post, on March 8th, my surgery was still nine days away and the real dread hadn’t yet set in. But when it came, it came gradually and then rapidly, kind of like this:

The hours just before surgery were the worst.

The procedure, even in its abbreviated form—RPLND—sounds awful. All those letters. The full name is worse, of course. Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection. “High risk,” according to my surgeon and everything I had been reading on the internet. Six hours on the table, an incision running from my sternum to below my belly button, scalpels (and whatever else they use) slicing around organs, nerves, and two major blood pipelines—the aorta and vena cava.

I checked in at 5:30 on the morning of the seventeenth. Outside the hospital it was dark and quiet; inside the hospital, the only activity was from the few of us scheduled for surgery. Me and Shannon, an older couple, and two women. It was easy to identify which person in each group was headed for the table; told to wear “comfortable clothes,” we all opted for sweats and slippers. After we handed over our insurance cards and got tagged with wristbands, we shuffled over to the elevator and headed up to pre-op.

Prepping for surgery entails getting naked, being hooked up to machines, and waiting.

When you’re waiting to do something unpleasant, time does funny things. It’s both longer and shorter than usual. At one point I lay there for what seemed like an hour to see that only ten minutes had passed; another time, the clock had jumped from 6:30 to 7 seemingly in the blink of an eye. During all of this, I was visited by various people—all kinds of nurses, members of my surgical team, anesthesiologists.

At a certain point, you just have to give in and see yourself as a piece of meat to be poked, prodded, moved around, cut open, and put back together.

Close to 7:20, they wheeled me into the OR, put an epidural into my back, and not long after that I was asleep.

I blinked myself back into awareness in the recovery room. People were calling my name. I made no attempt to move, and nobody asked me to. I couldn’t have even if I wanted because of a few new tethers—two more IV lines (though they weren’t attached to anything), cables on my chest, an oxygen line under my nose, leg massagers, and a catheter.

They didn’t have a room ready for me, so I lay in recovery for a few hours, over which time I became vaguely aware of a dull ache down my middle. I had two triggers for pain—one upped the epidural and the other Dialaudid, a painkiller. While I was there, they continued to wheel people in from the operating room. The only one who made an impression on me must have had some serious sedation based on her anesthesiologist’s half of their conversation, the only half I could hear:



“MICHELLE! Can you raise your right hand?

“MICHELLE! Raise your right hand!


The first day was all about immobility, and only partly because of my huge incision. The drugs from the epidural had not quite distributed themselves evenly, so my right side was way more numb than my left. I couldn’t, in fact, really move my right leg at all.

I was in the first bed of a semi-private room. My roommate was a gravelly voice on the other side of the curtain. I asked him how long he’d been there, and he just said, “Long time.” Other than that, I only heard him say “No” (in response to the nurse asking if he wanted to get out of bed), “Pain meds” (in response to the nurse on the other end of his call button), and “Nausea meds” (in response to the same).

When lunch came that first day, the voice croaked out, apropos of nothing, “You should get the baked fish. I get it every day.”

“They’re not giving me anything yet,” I said. “Not even ice chips.”

“The baked fish is good. I get it every day.”

“They said I might get some liquids tomorrow.”

“Y’oughta try that baked fish.”

Okay, I thought. Please stop saying “baked fish.”

Shannon brought the boys to visit on Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to at least be on my feet for that, but nothing doing. Instead, a nurse’s aid helped me into a wheelchair and rolled me out to a lounge area, where I had the energy to visit for about a half hour.

On the ride home, Shannon told me later, Tony said that he didn’t like how everyone could see my butt. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my catheterized wingwang had also been on pretty prominent display.

The next day they removed the main dressing and I got the first good look at my scar.

The days unfolded in long stretches of nothing punctuated by short bursts of intense activity—a nurse appearing to check my vitals and give me a shot, a resident stopping by to look at my incision, my phone ringing. This would go on through night, too. I’d be lucky enough to slip into some pocket of deep sleep, only to wake up as a nurse velcroed a blood pressure cuff on my arm.

And everyone asked the same question—Have you passed any gas?

I slowly shed my tethers—first the EKG cables, then the oxygen, and then the epidural. I wanted to start walking, and my main inspiration was my roommate.

I never really found out what was wrong with him, but he never had any visitors, and I overheard his nurses talk about moving him to a care facility. I thought he was pretty old, but one night, there was an Emergency marathon on the retro channel that he never seemed to shut off, and he said that he watched that show as a kid.

Holy shit, I thought. I watched that show as a kid. He couldn’t have been more than fifty.

He was in a bad way, but it was also clear to me that he was playing a kind of game with his nurses. During a shift change, I heard his nurse tell her replacement that he could move all of his limbs but refused to get out of bed. And at least twice a day, when his nurse suggested that he get out of bed and sit in a chair, he’d respond, “Nice try.” Once, he even warned the nurse, “I’m going to spoil your day today.”

Near the end of the week I was free of everything but my IV (the catheter came out Wednesday, and it was not a pleasant experience). I worked hard to get out of bed and into a chair by myself. To do that, and to then get myself out of the chair, I had to focus on using just my arms and legs. This is harder than it sounds; we use our abs for nearly everything. But whenever I’d use mine, a lightning bolt of pain would rip down the front of my body.

Once I could get up and out, I would amble, turtle-like, around the halls outside—first one lap at a time, then three, then as many as I wanted. There was a magnetic board with little cars on it in the hallway where patients could keep track of their laps (twenty-six equaled a mile, apparently), so I commandeered a green pickup truck and started keeping count. 

Every time I walked past that board and the sign next to it—“Bed is the patient’s #1 enemy”—I thought of my roommate, and how the nurses were now working on a new problem with him. He’d been constipated for four days.

“Ya better bring the dynamite!” he told them at least five times, inexplicably cheerful.

I’d hear this and think, Oh, hey, here’s an idea, Mr. Beddy-Bye: get up off your ass and stop packing your gullet with baked fish.

I couldn’t hang around that room. I walked lap after lap in the hall, and then I’d venture outside the ward and into the hospital proper. I kept track of the NCAA tournament games on my phone, and when a close one was winding down, I’d slip quietly into my room to catch the end.

Discharge came a day early—Friday instead of Saturday. The charge nurse removed my IV, went over instructions with me, and asked if I wanted to be taken downstairs in a wheelchair.

I didn’t. I worked hard to get walking again, and I wasn’t about to be wheeled out. Before I left, I wished my roommate luck. I felt bad for him. Life in a bed is no life at all. I had no idea what led him there or what was keeping him there, and I didn’t want to know. I hope I never know.

Leaving that hospital, I was happy to be heading home, and I felt a lot better than I had on Tuesday.

What I didn’t know at the time was that things were going to change over the weekend, and that in a few short days I’d be readmitted.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

False Peaks

When I biked across the country, my single worst day came pretty late in the trip. I was crossing from Tennessee into North Carolina on Highway 165, which is known around those parts as the Cherohala Skyway. My new friend Lawson—whom I’d met about a week earlier in Clarksville, Tennessee—told me that it was beautiful country.

And it was. Or I guess it was. It was kind of hard to pay attention because soon after I started out on it, I was climbing.

Obviously, at that point of my journey, I had done my share of climbing with a loaded touring bike. I’d already made it through the Lagunas in southern California, the Rockies in Colorado, and the Ozarks in southern Missouri. But the Appalacians—the mountain range I was crossing here—presented a different problem. Even though they’re not nearly as high as the Rockies, the roads are cut into them much differently—steeper and more winding.

I also had no real idea where I was. My phone read NO SERVICE almost as soon as I started up, and on my map, the road was little more than a squiggle through a big green field. No markers, nothing.

And then there were the motorcycles. Hoards of them passed me in both directions all day long, their motors chopping the air in rising fits until they’d appear either in front or behind me. I came to hate that noise, those thick tires, all that shiny chrome. I came to hate their riders, too, with those ZZ Top beards, leather vests, and thick, hairy forearms.

Okay, I didn’t hate them all. The ones who threw me a peace sign or a thumbs-up or a few quick taps on the horn as they passed, they were all right. But the others had to go. And so did their engines, which did all the work for them.

But the worst part about that day were all of the false peaks. I climbed for six hours, twisting and turning up and up, telling myself as I rounded a bend—panting, sweating, ready to fall over—that this had to be the last one, this had to be the top, the road had to level off here and start to drop.

But no. Each time I would curl around a wall of rock and trees only to find that I was still going up.

This day came back to me two weeks ago, when I met with a surgeon to go over my latest scans. After my fourth and final round of chemo, my doctor scheduled a PET/CT scan. The PET part of things checks for cancerous activity, while the CT would provide a picture of the tumor sites to see how they compared with the scan I had back in October, at the start of it all.

The PET was clear. No real surprise there; my blood had been free of tumor markers since the second round of chemo. The CT, however, was a different story. Not much change from before. The specialists involved—my oncologist, my urologist, and my surgeon—were in accord on two points. First, that the tumors were more than likely benign, and second, that they had to come out. Surgery. A big one, as it turns out.

The procedure is called a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, or RPLND for short, and I’d been putting it far out of my mind since my initial forays onto the internet back in October. It’s an invasive, complicated, and, yes, risky procedure given the proximity of the tumors to a few important innards, like my aorta.

As my surgeon ran through the finer points—six hours on the table, maybe close to a week in the hospital, a couple of other details that didn’t make it through the blood pounding in my ears—I kept thinking about that road that climbed forever. I felt like I was on it again. Just when I think I’ve crested, just when I think I can start to cruise a little bit, I turn the corner to find another false peak, that there’s still some climbing to do.

It started to feel like too much for me.

And then I remembered how that day on the Cherohala Skyway finished up.

Things came to a head late in the day. I was on hour six of the climb when I saw a little grassy area with a picnic table off to the left. That was it for me. I’d had enough and pulled over to camp for the night.

I leaned my bike against the picnic table and changed out of my soaking jersey. Feeling a  little better, I unhitched the bag containing my tent and sleeping pad from the rear rack and let it drop to the concrete pad with what I thought would be a definitive thump, but it caught the edge of the table and rolled onto the soft grass with hardly a sound. The only place to pitch my tent was on a narrow gash of lawn that almost immediately became forest. A quick rummaging through my handlebar bag revealed the contents of my larder: a few almonds, dried blueberries, and a pouch of tuna.

It was overcast and cool as the day headed into dusk. A blanket of trees defined the contours of the rolling mountains, and pockets of mist were starting to form in some of the indentations. These were the same woods that lay just beyond the picnic table; I could walk into them and within ten feet the road, these tables, and my bike would all disappear. In a few hours the forest would come alive, its inhabitants looking for food.

I remembered reading that bears could smell food up to eleven miles away.

The road had been empty for a while. Did the police patrol it at all? Maybe a state trooper would rouse me from my tent in the middle of the night. Better that, I figured, than a bear looking for my nuts and berries and tuna.

My phone still read NO SERVICE. If something were to happen, I had no way to call for help. And under a thick blanket of night, even with my lights, escape might be more dangerous than staying put.

At that point in my trip, I should have been more immune to the indecision of the road than I was. I walked to the edge of the grass trying to make something materialize in the forest, some clue that would tell me if I’d be safe that night, but there was nothing.

I picked up my bag, not sure what to do.

I’ve got to get out of here.

I’ll be fine if I stay.

No, I’ll die if I stay.

It was six-thirty. With rows of mountains behind me, the sun was already invisible, and its remaining light was being swallowed by the long shadows spilling from the forest. In another forty-five minutes or so, those shadows would roll right over me.

I decided to go for it.

And what did I find? The summit of those Goddamn mountains that I’d been climbing all Goddamn day was slyly waiting for me barely a half mile up the road. As I crested the top, I took a deep breath before hurtling down—beating the bears, beating the dark, beating my own bonked out, noodle-like legs—to a little town called Robbinsville.

So I’m hoping that this surgery on the 17th isn’t another false peak, that there won’t be any complications, that I won’t have to go through another round of “insurance” chemo. I’m ready for this road that I’ve been on since last October to start to level off.

But if it doesn’t just yet, I know what I’m supposed to do. Keep pedaling.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Nuts and Bolts

Last week I received a package in the mail—a medium-sized box with the return address of the Illinois Farm Bureau. I knew right away that it was from my buddy Kevin, who’s worked in their educational programs department for a number of years.

Kevin and I were—and are—fraternity brothers; he was a year ahead of me at the University of Illinois, but he joined our house the year after I did. Our house was small, and it followed the general rule of any group: 10% of the people did 90% of the work. Kevin immediately became—and remained—one of the heavy lifters, despite several commitments elsewhere (he was a manager for the Illini basketball team). This hasn’t changed; despite working full-time, serving on the local school board, being heavily involved in his church, and raising three kids, Kevin has also been active in our fraternity on both the local and national level. For him, it’s not about staying busy or being a workaholic. If I were forced to reduce Kevin to a single sentence, I would have to say that of all the people I know, he’s the one who most embodies the spirit of community. He knows that we’re all in this together.

No doubt his upbringing had a lot to do with his attitude. He grew up in downstate Illinois (of course, “downstate” is a relative term; to a suburban kid like me, anything south of I-80 fit this category). It was a small town where people didn’t lock their doors at night and the local high school’s graduating class numbered somewhere from ten to fifteen. I saw all of this myself one year when I had Easter dinner at Kevin’s house. He drove me and another of our brothers around his town (it didn’t take long), pausing at various houses to tell us about the people who lived there.

I have to digress here and tell the most memorable story from that visit, which has nothing to do with Kevin. It’s about his father, who on that weekend happened to be fixing a leaky underground pipe. When he mentioned that he’d found the leak with a divining rod, I smirked in the way that only a know-it-all Chicago suburban wiseass can. He invited me outside to give it a try. The “divining rod” was actually two pieces that looked like sections of a wire hanger bent into “L”s. Kevin’s dad had me hold each one loosely at the bend, the short ends pointing down and the long ends pointing straight ahead. He moved my hands about twelve inches apart and told me to start walking. As INSERT PREFERRED DIETY HERE as my witness, when I came near the area where he’d been digging, the two pieces of metal moved in my hands. Actually moved. The long ends pulled towards each other and crossed, and I jumped, my face registering wide-eyed shock. Kevin’s dad just smiled and said, “Bet they don’t teach that in Chicago.”

No, they didn’t. My knowledge of small-town America came mainly from reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. Until, that is, I went to college, joined a fraternity, and lived with a lot of guys who’d had very different backgrounds than I did. I remember another weekend at another brother’s home way out in western Illinois, when I got to put on boots, slog through snow-covered mud, and help feed some cows.

But back to that package.

I opened the box, and hidden inside a sea of curled styrofoam pieces was a brown envelope, heavy and bulging at one end. Inside the envelope was a five page letter and a baggie full of steel nuts, all different sizes.

The letter explained the bag. Back in October, when I first announced that I had cancer again after ten years, Kevin—having seen my Facebook post and having read my blog—went to his men’s group at his church, and he asked them to pray for me. The group thought about something else they could do. One option was a “prayer blanket,” where the women in the quilting group make a blanket, pray while they make it, and then send it to the person being prayed for. But a few weeks later, after one of the men read my post “Please Lie Still While I Crush Your Balls,” they decided to do something else.

They would pray over nuts.

Kevin gave a nut to each of the twelve men closest to him. All of them carried a nut around in their pockets for a couple of months and prayed for me while it jangled around with keys and loose change. One of the men looped his through a leather cord and wore it around his neck.

When my chemotherapy ended, Kevin gathered the nuts back up and sent them to me. In the letter, he told me a little bit about each of the men (including which fraternity brother each one reminded him of).

I put them on a cable ring, and I’ve been carrying them with me every day in my right pocket. It’s a nice balance to my keys, which I always carry on my left side. It’s also a suitable replacement for what I’m missing on my right.

I find myself reaching into my pocket several times over the course of a given day. I like to hold the ring, slip my fingers through it, feel the weight of the nuts. I’m not a big believer in the power of prayer, but I’m a huge believer in the power of friendship and good acts—especially those done by strangers for strangers. It makes this big, scary world a lot smaller and reminds us that we’re part of something. To me, that’s what’s holy.

So I’d like to thank these twelve men, all of whom I hope to meet someday: Rick Lohnes, Tom Payne, Scott Riddle, Bob Sammer, Steve Ward, Harry Jiles, Shawn Benz, Kyle Merkle, Steve Dean, Gary Tipsord, Jeff Baughman, and Parker Daugherty (Kevin’s twelve-year-old son). And I’d like to thank the thirteenth man, my dear friend and brother Kevin. I hope that someday I can do something for someone that means as much to that person as this gift has meant to me.

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.