Star Power

Cancer brings gifts. Opportunities. Stardom, even.

I’ve been seriously ill before–almost died several times–and nobody much cared except one doctor and a couple of woo-woo practitioners. Even my husband didn’t bother to come to the hospital until Day 5. At the time, such cool dismissal of life-obstructing symptoms seemed the result of my own inadequacies, my unimportance–perhaps my gender. I must be a bad or unpleasant person–a lesser person–I couldn’t help thinking. The diagnosis of a permanent, long-term illness turned people off. Like many chronically ill persons, I felt abandoned, left to take my stroll through the valley of the shadow alone.

I’d been diagnosed with FMS, you see. Fibromyalgia, a name that means just "pain in the tissues", nothing more. The loser’s disorder–not even a real disease in the eyes of much of the allopathic medical world.

FMSsies, as I came to call us patients, are anything but sexy. We’re just a pain in the unmentionables.The trouble with fibromyalgia, I used to quip from the prison of pain that a bouquet of the sixty-some symptoms had tied me down in, is that the damned thing refuses to kill you. Today, an obit reporting a person died of FMS would still be greeted with guffaws and bad jokes about how the patient had finally hit on a symptom to believe in.

Lady C is different. If FMS is a trollop and a welfare bum, Lady C has the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. She’s a diva with a touch of the aristocrat. Cancer has allure on the research stage and in the fund-raising theater, in ways that dowdy FMS can never emulate. Where cancer’s initial symptoms are invisible, the shock of the diagnosis in the face of the patient’s apparent health adds an air of mystery to the malady. Our curiosity puts on the jacket of empathy or coat of sympathy and snap! just like that, we’re walking in the patient’s shoes, onstage in the star’s most important scene as the tale unfolds.

When, on the other hand, was the last time you or I empathised with a chronic-illness patient? They are so boring! Altijd ziek maar nooit dood. That’s what the Dutch say about those people who never go anywhere with their interminable disease but just sit there and wallow in the same old symptoms: "Always sick but never dead." Oh, please. Get on with your story. The nicer among us bite our tongues.

Cancer entertains us. The specter of death promises a denouement to the story. Watching cancer patients deteriorate is akin to signing up for an interactive vampire tale. Come on–admit it! Terminal illness is a page-turner; chronic illness is a snore. Writers, don’t assign your protagonist a chronic illness–it’s not sexy. Schadenfreude, however, is alive and well in everybody.

The mere mention of the Big C seems to shave twenty pounds off my ample form. The most common response to my news of cancer has been, I was thinking you’ve lost weight. This is usually followed by a remark on the fullness of my hair, as if it has been doing a heroic job of staying on my head since the words of my diagnosis were spoken. The truth? I’ve lost ten pounds by dint of incredible effort, and my hair is the same thick, wild, disorganised comet-tail it has been for six decades. Yet the power of the C word is so great that it puts me instantly onstage: people’s faces look just like a front-row audience from downstage center, expectant, focused, ready for the quip or the monologue sure to fall from my lips.

The show must go on, you learn from theater. Disappointing your public is the worst of sins. Go ahead: don the costume of the comedian; get out the half-wasted tubes of stage make-up. All that jazz helps keep you standing. Performing. Working your life, whatever’s left of it.

There’s star power in cancer, all right. Why? Because none of us believes there’s a cure? Oh my God–it’s CANCER…! Start carving the headstone. What kind of music would you prefer at your funeral, by the way?

Lady C flicks the decimal point in one’s social-capital account to the right one or two places, and she has the power to mobilise the energy of the community to help the star patient stand up and perform to curtain call. But she brings more valuable and personal gifts, too, a gift waiting for you in the mirrored dressing room, where you sit amidst sweat-stained costumes and weary fellow members of your troupe, pushing aside congratulatory bouquets. You watch your pallid face emerge as you scrape off the makeup. With every wad of cotton you use up, you edge a little closer to the mirror, a little closer to contemplating death, the hour that haunted face of yours will no longer be able to cast an image into the glass at all, makeup art or no.

Vancouver actress Babz Chula, who left the mirror with Lady C at age 64 last month, treasured death’s enhancement of her life. "That’s a blessing and a gift, to be able to value your life because you thought about death. In contemplating death, my life has such great value. It’s what you get from living with cancer, and that’s rich stuff."

Cancer hangs a star on your dressing-room door. However the last act plays out, you are the star of your show. No, no, they can’t take that away from you. Carry on. You have the gift.

Rocky Road

"I’m not the cancer type."

I believed that sentence with all my heart, the heart being the organ that is supposed to end my existence–many, many, many years from now, of course. I must have said that sentence a hundred times, whenever the Big C came up in conversation. I don’t need to let the medical establishment squash my tits. I can handle these little moles that look as if they’re planning on becoming bumpy or ornery with some goop made of yucca plants. I’m healthy…essentially.

Not cancer. I’m not supposed to have cancer. Cancer is for people who…suppress their feelings…bottle things up…are afraid to grab life by the throat..smoke like chimneys…lie like wieners in the sun…live near polluted waterways…eat crappy food—

Oh, stop with the blame-the-patient stuff!!

Every disease goes through this phase until some Dr. Brightlight discovers what the necessary factor for the disease really is–I’m surely a bit more sophisticated than that!

No sooner is an illness identified as distinct from illnesses we know, than society constructs stories to explain its existence. People contracted pellagra because they were black and poor. It was no wonder that aesthetes became tubercular. Of course gays get AIDS–what would you expect? As for fibromyalgia, small wonder this synonym for malingering manifests mostly in the weaker sex. But for clearly contagious diseases that swiftly cut wide swaths through society, diseases invariably develop the first chapters of their story by blaiming the victims.

Had I fallen for this blame game when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia? No way! When world-fibromyalgia expert Dr. Wolfe said to me, "Some people are depressed because they have fibromyalgia, and some people have fibromyalgia because they are depressed," I was so mad that I did a research project with over a hundred other FMSsies, learned science and statistics through the back door, wrote up papers and abstracts, had my research postered at international medical conferences. made a film, wrote a thesis, tried every remedy, and eventually came up with a theory of fibro’s causation and a practice for its management. By refusing to believe in the blame game, I turned myself into the world’s healthiest-looking FMSsy.

Lo and behold: now some real scientissts have begun to research the postulates of my theory–not bevcause of me or the theory, but because the illness is moving past the first chapters of its story, the chapters where beliefs get in the way of real and useful knowledge.

Why should cancer be any different? I thought. (Other than the risk, seeing that, if I’m wrong cancer will kill me.)

Seventeen minutes after arriving home from the internist’s office, I plunged into research on the computer. Like anyone, I wanted to know why. Why do I have cancer, since I’m not ‘the cancer type’?

Fact: there’s cancer in this body. Belief: I’m not the type. Facts: I live well. Cancer’s not rampant in my family. I am not that fat. I walk the dog. I don’t drink or eat bad stuff. Hardly any risk factors, right? Fact/Belief. Fact…belief….. Fact…rock-solid belief.

The lab must have made a mistake. Couldn’t I take the test again? I’d foolishly asked the GP. Not with twenty times too much blood in your sample, she’d said.

Then I toyed with the idea that the lab might have lost a decimal point somewhere, but even merely twice as much blood would have won me a colonoscopy prize. There was no way I could square my belief in myself as a non-cancerous type with what was undeniably happening.

I might as well examine facts, applying each one like sandpaper to my rock-solid belief..

What about family history? My mother’s family all live to be ancient curmudgeons–no worries there. But I resemble my father’s family much more strongly, and there is a saying, "Look at your mother; look at your father. Whom do you resemble? There is your fate."

One of my paternal uncles had died of cancer, I remembered. But he had smoked like a chimney all his life; so llung cancer could hardly have come as a surprise, surely?.When I’d met him while visiting the Netherlands more than forty years ago, his skin was the same gray as his suit, and I thought even then he wasn’t ong for this world.

The eldest brother, a florid, hail-fellow-well-met type who looked just like my father, died of the drink–presumably liver disease–in his seventies. My father died of smoking, too, at 67, an age that seeems frighteningly close now–his heart ended him in one thunderous attack. Yet the three borthers’ sister, who neither smoked nor drank, kept on choogling through age ninety.

I asked my mother about my paternal grandfather. I knew he had died at only 42, before my father was even born. I remember how frightened my father was of turning 42 himself, although he was not a superstitious man.. Had my Opa died in a car accident? One of those early cars with the "suicide doors"? Or was that my cousin? "Oh," my mother said, "He had stomach cancer."

So much for "no family history" of cancer. Those facts sandpapered the shine off my belief: the family I resemble has manifested cancer since at least 1917.

A book popped up in front of my face, from one of those outdoor bins where bookstores display books they are tired of seeing on their shelves. One dollar for Life Bridge, published in 1988, now a long time ago, medically speaking. There’s a whole page on colon cancer and a lot of information on cancer generally, From that book and the stuff online, I gradually came to understand that, inter alia, cancer and heart problems are not necessarily two separate things.

Another piece of sandpaper worn out. My belief in who I am is shrinking.

Advice from cancer survivors and cancer observers began filling the mailbox along with condolences, both of which seemed premature. Every other person seemed to have cancer, have survived it, or know someone with it. When a survivor called to invite me to tea, where she transferred her accrued wisdom about cancer to me, I felt my big fat useless belief crumble. She was a power sander to the thing. I should have worn a face mask, to avoid choking on the aerosol of my own willful blindness. When she finished with me, you could see right through that rock-solid belief, which had shrunk to a pebble, like an Apache tear. You can see through Apache tears, sort of, but you can’t be sure of what you’re seeing on the other side, and you’re not sure what use it will be, either.

Back home, I had a frank session with my mirror.

Fact: I haven’t been able to lose weight for at least two years, which is how long the surgeon thinks the cancer has been growing.

Fact: I look terribly tired, with haws like an overworked St. Bernard, in spite of having trained the body to get seven hours’ sleep daily.

Fact: there has been some funny business going on for months, maybe years, right at the spot where the cancer is–ranging from feeling a need to stretch that bit of that anatomy to, well, pain. Sensations I’ve ascribed to innocuous causes, like sitting for long periods.

Fact: yes, I’ve managed to kill the bits of skin that looked as if they wanted to flower into cancers, but I’ve ignored the possibility that they were already cancers when I zapped them–what does that do to my belief?

Fact: this month marks twenty years of unavoidable high stress for the organism I am. Stress is the one co-factor in colon cancer that is huge in my life. For twenty years, the annual stress score has been at least 600 points (where300 is the high-stress mark).

Fact: my generation, the Boomers, participated fully in the poisoning of the world. As a kid, I handled DDT and spread poison on our vegetable garden. Everybody I knew smoked in those days. I worked in a plastics factory for a while. Only weirdoes and sissies wore face masks around chemicals. Our teachers predicted science would give us all a life of leisure in which we’d never have to work, cook, or clean up again.Seriously, is it any wonder we’re falling ill after swallowing that guff? How can we not be the cancer type?

Fish come out of the water often raddled with cancers. If even our dogs get cancer in their short life span, how can we bigger, longer-lived mammals escape it?

Oh yeah, I forgot. Our belief that we are (a) not animals or (b) not like other animals or (c) smarter than other animals protects us from appreciating the effects of our toxic activities on our own bodies.

What do doctors think? I wondered. Do they still believ in a "cancer type"?

I posed the question obliquely to the surgeon. "I guess everyone’s the cancer type nowadays," I suggested.

He just smiled.

I tossed the Apache tear of my belief into the gravel bed in front of his office.

You know the saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him." Doesn’t that mean, get rid of your beliefs? Belief seems to support certainty, customs and culture, I know, but in reality, belief just gets in the way of truth. Set yourself free: move those rock-solid beliefs aside to see the real landscape of your life.

It’s frightening. Every time I toss out a belief, my toes curl around the lip of the abyss. I teeter; forget to breathe. Recognising one’s mortality, witout hope or fear, is not for sissies.

Oddly, after such catharses, peace and comfort wrap around me, a little like the feeling after an NDE (near-death experience). What a gorgeous world! How sweet it is just to breathe!

True, because I am of this world, I will die to it one day. But not today.

Without beliefs, I have today. This day is all mine.

A Switchback in Time

In preparation for entering a PhD program, I wrote a little essay, "A Bend in Time", describing the experience of turning the corner in life. One corner. The corner. The curve where you switch your focus from the life you have lived, i.e., your youth and upbringing, to the life left to live.

The switch felt good at the time. I regarded it as a benchmark of maturity. The future stretched before me, another five decades of smooth, competent driving in the direction of eternity. No more stupid marriages or detours around destiny. I looked forward to a half century of untrammeled creativity. Productivity. The further accrual of wisdom. Fun. I would flower in my sixties as I never quite had as a sometime flower child in The Sixties.

Death, of course, would graciously arrive only after I grew tired of writing books and poems. There would be no period of incompetence, physical or mental, because my heart would take me out one starry night, suddenly, and preferably with the good manners not to wake me up.

From the pinnacle of one’s existence, it’s easy to imagine the mirage of the good life stretching out far ahead in time, leaving wide, comfortable margins on either side of one’s path. Sunny weather…as long as my poor heart stays together…keep writing all the time, the time….

The only way a colonoscopy fitted into that picture was to extract from it a relatively harmless diagnosis, at worst a medical slap on the wrist: At worst, "Hey, Dummy. Better lighten up on your favorite beverage and burger and up the exercise level. We found a cute little polyp or two in there."

This wrist-slapping was to occur in due course, when my GP could next see me.

Imagine my surprise when, as I sat on the edge of some functional piece of hospital furniture, trying to remember how to get dressed, the internist, Dr. H, came right up to this groggy doggy and said he wanted to see me pronto if not sooner in his office.

A bright guy, he must have figured that I must have figured out from his first words that, of the forty possible causes of twenty times the permissible blood in one’s stool, I must have nailed Cause #40. I’d been informed that results would not be forthcoming for weeks, but he told me immediately that there was a plyp or polyps, right at the start of my friendly and useful little colon, near the ileocecal valve, and that he hadn’t been able to snip off all the polyp without risking —

"Perforating the colon," I finished. Pretty good fro a groggy doggy. He nodded; then left. Busy man.

Two realisations emerged from the wavering mirage of my future. One: this saga wasn’t over. And wouldn’t be, for months. Two: I could now legitimately add the letters CP to the alphabet soup behind my name, for Cancer Patient.

I’ve heard these moments described as the sensation of blood freezing in the veins, or cold water dumped over one’s head. Me, I heard a screeching noise as the mirage of my future disappeared and the image of the infamous switchback on the road to Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park zapped out of my memory box and planted itself firmly into next week. Brakes! BRAKES!!

I was about to become a cartoon character, legs windmilling in air after leaving the precipice, held up only by the willing suspension of disbelief.This can’t be happening to me.

Oh, yes, it can.

I learned the finer points of driving from a Brit who liked to race. Hence, I know about braking before the curve so that you can accelerate through the curve–because there’s better control on acceleration than on deceleration. If you guess wrong, you end up oversteering like crazy all the way through the corner. Rather like being a patient, as I’d learned the last time I was really, really sick. The truism is, that the compliant, confident patient invariably does much better. Slow down before the surgery and prepare your mind, or you’ll wind up micromanaging your post-op condition to the point where nobody wants to spend any time with you, including yourself.

As hostel parent in the Park years ago, I ran the triple switchback to Takakkaw Falls many times, always in my Feeble Ford, an Econoline van that probably inspired the song by Humphrey and the Dumptrucks that goes, "That old truck’s got a lot of heart; remember that grease is cheaper than parts." Going down the switchback wasn’t too bad, except on the occasions I was rushing to reach a fresh source of water for the radiator, as the porcupines had once again lunched on the rubber hoses in the engine. Going up the switchback demanded consummate skill, however. The engine needed to take a run at the steep slope at almost maximum speed–but not enough speed to lose it on the corners. Tricky.

At Takakkaw, you could always err on the side of caution, knowing you could take another run at the switchback. The first part was relatively easy; the second and third sections had to be done in one go. If some fool tourist from the city came down as you were trying to come up, you’d have to back all the way down, which was no fun, but could be done.

Cancer might not offer a second run at its twists and turns.

A couple of days later, I was in the internist’s office. The original appointment for a couple of weeks after the colonscopy had been shortened up to just a few days. The hospital seemed to be in an all-fired hurry to get me on the road to wherever. For the first time, I felt frightened.

THe internist referred me to a surgeon. Now I had to believe this was really happening. The prospect of sugery rose up before my eyes as real as the mud and stones of the Takakkaw switchback–but only its first section. I know I can drive that section all right. This body has had a few surgeries. Beyond that, however, there’s fog, like the low morning clouds in the mountains that could fool a driver into thinking there was just one section to the switchback.

The docs can’t say what lies in the fog until after the surgery. Staging, this process of gaining knowledge is called. We know the polyp is stage three but we don’t know the cancer stage yet.

I’m driving into fog. That is true of each of us every day, of course, but this fog is thick and personal. There are no magic windshield wipers to disperse it. There is almost nothing I can do to negotiate this switchback besides trust. Stay cool. Stay positive. Keep my hands on the wheel and a foot poised over the brakes for that moment the next switchback looms into sight.

Through the Colon with Gun and Camera–and Bag Balm

When I was a kid, my parents subscrived to catalogs from Dover Books, many of whose items were out of print, out of copyright, or too quirky for the big publishing houses to care about. One of the quirkiest books to end up in our living room was George Chappell’s 1930 classic,Through the Alimentary Canal with Gun and Camera, "a profanely comic and bodily disrespectful tour through the helpless interior of an anonymous citizen," says a wikipedic reviewer. (Wish we still had it–it’s worth fifty bucks US now!)

I wasn’t too squeamish to dip into the book, but I think the "naughty bits" stopped my reading. Chappell never intended this book for kids, I’m sure. Ever since, however, from time to time I’ve imagined what it must be lilke to be one of the invisble creatures who live in us and on us. What strange planets we must seem! Here, for example, are the results of learning that our eyelashes support whole communities of critters (some of whom apparently like the taste of mascara–not my critters, though). This poem is in generation of thistles, my poems just published by Motley Crew House (shameless plug):

Eyelash City

On our honeymoon–remember?
you told me tiny cities
crowd the shores of all our eyes,
that even with a mirror
and various diopters
my vision is too large
to see what it all depends on

I’ll take on lovers’ fitful faith
the dynasties so sprawled along
the cliffs along my lids,
the joyriders screaming
whenever I blink
mini-prophets predicting
the Knuckle of Reckoning

In aqua dream I almost hear
the rich exclaiming on the view
of blue blue Iris Lake
whenever I the Goddess am awake;
in the darkness hear them wonder,
where did all that splendor go?

These days I try for no tears
nowadays I try to hurt no one:
on anniversaries I remember
that their largest heroes
are doubtless the fine print
of my unpolished breath

just a drop of my short-sighted sorrow
salts another global legend

The book would have taken me on a top-down trip through the entire gastric system. As Wikipedia describes it, "Presented as the first-person scientific account of an unnamed explorer and his three companions, Through the Alimentary Canal is a continuously hilarious, linguistically inventive parody of two genres: the safari memoir and the layperson’s medical compendium. After circumnavigating the exterior of their victim (not omitting the naughty bits), the explorers, without any technological fuss, simply slip through the "Oral Cavern" and before you can say "down the gullet" are riding their portable boat toward their ultimate destination of "Colon-sur-mer," through a surreal jungle environment populated by various tribes such as the savage Haemoglobins, and rich with such wildlife as heeby-geebies and gastroids. The visitors fish for phagocytes, carve their initials on the spine, and are entertained in the Peritoneum by the Great Omentum, a local rajah. Along the way, Chappell satirizes academia, Prohibition, religion, national pride, and our quirky mortal machinery."

Chappell died the year I was born. How astonished he would be to know that doctors nowadays do go on safari through the digestive system with "gun and camera"–a video camera equipped with fibroptics and a snipper, as I understand it–except they start from the bottom of the system–literally–rather than the top.

Speaking of bottoms, I came through the colonscopy with one valuable piece of advice for readers facing the same: get bag balm!

What, you may ask, is bag balm? It’s amber goop that comes in a pretty, square green tin, available at feed stores and intended for sore, cracked nipples of nursing sheep and other mammals. Wherever skin has been pushed beyond reasonable limits, there’s a job for bag balm.

The colonoscopy was easy–I was given some goof which left me vaguely conscious of prattling away at the medics to take a look at my beautiful tattoo while they were in its neighborhood and oh, by the way, please buy my books so I can drop the first word in my title, Starving Writer.

Yes, the colonoscopy was easier to endure than to spell. Apparently it was nice and clean all the way. It was the process of cleaning it out, a.k.a. the Purgation, that was hellacious. The feeling reminded me of that immortal chorus from the U of A’;s med show, decades ago when my sis was in medicine:

always itch and sometimes burn;
give you that look of concern;
you are focused on your stern
when you have…a hemorrhoi-oi-oid!"

Given a choice between hemorrhoids and purgation, any experienced patient will prefer the former! All our orifices are made of skin, after all, a material of limited endurance. If there’s a colonoscopy in your future, throw an full tin of bag balm into your hospital safari kit.

See? Easy!

The Real Poop

I was napping on my cushion after a mildly strenous morning chasing the raccoon away from the compost and then hanging out with the guys who have a smoke and a coffee outside the convenience store across the street. I’d even directed traffic for awhile before coming home for breakfast.

Pack Leader was already hard at work at the computer when I heard the postie open the gate and clump up the steps, swearing lightly at the climb.

I knew the feeling. At my age, I have to pause to gather my skirts before tackling that steep flight. The stairs are only about two wolf-dogs high, but my ticker doesn’t like it anymore.

The postie shoved one envelope through the slot and thumped off. I raised my head, briefly considering joining her on a social stroll around the neighborhood, but decided I was too lazy. I could hear Pack Leader’s heart beating calmly, which meant she’d keep on working for a while on that book that makes her snort, and she wouldn’t like to be interrupted during her earning hours. In the interests of a sooner shopping trip for dog treats, i went back to napping.

A dream came, a re-cap of Pack Leader’s strange behavior a couple of weeks earlier. It started out realiticl enough. I could tell it was time for her to take a dump, but this time she took two small bottles and some paper into the water fountain room with her. Curious, I followed, stopping a paw’s width short of the heated tile (which I hate but Pack Leader loves). Of all things, she had spread paper across the bowl of the water fountain! Weirder yet, she proceeded to remove her magnificent dump, carefully, on that paper onto the warm floor.

"It’ll cook there," I informed her. "Don’t think your vet will like that."

She ignored me in favor of playing with a little stick, using it to transfer a little of her offering into one of the small bottles. What the…? Was she trying out some new method for humans to mark their territories?

"Are you sure you’re okay? Want some help?"

She threw me a baleful look. "I’d like to see you park your butt up there and perform this little balancing act, Mr. Smart-ass Wolf! Hey…" she picked up the second bottle. "Come in here! WE know we don’t have cancer–might as well have some fun with this."

"No way!" I backed up and headed for the back door, feeling inspired to perform some acts on my own. "Any time you need a lesson in how to poop in the woods, just tag along."

She opened the back door for me. Ye dogs and little kitties! She did tag along, all the way up our back forty into our mini-forest. I picked a beautiful big fern and backed up to it for a satisfying session, with perfect results.

"Holy shit!" said Pack Leader, or similar words. "You can’t even see it! Nice job, Wolfydog."

"Always pick a flat spot," I advised, "or it can roll down the hill on you. What a waste of effort!"

She honored my offering by using the second bottle. Then she washed her paws and found me a cookie.

All that dreaming made me feel like taking a walk. My head jerked up as Pack Leader went to the door, but I didn’t hear the leash clink. She only picked up the mail. "Uh oh," she said, and tore open the envelope.

She expelled one of her super sighs, and sagged back onto her chair. "One of us, my friend, is in trouble. Shall we go see the vet or the doc?"

She reached for her bag that holds the bits of paper and plastic used for trading for better things, like turkey necks and milkbones, and dug around until her fingers found one of the little flat, round, shiny things humans feed machines on the street with. A coin.

The coin winked in the air as Pack Leader flipped it and caught it, slapping it onto her wrist as if whacking a mosquito. "Heads or tails?"

"Under the circumstances, you take tails," I said.

"It’s heads," she informed me. "What’s the vet’s number?"

It didn’t happen exactly that way. When I saw Major looking at me as if I’d obviously lost my mind, however, I was tempted. Would the lab be able to tell the real poop from the K9, I wondered? It would be fun to find out. I was 100% sure I was not the cancer type, anyway, and if the lab couldn’t distinguish wolfdog from human, I’d have the potential for a story.

Yeah, writers are terrible people.

In reality, the results of the test didn’t make it through the mail slot before I saw the GP again. She thought I’d already received them and, approximately 1.5 minutes before taking my blood pressure, let slip that the results were positive. Twenty times the permissible amounts of blood in the stool. I was flabbergasted, a state of mind which apparently translates into a BP of 170/90. I would have to book myself a colonoscopy.

Aw, come on! I’m not the cancer type! My heart is going to take me out–many years from now. Can’t we re-do the test?

No, and I’d better get my butt into the hospital soon for that colonscopy.

I pushed my work aside and began research. Whew! There are about forty possible causes for blood in the stool. One of the lesser causes was sure to be mine.

At the colonscopy, I asked whether the lab could tell whether poop donors were K9 or human. Apparently, yes. In the past, perhaps not, but nowadays, there’s no substitute for the real poop.

Ruff Month

It’s been a rough month

Our resident wolf,
ambassador of love,
felled by his own heart,
laid his life down
at the feet of Kwan Yin

My mother died…
center stage
more than the girl in her
ever dreamed

My daughter
draggled home
her heart in her knapsack
in two or three pieces
"Mommy!" she says

I have a cancer
intending on ending
but for
an educated knife

Every hour repeats,
our beloved dog died,
left us bereft
of wildness,
bewildered by the quiet
of a hollow house

There is no tendon in the heart,
nothing to tweak history
into poetic justice;
no connective tissue
bending love into longevity;
and no good dog goes to heaven

(this is his last lecture)
You are who you are;
a bone is a bone;
a heart is a heart.
Farewell, fairest moment
I loved you

How It All Began

The cancer saga began the night I tripped over Major in the dark.

The cancer itself had apparently begun years earlier, but I had no idea of that.

Major and I were watching a movie on the computer, in the dark. I paused the movie to head for the bathroom, unaware that Major had shifted from his usual spot on his 60-inch round cushion to a conveniently nearby place on the thin but fine carpet or our living room. Looking back, I can guess why: it was a little cooler there, and even in the winter, he sometimes felt hot and bothered by heart palpitations.

One hundred forty pounds of black dog in a dark room, straddling the path to the bathroom and being very quiet about it, is a recipe for disaster. Major never lay in that spot again, for he learned his lesson when his Pack Leader tripped on him and couldn’t recover her balance.

Halfway down, I met the elephant-headed coffee table coming up. There was a split-second contest of solids, shoulder to solid wood. The coffee table won. Major and I lay on the floor and moaned for a while, I more than he, until the pain in various parts of our anatomies subsided. Then he moved back to the cushion and I carried on to the bathroom.

The right shoulder and arm, injured in a fall twenty years ago, would not shut up. For months it bitched and complained about how tough life was: why me, why me again, why do I have to do everything with this pain? It tried to devlop frozen shoulder but couldn’t quite achieve that spectacular level of dysfunction; but it significantly cut down on typing and opening jars and lugging things around–not to mention the times I woke in agony because the damned thing had slipped off the pillows used to elevate it at night.

In three months, no improvement happened. Slelep patterns were now seriously impaired. Then an email arrived from my GP: "Haven’t seen you in a year; get in here for a check-up, Old Thing."

At last, I thought, some usefulness to these blasted check-ups! I can get some attention for this arm.

I don’t dislike or fear the medical establishment, mind you. I just don’t use it much. I take no medicine, have no chronic complaints, and try to handle life in a primate body for the most part by treating it right with nutrition, rest and motion. A little self-examination, research, and reflection helps, too. And I’d much rather use the complementary medical system than the allopathic, where possible. But my right arm was not responding to any of that airy-fairy stuff.

Off I went, looking forward to some help with the damned arm. Major wished me luck from the back seat of the car, which I was down to driving with my left arm only.

Fifteen minutes later I was back. Nothing for the arm and a poop test in my hand. What the…?

My dear doc wouldn’t discuss the arm. That’s because, I suppose, if a patient comes in for a check-up, the doc gets paid for only a check-up. If anything specific is bothering the patient, he or she can come back fro a new appointment, so that the doctor can get paid.

Wish I could do that with my clients, I thought.

The poop test was for colon cancer. A new test that catches it early. Easy to do. The doc is giving these out like candy. There’s a grant, apparently, for running these tests on old sods like me–for "the program".

"I’m not the cancer type," I protested, fending it off. "My heart will take me out. You know that old saying (actually a newish saying), ‘Look at your mother; look at your father. Whom do you resemble? There is your fate.’ Well, I resemble my father, who died of a single heart attack at 67, and age which, seeing as it is only 5 years from now in the lifetime of this ape, is probably a much more crucial an issue."

The doc paid no attention to my hardwon homespun wisdom. She stuffed the poop test somewhere in the junk I carry around with me. I stood in the parking lot, looking at the promotional picture that goes with this test, of a bare-assed older couple–their buns neatly blocked out by a slogan like "Hindsight is perfect", and considered tossing the paraphernalia. Then I remembered research projects I had done, and how I felt when my subjects mislaid, misunderstood, or forgot.

Okay, okay…I’d get around to it one of these days.

Sad, sad day

My dear one is gone. Yesterday was a fine day for him, his last, but none of us knew that. Tonight, no one will turn around three times before sinking down on his middle-eastern rug and sheepskins beside my bed, with a contented sigh, waiting for me to say, "You are the best wolf in the world; you are the best dog who ever lived; I love you so-o much…." No-one to cuddle with, to entrain with, to appreciate. No thick black fur to work my fingers into, no velvet ears to pull ever so gently, no silver paws to kiss and admire. No deep, furry white-blazed chest to massage. no tummy to rub, no noggin to tease with with the "knock on wood" knuckle rub. No rustle of paws as my companion joyously runs through Dreamland; no whimpers and whines as visions of complaisant rabbits entertain his sleep. If fire trucks or ambulances sail by our house tonight, no sharp ears will twitch until a baritone howl emerges from an uplifted muzzle to fill the room, the house, the garden.

This morning began with a crash in the stairwell, seconds after his nails had scraped the fir floor of our bedroom with the familiar noises of his rising. He needs to go out right away, I’ll bet. I thought I’d better get out of the bathroom as quickly as possible to open the back door for him. Then the horrible crash: he’d fallen down the stairs as the heart attack hit him. He lay on the landing, panting, all 140 pounds of him, right in front of the compassionate figure of Kwan Yin..

My daughter came running from the library, where she sleeps. What’s happening?

Remember, you know everything, I thought. At some level, you know. "He’s dying," I said. The words tore my mouth.

"I think so, too," she said.

We held him and kissed him until the end. It was twenty to nine.

The day was long and hard. Eventually I will appreciate the beautiful parts, perhaps, but today’s physical and emotional effort left me numb. It took two strong men to bring our dear one’s body downstairs from the landing and lay him on his huge cushion in the living room. A friend and my daughter dug the grave, an arduous task since the back forty of our property is all tree roots and rocks. My daughter put out the news on the web, and the phone began to ring and the email list grew like Jack’s beanstalk–he was so well loved throughout the community. We planned a funeral and sent out that notice. Ten hours after his death, he took his last trip, in a wheelbarrow, and was laid to earth with his favorite squeaky toy and some food and valuables for the journey, all wrapped up with him in soft cotton sheets. Lilacs around his head. And then dirt, more dirt, and rocks to keep out bears, raccoons, or cougars. We toasted him, told stories about him, and read him poetry. I set a vase of flowers near his head, and we planned to plant a tree to shade his grave.

When the people had all gone, I went back to the grave. I’m no believer in spirits, heavens, or second chances at life. There is no consolation for death. Yet I thought, There should be another, longer grave. For me. If it weren’t illegal. There’d be comfort in the prospect of going to earth beside a beloved being.

Is it normal to think such thoughts? Or am I refusing to acknowledge what I know in my depth? It’s hard to tell, and today, I don’t care what I know.

My love is gone, and I am lost.

Feeling Sick

The sounds of people eating nauseates me.

The sight is even worse. I can’t find a spot on the ferry where masticating jaws of my particularly disgusting species of ape do not obscure the blue view of mountains and sea.

My appetite is too small to describe.

I took the cooler down, as usual, to Vancouver on another trip to see Mom, who’s not feeling too chipper. Brought her chocolate, which she has foolishly given up at 92 because of "cholesterol". Also brought her the right recipe for fruitlax. and other minor thoughtfulnesses….what else can one do?

I ate nothing in that polluted land except a piece of cake, as a courtesy. My mother and step-dad "make" it. Actually, it’s another package of poison, mixed with god knows what—water or the poisoned milk they buy. It’s garbage, but one piece won’t kill me. I eat it tenderly, finger-bit by bit, as if it were the food of love, which is probably its best description.

I read Nancy Huston’s Instruments of Darkness while waiting for the agonising heat to subside enough for sleep. I realised that someone forced the author to change the title: it used to be Instruments in Darkness, as in music in the dark, not necessarily the devil’s tools of destruction.

How wearisome, this religious crap pretending to be literature!

The book is about something important: mothers and their dead children. So, why am I so irritated? That fucking contrived demon doesn’t work. It’s a blatant trick. I skip over those parts. They’re awful. But they won the author’s pretty face the prizes. Dear God–you must have pulled the usual strings..

Okay, I have no pretty face (there’s a masterpiece of understatement!). Ugly old folks don’t win prizes unless they already have won prizes. As in, substantial prizes. Which mine are not. I will be obscure. Minor. Okay, that’s fine as long as people buy, read and enjoy my books. They’re good books, Better than most, quite likely.

The editor of Instruments should be shot. Error, error, error. Five run-on sentences on one page, followed by nine in the next paragraph. What? Have we forgotten the very existence of the semi-colon? The period?

Not to mention, of course, the dangling modifiers, the case errors, the number blunders.

English is moribund–why survive it?

The cooler had everything in it that one could wish: salmon, rice, chocolate pudding, bread, cake, greens, an orange, sausage, cheese.

Almost everything is still in it, and I don’t care.

I had to force down all those great supplements: astaxanthin, Vitamin D, chelation stuff, vision goodies, Cockle-a-doodle-do-10. Ate barely enough to get them down..

Do I want to live if it means giving up all thoughts of a future? Because that is the horrid vision surmounting the watery horizon….

Tonight was to have been a joy. Hah!


Were I not living in a more or less sensible country like Canada, this Mother’s Day could be my last.

It could be, anyway, but for my faith in our medical system, friends, and myself (probably in reverse order), but that doesn’t bear thinking about just yet, since I don’t know, and can’t know, the extent of the mischief crawling through me. I’m content to reflect that, if we still lived in the US, I’d have no clue that anything’s amiss, since tests like the one my doc foisted on me some months ago are not available to the uninsured public. Even if by some fluke I knew, there would be no options. Walk into a US hospital and you can hear the clocks start ticking: "ching ching ka-ching!" Insurance in America cost almost twice as much as the rent on my tiny office–not that I could get insurance, since my previous illness disqualified me from almost all coverage.

Just think: if I still lived in America, I couldn’t afford to keep myself alive until next Mother’s Day.

You can imagine that I looked forward to this Mother’s Day Sunday. I had projects lined up: scattering pinecones on the back forty that would grow tall and strong trees that live for centuries; leisurely brunch with my wonderful daughter who has come home to be with me; finding some strawberry plants and miniature blueberries to begin replacing the pesky and useless lawn; playing with the dog. Maybe writing a poem. Or flagrant reading–an entire book in one sitting.

Hah! Apparently I haven’t yet learned that making plans is a bad idea for the likes of me.

I guess not. Mother’s Day went off with a bang at 2:30 a.m. with motherly duties: a drive to the hospital to take care of my daughter’s maiden migraine. No fun–quite alarming, really.

Fortunately ours is a quiet community. There was only one other person in the Emergency area, groaning periodically behind a curtain, whether in pleasure or pain, it was hard to tell. A doctor arrived within thirty minutes to take a look at Kay. I was back home with a morphine-sozzled daughter in two-point-five hours, thinking, Migraines! You’re kidding! That’s terrible!

Kay slept off the goof until mid-afternoon, well after the last brunch-eating Mom had daintily wrapped an extra goodie from the town’s buffets into a purloined napkin for the cockapoo at home and slipped it into her purse. Meanwhile I worked away at my recalcitrant computer, sorting out the major issues and tasks of life into piles of things I can do and still bigger piles of tasks at least temporarily beyond me.

Lately, naps have become more attractive, to the point where I was seriously suspecting my body of allowing itself to think it is aging. I was about to succumb to a nap’s seductions when a knock on the front door suggested we had a visitor. A friend with Mother’s Day wishes or invitations? Someone needing to buy a book as a last-minute remembrance?

There stood Stan the aging hippy. His van, with his wife and rollicking kids inside, blocked my driveway. Arms akimbo, he wanted money. Must have heard I paid his brother. But the whole world knows how broke I’ve been lately, and I was mystified as to why he would choose Mother’s Day to harass me for a problem to which there is no solution but patience. I said I was ill and would like to be left alone on a Sunday, especially this one. That should be enough to wring an apology and a hurried best-wishes-and-bye-for-now from any civilised person.

What did I expect? This was the same person whose kids riot and wrangle through weekends at the farmers’ market, swinging from trees and staggering on stilts through the crowd, heedless of the damage they could do to our liability insurance and utterly deaf to any pleas for restraint. This was the same person who publicly slandered several Board members, including me, because he believes he is a law unto himself.This is the person who took for himself money I entrusted to him to give to his brother. And I expect this person to meet my definition of civilised?

That conversation ended with my prohibition against his ever showing up on my doorstep again, followed by a brief test of my ugly front door’s endurance. Alas! It endured yet another slam. No good excuse to replace it–at least one more nitwit or boor will have to test both my patience and its mettle.

Meanwhile, at 4:30, I succumbed to a sherry instead of a nap, feeling the old blood pressure all riled up.

Where is that cabin in the woods when you really need it?