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Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: My Transformation

This year started terrible and gradually improved.  Most years, there are plenty of ups and downs.  If you were to graph how I felt in 2011 and how happy I was, it would look like this:

I had cancer when 2011 began.  January 3rd I had a chemo treatment followed by a PET scan.  This meant I couldn’t eat for several hours beforehand.  My appetite was almost non-existent anyway.  I’d dropped some weight.  They told me the scan would show the cancer as lighted areas.  I imagined a space photo of the U.S. at night, with the urban areas lighted blobs on a black background.  What I hoped for was no lighted blobs in me.

The room was cold, I took off my shirt and lay down on a cold table and they did the scan.  After getting dressed, I never warmed up again.  By the time my parents drove me to their home over an hour away, I was shivering so much I could barely walk.  I kicked off my shoes and crawled into bed.  A flannel sheet, blanket, and bedspread couldn’t keep me warm.  My mother threw on a few more blankets and my heavy coat.  I still couldn’t stop shaking.

Then I started throwing up.  All I could do was turn my head to the side and throw up into a plastic container she held.  After a while that eased up.  The shivering eased up.  One by one, I shed the layers of covers. 

I went to the den, feeling better, and watched TV.  Then I started getting hot.  We called the clinic to let them know I had a fever of 103.  I pulled off my shirt and dabbed my forehead, neck, and chest with a cold, wet washcloth.  And I made myself drink several tall glasses of water.  I was too frail to get it myself, so I kept my parents going back and forth to the kitchen.  Between that and the medication I had on hand in case of fever, it finally passed several hours later.

Happy New Year to me.

My last chemo treatment was January 25th.  February was a blur of fatigue, severe mouth sores, and lack of concentration.  A friend mine, herself a 15-year cancer survivor, told me about “chemo brain,” so I knew I wasn’t going crazy. 

There were times when I was so frail my legs literally gave out from under me.

By March, my strength was returning.  The mouth sores finally cleared up and I could eat again, though I still didn’t have much appetite.  I felt strong enough to be on my own at my home.  My parents worried about me going up and down the stairs in this two-story house.  I knew the stairs would help me regain strength faster.  By the end of my second day back, I was able to walk up and down them almost as fast as before the diagnosis.

I tried to get back to writing, but my mind was still too foggy.  Sometimes I was easily distracted by news stories popping up on my e-mail sign-in page to get around to checking e-mail.  I remember thinking, “So this is what it’s like not to have any ambition.”  I’d seen others with an obvious lack of it and wondered what it must be like.

As spring brought new life back to the world around me, I came back to life, too.  I made my first forays back to the gym, which increased my appetite, which helped me put on weight.  Unlike recovering from other health issues in the past, my appetite, weight, and energy level returned in lockstep with each other.

My hair and beard made a comeback as well.  After a few weeks, I didn’t cringe when I saw myself in the mirror.  The bottom half of my face no longer looked like a twelve-year old boy while the top half looked like an old man.  The hair that returned to my head was soft as a baby’s—until the first time it was cut.  All the stories I heard about hair growing back a different color or more/less curly didn’t happen to me.

By July, I had gained back all but a couple of pounds of the weight I lost, but this time it was leaner.  I could lift almost as much weight and my appetite was like it had been in my late teens/early twenties—and so was my metabolism.  I ate all I wanted and none of it went to my gut.  One afternoon, I stood in front of a mirror and laughed because, at 47, I was in the best shape of my life and only a few months after cancer.

And by July, I was able to write again.  In fact, I did some of my best writing in the summer and with more focus than I’d had in a few years.

That cancer was a gift.  It knocked me down and let me build myself back better—at a slow, manageable pace.  It didn’t kill me, and it definitely made me stronger.

In September, I observed my 20th “blindaversary.”  I thought about my life in Austin in 1991 and wondered, as I’ve often done, about what life would have been like if my health hadn’t forced me to move.  Back then, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, but knew it was about time to decide.  Then I thought about all I’ve done since then. 

It blew my mind.

If only I’d known back then that all the moving and false starts were giving me the variety of experiences I needed to write about all kinds of characters in all kinds of situations.

If only I’d known back then what I was capable of. 

I took stock of myself this summer and realized that, somehow, I’d turned out to be a much better man than I aspired to be twenty years ago.  That really blew my mind.

A fun vacation in Philadelphia in November was a nice breather before diving back into the strange reality show/sitcom/Discovery Channel rollercoaster that is my life.  All the lab tests report that I’m cancer-free and the transplanted organs are doing great.

After struggling to get a couple of web sites up and going, I finally decided to hire some with computer and internet expertise surpassing my own (which could be just about anybody, really).  It’s exciting to see one of them taking shape, on the verge of promoting and with luck, generating income.  I also get to write and this site will help me sell the offbeat humor I write.

The other site will be ready early in 2012.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s my purpose in life.  It will help people, inspire people, and build a sense of community among people who have also been through some intense, life-altering events.  I’m improving my public speaking skills so I can tell my story and promote that site.  It’s exciting to be on the verge of all this at the end of one of the most intense, life-changing years of my life.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mister Magoo Goes to Philadelphia Pt. 2

World CafĂ© Live is a restaurant and live music venue in the same building as an NPR station.  It’s an interesting way to showcase talent and combines two of my favorite things: eating and live music.  I ordered a sandwich with a side of eggplant fries.  They were good and tasted kind of like sweet potato fries.  Now I’m wondering how many other vegetables would taste good cut into thin strips and fried like that.

The first band was Zydeco-A-Go-Go.  Alan happened across an authentic Zydeco bar in LaFayette, Louisiana last summer while on vacation—one of those places tourists don’t usually know about.  I like anything Cajun.  Laissez les bon temps roullez!

Next, a blues band named The Dukes of Destiny took the stage.  The harmonica is my favorite blues instrument and they had a great harmonica player.  The lead singer sounded like a big black girl, which is never a bad thing when it comes to blues.  Alan informed me she was white.  It took a while, but I finally could see he was right.

It was interesting to see a blues band up North.  I know it’s popular in Chicago, but it was born in the South.  It occured to me that jazz, zydeco, country, gospel, and rock-n-roll were also invented in the South.  We’ve exported more culture to the rest of the country than they care to think about.  You’re welcome, y’all.

During a break, the harmonica player came around with a clipboard to get e-mail addresses.  I bought a couple of CDs from him.  The zydeco band and blues band each did another set before we left around midnight. 

Sunday we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It’s a big place and we saw only a small part of it.  My favorite part was the medieval armor.  It would have made me claustrophobic to wear that stuff.  Alan was good about reading the information to me next to pieces I wanted to know more about.  Lucky for me, I could get pretty close to most of the paintings and see the detail.  I’m glad I can still see well enough to do that.

There were some impressive old stained glass works, colonial furniture, and old Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art.  It had been too long, I realized, since I’d had a culture fix.

Stained glass at Philadelphia Museum of Art

On the way out, I had my “Rocky pose” photo made on the steps.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask someone or rent the movie.

On Monday, we took a walk in Valley Green at Wissahickon Park where Alan rides his bike.  There’s an old inn from the 1850s still in operation.  The hills made it seem like it wasn’t in the middle of a big city.

My time in Philly was drawing to a close, but there was still one thing I had to do before leaving: try an authentic Philly Cheese Steak sandwich.  I love a good Philly.  It’s my default order when I go to a restaurant with a long list of sandwiches on the menu and nothing jumps out at me.

We went to Pat‘s King of Steaks, which is a well-known Philly place.  Up to this point, everyone I encountered had been very polite to me.  Alan said it must be because of my disability, because that’s not how everyone there acts.  At Pat‘s, there was an impatient, East Coast, big-city kinda guy working at the window who barked at people to order and keep moving.  Finally!  I got treated just like a local and, for once, I enjoyed being served attitude with my food.  It was all outdoor seating, which would have been great if it had been about ten degrees warmer.  The cheese on our sandwiches wasn’t even melted.  I told Alan he needed to try a Philly in Arkansas, where it’s served on a buttered, toasted bun.  In this part of the country we find a way to make everything more fattening and better tasting.

After eating, we drove around the working-class Italian neighborhood near Pat’s.  Alan pointed out where a Mafioso was gunned down several years ago.  Then it was time to go to the airport.

The same guy who escorted me when I arrived took me to security on my return.  On the plane between Philadelphia and O’Hare, I thought about how I need to get out more.  In some ways, I had dreaded the trip, thinking it would tire me out, that flying with my vision as it is now would be stressful.  But, I had gotten a healthy dose of the city—the kind of life I’ve missed since having to leave Austin in 1991 when my vision and kidneys started failing.  It was good to be reminded that I’m not as cut-off from the world as I think I am.  I’ll probably never have the fast-paced urban life I had in Dallas, when all I had to do was show up at the airport, flash my airline ID, and hop on a plane.  But, there are still plenty of things to experience, places to see, and people willing to assist me with all of it.

At O’Hare, I got to ride on one of those motorized carts.  The driver had to beep the horn at distracted people in the concourse, oblivious to us behind them.  That would be a fun job—a nice combination of people-watching and power.  Then I was on a much smaller jet back to XNA.  I overheard the familiar accent of Northwest Arkansas.  Shortly after landing, I found out this part of the state had been shaken by an earthquake centered near Oklahoma City.

It was a well-timed vacation in more ways than one.