Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Not Alone

I’ve known Jeff and Jane since we were back in the big hair days of high school together. Jeff was a swimmer and I gave competitive swimming a shot during my junior year. There were things I liked about it, but in the end, I didn’t have that level of athleticism. But because the solitary nature of competitive swimming pushes self-discipline to the front of one’s character, it carried me through collegiate level athletics where I was the manager for the Naval Academy’s swimming and water polo teams, experiences that cost me academically, but enriched me in other ways.  I may not have graduated with the best of grades, but the fact that I’m in great physical condition says it was time well spent and a discipline well worth fostering. It may very well have saved my life. Jeff was a classic swimmer guy – obviously very athletic, very quiet and to himself, and as I remember, pretty smart, too. Had I stuck with the team, I think we’d have been pretty decent friends and I’d have had a far less rebellious senior year!

Fast forward a few years to the first high school reunion I attended. It was a typical reunion where we’re sizing each other up and Jeff has a beautiful young lady on his arm – his high school sweetheart - who had somehow managed to maintain that twinkle in her eye and a genuine smile. Her cheerleader pedigree offset his brooding swimmer introversion, one that I still have, even if I don’t get to swim all that often anymore. I enjoy being around people, but I recharge my batteries in solitude. I’ve gravitated to physical activity that I can do alone or with others – hiking, cycling, and skiing, for example. Yeah, I’m a classic introvert, but you’d never know it by how I can walk into a room and talk up a storm with everyone. Just ask the nurses!

Fast forward another decade and I find myself looking at pictures of a strong young man who is following in his father’s footsteps, except that he has some added weight he's tugging through the water - he has cancer. I was amazed at how people came from out of the woodwork to actually give support and make donations. It’s the sort of thing that restores your faith in humanity amid the crazy polarization that politicians and talking heads keep trying to drive us toward. When I moved home to Utah about a year later, I was shocked to find out their son Stephen lost his battle. It would be only a few weeks later when I received my own diagnosis of another kind of blood cancer – leukemia – and receiving Jeff and Jane in my own hospital room.
The button kinda says it all. The night it was given to me,
I didn't fully appreciate just how true it was!
Jane, somehow managing to keep me smiling throughout the visit, put a button on the table next to my hospital bed. It read “No One Fights Alone.” Jeff and Jane were the tip of the iceberg. The outpouring of support I, myself received, overwhelmed me.  It stretched literally around the world and it took nothing for me to tear up with a kind of gratitude that I just couldn’t grasp. I think it embodies that thing we attempt to call unconditional love. People have just been there…because. And thankfully, many, many still are. How cool is that!

That night was almost four months ago.  It’s inconceivable that I’m still dealing with this, these months later, yet cancer is not something where you can take a course of antibiotics and get a check-up in a couple of weeks.  It takes several weeks to smack it down into remission and then there is the actual treatment to get it out permanently. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes a whole lotta pharmacological fun! You ain't seen nausea and icki-ness until you've tried this stuff!
I’ve been really amazed and gratified in that I’m finding that I’m not alone in other places either.  It seems that everywhere I go anymore, there’s someone who is a cancer survivor or connected first-hand to one. In the middle of nowhere in particular, I’ll get instant best wishes and offers of support and people whom I met remember me. Walking through the Utah Arts Festival last weekend, it wasn’t the tell-tale cue ball head, but a mesh sheath around someone’s left arm that was the flag. I’d recognize a PICC line anywhere! In no time, we were comparing scars, the quality of the mesh sleeve material, and the kinds of lumens on the catheter. All I can say is that the VA has hooked me up! I have a really nice mesh sleeve that protects my PICC line, but she clearly won the scar competition, so it was a draw. I think she was still jealous!  We had a good laugh and it was nice to bring a smile to another cancer compadre!
Seriously...look at the fuzzy hair and the
salt-and-pepper goatee! Problem is
I sound more like Nicholas Cage. Not
quite the crooner am I?!
Of course, there are those ubiquitous bald heads we all know so well from the movies! You can tell which of us are bald thanks to the toxic chemical goodness and those of us who have a maternal grandfather who had similar follicular challenges and have chosen to rock the look. It’s like seeing the car you just bought everywhere you drive, when before, you may have noticed one or two. There are a lot of guys out there who are able to make themselves downright studly sans-cheveux.  *I* dear friends, am not one of those guys.  I’ve been told that I have an academic look about me with my school boy spectacles, so it’s not necessarily bad, but it’ll never come across as Vin Diesel. Actually, I got called an “Eastern egghead” in a thick French accent at a swanky café on La Place Clichy in Paris, so there must be some smarty-pants vibe I give off. Truth be told, it wasn’t such a swanky place and after taking a good look at myself in the mirror at the hospital as I was shaving the other day, I wasn't so academic looking, but I do think my doppelganger is Billy Joel - moi, sans talent! In the meantime, I’ve accumulated some different hats in addition to the ball caps I already had prior to my induction to the cancer hall of fame.

All kidding aside – well, most, but not all of it – the single lesson I’ve learned is that you don’t have to know everything and you don’t have to even know the questions. That’s because when the chips are down, you’ll be amazed at who comes forward to stand with you, to be on your side, to be the one to pick you up, and pat the dust off of your hospital jammies. You are not alone, but you have to be willing to accept the help offered to you. It restores your faith in humankind and it births within you a sense of gratitude that just can’t be fully grasped until you’ve eaten a little dust.

No, you’re not alone…and that button Jeff and Jane gave me that says, “No One Fights Alone” is in plain sight to remind me of that fact. It’ll stay there until I can pass it on to someone else who needs that reminder. Hopefully, he or she will get that reminder in the flesh from many of those like me who have walked a mile in their shoes already.
Be well, stay strong, and much love to you all!
Music for the day: Not Alone from Red.
Slowly fading away, you're lost and so afraid
Where is the hope in a world so cold?
Looking for a distant light, someone who can save a life
You're living in fear that no one will hear your cry
Can you save me now?


I am with you, I will carry you through it all
I won't leave you, I will catch you
When you feel like letting go
'Cause you're not, you're not alone
Your heart is full of broken dreams, just a fading memory
And everything's gone but the pain carries on
Lost in the rain again, when will it ever end?
The arms of relief seem so out of reach

But I, but I am here
I am with you, I will carry you through it all
I won't leave you, I will catch you
When you feel like letting go
'Cause you're not, you're not alone


And I will be your hope when you feel like it's over
And I will pick you up when your whole world shatters
And when you're finally in my arms
Look up and see, love has a face
I am with you, I will carry you through it all
I won't leave you, I will catch you
When you feel like letting go
'Cause you're not, you're not alone


And I will be your hope, you're not alone
And I will pick you up
And I will be your hope
And I will be your hope
Slowly fading away, you're lost and so afraid
Where is the hope in a world so cold?