Thursday, April 28, 2016

Blood Thicker Than Water

I have a slight confession. There are many things I have hated about the cancer experience, absolutely hated. But one of the pluses, a tiny one is that because I now have cancer I am not allowed to donate blood. See, I have the universal donor type and so before all this, at my employer's they had a van come through once every three months. I had done it twice in college and both times all but passed out, turning a shade of green. They had encouraged me then to do it regularly since my blood could be used so much... I never passed up an opportunity to do so that came up but I never sought one out but at work it came every three months, so I did it each time. Still after the diagnosis came up, there was this instruction about no caffeine or alcohol (I responded with the joke about rum and coke, don't they cancel each other out). There was the one about no more soccer (finished and won the league I was in). Then there was the one about never donating blood again and I all but smiled (might not have been that reaction had I known how many needles I was going to be taking in over the next several years; at Duke I stopped counting from check in to surgery the number of pokes; unlike on Facebook they were only annoying and nothing good came out of it!).

So when I had a medical appointment this week that was theoretically just a check up, I was less than happy because it seems a rare appointment comes without blood being drawn. That thought got bypassed when I arrived for the appointment because my doctor had moved. She was now in the exact same complex as Kiana had been born in. I didn't know if that made perfect sense or was non sense or was some zen circle of life type of thing. I've been in many medical complexes in the last few years but I was in the exact same parking lot I had once put in Kiana's first car seat.

There was long conversation about general states of health and medication management. They had asked if it was okay if a medical student watched the appointment (I get that asked at a lot of medical appointments; maybe that's true for everyone or maybe the doc goes man you gotta see this crazy case. I always roll my eyes and say we've had cameras in here, I can handle a medical student). I honestly don't remember her name and she was off to the side but perhaps the reason I like it is because there's a fresh audience for my jokes of someone whose not used to the irreverence that I treat medical appointments with; she laughed more than anyone else in the room. When we talked about the state of my ear for some reason my doctor said I had "handsome ear canals." That's a part of my body I've never been complimented on by the way. We talked about the state of my feet in which well if you've ever wanted to give me a gift a pedicure for each toe would probably only get me halfway there. I joked that apparently any girl with a foot fetish would never be my type but those girls that like ear canals... I mean obviously it means I'm a good listener ;).

Still the conversation ended with that there would be unexpected and more thorough blood work the
next morning. I had to re schedule a run and a meeting because of it and the medical staff said I had to do the blood work fasting, so no breakfast. Isn't that just asking your patients to get hangry? I arrived there and never know what to do with the fact that I am almost always the youngest person in the waiting room. That was definitely true by a couple of decades this time. There were two guys there, one very quiet and one who had no capacity for keeping his thoughts to himself. It was a fascinating distraction because he clearly said everything out loud. The thoughts he wanted to share he'd say out loud to himself and then to the person who he was directing them to. I didn't make much conversation with them other than to find out that they were veterans who had stayed friends after their service. It's times like these I wish I knew a little more about military tattoos. The one who had provided the ride seemed like the one with more health issues, breathing in and out with the aid of an oxygen tank. Finally he said to himself and then to his friends "we've been waiting for an hour and 15 minutes; this is dumb. I'm going to go home and sleep and you call me when you're done and I'll come get you." Almost word for word, he directed at his friend who quieted him down and asked him to wait which he did.

There was a problem with the insurance processing computer so that was the hold up apparently. I'd been there almost an hour and a half before they called my name. I thought that meant they were ready for me but all it meant was I had finally been put in the system and then they handed me that thing that vibrates whenever it's called. I've long ago made peace for waiting during medical appointments, that's the name of the room after all but this was atypically long. I hadn't brought anything to read or do so I just kept absorbing the room quietly, some looks of fear going in and out, others trying to be stoic, others of relief.

I was there to test my cholesterol primarily along with other possible side effects of the medication. It is a dumb dumb thing to google side effects of medication while you're waiting for blood work because you start reading because you read the honest and true, sometimes exaggerated sometimes played down stories and all of a sudden you're deep in the rabbit hole. People who were athletes like me whose cholesterol went up prematurely or unnaturally (the nurse the day before had said they had seen it spike up decades earlier than they did in people without the medication). They end up having to take medication to mess with cholesterol that reduces their athletic ability which makes other side effects worse. The day before the medical appointment I had run 10 miles on a Tuesday (I've never ran that long on a Tuesday) just continuing to remind myself that the grim reaper catches up to us all but I want to make sure to make him work for it. Was I projecting or receiving feelings from the people around the room, I don't know but I kept checking in on those two friends who had served together and I think were now the definition of blood brothers.

Perhaps it's because I'm afraid of needles. Perhaps it's because the wait was so long but somehow as I
waited I was lucky enough to receive an email that the pictures from the Spartan Super were up.
See Kiana had done a Spartan Super. It was the most ground she'd ever covered in one day, a little over 8 miles with lots of obstacles. Officially kids aren't allowed till their 14 on there and so anytime anyone asked how old she was, I said she was 14 for the day with a nod and wink. She always answered 9 honestly and gave me a bit of a glare. Our deal was that she would try all the obstacles by herself before I'd help. She would take help in almost none of them. I'd see her pull a heavy sled entirely by herself with an adult woman unable to do next to her. I'd see her jump down an 8 foot wall without fear (which scared the crap out of me). I'd see her go in water that was shallow enough for most adults to walk through but that required her swimming. I'd made her do her own set of 30 burpees for each obstacle she failed the same way I had been made to. I'd seen her pass adults who were impressed; one just like her 10k 2 weeks previously called her the exact same thing, wonder woman. I'd seen her panic before jumping over the fire and even as I tried to get her to do it on her own realizing she wasn't quite there and scooping her up and jumping with her at the end. Still in my book she had always been super but now she had a medal that made it official. The official photographers hadn't caught it all but caught enough to where I started looking through some of my own pictures and some of the ones grandma had caught.

For a guy who posts too much on it, I'm actually fairly critical of how often we miss the company in front of us to share our life with other people who aren't there so I try to put my phone away more. But perhaps, a medical lab room is the right place to go through social media and remember not just why but who has kept you alive. There were pictures there of the people who had joined us from the Spartan, once again the friend I've had the longest who I joined in Houston though she was separate from us at that point, I was keeping Kiana's pace. But almost step for step joining us was Alex Street, a friend who had flown to Duke while I was there and helped me and my mother during my last appointments before I came back. This is one of those friends from that time who had watched me with staples in my head and IV's. He is absolutely a blood brother. We have done other events together before but it felt appropriate that someone who had been there for my brain surgery, my mid life crisis was now joining Kiana and I for a little mud life.

I reflected, remembered the Spartan some more. Kiana did the kids one after, looking and feeling exhausted while doing one more mile than I would. To me that was actually the more impressive moment as she went over one of the kid's wall she saw someone else struggling and reached out and grabbed both their hand and feet and pulled them up.  Grandma was there at the end to give us all hugs and warnings about how no one better have made Kiana do anything to hard :). Here's hoping she doesn't check out the pictures of Kiana flipping over a tire all by herself. Mom, you don't read this blog right? I think if you look at those pictures of me in media I've got the right posed smile for that but if you look at the one of me watching Kiana be super girl, well that's the best and most natural smile I've got. That's what I've been staying alive for in many ways. My parenting philosophy is first you gotta give them roots but then you gotta give them wings. Some parts of watching them take wings is harder. This wasn't one of those times.

I looked back at what we had done the night before and gone on a bat cruise with a place I volunteered at. We were the only one who danced to the music and even though many were, we danced like no one was watching. I reflected on a recent triathlon that I had signed up with way too little notice but had signed up with a friend who was there the night the cancer started and who would beat me in that triathlon by about 20 seconds but I'm not bitter. I looked back at the picture of the friends who had met because she was visiting me as the cancer stuff got started and now they're engaged. They asked me to conduct the ceremony almost exactly 6 years after they met. See, who says I'm rubbish at weddings?

I don't know how much time passed between the buzzer being handed to me and me looking at those pictures and then it suddenly going off. It went by a lot faster than that other time had when I was absorbing the room. But those were the images I re-played through my head as they were drawing the blood with my eyes closed. My own blood was draining out my arm and making me light headed and uncomfortable with what results would come. There are people who always say well this is just routine follow up. I never know what to do with that comment. When this is all started it was just hey "we'll just do a CAT scan but that may not tell us anything"... then it was an MRI... then a biopsy... then brain surgery... then blood word which suggested the seizures weren't under control... then neuropsychological... then EKG... then EEG... etc etc. They were all theoretically routine at some level but they all showed some things wrong and some things right that on certain days, I'd almost rather not know.

I had gone long enough without eating or perhaps they had taken enough out that I was really light headed. This is when I needed a sugar mama not to pay the bills but to provide some Mexican coke or wine or ice cream or something just to feel better. I sat for a while before getting back to driving and thinking wait, I'm still driving and it's been almost 2 years of doing so!

The results would take a day. I skipped the crossfit workout I was supposed to have at noon since the wait had gone so long and that seemed less than safe but later I would do hill repeats with a weight vest. This was also the first time that Kiana ran with a weight vest (mine was 25 lbs, hers was 2.5). When the blood work came in, they were intense on lots of levels but everything was within normal range. Having lived in England, I couldn't help but say it was bloody good.

I went and looked at the pictures one more time that I had visioned during the blood test. Somehow it struck me that perhaps by happenstance or sheer coincidence again, every race Kiana has done this year, the Rogue Distance Festival, the Paramount 5k, the Gusher 5k, the Cap 10k and now the Spartan Super were without exception ones in which I'd been interviewed and filmed for articles in too many place. In none of them were there now cameras focused on me and it was better this way. I was never in it for anything other than to share time with people I care about and somehow the privacy in a public place was welcome. All I had been trying to do then and now was give Kiana a place to write her own name. She had done it on the Spartan wall before we raced. I hope someday she realizes that the reason I have ran with some of those friends, family and with her through roads, mud is that the people who were there for the health crisis were all family forged in blood. I hope she keeps realizing these bonds is why blood is thicker than water.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

This Is My Fight Song

T. S. Eliot once said that "good writers borrow, great writers steal." Actually I wrote that shortly after I invented my time machine but TS Eliot took it shortly afterwards and has been getting credit ever since. A rudimentary look at this blog and its titles in particular shows that a whole lot of it, like today's start is quotes. Some are from speeches or nods to writing. I am even secure enough to quote artists and poets. But the vast majority of them are from songs, this online adventure often feeling like the soundtrack of my life. People ask where I get my song since so many that I quote are so old (like from the 80's and 90's). There's a simple reason for that and it's that I pretty much never listen to the radio so any more modern songs are because of something I saw in a movie  or show and I end up downloading the song. 

But recently, in February, I was inspired by Justin Bieber (you're welcome to judge me for that... how you're judging me, let's just say it probably reflects how I'd judge you in return). I was in the shuttle for the Coaches vs Cancer event and they had the radio on and it was playing a song that said "My momma don't like you and she likes everyone." That particular day I didn't catch anything else or know who the artist was but I realized I was sounding more like my grandpa and thought "What are the kids listening to these days?!" This event was after all something for young adult cancer basketball players that had been billed to people 18-35. I was the oldest person that met the criterion and therefore the oldest in the van and everyone else seemed to know the tune and know a lot more about Justin Bieber than I did. So I made a resolution to be cooler and to listen to the radio when I was in my car on the current hits station till the finals...Let's just say that while there were some good songs, I've made peace with being old quickly and just putting on my own old tunes.

But even if it led to listening to all those songs, I still appreciated the Coaches vs Cancer experience. I practiced basketball for the first time in a couple of decades (my skill level reflected that). Still I wanted to go in with that you can't teach height, you can show hustle. Me and a local Livestrong Friend got to do an interview or two before we went with local stations promoting it. I sent the one where I was actually playing to the Doctor that did my surgery with a gigantic thank you. I was at Duke during March Madness and that positive energy there helped the recovery. They were out of it by the time I won it but I still cheered for them in my own way. My doctor wrote back a nice note (classy guy, 5 years post surgery still corresponds on a personal level anytime I write) and he loved that the video showed us both wearing Duke gear. Somehow the fact that we're both still fighting cancer in our own way, still standing was a great March highlight. The round by round bracket ended up raising $700,000 for the American Cancer Society and some of the highlights ended being in a commercial. Me and all the others who did it stepped into it for that purpose but because it was used for media purposes for infiniti we all ended up getting some payments according to the Screen Actors Guild (does getting paid for that make me able to put professional basketball player or professional actor on my resume??). The checks came in various amounts  for it being used on cable on broadcast etc at different time. Once upon a time I received a staff of different bills from being in one place for cancer things and this time I received a stack of checks for being in one place. The checks have already been put towards debt but maybe these nods to Duke, march madness all show how the universe is kind enough to balance itself out. The game itself was on April 1st so I was wondering if the craziness of all this was not just some really elaborate April Fool's joke since it was beyond March Madness. 

We were asked to write a thank you note to the sponsors and even here a week removed, I'm not sure what I'm most grateful for. It's a long list of blessings: getting to step into NRG for the first time not as spectators but as athletes, getting to be spectators during the Final Four Semifinals and what has to be one of the greatest March Madness Finals ever when Villanova sank that shot. Still, that cannot compare to the things we won't get to spectate, what that money raised will mean there will be less people sidelined by cancer in any form shape or manner. I used to volunteer for a "Post-Polio" group in high school that helped people who had gone through polio with the side effect but I've never seen polio because we've all but eradicated. I hope somewhere not too far in the future there's some high school kid whose talking to previous cancer patients who doesn't quiet have a concept of how cancer used to affect so many people since it's not really around anymore as a disease. Still for me the greatest thing in life is still relationships and the friendships that have come out of this far extend the parts of our bodies that were damaged. One of the teammates went home and proposed. Another went home because despite having testicular cancer, his wife was now pregnant and his swimmers worked. Another had his twins recently born in his hands shortly after the game. Others brought their wives or fathers. And hanging out with enough young people with cancer made me, an old man realize that maybe it was time to grow up enough to at least be open to going to prom. We had to play against each other and yeah we kept the score but in the end I think that was not the biggest win. The progress and work was done. I even had some fun switching roles with the coach Jim Harrick who has an NCAA ring!

Still I got home and showed Kiana the commercial which she thought was kind of cool. That is the beauty of raising a little girl who gets fascinated by birds and flowers and only a little impressed by the media stuff; I'm not sure which one of us has the better perspective on it. She had been sick the weekend I was gone, nothing too serious but enough to where the girl who usually sleeps in the top bunk was sleeping in the bottom to keep tissues and a trash can for that coughing and mucus that builds up as you lay down. We both had 10k's that weekend. I was running the Longhorn Run that I'd encouraged people to do the 10k for several years but had never actually done it... Gotta put your money where your mouth once in a while. Kiana was doing the Cap 10k which was going to be her hilliest run yet. For both, the weather was looking hot and humid. 

Mom was in town for the weekend so I got to get away for the first one while everyone slept in (Kiana is not a morning girl, making her get up to watch one race and do another would have resulted in revolt!). Because my parents were in town I moved all the stuff to where I was staying (Kiana's room) and forgot the plugs. Both my iPod and watch were on very low battery. The battery would run out the iPod as I entered the loneliest section of the race in which I heard a song being played on the side I didn't know till the last couple of months, "this is my fight song." Well... let's just say that's what played in my head the last couple of miles. As always I was gunning for a PR but couldn't quite hold it on a course with some serious hills and missed it by a few seconds per mile, a little over twenty seconds total. Still, I was the first non student placer and there were students from both of the classes I've gotten to speak to this year who came up and said hi as I showed them what the T-shirt said that I was in for the Long (horn) run. Even got to take a picture with the mascot during the awards presentation. Call me a simple man but that was as exciting as some of the celebrities I got to meet during the Final Four weekend. 

Kiana getting up the next morning she still had some snot. I tried to teach her how to blow snot rockets while running. The weather was rough and she had gotten the option of bowing out of the Cap 10k race (that got an immediate no). I asked her if she wanted to  try to PR or just run this one. since her first race in over 2 years she has not ever missed a PR. I mean I'm still Pr'ing once in a while but that kind of streak is unbelievable to me. So I paced her on her hilliest race yet while wearing a weight vest. Truth is she was struggling, pretty much the entire time. At the halfway point, I asked her if she wanted to ease up cause we'd have to speed up a little to get her fastest. She said let's keep trying. There was someone dressed in a Spiderman costume around there and clearly seeing her struggle I tried to make her laugh or at least distract her. She actually kept going back and forth with "spiderman" and I was like see Spiderman's not a good runner, that's why he uses those web things to move fast cause he can't run very well (small smile). Another good adult said, "that's not a little girl cause I don't get beat by little girl. That's wonder woman!)" (small smile). She actually got talked to more partly I think cause it was clear she was trying but more than likely cause it's the biggest race she's ever been a part of (20K+). I was impressed with her politeness even in the midst of the pain. Somewhere between wanting to pick her up and carry her in I just said, "sweetheart sometimes when you work hard it's supposed to hurt." Perhaps not my best choice of words because she started crying then (not like sobbing but those it hurts tears; I've done that during races more than most places cause there you can't tell if it's tears or sweat). There was a lady who saw it and said "you're almost done; crying's not an option." I'm not sure it was any wiser choice of words but I said "Crying's okay; quitting's not." That is my parental and life philosophy that all of our emotions, sadness, frustration, anger all serve their purpose which is why they are built into the system but I concede that saying that towards the end of a tough 10k may not be my wisest move. Then unexpectedly a big smile came across her face and she said "Did you see that sign?" There were tons of signs so upon asking for clarification she said the one that said "Go, random stranger, go" and she followed up with, "next time we go cheer a race let's make a sign that says that." The smile didn't last till the end of the race but it lasted a bit and somehow I think it was the fuel that got her to her fastest 10k ever by just about 20 seconds despite tough conditions internally and externally. Pam Leblanc, a reporter turned friend caught a picture of us shortly after the finish line, where you can see the smile I usually have after a tough race. It's a look that you're not sure whether the happiness is covering the exhaustion or the other way around. Three years ago she wrote a story about how I was doing that race but couldn't do it with a stroller but I'd go on to PR. Let me just say that this picture and this race meant far more than the one in the paper ever will. Let's just say we stuck around the kid's zone as long as Kiana wanted afterwards and then we enjoyed brunch at a restaurant and Netflix when we got home. 

I'm amused at how hard we work to impress strangers on social media sometimes. The age of selfies and following, trying to rack up more followers or hearts or likes is something I don't completely comprehend (says the guy who posts his journal on the internet). But there was something that I said to our assistant coach when he was asked if he'd been touched by cancer and he said no. My reaction was simple, "It is exactly those types of people that are necessary for us to beat cancer." While I stand by that neither self nor strangers shouldn't come before family and friends (we do that often and call it work obligations, hobbies etc), humanity's best chance is when we're open to other people's experiences from next to them or even by the sidelines cheering a random stranger. It seems all of my social media posts or blog posts pretty much say the same thing (hang out with people you care about, get some exercise). It's that kind of logic why I don't entirely get the popularity of one of the songs from the radio "This is my fight song" because if you have to have a song that says it that basic how clever is that, why should something that corny or cheesy  be catchy? But sometimes basics and fundamentals of connection help. You can do it a little tongue in cheek like SNL and remind yourself that "I'm smart enough, I'm good enough and doggone it people like me." But I am thankful for both myself and for Kiana that everyone once in a while there's someone on the side of the road with the right sign or the right song for a stranger. And I loved that even as she was smiling from it before her race was over, she was wanting to make that sign and go cheer a race with it. So I hope that once in a while we also get to be that stranger, those angels unaware and perhaps,

Like a small boat
On the ocean
Sending big waves
Into motion
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion

If you're wondering where I got that poem from above, well I wrote it. Don't believe me, ask TS Eliot.