Change is Inevitable

Although I was unwilling to change to fit my ex-students’ way of seeing and dealing with the world, like it or not, I have begun to change the way I see the world because of my recent throat cancer surgery. Although some of these changes are relatively minor, others seem far-reaching.

Unable to eat for over a month and being forced to rely on cases of Hershey’s ProBalance, fondly referred to as "yellow sludge," I may never again eat a Hershey’s candy bar. I did, however, gain a new respect for Round Table pizza, for me the ultimate measure of recovery. I will celebrate my victory in the hard-fought battle to re-learn to eat with a feast at my local pizza parlor.

Constantly fighting for breath and trying to clear my tracheotomy gave me a new appreciation of the problems my brother, and others, went through fighting asthma. It is truly terrifying when you can’t breathe, even if you know that you will be able to breathe in a few moments if you do what you need to do.

Not sleeping a whole night through for over two months gave me more empathy for a friend who suffers from intermittent sleep problems. It’s hard to take much of anything seriously when you’re always tired.

Being unable to speak for over a month and only being able to communicate through writing, I realized how frustrating and alienating such a disability can be. Unless people really reach out to you, it just seems easier to withdraw into yourself and forget about trying to communicate with others. The longer you go without communicating with others, the greater the temptation to withdraw further into yourself. Such alienation can be confusing and frightening, even when you know, as I did, that it is only temporary.

On a more positive note, such a withdrawal is almost like entering a monastic retreat where you can look deeper into yourself, because there are no outside distractions. That’s what I chose to do. When you spend a month doing little besides examining yourself, you’re bound to gain new insights, for better or for worse.

The greatest realization is one that should have always been obvious, but wasn’t. Life is finite. While recovering from this surgery, for the first time in my life I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, wasn’t sure I wanted to endure this kind of pain. I never once had that feeling in all my fire-fights in Vietnam. I never had that feeling with my first encounter with cancer twenty-three years ago.

The only time I have ever vaguely felt that way was when my father died after several ravaging heart attacks and when my mother died after suffering from Alzheimer’s. My time, like there’s, is limited. And I have never lived my life as if that was true.

Some people live their life in the past like “Richard Cory” or “Glory Days,” but that’s never appealed to me. Figuring there’s little I can do about the past, I have few regrets in my life. Why regret what you can’t change? My daughter once accused me of being the “least sentimental” person she ever knew. In a sense, she may be right. I love where I am now; so, why should I spend time looking back?

I have, unfortunately, lived much of my life in the future. “When I retire, I’m going to:” Read all the books I started buying when I was in college. Learn electronics. Take advantage of all those neat woodworking tools I haven’t had time to use. Finish the yard. Change my life. Attain enlightenment

Now, however, it seems that trying to live in the future is just as destructive as trying to live in the past. Both deny the moment its due.

Perhaps I’ve sensed this for a while now. Maybe my increasing interest in Zen was the result of realizing that I’ve tended to live beyond the moment rather than in the moment, and that in doing so I wasn’t really living at all.

Be that as it may, I have resolved to change my ways: to start reading the books I’ve stored up for the future (I hope I still find them interesting) instead of buying new ones, to use the tools I have now rather than looking for new ones to buy (unless, of course, I absolutely need it to finish an old project), to master and apply old skills rather than trying to learn new ones, and to finish old projects rather than planning new ones.

I’m going to try to live my life as if there is no tomorrow, not in the hedonistic sense of “eat, drink and be merry,” though there’s certainly nothing too bad about that, but in the sense of trying to make the most of every day and finishing what I’ve started rather than leaving loose ends around for someone else to have to pick up.

Got Those Down Home Christmas Blues

Say what you wants, if your blog ain’t honest, it probably ain’t worth reading. Ain’t any other way to put it. I’m BLUE. And there ain’t nuthin’ I can duz about it. I’m blue.

Yes, I knows it’s my own fault. Don’t tell me I made my choice to have surgery before Christmas and I’ll be better sooner this way. Don’t tell me again I look better every day and I’m getting’ better faster than most folks do.

I be grateful folks done gone out of their way to make my Christmas as good as possible. It be great to know folks care enough about you to goes out of their way to make things better.

Ain’t no denying, though, that this is going to be a blue Christmas, just likes my favorite Christmas of all, the one in Vietnam when was waiting for my traveling papers

Though I only occasionally feels the kind of pain that I needs pain relievers for, I feel blue almost all the time. I ain’t slept a whole night through for over two months. When I first go to bed I’z greeted bys a fifteen minutes coughing fit. A good night is one where I sleeps three hours straight what with a damn feeding tube hanging outta your nose and a humidifier sucking on your trachea.

Eating yellow sludge from a tube ain’t exactly inspiring, neither, particularly since my favorite part of Christmas is the food. I usually gains an extra ten pounds from Thanksgiving to New Years. This year I’z having a tough time forcing down the number of cans of liquid food they says I need to maintain my weight. Nestle’s yellow sludge is just plain awful. Sad to think them folks make candy bars. I’z have trouble keeping it down, and it don’t even sit too well when I do keep it down. Never again goin’ complain about oatmeal breakfast.

I’z mostly tired of the hacking. Hacking may keeps my lungs free, but it makes my whole body ache. I get a headache because the doctor done changed the “wiring” in my neck when he stripped those glands from my neck. The food is in my stomach seems to be forced up into my esophagus because of the feeding tube. Bodily fluids are forcefully expelled from my tracheotomy, everywhere, unless I remembers to cover the hole in my throat instead of my mouth. It’s miserable. Ain’t no other ways to see it.

And shore enough it’s sunny outside. First sun in months, and I can’t go nowhere ‘cause my tracheotomy don’t allow no cold air. The mountains around are covered with the best snow in years and I can’t snowshoe or cross country ski until I get this tracheotomy outta my throat.

I knows from experience that this, too, gonna pass, but then something just as awful done gonna take its place.

Those blues don’t never go away; they just sits there waiting alongside the road ‘til you travels by.

Back, Well, Almost Back

This may be a rather inauspicious start, but I am back home and starting to think about my blog again. Not a lot, but a little.

I did want friends and regular readers to know that I made it successfully through my operation but will need to continue to recover through the next month. I actually got out of the hospital early, Wednesday, but spent most of the time at home since just surviving and taking care of myself.

I must admit that I underestimated the extent of this four and a half hour operation. Good thing, too, or I might not have had the nerve to go through it. The doctors kept telling me how good I looked and let me out in less than the original 5-7 day minimum, but I am still avoid looking at myself and at the swelling around my throat.in the mirror

At times I felt like I wasn’t going to make it through recovery Friday night and Saturday. I couldn’t push my pain button fast enough. There was apparently a 6 minute delay between doses of morphine being administered to keep the patient from overdosing, but there were times I must have pushed the button twenty times before anything happened.

I don’t remember many details, nor do I want to. However, the one image that kept reoccurring and kept me going during all the hallucinations and pain was a vision of me holding my grandson Gavin with his arm around my neck pointing forward with his other hand and saying, “Patah.” I kept imagining that his arm around my neck cooled the burning in my neck and had super-healing powers and that somehow he knew where we should be going. I followed.

At the moment I can't eat except through tubes and I can't talk. So, once I get through the initial symptoms of the surgery, I should have more time than usual to devote to this site.

The Terrible Abyss

When I started writing this weblog right after September 11th, I was primarily concerned about the crisis our nation was facing and how we would deal with it. My hope was that we might learn something about ourselves as a nation and deal with Afghanistan in a more enlightened way then we had dealt with the Middle East in the past. In some ways, I was attempting to use these pages to talk to someone other than myself about what I felt were failures in our government’s policies. In some ways, I think America has done a better job in this war than might have been expected, even though we may well be facing an entirely new Constitutional crisis in the way we deal with aliens and those who are suspected of aiding and abetting terrorists.

Suddenly, though, that my concern over the nation’s problems has taken a backseat to my own personal crisis. In the last month-and-a-half I have discovered that I have a large cancerous tumor in my throat and have had to examine the different treatments available, none of which are very good, and decide which of these treatments I will try. In essence, I have been making life-and-death decisions and decisions about the quality of life almost daily over the last two weeks.

I’m not writing this to complain about my health or to garner sympathy for I’m getting more than enough of that. I am saying, though, that the philosophical positions I have been exploring on these pages have suddenly taken on a new importance and have influenced the way I have dealt with these problems. To the extent that these philosophies have allowed me to make calm, rational decisions based on my value system, I have been happy with them. However, when I feel unable to make a decision or when after talking to a doctor, I just want to give up and go to sleep for the night at 5:00, I feel my philosophy has failed me and I need to re-examine my beliefs.


Obviously, I would rather not be going through this right now. Just as I would rather not have gone through the Vietnam War, my first fight with thyroid cancer, or my divorce. However, I truly believe that moments like this, if we survive them, help us to get more out of life. By forcing us to see our life’s decisions in the hard glare of critical decisions, we can begin to see how strong our beliefs are and whether or not they truly help us to make decisions when we need to. They force us to consider whether we are wasting our lives when there are more important things to be done and to decide what really is important.

After I have had my upcoming surgery, I will be unable to eat, except through a tube, or talk for several weeks. I plan on spending those weeks reading and meditating. There is no better way to see life than to see the abyss that surrounds it.

So the abyss—
The slippery cold heights,
After the blinding misery,
The climbing, the endless turning,
Strikes like a fire,
A terrible violence of creation,
A flash into the burning heart of the abominable;
Yet if we wait, unafraid, beyond the fearful instant,
The burning lake turns into a forest pool,
The fire subsides into rings of water,
A sunlit silence.

from Theodore Roethke’s “The Abyss” in The Far Field