Just a Little Flicker

A few days ago Carole had gone for a walk down our road. When she came back home, she wanted me to go with her to look at something she had seen. At the corner of the neighbors’ fence there was a pile of leaves that had been blown against the fence. But there was also something else that appeared to be a mass of feathers. Looking more closely we determined that it was a bird, possibly a flicker, which seemed to have been caught in the fence where it died. Its eyes were open, but it was hanging head down and unmoving.

I moved closer to get a better look. From about four feet away I could see that it was indeed a female flicker. Her body was within the two-inch space between the two layers of the wire fence, the tip of her long beak rested on the ground, her feathers were all ruffled in disarray, her wings were spread and caught at odd angles in the two-inch-wide rectangular openings of the fencing material. I thought I might have seen just a little flicker of light in her eye, but it could have simply been a change of sunlight hitting the open eye.

I decided to move around to a different spot on the hillside where I would be able to get much closer to the bird. As I moved within a foot or so of the bird, there was absolutely no movement. It seemed that the flicker had been inside the fenced yard, possibly searching for food on the ground as they usually do. Perhaps she had been alarmed by the dogs in the yard, and had become entrapped while attempting to fly through the openings in the fence. Unable to free herself and getting more entangled by her struggles, she had ultimately died.

Saddened to realize what had happened to this beautiful creature, I reached out my hand to gently stroke her soft feathers—a gesture to comfort myself since I knew the flicker would not feel my touch. But the bird suddenly cried out, tried to move her wings again in another futile effort to free herself. Startled, but ecstatic that the flicker was still alive I began trying to determine what I could do. A flicker is a large bird, bigger than a blue jay but smaller than a crow, with a wingspan between sixteen and twenty inches. But this flicker’s wings appeared so delicate and they were spread in different directions through the holes in the fence. Hoping that she was not already injured and that I would not add to any injury she might have already sustained, I tried to help with an escape. She remained calm and still as I moved my hands around her. Supporting the flicker’s chest and head with one hand, I began moving the wings, pushing the tips of each wing back until I could maneuver it into the same small opening with the bird’s body. When both wings were finally folded in close to the flicker’s body, she was compact enough to fit through the fence opening and slide down onto the ground.

We didn’t know whether or not the flicker was injured, but feared that either wings or legs might have been broken in her struggle or in my rescue efforts. The flicker sat still for a few moments looking around, no doubt exhausted from her ordeal as she was hanging in the fence for however long and trying to escape from that trap. Then she stumbled forward a foot or two and looked up toward Carole and back toward me. Just as we exclaimed with excitement that the flicker could move, she suddenly shot up into the air, flew over the fence and across the yard, and disappeared into the woods beyond.

We were ecstatic. Wow! What joy. A few minutes before, we were distressed that this beautiful but unfortunate bird had been trapped and died. And now we had seen her soar back into the trees. It had turned into a very good afternoon.

Yesterday as I was looking out one of our windows at an eastern phoebe who has apparently returned to our homeplace for another year of nesting and raising a family, I saw something much larger moving among the leaves on the ground. It was a male flicker. We don’t often see them close around the house; usually they are farther out near the garden or flying among the spruce trees. And then the male was joined by a female flicker, both of them searching among the leaves for a morning meal and climbing up the nearby tree trunks. I’d like to think that this was the same female flicker I had helped get free from the fence. Maybe she came around to let me know she was OK. If so, she is now happily back where she belongs and that makes me very happy as well.

Northern Flicker      Photo: Docent Joyce (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons

More Names from 1952 and Pictures from 1960

Thanks to Betsy Walker Chambers I have a few names to add to my attempted identification of the kids in the North Charleston Elementary School first grade classes photo which I posted recently. As before, I would urge you to view the pictures on the largest screen possible so you can enlarge the image to see the faces more clearly. The additions to the spreadsheet are highlighted in a pinkish color. Also Teka Rogers Pierce advised that I was wrong in my guess that she was in the picture since she didn’t attend NCES until later. Likewise, Al Hall, Randy Wright, and Sherry Johnson Gooding were not in first grade at NCES so we shouldn’t look for their cute younger faces.

I would love to have names to put with all of our classmates. If you can identify others or at least point out your own younger self, I would really appreciate a brief message with that info so I can update the spreadsheet later. Carole recently was delighted to access a photo from 1920 showing and naming the staff and student body of the small school in Jackson County, North Carolina, where her grandfather was principal. Our class photo with names might make some future researcher very happy.

I also found the 1960 edition of the North Charleston High School yearbook online. Since I don’t have a physical copy of any of my yearbooks except the 1963 edition, I have enjoyed looking back at these photos from our “sub-freshman” year. I’m including the class pictures in this post in case others might also like to have a look. Fortunately names are given for these photos so we don’t have to strain our memories. I hope you enjoy remembering our classmates.

Who Are These Kids?

Recently I posted several photos from my kindergarten and first grade school years. I had hoped that some of my classmates who saw the photos would recognize themselves and others in the pictures and let the rest of us know the identities of those kids from long ago. Several people have responded with a name matched to a picture, but most remain a mystery to those of us still searching our memories.

I decided to dig a bit deeper myself to see whether I could match names and faces. You will find the picture of the first grade classes below. I would strongly urge you to view the picture on the largest screen possible, so you can enlarge the image to see the faces more clearly. I’ve also added a spreadsheet with my attempt to identify as many people in the picture as possible. I was pleasantly surprised when I felt reasonably certain about twenty six of my classmates. Those are in cells shaded pale blue (they may appear in a different color on your device). Some of those also have a question mark following the name, indicating I thought I was correct, but was not totally sure. The eighteen names in the cells with pale green shading are my best guesses after comparing the first grade photo with class photos in my 1963 North Charleston High School yearbook. I subsequently found class photos from the 1960 yearbook online, so I also used those to make a few more guesses. I’m definitely not sure about the accuracy of my guesses, but maybe other viewers will help. I hope to post those 1960 images soon for anyone interested.

As you will see, many of the spaces in the spreadsheet are blank. If you are disappointed because I have either not identified or have incorrectly identified you or someone else you would like to see, I apologize. I’ve strained my memory in trying to reach back sixty eight or so years, but I’ve definitely enjoyed the process. There are many classmates I thought I would surely be able to recognize, but so far they have eluded me. I imagine that additional time spent examining the picture will spark other memories and maybe more names will come to me. It’s amazing how many times a name popped into my head when I saw “that look” or “that smile” or “those eyes”. If you have a similar experience, please share the result with the rest of us looking at the photo.

Some viewers may already have an original of this photo, but if you don’t and you would like to have an image with higher resolution, let me know and I will try to get a scanned high resolution image to you. You might also want to share these photos with your children and grandchildren; I’m sure they would enjoy seeing what a cute little kid you were back then.

Fond Memories of Earlier Times

My birthday was yesterday, seventy-four years to recall in memory. As the day approached, one of the things I fondly remembered was that I shared birthdays with one of my very best friends from our younger years, Chuck Funderburk. As nearly as I can recall, we first met in kindergarten, the Funderburk Kindergarten which was operated by Chuck’s parents in a building next to their home, a few blocks from Park Circle in North Charleston.

My family had moved to the area around Park Circle only a year or so before, but we all discovered it was a great place to live. Likewise the kindergarten was an ideal setting for all of the kids who attended, always warm and welcoming thanks to Chuck’s parents and the rest of the staff. At meals and snacks I believe we had milk from his grandparents’ dairy business. The upstairs room even housed a huge (at least to young eyes) model train layout, a source of great fascination to some of us. Our time in kindergarten provided our introduction to formal education and the socialization experiences that came with our group activities. For many of us kindergarten was the place where we formed our first friendships beyond the circle of our immediate families. Most of my fellow students there continued as close friends throughout our elementary school, high school, and college years until time and other places called us away.

As incredible as it seems in today’s world, at the age of five I was allowed to ride my bicycle the mile or so from my home to the kindergarten. But then, we rode our bikes everywhere, at least from our time in kindergarten through the end of elementary school. Cars frequently relegated our bicycles to the garage once we were able to get our drivers’ licenses at age thirteen in South Carolina. Until then, on foot or by bike, we covered the area of a circle about two miles in diameter, more or less centered on Park Circle. If we didn’t have something else to do, we would say, “Let’s ride over to ________ (fill in the blank) and see what they’re doing.” We usually could find someone or something to occupy us until time for supper. We visited at friends’ houses, enjoyed various sports and other activities at Park Circle or in backyards and vacant lots, explored the undeveloped woods and marshes, walked along the train tracks, examined houses under construction in new neighborhoods, and created all sorts of other adventures for ourselves. Chuck and I (and I believe some of our other friends) even became young entrepreneurs and set up stands in front of his grandparents’ home on Montague Avenue to sell used comic books and perhaps other treasures and Kool-Aid. Like some later business ventures in my life, that effort was lots of fun but not particularly rewarding financially.

Memories tend to wander around, one recollection leading to another and then heading off in a different direction and this one has been that way for me. I started with a shared birthday and have revisited a number of other events and people and places in my mind over the past few days. I’m sure the pattern will continue and I look forward to recalling my past experiences and the people with whom I’ve shared them. I may not still be with those people in those places, but they certainly continue to be a part of my life.

I knew I had some special photos from those earliest days which I wanted to share in case some of the folks who were part of that time might enjoy recalling their own memories. I’ll attach a few kindergarten and first grade photos and hope some readers will find them interesting. It’s amazing to me looking at the faces of so many of those five- and six-year-olds that I recognize them, recall some memory about them, and in many cases remember their names even after seventy years; I don’t do that well with lots of people I met last week. Take a good look at each face and see what comes into your mind. If you see yourself and are willing, please let me know where you are in each photo. If you recall names of other classmates, I’d be happy to receive those also. And if these words and photos spark other memories or remind you of early photos you have, it would be great for you to share those as well. Most of all, just enjoy looking back at some special earlier times.

 This must have been a performance of some sort (I can’t recall what) and perhaps our graduation also since we appear to be holding rolled certificates.

Aren’t we cute?

Our first grade classes at North Charleston Elementary School.

Our first grade class play. I still remember my Frosty the Snowman song and dance (such as it was).

A Christmas play with all of us in authentic Middle Eastern costumes.

A May Day celebration in the playground area behind North Charleston Elementary, possibly later than first grade. What a lovely setting!

A Brief Interlude in the Mountains

I wrote the following ten days ago on a mountain near Blowing Rock.


Carole had a luncheon meeting of the High Country Writers today at the Blowing Rock Conference Center in Blowing Rock, NC. I decided to be the driver for her and a friend. Of course, I could have stayed home and Carole could have driven herself, but even after fifty four years together, I enjoy every moment I have with her—even the mundane, everyday activities are special.

I had planned to spend two or three hours in the Blowing Rock Community Library while Carole was at the luncheon—always happy to be surrounded by books. However, the small library operates with a volunteer staff and the limited winter hours did not include today. After a brief stay in a local coffee shop to have a coffee and muffin for lunch, I headed back up to the conference center parking lot and found a quiet corner to wait for the luncheon’s end.

The conference center sits in a wooded area atop one of the mountains overlooking the town of Blowing Rock. In summer dense canopies of leaves on the many huge, old trees surrounding the site would block any views into the distance, but now the trees are totally bare, an occasional evergreen tree and multitudes of native rhododendrons providing the only greenery amid the vast expanse of grays and browns in the woodlands before me.

The small town sits within the sheltered valley below, but mountains rise up all around and far into the distance. Many homes dot the mountainsides, exposed now by the absence of leaves on the trees, but even they are mere specks scattered across the masses of the mountains. It’s very quiet here today. The sounds of traffic and the other busyness of town life in the weeks leading up to Christmas do not drift up to this haven. The fog and snow and winds of recent days have been replaced temporarily by clear blue skies, chilly yet pleasant temperatures, and calm. I’ve seen only a couple of birds here on this exposed ridge; no doubt most of them are enjoying more shelter and perhaps feeders around the houses farther down. I’m fascinated by the patterns of tree bark and the natural abstract designs and colors of the lichens and mosses growing on different varieties of trees. Standing before me were hundreds of examples. So much to see from this one spot by simply sitting still and taking the time to look. I would be content remaining here for hours, but there are other places to be and other things to do, so I’ll thankfully carry this experience and these images with me as I go.


I had no camera with me to capture the sights before me, but here are a few images from another day of some of the nature patterns I love.

A Busy Three Months

It has been almost three months since my last blog post—a bit of a break after the process of writing my seven-part series leading up to my cancer diagnosis, surgery, and the recurrence of my cancer after surgery. Many readers of my words and Carole’s posts have sent positive thoughts and comments our way. We appreciate them all. Some of you have gotten further periodic updates through in-person contacts or correspondence. For those who have not known the status since then, I wanted to bring you up to the present.

When I posted on September 10, the expectation was that I would begin radiation treatments as soon as possible. Additional scans and time needed by the radiation oncologist and the medical physicist to calculate and plan the dosage and targeting for my treatment meant radiation did not start until September 30. The schedule called for treatment sessions at the local cancer center five days a week for eight weeks. It was going to be quite a change from the relatively unscheduled life we’ve lived since we both retired.

To jump forward eight weeks, I completed the course of my radiation treatments on November 22, a few days before Thanksgiving Day—good timing because we were certainly thankful to reach that milestone. Throughout this period I have had no noticeable physical symptoms from my cancer and have experienced no additional problems or negative side effects either from the cancer or the treatment. Apparently when someone has radiation treatment for recurrent prostate cancer such as mine, there is no clear-cut evidence that the radiation has destroyed all the cancer cells. However, my hormone therapy, which is supposed to stop the growth of prostate cancer cells, has continued while I have been receiving the radiation therapy. My PSA level, which indicates prostate cancer cell activity, quickly dropped to undetectable after the hormone injections began—the anticipated and desirable result. So, even though the uncertainties of living with cancer are still part of our lives, our actions to deal with these uncertainties continue.

The entire cancer center experience has been wonderful to put it into a single word. Beginning with my first appointment back in August, the entire staff made each day pleasant and enjoyable. The receptionist who initially greeted me, the oncology nurse, the social worker, the radiation technicians, the radiation oncologist, and even other staff with whom I had only brief contacts were all exactly the type of people I would have wanted to be with me during this time. Most of my contact time was with the radiation technicians each day; they talked casually and joked around with me, were understanding when my body was sometimes not cooperative with their scheduling needs, and made me feel totally comfortable every step along the way. The oncology nurse was always eager to be sure I was not having any problems or difficulties with my treatments and to offer any assistance needed. The radiation oncologist, who had a background in social work before becoming a physician, spent lots of time talking with me before treatments began and throughout their duration. He was never rushed to get on to his other responsibilities, but made himself available for answering any and all questions, telling me what to expect at each stage, sharing information about latest medical studies and various treatment options, getting my thoughts and inputs about any concerns or developments as treatment progressed, and always asking how I wanted to proceed. When people have to deal with difficult medical situations, their support teams should always be as great as mine has been.

The actual time I was on the table for the radiation treatment each day was only about five or six minutes. Whether that brief period at the cancer center came in the early morning or later in the middle of the day, it resulted in a necessary but significant interruption of other activities. Everything had to be planned around the timing of my treatment each day. To have my body in the most cooperative condition for the radiation to be targeted effectively, I even had to figure out the best timing for eating and drinking—a meal or decent snack about eight hours before my appointment and twenty or more ounces of water about an hour before—though neither of these plans could be counted on to be exactly right. Travel time also had to be considered. Even in Boone, traffic can be an unpredictable problem—we have fewer alternative routes to get to a given location. We usually planned to allow forty-five minutes to get to my appointments, but changing school hours, lunchtime congestion, and snowy roads sometimes caused challenges. Our time at the cancer center ranged from thirty minutes to an hour, sometimes longer when there were delays or when we had a meeting with the oncologist to discuss progress and to plan details of treatment. While we were in town we fitted meals, other appointments, errands, and activities into the remaining time each day before heading home again.

Going back and forth to town each day this fall has given us many more opportunities than usual to see the colors as they spread across the mountainsides, not the most spectacular leaf season, but certainly it has been beautiful with leaves in shades of yellow and gold and bronze and occasional touches of red. We’ve also been treated to seeing a number of deer, including young ones, as well as wild turkeys, chipmunks, and woolly worms (also known as woolly bear caterpillars). At home the robins feasted for weeks on the abundant crop of mountain ash berries while numerous other birds (some of which were new varieties to us) have been very, very active close around the house. And we’ve been delighted as a couple of young mother raccoons at various times have brought their very tiny babies onto our deck, continuing a tradition that has extended over many generations. We can lie on the floor beside our glass doors watching them eating, just a couple of feet away from us. One day we stayed there for an hour or more. We do love being here.

As some readers may have seen on Facebook posts, Carole and I have also spent a great deal of any free time we’ve had during the past several months completing a book about her mother’s life which Carole has been researching and writing for the past two or three years. The writing had been finished a while back, but the final editing and formatting to prepare it for publication still had to be done—a demanding process to put it mildly. We still needed to go through it all again and again, page by page and often line by line, to adjust things to get the appearance of each page to be what we wanted.

Since I was chiefly responsible for formatting the text I had to remember how to get the writing program to handle things like pagination and photo placement without messing up other aspects of the design. And I had to figure out the pictures and text for the cover design and get that all to mesh with the requirements for printing. I had done those tasks for Carole’s 2016 book about her dad’s life, but I seem to quickly forget details about how to do such things when they are not my regular activities. It would be so helpful if the people who develop various computer programs would also write clear and easily understandable directions regarding how to accomplish various tasks using their programs. It has been a real challenge. Many times I would attempt to follow the few directions I could find, only to have the steps I took undo some of the editing I had previously done—very, very frustrating.

Many days we would each sit at our computers for twelve hours or more, comparing text and making adjustments until we got it right. But we did finally get it finished, submitted, approved, and printed. We didn’t quite have it completed for Carole’s mother’s ninety-sixth birthday in October, but we were very excited to take her a finished copy in mid-November. Anyone interested in seeing the results of our work can find the books on Amazon.

With my cancer treatments and the book editing behind us for the present, we were able to schedule some other activities which we have had to postpone for several months. So yesterday I was finally able to have the cataract surgery on my left eye which had been anticipated since August. The surgery was done in Hickory, about a ninety-minute drive from our homeplace. The travel was not a big deal except that the mountains were blanketed with dense fog when we awoke. Of course, we’ve had lots of experience driving in fog. It’s common here in the mountains for visibility to be limited to a hundred feet or less as the clouds cover the higher elevations and sometimes the valleys as well. But it always causes anxiety, especially when trying to get to a scheduled appointment. The trip was uneventful and we got below the fog about halfway to our destination. The surgery was also uneventful. I was amazed at the change in my vision when I awoke this morning. I could see more clearly with my left eye than during the previous several years. Everything in my world was suddenly brighter and more colorful. For the next four weeks I’ll be putting two or three types of drops in my eye each day. Then I’ll be going through the same process again starting on New Year’s Eve when I have surgery on the other eye. But, with all the beauty that surrounds me here at our homeplace, I definitely look forward to having an even better view of this world.

I’ll share a few photos which I’ve taken during these recent months. I hope you enjoy seeing these sights as much as I have.

A brilliantly colored tree near the cancer center this fall.

Our mountain ash trees were loaded with berries this year.

One of the robins who helped clear all the mountain ash berries.

A young hawk just outside our window one morning.

Momma raccoon and three babies having an early supper.

One of the raccoon babies who hasn’t discovered the marshmallow treat yet.

We feed more than just our raccoon visitors.

Hoar frost occurs when fog freezes onto everything.

Mountain ash branches with hoar frost instead of berries.

Our sixty-foot-tall Norway spruce trees covered in hoar frost.

Beautiful combination of hoar frost and snow.

Carole’s mom having her first look at Carole’s book about her own life.

 

Uncertainties of Life: Part Four

This is the final post in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part Four: Living in the Reality of the Present

As I indicated in my previous post, I had surgery for prostate cancer in October of 2017. Three months passed and I had the first of the every-three-months blood tests to check the status of my cancer following surgery. The test showed undetectable levels of PSA (prostate specific antigen). We were pleased to get the test results, but the status of my cancer was no different than the day before. We just had the additional bit of information indicating surgery had apparently removed the cancer from my body. Six months, then nine months, then twelve months brought similar test results: undetectable, the word one wants to hear in this situation. Another milestone had been reached. Now I could move on to the every-six-months testing schedule.

I know I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating because it expresses my feelings at each stage since first learning I had cancer: I’m still the same person, wanting to continue doing the same things which are important to me with the same people I love and care about. Nothing feels different on a testing day. The test will either show cancer is present in my body or it won’t; the result of the test will not change who I am. However, the first of the six-month tests in May of 2019 did show different results, as did a follow-up test several weeks later. No longer undetectable, my PSA level had increased, indicating a likely recurrence of my cancer. Even a small increase after surgery is a big deal. Most of the cancer had been surgically removed, but some cancer cells had remained. They were growing again.

Studies indicate treatments at the time of early PSA increases yield more positive results than waiting for the disease to progress. So it was time to have more tests, to consider options, to make decisions, and to take what we determined to be the best actions available. No certainties, no guarantees, no sure idea of what might lie ahead. But then that’s true of every aspect of our lives. We think about what we want to do in our lives, determine the things we would like to have happen, and plan the actions we believe most likely to produce those outcomes. And then we step out into the unknown and do it all again with whatever we find there.

In mid-July I was scheduled to have a special PET scan, a relatively new imaging procedure using radioactive tracers intended to show the location of the cancer cells. My cancer was quite possibly at the site where my prostate had been prior to my surgery—if it had not spread to other areas. That scan and a rescheduled one the following week were both canceled after Carole and I had begun our hour-long drive to Hickory, the closest location where the test is available. The nuclear pharmacy supplying the radioactive tracer for the scan wasn’t able to deliver the required material from its locations in Columbia or Winston-Salem in time for my appointment. We were frustrated by the delays, but the PET scan was finally done on July 30 of 2019.

A week later I was due to have another PSA test and to receive the results from my PET scan. I expected my PSA test would show another increase; the rate of change would indicate the aggressiveness of my recurrent cancer. I anticipated the PET scan results would show whether the cancer cells had moved into other parts of my body. I was eager for the clarification the tests would provide to the uncertainties of the past few months. Not that anything about my cancer would be any different than it was before the tests, but I was anxious to know its current status. I wanted to learn about the next steps to be taken and the timeline ahead so we could get on with other activities in our lives.

My appointment was apparently the last one of the day. My blood was drawn for another PSA test, but because of some miscommunication in the office, the lab machines had already been shut down for the day; my test could not be run until the next day. To add to my frustration, the out-of-town imaging center where my PET scan was done had sent my doctor someone else’s scan report. Again, more waiting. Neither delay would really make any difference. The PET scan results had already been evaluated and the PSA level was already in the tube containing my blood. But the information contained therein had not yet reached my doctor or me. Another period of uncertainty.

So Carole and I went to the car, talked briefly about what had just taken place in the doctor’s office, and took what seemed the best next step—we headed off to a favorite Asian restaurant for dinner. At the end of the meal we got the customary fortune cookies. Given the uncertainties of the day, we were curious to see what our fortunes would say. Carole read her fortune which was one of those suitable for anyone in any life situation. I looked at mine and said, “Mine says: Your fortune today has been delayed or canceled. Please try again some other day.”

No, of course the fortune cookie didn’t contain those words, but it would have been appropriate. Laughing to each other, we drove to Blowing Rock for two hours of the twice-monthly music jam performance (bluegrass, folk, country, gospel, whatever someone wants to sing) we’ve been attending fairly regularly for the past several years. The jam features amazingly talented musicians, both regulars and anyone else who wants to perform, including a young neighbor who started playing instruments at age three and is now incredible on any instrument with strings. The night’s performance was especially lively and entertaining. Our day had certainly not been what we expected, but what a great ending.

The frustrations of the delays, cancellations, and miscommunications seem to all be behind us for the moment. My blood test did show the expected increase in PSA. The PET scan showed my cancer had not spread beyond the original site in my pelvis. We have met with the radiation oncologist and have begun procedures leading to an eight-week-long course of radiation treatment to start shortly. I have already begun hormone therapy intended to stop the growth of my cancer cells. I finally have a sense of the treatment timeline before me.

We know there are still uncertainties ahead in our new adventure. No doubt we will encounter the unexpected many times. It has seemed strange all along the way that something having such a profound effect on my life has had no obvious physical symptoms or effects so far; we know that is subject to change. But I expect to continue living my life pretty much as I have been doing. Ignoring or failing to acknowledge the reality of my cancer will not lessen the undeniability of its presence. But worry won’t help, wishing it away won’t help, calling on the universe to change the realities of the way things work won’t help.

As I wrote more than two years ago when the biopsy first confirmed the presence of my cancer, I don’t really feel much different since cancer has become a part of my life. Many things are part of my life, no one of which defines who I am. All the experiences and actions of my life, the people I have known and loved, the things I have learned and thought and believed, and everything else which has affected my life and influenced the person I have become, those are the things which define me. I have cancer, I have been treated for cancer, and I am living, even though I am still living with cancer. However, I definitely do not think of myself as a ‘cancer survivor,’ the term so frequently attached to people in my situation. Cancer and all the things which go along with it—physical effects minor and major, multiple medical appointments and treatments, concerns of family and friends, uncertainties of all sorts—have now taken a place in my life and sometimes in my daily activities, but they are by no means the predominant part of my life or the most important to me. Very soon cancer will demand even more attention, more time, and more energy. I hope all the most important parts of my life can continue pretty much as they did before I knew I had cancer. I’ll do the best I can to make it so.

Life is good—every moment of it, with cancer or without. Each precious moment is ours to appreciate and enjoy and savor with the greatest mindfulness possible. The cool mountain air flows in through our open windows. The colorful blooms of the flowers are everywhere within my field of vision. The birds are calling and singing in the trees and bringing food to their young ones. The young mother raccoon comes to our deck each afternoon for a bit of food and to peek in our door; now she brings her adorable kits to continue a tradition going back many raccoon generations here at our homeplace. The love of my life sits nearby, sharing the wonder of this place with me every day. Yes, life is indeed very, very good. I couldn’t ask for anything better than what I have.

Uncertainties of Life: Part Three

This post is sixth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part Three: Uncertainty Becomes Certainty

My biopsy was performed several weeks after the previous tests had suggested its advisability. The results came back and the diagnosis was made. The pathologist’s report showed I did have prostate cancer. I had it for some unknown period of time, even as my test results had been slowly rising for several years. I had cancer six months before my biopsy, when the screening test first showed a significant doubling in the PSA reading. And I still had cancer after the biopsy. But finally I knew for certain cancer was in my body, a reality to be acknowledged and dealt with.

Obviously writing about my cancer in this blog will make more people aware of my situation. However, at the time of my diagnosis the results were only known to my close family members and the medical professionals I had been seeing. I knew more people would become aware of my new circumstances and I did not look forward to some potentially difficult conversations. People often don’t know how to react when someone says, “I have cancer.” They aren’t sure what to say or do in responding to such an unexpected announcement. I know people have different beliefs and ways of dealing with events in their own lives and the lives of others. I don’t disparage anyone’s means of coping with the difficulties of life. If it works for them, I’ve got no cause to argue, but the same approach does not necessarily work for me. I’ve observed various responses when people learn a friend or acquaintance has cancer. It’s quite common for people to quickly offer prayers, encouragement for fighting the coming battle, or assurances that all will be well.

Anyone reading my earlier posts knows I don’t believe in praying to an all-powerful god who makes decisions regarding the details of life and death, determining what happens in our lives. Even if I did believe in such a god, I wouldn’t expect the natural functioning of the universe to change because of the number of prayers (or lack thereof) offered on behalf of a particular outcome. If someone has such beliefs and it makes them feel better to offer prayers on my behalf, of course they are free to do so. I appreciate their apparent concern for my well-being. But they need not tell me, “I’m praying for you,” or indicate they will ask others to pray for me. Those words have no real meaning for me. I’d rather hear a simple expression of caring and support such as, “I’ll be thinking of you as you deal with this. Let me know if I can help.”

I also don’t need or want to hear the all-too-common expressions such as, “You’re tough; you can beat it,” or “Just fight it; I’m sure you can win,” or “Everything will be all right.” Dealing with cancer is not a matter of fighting a battle or a war. Cancer is a disease to be acknowledged, engaged, and treated as one might deal with any other problem in life. It doesn’t really matter if I’m tough or if I think of this experience as fighting with all my might. What matters is that I face the reality of the disease, seek out appropriate resources and potential treatments, and then do the best I can making decisions, taking actions, and doing the same with whatever results follow. Being tough or fighting offers me no more assurance of ‘beating it’ than someone’s well-intentioned offer of prayers would give. And surely the uncertainties of cancer rule out proclaiming, “Everything will be all right,” if by those words one means cancer will have no negative impact on my life.

Did knowing I had cancer really change anything? There were still many unknowns about my cancer and the effects it would have on my life. Various treatments might remove cancer from my body, but there was no assurance of a positive outcome. The treatments themselves might have complications and side effects; they would also need to be dealt with if they occurred. The realities of life with cancer could change my outlook on life and my manner of living, but I hoped any changes would be for the better. Cancer could shorten my life, but so could any number of other diseases or accidents or events, any of which might or might not occur.

I was still the same person I had been two weeks before the diagnosis, but now I had an additional bit of knowledge about myself. How did I feel about the fact cancer was a part of my body, a part of my life? Quite honestly, at the time I didn’t feel significantly different than I had before. I wanted to go on doing the things I would normally have done, engaging in activities as I usually would have, caring about the things which had been and continued to be important to me, loving and being loved by those dearest to me. In other words, I wanted to get on living my life as I had been here on our quiet homeplace on this mountainside at the end of our road. From the beginning of life, each of us is moving into a world full of uncertainties, going toward death which each of us will face, but also advancing into life filled with possibilities and wonders and joys to be embraced. Cancer was one of many things which had become part of my life and my world. I trusted I could and would make the best of the new challenges and opportunities my cancer brought.

More than two years have now passed since I had the biopsy described above. Much has happened during the intervening time. The biopsy showed my cancer was more aggressive than desirable, as if any degree of cancer is desirable. The Gleason score, which evaluates the likelihood of the cancer growing and spreading, was 7 out of a possible 10. That result meant there was an intermediate risk of aggressive cancer. After consultation with my local urologist we determined the appropriate next step was surgery. I was referred to a specialist in robotic-assisted surgery in Winston-Salem who agreed with the diagnosis and plan. I had the surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in early October of 2017, about two months after the biopsy.

Recovery from the surgery went well and I was able to return to my usual activities fairly soon. But another period of waiting in uncertainty followed the surgery. The post-surgical pathology report showed my cancer was actually even more aggressive than the biopsy had indicated. The Gleason score was 9 out of a possible 10, meaning my cancer was even more likely to spread rapidly. Follow-up PSA testing to determine the cancer status is done every three months after surgery for a year and then every six months if the tests show undetectable levels of remaining cancer cells. My surgery had either removed the cancer from my body or the disease was still there. The PSA tests would provide the answer regarding that big unknown, but I had to wait another three months before I could know the result. Nothing I could do while waiting would change the reality the test would reveal. I simply wanted to continue living my life as I had before. On October 21 of 2017 I wrote the following:

“Two and a half weeks ago I had major surgery for prostate cancer. Thanks to modern surgical techniques and treatments I’ve been able to be up and around, mostly free of pain and side effects, and able to start getting back to my usual activities. I’m not supposed to do overly strenuous work or heavy lifting but otherwise I can mostly do whatever I feel able to do. Today I felt like going out into the garden. We had gotten some Jerusalem artichoke tubers recently and they needed to be planted; I could do that task.

“What a joy to be out in the garden again, digging into the soil and preparing the spot for planting. Covering the tubers with the loose soil I could imagine the excitement of the next spring; this would be a new crop, one we had not grown before. The current growing season has mostly ended now, but I could see with satisfaction the remnants of what had been there throughout the previous months: a few beans, strawberries, blackberries, and ears of Indian corn still lingering for their final picking. Weeds had grown up in the midst of the crops and obviously needed pulling, so I was able to spend an hour or so weeding, rewarded with the sight of clean bare soil, loose and ready for another year. There were also some pawpaw seeds we had saved from a recent treat; I planted them in a large container, hoping for sprouts next spring that I could plant around our homeplace, another new crop, for us and probably for the raccoons and possums as well. And those European mountain ash seedlings which had sprouted from the abundance of berries not consumed by the birds also got put into beds where they might grow stronger with better care and attention. What a great way to spend an afternoon here on the mountainside!”

Uncertainties of Life: Part Two

This post is fifth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part Two: Uncertainty Gets Very Personal

One of the greatest uncertainties in life is death. From the moment of birth each of us is moving inevitably toward the moment of death. I read recently an article in which a doctor wrote of his experience giving his patients the diagnosis of a serious illness such as cancer. He said the first question most of his patients ask is, “Will I die?” His answer, of course, is, “Yes you will die. Each of us will. But the cause of your death, when and how you will die depends in part on the decisions you make and the actions you take between now and then.” In my previous post I wrote that our lives are filled with almost nothing but the unexpected between the boundaries of birth and death, even though we would like to believe it is otherwise. The boundaries of life as we know it are birth and death—the beginning of life and the end of life. The specifics of birth and death—the what and how and when—are as uncertain and frequently unexpected as the details of all that happens between these boundaries of our lives.

Death is probably not a favorite subject of discussion for most people even though it is as much a part of life as anything else. As we get older, death seems to naturally become more a part of our consciousness, perhaps because we see more people dying who are in or near our own age group. Of course, people of all ages die from accidents, violence, suicide, illness, disease, and multiple other causes. At a recent fifty-fifth reunion of my high school class the list of our former classmates who had died over the years was long and was growing almost at the same time as we were gathering. A few of those classmates had died when we were still in school; the deaths of the others were scattered along the timeline since then. The deaths of all those people shouldn’t have been surprising since we all are now in our seventies, but it was somewhat startling to be confronted suddenly by the number of deaths of people we had lived with daily when we were younger.

My own extended family group also has gotten smaller and smaller with the passage of time. My grandparents all died before I finished high school. My parents, all my aunts and uncles, and my first cousins are also dead. More recently, my younger sister also died, leaving just my older brother and myself from our generation and those before us. I’m sure this is not unusual, but it does underscore the uncertainty and unexpectedness of our existence.

I began writing some of this post more than two years ago. I was then at the end of a four- month-long period of uncertainty in my own life. A routine annual blood test for PSA (prostate specific antigen, an indicator of the possibility of prostate cancer) had come back significantly elevated from the levels found in my yearly tests during the previous decade. Several weeks later a follow-up screening test also showed an elevated reading. The next step (a few more weeks later) was a more detailed test ordered by a specialist. That test showed a 35% possibility I had prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men in the United States. A biopsy was recommended to get a definitive answer to the big question: cancer or no cancer.

My first memory of cancer was in 1952 when I was six years old. I don’t recall how I learned of my paternal grandfather’s cancer; I might have overheard my parents or aunts and uncles talking about his condition. Those were the days when people didn’t talk much about cancer, mainly because they didn’t know very much about the disease. People usually discussed cancer in quiet tones, probably just within the family. What people did know was that cancer was dreaded, was usually deadly, and was something people felt ashamed to acknowledge in themselves or their family. As I recall, Granddaddy was confined to a very dark rear bedroom in his home and we could only go into his room briefly to visit. I don’t remember details of the events following his death, only a vague memory of sad neighbors and family members gathered to say goodbye as my grandfather’s body lay in state in the front room of the old farmhouse prior to the funeral. I do still have a vivid memory of a spot in a field some distance from the house where a pile of glass bottles was discarded, remnants from fluids and medications used as part of his treatment during his final months. In reality there were few things which could benefit most cancer patients at the time.

It’s amazing to see developments which have occurred in the treatment of cancer during the years since my grandfather’s death. The discovery of DNA, research regarding causes of cancer, development of new anti-cancer drugs, better imaging procedures, new screening tests, improved and less radical surgical techniques, and advances in chemotherapy and radiation therapy have all led to better outcomes for people with a cancer diagnosis. Public awareness and knowledge about cancer are much greater now. Attitudes have changed regarding cancer and those people personally affected by it. But cancer is still the second leading cause of death in the United States. The very word ‘cancer’ can still bring up frightening images of pain and suffering and death. No one wants to hear cancer linked to friends or family or themselves.

Over the years since my grandfather’s illness I have known a number of family members and friends who have experienced cancer in their own lives. Many, many more have been touched by the reality of cancer in the circle of people around them; Carole was recently able to name more than eighty people she has known personally who have had cancer. At times cancer seems to be everywhere, not only in the obituaries and news stories of those people who have had the disease, but also in stories of promising research into cancer causes and treatments and in appeals for support to fund the efforts aimed at advancing medical knowledge. But whenever cancer becomes a part of someone’s life, it’s probably unexpected and certainly brings with it a multitude of uncertainties. The unexpected news of a cancer diagnosis jolts someone into a new reality, seeing everyday events in an entirely new light.

My tests had suddenly thrust the question of cancer or no cancer into the forefront of my own life. Faced with that big question and the even bigger unknown answer, I was confronted with the more immediate concern of how I would respond if I did have cancer. So many questions and uncertainties came to mind. If I did have cancer, how aggressive was it and how far advanced? What treatments were available and what might be the consequences and costs, not just financial costs, but personal costs to myself and those dear to me? Of the possible treatments available, which would I choose or would I choose no treatment? If the cancer were life threatening, would I want to seek to preserve my life at any cost or would the quality of my life and the lives of my family be the primary consideration? Questions which once might have been more abstract had now been brought into much more concrete personal reality. The uncertainties surrounding cancer had now become a part of my life, things to consider while waiting for my biopsy.

Uncertainties of Life: Part One

This post is fourth in a series of seven. To read from the beginning click here.

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Part One: Sitting Without Knowing

Not very long ago we happened to discover Carrie Newcomer, a singer-songwriter, author, poet, and seeker of truth among many other things. One of her beautiful and meaningful songs begins with the lines, “Learning to sit with not knowing, When I don’t know where it’s going.” Those words aptly describe what I believe is needed when trying to deal with the uncertainties of life.

My previous posts about my changing physical appearance over the years, my wide variety of jobs throughout my working life, and the development of my religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs led me to think about all the unexpected twists and turns we face in our lives. In my post about God and prayer I quoted from a message I delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here in Boone many years ago, one of several during a period of about four years. In looking back at the words I wrote in one of those messages, I realized that the ideas centered around the theme of the unexpected. I wrote the following:

“The unexpected. The words don’t fit too well into our lives. They feel threatening and uncomfortable, something lurking in the dark to catch us when we aren’t looking. We feel the need to plan everything, to be sure that everything which happens is expected well in advance, scheduled and recorded in our Day Planner. But the unplanned and unexpected may be the most important of all the things which comes into our lives. Between the boundaries of birth and death, our lives are filled with almost nothing but the unexpected, even though we would like to believe it is otherwise. The one thing we can expect with absolute certainty is the unexpected. We don’t know what it will be or when it will happen or how we will handle it. It may be standing there in front of any one of us at any given moment. We simply have to be willing to see it and respond.”

Many unplanned and unexpected events have occurred in my life, and I’m sure in the lives of everyone else. Some of those I’ve already written about in my blog posts. A major one came when my evolving religious and spiritual ideas and beliefs culminated in my leaving the seminary and institutional religion to pursue a different path.

At that time we anticipated moving to the familiar territory of North Charleston. Some informal discussions had indicated a teaching position in the school system would be available to me. But the job possibility collapsed very unexpectedly. The 1968 photo in my recent blog post shows why. The Sixties had just ended and the school officials decided I must have been adversely affected by the culture around me. My hair was long and, even worse, I had a beard. Obviously I was a radical and a hippie and, therefore, was unsuitable, a likely bad influence on impressionable young students. I was informed I would not be considered until I cut my hair and shaved my beard; even then, there would be no assurance of a job. Since I recognized those conditions were likely to be followed by additional restrictions, I ruled out North Charleston. We accepted the uncertain future and looked for other employment options in Louisville.

Much has happened during the years since we were in Louisville. I’ve written about some of those events in this blog and anticipate I will write much more. In 1994 when I delivered the message quoted above, I was about to make some changes in my life. I was thinking a lot about the uncertain path ahead and how to deal with it. I have generally not approached uncertainties as many people have—setting goals, determining strategies, making detailed plans. I’ve sought to decide what would be the most meaningful action I could take and then I’ve stepped out into the unknown, trusting in my ability to cope with whatever I found there. Things have not always happened as I anticipated they would, but they have happened in a good way. I am not at the place I thought I would be, but I absolutely am glad I am here.

One of the things carried over from my Baptist background is the idea of ‘God’s will’ for me, redefined because of my changed understanding of God. Since I don’t accept the idea of an all-powerful God intimately involved in every aspect of our existence, I also don’t believe there is a plan for our lives made by God. Meaning and purpose for my life must come from within me and must ultimately be brought about by my own actions. Finding meaning and purpose in one’s life is not a simple task. Life frequently confronts us with uncertainty, the unexpected, the seemingly meaningless. But those unplanned and unexpected events and encounters often turn out to be the best parts of all, the most important, the most meaningful. The things which have come to matter most to me are the commonplace, the unexpected everyday entities and experiences transformed by seeing them for the wonders they really are. In every moment of our daily existence, even when we seem beset by uncertainty, there is wonder and meaning to be found.

We shouldn’t be surprised when uncertainties are a part of our lives. We probably should expect them every day. In learning to expect the unexpected we can relax into life, respond to situations as they arise, and then move on. Too often we try to live our lives in front of us, calculating and planning and dreaming, imagining we are in control. The only certainty, however, lies behind us when the decisions have been made and the events have actually occurred. Only in hindsight can we see the pattern which has been developing throughout our lives.

It occurs to me that navigating through the events of life is like tubing down a mountain river. Looking at the river from the bank, you can get a general feel for what it’s like and see how others are navigating the currents. Once in the moving stream the perspective is quite different. You can only see the part closest around you. You’re in it and it moves you along. Some sections are slow and gentle and allow some maneuvering. But most sections move swiftly, taking you where they run, whether you want to go there or not. You can paddle and attempt to steer, but mostly it’s a matter of watching out for the rocks you’re rushing toward and signs of others hidden just below the surface, the unexpected ones. Sometimes you see other people getting a good ride in a current you missed. Sometimes you see someone caught in a spot where they can’t move forward. Sometimes you experience those moments yourself. Now it’s fun and laughter, now it’s slow and almost boring, now it’s exciting, now it’s shocking as you crash against the rocks and are thrown into the deep water, now it’s wonderful. Then suddenly it’s over.

As in tubing down a river, the joy of life is in the ride, whatever it brings. If I’m busy thinking about the part that has already passed or anticipating what lies ahead, I don’t fully experience what is happening right now.

This moment—right now—is the only one I really have.