Category Archives: Cancer

What A Life!

What a beautiful morning. Despite the rain and lightning moving in, I went outside and started hanging more painted tiles on my fence project. This week, I painted 20+ more tiles and a couple of dozen wood samples to attach to my out-of-control art project out there. It was sublime feeling the wind howl through the vertical slats of the fence boards and the light rainfall across my face and neck. I woke up with a reservoir of energy and enthusiasm. Nature repaid me with its light caresses as I stood there in the dark, loaded with washers, screws, and tiles leaning against the old boards. I know I looked foolish, standing there with no shirt on, smiling. The temperature dropped 10-15 while I was out there feeling the storm front coalesce above me.

I missed a couple of phone calls last night. I called my sister back around 4 a.m. She, of course, didn’t answer. I hope she’s fixing her hair. I know that such an endeavor will take her literal hours. Lord help all the people who don’t have their do-not-disturb turned on. Everyone lives a different life and schedule. I wake up with the same enthusiasm at 2 a.m. that I have at 4 p.m.

I thought about my cousin Jimmy’s son Noah. Jimmy died nine years ago, which seems like a lifetime ago. Noah is graduating as valedictorian of his high school class. I can’t help but imagine how proud Jimmy would be – and that Noah is going to college. Jimmy would want his son to be happy much more than he’d worry about finishing college. As someone who died in his early forties, Jimmy would be right to do so. So many plans, so many assumptions about the seemingly endless days ahead to love, laugh, and do the things that are within our grasp. It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen Noah. He’s grown unimaginably and has the youthful looks of someone who reminds me of a young Matthew McConaughey. I hope he keeps that handsomeness. Otherwise, he’ll grow into a jowly-cheeked Englishman like his grandfather, my Uncle Buck.

In the graduation picture, Noah is the one on the right. (ha!) The woman on the left is Alissa, my cousin Jimmy’s widow. They were married about a month before he died. I could write endlessly about the complexities of that, and of lives forcibly derailed by an unexpected circumstance. It’s a lesson I know too well. I’ll limit myself to saying that if you want something, grab that sh!t while you can. Tomorrow is never promised and plans for the future are all predicated on the false belief that there is always time and that youth is our protector. The other picture is from 2004 when Noah was a beautiful little baby. Jimmy and I had such fun watching Noah’s mind react to shenanigans. He smiled a LOT.

I included a picture of Noah’s mom from the first time I met her at my trailer in Johnson, in the part of my life I refer to as ‘the before.’ It didn’t work out with her and Jimmy. They had chemistry. Jimmy had many demons that would have made it almost impossible for her to make him happy. It’s no disrespect to Jimmy’s memory to share that truth. The Terry side of the family unfortunately is prone to shattering opportunities by succumbing to vices. Jimmy, like the rest of us, could sabotage the best things.

As the rain started, I looked up to the apartments. One of my neighbors had covered the railings with sheets. I went and pulled them down and took them to the dungeon/laundry room and stuffed them in the dryer and turned it on. When the neighbors exit and see that their sheets are missing, I’m going to say, “The Fayetteville police just issued another warning to advise everyone that the Infamous Sheet Bandit is up to hooliganism again. I saw him take the sheets.” I might as well use my act of consideration as justification for a little verbal pranking. I’ll let them think their sheets are missing for a couple of minutes before letting them know what I did. After the wife goes back inside to tell her family about the Infamous Sheet Bandit. It’s Fayetteville and such a miscreant may be indeed running loose on these streets.

I took a picture of my right hand a couple of days ago. Ribald interpretations aside (I’m left-handed, by the way), putting almost a thousand screws into boards in the last couple of weeks using only hand tools has given me an artists’ scar, one of tough callouses in the palm of my hand.

I rescued a really old tiny rocking chair from the hospital dumpster a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have the skills to make it beautiful. But I do have the enthusiasm to fix it and paint it and give it new life for a child I know. I so badly want to paint it a beautiful rich color. We have enough unadorned and practical things in life.

Though it’s not done, I also added another picture of my dead tree project. I put one living branch on it, as well as three bright songbirds. Since I’m a fan of sentimental metaphors, I like to think it symbolizes that even dead trees provide beauty, comfort, and the possibility of adaptation to whatever comes next.

Love, X

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With Malice Toward Some

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As with my post that followed the Syrian dad teaching his daughter to laugh at bombs, this post follows an interaction I had with a writer who is largely unaware of her ability to write. I worked on this post and didn’t post it. It’s been sitting in my draft folder for a long time, like undiscovered poison. Later the other day, I discovered that the writer had visited my blog and read about my cousin who died of cancer. It was an odd coincidence, one which prompts me to share it now, long after I was inspired to write it.

A few years ago, my cousin was dying of cancer. He’d been in remission for a while but as often happens, the cancer returned, vengeful and malicious. There was more than sufficient time for everyone to see him during his first round and in the interim intermission. While he was still a little wild and still a fan of drinking, he’d transformed from the person he’d been five, ten, or fifteen years prior. My cousin realized that anyone who really wanted to see him had more than enough time during his life and during the last couple of years. All else was an excuse. He recognized that he had been guilty of the same dismissive immortality with some of his friends and family.

My cousin became withdrawn. Daily life was a struggle for him, and his moments became both agonizing and precious. He wanted to reduce the drag on his spirit from visitors and ghosts from his past, especially those who brought with them the accompanying demons wrestling inside them. I tried to inform people politely that he wanted peace, to not take offense to unreturned calls, declined visits, and to honor the requests some of us were passing along on my cousin’s behalf.

To preface, there were people who were gloriously helpful, compassionate, and of unimaginable help. We all know people like this. They embrace, reach out, sit by the bedside, scrub the floor, and know when to be quiet or smile. They light us up with joy. Those people were around, too.

All of us who’ve lost someone, though, have stories of despair that sometimes overtip the balance of good vs. dark.

I was ignorantly unprepared for the backlash of anger, resentment, and hostility from some of my cousin’s friends and acquaintances. I’ve written about this time before.

I almost had a nervous breakdown due to another family member. Unbelievable as it may sound, I also became convinced that the family member was going to kill me, someone trained and capable of doing so. Though I discarded most of this sort of hateful memory, I have a couple of voicemails from the guilty party, ones in which he laid out his plan to kill me, and kill anyone who dared interfere with what he wanted to do. He also made sure that I understood that his knowledge of the system would not only allow him easy access to others to help him exact his will but also to avoid being held accountable for it. I can’t listen to them without despairing for humanity. It’s some of the ugliest things I’ve ever heard in life. This episode ruptured my connection to the family member in a way I didn’t believe was possible. Addiction or not, it was profoundly evil. It didn’t help that the family member gaslighted me and everyone around him about it, either. I still struggle with the aftermath of the anger and hate that came from that period.

There were other people like him, but most were amateurs on the fringes. Through it all, I felt horribly sorry for both my cousin and his wife. The angels among us helped my cousin’s wife get through to the end.

Really, though, the last part prompted this post.

Someone else who knew my cousin well, someone I knew in passing due to overlapping schools and geography, told me I was the worst #$%^ing human being in history, was gay, probably half-black, and that he hoped that I died of the worst form of cancer imaginable. I’ll call him Fred. He said these things because I asked him to treat my cousin’s wife in the same way he wanted others to treat his own wife. My cousin loved the moments he’d shared with Fred, but couldn’t find the energy to wax nostalgic with someone who would only make him feel worse. Fred loved drinking and hitting people, male or female. He couldn’t imagine a world in which someone might not want his anger and alcoholism around someone trying to find a few days of peace in his dwindling life. He doubled down and called my cousin’s wife every name in the book. In the most sincere way I could muster, I told him that I hoped he’d find a way to get past the anger in his soul. That only made him angrier. Because he needed to hear it, I told him that it was my cousin’s wish to be buffered from people who weren’t in control of themselves. Fred kept screaming, “I hope you get cancer X, you and that b@#$% he’s with.” He was fixated on it. He finished off his tirade by saying that my cousin deserved the cancer.

I recently found out that Fred has cancer.

Pause…

I’m not sure how I feel. Fred continued to have anger and addiction issues in the years after my cousin’s death. I’ve heard stories. I’ve watched Fred use a combination of anger and bullying on other people. He’s deserved a multitude of plates of crow and humble pie. I infrequently drop in, so to speak, and look for indications that someone is calling him out for his misbehavior. Now that he has cancer, it is impossible for anyone to call him out for his previous hatefulness.

He’ll pass away, and the world will continue to spin. I’ll feel a little pang of relief to know he’s gone. It’s not nice for me to say it, even if I’ve admitting it while not callously naming names.

My conflicting feelings don’t paint me in a flattering light. I wouldn’t wish cancer on anyone. Much of my aversion to Fred in all honesty stems in part from the poison of hate and addiction that my parents spewed into my life. My other family member, the one I was certain was going to kill me, mixes into the same karma that befell Fred. They are inseparable because they both contain equal parts of hate and addiction.

We all want justice and to see that “what goes around, comes around” has teeth. We don’t want the suffering, if we’re good people, but that sense of things being set right can’t be denied, not if we are honest with ourselves.

If Fred’s wife could feel even a tiny bit of the hurt that her husband inflicted on me a few years ago, she would collapse into a deep pit of anger and despair. Imagine if someone talked about her like her husband did about my cousin’s wife. I would hope that Fred himself would recognize how vicious and inhuman he was a few years when my cousin just wanted a peaceful death. He doesn’t though. His close family members are bigots and the opposite of what I consider to be good, compassionate human beings. They won’t see the irony of applauding this man’s life.

I sit with this little piece of recognition of myself. It poisons my life a little. But I protect it.

I’m not comfortable with myself. My threatening family member and Fred share the fact that they lived their lives roughshod over those they quarreled with; their anger was their first line of attack. They saw no need to withdraw from anger and even less a need to apologize or make amends.

Time cures them. But they’re quickly replaced with people who share their lack of humanity.

 

“The Picture” Lives On…

 

I originally posted this in 2014.

Enough time has passed since Jimmy died for me to remember the goofiness more than the anguish of cancer that he endured. It’s natural that death works that way, as he was alive and kicking for much longer than he was suffering. There are still those days when I catch myself wondering what Jimmy might make of something or I half-expect him to drive up to the house after getting more stuff for his hoard from a local garage sale.

Fair or not, a lot of Jimmy’s energy was siphoned away by his one family member’s obsession with money and getting what she thought was hers. It was a travesty and I learned a lot from it, whether I wanted to or not. It angered Jimmy that he was being punished with cancer. Had he survived and not relapsed, I think he might have begun to feel pity for his family member again, as she was at the whim of her own addictions and demons – and he could see it.

The above picture is one which my cousin Jimmy insisted I take of him. It was immediately after his first cancer surgery. We were at his mom’s house. (My Aunt Ardith.) As you can see, Jimmy was still smiling and laughing. His mom wasn’t too thrilled with our brand of humor. Our custom was to make the most outrageous, tasteless and macabre statements that we could imagine. Between the two of us, we used to come up with some epic craziness. Aunt Ardith would sit in her perch on the couch next to the sliding glass doors, drinking her whiskey and coke, smoking, and feigning surprise and mirth at some of our goofiness. We had the ability to literally say anything to each other or about each other, directly, without fear of anger.

Jimmy was very confident that he was going to beat cancer. When this picture was taken, I was very hopeful. Realistically hopeful, I thought. Jimmy joked that this picture would make an ideal Christmas card. His mom specifically told me that I had better not make cards with the picture on it. (My reputation for doing that sort of thing was quite well known…) Jimmy then chimed in that it would make an ideal “All I got was this lousy bout of cancer” t-shirt. It’s still funny, although with a slightly different twist to it now.

The plan was going to be to post this picture on Facebook after-the-fact. Jimmy was interested in being able to talk to people about his experiences. As a well-liked employee of Budweiser, he knew a lot of people and would have a lot of opportunities to talk to people. Unfortunately, his cancer came back to take him down.

This picture might as well have been taken in another century. It both seems like both yesterday and ten years ago simultaneously. His mom became ill and died a few short months before him after he relapsed. His mom’s house is sold to strangers and Jimmy’s life is fading in everyone’s collective consciousness.When Jimmy died, I had tried to get people to write anecdotes and stories to share with me. I had made a commitment to share them out in the world in such a way as to attempt to keep those memories alive. I did my best to disseminate his pictures to friends and family, sharing them on public drives and makings disks, printed copies and any other method I could think of. We all have our stories and moments to remember with Jimmy. Some of us have a strong collection of memories, many of which were times that weren’t fun while we were living them but are as much a part of his life as the “good” times. As time slides past us, our stories will slide into the fog with us.

Whether it is wrong to say so or not, Jimmy’s death affected me in countless more ways than my own mother’s death did. I was with Jimmy for much of his final time and was with him when he finally had nothing left with which to fight. He weighed so little that it seemed only his soul remained in him.

Not only were we contemporaries, but we shared a common bond of ridiculous attitude toward many of life’s idiocies. We were both forged in a family where laughter could be replaced by drunken rage without notice. My youth was fuller thanks to Jimmy and his parents, even when the times weren’t so good.

Jimmy’s life was one of potential. His younger years were full of missteps and mistakes. (Isn’t that true of all of us, though?)  It would have been interesting to see what he would have made of his promotion at Budweiser, of his relationship with his girlfriend (and then wife) before his passing, or of his new appreciation for the scarcity of life. Had cancer not kicked him, I think he would have been one of those people who would have flourished with another lease on life. His laugh would have been a beacon to people and his youthful impatience would have dissipated.

 

 

(Jimmy is on the far right. Picture from Dogpatch, USA, the 1970s.)
If you’re interested, you can find a few more stories about my cousin Jimmy on this blog by using the “Category” drop-down menu on the right-hand side of the main blog page.
Here’s one: A Reminder…   and An Unfinished Blog Post.