I taught university level courses in sociology and criminal justice for over 30 years but now I'm retired and at 72 was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, bone marrow cancer. This site is now a chronicle of my journey with myeloma.
I’m finally able to write a few paragraphs. My neck has been such a problem lately that I haven’t been able to write much or draw and paint much either. It’s because my neck gets spasms easily if I look down at the computer screen for too long. Ten minutes at a time is about all I can handle. However, I remembered that acetaminophen works quite well for neck pain. I took a couple last night for my arthritis and degenerative disks in my neck and that seemed to help. I took a couple at around 8 AM this morning and now, although I still have neck pain, it’s manageable. We’ll see how long it works. I want to go outside and play.
Funny how I used to take acetaminophen regularly for some kinds of pain and it worked marginally well. Then I forgot about it when I got into stronger meds after my cancer diagnosis. Hydromorphone is my go to pain reliever now, but I’m also taking a low dose of gabapentin on the advice of my palliative care docs.
Palliative care docs are specialists in pain management. They often get linked with end-of-life care, but their mandate is much broader than that and is tied to pain management generally. We talk every week, usually on Wednesdays always working to fine tune my meds to balance pain with my need to be able to do some activity. Of course, as my pain doc told me this week they could easily make me pain free. I’d be pretty much catatonic though so we’ll probably save that for when I’m closer to dying. No, the objective with my pain docs is to balance pain management with quality of life.
I must say that lately it’s been a bit of an odd dance. We tried nortriptyline but it made me excessively sleepy without doing much to lessen my pain levels. We tried a really low dose of gabapentin. That hasn’t seemed to have worked very well so we’re now increasing my dose of gabapentin to a bit of a higher dose to see if that makes a difference. That’s always on top of my basic hydromorphone slow release tablets that I take morning and evening.
I suggested to my pain doc yesterday that I should just go off of all pain meds to just see what happens. She said that I probably shouldn’t do that because the pain would be unbearable without some intervention. I have to agree, but it’s frustrating. It’s hard to know which med is doing what when I take a cocktail of meds. It would be simple to back off to just one med, but that wouldn’t work either because as I noted before, neurological pain is different from muscle pain with is different from bone pain, arthritis and disk disease. I need different meds for the various kinds of pain I have so a cocktail is required. Simple would be nice, but it’s not practical.
So, I sit here now banging away on my computer keyboard. My neck pain is manageable but really annoying. I’m hoping the increased dose of gabapentin will deal with the neurological pain I have in my legs, but we’ll see. It takes a while to kick in. I’ve had two MRIs this week. The first one was on Monday and imaged my lower back. The one yesterday was for my upper back and neck. I’m not sure how they may help with diagnosis or with determining what drugs will work for me, but at least they will give us a good baseline for subsequent tests.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the time I have left. I have incurable cancer so it’s like I’m on death row waiting to see if my next appeal (chemo course) works or not. I’m technically in remission right now. We’ll know in January how that’s going. I’m scheduled for blood tests on January 5th, the day after my 74th birthday. That will mark seven months that I’ve been off of chemotherapy. I hope those little bastard myeloma proteins take a long vacation and I can stay off of chemo for a while longer.
Inevitably though, chemo won’t work anymore and that will be that. Bring on the morphine and call in hospice and MAID people at that point. When I get to the point that I can’t DO anything anymore, I will probably welcome my exit from this mortal coil. The thing I regret is putting my family through a long, prolonged, slow exit. Maybe it would be better to pull the plug sooner than later. But I’m not ready to make that decision. So, we carry on, balancing meds, counting on chemo to beat back the myeloma proteins when they get out of hand, and hoping for the best.
I haven’t written at all about politics lately. I’m tempted to, but my neck pain may decide how much I can write, draw and paint. Politics is fun, but it’s not at the top of my list of priorities at the moment. Cancer has a way of focussing my attention narrowly on my life and possibility. I’m still interested in BC politics, Trump, etcetera, but they just aren’t centre of mind like they used to be for me when I was teaching. The pandemic is close to mind too, of course. I’d love to see my family as much as I can. Covid makes that impossible. Cancer and Covid are dominating my life right now. Not the best of scenarios, but I do have Carolyn to commiserate with and to share my Covid isolation.
I’m not sure how we can talk about happiness in the circumstances we are in. I’m not happy about any of this shit but that doesn’t help much either. It’s just that how in hell can anybody be happy right now?
Yes, today is World Kindness Day, a holiday celebrated in many countries since 1998. It’s also Friday the 13th, but let’s ignore that for the moment. You’ll be pleased to know that there’s a World Kindness Movement too. It’s front and centre in the kindness celebrations that are held in many places around the globe today.
I promised one of my blog readers that I would write about kindness sometime. This is an opportune time to do so. She also wanted me to write about recognizing others, a gesture that gives their feelings a boost and their existence added social value. To be snubbed is to be humiliated, as is being chosen the last player for the pick-up soccer team on the neighbourhood pitch after school. We yearn to be recognized and not ignored. There is an element of kindness to acknowledging others in social situations or at any time for that matter.
But what is kindness? Miriam-Webster defines kindness thusly: “the quality or state of being kind”. Well, that helps a lot. So what is the definition of kind? Miriam-Webster replies: “a group united by common traits or interests.” But wait, this is the definition of kind as a noun as in ‘what kind of car do you drive?’ So, what is the definition of kind as an adjective? Miriam-Webster helps us out again: to be kind is to be of a sympathetic or helpful nature.
Well, okay then: to be kind is to be sympathetic or helpful. That’s generally how I would use the word. However we still have to reckon with the noun variation of the word. The image below is of Marvin Harris’ Our Kind, a book he published in 1989 as a project designed to help educate college students (among others) who, at the time, were unable to recognize the boundaries of the United States or know who’s side the Soviet Union was on during World War II. Our Kind is a compendium of what makes us human, of “the evolution of human life and culture” according to the cover.
Humans are of one kind in essential terms, we are one species after all, but we are still divided in a myriad of ways. We are one with our kin (a word akin to kind) but the further away we get from our kin (our sibs), the less we feel bound to be kind to people. Who are the people we can expect kindness from? People who are kin to begin with, then anyone we can define as part of a kin-like group, a group that can be defined socially, politically, geographically, or in whatever way we decide qualifies as a membership pass.
The reader who suggested this topic to me is genuinely concerned with the divisiveness and viciousness of much of what passes for social and political discourse these days. The lack of civility is glaring in some quarters to the point where conversation is impossible. Shouting replaces discourse.
Harris, in the 1980s, was dismayed at the low level of civility and kindness exhibited by a large percentage of the population. He doesn’t say it, but I will. There will be no possibility of kindness, sympathy, and civility enduring as basic human values until we break down our current social and political boundaries and accept each and every human being on this planet as one of ‘our kind.’
It’s as simple as that, but as complicated as that too. The reasons we divide ourselves so earnestly into political and social groups according to Ernest Becker is partly as the basis for competition, competition designed to separate the winners from the losers in the eyes of the gods.
At the moment we are witnessing massive cleavages in the fabric of American society, cleavages that seem to be politically defined around political parties, but which are essentially about who qualifies for assent into the realm of the few divinely chosen. The religious has infiltrated the political in American society to the point where ‘opponents’ are seen as evil incarnate and where anything less than total victory is unacceptable and will not be tolerated because the alternative is death.
I am not particularly optimistic about American politics or about global politics for that matter. I don’t know if there is the will necessary to unite people and to set aside divisions of politics, class, race and sex so as to see everyone qualify to be included in our kind.
There seems to be plenty of will for division with the vast majority of social institutions organized to divide. Are things as dire as I portray them here? No, they aren’t. After all there are strong unifying forces in the world too.
Maybe more on this later. I’ve written about this before if you care to peruse my archives you’ll see what I mean, but I’m also willing to explore more fully some of the themes introduced here, particularly those around competition and division. These have an ‘animal’ dimension as well as socio-religious ones.
I’m finding it hard to get down to writing these days. I can’t seem to get settled. Part of the problem is that my pain doctors are still trying to come up with just the right cocktail of meds to deal with the pain I’m feeling even though I’m not on chemotherapy anymore and I won’t be for the foreseeable future. Being off of chemo and not finding any myeloma protein in my blood hasn’t had the effect of attenuating my pain much. But there are other things that are responsible for my restlessness too.
Like many of you I worry about the American election. I worry about the potential for mass violence and civil unrest in the US although I am heartened to read today that many influential Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump’s current craziness around the vote count, and that Pennsylvania and Georgia have provided Biden with a slim positive margin over Trump. The reality is that even if Biden is declared the winner it won’t be over for some time yet and as many pundits have pointed out, Trumpism is a long way from done.
Compounding the issues I have with the unpredictability of myeloma and the American election, Covid-19 seems to have gotten new legs all over the world and it has me concerned. BC hasn’t escaped its resurgence. I guess I could write about the over 400 new cases in BC yesterday and the obvious neglect of precautions around mitigating factors like wearing a mask or social distancing.
I could write about Norbert Elias and his distinction between involvement and detachment. Just as a teaser, I can tell you that Elias would say that the state of affairs in the US and of the world in general faced with a global pandemic is the result of too much involvement and not enough detachment. But maybe I’ll save this topic for later.
I suppose I could write more about my myeloma, but it is in remission. I’m not going to the hospital weekly. There isn’t much to report. The fact is, I may be in remission but I’m not living a pre-myeloma life. It’s up in the air. I should be back to ‘normal’ I guess, but I’m far from that. I’m in constant pain from a variety of sources: past surgeries, arthritis, congenital disk issues, cancer, and chemotherapy. As I noted above, my palliative care doctors are trying to put together a cocktail of meds to at least get me to a place where the pain is reduced to a point where I can do things again. So far, we haven’t found the magic formula but we keep trying. I’ll be getting an MRI later this month on my back. It’s actually two MRIs, one on the upper part of my back and the other, a couple of days later, on the lower part of my back.
So, I spend most of my days at home sitting in my recliner or going to my studio and rather aimlessly putting dabs of paint here and there. Sometimes I watch YouTube videos on sailing, shipbuilding, and woodwork, which is something akin to watching daytime TV in the old days. Every once in a while Carolyn will take me to the River Walkway and shopping. I stay in the car with the dog while Carolyn runs the gamut in the grocery store. I go to bed early, often as early as 8:30 and get up eleven hours later. I get bummed out probably more than I should. I’m generally quite positive, but the trifecta of Covid-19, myeloma and old age has got the better of me at times. Turns out I’m just human after all.
I guess I could write about death but I’ve gone a long way to exhausting that topic on this blog. But, come to think of it, I promised a reader of my blog that I would write about respect for death. In a recent blog post I threw out the question: “Of course, respect for life also means respect for death, because they are not separable. Life depends on death. We don’t respect death now. We fear it. What would respect for death look like?” This is quite an unusual question it seems. We easily talk about respect for life but we rarely talk about respect for death. It’s clear that we have a preference for beginnings and not so much for endings. Many religions get around this issue by denying that death is the end of life, considering it the beginning of eternal life instead. I want to leave this topic for a future blog post so I won’t carry on with it here and now. Maybe for now I’ll just watch a YouTube video on the rebuilding of the pilot sailing ship Tally Ho. The ship is coming along nicely. Planking starts soon.
This is what happens to raccoons who mess with dogs around here. It does have a strange look on its face doesn’t it?
If you have a special topic you’d like me to address, please leave a comment here or on Facebook. Don’t be shy. I’m happy to go off on most any topic, but of course I’ll pick and choose the ones I want. Questions about cooking would probably not get much of a response from me, but woodworking might. Should I write more about patriarchy and misogyny? It’s a subject near and dear to my heart. Hmmmm.
I spoke with my new BC Cancer Agency oncologist yesterday. We had a nice chat about our alma mater and the weather, but we also discussed my myeloma. Of course we did!
He told me that I am effectively in remission. There is no trace of the myeloma protein in my serum. That, I would say, is great news. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have cancer anymore. Myeloma is incurable but it is treatable. The hope is that I can go some time without needing chemo.
While I don’t have any trace of the myeloma paraprotein in my serum, I still have issues related to myeloma and I have to live with the side effects of the chemotherapy I was on between December 2019 and June 2020. I have lots of peripheral neuropathy or nerve induced pain and weakness in my legs. I also have back pain for which I need to take opioids. My oncologist has ordered a spinal MRI to see if we can pinpoint the specific cause of the pain. I do have residual pain from surgeries I had on my lumbar disks and from the removal of my left kidney in 2002 because of kidney cell cancer. To help us figure it all out I have pain specialists (palliative care doctors) on the job. With them, we’re trying to determine what kinds of medication I need to take and how much.
It’s complicated because there is some pain that is muscular in origin, other pain that comes from problems with connective tissue and then there’s nerve-induced pain. Different meds are required for the different types of pain. For example, opioids aren’t much good against neurological pain but they work on muscle-based pain and to some extent on connective tissue pain. Right now I’m on two main pain medications and a couple more on standby. Hydromorphone isn’t much good for neurological pain but it works for my back pain although the dose is critical. My age is working against me too. It’s normal in ageing to have weakened muscles and degenerative connective tissues. My body is ganging up on me! But I’m fighting back!
One thing I aim to do is increase my physical exercise as much as I can. That means walking more. I have to be careful because my balance isn’t great, but I can walk maybe two kilometres a day using one or two canes. I can also, on rainy days, use our semi-recumbent bike for twenty minutes a day. We also have light weights I can use and stretchy cables (?).
That’s enough for now. I just wanted to give you the good news. Today is such a great fall day. This red maple in front of the house is living up to its name. Every day it gets redder, then it seems like overnight all the leaves are on the ground.
AND, haha…there’s a snowfall warning for tonight and Friday morning at higher elevations (which could mean Cumberland). ❄️🌨❄️❄️❄️⛄️ Sleep tight!
Re: the art of tying knots on the scourge so as to experience the most exquisite pain so as to deny our bodies and bring us closer to God.
When I was twelve years old in 1959 my parents sent me off to a private Catholic boarding school in Edmonton, the Collège St. Jean. I boarded a CN train with some forty boys from British Columbia destined to make up a substantial minority of boarders at this school. No way I was going to be left behind. I’m sure I begged my parents to allow me to join my peers in Edmonton. The College was run by Oblate priests (Oblats de Marie Immaculée), a Catholic missionary order founded in France in 1816.
In this post I don’t focus on my attendance at this school although that is a topic deserving of its own exploration. No. My interest here is to highlight aspects of the life and activities of one of the Brothers who worked at the College from its inception in 1908-11 until 1947, the year of his death. His name was Frère Antoine Kowalczyk. He was born in Poland in 1866, moved to Alberta in 1897 and died in Edmonton in 1947 after serving the College for some thirty-six years. During his tenure at the College he was one of two Oblate Brothers.
Oblate Brothers acted as custodians, gardeners and caretakers. They did the grunt work around the place along with a contingent of nuns from the congregation of Les Soeurs de la charité d’Evron who fed us, did our laundry (poor women), and looked after the infirmary. Oblate priests were our professors (with the odd exception) and served as the College administrators.
Brother Anthony (Frère Antoine) died in 1947, a few months after I was born so there was no chance I would ever meet him. The good Brother would not be alive to see the major expansion of the College in the 1950s, but the College did everything it could to keep his memory alive because Brother Anthony was special. Normally, he would have received a nice funeral and would be buried in the Oblate cemetery in St. Albert, not far from Edmonton, and then all but forgotten. That was not to be for Brother Anthony. Yes, he did have a nice funeral and yes, he is buried in St. Albert but he has not been forgotten.
Because of his exemplary life, Frère Antoine is being considered for sainthood and has been for quite some time. The local Catholics would love to have a real honest-to-goodness saint come out of their community. We all want our heroes. Brother Anthony was to become one of Edmonton’s Catholic heroes and saints-to-be.
I recall reading a number of extremely laudatory tracts about Frère Antoine when I was a student at the College and I still clearly remember the grotto that he built to the Virgin Mary which probably still stands next to the College’s administration building. Some of his personal effects were on display in the main College building. They are what interest me the most about Frère Antoine along with the efforts to have the Vatican declare him a saint.
The glass encased display of his personal effects included his rosary and breviary along with more mundane items such as his cassock, candle holders, and some tools. For me, the most striking item in the display was his scourge, the whip he used for self flagellation. When I first laid eyes on the scourge at age 12 or 13 I was astounded as to why anyone would want to inflict pain on themselves as Frère Antoine obviously had. How could that be? Pain was a bad thing, wasn’t it? Well, maybe not always.
Pain is important as a signal that something isn’t quite right in the body. People who cannot feel pain may hurt themselves in a myriad of ways without knowing it. The condition called congenital analgesia is extremely rare. Less rare is the situation in which people deliberately hurt themselves. People, mostly youths, cut themselves with razors, knives, and other sharp things for a myriad of reasons. I don’t think Brother Anthony whipped himself for the same reasons ‘cutters’ do.
For Brother Anthony, whipping himself or self-flagellation was a means of punishing or mortifying the flesh. Why? Because the flesh is weak now isn’t it? Succumbing to its many potential delights in eating, sex, and just plain moving is considered by Catholic theology as a (if not the) most important source of sin in the world. The seven deadly sins are, in fact, mostly about denying the pleasures of the flesh. After all, the flesh dies while the spirit lives for eternity as the story goes. Most religions in fact promote the spirit as the vehicle for eternal life. I guess it’s just an easy step from avoiding sin to actively ‘mortifying’ the flesh, that is to punish it physically for being the source of death.
But Brother Anthony wasn’t content with a wee bit of self-flagellation during Lent. He spent time with his scourge. What I remember of it, his scourge consisted of several leather strands with knots tied carefully at intervals to intensify the pain and help to cut the flesh. The story is that he whipped himself regularly as he fought with his devil flesh.
I refer to Brother Anthony here specifically because he is a flagellant of my past, but the institution of self-flagellation is not just a Catholic thing. It’s also a practice of Shia Islam and Judaism although in no religion is it standard practice. It’s generally practiced by the over-zealous as is certainly the case in the Philippines and elsewhere. Brother Anthony certainly was zealous and it strikes me that the aim to canonize him is partly based on his zeal.
Reading about the myriad ways in which people deliberately cause themselves pain has not led me to reconsider my attitudes towards pain. For me pain is not something I experience with joy. It is a reminder to me of the weakness of the flesh for sure and of my mortality. That’s fine. I accept that.
If there’s one thing that is common to all human culture it’s the denial of death, and consequently, the promotion of the spirit as the essence of being and as our way to immortality. That’s not a universal value to which I subscribe so my pain and I have to live with each other ’til death do us part.
Fall Colours in the Garden
Our garden is flush with colour from the earliest days of spring and well into the Fall. Now is the time for dying and dead leaves to put on a show, extending the dominance of colour before bare branches impart a new dynamic to the garden along with some evergreen trees and shrubs that are just that, ever green. Below you can see pictures of blueberry bushes in full Fall splendour along with some maples, red and Japanese, Virginia creeper, and sumac.
Under the Microscope
Nothing extra special about this set of images. The first one is of my blood. It’s red, not surprisingly. The blue is a photo of a rough blue paper. The other three are yellow and black. The multicoloured one is in fact black to the naked eye, black being the sum of all colours. The one with only red dots is a light yellow and the one with red and green dots is a darker yellow.
It’s October 5th, 2020. That means it’s pretty much a year since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I expected that this month would be my last one in my first course of chemotherapy. As it turns out it was not my last month because I decided a couple of months ago to forgo my last two cycles of chemo treatments because of the neurological damage I was experiencing. Chemo was doing away with the myeloma protein in my blood but it was also killing me. That’s not good, so we decided to stop.
Who knows what happens now. I went to the lab last week for some blood tests in anticipation of visits with oncologists later this month. I have the results: they show that my Lambda Free Light Chains (a type of blood protein that is used as a marker for myeloma) are trending up, now out of the zone the medical profession has decided is the reference (some would say, normal) zone. That is not good news, in my opinion. The increase in my Lambda Free Light Chains hasn’t been dramatic, but it sure concerned me.
I contacted Dr. Malcolm Brigden’s office in Victoria. Brigden is the oncologist assigned to me by the BC Cancer Agency. His assistant, after consulting with the good doctor, advised that there was no clinical reason for me to have my meeting with said Dr. Brigden brought forward as I had requested because Light Chain numbers go up and down all the time.
That’s not what I’m seeing in the test results but I’m no oncologist. Still, I’m seeing a definite trend in one direction.
So we wait until October 21t to drive to Victoria for a fifteen minute appointment with said Dr. Brigden. The issue for me (for us, including the family) is where I’m at in terms of treatment. Brigden will decide what to do now that I’ve been off of chemotherapy for three months. He may decide to do nothing and wait for my next set of blood tests. He may decide to get me started on another course of chemo. I expect he’ll choose the former, that is he’ll choose to do nothing and wait for test results three months down the road. Whatever. I have some research to do about how Lambda Free Light Chains react in remission but before a new course of treatment is initiated. You may detect a note of cynicism in my composition here. If you did, you’d be right. I’ve read a fair bit about oncology, both the research and clinical aspects of it and I can’t help but feel that clinicians are all over the map in terms of treatment options and approaches. There are no real standards in the field. That is partly due to the idiopathic nature of myeloma. There is no one treatment option for patients in relapse.
I guess I need to be patient. I find patience a little difficult to achieve these days, but I need to cultivate a ‘letting go’ approach to this ‘problem.’
Sarah Kerr died on October 3rd after maybe six years of suffering with colon cancer. In 2018 she gave an interview to the Comox Valley Record in which she claims to have had over 60 chemo treatments over the previous five years. That’s just not the way it works for myeloma. I got one over the last year. In the same interview she reports on various different alternative therapies she tried including vitamin C infusions (@$200/week). Her quality of life was severely affected by her chemo treatments.I didn’t know Sarah very well. She was more of an acquaintance than a friend. I knew her from my pre-retirement North Island College days with Sarah making pots and just generally being around the Art Department. She was a Facebook friend too. We had a large number of FB friends in common.
The last time I spoke with Sarah was a few weeks ago on my way into the Cancer Care Centre at the hospital here. She was just heading out after a treatment. Neither of us had much time to chat. Sarah was obviously much distressed. I don’t know anything about colon cancer but I know she suffered tremendously from it. It was unrelenting. No more, Sarah.
Dennis Renaud died on September 30, 2020. He worked for many years at the Courtenay Return-it Centre. I got to know him a bit over the years partly because we were both French-Canadians from outside Quebec. He had Joseph in his name too. Many French-Canadians of a certain generation do. The women have Mary somewhere in their name.
The thing I noticed about Dennis was the way he worked. I’m always impressed by people who work in jobs that could be seen as extremely mundane and boring, but who seem to try to get the most out of every action they undertake as they work. It was obvious to me watching Dennis work that he was always looking for the most efficient way of moving cans and bottles along from the desk to the roller conveyers behind him. He could count bottle and cans very quickly and he never lost a beat. He was one of the most efficient workers I knew.
I didn’t know Dennis socially. He was a FB friend for some time, but he wasn’t that active on social media. In April of this year he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. Five months later he was dead. He was two years younger than me. A good, former Catholic, sort of French Canadian kid, like me.
In a way I envy you Dennis. No lingering around with chemo treatment after chemo treatment with shit for quality of life. I think Sarah might just agree with me and in a way she might envy you too.
I love begonias. Carolyn grew these in a hanging pot just outside the back door. I saw the every time I walked to the back yard, a half dozen times a day. These flowers are deadly difficult to render realistically. I need a lot more practice to do them well. I’m learning, though. In ‘nature’ there are no lines but drawing this flower requires that I draw lines. The trick is to make the lines disappear into the contours of the subject. It’s not possible with ink, at least it’s not easy. Besides I love the effect ink gives a piece and if I want to look at a begonia not translated via the synapses of my brain I just look at the photo. The begonia I draw tells me as much about my synapses and my brain as it does about the subject matter.
The begonias below, one behind the other are stunning in my mind.
I draw them using a .3 copic pen and then use watercolour on them. This time I use a wet watercolour technique. I haven’t finished this piece yet as you can see. The next one I do will be done with no ink, just watercolour directly on paper with no preparatory drawing. We’ll see how that goes.
And now just look at all the other beautiful flowers that are still blooming in the garden in early October!
If you feel so moved you might just want to ‘like’ my post!
This is a re-blogged post: I first published this post in January of 2018. It has become one of the most popular posts of the hundreds I’ve posted since I started in 2012-13, viewed almost 500 times in 2020 alone. Somehow I find it’s relevant to my last post. Just after my mother died on January 13th, 2018 I posted a comment and a few days later I posted this one. Originally it was just called It turns out we die from the feet up. If you read this post in 2018 you might want to skip reading it now. I think it’s worth reading again.
[Disclaimer: Don’t read this post if you are sensitive around the topic of death and dying up close.]
It turns out we die from the feet up. Well, that’s not strictly true in every circumstance, some people die from a bullet to the head, but it has an element of truth to it. As I noted in a previous post, my amazing mom died last week, on the 13th, very near midnight. She would have been 94 on April 4th. I wrote before that she died a good death, but that’s not what this blog post is about.
For three days or so before mom died, we held a vigil by her side. I have many siblings but two of my sisters were especially attentive towards our mom and visited her virtually every day at her care facility in Coquitlam. They were especially present during this vigil, but most of my other siblings showed up at one time or another as did some of their children and even grandchildren. We spent many hours in mom’s room and out in the hallway. Some of my sisters (and a brother-in-law or two) spent nights by my mother’s side too.
My mother was 93 when she died. Her story is really astounding and is one of sacrifice, caring, selflessness and dedication. She married my father on January 28th, 1946. He had 5 daughters from his first marriage. His wife died in childbirth as she was giving birth to her first son. Because my father had to work to support the family I assume he put out the call for help and my mother, 21 at the time, answered that call. She moved into dad’s house to look after the 5 children and to do all the housework too. Long story short, my mom soon after married my father and they proceeded to have 10 more children, I being the oldest. I’m 71. I was born in 1947, a year after my parents were married. My eldest sister from dad’s first marriage is about to turn 83.
Well, it turns out that although we are a loving and caring family we are also prone to irreverence. We love to laugh and tease each other but we also care about and respect each other, despite our differences. As my mother lay dying, we got to wondering just how the staff knew that she was in fact near death. We asked questions and the nurses and care aides responded in very matter of fact ways. How can we tell when someone is near death? I had heard that when the kidneys shut down that’s a sure sign that the end is near but in this case, mom had not had food or liquids for 2 or 3 days. It would be difficult to tell if and when her kidneys shut down. All this time, mom’s pulse appeared to be quite strong and although her breathing was irregular, it seemed to be consistent.
One of the nurses then told us that it’s possible to roughly assess how long it will be before someone takes their final breath by looking at their legs. When the toes and feet get cold and a line of blotchy skin appears, that means that it won’t be long. Now, nurses and care aides have a lot of experience with having people die on their watch. It would be foolish to ignore what they have to say.
After that, we proceeded to periodically lift the blankets off of mom’s feet to see how her toes and feet were doing. We didn’t notice any special coldness at first. Even on the day of the 13th, it didn’t look as if her feet had changed much in colour or temperature. We often checked on mom’s feet to see if they were getting colder or if the line of blotchy skin was going up her leg. The nurse said that when the line gets to the knee, that’s it. Death slowly creeps up our legs. Of course, there was no question of mom coming out of this crisis alive, so it was just a waiting game now.
I left the care facility around 4:30 PM on the 13th so I could have dinner with my daughter and her family in Vancouver. We half expected mom to still be alive in the morning when we returned to the care facility. I was getting exhausted too and needed a good night’s sleep. As it turned out, that day was the last one I would see my mother alive. In the early morning minutes of the 14th I got calls from one of my sisters and a brother-in-law telling me that mom had passed away, but my phone was on vibrate and I missed their calls. At breakfast, I learned that my mother had passed away a few hours earlier. Within two hours of her death, the people from the funeral home came around and took her body away. Shortly after that, some of my family members cleaned out her room of all of her personal belongings leaving no trace of her ever having been there.
I called my sister and we talked about what happened as mom got closer and closer to taking her last breath. It so happens that the nurse was correct. Mom’s legs had indeed gotten cold and blotchy as her heart became too weak to pump blood to her extremities. By the time she died, her legs were cold up to her knees and her legs were blotchy.
So, along with the grief and sadness that we all felt as we watched our mother/grandmother/great grandmother/mother-in-law die, we learned about how the process evolves.
Right up to her last moments our wonderful caring mother had something to teach us.
This is not one of my regular myeloma posts. I told part of the story I’ve written below in a February 2015 post. Ever since then I’ve wanted to expand on it so as to tease out some truths about the events surrounding the death of my father’s first wife and his subsequent marriage to my mother. History and biography are mostly fabrication, the invention of the past on the basis of one-sided, biased information, conjecture and, of course, ideology around actual facts like the time and date of certain deaths and other events. That doesn’t mean they’re not interesting and related somehow to the truth. Anyway, without prejudice, I offer the following:
Part 1: My father
Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Take my father, for instance. He was intelligent, generous, level headed and kind hearted, but at times he had fits of anger that were shocking because they seemed so out of character for him. He teased us children mercilessly, sometimes to distress. He could be, and was, physically violent on rare occasions. We never spoke of such things so I have no way of knowing what were the deep-seated impulses that led to his rare bouts of uncontrollable anger. He was never violent towards my mother that I know of, but he beat my older sisters one time that I recall very vividly.
From what I remember, my sisters were whining and complaining about doing the dishes or some such thing, probably yelling and screaming, fighting amongst themselves when my father, for some reason had had enough of it. He let fly with a pot that was handy, hitting them with it repeatedly until they all cowered on the floor, weeping and in shock. I might have been six or seven years old at the time and I remember cowering myself in the hallway, by the bathroom door wondering what could possibly be going on. To this day as I think about it, I can still feel the dread and fear that overwhelmed me at the time. I don’t recall anyone discussing it much after the fact, but it was traumatic and definitely left an impression. That I do recall.
He hit me too on the odd occasion for various reasons. I was no angel as a child and I may not always have conducted myself with the propriety and reasonableness that should, of course, inform the actions of all well-behaved five-year-old boys. I remember one time when at about six years of age, maybe seven, I smacked a kid (accidentally, of course) over the head with a garden hoe drawing a substantial amount of blood. No serious damage done, but you know how head wounds can bleed. I got ‘the strap’ for that one. When my father got home from work that day and my mother had conferred with him telling him all the sordid details of my great misdeed, his duty (I presume he saw it as that) would be to clinically administer several blows to my open hand with a rubber and leather strap he had gotten from his workplace and which he kept on a kitchen shelf for just such occasions. He did not draw blood, but in his mind I needed to be punished. I had to learn that there were consequences for what I had done. The logical course of action was for him to hit me, a perfectly acceptable and even expected thing to do at the time although I wasn’t enthralled with the idea.
My father was driven by a sense of duty to his church, his family, and French-Canadian tradition. He did not question his duty to have as many children as God expected of him and he took great joy in each of us. He was ill educated in the formal sense. He never learned to read nor write although he could do rudimentary arithmetic. He might have made it only to grade four in school but it was not because he was incapable of schoolwork; it was because he was needed to work on the farm in Alberta where he grew up and he needed to take care of one of his brothers. I don’t recall he ever mentioning it, but my older sisters told the story of why he had to look after one of his many brothers a little differently than was told to us much later at a family gathering in 1989 by one of our many uncles, I can’t recall which one. As my father had told the story to my sisters, he hurt his back so badly as a child that he could barely walk making it impossible for him to trek the three miles back and forth to school in Fort Kent every week day. Eventually we were to learn a different version of the events surrounding my father’s story. As my uncle told the story my father and his brothers were roughhousing one day in the farmyard and my father jumped on one of his brother’s back so hard that it virtually crippled him. My father’s punishment for that offence would be that henceforth he was to carry his brother around with him on his back wherever he went. He packed my uncle around for years. My uncle eventually fully recovered from his back injury and was able to walk on his own. Whatever the truth, my father did not attend school much as a child. He was no less intelligent because of it but his inability to read hampered his career during his working life. Ultimately, although we never discussed it, I forgave him his desire to save face by concocting a version of events that allowed him a more morally acceptable role in the accident that led to his functional illiteracy. Sometimes lies it seems are easier to live with than the potential opprobrium that might ensue with people knowing the truth.
My father seldom drank alcohol and never smoked but he did gamble every once in a while. He was what most people would have called “a good man” in the day. He worked hard and rose to junior management positions in lumber mills around the Lower Mainland in spite of his illiteracy. He was active in parish life and in the Knight’s of Columbus. He also fathered fifteen children.
Part 2 Childbirth and death
I don’t know if what I am about to write is entirely true or not, but it may very well be given the time. It was 1945, June 22nd. The war would be over soon. Normally this day would be a time for celebration, but this day would not be one of those. This day my father’s wife, Yvonne, would die in childbirth. She was an otherwise healthy twenty nine year old woman who had already given him five daughters. This day, something would go horribly wrong in the delivery room and Yvonne would bleed to death. Her newborn son would also die in the delivery room. I heard it said that Yvonne died because my father couldn’t afford a blood transfusion that would have saved her life but I was later to find out that this was a fabrication. One of my older sisters told me in a telephone conversation after my father had died that friends and family, even nurses at St. Mary’s hospital, donated blood but to no avail. I don’t know that to be true, but I expect it’s closer to the truth than the first account I heard of about no money for blood.
Just imagining what my father had to go through with his wife dying in childbirth and five young daughters to look after at home I expect that he was wrought with sorrow, anger, panic and despair no matter how his wife had died. First he had to break the news to his daughters that their mother would not be coming home. Then he had to find a way to look after his daughters while still going to work. He may have believed that the whole thing was God’s will. I really don’t know. I’m certain my father thought about that wretched day in 1945 every subsequent day of his life.
Part 3. An old photograph
I have an old photograph. I don’t know who took it and I’m not sure exactly when it was taken, but it must have been sometime in 1943 because in the picture my father is holding in his arms my half sister, Denise, who was born on January 10th, 1943. She is the only one of my siblings who is no longer alive. She died in 2004. In the photograph she appears to be a year old or so, which would mean the photo would have been taken sometime in mid 1943. In any case, looking at the photo, it doesn’t look like Yvonne was pregnant at the time with Roger (the name they intended to call their new baby if it had been a boy), but she may have been.
There is no obvious way to tell where the photo was taken, but the ground is dry and there’s no snow. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere in or close to New Westminster, British Columbia. Actually everyone in the photo is dressed for a nice, warm spring day, and they’re all standing in front of my father’s 1929 Ford Model T.
In the photo, my father’s first wife, Yvonne, is farthest on the left. She is standing just behind my half sister, Lucille, who at that time was two years old. She has her hands resting on Lucille’s shoulders. Next to her on her right is my father and he, as I said, is holding Denise. Standing next to him is my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier at the time. Next to her is Rémi Leguerrier who married my father’s older sister, Isabelle, and farthest on the right is my aunt, Cécile, mother’s older sister. Uncle Rémi, standing between them, has his arms around the shoulders of my mother and my aunt. He’s smiling too. The children are not smiling, neither is Yvonne although she may have been suffering from morning sickness and that might explain why.
Who could know that when this picture was taken my father’s first wife would be dead within the year and my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier would soon be his new wife. So, here we have my father flanked by his two wives. Never would he have guessed at that moment, smiling for the camera, holding his youngest daughter, that Yvonne would soon be gone and that he would be scrambling to find a way to look after his five daughters while still going to work. The picture tells nothing of the sorrow to come.
My father and Yvonne moved to British Columbia in 1936. As it turns out they made friends with the nuns who ran St. Mary’s hospital in New Westminster where all their children would be born. Apparently my mother had worked there for a time as did my father and it was the nun/nurses at the hospital who suggested, after Yvonne died, that my father ask my mother-to-be to come help look after the children while he went to work in a local sawmill. That wasn’t a stretch because the Albert family knew the Leguerrier clan when everyone was still living in the vicinity of Bonnyville, Alberta a few years before. So, my father knew my mother’s family before a number of them migrated to British Columbia during the Depression looking for work. My father was resourceful and capable of doing various kinds of lumber mill related work so he was able to find employment. My mother was equally resourceful and unafraid of hard work.
When Yvonne died, my father asked my mother-to-be if she would help and she agreed that she would. Months later, actually it wasn’t too many months later, my father had my grandfather and grandmother come to New Westminster to look after the children because my mother, who had been a surrogate mother to my father’s five daughters, had returned to Alberta unexpectedly it seemed. It turns out that she had returned to Alberta anticipating that my father would join her shortly so they could be married in Alberta at Fort Kent and both return to New Westminster as husband and wife.
Now my older sisters, really my half sisters, had a new mom. My mother was only twelve years older than my oldest half sister, Hélène. That caused minor friction to start with because when Yvonne died my father had told Hélène that she would now have to be mommy to the four younger ones. Now, she was being displaced as mother of the family but that animosity soon dissipated because my mother had lived with them for a few months already giving time for attachments to grow between them.
I cannot imagine that my father was not steeped in pain and sorrow during that whole time, but he had no other choice but to carry on. Sorrow must give way to children and their needs.
After their wedding in Alberta on January 29th, 1946, my parents wasted no time in getting on with the business of making babies. They were to have ten in all, but I was the first. I was born on January 4th, 1947, not even a year after my parents married. If my father’s first wife, Yvonne, had survived, I would not exist. Life’s like that. What I did get was my brother’s name. My half brother, had he survived, would have been known as Roger. That’s the name on the tombstone in the cemetery in New Westminster that marks the grave of he and his mother, Yvonne. So, I carry the name of my dead brother. It seems strange to say, but had he lived, my father’s life would probably not have been that different than how it actually turned out.
Not much motivated to write about my myeloma journey right now. My last post was on August 23rd. Today is Monday, September 14th. For some time I tried and succeeded in putting out a blog post almost every week but lately with the uncertainty around my treatment, I’ve lost interest. So, it’s been three weeks since my last post.
I talk to my local oncologist in a couple of days for fifteen minutes or so but he doesn’t make the major decisions around my treatment. I have a meeting scheduled for the consulting oncologist next month, but I have no expectations around that consultation. It will be the first time I talk to this guy. He’s new in town. I’ll be just another file to him.
From my last set of blood tests I know that my blood is pretty much normal. That will change. Technically, if I’m considered in remission they’ll do more blood tests every three months and reconsider my situation then. But right now, I don’t know if I’m in remission or not.
I already told you that I decided to cut my chemotherapy short about six weeks ago now because one of my chemo drugs was playing havoc with the way my muscles are supposed to respond to the neurological signals controlling them. My thigh muscles are particularly affected by bortezomib (trade name: Velcade), the offending drug, to the point where I experienced severe pain and weakness in my legs, especially in my thighs. That situation seems to be improving slowly. I’m taking some good pain meds and they are helping the situation, and I’m seeing a physiotherapist, but I think just being off chemo is making a big difference.
It’s been a roller coaster ride over the last few months. I’m tired of it. Thankfully, being off chemo is giving me some respite although I still have great fatigue and restricted mobility. I am doing better and I’m happy about that. Lately I’ve been able to draw and paint a little and use my microscope, telescope, and iPhone to put together some interested projects. I can’t do anything for more than a couple of hours at a time, but that’s infinitely better than staring at the ceiling all day long. I’m actually enjoying myself. I have a secret dream, however, that I shared with my physiotherapist. I shouldn’t tell you because if it doesn’t happen I’ll be sadly disappointed, but I’m determined to get into (and out of) our canoe next month and paddle around for an hour or so without assistance and without dropping like a heap on the ground unable to get up. That would be cool. I also want to drag the trailer to Strathcona Park next month for a couple of days of camping. My real secret though is that I want to restore our canoe. I can’t face that task right now, but maybe later this year, who knows. Over the past while I’ve accumulated most of the materials and tools needed for the job. Now I just need energy and strength in my legs.
In any case, while I wait to see what will become of me and how much time I have to live, I’ve been able to occupy my time productively within the limits of my illness. Well, it wouldn’t do to just idle away my time now, would it and just passively wait to die? No! In our world idleness is the work of the devil! Can’t have that.
Wait, I can see it now. I’m on my death bed, hours if not minutes from expiring permanently, but I think that I’ve left something unfinished. No! Can’t do that. Must…live…long…enough…to finish…this…blog…post. And I do. And I die happy.
Of course worrying about a bucket list or unfinished projects or missed communications is all moot. After we’re dead, there is nothing. Concepts like regret are irrelevant. Even if one believes in an afterlife, I can’t imagine anyone thinking that afterlife would be taken up with regrets about things left undone or unaccomplished in life. What a drag that would be.
One thing that’s given me a lot of pleasure lately, as I note above, is exploring the microscopic world with my microscopes and iPhone. And I’ve discovered that I can use my iPhone to record an image on my spotting scope. I’ve posted those images on Facebook so I won’t post them again here. However I will post here a couple of videos I did of sword fern sporangia. I posted a video here of an exploding sporangia some time ago while it was still attached to the leaf. This time I scraped the sporangia off of the fern leaf and that provoked them to open up en masse. The videos are at two levels of magnification. There’s a close-up one and one at a lower level of magnification.
The spores are quite visible after the sporangia have evicted them. They’re the little beige dots littering the area not covered by sporangia. I want a microscope powerful enough to have a closer look at spores, but what is interesting to me even at this level of magnification is that we normally associate movement with animal life and here we have a plant that is moving…with purpose.
I love that as I look at the world through a microscope it’s obvious that all living things on this planet have a lot in common. Carolyn and I watched a YouTube video (NOVA) the other night on DNA called What Darwin Didn’t Know. It really reinforced the fact that DNA is ubiquitous and that life is much more unitary that we think. We really are all in this together. It would be awesome if we could develop respect for all life, all of us that is, including Monsanto and Bayer executives, oil company boards, politicians and all of us. Of course, respect for life also means respect for death, because they are not separable. Life depends on death. We don’t respect death now. We fear it. What would respect for death look like?
PS: I hope the videos work for you. If not, please let me know. For those of you receiving email notifications of my blog posts, you may need to go to the blog site to see them rather that stay on your email to view them.
PS2: My next blog post will be completely different from what you’re accustomed to read here. It’s about a brother I would have had if he had survived childbirth.
A couple of issues have been dogging me lately and are crying to be released into the blogosphere. One is the fact that I am no longer on chemo and what that means, particularly with regard to my future treatments and my relationship with ‘my’ medical team. The other is a nagging, recurring introspection around my death and dying. Let me start with my limbo between chemo and remission.
So, I’m not on chemo, at least not for now. Since October of last year I’ve been carefully supervised by a local GP oncologist and the Cancer Care Centre at the North Island Hospital in the Comox Valley. What happens now that I’m not on a regular regime of chemotherapy? I really don’t know, yet.
I called the Cancer Care Centre last week and they told me to contact my oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency (BCCA) in Victoria. Well, I contacted the BCCA to find out that the oncologist I thought I had is no longer employed at the BCCA and hasn’t been for two months or so. (Gee, thanks for letting me know.) It turns out I’ve been assigned a ‘new’ oncologist, one who has recently come here from Alberta. I have not met him but I’m scheduled to go to Victoria for an appointment with him in late October. His assistant told me to contact my local GP oncologist in the meantime. I get the sense that I’m getting a bit of a run around. I don’t think anyone is out to deliberately mess with me, but I’m feeling a little apprehensive about what happens now. It looks like I’ll have to be the squeaky wheel to get any answers. Let the squeaking begin.
I’ve noted this before, but one thing I am very grateful for is a great palliative care team. I can now report that my pain levels are going down steadily. That said, the weakness in my legs has not abated and that’s my main worry. That means that the neurological damage is not being affected by the meds I’m taking for pain. The pain is attenuating but the weakness is not. I’m still walking with two canes. I DO expect my strength to improve. Patience is the name of the game right now but I’m not that good at being patient.
Yes, I am a bit wistful, longing for a more settled, less precarious, state of life. Of course, life is never settled but that doesn’t mean I can’t wish for it. Life means movement and change but we are not alway happy with that state of affairs. We resist change by getting into routines and habits. We can delude ourselves into believing that life is stable when we do the same things day after day, week after week. The fact is, life is only finally settled when it reaches its destination.
In France in 2007, Carolyn and I boarded a fast train (TGV) from Paris to Montpellier in the south not far from the Spanish border. Arianne and Tim were living in Montpellier at the time doing post-graduate work at the university there. The train was incredibly fast (TGV is Très Grande Vitesse), moving at an average speed of over 300 kilometres per hour. Yet it was the smoothest train ride I had ever experienced (and I had experienced many in my youth). There was no clickety-clack, that most familiar sound I had heard on every train trip I had ever taken in Canada between New Westminster and Edmonton (where I attended boarding school). Lengths of track in France are welded together making for a single track running for hundreds of kilometres. No seams, no clickety-clack. Frankly, I found it a bit surreal but amazing at the same time. I had filmed part of the trip just as I had filmed other events on our six week visit to France that year, but I had a hard drive crash later and all my recordings from our 2007 trip were lost. What I have not lost, however, are my memories of that trip and our whole time in France that year. I still have vivid memories of catching the train in Paris, almost missing it, boarding without the requisite documents, settling down in first class (we decided to treat ourselves), and relishing this unique experience.
In bed a few nights ago after turning off the light by my bed my mind wandered again as it often has in the last few months to my death and dying. I had been looking for a metaphor I could use to make sense of my death, to give me some relief from the constant reminders of my demise. The reality is that I’m on borrowed time with the inevitable outcome of my death looming. My brain wants to keep coming back to that. It’s determined that I will be relentlessly reminded of my death and it will make sure that that reminder holds pride of place in my frontal cortex, not content with having it stay in the back of my mind where denial is so easy. We live by metaphors so I figured it should not be too difficult to come up with a good one. But I’m not sure a metaphor can win a contest with my brain when it comes to the ominous death watch I’m experiencing.
Then, our French TGV trip came to mind. The more I considered it, the more it made sense to me as a metaphor for life. That conviction was further reinforced as I read the article I link to below on our fear of death. The message in that article is simple: life is finite so make the best of it.
Using a somewhat questionable syllogism in this article Dresser asks us to consider whether or not we are afraid of the time before we were born, when we didn’t exist. If we aren’t afraid of that time, then why should we be afraid of death which is simply a time of non-existence much like our time pre-birth?
Yes, I suppose so, but it’s not that simple. Before being born, in that time of nothingness, there is no accumulation of life’s memories, of hugs, orgasms, loves, hates, good meals, accomplishments, and regrets. There is no possibility of loss or even the conception of loss. The anticipation of death, by contrast, involves facing the loss of everything, including experiences and all things material and immaterial.
Of course there is no perfect metaphor, but thinking of our TGV trip as a metaphor for life (actually any trip will do), it’s obvious that before boarding the train there was anticipation but no knowledge of the imminent experience. Once on board, there is full knowledge that eventually the trip will come to an end but the passing scenery, the food, the weird passengers on the other side of the aisle, all consume our attention. Eventually, of course, time is up, the train pulls into the station and we are compelled to disembark. We may not want to leave the train, having enjoyed the trip so much, but that’s not an option. We must leave the train and its memories behind. Yes, coming into the station and dying are comparable I suppose. Both are inevitable, both are necessary.
Yeah, maybe that works, but I have to think about it some more.
You might have seen tansies at one time or another. They aren’t super common but can often be found on vacant lots. In fact, the tansies in images 1 through 3 were photographed in an otherwise empty lot in our neighbourhood (by Carolyn). I sequenced the photos below to go from a wide to a tight view. The 4th image is one I took with the WiFi microscope at full magnification. Every one of the tansy flower heads is made up of over a hundred of the compacted cone/shafts you see in the 4th image. So, in image 1 you look over a minor sea of flowers. In image 4 you get close and personal.
What you don’t see in any of these images is what you see in the video that completes this gallery of images, namely the army of insects that populate tansy flower heads. You may be seeing only flowers when you look at images 1 through 3, but you’re also looking at bugs, lots of bugs, bugs invisible to the naked eye. The number of microscopic bugs out there is staggering. I won’t speculate on how many of them you had for dinner or are living in your eyebrows. That may be something you’d rather not be reminded of. Sorry.
I find it fascinating that we miss so much when we see the world with our limited eyesight. Truth is we see a narrow slice of the world, and that, unfortunately I think, also limits our appreciation of vast unseen, yet important to us, aspects of the world.