#73. Surprises, Leo Panitch, and an African violet.

This will be a short pre-Christmas post, just to cheer you up a bit. The first part is a short comment on Leo Panitch, a Canadian scholar and academic most of you will never have heard of who died recently of Covid-19. The second part is a short update on my situation which keeps throwing up unwelcome surprises for us.

Leo Panitch (1945-2020)

Panitch was a Jewish kid from Winnipeg. I was a French Canadian kid from British Columbia (?), but we both were from working class families. Leo Panitch joined a panoply of incipient Marxist and leftist social scientists, many American, some draft-dodgers, who began to populate the halls of Canadian universities in the late 1960s, throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s. He was one of the more thoughtful and moderate among them. He was a political economist, political scientist, and sociologist who wrote tons of books and articles on Marxist science relating to global economic development. I had a great deal of respect for his work. I ran into him a couple of times at conferences but we weren’t buddies or anything like that.

He died on Saturday, December 19th, 2020 of Covid-19. Just a short time before his death, he had contracted pneumonia, and even a bit earlier than that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He must have been in a highly weakened state when he succumbed to Covid-19. I have no idea how long he had myeloma before he finally got a diagnosis but that disease has a way of smacking one down, keeping one weak and off balance. It’s a disease that is not easy to detect and its symptoms mimic the symptoms of many other conditions. I have no idea how long I had had myeloma before getting a diagnosis but that’s just about how I felt in December last year as I embarked on months of chemotherapy.

Panitch and I had some things in common. Certainly, we had multiple myeloma in common. We were both scholars but he worked mainly in universities whereas I worked in colleges. We shared an intellectual tradition of critical inquiry into the rise of global capitalism. He wrote a great deal, works that I was able to use in my teaching. I got involved in television based teaching and published very little that could be considered scholarship. I focussed on teaching as he did. His eulogies note that his work as a teacher was his most satisfying. His students certainly considered him a great teacher. He will be sorely missed.

Me and Myeloma Now

A few days ago, maybe 10, I was sitting in my chair when I noticed my lower left jaw was hurting a bit. One of my teeth seemed a bit wobbly and weak. It was nothing much. It remained like that for a few days, but as it got closer to the weekend and the pain seemed to increase slightly I figured I had better try to get in to see my dentist. I didn’t want to be chasing after a dentist this week or next week either.

So, my dentist is a great guy. He’s been the family dentist for over thirty years. We know each other very well. After I had been diagnosed with myeloma last year my oncologist said I should make sure to get checked up by my dentist, so I did. He was very upset with the diagnosis and was super attentive. I didn’t hesitate to contact him last week so that if I needed a tooth extracted that could happen before the holidays.

I contacted his office on Thursday. By Friday afternoon, he had arranged for me to get a special imaging session set up at a local dental surgeon’s office. With that, I then had a consultation with my dentist himself on Friday afternoon. Using the x-ray images he determined that I had a tooth that was dead and a cyst just below it. Both would have to come out. At the same time, though, anticipating an extraction and possible problems with the cyst, he was able to call in some favours and got me into an office of dental surgery in Parksville sometime on Monday (yesterday). We got a call from Parksville on Monday morning asking if we could be there by 11:45. Yes, of course we could…even in the snow!

We just made it for 11:45, Carolyn driving carefully in the snow and slush as we passed four or five cars in the ditch. Turns out, this doctor in Parksville is a real star and was familiar with multiple myeloma. After talking for some time and going over my symptoms, especially the numbness in my jaw, and the location of the pain, we determined that the dark spot (typical of myeloma lesions) on the x-ray we had taken the day before was in all likelihood a myeloma lesion and had nothing to do with my teeth. Well, that changes everything, doesn’t it? I wasn’t expecting that.

I was expecting to go down there and come back with one less tooth. That was not to be. Instead, this doctor arranged to contact my oncologist in Victoria so that they could together decide what to do, if anything. I get blood tests on January 5th, and I have an appointment with my oncologist on January 22nd.

At this point I have no idea what to think. I should know in a month whether the myeloma has retuned or not. If not, that would be great! If it has returned, then we decide on a new course of chemotherapy. Not something I look forward to.

Whatever! Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or any other greeting you may like!

We have high hopes for 2021. We need this virus to get lost but we don’t want to go back to things as they were. What do you want to keep from the past and what would you like to unload?

I love this little African violet we have in the bathroom. As you can see most of the flowers have died off quite some time ago. The plant was bare for a while. Then, all of a sudden, this flower emerges and it’s still blooming its head off. I like that. It’s been recently joined by another blossom! So cool.

Merry African Christmas!

#72. Days in the Life

I’m using a bit of a different approach today, sort of like a diary or journal.

December 8th, 2020

Usually I sleep pretty well. These days, because I’m retired and I’m disengaging from non-profits I’ve been involved with for a long time, I have a lot of “free” time and I should be able to sleep when I want to and for how long I want to. It’s strange then that I still go to bed at a regular time and get up at 7:30 every morning. It doesn’t always work out that way, mind you. Oh, I always get up at 7:30 AM, but I don’t always get to sleep when I go to bed around 9 or 9:30. I often read until 10 or later, sometimes much later because if I can’t sleep, it doesn’t make much sense to just toss and turn hoping to be overcome by sleep. So, I take meds, sometimes lots, most often less than lots. My objective is to sleep, not to wallow in a sea of opioid drunkenness. Sometimes I thought about smoking opium, getting a den going in my studio, but I don’t need that. I have hydromorphone and gabapentin. Today is the first day that I said to myself;”Enough is enough. I’m done with the amount of pain I’m in and I’m going to take as much med as I need to deal with the pain. Surprisingly, although I did take what we call a breakthrough dose of hydromorphone, it wasn’t a lot more that I normally take and I felt a whole lot better.

I’ve been sitting in my recliner most of the morning. Moving hurts. Piss on moving.

By 5 or 5:30 I’m done. All I’m good for is surfing Twitter to see what outrageous things Trump and the Republicans are doing. Sleep sounds good at this time. I didn’t sleep all that well last night so I doze in my chair. The house carries on around me. I sleep through everything.

7 PM or so, Carolyn has made dinner and we sit down to eat that. Carolyn is my angel. She makes very few demands on me, not that I could respond to demands all that effectively. I though I might be able to do the dishes at one point but standing for any length of time is a problem. I kind of feel useless. I don’t like that feeling.

December 15th, 2020

Bah, I decided to fast forward a week. My days are pretty much one like another and I have no intention of boring you to tears giving you a blow by blow description of my daily activity. However, this morning I spoke with my GP. That’s worth writing about.

I had a couple of MRIs on the 23rd and 25th of last month of my back. They did the lumbar and lower thoracic area on the 23rd and the cervical and upper thoracic area on the 25th. Both imaging sessions failed to uncover any signs of myeloma, which is great news. However, there are many signs of disk degeneration and plenty of reasons why I’m in so much pain all the time. At my age it’s not a great idea to embark on too much invasive surgery so I’m left with pain meds and light stretching and exercise to deal with the pain. Problem is, most of my pain is not caused by muscular issues except in my legs and that pain is related to myeloma so exercise is pretty much pointless. I’ve also had a fair bit of excavation going on in my distal femurs by myeloma proteins. That process is not happening right now, it’s in remission, but for how long, who knows. There is residual neurological pain from that situation.

Like I said, I spoke with my GP this morning. We discussed the MRIs and what to do about my pain. Pain management is very important to me right now, obviously. There are pain meds for this and pain meds for that. We have to try to tailor my meds to my pain. That sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? Have a headache? Take acetaminophen or aspirin. Well, as I’ve explained in another post, there are various kinds of pain that require different meds to treat them. Gabapentin is used for neuropathic pain. The issue is how much to take and at what intervals. I’m faced with the same kind of decisions with hydromorphone. How much? At what intervals? Truth be told, I could easily take enough hydromorphone to eliminate my pain. Problem is I probably wouldn’t be conscious either.

The picture below, a drawing I did some time ago and posted on Facebook, aptly describes how I’m feeling these days, sort of discombobulated. It’s meant to be a self-portrait for those of you who might be having some difficulty putting the pieces together and recognizing me in the bits.

#71 My Life With Multiple Myeloma

I just finished reading Deaf Sentence, a novel by David Lodge. Carolyn tells me it isn’t Lodge’s best work, but I quite enjoyed it. I really should review it sometime on Amazon. In any case, finishing a novel for me is quite something. I don’t usually read books until I go to bed, and that’s usually around 9 PM. At that point I may read a few pages, but usually I fall asleep after a few minutes with book still in hand or Kindle on but with light out. I was about half way through the book a couple of days ago after reading it for a couple of months. For some reason, I went to bed as usual but unlike most nights, there’s no way I could fall asleep. I had no hint of sleepiness. So, I started reading the book at around 9:15 and, except for pee breaks, I didn’t put the book down until 5 AM. Now that’s a marathon reading session for me. Completely unpredictable and not particularly welcome, but after I realized that there was no way I was going to sleep I relaxed and enjoyed the book. Finished it too!. Damn the clock!

In the book, when the main protagonist’s father dies at age 89, he takes it as an opportunity to muse about death in general. He quotes Wittgenstein, probably the most famous of all 20th Century philosophers who died in 1951, and who wrote: ” Death is not an event of life. You cannot experience it, you can only behold it happening to others with various degrees of pity and fear, knowing that one day it will happen to you.” Having myeloma I can assure you that death is never far from my mind.

Still, life goes on. I certainly don’t think about death all the time. Every once in a while I’ll remember that I have incurable cancer and I say to myself: “Yeah, I’m on my way out. But then I think I might not face death for another ten years. There have been many other myeloma patients who have lived over ten years. It’s not at all uncommon. I really don’t dwell on it. Dealing with pain on a daily basis takes up much more brain power than contemplating death. Thankfully, I have some dedicated palliative care docs who talk with me every week so as to constantly tweak my meds. It seems to be working better than it has been. I can usually sleep these days without taking ‘breakthrough’ hydromorphone. The gabapentin seems to be doing its job but I wouldn’t swear to that in court.

Most days I spend in my recliner although I do get up now and again for a bout of exercise. We have a semi-recumbent bike in my studio. I use that occasionally although it’s not my favourite way of getting exercise. I really enjoy walking on the River Walkway but I don’t get there that often. It may be that I’ll have to drive myself down there two or three times a week. Carolyn usually walks the dogs in the morning on the trails in Cumberland. I really can’t join her because of the distances she walks, the pain in my legs, and the uneven walking surfaces. I’m not complaining, just thinking out loud trying to figure out a way of getting a little more exercise without too much danger to myself or others. I drove the truck the other day without too much trouble so I think I can do it more regularly. Carolyn is doing an important job walking the mutts, so she needs to be free to do that. It’s true that I don’t need as much looking after than I did a few weeks ago. I still have moments of excruciating pain, but Carolyn can’t do anything about that. She is already very attentive and an excellent caregiver. I am so fortunate.

A few days ago, feeling chipper, I went out into the yard to do a few chores, like chop firewood. Yes, we still burn wood. In fact, we just got a new wood stove that is rated at 1.8 gr/hr. It’s a Pacific Energy wood stove made in Duncan, same brand as we had before, but with many upgrades from our old stove. You won’t see smoke coming out of our chimney 98% of the time, only for a few minutes when we first get it going in the morning. We burn only dry wood, down at least 14 months. We check the humidity of our firewood with a humidity gauge. I expect we’re among the most responsible wood stove users in the Valley. I’m sure people will still object to us burning firewood. So be it.

My recliner is close to the stove. I like it. Keeps me warm inside and out.

Tilly is getting so big. Seven months old, well over 70 pounds now. Not only that but she’s losing her puppy ways and is becoming a really sweet dog. Carolyn has posted recent pictures of her on Facebook. She’s big buddies with Cooper, the neighbour’s dog. He’s ‘intact’ and was getting very interested in Tilly’s butt so we thought it wise to have her spayed. She got through that very well. Now, she and Cooper fly around the yard wrestling and playing tug-o-war with a toy or a stick. They’ve destroyed so much of the garden with their antics but Carolyn just shrugs knowing that things will recover and will thrive come spring. We can only hope the dogs get more relaxed as time goes on and are less apt to run around the property like gilly-galoos. We expect they will get mellower and mellower as they age. That’s generally the way it works with dogs. Tilly always gets treats from me first thing in the morning. She might even get some later in the day if she’s a good dog, and she is most often a good dog. She gives us lots of kisses.

Tilly

#70 Fun With Meds.

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?

#69 World Kindness Day – Yes, it is!

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.

#68 What to write?

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.

Raccoon Life

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.

#67 Remission!

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.

img_4543

AND, haha…there’s a snowfall warning for tonight and Friday morning at higher elevations (which could mean Cumberland). ❄️🌨❄️❄️❄️⛄️ Sleep tight!

# 66. Pain for Gain, Fall Colours in the Garden, and Under the Microscope.

Pain For Gain

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.

#65. Musings, Flowers, and In Memoriam.

Musings

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.’

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In Memoriam. Thinking of you.

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.

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Flowers.

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.

This is quite impressionistic. Definitely not ‘realistic.’

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!

64 A Lesson From My Mother: It Turns Out We Die From The Feet Up.

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.