#78. LIFE vs My little life.

LIFE in capital letters is life writ large. It governs all manifestations of individual life. It goes on merrily as individuals live and die generation after generation. Ironically LIFE needs death to make more life. After all, we eat dead things, don’t we? Of course all plants and animals follow the same pattern. They come and go, often by being consumed by other living things. It’s almost March and the property here is getting ready to burst into life after the long period of die-off and dormancy that is winter. Flowers are appearing even with freezing temperatures.

The early ones are aconites, snow drops, early crocuses, and maybe violets. They express life briefly then give way to the grasses, the ferns and the flowers of spring. The pear, apple, plum and cherry trees will soon display their flowers in preparation for the fruit that will follow as long as the pollinators do their thing. The birds are into mating season and we’ll soon have baby robins, finches, nuthatches, flickers, thrushes, jays, hummingbirds, and chickadees hassling their parents, fluttering their wings and demanding food.

The sun is shining right now. It wasn’t supposed to according to the weather forecasters, but there ya go. Living and dying under the sun. That’s what’s going on. My adult life has been informed by the scholarship of life and death, that is, of life and death as considered by philosophers and scientists. The thought of my own dying hasn’t occupied very much of my time except when my mother, father, and sister Denise died, and then only briefly. Being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that is incurable but treatable, changed all of that. Myeloma kind of sets the stage for end-of-life considerations. There’s no escaping myeloma’s trajectory. It will kill me eventually if I don’t die of something else first. Now, I have a hard time not thinking about my dying.

For most of my teaching career I used Ernest Becker’s work (The Denial of Death, Escape From Evil) to discuss the role of the fear of death on our cultural institutions. The fear of death and the promise of immortality and their overriding presence in institutions such as patriarchy and misogyny have shaped our social relations and created the conditions necessary for human contest and eventually homicide on a grand scale and war.*Related to our fear of death is our propensity to cut deals with deities. Humans have invented thousands of gods (and related semi-gods or supernatural entities) over the millennia. We assign responsibility to those deities for natural disasters, crop success or failure, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like. We even put faith in God for winning a football game or a war. We barter with the gods. We make sacrifices. We tell the gods: “Look, we are sacrificing this young woman for you by throwing her into this volcano, now you must reciprocate by ensuring our crops grow well next year.” A life bartered for more life. That’s largely the story of countless religious (and political) invocations over the millennia. Priests and politicians constantly urge us to make sacrifices so that the future will be better.

Modern medicine is an elaborate institution for the denial of death. It’s all about ‘saving’ lives, and it’s willing to go to extreme measures to accomplish that goal. Of course, ‘saving’ a life means little more than postponing a death. Obviously, I’m personally invested in modern medicine and pharmacology. I’m hoping that chemotherapy and radiation treatments will buy me time, effectively giving me more life and postponing my death. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are not cheap. Just one of the drugs I’m taking will cost over $100,000. One of the pharmacists at the pharmacy in Victoria that dispenses the drugs I use told me over the phone recently that they have some million dollar patients out there, patients that have used these drugs for many years. I attend the Cancer Care Centre at the local hospital and I’m impressed by the technology and the expertise of the many staff nurses and doctors that work in that facility. That can’t be cheap either.

Modern medicine will go to great lengths and expense to treat patients hoping to extend their lives. It must do so otherwise it fails in its sacred mission to safeguard life and battle death, the ultimate enemy. As Becker notes, in our culture death and disease are the twin pillars of evil. Disease prevents us from enjoying the pleasures of life while death cuts them off summarily. So, we are willing to invest a great deal to save an individual life yet we are also willing to gleefully pile corpses in great heaps during war or in the context of ethnic cleansing, that vile excuse for murder, rape, and pillage as in Rwanda, 1994 or in any countless examples of such celebrated mass murders. We gladly kill for US, for our people because THEY(the enemy) are obviously responsible for our misfortune and distress. If we eliminate THEM our problems will be solved. That is the big lie. As Becker notes, we need a THEM with whom to enter into contests to show our prowess and to show our God (gods) how powerful and deserving of eternal life we are. Why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on organized sport? Sports reflect our constant need to show how deserving we are of life and more life. We win, we go to heaven. The gods are obviously on our side. We lose and we face shame and rejection. This analysis can easily be applied to American politics now too.

I’m rambling now. I guess I’m trying to avoid writing about the finitude of my life, my little life. In the face of LIFE and its overarching grip on the process of life and death, my little life doesn’t amount to much…but it’s all I’ve got really. Maybe I can celebrate my insignificance. Maybe I can celebrate the entirety of my life from beginning to end. In a way end is as necessary as beginning in the scheme of things. Let’s see what I can do with the little bit of life I have left.

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*The need for an opponent or an enemy (THEY) is based on our need to prove our worthiness in competition for the good things in life and for eternal life. The winner takes all! Very early on in human history, tribes split in two called moieties so that there would be contestants to beat proving the prowess of the winners and their qualifications for immortality.

#77 I Carry On.

#77 Mid-February. Snow blankets the property but thankfully it didn’t fall when I was scheduled for chemotherapy at the hospital. It looks like it is respecting my hospital schedule of appointments. My next appointment for chemo is on the 18th, Thursday. I was successful with my first dose of chemo drugs last week, but there was a glitch in my chemo dates. I developed a fever on February 2nd in the afternoon. My temperature reached 39˚C on the 3rd. One thing we are told over and over again as myeloma patients is to go to the hospital if you develop a fever at all. So, off to the hospital I went. I ended up in the Emergency department for a day or so before they wheeled me up to D3, a ward on the third floor of the hospital. Thankfully I wasn’t there long. My docs tried to figure out what caused the fever, but they weren’t successful. They pumped me full of antibiotics in case of sepsis, a very reasonable thing to do. I developed some cellulitis in my right ankle, but that did not prove to be the source of infection. It may be that the fever was a product of a random myeloma issue. One thing is certain. I do not want to repeat that hospital experience. 

What the Emergency Department interlude produced was a delay in the start of my second round of chemo. Turns out I started with the first full day of infusion on February 11th followed by a slightly shorter day on the 12th. I was supposed to start this course of therapy on February 3rd

I’m not sure what to think at the moment. My first dose of daratumumab infused was successful. I had only a slight reaction to it. That’s really good. I hope the rest of the daratumumab infusions go as well. If they do, after having weekly sessions for a couple of months, then bi-weekly ones, I end up with infusions once a month for as long as this cocktail of daratumumab, lenalinomide and dexamethasone works. I’m hoping for a long respite from active myeloma. Of course, as I’ve often repeated, myeloma is incurable, but it is treatable. Given all the challenges I face, I’m determined to make my 80th birthday, that’s six years from now. 

For the time being, my hospital visits for daratumumab infusions regulate my life. It’s really not so bad. The nurses in the Cancer Care facility at the hospital are great and make me as comfortable as possible for my infusions. One thing that may throw a wrench in the works is the very likely possibility that I will need radiation therapy on my jaw. I will have to travel to Victoria for that. I consult on the phone with a radiation oncologist tomorrow morning. I’m not sure what we can accomplish on the phone, but it’s a start. The pain in my jaw is pretty insistent. 

My family is my salvation. Carolyn is amazing and makes sure I get my meds when I need them. I take quite a cabinet full of meds twice a day. I’m hoping to modify the number of drugs I’m taking. I may be taking too much in the way of pain management. The effect of my pain meds is dizziness. In the mornings I can predict exactly when the dizziness will come on. It doesn’t bother me in the afternoon because meds have worn off by then. 

Throughout all of my myeloma life I try to keep a real connection with the action around me on the property. We’re getting a number of birds at the feeders. The jays are right into the suet and now we’ve got some woodpeckers, varied thrushes, and towhees coming to the feeder. Some flickers join the other birds competing for the suet. The smaller birds like the finches, pine siskins, goldfinches, and nut hatches focus on the black sunflower seeds and nyger seed in the feeders themselves. It’s sunny today and the snow is melting. Tilly, our Bernese/Shepherd cross loves this weather and makes nests in the snow on the deck. 

She spends way more time outside now than inside. She is a sweetie although I wish she wouldn’t bark quite as much as she does.

#75. A Triple Whammy of Crap (and maybe a bit of good stuff too).

It’s been tough keeping my shit together over the past few weeks. I’m having trouble just sitting here composing this on my computer. Part of my problem is physical and part is a growing psychological ennui. I’m exhausted most of the time. Oh, I can get up and walk around a bit but sometimes that’s even too much.

Obviously myeloma has a lot to do with my unease even though I’m in remission, or I think I’m still in remission. I have a chat with my oncologist on the 22nd to confirm my status. It’s hard to know what to think anymore. My usual myeloma symptoms, peripheral neuropathy, itchiness, fatigue and weakness in my legs, are still evident, but now, I have something new to report to him.

I saw a dental specialist on December 21st. After I came to see him because of pain in my jaw, my regular dentist suggested I would probably need to have a tooth pulled and a cyst at the base of it cleaned out. Well, it turns out that the specialist I saw in Parksville figures that the pain and numbness in my jaw is not dentally related. It’s more likely myeloma induced and that the ‘cyst’ is more likely a lytic lesion. I’m still waiting for a call from him letting me know what the situation is. He has a connection with the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria so I expect he has better access than most of us to oncologists. I expect he’ll suggest radiation treatment, something we discussed on our December 21 consult, but my oncologist will decide on therapies.

Right now, I’m on a rollercoaster of symptoms and I can’t predict one day to the next how I’ll be or how much extra hydromorphone I’ll need to take to deal with the pain. My jaw is sucking up the hydromorphone, that’s for sure, but so is my back and a recurring, baffling pain in my left heel that forced me into a wheelchair at one point late last year. I can’t tell you how sick and tired I am of the pain. It leaves me physically and psychologically drained. Thank goodness I usually sleep quite well and Carolyn is envious of my ability to nap at a moment’s notice.

The title of this post is A Triple Whammy of Crap. Well, I’ve written about the pain and distress brought on by myeloma and its treatments. Myeloma and its related poop is the first part of my triple whammy. Now it’s time to move on to the other two elements of the triple whammy. First, a definition:

Triple Whammy

An online dictionary of idioms describes a triple whammy as “a combination of three different elements, circumstances, or actions that results in a particularly powerful force, outcome, or effect.”

I’ve already alluded to one element of my triple whammy, the myeloma and its treatments I deal with daily. The other two are the pandemic and American politics. So, myeloma, the pandemic (and associated restrictions) and American politics together contribute to generating in me a profound funk. With crap falling on us from all sides it’s hard to keep the smell of shit at bay.

The Pandemic

These days, we all have some sense of what it was like to live in 1918. The Spanish Flu was a powerful killer and didn’t discriminate except that wealthy people were better able to protect themselves from crowds than the poor could. That’s still the truth in 2021. The coronavirus COV-2 is adept at making many of us in the population very sick and puts a lot of pressure on the medical system as it forces hospitalizations.

One way the government and chief provincial medical officer in British Columbia have decided to combat COV-2 is by keeping us apart from each other so as to prevent the spread of the virus. Isolation is hardly ever good for a social species like us. There is a lot of evidence for what happens to people who are forced into isolation like solitary confinement in prison. They go wingy after a while. Children forced into isolation, say in an orphanage, die at much higher rate than children born and raised in poverty or in prison with their mothers.

So, in order to relieve the stress of isolation, people here find all kinds of ways of bending the rules, traveling to nearby destinations, or just getting on a plane to a warm destination because the government hasn’t outright banned travel, now has it? It just strongly recommends against it. Many politicians have decided to travel in any case, arguing that they haven’t broken any rules in doing so. Outraged commentators on social media have found all kinds of reasons to criticize them including their flouting of moral standards. Whatever.

I guess the bottom line here is that we are asked to wear masks and to keeping a physical distance from others whenever we step out of our homes. No hugs. For us that means no contact with our children and grandchildren. That sucks! We will follow the guidelines as we go along, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about it.

American Politics

So, why would I include American politics as the last element in my triple whammy of crap? What the hell has American politics got to do with us? With me?

Well, apart from the fact that I have friends and relatives living in the United States and who have to live with the lies, the betrayals and the crap everyday, the profound disfunction of the American political system creates uncertainty for us, for all of us. The moral degeneracy in the US so easily spreads to the rest of us, especially those of us living close to the 49th parallel, and is impossible to avoid. The disrespect for democracy and the ready acceptance of oligarchy evident in the US could spread to us like a virus and infect our own fragile political systems.

Besides, the uncertainty is stressful as is the insanity. We get up in the morning not knowing what the hell Trump or his cronies in the Republican Divided Party are likely to conjure up and take up as a tool to wreck confidence in the American voting system or in any drive to greater social equality. I can tell you that I’ve had my critical judgments around the American voting system and the Electoral College in particular. That said, destroying the ship plank by plank as it sails off into the sunset may not be the best strategy for reform especially for everyone aboard.

Done.

Any one of the three elements of the triple whammy I outline above can cause inordinate stress (and does!) but the three of them together leaves a trail of discomfort and uncertainty multiplied threefold. We’ll carry on, but it’s not easy. Thankfully there are countervailing forces to help balance things out a bit.

A nap in the afternoon for one. An African violet blooming its little heart out in December and January for another.

I’ll be backing off writing here for a time. I’m not sure for how long. I’ve got to get a sense of balance back into my life (if I ever can). The truth is I’m 74 years old and sick with myeloma. Many days all I want to do is sleep.

Many people tell me that the power to heal is within me. I just need to harness it, to think positively, and to ignore negative influences in my life. At 74, that’s easier said than done. It’s usually younger, healthier people who urge me to get my power pack in motion. Of course, nobody messes with death, positive thinking or not.

#74. Up Yours 2020!

I was thinking of writing a timely, thoughtful blog post for my last one of the year, then the pain around my jaw went a long way to discouraging that. Yes, I feel that there is something quite wrong with my jaw, a wrongness likely associated with myeloma.

I went to see my dentist a while before Christmas because I thought the pain in my jaw and the increasing numbness there was tooth related, but it turned out on closer inspection by a specialist that the lesion there is probably myeloma related. Such a ducky way of ending 2020.

Interesting! This is my seventy-fourth post on my experience with myeloma and it turns out that Monday is my seventy-fourth birthday. Coincidence? Of course. There’s no way I could engineer my life that closely.

I suppose I’m happy that I made it to my seventy-fourth birthday although with everything that’s going on these days, it’s hard for me to get too celebratory around my birthday.

Frankly, I’m much more concerned with what happens on January 5th, the day after my birthday. That’s when I get my blood tested for the presence of myeloma protein and other noxious nasties whose only goal in life is to kill me. I was found to be in remission when my blood was last tested three months ago. Now, we go at it again. We wait and see what the verdict is. I must say that this is getting somewhat irksome.

Oh well. So far this post has been about me and my problems. No sociology and no profundity. Just a little whining and sadness. I think I’ve earned it. But it does stop here.

BTW…I hope for your sakes that 2021 is at least twice as good as 2020.

#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

#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.

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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!