|No Spring Chicken #14|
The battle is raging, and I'm the battlefield.
Chemotherapy attacks the fastest growing cells, which is what cancer is. But it also hits other rapid growth areas. This is one reason most chemo receivers have intestinal problems. The intestines are continually re-growing the lining as stomach acid eats it away. Other areas that grow fast are fingernails & toenails, skin and hair. Finger and toe nails are probably too hard to be much effected, but not everything is. That is why most chemo patients lose their hair. I'm not losing my hair because of the specific chemicals I'm taking, but I'm seeing some of the other things. My skin is becoming flakey on my face, and that leads to rubbing it which leads to my face being red - just like a sunburn or psoriasis. One thing I've never heard of chemo affecting is the vocal chords. But I've sounded hoarse almost since starting this treatment, and it is getting worse. My voice is always kind of foggy these days, and for the kind of singing I do that is not very good. If I really work at warming up for about 2 hours I can get a clear tone for about 30 minutes before it wears out and is foggy again. We had an amateur quartet contest in our chorus a few weeks back and I was in two quartets, which, naturally, sang back to back. My voice gave out almost completely partway through the second set. This is very distressing to someone who has been able to sing all day and all night all his life without getting hoarse. Sigh. The things we do for our health! Here I sit with all the evidence of the skin damage that chemo does, but no one really believes I'm getting chemo because I've still got all my hair! Sigh, again!
I promised at some point to tell you stories of my dad. He retired a few years early (62 years old) and travelled around doing what he wanted, fishing all over the place, visiting relatives and chronicling all this in a series of letters. Everyone who received these letters has a box labeled "Letters from Papa" (or something similar) that has every one he wrote in it, because they were so good. I've had a few of you tell me you like my writing style, and one even suggested that the series of these, collected, would make great reading for a cancer support group. Let me tell you, I don't hold a candle to the wit and humor my dad showed in his letters. The tales of their travels, of all the people they met and visited, of the places they saw and the "interesting" look he had at normal daily events. Some of my favorite tales from their travels are the continuing tale of the embarrassment of waiters in restaurants where they ate and mom ordered crab or lobster. You see, while my dad liked any kind of sea food, my mother *loved* crabs and lobster (together or separately). His tales of the slurping and munching and crunching sounds as she devoured the delicacies (and I mean every shred of flesh in any shell no matter how small) were sidesplitting funny. He told of second visits to a restaurant where the waiters recognized them and as soon as mom ordered lobster or crab the waiters would gather around holding up tablecloths as screens so the other diners would not be made ill by the carnage taking place on mom's plate. The stories were so bad one year for Christmas Janet & I gave them "His & Hers" lobster bibs. Hers was a normal lobster bib. His was a brown paper sack with eye and mouth holes so he could eat his dinner without anyone knowing who he was. I think he even took it to a restaurant with him one time in order to convince her not to order lobster or crab. Of course, she came by it honestly, he was quick to point out. Whenever they went out with Pop (mom's dad) he would order crab or lobster and it would be worse! His tales of going out with both of them border on the fantastic.
All this explains, to some extent, how Jeff (my older brother) and I came by our love of seafood honestly. Some time when I was 2 and Jeff was 3 we (our family of four) spent the entire day digging a bucket of clams for dinner. Mom steamed them, then set Jeff & I down with the pot of clams thinking we'd each have a few and be done. Then she and Dad went off to do what young married couples still do after two kids (when they are aiming for a baseball team). When they came back Jeff & I were still sitting there, happily eating the last couple of clams from the pot. There were none left for our parents.
We had a cabin up in the San Juan Islands when I was growing up, and we'd go get crabs on the beach (OK, in ~6' of water) for dinner. I know it was almost always 6 feet of water because we would hook them with a garden rake and if you could keep your sleeves pushed up you wouldn't get them wet when you were the right depth for the crabs. One five foot handle, one kid's forearm and the 4" of rake blade equals about 6'. We'd row out and then row along the shoreline looking in the water for crabs & pretty soon we'd spot one. Down went the rake, the crab would get scooped up and he'd pinch the rake to get it to leave him alone. What that did was make him hold on and we'd quickly raise him up and dump him into a bucket. As soon as the crab cleared the water he knew something was wrong, so he'd let go and if we did it right he went straight into the bucket when he fell off the rake. If we did it wrong he either went straight back into the water or he'd miss the bucket and fall in the boat. If he missed and wound up in the bottom of the boat someone had to pick him up and put him into the bucket. Now, there are a couple of safe ways to grab a crab without getting pinched. Neither of them is foolproof. First, you can come at him from behind and grab him dead center of the back half of the shell with one finger on the bottom and one thumb on top. If you did it right he couldn't reach you with either pincer. If you did it wrong you lost a fingernail. Even if you did it right he could usually stab you with one of his back legs. That was nowhere near the pain of the pincer grabbing your finger, but it usually startled you enough to drop him. The other method is to come at him from behind and use two hands - one grabbing each pincer - and hold them apart so he could neither stab you with a leg, nor reach your fingers with a pincer. If you didn't hold on tight, though, with both hands, or if one hand grabbed before the other the opposite pincer was free to grab the thumb that had hold of the one pincer and you lost a fingernail, and dropped the crab. If you didn't use either of these techniques you had a loose crab in the boat and you might lose a toenail. We almost never wore shoes for this process since we usually had to do some wading. Now, the reason I've explained in detail how we caught crabs is to explain why there was usually only a few of them (relative to the number of eaters) at any given meal. Not that there was a shortage of crabs in the water, but that we usually had to come in and get some finger treated for crab pinching long before we had enough crabs. So when it came time to clean the crabs we needed to get every bit of crab meat we could out of them. Well, knowing how thoroughly Pop and Mom would clean out crabs in a restaurant, we thought they'd be good at cleaning crabs. Well, yes. But it seems not much of the crab meat made it into the bowl for dinner. Most went straight down the cleaners' throats. So we kids were drafted into that job, but we had learned from the best. Eat the crab as you clean it and you'll always get your share. Eventually Mom just boiled the crabs and put them on the table. You could eat all you cleaned and cracked.
I have a picture of my dad & I in a fishing boat drifting down one of the rivers over by Forks. I'm holding up the first steelhead I ever caught. Mind you, I had been fishing for steelhead for about 45 years at that point. But it is the first and I was proud and happy. But the grin on my father's face was bigger than mine, as the picture clearly proves. You see, he had been fishing for steelhead all those years, too, and while he caught them regularly, I never had. So he was happy to see me break that drought.
My father was different from most. He had an extremely high IQ, and he was an engineer all his life. But he was also a pilot and flew small planes from college on, and night fighters during WWII. He was stationed in France for a short time, while the front lines were moving, and in one town the local restaurant wanted to show their appreciation for the Americans who had helped liberate them. To do so they had the officers of his squadron in to feed them a dinner of sweetbreads. Well, they were not quite to my father's liking, so he asked for ketchup. The waiters didn't know what he wanted, so they called the chef out and my father gently explained that he wanted sauce de tomate to put on his entree. The chef's eyes bulged and his face turned red. The stomped back into the kitchen and stomped back out with a can of tomato sauce and slammed it on the table, and stomped back into the kitchen never to be seen by any of them again. Dad had many stories about the war. Some were even believable. Some time later, when the squadron was based in Germany for a short time before being shipped home the ground crew sergeant who worked on my dad's plane had to move a Storch (German observation plane) from one end of the runway to the other. But the rules didn't allow a plane to be moved under its own power without a pilot aboard. So the fellow got Dad to ride along with him and they started idling down the taxi strip. After a short while my dad said, "I got it, Sarge." The sergeant said, "What for?" and Dad said, "Look down." Just idling along at 30 mph the plane had lifted off the ground so gently neither of them noticed at first. Probably the extra lift from ground effect is all that kept them in the air, but it was enough to lift them about 15' off the ground as they moved down the taxi strip.
Actually, my entire family was unusual. My dad, mom and myself all had pilot's licenses. Both brothers and my dad had scuba certifications. Mom wanted to do that, too, but we told her not 'til she went 6 months without an asthma attack! I don't scuba dive because I have a ruptured eardrum and I get water into my inner ear (which hurts a lot) if I invert for any time under water, or go to any depth at all. I even get it if I swim down to the bottom of the 3 1/2 foot deep keel on my sailboat. Been there, done that! I can do a flip-turn in the swimming pool, but that is the longest I'll be upside down under water.
My grandparents on my mother's side used to live in Apache Junction, Arizona, though the winters, then come up to the San Juan Islands and live at our place up there in the summers (when Arizona would be too hot). One year after grandma died (yes, colon cancer) we lost track of Pop. He had told us when he was leaving and thought he'd be here in about three weeks, because he had some other relatives to see on the way. But after 5 weeks still no Pop. Well, he was in his 80's at this point, and Mom got worried. She started calling around and finally found him out in the field bucking hay bales on my cousin's farm in northern Idaho. Mom started to chew him out but he just said, "Oh, Monkey," (what he called her), "They don't make them as heavy as they used to." In 1990, when Northwest Sound toured England, Austria & Germany, Pop and my Mom came along with Janet & I. Everyone was worried because we brought this old man along and they thought he would slow us down. He didn't. In fact, he became quite popular with the tour group. Especially after he used his cane to signal for help when a bunch of them got stuck in the elevator aboard the ship crossing the English Channel. For 10 years after that trip I still had people asking me how my grandfather was doing. The entire time we were on the continent (Austria & Germany mainly) he was remembering his birth language - German. His folks came over shortly before he was born, and he grew up speaking German & English at home. He suppressed it during WWII, and didn't remember much before that trip. But on the continent we had two bus drivers named Hans & Heinz. One day Hans came around the bus and said, "Vie Gaits?" (meaning How are you doing?) to Pop. Now, I don't speak German so I won't even try to write the response in that language, but it translated into an expression from his childhood on the farm - "On three legs, not so wobbly as a goose." Hans fell down laughing. He hadn't expected that out of these American tourists.
I've been kind of letting the old mind wander in the writing of this letter. It goes off on odd tangents, anyway, but most of them don't make it into my letters. Enough for now, more later. As always, you can opt out of receiving these by dropping me a line. I won't be mad.
Tom The Embattled