Thursday, February 26, 2009

Closing The Circle

I spent February 15 to 20 back in the Carolinas visiting my relatives, and in a very real sense it was the summation, and completion, of my life's journey.

Sometime in early childhood, maybe around three or four, we start to develop an awareness of an outside world of other people and different places. We start to explore it. It's as if our lives are a gigantic whiteboard and we take a marker and start tracing the path of our lives on that whiteboard. We go through childhood, then adolescence, then young adulthood, and into middle age and beyond. The line made by my marker on my life's whiteboard has often been a dizzying series of loops, swirls, starts and stops; sometimes I took two steps forward but then a step back. It would include stops in places like New York City, Dallas, San Diego, and Las Vegas along with various wives and significant others, assorted writing and editing jobs, flings of entrepreneurship, and periods of obsession with different interests and ideas.

I don't know if I'm typical, but at this point in my life I need to make sense of that line I drew on the whiteboard. It's not that I'm looking for the great cosmic meaning of it all, but I do want to see if there is some common theme, some coherence and sense in all those squiggles.

It was very emotional arriving in Charlotte on the afternoon of February 15. My condition is rapidly deteriorating, and I wanted to make the trip while I was still able to travel without special assistance. I also knew this would be my last chance to see my childhood home and relatives. As with all visits back to the Carolinas over the past two decades, the impact is disconcerting. Everything is so familiar, but everything is also so different. At times, I feel right back at home but at other times I feel like a total stranger.

I said goodbyes that week to many people and places. I visited the graves of my parents and grandparents for the last time and took soil from each; I will have that soil sprinkled on my body when it is cremated. I also got to see almost all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins together on Wednesday night when we all gathered at my Uncle Grady's house. That night, I was able to do something that I needed to do while I still could, and that was to take each of them aside and tell them to their face how proud I was to be related to them, how much I appreciated all the love and support they had given me over the years, and how much I loved them. It was an emotionally wrenching thing to do, but I had to do it and I'm glad I did.

Departing Charlotte on the morning of February 20 was depressing and heartbreaking. In fact, the only time I think I have felt more emotional pain was the death of my mother. I knew that morning I would never see my relatives and the Carolinas again. And I was in a very dark, anguished place as I waited to board my flight to Dallas.

But then I thought back to the gathering with my relatives on Wednesday, and how so many of the stories told were about other family members who had died. The stories were told with great love and affection; the virtues and good points of departed family members were suitably exaggerated while their shortcomings and failures were conveniently forgotten. There was much laughter as what the late members said and did were recounted, and for many minutes those departed members were once again alive and with us. It's on evenings like that you realize you can indeed live on forever in the memories and hearts of those who love you.

And then I also realized that one day they would be swapping stories about crazy cousin Butch----or "little Harry," as some still call me------and that on those evenings I would once again live in their hearts, with all my virtues enhanced and my shortcomings ignored.

That was the moment when I realized the marker I was using on my life's whiteboard had returned to the point where I first started drawing over five decades ago. That crazed, demented circle was finally closed, and I understood the message in all those loopy lines: the love of your family and friends is what makes life worthwhile.

I felt the sadness lifting as I waited for the plane to take off. Yes, I would never see my relatives or the Carolinas again, but they will always be with me in my heart. Things are playing out as they were meant to play out. I have no idea how the end will be, but I do know things will happen just as they are supposed to happen.

Oh, I know this must be confusing gibberish, especially if you are healthy or otherwise not looking down the barrel of a gun. But the world looks different to me than it did just a few months ago. Your perception changes radically once The Beast has you in its deathgrip. But thanks to that trip I made last week, I feel an acceptance of my fate and an inner peace about the sum of my life that it is both wonderful and liberating. And it is all because of my family and friends, and I love and thank all of you.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Five Years!!

Today is the fifth wedding anniversary for me and Di. We did the deed on February 13, 2004 at the Little Church of the West in Las Vegas. As I never tire of pointing out, that was where Elvis married Ann-Margaret at the end of Viva Las Vegas. It was a surprisingly dignified ceremony for Las Vegas. Di chose We've Only Just Begun by the Carpenters to be played while I, of course, selected Johnny Cash's Hurt.

I promised Di last year that I would be around for our fifth anniversary, and I kept that promise. But I know I won't be around for number six. However, I do promise to treasure her every day that I do have left. Di has been an enormous source of joy over the past five years. During my illness, she has been courageous, loyal, kind, and encouraging; there were times when I wanted to simply quit but she kept me moving forward and fighting back. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that without her I wouldn't still be alive to write these words.

Thank you, Di. I love you!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I've Been Fighting The Beast For A Few Days

I often say I have my good days and my bad days when it comes to my cancer. What does that mean? "Bad days" are ones in which I can literally feel my body under assault from the cancer and my immune system fighting back. The impact on me is fatigue bordering on exhaustion, a general feeling much like the flu without the fever or chills. As the disease progresses, my bad days are getting more numerous and worse, like the recent episode that began last Friday.

It began Friday afternoon with an increase in my level of fatigue coupled with a loss of appetite; I had to force myself to eat that evening. On Saturday morning, I didn't finish one breakfast pastry and my sole food for the rest of the day was a can of tomato soup. My big activity for the day was lying around watching television and reading. On Sunday, I was determined to do something, so Di and I did some grocery shopping. The bags of groceries felt like they weighed a ton as I brought them in from the car, and I promptly took a two hour nap when I was finished.

Monday was the worst. I couldn't force myself to eat anything other than drinking some milk. At times, I was physically shaking. My cognitive abilities were scrambled; I tried to read but I was unable to concentrate and found myself re-reading the same paragraph two or three times. By afternoon, I had given up and just lay on the bed. I thought, so, this must be what it will be like when I finally die from cancer. By 8:00 pm, I had to go to bed for the evening, and as I drifted off to sleep I had this nagging feeling that maybe this was it, that perhaps this was the night I would die. I know I'm supposed to have learned some message of courage and hope, or some profound philosophical insight, that I'm supposed to share with everyone. But I didn't. All I could think of was, wow, 56 years and all that I've been through, and it might end tonight with a slow motion fade-out. As the old Peggy Lee song once asked, "Is that all there is?"

But I awoke Tuesday morning. I was very weak, yet I didn't feel as totally emptied as I did on Monday. As Tuesday progressed, my appetite returned and so did my strength. I was able to focus on things again and I could think clearly. And today I feel 1000% better than I did 48 hours ago.

Somewhere inside me, my immune system won some battle against my cancer during the past few days. Maybe it was trying to invade some new organ, or that tumor on my liver was trying to expand some more. . . . . . . . I don't know, but I'm certain a victory of sorts was achieved. And I think I got an advance preview of what it will be like to die.

All in all, a very interesting few days. Now I need to get to work and catch up on some stuff!

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Petroglyphs At Steam Wells, California

You won't find Steam Wells, California on ordinary road maps; you'll need a U.S. Geological Survey map to find this petroglyph site. It is east of the semi-ghost town of Red Mountain, CA, on public land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. To reach it, you take Highway 395 north off Interstate 15 until you reach the town of Red Mountain. Turn east onto Trona Road and follow it a couple of miles until you reach the turnoff for RM14444, a graded dirt road, on the right. At this point, you will be "behind" Red Mountain, a highly oxidized basaltic cinder cone that now has a reddish coloration. Because of the maze of dirt roads branching off from RM1444, you'lll need a good USGS map or directions from the local BLM office to find this site. While a 4WD vehicle isn't usually necessary, deep sand can accumulate on sections of the roads so a 4WD vehicle or a truck with a robust low gear is a good idea.

This is the high desert of southern California, with an elevation of about 3500 feet. Winter is a great time to visit, as it is cool and critters such as rattlesnakes are hibernating in their dens. You'll need to hike about a mile from the road to reach Steam Wells, and the petroglyph site is a basaltic outcropping that rises about one hundred feet over the surrounding area-----it is easily visible as you approach the site. Another clue you're getting close will be a distinctive "rotten egg" smell. This is a geothermally active area and steam wells were drilled to power mining activities at this location in the 1930s. While the wells have since been capped, they do leak enough to create an odor.

The petroglyphs are scraped into the basaltic boulders making up the outcropping. As you climb the outcropping, most of the boulders you'll see will have designs like the ones seen in the photos below:

When you reach the summit of the outcropping, you get an outstanding view of the surrounding desert------talk about being isolated!!-------and there are some petroglyphs at the top:

I have been reluctant to write about the Steam Wells petroglyphs because they have already been damaged by "outlaw archaeologists" who deal in the thriving black market for pre-Columbian artifacts. As you can see below, someone has very professionally cut away some of the petroglyphs, and those missing petroglyphs doubtlessly decorate the home or office of someone with more money than sense. Isolation and limited BLM resources makes sites like this sitting ducks for thieves.

After visiting the petroglyphs, you can follow your nose to the site of the actual steam wells, as shown below. I visited on a January day with the temperatures in the lower 40s, and I could actually see a few wisps of steam floating away from the well nozzles. The smell got a lot worse the closer you got to the wells, so I didn't spend much time there!