The on-going, first-hand tale of a journey through medical oncology... and what happens after.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Looking into the flames

For as long as I can remember, I have had a certain fascination with fire and water. As a young Boy Scout, I used to think that these juxtaposed interests were enormously entertaining - for hours I could throw rocks into water (any body of water would do) or play with fire. I have been told that one of my favorite activities as a very young boy was to go to the base of the newly-built Interstate 5 Bridge over the Montlake Cut to throw gravel into the water. No doubt some poor city employee had to deal with my enthusiastic rock tossing...

But fire had and continues to have an uncanny ability to draw my attention. As a scout, I prided myself on my ability to quickly and safely build a campfire. To this day, I still feel practiced at that craft. But the building is but the beginning. I can stare into a fire's magical flames for hours (or at least until I need to poke it and add fuel). The flames dance, shifting color and size... the wood glows different shades of orange, red and yellow intertwined. Complex carbon chains dissolving into oxygenated gases and ash, releasing the sun's bound energy into a vastly cooler world. As a chemo-patient, I treasured the privileged position I was allowed to assume in a close friend's living room next to their fireplace - seated in my portable recliner, just to the right side of the center of the room, wrapped in blankets and thick sweaters - while love and support swirled around me and my family, and a fire crackled and glowed. As a post-chemo cancer survivor, I still find that I am drawn to that fire, warming my heart as well as my neuropathetic hands and feet.

And of course, I find it impossible to resist briefly writing something about the metaphorical aspects of flames and facing (and then living with) cancer. Where to begin, though... A life uncontrollably consumed with anxiety, with chemicals, and with a new set of sensitivities? The kindling of new ideas and reoriented priorities? The need for sustained oxygen, for a changed fuel supply, for a different source of energy? Wondering, wondering, wondering... Trying to plumb a future that does not feel completely mine. My cancer diagnosis makes me regularly look at the fire in my life to see what's there, and why it's there, and if it's the fire that I want. So far, I see more questions than answers in the flames of my life, but I am so thankful for the chance to look and ponder.

I may have mentioned this before, but I do not know how I might handle a cancer (or any other dread disease) diagnosis in my wife. I do not know how I could handle the calm and gentle discussions that would need to occur with our daughter. I am a capable adult, and a good parent, and a competent homeowner... but I could not alone raise my daughter and keep my house at even half the level that we do together. Somedays I wish I could see this cancer-nightmare through her eyes - to understand how she sees me and cancer - but I cannot imagine her with cancer and me as the sole parent-companion-caregiver. I am too impatient, too needing to be in control, too hard on myself - and that rubs off on everyone nearby.

The flame of our lives requires constant maintenance. Too hot and it may burn out, too cool and it may extinguish itself. Not enough fuel/energy/oxygen - we all need to concern ourselves with maintaining our flames. And our fireplace - the loving support of friends and family - is as important as the individual flames that mingle there. Such platitude, aphorism, euphemism, and metaphor in so few paragraphs - what a mixed up mess of thinking. But there it is. Each day, each moment, we each look into the flames of our lives, and see what we see.


Paul Howard said...

A nice piece of writing, Ed.

Anonymous said...


I'm very glad to see your treatment, though strange and unpleasant, is leading you back to your old self--the Ed I last saw in Jackson Hole seven winters ago. As we've been out of touch for a while, I was shocked to get your holiday card and read what you and K have been through. I admire your positve spirit, courage, and poetic reflections.
I've intended to check out your blog for some time and was recently prompted by the hoopla surrounding Colon Cancer Awareness Month. I had thought/hoped colon cancer was something I could put off worrying about until I was 50, but you've given me cause to reconsider.
Coincidentally, I now work for the VT office of the American Cancer Society. I've been working to bring myself up to speed on all things cancer-related, and it was helpful to share your memories of the port removal, etc as these are the ddetails edited from most of the materials I read.
I hope your road to survivorship remains smooth and the gaps between fingernail ridges become farther apart. Please give our love to K and J.