Bathroom Humor

I write this column in all sincerity, but what are you asking me for? A rhetorical question if there ever was one. To what I refer is the question I was asked earlier this morning by one of the home-improvement tradesman working on my upstairs bathroom. Having made significant progress on the bathroom in the five weeks or so since I published “And So It Begins,” a column detailing the few facts I retained about the demolition/renovation and the anxiety I felt about it, today’s task was waterproofing the shower enclosure/bathroom floor in preparation for the tile, if I understand correctly. Now, as further context, I know very little about home improvement (car repairs, computer technology, lawn and garden; shall I go on?). Moreover, I know very little Spanish. Combine the two, as happened this morning, and you are asking (literally) for trouble.

The waterproofing man arrived at 8:45 a.m. The day before, his boss/presumably the owner, had stopped by for a walk-through and to drop off materials for the job. I thought I would see him again, I was wrong. The only person on the job is the person whose English is better than my Spanish and the only Spanish I know, I know from a cartoon character, “Speedy Gonzales, the fastest mouse in all of Mexico,” I grew up watching on Saturday-morning television. After directing him to the upstairs bathroom, within a few minutes, the man walked downstairs and asked/motioned for me to follow him back upstairs, I figured there was likely a question that needed answering so immediately I got off the couch to assist.

Once we were both inside the bathroom, he started pointing to the walls (front, back and sides), ceiling, niche and planned-for bench within the enclosure, to ask for – so far as I could understand, what needed to be waterproofed (I’ll spare you any details about the process since I’m unlikely to do so accurately). Now, other than asking the project manager Simple-Simon-type questions about what is going on, what has gone on (literally and figuratively) and what is planned to be going on, I am out of any kind of loop. The workmen come in. I point them upstairs. Then I go into my office and mind my own business. I rarely check their progress, Generally speaking, I only look to see what’s been done after they’ve left. I am not in any body’s way and I don’t serve as any kind of resource other than answering the most basic questions: “Is that the basement door?” ” Do you mind if we shut off the water?” Is there a hardware store nearby?” As such, I am the least-bit helpful.

The man working today is new to me/the project. He’s not been here before. But I did open the door to let him in and I did direct him to the upstairs bathroom. For all he knows/has experienced so far, I seem to be somewhat helpful. Ergo, after a bit, rather than calling his boss, he came back downstairs to solicit my help. Limited though I knew it would be, I was happy to try. As the conversation began, it became clear to me that not only did I not know what he was talking about (job wise), I couldn’t even understand what it was that he was saying. I was lost in translation and lost in intention. As I attempted to answer/explain/guess what he was asking while we were both pointing/gesturing/talking, I quickly realized that this was a language match not made in heaven. Nevertheless, we eventually came to some sort of an understanding of the task at hand and back downstairs I went.

Sitting on the couch, I began to feel uncomfortable about the instructions I think I had just given/agreed to. As a result, I considered calling my project manager at home on a Saturday morning to get some clarity/confirmation about what I think had just transpired upstairs. Not at all bothered by my weekend intrusion, and after listening to a condensed version of this column, Stefan assured me that what seemed to be happening here was supposed to be happening.

And here I thought outliving my lung cancer prognosis by six-plus years was a miracle.

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Two, Hopefully for Won

Being diagnosed with cancer; then having cancer/living with cancer, is like having a second job. A job that unlike many, requires and/or imposes a ’round the clock-type 24/7 adherence to protocol, policy, procedure, presumptions and principle. To live not like you’re dying takes more than scoffing at a country music song that twangs an alternative vision. Believing in what routines you’re following and any lifestyle changes you’ve made allows (I didn’t say enables) a cancer survivor to thrive under the most difficult and demanding of circumstances.

Unfortunately for those reading this column looking for answers/guarantees, there aren’t any other than: if you abuse the privilege of post-cancer-diagnosis survival, the ends will likely justify the means; meaning, you are responsible for your own actions and “inactions.” The prognosis one is given at diagnosis is a reasonably thought out prediction. However, as grim as those words sound and seem at that moment, that prediction is not cast in stone. I’m living proof of that. The words you hear are based on the past. Your ensuing treatment is more about the present and future and what you decide to do living forward. Being open and unassuming, and by ‘unassuming’ I mean: not taking anything for granted, presuming facts not in evidence, considering that which has happened to somebody else – either good or bad, could happen to you and of course, asking as many questions in as many ways as necessary to get the answers you need, will help you co-exist with this terrible burden. Being diagnosed with a heretofore “terminal” disease presents one with innumerable challenges but not the slim pickens (choices not the actor) or yesteryear.

Integrating/assimilating all of the facts, fiction and philosophy into one’s daily cancer conundrum is a task often complicated by one’s day job/intention to remain on that job. The thinking being; at least in my mind/experience: living as normal a life as possible and staying as true to one’s usual and customary self as well as to one’s wishes, desires, hopes, prayers, etc., will enable (not ‘allow’ this time) you potentially to live longer and prosper more and trek “where no man has gone before.” For us cancer survivors/patients, where we hope to ‘trek’ is beyond the prognosis given to us by our oncologist.

I can boast of such an accomplishment, but I’d rather write it quietly and consistently as encouragement to others similarly diagnosed and “prognosed” than brag about it loudly. However, the changes/choices I’ve made might not suit another’s personality. I regularly receive suggestions about additional anti-cancer pursuits. Some I embrace, some I don’t. Some are conventional (Western), some are alternative (Non-Western). Many sound reasonable and “integratable” – into my lifestyle. Many others don’t. But given that my life is at stake, how can a suggestions incompatibility with my personality matter? We’re talking life verses premature death here; not sit-down Italian verses take-out Chinese. And though food certainly matters, it is of course to no comparison to living verses dying. Still, I don’t always say “yes.”

This is the yin and yang of my life and probably the lives of many other survivors of serious/terminal-type diseases. I want to feel like I’m winning. But I’m deathly afraid of losing. Moreover, I want to live my life as normally as possible, but not if it has adverse consequence. And how would I know anyway? Symptoms can be misleading and scans are quarterly. And though I remain positive about my very negative circumstances, occasionally the reality of those circumstances interfere with that normalcy. When that happens, I usually put pen to paper and try to write myself out of it.

I Had a Dream

Which apparently, according to my oncologist, is not unusual. In fact, he’s had them, too. What I am referring to, in a general sense, are cancer dreams. The ‘cancer dream’ I had was my first. Actually, it was not so much a dream, with a beginning, middle and an end, as it was a fragment; a moment in subconscious time that provided (illuminated would be too strong a characterization) an opportunity to possibly see my future and prepare accordingly.

Before I share my dream, let me give you a bit of context relating to my cancer condition. I am nearly five months into my ninth year post diagnosis. I have stage IV non-small cell lung cancer, the terminal kind. Stage IV, if you don’t know (and I certainly didn’t know stage IV from stage left until my oncologist told me in late February, 2009) means the tumors have metastasized (moved from its original location, which is rarely good) and are inoperable (which means surgery is not an option/recommended/reasonable). Ergo, the “13 month to two year” prognosis I was given and the associated two-percent chance of survival beyond five years. To say then that cancer/my mortality is constantly on my mind is an understatement of epic proportions.

Given the unlikely still-living situation in which amazingly I find myself, I am regularly waiting for disappointing/discouraging health-related symptoms/news. With every five-week cycle of pre-chemotherapy lab work/24-hour urine collection and chemotherapy infusion, followed by quarterly CT Scans and semi annual brain and/or lower abdomen MRIs, I am at the mercy of results – which at this juncture rarely manifest themselves in any symptomatic/life-changing way. In short, I rarely know what the cancer is doing until my oncologist tells me. So far, mostly so good. As a result of this general lack of symptoms, I am always anticipating the day when I am not so lucky and wondering how it will happen/how I’ll react when “the cancer,” as “Forrest, Forrest Gump” said it, asserts its insidious hold. This was the dream fragment I had.

The only real symptom of my lung cancer/treatment shows up in my lab work: specifically my creatinine level, which measures kidney function. And kidney function, per conversations with my oncologist, is a major concern. The damage I’ve incurred already is irreparable and likely to get worse and a constant worry (I’ve recently had a “liquid biopsy” in an attempt to determine non-surgically the genetic mutation of my tumors which could possibly enable me to switch my chemotherapy to one which is not filtered through the kidneys). In the interim however, or until there is an “actionable” match, I am stilt preoccupied with this risk. The fear of dialysis/a kidney replacement weighs heavily on my mind.

In my dream, I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. As I stood over the commode to “pass water,” as my father-in-law calls it, I saw blood in my urine. And what little I know is: blood in the urine, stool, phlegm, etc., is not good, generally speaking. Now whether it’s related to my lung cancer/kidney function or not, at that subconscious moment, I was convinced that my cancer had taken an extremely deadly turn and that my life would soon be very different.

My reaction: I believe I swore and then nearly crumpled to the floor, my left arm extended against the adjacent wall to keep me from falling. Then the dream, as much as I remember it, faded.

Fortunately, my most recent scan indicated the tumors have not moved or grown and that my kidney function has not gotten worse. Nevertheless, I do feel as if I’ve seen my future. And though it might not be great, I do feel as if I’m better prepared.

Coincidental Or Not

One of our older/oldest cats, Biscuit, born late September, 2006 and his oldest human parent, yours truly, born late September, 1954, are both having teeth issues. In fact, the exact same teeth issues: the 1st molar and the 2nd bicuspid in the “upper right quadrant” are causing us problems and have to be extracted. Biscuit’s teeth extraction will be done by our regular veterinarian. Mine will be done not by my regular dentist but by a specialist, an oral surgeon. Unfortunately, the two practices are not related so there’s no chance of a “BOGO.” Nor is there any chance that the two procedures will be about the same cost. My teeth extraction will be double at a minimum, perhaps even quadruple, if I’m lucky. (I made inquiries.) Accordingly, Biscuit’s extraction will occur/has occurred first.

What’s of interest to me is the coincidence that Biscuit and I need the same teeth extracted at the same time. Which when you consider that Biscuit and I are approximately the same age, is not really a surprise. It’s really more of a fact of life/aging – for both of us. Perhaps there are other behaviors and/or physical/mental indicators in Biscuits day-to-day activities which might clue me in to my own aging process. After all, we are living similar lives.

So far, Biscuit’s post-teeth-extraction recovery has been uneventful. He’s been spry and energetic. He’s been on the kitchen counter, various window sills, the dining room table, the ironing board and all the other furniture; he’s knocked over the wicker trash basket in our bedroom three times and he’s been eating like a dog. In short, he’s “back baby.” He almost appears to be smiling – except when we attempt to give him his post-procedure pills. As per usual, during the day he’s sleeping on the back of the couch and at night he’s curled up in the laundry basket; and he’s still the first cat – of five, an hour early, I might add, for breakfast and dinner, to place his order/meow his presence. He’s as ready to eat as ever. He hasn’t missed a beat or a step. If I had to summarize/characterize his actions now, I’d say he has a real joie de vivre, “an exuberant enjoyment of life.” So what am I waiting for? Godot?

As for my procedure, I’ve been told it takes 30 minutes or so. Local anesthesia is used (unlike Biscuit who was totally sedated/anesthetized). Moreover, the post-surgical pain is not terrible and the chance of infection is minor. And though I’ll have a space in my gums where my teeth used to be, no longer will I be anticipating the pain and discomfort that cracking or splitting either of these two teeth would cause. The only pain I’ll likely have is the pain of payment. (See 7/26/17 column entitled “Taking Care of Business” for associated details.)

I guess my curiosity/concern is whether I trust anything I’ve observed from Biscuit’s dental experience – considering we’re the same age. Is what’s good for the cat also good for the human – all things being equal, sort of? Is Biscuit’s return to normalcy so quickly and so easily – and so vigorously, a lesson to be learned? If seeing is believing and I do see extremely well for someone nearing his 63rd birthday, then Biscuit’s ‘experience’ and the comparison between his pre- and post-extraction behavior should be an inspiration to us all, especially those of us of similar age with one and the same, two actually, teeth which need to be extracted.

I mean, the procedure I’ve been putting off is not exactly brain surgery, it’s oral surgery. I’m not admitted to a hospital. It’s outpatient. I’m in and then out. Same day service, just like the restaurant where my wife, Dina works. I don’t even need someone to drive me home (unlike Biscuit. I had to drive him home.) And now that Biscuit is home, safe and sound, I suppose it’s time for me to buck up and schedule my appointment. After all, it has nothing to do with cancer and everything to do with quality of life. I’d say that’s a win-win.

Week to Weak

And speaking, a few weeks late, of my “whirled,” (see July 5, 2017 column, “Not an Auto-Matic Fix”); at least as it relates to my next week or so: 24-hour urine collection on Tuesday, pre-chemotherapy lab work on Wednesday, in the Connection office on Thursday, chemotherapy infusion on Friday, continuing anxiety concerning the previous Wednesday’s CT Scan/awaiting results from my oncologist followed by our usual post-scan appointment with him Friday a week later to discuss my future: status quo or the great unknown; coinciding with the typical eating challenges/post-chemo side effect which lasts a week to 10 days after treatment. If this cycle of gloom doesn’t sound like fun, you’re right, but it’s a living/my life and I’m extraordinarily (I didn’t want to say “damn”) lucky to be able to live it.

And recently having spoken to a new stage IV, non-small cell lung cancer “diagnosee,” who’s on a 24-hour morphine drip and Percocet every four hours because he’s in constant pain, I know how amazingly fortunate I am/have been since being originally diagnosed in late February, 2009. Sure, I’ve had my share of pain and discomfort, but in the medical-measuring system I’d give it a “1.” Hardly the stuff with which nightmares are made (see column in a few weeks, as yet untitled).

I’ve always been a great believer in context. Not so much comparison because what you see and what you get are not necessarily relevant, comparatively speaking, but more that the circumstances are all relative. It takes me back to Popeye the Sailor Man, who apologizing to no one, always said: “I ‘yam what I ‘yam.” And so am I. When I see other cancer patients at the Infusion Center, when I talk to cancer survivors, when I hear or read of other cancer patient circumstances, I try to live and learn, not take it personally, and count my blessings. Given the hand that I was dealt back on Feb. 27, 2009 I wouldn’t say “Wild” Bill Hickok (and his black aces and black eights) came to mind, but my life, according to the “11 month to two-year” prognosis I was given, certainly passed before me – and much sooner than I had anticipated.

In spite of my diagnosis/prognosis, and the miscellaneous ups and downs that I and most cancer patients endure, I’ve never given in to my oncologist’s initial assessment. It was so unbelievable hearing such grim news, especially considering that I was age 54 and a half, that it almost seemed like an out-of-body experience, sort of like Scrooge in Charles Dickens “novella, “A Christmas Carol.” Sure we were listening attentively and asked our share of questions, but it didn’t seem real or even about me, sort of. I mean at this juncture, I had no pain and no symptoms and no family history of cancer – and I was a life long non-smoker. Yet here I was, in the bulls eye of a dreaded disease with no known cure receiving a modest life expectancy/two percent chance of living beyond five years.

But eight years and five months later, here I sit, breathe and try to write some wrongs about a life mostly unexpected, and one in which I haven’t sweated too many details nor concerned myself with the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to quote former Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, specifically as it relates to lung cancer outcomes. Which are dramatically improving.

New drug approvals and increased funding for lung cancer research has infused hope into lung cancer patient’s lives. Routines with which us lung cancer patients/survivors have become accustomed will be less routine and will make our lives more fulfilling. It might not be perfect, but it’s definitely a life worth living.

Taking Care of Business

The cats. The car. The dentist. The pancreatic enzymes. It was a week that typically isn’t. As often as my credit card was swiped these past few days, I’m amazed its magnetic strip is still magnetized. To quote my deceased mother, Celia: “It’s enough already.”

Oh well, what’s done is done, though it definitely needed doing. And aside from the fact that I didn’t have the actual money, fortunately I had the available credit, which I was grateful to have had. I mean, how long can you put off necessary evils/expenditures before they rear their ugly consequences? And though money doesn’t grow on trees (linen actually), credit seems to, and so the to-do list now has some cross-outs/”has-dones” finally.

Now the anxiety about neglecting the “to-dos” is replaced by the worry about the cost/needing-to-pay the “having-dones.” Nevertheless, the cats have had their vaccinations shot current. The car now has a passenger window that goes down – and back up, a check-engine light that no longer illuminates, a blower that will now provide heat in the winter and a defogger when needed, and as it turns out a bit of unexpected air conditioning. The dentist has referred me to an oral surgeon (since the teeth were both “unrestorable“/not root canal candidates) who will extract two teeth from my mouth and hundreds more from my bank account/probably credit card – again, but no doubt get me back on a course of dental correction. The pancreatic enzymes, the most expensive bottle of pills I buy (I consume upwards of 55 pills per day) is an expense I incur every three months and does something to help my immune system keep the lung cancer in-check, a priority if there ever was one.

Paying to keep on playing (so to speak), by maintaining this kind of normalcy enhances the feeling that life is indeed still being played. And not that my attitude/philosophy in such responsibilities is totally affected by yours truly having been diagnosed with a “terminal” form of cancer: non-small cell lung cancer, stage IV, to be specific, but as the old punchline says: “It doesn’t hurt.” And avoiding hurt is definitely part of the fighting-cancer strategy; along with avoiding stress, eating healthy, exercising and boosting one’s immune system.

I guess what I’m realizing that I have two lives, sort of, the usual and customary life: work, play, day-to-day stuff and the cancer life: lab work, chemotherapy, scans, oncologist, pills, lifestyle changes, etc. On some days, they are parallel. On other days, they intersect. And though they may be separate, they are inter-related. What benefits one is likely to positively affect the other. Additionally, a negative in one life will  likewise have an adverse consequence in the other. However, the requirements to maintain their respective lives is different. Yet balance/co-existence must be maintained in order for one to remain “twogether.” Two separate halves will not make for a responsible whole, but rather lead to an emotional one. And if there’s one attribute that a cancer patient/survivor must have, it is emotional wherewithal. Failure to do so in one’s cancer life will likely spill over into the non-cancer life (and vice-versa) and cause a kind of an adult version of failure to thrive. Cancer might win the battle in the end but you can’t let it win the battle in the interim. Fulfilling your every-day responsibilities helps give that life the kind of accomplishment that aids and abets in your fight against your cancer life. Moreover, handling your cancer life gives you the confidence and optimism to live your non-cancer life.

Granted, the two lives might not exactly be the best of friends, but they must be partners of a sort. The sort that is independent, appreciative, respectful and considerate.

And So It Begins

For the first time in almost exactly 25 years: bathroom demolition, times two. With financial assistance from my father-in-law, along with use of our home equity line, we have committed to and contracted for, a complete renovation of our two full bathrooms (‘full’ meaning: tub/shower, commode, sink, vanity, mirror, shelves, lights/fixtures, counter top, floor and shower tile, and paint). Ergo, over the next eight to 12 weeks, our house will officially become a construction site.

Never having experienced this level of upheaval and chaos in any of our previous homes before, we are looking forward since we have no reference looking backward. We know one thing for sure: our five indoor cats will be miserable and scared and likely hiding for days on end. Considering that the workers will be in our home from 7:30 am to 5 pm, I don’t know when the cats are going to feel like eating since their routine will have been completely thrown off having so many new people in the house for so many hours per day. (I don’t even want to think about the litter box implications.)

Nevertheless, time marches forward, and given that our home is historic/over 250 years-old, its bathrooms, though not exactly pre-Colonial, definitely are showing their age. Their design, form, function, efficiency and attractiveness barely blip the radar. Both bathrooms are old, and that’s the only compliment I can give them.

I imagine the next two to three months will likely be a journey of discovery; Columbus-like in that we will be discovering a new world with modern bathroom amenities and conveniences, color coordination and functionality, many of which we’ve not been the beneficiaries of in over 25 years. Our kitchen remains as it has been all those years ago: large but clearly deficient in many ways compared to modern kitchens. As a matter of fact, as the designer, project manager and I walked into the kitchen looking for the access panel to the adjacent bathroom, I said, “As you can see, our kitchen need work, too. Any chance you all offer a ‘BOGO? Buy one, get one free?” Of course, they both laughed and shook their head. They didn’t have to say “No.” It was more a rhetorical question anyway.

Considering the time we’ve all had together, we have no doubt the contractor and his workers know what they’re doing. We’re not sure however, as homeowners that we know what we’re doing. From our first meeting, a few months back, the process has seemed clear enough as do the drawings/design ideas we’ve now seen/decided upon do. Still, when it goes from their paper to our property, how will it all transfer? They seem confident and complimentary which certainly has been reassuring but we’re novices in this transformation. For us each step forward is yet another step into the great unknown. And since we can only take it one step at a time, we have no choice but to live and learn and hopefully not regret and decisions we’ve already made (although changes can still be made).

So far, and it’s not very far, so good. However, it’s the process of starting and ultimately finishing that worries me. Not that I run on a schedule (heck, I can barely walk), but my wife, Dina, sort of does; and it seems as if she and the workers might be occupying the same space at the same time. I suppose the timing and all eventually works itself out but it’s the interim with which I’m concerned. I realize there are no guarantees in any of this. I guess I just have to deal with it as I do with my having cancer: take the bad with the good, keep a sense of humor and try to remain positive. Doing so has kept me alive for eight years and four months. I’d like to think I can manage for another eight to 12 weeks.