In October of 2014, a week or so after a CT scan, I wanted the results, so I thought I’d ask for them the next time I was at the Vancouver Cancer Agency. I’ve had prostate cancer for eighteen years, and I’d just been drifting along, taking my meds and participating in trials and studies. CT scans are a part of these studies, but the formal reports exclude the average reader with their discussions of occlusions and incidents. I wanted to know what was going on in my body.
For the last six years, I’ve been going to the Vancouver Cancer Agency even though Surrey has its own agency a few minutes from my house. Vancouver, however, has a special clinic in prostate cancer, headed by Doctor Chi.
Doctor Chi is a young-looking man, thin, handsome and a doctor with a touch of humor in most that he does. He knows every man of the dozens that come here and the details of their cancers. He trains hundreds of doctors from all over the world in the latest techniques for dealing with prostate cancer.
I’m waiting in a small cubicle, my wife Kathy with me. Doctor Chi comes in and pushes a small rolling stool over towards my feet. He sits down on it, as if he were the patient and I were the doctor. He smiles up at me and then, as we used to say in the sixties, he socks it to me. “A large tumor is pushing on your right kidney, Ed. I’m not sure how we’re going to treat that. Your PSA has doubled in a month, from 130 to 260. You have cancer growths in your lower body, on both the right and left sides, as well as spots on your bones.”
But he doesn’t leave it there. “Maybe this trial you’ve signed up for will help. It combines two proven drugs with an experimental one. If it doesn’t work, we have a new powerful form of chemotherapy to try.” This is Doctor Chi – he’s all about hope and so is the whole clinic. It’s almost as if the clinic’s motto were: If one drug or treatment doesn’t work, there are a lot more waiting to be tried.
I take a deep breath. I’m scared and hopeful at the same time. I have to be like Doctor Chi, realistic but full of hope. It seems like this is my final act, so I have to turn in a great performance.
My final act? A great performance? What does that mean?
My wife – Kathy, a quiet, loving woman, who comes with me to every single clinic visit or doctor’s appointment. A retired kindergarten teacher, she always gave children the impression that teachers were kind, friendly people who encouraged them to learn.
I must meet her kindness with care of my own. She lives on positive things and that’s what I have to give her. Yes, face the truth about my condition, but surround it with love and caring.
My son, Kevin. Strong, hardworking, interested in everything, knowledgeable about all kinds of things. He knows I’m ill, and he wants to help me. Help me carry things, help me repair stuff around the house, even help me stand up sometimes. It’s so hard for me to let go, but that’s what I must do. We can talk, man to man…sometimes without words.
My daughter, Kerry, who lives hundreds of miles away. I can feel her love for me over these many miles. I can’t explain it, but she’s the reason I’m writing this. She’s become my other self in the writing world. She promotes my books in ways I never could. I’m so proud of her.
Kerry was the first person I told that I had cancer, when I returned from Doctor Arnold’s office on May 10, 1996. While I was out of my mind with fear, she didn’t scream or cry, she just hugged me and pointed to my T shirt, which had an American eagle on it. “You’re like the eagle, Dad. You’re strong and you can fly above all this cancer business.”
She started me on the path to recovery.
She and I have talked about the spirit world, how your loved ones are still close to you, even after they’ve passed on. It takes time to get over the pain of someone dying, but then in quiet moments you can talk to that person. If I pass on, she will find me many times in the future. When she hears injustice, I’ll be there; when she sees a beautiful bed of tulips in the spring, I’ll be there, showing her their beauty as I have always done. Somehow we live on after we’re gone.
But those are all words. I wish she were here so I could hug her. Never mind the high-highfalutin’ words, I want to surround her with hope and love.
So this is my final act – or is it? Maybe by thinking this way, I will stop fighting. No, I have to keep writing, teaching, doing dishes at night, and emptying the garbage.
I’m seventy-eight. I wanted to make it to eighty, and I still hope to see my eightieth birthday party.
I’ve had a good life. I marched with Doctor Martin Luther King on his historic march from Selma to Montgomery. When I learned that God was love, I tried to give this concept to the Catholics I worked with as their priest. After I left the priesthood, I kept the God of love in my heart and found a woman, Kathy, who showed me what love was really all about.
I loved life and jumped into it – director of a youth center, a city councilman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, marriage to Kathy and raising two children, a successful mom-and-pop business, a move to Canada, teacher, founder of the Surrey International Writers Conference and a volunteer teacher of creative writing in prison for twenty-three years.
Throughout my many roles, I never mentioned the word God in a public forum, yet the spirit of service, stripped of religion and exercised in the world, continued. I tried to lead people to a higher level.
Am I going to die soon? I think of my classmates and friends in the seminary, some of whom stayed in the priesthood. They will die alone. I am so lucky to have someone with me, someone to wake up with and be glad we’re alive for another day.
When I think about my death, I picture exploding stars billions of years ago. They created oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen. Eons later a small amount of those chemicals came together to form me. I am made of star stuff. I’ve been pleased to make use of these elements for the last seventy-eight years. When I die, the chemicals will be put to other uses. Life goes on. Star stuff doesn’t die, it’s just given a new assignment.
What about my consciousness? Where will it go when I die? I really don’t know. Will I join the world soul? Will I meet my mom and dad there? And my good friend, Charlie? Maybe. But if it’s just an end, that’s okay, too. For these years, I’ve expressed my bit of stardust the best I could.
Enough of these deep thoughts. Kathy and I visit our family doctor. He works full time in Surrey Hospital, but saves Tuesday nights for long-time patients he worked with when he had his own practice. Kathy and I have a joke about doctors we meet. We rate them on our own scale. “She made it to the lecture in med school about how to deal with your patients.” Or, “He skipped the lecture.” Doctor Arnold rates a five lecture attendance, the highest you can go.
I tell him what Doctor Chi has said. He doesn’t say anything for a minute, then he gets up, “I don’t get it, Ed. I receive these reports from Doctor Chi’s office saying how the cancer is spreading, and then you come in here and you look great and you’re taking care of Kathy. I don’t get it.”
“Pardon me, but somebody should be carrying – no, helping you in here. You’re like a medical super hero.”
“Up until now life’s been easy. Now I’m not in pain, but all I want to do is sleep and watch TV. The fatigue is killing me.”
“I’m not surprised. Blame in on the cancer and on the trial you’re on.” He grabs his ever-present laptop off the table and glances at it. “Let’s see, combines Abiraterone and Prednisone with JNJ-56021927…” He pauses and clicks on a new page and begins to read, “The first side effect of this drug is fatigue.”
He sits down again and shakes his head. “Like I said, you’re a super hero. Do you need anything? A new med?”
“No, I’m fine, Doctor. Thank you.”
“Kathy, how can I help you?”
That was Tuesday night. Wednesday morning I have a meeting with my writing group, the Rainwriters. It’s called that because it rained for all our first meetings.
Most of us turn in new work at every meeting. I apologize because it’s been months since I turned in something new. Partly I was discouraged with what I was writing, partly I would sit down to write… and go take a nap.
I repeated what my doctors said. Loreena, a long-time member, said, “We’re just glad you come.”
Bob, the man I admire most in the group, says, “I’m glad you come, too. And you’re doing just the right thing – taking it easy. Don’t worry about a thing. You stand for what’s good about our group.”
Joy, the newest member, doesn’t say anything, but I can tell by her looks that she cares about me.
I go home and talk to Kathy. “I gotta get going. Like it says someplace in the Shawshank Redemption. “If you’re not busy living, you’re busy dying.”
My final act? I gotta get busy living.
Kathy hugs me.