As my readers know, finding time to blog has been tough as my energies are split between my parents’ health issues and, increasingly, my own. And, yes, doing what I can to earn a wage in between. But today I want to talk about someone else. A very kind, funny, youthful man of 52 who, about four months ago, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Not a metastatic one like my mother’s but a glioblastoma — the Third Reich of tumors. It invades, spreads rapidly, kills innocent cells. If it bothers taking prisoners, it does terrible things to them.
I’ve known this kind, funny man and his equally kind family for 20 years. I met them at a church my husband and I began attending after we were married — a church that was the opposite of the one I’d attended a few years prior. This place was pastored by a long-time recovering alcoholic who referred to Alcoholics Anonymous, proudly, as his “other church.” Its congregants included “Bicycle Bob,” a homeless man who’d been thrown out of the church down the road, as well as various religious mutts — from agnostics to those who viewed the Bible as allegory to literalists – all who hung around because they liked the inclusive, accepting vibe. Many had been wounded by religion. Many, like me, had sworn they’d never join a church again. But the recovering-alcoholic pastor won me over when he told a really dirty joke. He won me over even more when, upon hearing about my experience with the other church and their moral counsel (specifically that single pregnancy/motherhood was a sin that demanded the ultimate sacrifice) … he wept.
Joe (the kind, funny, youthful 52 year old) and his family were among the first I met at the little cinder-block church. I love a good sense of humor so I immediately liked Joe. And his wife, Anna? She long ago became one of my role models — the last thing in the world she’d want to be. She’s too humble and too kind and too down to earth and too filled with grace to ascend anyone’s pedestal. I will never be like her — genes and upbringing work against that — but she gives me something to aim for. I tell CC that, if nothing else, maybe someday I’ll be “Anna on Crack” – Kind, humble, down to earth, and graceful … but sometimes angst-ridden, haggard, and given to cursing.
I watched Joe and Anna’s two girls grow into women who pursued careers in social activism. One dry-witted like her dad; the other whose huge, open heart leads her to places where kids need help — academically, materially, emotionally. Likewise, they watched us — Husband, CC, and I — go through the ups and downs that accompany two decades of life.
Because of my mom, I know a little about brain tumors … so when I heard the “g” word (glioblastoma) I was unable to share the certainty of various friends and acquaintances — namely that Joe, being Joe … would beat this. I was even more unable to share certainty that a miracle would lift the thing from Joe’s brain … because no such miracle had lifted mom’s tumor from hers and even she winced when I told her that Joe’s tumor was of the “g-word” variety.
The Caring Bridge updates have not been surprising. Heartbreaking but not surprising. Joe’s seizures are increasing. Muscles aren’t working. His body is weakening. ER trips are entering the picture. Still astonishingly vibrant 7 weeks ago, Joe sleeps more now. Desires visitors less frequently. But here’s the thing: He still says, without the slightest trace of bravado, things like “This has been a really good day.” Pumped with chemo, stricken by seizures, an inoperable tumor lodged in his brain … a good day.
Joe makes me not want to write but, instead, to act. He pushes me in the direction I lean amidst so many opposing forces … the direction that moves me further from writing about life and more toward living it. A scary direction because, sometimes, I do the former better than the latter.
In the second half of the “Hollywood Nights” story, I wrote about my second trip to Hollywood the following summer, 1982. I zero in on the “illusion” theme, the way drug culture, by then, has several of my hip Hollywood pals by the short hairs … making some of them hypocrites, some of them liars, and some of them nuts. Four months before that second trip, I was hit by a drunk driver — the result a concussion, a shattered kneecap, and a doctor saying “this will catch up to you in about 30 years.” Also, the accident marks the dwindling end of my “experimentation” period. Still, I head to Hollywood — this time, with a cast and a cane — not knowing that the accident has made me infection-prone and, by autumn, I’ll come so close to death (via septic shock) that a priest will be sent in for my final confession.
It’s a good story, I think. It includes a then-semi-tragic hero, the diorama-making guy who wants out of Hollywood but feels trapped by his cocaine habit. It also includes my leaving three days after I arrive … after our car breaks down in what my Hollywood pals call “the barrio” while my friend, Lisa, trips on acid and a guy gets the shit kicked out of him nearby (ala a group of bandana-wearing dudes in Ben Davis pants — I know the pants brand because, later, similarly dressed guys show up at our broken-down car). The story ends with me back in the one-stoplight town where my parents live and, broke and broken-kneed, so do I. I am sitting by a pond on their property, watching the sun set … thinking maybe this small-town thing isn’t that bad. Not knowing that, about two miles down the road, I will eventually meet Joe and his family.
Joe and his family who are on my mind right now and make my little Hollywood story seem trivial. I don’t pray for miracles because I don’t believe that they land on some people and skip others. But, damn, I want Joe — being Joe — to somehow (via his wit or his intelligence) joke the tumor out of being or outsmart it. I wanted my mom to do the same. It ain’t gonna happen.
I wrote (in Part 1) about L.A. because I just returned from UCLA Medical Center … where a doctor confirmed what I’ve known about the mesh that was implanted in me 3.5 years ago. It’s torn through various important body parts and is chronically infected. Two surgeries and I.V. antibiotics will be needed to get it out. Meanwhile, a doctor here told me that my car accident has “caught up” with me, via a spine full of herneated disks … and, of course, the need for surgery. It’s my tendency toward infection, my weakened immune system, that makes these propositions all the more scary. I tell myself that at least it’s not cancer.
Joe and his family continue to teach me … even though they were surprised to tears when I told them they are my role models. They don’t know they make me not want to write and, if they did, they’d say something like “but Terri, writing is one of your gifts.” I’d nod, thinking about the time I — or any of us — have on this planet. Thinking about what and who there is here to see, touch, smell, taste, feel, love. When I’m gone, words aren’t what I hope to leave behind. I want to leave behind an imprint of love … my own, imperfect Anna-On-Crack brand.
A sequoia tree stands outside my window. It’s trunk no more than 20 feet from where I sit. It’s needles are bobbing gently on the breeze — right here, right now — afloat on the energetic sea that is this world. A couple of miles away, Joe is going about his day. I’d wager that, when he rose this morning, he said it was going to be a good one.
The Sequoia makes me think of that line from The Color Purple: “Everything wanna be loved… Look at them trees. Notice how the trees do everything people do to get attention…” How many Sequoias are trying to get my attention? Yours? How many burning bushes are any of us standing in the presence of, right here right now?
Joe makes me think about courage and patience and vulnerability and love and what’s real. He’s the complete opposite of Hollywood. If he calls this a good day (which I’m sure he will) I’ll try, really try, to believe him … because he’s paying close attention … seeing things I can’t yet see.
Things that are calling out to me … to be touched rather than written about.