Emergency

July 22, 2019

The temperature was close to 100F when we arrived at the scruffy, unairconditioned gym in King of Prussia, Penn., Saturday, where our son Michael was to compete in a local Olympic weightlifting competition. Our daughter-in-law, Dr. Caroline Beebe, a veterinarian, decided it was time to take Sandy to the ER.

Sandy’s blood pressure shot up last week after some difficult dental work. On Thursday she went to the family doctor, who prescribed a new blood-pressure medication. She fell asleep on the drive up to Pennsylvania Friday. When she awoke she had no feeling in her left arm. The numbness passed quickly, but later returned. Saturday morning she was tired. On the ride to the gym her vision was blurred. When we arrived she couldn’t walk for a few moments. The numbness in the arm returned. Caroline and her mom, Mary, an RN, drove her to Bryn Mawr Hospital on the Philadelphia Main Line.

img_20190721_154546092_hdr3537726298964353559.jpgThe ER staff checked her vitals, conducted a CT scan, and gave her medication that calmed her. She felt better; the feeling returned to her arm. An internist examined her. He said he suspected that she may have experienced a transient ischemic attack or TIA, a “mini-stroke” that blocks blood flow in the brain for a short time, then resolves without injury.

Early Sunday morning her left arm went numb again. She went through a second CT scan. She regained control of the arm. A neurologist came by the room, conducted some reflex tests, and mentioned the TIA. She then underwent an MRI, which looks more precisely at brain function than the CT.

That afternoon the internist reported that the MRI revealed that she had suffered a small stroke, more serious than a TIA, but not serious enough to cause injury to the brain. A cardiologist then examined her heart function. He advised that the MRI data showed that she suffered a partial blockage of a blood vessel in the brain. Fortunately Sandy didn’t lose brain function. He explained that she would be examined by a neurosurgical team, who would determine whether the blockage should be resolved with medication or a surgical procedure.

He emphasized that her condition was the best that could be hoped for following a stroke. Caroline and Mary knew Bryn Mawr is a major center of excellence for the treatment of strokes. Had Sandy landed at a hospital without Bryn Mawr’s level of expertise, her stroke could have caused serious brain injury.

Later that afternoon a nurse conducted a more complicated reflex exam: hold legs upright for 10 seconds, follow my finger while looking at my nose—that kind of thing. She aced it.

So we will be in Pennsylvania a few more days, maybe a week, revising our life-in-the-fast lane schedule somewhat. Bryn Mawr, home of Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, and Haverford Colleges and next door to Villanova University, is a cute, interesting place, even when it’s 98F. The hospital treats the big names of Philadelphia sports—the Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, Flyers—and local industry big shots. You need a password to call the hospital about a patient. We just walked in, though.

Sandy is a trooper. We came north for the meet and to celebrate her birthday (66), which we observed when she awoke in her hospital bed. Michael and Caroline picked up a huge hunk of chocolate birthday cake, which she and I wolfed down after they left. We and the hospital staffers all got a huge chortle when they asked for her date of birth.

So while she’s having a hospital birthday, we celebrated other blessings: 41 married years and pretty good health for most of them, four great kids. We talked to all of them in their various corners of the world: Costa Rica, South Carolina, Colorado. They’re on board with the future.

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265 C&J

The docs stressed that they didn’t rush the testing and exams because they knew she was stable. Caroline and Michael explained that across the wide range of types of strokes, she was at the best possible end. What she went through is treatable by the Bryn Mawr stroke team. The postscript is: understand the healing, and gets started with it, get through it, learn from it.

Meanwhile back at that blast furnace-like gym. Michael finished first in his session, lifting 191 pounds in the “snatch” and 265 in the “clean and jerk.” Didn’t get it from me.

 

Recap

July 15, 2019

“Your lungs look clear,” said the pulmonary-critical care physician, squinting at the image of my chest x-ray on the computer at his desk. “Except for this inflammation of the trachea. You need more predisone. I’ll give you a prescription.”

This guy was all business, no casual chitchat, nor even asking much about the convoluted story of how I landed in his office. Judging from the crowd in the waiting room, he’s probably overwhelmed by old guys and gals like me—people with breathing problems—every day.

Clear lungs is good news. I ended up in this doctor’s office because I got tired of coughing day and night. In April the oncologist diagnosed radiation pneumonitis, inflammation of the lung passageways, and prescribed two regimens of the steroid prednisone. When I finished those the cough returned.  I then saw the family doc, who worried about bronchiectasis, an incurable lung condition, and sent me to the pulmonary specialist. I go back to see this guy again next week.

We walked out to the parking lot cheered up. I had good words from a doctor who, without the reference from our family physician, I never would have known to call. We inched through rush hour traffic in the 90-degree heat and collapsed at home. I slugged some cough medicine and cough drops that night and slept soundly.

img_20190421_140535617~2167278761064998771..jpgNow, midsummer 2019, we seem to be emerging from our year-long tour of the cancer world, or at least heading into another phase. The oncologist cut me loose from his practice except for periodic “flushes” of my apparently permanent chest port, but bounced me back to the urologist, the kidney guy. I wonder if he’ll remember our last conversation, nine months ago. We came within days of the kidney surgery when, on seeing my latest scan (at the time), he backed away and sent me to a thoracic surgeon.

Through the year, the insurance meter clicked away. I didn’t try to work out the math. The company reports that total charges by doctors, hospitals, and labs from January through June came to $232,000. That’s for the radiation and chemo treatments, office visits, two CT scans and one PET scan. In 2018 I racked up the biggest-ticket items: four biopsies (two kidney, two open-chest) two CTs, two MRIs, one PET, one stent implant, and a surprise open-chest attack on the tumor by the surgeon in December that fell a little short.

Our 2019 share right now is around $9,000 and counting. We could have put that down on a new car. Or a trip to some neat place.

To go on with this, the surgery led to consultations at PennMed in Philly in January, which led to more consultations with local docs. That story doesn’t bear repeating.

Fast forward to today after our family physician listened to my lungs and sent me to the pulmonary guy. He’s looking at a problem distinct from the cancer, although caused by it. The trachea is your windpipe, the tube that takes air into the lungs. It’s right in front of the thymic gland, which was the site of my tumor, and thus directly in the path of the radiation beam. On the bullseye, in fact. No surprise it was fried.

What I’m trying to do now is extract myself from this story. Hard to do. Most people, when they get sick, obsess about the details, me too. We could all write books about our aches and pains. But who would read those books? I wouldn’t read my own.

img_20190414_152321392_hdr7301826370400715213.jpgThat’s because, in the end, the story should not be about the unpleasantness, the frustration of dealing with battalions of healthcare bureaucrats, the delays and waiting, the uncertainty, and the rest of all that. Even if it ends poorly, the story is the fight with the disease, not only by the patient but by everyone: family, friends, total strangers. The disease is insidious, never really defeated. They never get every cell. For many, once defeated, it returns.

But the fight is a mission that we hope gives life a certain decisive, cutting-edge purpose that enables you to confront dark, ambiguous, maybe unanswerable questions. Through this year I’ve met with eleven cancer specialists, physicians who have devoted careers to studying and fighting it.

All those doctors, at one time or another, said “I don’t know” when we badgered them about what’s going on. The cancer is there, attacking your body but also wrestling with your soul, trying to overwhelm, control, dominate your life. You can give up—I’ve seen a lot of that—or you can stand fast.

We’re easing off all this a bit, now at the point of thanking the Lord and all the caring and loving people who have been with us. Still paying bills, but filing away the last six months of 2018 then forward, with the six weeks of daily radiation and weekly chemo bombardments, as a receding memory. I’m running harder (but way slower) almost daily, eating and sleeping better, reading, writing, getting to Mass, working in the yard. And looking forward, months from now, to spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with the kids.

Overcoming …

July 8, 2019

We went up to the Washington, D.C., Mall years ago, when the kids were small and we were resilient, for the traditional Fourth: the morning parade, afternoon picnic, the blazing sun and steaming humidity. Like hundreds of thousands of others, we hung around for hours waiting for the heat to diminish and dusk to settle in, until the brilliant fireworks burst over our heads and dazzled us for maybe 40 minutes. We, everyone, oohed and aahed. Then we packed our blankets and picnic baskets and trooped to the Metro.

Now we watch the show on TV, avoiding the hassle of going. This year, another deterrent: the president elbowing his way into a compulsory call-up of those who serve: soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coasties, in order to deflect their light onto himself. Watch for all of it in a soon-to-be-released campaign video. Afterward, the catcalls back and forth reinforced the truth that the country is torn apart. No middle ground exists.

Trump’s guttersnipe manner and his lies lacerate deeply all sides of the political culture, whatever that is. He slithered into office because enough angry people choked on their votes in Republican primaries in 2016, then enough of them in several critical electoral states took satisfaction in electing a failed real estate salesman over a candidate perceived as entangled in the Washington “establishment.”

Except for the noisemaking hardcore minority, the once-Trump voters now are both embarrassed and sad. The geezers among them, at least, had dreamed of a reincarnation, not of Reagan, whose “conservatism” was mostly rhetorical, but of Eisenhower and (for them) the now-dreamy 1950s.

img_20190707_1138288921701042393998718006.jpgIt was Ike who stood up to Khrushchev and Mao tse-Tung and battled the British-French attempt to annex the Suez Canal. Eisenhower sent Army troops (the 101st Airborne Division) to Little Rock to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1957, refused to use nuclear weapons to end the Korean War or to help the French at Dien Bien Phu. He condemned the Soviets for sending tanks into Hungary but then avoided starting World War III. He appointed Earl Warren, liberal Republican, as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Justice William Brennan, liberal Democrat. He invented the term “military-industrial complex.” He made mistakes, but he was a president.

Those who understand Eisenhower and Trump know one thing: Trump is no Eisenhower.

So here we are, facing the challenge of overcoming, overcoming what? Mendacity, cynicism, hypocrisy, greed, all overlaid by indifference to the overriding mission of public life: service to the people. Trump used a term he didn’t invent: the “swamp.” The people, too, recognize it. When the people believe they are not being served, they act. For enough of them in 2016, that act was a vote for Trump, and a country split apart. Republicans surely fear they will act again.

The swamp festers in plain sight. But overcoming the swamp is within. Failure in public life reflects failure in private life. Trump is a failed president because he is driven by a darkness that psychologists write books about. It seems a long reach, though, for institutions like political parties and churches to do anything about it. Political parties and most churches have lost all credibility.

Overcoming is private. It has to do with looking within and seeking truth, which is seeking God. That excruciating task can be helped along by, among other things, an awareness of mortality that both unsettles and transforms the soul. Hardly any of the career-feathering cynics in government today, appointed or elected, would continue to ignore the public trust if they found themselves coughing their guts out every evening, because it may well signal the end.

img_20190505_1244119524866152472802977440.jpgOne can find the resolve to overcome, to beat that thing, whatever it is. It is the resolution that gives strength, that shows the path away from sickness, depression, despair. It is faith, from wherever it may come, that defeats cynicism and indifference. Eisenhower, elected because of his service as Supreme Allied Commander, suffered throughout his two terms with chronic heart trouble. He made decisions from hospital beds. While being watched by doctors, he worked to reduce U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals and destroyed the evil of McCarthyism.

I just finished reading a novel, the first in years; went to a couple of yoga sessions; signed up for an ultra-trail event; got recognized as a life member of the Knights of Columbus. Good stuff. But I also did two more important things: visited our family doc—a truly wise man, and got an appointment with a pulmonary-critical care specialist, my prize for being excused temporarily from the cancer ward. In a mysterious way, doing those things makes you want good leaders.

The typical federal official may never think about the things I think about. But everyone has something to work on. It may not be physical. But it’s there, to be overcome.

Things are very wrong today. Twenty-four Democrats are seeking the party’s 2020 presidential nomination. In 2016 17 Republicans ran for the nomination. (Seven withdrew before the primaries.) A lot of smart people have decided things are not right. But millions of others just have to show up and vote. First, look within.

Bad Luck, Good News

July 1, 2019

Everyone has good days and bad days. If you’re having a bad day, try not to make it worse.

Back in Greer, South Carolina to see our kids and grandkids, I went for an early-morning run on nearby streets. I followed a six-mile out-and-back course that includes a hilly mile-long straightaway, Dillard Road. With a half-mile left, the 8:00 AM heat and humidity and my radiation-induced lung damage had me gasping. I slogged up the last interminable hill to the intersection of Dillard with Gibbs Shoals Road, a busy local route.

As I made the turn onto Gibbs Shoals, a red Chevy compact, moving away from me well above the speed limit, collided with the rear end of a silver SUV with a deafening BOOM! Pieces of fender and headlights flew into the air, for a few seconds they locked bumpers. The SUV then broke free and kept going. The Chevy swerved off the road and crashed into a decorative tree of thick branches with a second BOOM! The branches exploded with the impact, most falling across the road. The remainder pushed the car against a brick façade that bordered a side street leading into exquisitely named Chartwell Estates, which for me conveyed the message: “we don’t have messy accidents here, take your collisions somewhere else.”

img_20190629_100026932_hdr1016158150488336416.jpgFor an instant I stared at the Chevy, wedged between the branches. A car approaching in the opposite direction on Gibbs Shoals pulled onto the shoulder near me. A young woman opened her window and asked, “Did you see that?”

I said yeah and asked her to call 911.

“Sure,” she answered.

I ran across the road toward the Chevy. The driver’s side was completely entangled in the branches. I was able to squeeze among them on the passenger’s side. I couldn’t see the driver. I tried the door—locked. Smoke was curling from under the crumpled hood. I then saw a pair of legs on the driver’s seat, the driver was stretched onto the passenger’s seat, his head against the door.

I pounded on the window, yelling “Unlock the door, get out—this side!”

I pounded a few more times. The driver raised his head but ignored me and slid back into the driver’s seat. He put the car in reverse and backed up maybe five feet, enabling him to open the driver’s side door.

He got out. A tall, skinny kid, maybe 20, with a bleeding cut on his head. Without a word, he took off, walking first, then jogging down the side street into Chartwell Estates. The girl who had called 911 and I watched, amazed. He left the scene. Simply bolted.

Meanwhile, the SUV had pulled over about 200 feet ahead. A middle-aged woman came toward us. Arriving at the scene, she yelled, “He completely destroyed my car!”

She went on, “I was on my way to pick up my grandchildren to take them to Bible school. Someone has to pick up those kids—I’ll call my husband.”

The girl and I asked, are you OK?

“I have a bump on my head,” she said, fumbling with her cell phone.

Traffic backed up. The fallen branches extended halfway across one lane of Gibbs Shoals, forcing vehicles to maneuver slowly onto the opposite shoulder.

We heard sirens and then saw the flashing lights of a fire engine and an ambulance. The EMTs listened to our accounts of the collision. One of them persuaded the SUV driver to have her vital signs checked. I borrowed her cell phone to call Sandy. She didn’t answer, I left a message.

A Greer police officer arrived. I told him what I saw, he took my name and number. He jotted down the Chevy’s plate number. I guessed it would not be long before the cops found the driver.

Standing there, we wondered why the driver took off. Impaired in some way? Car stolen? He must have known he was at fault—wanted to postpone the consequences? Obviously, leaving the scene does him no good.

I wondered what went through his head. Very soon, the police will be asking him. And the Chartwell Estates people will not be pleased with what happened to their decorative tree.

Later that day I drove by the site. The car was gone, the tree branches and the debris had been cleared. The only remaining sign of the accident: the tree trunk sawed down to a short stump.

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All that’s left

The Chartwell Estates melodrama prompted me consider, as many things do, how quickly life becomes complicated, then more complicated. When he got in his car that morning that young man had no idea how difficult his life was about to become. If there’s an upside, at least he didn’t seriously injure the other driver, or worse.

It also distracted me for a moment from an inkling of good news—a “B” grade, more or less, from the oncologist two days earlier. He had not seen the PET scan image of my chest but, based on the radiologist’s written report, let me slink away without sentencing me to another regimen of chemo. He said he’d call the surgeon who operated on me six months ago to get his thoughts, and the urologist I had seen about the kidney, the start of this unpleasant story. I offered that the kidney tumor has not bothered me in nearly a year. He countered, explaining it could start spreading any time.

He said he’d call me. I took that as a maybe on the carcinoma and a definite on the kidney. Overall, good news—a B is a B. I thought of those family members, kids, cousins, the rest, and all the friends who keep me in their prayers. They’ve helped me fight this thing, given me the incentive to think more than one day ahead, to get things in order with others, to repay them somehow, although that’s impossible. The doc gave me the chance to recognize the difference between a bad day and a good one.

Right now my med schedule is clear. I didn’t do anything to deserve good news. It prompts me now to treasure each day, to think about how easily things can go south the way they did for the Gibbs Shoals driver. And, maybe overthinking the whole thing, to be careful near Chartwell Estates.

Florida …

June 24, 2019

I awoke in my motel room in Hollywood, Fla., at 6:00 AM and walked the one block to the beach. The humidity was stifling even then. Dozens of people were there, strolling, jogging, watching the sunrise. I took a few pictures then headed back to the air conditioning.

Some Americans love Florida, others dislike it intensely. The Sunshine State is a place of opportunity and prosperity, of refuge and peace, of escape, joy, violence and tragedy. So—how is it different from any other place?  An intriguing question or a pointless one.

I flew to Fort Lauderdale for a couple of days last week for a family memorial service, and started perspiring as soon as I stepped outside the airport terminal. Jungle heat. No one likes it. My cousin, who’s been here for many years, says she rides her bike early in the morning in the summer, but hardly ever steps outside later. She, like so many others here, came from the North, where they hated the winters. They’ll never go back.

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Hollywood, Fla.

A friend in Connecticut points out that in winter in northern states you run from a heated house to a heated car, while in summer in Florida you run from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned car. So if it’s just about weather, you may as well dislike cold places and hot ones more or less equally.

Everyone has an opinion about Florida, in a way they don’t have opinions about Arkansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Maine, Indiana, or others. Those opinions are judgments on observations of actual conditions: the weather is fabulous or awful, the landscape is gardenlike or boring, state tax policy is great for business and retirees, or indifferent to education and the underprivileged.

I wonder instead about the idea of Florida that’s in the heads of visitors, immigrants from other places, as well as the natives. That idea may have to do with why so many people who live elsewhere consider packing up and moving here, and so many do it. “A thousand people a day,” a young banker told me.

From my rental car on a local street just south of Fort Lauderdale, I watched the blocklike rows of high-rise apartments and condos pass. The landscape reminded me of photos of Russia’s Siberian cities: mind-numbing sameness, as if designed by zombie architects. But then beyond are the glimmering white beaches, the clear, aquamarine ocean! Beautiful, wide, long, suggestive of Hawaii or Tahiti. Real sand, real ocean, crystal clear and azure. But it’s Florida.

img_20190621_195347395_hdr568553326345179486.jpgI was at loose ends one evening, my cousins had plans. I walked the Hollywood boardwalk, which actually is made of bricks. I didn’t want to sit in a restaurant, so I bought a pizza and sat on a bench with my dinner, watching families, twentysomethings, and old folks saunter past, all enjoying the warm soothing air, the waving palms, the tropical setting, the laughing children. Different, but pleasant. For me, an adventure.

The next day we all had brunch then—what else? The Casino, in slightly more upscale Hallendale, which sits in a shopping mall next to the Gulfstream racetrack. My cousins played slots in the refrigerated climate of the casino. I watched the ponies, amazed that they sprinted around that mile-and-something track without collapsing. I staggered from the shade of one canopy to the next then escaped to the arctic temperatures inside.

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Bugatti Chiron parked at Hallendale Beach mall (about $3 million)

The idea of Florida exists in the real world and in myth, the distinction enshrouded in dreams. It already hints at the myth of California a generation or more ago: dreamlike, distant, beckoning, intimating escape and salvation. Today the Golden State is afflicted by an angry divide between wealth and poverty, rampant homelessness, prohibitive costs of everything. The dream there has become seedy and threadbare.

If ideas may someday become bitter and turn to myth, Florida still is magical for those who come. The gray heads still arrive from New England and the Midwest, the churches and supermarkets are well-populated with them. Young people come from everywhere, seeking affluence, not Palm Beach fakery but the profits of real work in finance, real estate, engineering, technology. The wealth is there to be earned. Years ago, it was all about golf and oranges.

The new Floridians come for the promise of jobs and opportunity.  Yet for many it is the differentness of Florida that matters more, and prosperity is only incidental to a mysterious mix of confidence in finding life’s purpose and a haunting fear of losing it in this place that is both exotic and banal. The mystery beckons also to the immigrants who land on Florida’s shores, desperate to seize freedom, which is real, not a myth.

They come to a place that resembles Brazil more than Brooklyn, where pythons and alligators patrol the swamps and builders keep throwing up those condo towers, the interstates are gridlocked, the suffocating summer heat shimmers even at dawn. It has only been a decade since the real estate crash devastated the state.  But today it still is Florida, offering its promise of a new life. For the Floridians, whenever they arrived, the right word is hope, which, guided by forbearance and faith, shatters any myth.

Walker Guy

June 17, 2019

I sat in the waiting room of the radiology practice in Reston on Monday playing with my phone when something crashed. The crowd (the room was packed) let out a collective “Ooh!” I looked up. A man with a walker, one of those four-legged contraptions used by elderly people to help them keep their balance, had stumbled, pushing the walker over. A couple of men sitting nearby jumped up to help him off the floor. He thanked them then staggered over and took a seat. A staff person came out and talked to him. He said he was OK.

He was a fairly tall guy, maybe early sixties, and the walker looked too short for him. But I know those things are adjustable for height, maybe he borrowed it and didn’t bother.  The staff person asked about his medical records, he said his scans were done at Sentara in Lake Ridge—my hospital. So I guessed he was there in Reston for a PET scan, same as me. You can’t get that at Sentara. “I’ve had a bunch of them,” he said aloud to no one in particular. So he has cancer, like nearly everyone else in the room.

Just then a technician came in and handed me a CD containing my scan, and Sandy and I left. I thought: I may see that guy again at Sentara. We could meet for CT scans, which you can get there. Then have coffee.

img_20190616_1235196007478415563251623098.jpgWhat struck me, as we slogged through the rain out to the car, was the guy’s mysterious spirit. After picking himself up he smiled at the roomful of patients. Safely in his seat, he cracked a joke or two. It lightened my mood, even though along with the rest of the crowd I didn’t see the humor in taking a dive on a linoleum floor.

“I’ve had a bunch of them,” doesn’t sound like fun, either. I guessed his upbeat mood and his jokes came from someplace else. Maybe he knows something about this, I thought—this, meaning being sick. That’s what I went with. It could be he decided that bad news from doctors doesn’t have to kill your soul.

The fellow surely had got some bad news. If my hunch is right, he saw through it. He saw something else, which could be the flip side of a cancer diagnosis: the chance to say so what, I’ve got other things, good things, going on in my life. His hair was long and a little wild, he wore a scraggly beard, a teeshirt, and shorts. It didn’t look like his good thing was a recent winning lottery ticket or any connection to what might pass for affluence. Whatever he was thinking didn’t cost him anything.

So then, what gave him his sense of himself, his fearlessness, was in his heart, which after all is where we find the truth about our lives. He, like others in the waiting room, had had a tough diagnosis at some recent point—maybe not so recent. It would change his life, sentencing him to countless hours in waiting rooms, reciting his birthdate and filling out forms, blood draws, getting weighed, interrogations by insurance people, treatment tutorials followed by hours-long treatments, incomprehensible columns of charges, grinding payment plans, sleepless nights, relentless exhaustion, loss of appetite, racking pain.

So what’s left of life, he asks himself. Family, friends— who stay strong and give strength—if not, then strangers willing to buck you up, pass a good word, like the folks in the waiting room Monday. The docs—you encounter a dozen at least, the surgeons, the “rad-oncs” (radiology), the “med-oncs” (chemotherapy), who quarterback treatment regimens, the platoon of skilled helpers, nurses, aides, and even insurance reps—who understand, or try to understand what’s going on in your life. After all, people don’t get into cancer care without appreciating that it’s a tough line of work.

But the stranger with the wrong-sized walker in the waiting room wasn’t only leaning on others. He had figured something out about himself. That was that his strength, such as it was, or is, came from understanding that after enlisting all those highly trained folks, he needed something beyond himself and the helpers, something that steeled him to joke about his own weakness, to recognize that he had been chosen for a hard road that would challenge his spirit while it attacked his body. And I recognized that he knew that a mysterious Power was available to him, a God that stood with him and even loved him as he willingly took that road.

Looking at him, I couldn’t tell if he were a churchgoer, at any church. We, all of us, saw an unmistakable strength, a little irreverent, maybe, and sensed that his strength came from some rock-hard faith in that Power that signaled to him that his life was good. He smiled again, sprawled back in his chair, moved the walker away with his leg, and looked around, signaling to us that he knew that life, whatever hard detours it may take, should and must be lived without fear.

Staunton and Stepping Up

June 10, 2019

We drove to Staunton, Va., on Monday, for no reason but to reinforce our idea that we’re always on the lookout for new places to visit. We went for a jog early. It was a gorgeous morning, warm and clear, so I said let’s get out of town for a few hours. My original idea was Charlottesville, but we’ve been there, never to Staunton.

Why Staunton? Hard to say, except that I had heard it’s an interesting place, and—not clear why—boasts an American Shakespeare Center, which offers local performances and sends touring troupes around the country.

We took U.S. 29 from Manassas down to Charlottesville, a pretty ride we’ve taken dozens of times en route to Tennessee. The countryside is all farms and mountains, easy on the nerves until you hit the commercial grind of Charlottesville. Staunton then is a 35-mile hike west on I-64.

The city website shows a video entitled “Big Time Culture, Small Town Cool.” What’s that? We didn’t know before our visit and still didn’t know afterward. We parked downtown and stopped at the Visitor’s Center and picked up a fistful of brochures. The enthusiastic lady behind the counter gave us a full-dress briefing, adding that most of the downtown shops are closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

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Clocktower building, Staunton

We got a nice lunch at the Clocktower Restaurant, in a building topped by a clock tower. We missed the downtown trolley ride, but did get into Sunspots, where two expert glassblowers were creating beautiful, but expensive, decorative glass items. Rows of chairs for spectators were empty this Monday afternoon, we stood for a while watching them heat the glass and form it. Why glassblowing in Staunton? Pressed by the three-hour trip ahead of us, we didn’t stay to ask.

As usual for these spur-of-the-moment trips, we missed most of the rest, including the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, in the center of downtown. Stonewall Jackson? The brochures say the city escaped destruction during the Civil War. After wandering around a bit we said goodbye to Staunton, telling ourselves maybe we’ll be back. The ride home, I-81 to I-66, was just more interstate until we passed Signal Knob, between Strasburg and Front Royal. That majestic peak prompted thoughts of my trail-running, rock-climbing days. Maybe they’re not over yet.

The high points of the week were not our own. The first was D-Day’s 75th anniversary, marked by the return of dozens of D-Day veterans to those hallowed French beaches. The speeches by national leaders, commentaries, recollections of the veterans, and the loving reminiscences of their family members filled these last few days with eloquence and grace. They elevated the tone of the reporting to awe at the selfless willingness of so many Americans, Brits, and Canadians, so young, to offer their lives to overcome evil at that hellish time and place. Leadership also mattered, from Marshall to Eisenhower to Ridgway, Bradley, and Patton, and thousands of field commanders and noncoms.

The second, also on June 6th, was the 10th wedding anniversary of our daughter Marie and son-in-law Mike, whom I’ve reported on here; they’ve found a nice home in South Carolina after stints in Lewisburg, Penn., a remote and in winter a very cold place, and Alexandria, a very expensive and congested place. I should mention, as if I haven’t already, they’ve been blessed with two smart, lively, loving little boys.

Heartened and maybe humbled by those thoughts, we focused again on what lies ahead for us, which is what lies ahead for everyone: the chore, for it is a chore, of persevering against the prospect of more excitement than you want in life—things we’d rather not experience. Those are the financial mistakes the financial experts warn us about and the health “problems” no one warns us about.

Like countless others, we brace ourselves as the medical bills flow in, understanding that the real challenge is stepping up, facing down the surprises, getting through the days when everything seems uncertain. It amounts to saying your prayers, cutting the grass, making dinner, getting some exercise, paying those bills, staying in touch with everyone you want to stay in touch with.

So through the week, while reading the reports from Normandy, I worked at other things: running, including a hard seven miles at Fountainhead Regional Park, went to Mass, raked the yard, visited with friends—the things you do to simply live, no matter how old you are. This is what an old professor at college, long gone to his reward, called the “stuff of spiritual survival.”

That “stuff”  calls us to do what’s good and necessary: get up, finish the run, do the yard work, pay the doctor’s bills, get the exams (another today), get to church, send sympathy cards, and—far from last—plan our next road trip to some out-of-the-way place in America we haven’t yet seen. And maybe back to Staunton. To me, that looks like survival.