The Star

December 28, 2020

Sandy saw the One Star, the unique juxtaposition of Saturn and Jupiter last week. It brought to her mind the Star of Bethlehem and the coming of the Christ Child. On Christmas Eve we watched the online Mass at our old parish in Lake Ridge, Virginia, and listened to the hopeful words of “Joy to the World” in the voice of a single cantor. A choir was not permitted.

I thought of the doctors, Stephenson, Jones, Griffith, Trocha, and the nurses, Alexis, Joni, Susie, Stephen, who dragged me through the past week of surgery and recovery. I’m sitting home while they are still showing up at the hospital in the cold and dark at 6:00 AM to see patients in the thoracic/oncology department, comforting so many grievously ill people. I still hear the midnight cries.

Sacrifice defines their lives, and the lives of all who serve, at this historic moment of covic holocaust. Yet the vaccine is being deployed, hinting at the end. The first responders are getting their shots. Meanwhile, we look for the Star, for the message of Christmas, the coming of God.

The priest, in his homily, told a story of prisoners at Dachau in April 1945 hearing in terror the roar of engines outside their barracks and feared the guards were about to massacre them. They heard the demolition of the barbed-wire fences that surrounded them. Then they saw an American tank. Their suffering was over.

Such stories are everywhere, but we don’t need stories. I took calls from our kids, family, friends over the past week, raising my spirits. We all find ourselves in such fixes eventually, and learn again and again how much we need those close to us. Their calls become, for the moment, the Christmas message, redeeming us from the depths of pain and the pervasive unreality of evil, the illusion that the devastation everywhere around us reflects some inescapable element of our nature.

What do the triple tragedies of 2020, the covid death count, the still-spreading stain of the Trump administration, and the onslaught of unemployment and poverty, tell us about ourselves? The vastness and depth of the pandemic, whipped by the White House pathology, has scarred our sense of the nation. Microscopic malignant cell structures have obscured the nature of humanity as we share it, created and sustained by God, the Christ Child.

Sandy and I went for a walk on a gray Christmas Eve morning in a chilly rain. She wore a hooded poncho, I carried an umbrella. A block away from the apartment the rain came down harder, but the air was fresh and cool. A few neighbors hurried by escaping the rain, cheering us by mumbling “Merry Christmas. We got back inside and plugged in the Christmas tree lights. It twinkled against the backdrop of the rain.

We settled in for the day, thankful at this moment for this odd little place and the opportunity to reframe our lives. Reflexively, like tapping a knee, we recalled Christmases long ago, when our kids were small. I’d wait until Christmas Eve morning to rush to the picked-over displays at the mall, coming home with the usual staples: books, videos, dolls, a sweater or earrings for Sandy.

In mid-afternoon we’d get dressed up and drive to the Capitol Botanical Garden to see the spectacular poinsettia display, then get hot cocoa and watch the electric trains at Union Station. Finally we squeezed into the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the children’s Mass, stuck so far back in the crowd we never saw the altar. At home we’d watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or something like that, then get them to bed. The pair of us would be up sometimes until midnight giftwrapping. The kids were awake at 5:00 AM or thereabouts, tearing into the gifts. Joy collided with tragedy in 2001, when Sandy’s 18-year-old nephew died in an auto accident on Christmas Eve. We headed to Nashville for the funeral.

Our stories aren’t especially unique—the perennial stories of parents. The years have slipped away, getting more complicated as they always do.  Inevitably kids’ memories will replicate those of their parents: the anticipation, the tree, the lights, the toys, the frazzled nerves, then, on that special night, the story of the Magi, the Babe in the manger, the lovely, peaceful strains of “Silent Night.”

We passed all that on. The work of Christmas seems largely to be over for us. We withdrew from the hard part. I’m still buying gloves, sweaters, earrings. The joy is enlarged as our children take charge. On Christmas day they collaborated on that (for me) unsettling technology, Zoom—or was it Facebook—that enabled us to see and speak to all of them through the TV and laptop screens. They overwhelmed us with gifts, the greatest being their presence and their smiles.

We know meanwhile that Americans are shouldering awful burdens, many standing for hours in the cold to feed the hungry or, like the hospital staffs and first responders, persevering in their work to sustain the victims, even while the numbers still multiply. Yet we look around, and  everywhere find the transforming words of Christmas. The winter sky still is dark, but the Star is shining.


December 21, 2020

I shaved my mustache and goatee on Wednesday, the day before going to the hospital. It was mostly gray, and I didn’t want to look like an old coot bewildered by the techno-world of modern medicine. I sat down next to Sandy and Marie, we watched TV for an hour or so. They never noticed the fuzz was gone.

To keep my head straight for the procedure I brought along Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, her prize-winning biography of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the war years. Their lives, together and separately, define both deep personal suffering and private nobility, so profound as to be difficult for us, today, to understand or appreciate. When I feel sorry for myself I recall the depth of the courage and character of these two singular people, who together endured the lifelong scourge of debilitating disease and personal grief, while leading  the nation through vast, cataclysmic tragedies.

I saw the OR for a few minutes, then went to sleep. I woke up in recovery, the way it’s supposed to work. I added another five hours of sleep. They trucked me upstairs and it was dinnertime, but not for me—clear liquids only. From my fourth-floor window the sun had faded, traffic crawled through Greenville’s downtown, crowds were building, even in this covid season, Christmas lights glowed. We did our shopping early, picked out games and toys for the grandsons. They’re counting the days.

The docs and nurses have been kind, taking care to explain to me what’s going on. The lead surgeon crafted a Christmas card with photo he took himself, a pretty sunset. “Thank you for letting me care for you,” he wrote.

He brought his team by the room, they’ll babysit me for the rest of my time here. He explained that the diaphragm was a challenge but they dealt with it. Something about air and fluid in the chest cavity. They resolved it, so far, with a rubber tube that wraps around the lung to drain the fluid into a box next to the bed. All the doctors, at least a half-dozen, inspected my incision. “Looks great,” they all said. I’ll see the lead surgeon after New Year’s. “We’ll decide on next steps then,” he said with a wave.

Sandy and Marie have been up to the room separately, complying with covid restrictions. The other kids, friends, and siblings all have called. I’ve gotten used to the IV—one of the nurses explained I’m low on potassium and magnesium. The chest tube under the left arm and the IV in the right wrist make moving complicated. I have a battery-powered box in my pocket wired to sensors that monitor heart functions. I’m not going anywhere.

We got in to see the pastor of the downtown parish a week ago to get his pre-surgery blessing, Walking back to the car afterward, we noticed young parents standing around waiting for the parish school to release their kids. None—meaning none—wore masks. Fast forward, the pandemic is in the thoracic/cancer ward. “We don’t have any techs tonight,” the nurse assigned to my room said calmly. “Covid.” That meant that she and a couple of other nurses are handling all the tech chores, taking vitals, administering meds, helping with bathroom trips, among other things, on top of their nursing duties. “It’s been a tough year,” the nurse said.

The X-ray tech comes in about 4:00 AM to get chest shots because the doctors want to see them when they arrive about 6:00 AM. Specialists on the treatment team stop by, inspecting the chest-tube connection and firing questions. Things slow down. I’m getting through Kearns-Goodwin, but slowly. The shortened visiting hours and the limited staffing mean longer quiet stretches. I like quiet. Hospital quiet is different. The staff is trying to cover all the room calls, the patients are sleeping or calling. I wonder what they’re thinking.

They’re thinking the same thing as me: when am I getting out of here? Yesterday morning a doctor told me they put my chest tube back on “suction”; it wasn’t pulling enough fluid. “That’s normal,” she said. But it’s a step back. They work hard at bucking us up. With all of us wired, they know what’s going on. But only to a point. Since I’ve been here no one has gone home.

I like the way the doctors come in early to ask how I’m feeling and tell me what’s going to happen next. But not always everything. They know that beyond the surgery, the chemo, the radiation, cancer is a mystery. A young oncologist visited me the morning after the procedure. This tumor, or carcinoma, was caused by the previous one, she said. Could it come back, I asked. It’s always possible, she said. Cancer does that.

The latest: I’m getting real food, chicken, mashed potatoes, the works. I’m not ready, but the thought is nice. The doctors explain my problems with plenty of detail, even if I have to ask for more. But we’re getting there. Yesterday my grandson turned seven, a gala affair, another one I missed. And Friday is Christmas. I plan on being home, as the song goes. Good thoughts.

State of Wonder

December 14, 2020

The Christmas season is lurching, slouching forward, mostly about online shopping and warnings to stay home. For the first couple of Sundays in the new town we attended Mass, now we watch it on the computer. The pandemic and the Republican perp walk continue.

Yet we encounter good people. The Postal Service employees at our post office were friendly and helpful. So were the folks at the local public library branch, although reserving, borrowing, and returning books is “online”: apparently no human touches anything. I asked a question; from behind a plexiglass screen the librarian jotted a note and passed it to me at the end of a stick.

We are, all of us, living in a state of wonder, bewildered by the chaos of American life. We await the Season of Hope and Peace while facing the pandemic and hearing the Lear-like ranting of the disturbed man in the White House. Yet the vaccine is coming, so is the inauguration.

The headlines of these December days bring both nightmares and dreams. In a strange way they bring me back to State of Wonder, a sublime novel by Ann Patchett, published a few years back. For sure, state of wonder defines us all right now.

Patchett writes of a professional woman, a physician with a Ph.D. who travels to the Amazon rainforest to investigate the death of a colleague who visited a primitive jungle research site funded by their employer, a big pharmaceutical company. When she arrives the physician encounters an eccentric, intimidating 73-year-old woman who is under contract to the company to lead a medical research team, but has cut off communication. The physician is traumatized by the terrifying environment, the insects, the snakes, the infections and diseases. The woman research leader admits she lied about the colleague’s death. He had disappeared, she didn’t bother to investigate. 

The physician had quit practicing medicine years earlier after injuring an infant while performing a cesarean section, and fled to the anonymous bureaucracy of research. Stranded in the jungle, she performs a C-section on a native woman, saving her baby. In time, she adapts. She continues to care for the natives, confronts her nightmares, and rebuilds her life. She overcomes the hostility of the research leader, who finally begs her not to leave. For the rest, read the book.

Sure it’s fiction, the writer’s art. But the luminescence of Patchett’s prose dragged me back to the here and now, as we face both tragedy and redemption. I thought about Pachett’s odd mix of characters: the spiritually wounded doctor, the befuddled researchers, idle hangers-on, jungle tribesmen and women, the domineering leader who traffics in bluster and fakery.

My book club talked about the story in our “online” meeting. Our moderator asked probing questions. We wondered about this or that character, the symbolism of this detail or that one. Pachett’s reviewers have dabbled in the idea that she was rewriting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and sure, I could see that, to a point. Conrad, still a cryptic figure in literature, is praised for finding in the wilderness of the upper Congo a metaphor for European imperialism with its legacy of racism, slave trafficking, and exploitation. Other critics blasted him for language that sounded racist.

The jungle as setting and as metaphor, after all, simmers with ambiguity. What does the Amazon interior or the deep Congo mean to any of us, here in Trump’s America? Which really is the wilderness? We can pontificate about the opaque (for me) allegiances of the Trump cult. Why is the so-called “base” in its most extreme factions willing to shoot people who didn’t vote for their hero? Those folks aren’t just from the swing states, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia. They’re from all over.  Where do those delusions come from? Who knows? You may live in a big coastal “blue” city or region and don’t know anyone who voted for Trump. But maybe you’re closer to wilderness than you think.

It’s a struggle to break free of such cosmic thoughts. Patchett told a story of persons: the emotionally wounded physician, the domineering research leader, the vacuous young couple who act as the leader’s agents, the research team members happy to be along the ride on the company’s dime, the intimidating natives. Patchett devotes pages to all of them, shaping them, sharpening them as human beings with personalities, priorities, values, faults and failings. The story gets complicated, more complicated, maybe, than it should be. But then, for all that writing, all that work, her story comes to life.

It comes to life because she creates individual human persons, not an epic of factions and caricatures. In today’s America we’re drawn to see each other as a cutout of a stereotype: you’re with me or against me. Perhaps that’s what Trump and his cult, a babbling mass of prejudices and lies, have created.

But after all, it’s Christmas, the time of peace and joy. Time to throw all that out. Stereotypes only exist in people’s heads. Patchett—and other wise souls like her—convey the abiding truth that every human person, while he or she may blunder through life, making lousy career or political choices, is unique, and to be unique means capable of love, faith, hope. She reminds that our political opinions (and our literary opinions) don’t make us human. The headlines may have the power to shape lives as absurd, foolish, inhumane. But the tragedies of this time will pass away. We can rebuild from this moment. Time to start.

Second Rodeo

December 7, 2020

Paris Mountain State Park encompasses more than 1,500 acres on the fringe of Greenville County, S.C. It’s a pretty place, where the gentle hills of the city become less gentle closer to the steeper, rockier Blue Ridge foothills a little further north. Beyond Table Rock and Jones Gap State Parks you’re in real mountains, then suddenly in North Carolina, a little west of Asheville. Even here in the city, from the busy street where we live, we can see the misty, pale-blue, rounded peaks. Farther off and fainter still are the Great Smokies along the Tennessee-North Carolina line, which tower above South Carolina’s modest heights.

I bought the all-state parks pass to stay on the even keel provided by the Virginia trails for the past 12 or so years. Next to the Shenandoahs and Massanuttens in Virginia, Paris Mountain is the junior entry. Like state parks anywhere, it offers picnic tables, campsites, cabins, and a small lake for fishing and swimming. Unlike the steep mountain trails of Virginia that can break the bones and spirits of the toughest runners, the woodsy paths here are mostly soft and sloping, manicured for casual hikers, families, scout groups, and so on. The evil rocks of the Shenandoahs have petered out. By Alabama trails are carpeted with pine needles.

Still—Paris Mountain is good enough. These trails offer respite, solace, the spiritual sustenance found in the beauty of nature, of God’s handiwork. Now, in early December as the leaves carpet the trails, the silence of early weekday morning renews and refreshes the soul. It’s what we seek. The state parks extend from around here west to the long, steep climbs and grades in Georgia, then southeast to the swampy Low Country along South Carolina’s gold coast.

It’s been over a year since I started falling behind the neighborhood running group on our Saturday runs, wheezing and coughing, forming a one-man back of the pack. The guys generally were still at Starbucks when I got there 20 minutes after they arrived. That was OK because I always finished the course. That’s the value in these things, finishing the course. So within a week of landing in Greenville I started my slow-motion sprint on trails that wind through forest over mostly rolling terrain for a couple, three, four, six miles. I jogged through the creeks, across the rough bridges, up the carefully plowed switchbacks.   

Being early at Paris Mountain avoids the tourists. So, having got through my MRI Wednesday I made a point of getting out there first thing Thursday morning. It was chilly for these parts, under 30F, but I’ve done 30F and below many times. I parked and trotted along a short spur to the Mountain Creek trail, which leads in about two miles to the Sulphur Springs trail. Sulphur Springs winds up toward the park’s high point for another two miles, then to an intersection leading to the Brissy Mountain, Kanuga, Pipsissewa, and North Lake trails.

The North Lake trail takes you past the lake, set against the highest point in the county, especially beautiful. You can take any of those routes to get back or stick with Sulphur Springs, which means easing down a slippery, rocky slope to a rushing stream.

I stuck with Sulphur Springs, not that it mattered much. I tried to stay at a running pace, but more and more often it was a hike.  My mind was on the MRI and Friday’s meeting with the surgical oncologist.

The doc met us in a treatment room at his office and advised I’m going to the OR in two weeks. He said he couldn’t tell from the MRI whether the tumor (first time any of the medical folks here used the term) was laying flat against the ribs or not. If it is, he could “peel” it away; if it’s extending between them, that’s a different story. He said he’d scoop out what he could. Then I’ll be back to radiation or chemo or both.

As the Verne Gosdin tune goes, “This ain’t my first rodeo.” The first was December 4, 2018, two years ago to the day.  For that one the doc, at Virginia Hospital Center, was a cardiovascular surgeon, not a surgical oncologist. He jumped on the problem, took out part of it, and advised I’d need further treatment. That’s where we went.

So—one of those things. Modern medicine does amazing things, although the costs also are amazing. But in the long run—we’re all in for the long run—it’s a holding action. I like the line in “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” the Steve Martin-John Candy comedy: “Go with the flow, like a twig on the shoulder of a mighty stream.” After the doc meeting we left a copy of our health-care power of attorney and Advanced Medical Directive. Just in case.

We drove downtown and walked up Main Street, packed with shoppers. We gawked at the decorations and picked up a few things. The temperature eased up a bit, back to South Carolina normal. I took a picture of Sandy next to the giant tree in front of M. Judson Booksellers, a classic old-fashioned bookstore. We hitched up our masks and went inside. It was quiet, a few non-online shoppers wandered among the shelves. I got a cup of coffee and sprawled in a big chair and watched the browsers and listened to the taped Christmas tunes.

Last year, pre-covid, we walked the same streets and listened to the carolers and the local string assembly fill downtown with joyful holiday sounds. We smile now, hearing the grandkids wonder about Santa’s arrival. Millions still are suffering, but Christmas is lifting spirits. Ours, too. We strung lights along the apartment deck railing and, for the first time in three years, put up a tree. The apartment complex is awarding prizes ($50 off next month’s rent!) for the best-decorated front door. I’ll start on our door tomorrow.