Monday, November 28, 2016

Lost In Wonder

"Y es tanta mi fe que aunque no tengo jardin ya me compre una podadora"-Arjona

A little over 6 years ago, brain cancer officially started. It immediately shook up my life financially, emotionally, the kid who'd never called in sick having more medical appointments between a seizure in November and brain surgery in March than I'd had the rest of my life combined. A few months later, I was a single dad in debt. In life there are always questions marks, always ellipses, always parenthetical things but I can say that was the first time where the exclamation marks were missing. I've longed stated that if you'd told me from age 20 to age 30 to predict my life, I would have missed a lot of things but gotten many right. If you'd asked form age 30 to 31, I would have gotten pretty much all of them wrong. 

Brain surgery had disrupted my plans and while I put it off to run a marathon, there was only so much I could keep delaying it so I cancelled a trip to Brazil. A few years before in 7/7/07 they had announced the Seven New Wonders of the world and I had decided that despite me having only been to a couple I'd try to knock them all out in due time. In March of 2011 was supposed to be number 5, the statute of the Christ at Rio, one more dream come true, one more passport stamp. It got cancelled. Mentally I wanted to say it got postponed but to me postponement means you rescheduled it; if it's not anywhere in concrete plans it's just a hope that it gets 'uncancelled."
As I wondered out loud, quietly, painfully where the next stage would be, I wanted something, anything to believe that a brighter future still lied ahead because well wandering was definitely coming. So I painted a wall in my guest room. I chose a room I'm rarely in because I didn't want the constant reminder but I also didn't want to give up hope. Though hope is frail it's hard to kill. I painted it an ocean blue and I placed a map of the world out there with a single dot to everywhere I'd ever been. It somehow looked so empty then and yet so promising at least with potential. I put a quote from one of only two books I've ever read more than once, the Lord of the Rings: Not all who wander are lost. 

It would take me over 4.5 years to get to Brazil but I pulled it off last December and stood there with my arms lifted high. A few days later I got back and placing a dot on that map... well it'd never meant more. A few months later back in Austin one of the Livestrong leaders during the conference said I should come visit his home sometime. A few of us have offered that to each other and taken up on it but Louay was from Egypt. I told him he could count on it; he said a few people had said that to him but no one had followed up yet. I am if nothing else, a man of my word, I told him. Less than 2 months later, the same month I got out of medical debt and Brexit had dropped plane ticket prices across the Atlantic, I sent him my itinerary over the Thanksgiving holiday. He said he was surprised by how quickly I'd followed up and I reminded him I was known for being relatively fast. He was engaged at the time and when his wedding was set for that weekend he asked me, as his brother, to be one of the groomsmen. I've had a lot of good Thanksgiving perhaps because I try to follow the root of the word which starts with Thanks and then Giving but I was thrilled. It would be the first time in all of my 30's I wouldn't be doing a formal race Thanksgiving morning but somehow it would be okay.

I'd put together a good crew, the Bond girl, the executor of my will, the guy who'd given me the most rides when I wasn't allowed to drive. We took a slight detour on the way there and caught Petra hiking it all the way to the top to make sure we got the best view. Troy had a great caption to his picture of it on social media; check out this world wonder and some buildings behind me. While it was obviously tongue in cheek, I would never travel alone because there's isn't anything worth seeing to me that isn't worth sharing. Before Petra, I could count the world wonders I'd been to on one hand. While Petra now required me to use both hands, I hold that relationships are far more wonder than all of those buildings put together and I personally recommending building life effort in that order. My hope is that those buildings were made because humanity was trying to give proper credence to how awesome love and relationships are. 

Only one of the ancient world wonders remain, The Pyramids of Giza, the oldest one of the bunch. Both Petra, a little over 2000 years old and the Pyramids closer to 5000 were ways to remember the dead in rock. They are impressive monuments and memories, gigantic. I hope that those people I care about know they are in proportion to that and yes I mean in proportion to the oldest largest monument. Those guys left monuments well past their death but to anyone who I've ever made a promise to keep till my dying day, whether that's near or far, I'll be keeping it. I sit here and wonder how I got to see these world wonders and don't have more to say about it but I just realize that some things are so grand that words aren't apt for them. 

But the best part of the trip to me wasn't the phenomenal sites, not the amazing food but building up the relationships I'd brought with me and the ones I'd come to experience. I met Louay's family at dinner and had a driver who we hung out with. Being connected in the cancer community has gotten me to partake of too many hospital, hospice visits and funerals. When you say you're going to be there for people till your dying day, well sometimes you have to be there for theirs. But this was the first wedding I'd been to because of a cancer connection. I'd brought a special knife set for the couple which was the one that was used to cut the cake and I'm glad to be a small part of their first slice of life and dessert to each other. I was asked to speak, a bit overwhelming since my Arabic is less than adequate. I don't remember much of what I said other than my finish which was to encourage my brother that there shouldn't be a day he doesn't turn to that girl and Love her strong. I have full faith that he will. His father is part of the police there, the definition of a man's man and both Louay's wife and mother are brilliant women. They said as I departed that I was now part of the family and their handshakes and the men who we kissed each other on the cheek made it feel absolutely genuine. Moments of affection were my favorite world wonders on this trip. 
I'm back home now and it's about time to start putting up the Christmas decorations. It's also around MRI time with an appointment next Wednesday, 10 days away and results Thursday's. Last year as Christmas decorations were going down I decided to get rid of the artificial Holiday tree. Kiana had always wanted a real tree and this was over a decade old with light and broken branches that made it... shall we say less than adequate? I threw the other one away and while I didn't tell her I internly said next year, she gets her real one. The map with missing spots had an indefinite timeline but this one I wanted to believe I'd still be around one year later, one more Christmas, with a new real tree. We'll go shopping for it this week. I brought her back a souvenir from both of the world wonders. I'll give it to her and we'll decorate the tree and that will be far more important than anything that happens next week. Not all who wander or wonder are lost and having faith a little in advance about concrete things even if's a blank spot on a wall or where tree used to be makes me think that maybe just maybe 2016 is about to be have the most wonderful time of the year. 

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Imagination is the Only Weapon

Remember, remember
the fifth of November
The day my brain cancer showed its spot
I see no reason
Why left temporal treason
Should ever be forgot

I am not a man who acknowledges many days of personal history. I haven't had a birthday party most years of my life and certainly not most of my adult ones. Heck two of the most recent ones I've spent helping people move without letting them know I was aging. Yet there is one day, that I've given more than nods and winks to, the cancerversary, November 5, 2010 the day that life changed. One moment I was looking at a menu, later that day at an MRI. I wasn't far from my review at work and suddenly it seemed a little less concerning than the results of my blood work. I was bemoaning the fact I had just turned 30, never quite realizing that maybe the jokes about how everything goes down hill fast after you turn 30 would be a little too apt. I became physically and mentally aware that despite the fact that I had not stopped for death, that someday that seemed far too soon it was going to stop for me.

So I acknowledge it each time it comes, the time it passes. Most of that day was just questions but those questions weren't from me. They were from friends, from family to me and to my doctors. Looking at the dark matter on an MRI, being told I had a tumor that was possibly cancer and we'd do a biopsy in a couple of days. It's like that moment where the lights go out and you remember things being visible but you're just staring at the darkness. But days since the annual acknowledgement has varied.

See life and I had always co existed, gotten along well with it. But finding out you have cancer... maybe it makes you give up on some aspects of living because you're aware that they may end unexpectedly. But not me, while I didn't quite realize it that day, it was the day that I committed to holding onto life, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health till death did us part.  I'm corny enough, no cheesy enough, no hopelessly romantic enough that I actually know that I love many people but I love life itself so I looked up the traditional 6th anniversary gift. It was sugar and iron... so for breakfast I had a chocolate skull.

This year it started with a 10k, a 6.2 mile race to start the day of Celebrating 6 years of Life Part II. It was a place I'd never been, Mule Shoe with a racing company I'd never been part of, Spectrum. There are exactly zero races where I'm not gunning it and I took 2nd place. So while there may have been 1 guy ahead of me, I like to think the grim reaper was well behind me. Most importantly irregardless of those two, there were people from the running community besides me, one of which was a brain tumor survivor herself. I loved the race and there were additional highlights like the fact that they offered coke at the finish line. With about a half mile to go they had offered rum for people. I didn't take that during the race but once upon a time when I was getting medical restrictions they said I should no longer take part in alcohol or caffeine.  I responded with sass, "what about rum and coke, don't they cancel each other out?" I rarely drink but when I do that's become my drink of choice, in fact it's a nickname of mine, R&C. I am sorry to break it to you mom, or nurse but I broke that restriction today.

The race was actually entitled Wonderland. The finishers all got a cup which said We are all Mad Men now. Near the finish line they had great quotes from Alice in Wonderland, including my favorite one "Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality." I never imagined I'd be still standing so that wasn't the war I was fighting for, cancer wasn't and isn't the reality I'm fighting. But I go to new places, new events, meet new people to take the war to a different level.  Life not cancer has progressed because originally I had the same attitude as Alice did upon meeting the Cheschire cat,

“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don't much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go."

But I've picked directions that beating cancer was not so much about taking on the disease, that was a small part of the puzzle. It was about working on the relationships I want to keep.  In that Wonderful book, it's also written, “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” My cancer hasn't gotten any better or any worse; it's just stable. But while it took a few years it's been almost exactly 3 years sine I had a seizure. The medical debt is settled. I've hit PR's in every distance from the mile to the marathon since cancer started. I've done new events. But above all those things, I've done those races next to behind, in front, besides with people I love. So I take the joy in daring to imagine I've done a lot more than just stay in place.

Speaking of puzzles, I've been part of a couple of studies. One had a fascinating caveat in it that this study may not help you but it may help people in your condition down the road. It said it more formal legal language than that. But I've thought I'd just get to be a piece of the puzzle that would get solved well after me. But I've seen progresses in cancer in general, in the day to day things that patients can do, in brain cancer in specific. I got to be part of the inauguration of America's first medical university founding since before I was born at the University of Texas. My doctors from Duke have found ways to develop the polio vaccine to fight cancer. Livestrong continues to innovate how to deal with living with cancer. Imagination of theirs I've gotten to be witness of because of team work. Imagining good things.

Still the day continued with a puzzle room. The only goal there I had was to experience the puzzle, a casino heist where we were trying to get away with robbing it (it's just a play room mom). There were people as
part of or part of the dinner who were absolute parts of the past and the present and the future. Two of the guys, the guys whose names I wear on my wrist for emergencies, the guy who gave me the most rides when I wasn't allowed to drive that gave me a hard time about being a man among men. The ladies were as brilliant as they come. The 5 of us who had gone to the puzzle room had actually gotten one of the 5 fastest times that puzzle had ever existed. Because I'd been on a Alice in Wonderland kick between the two I had actually spent some time listening to Mona Lisa's and Mad Hatters and as we shared food and drink I couldn't help but sing somewhere deeper than my temporal lobe, maybe down to the left side of my chest, "And I thank the Lord There's people out there like you".   Each of them were someone I could have said that about as I took in some eye contact. Or as one of them reminded me, the only reason I have such good friends is because only good people can put up with someone like me.  I know that moment and every moment that even those who weren't there that day, there are people who I could say that about. I'm particularly grateful that there may not be a table large enough for me to have all the people I could say that about to share with. But I'm glad life reflects that table. 

But I'm ready to turn around and say good morning to the night but I look back on a day where  we solved a puzzle, did a race, had some donuts, and I am not sure I would have imagined being alive 6 years into this journey but had I known I was going to be, could I have imagined it any better? I think these 6 years are better than believing six impossible things before breakfast. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Not Throwing Away My Shot

Life has strange coincidences but I'm just a few days away from when it's been 6 years since the
cancer journey started for me, November 5, 2010. Just by nature of the calendar, it always falls a few days after Halloween and Dia De  Muertos, two days in which the two cultures my childhood was spent in play with death. Like the boogeyman or clowns or murderers, on Halloween we play like we are something like them, that we are just as scary or that perhaps in pretending to be them and handout candy we disempower them. As Kiana and I went trick or treating last night, some people had some very elaborate ways to frighten those who dared to come to their door. There was one Kiana both wanted and didn't want to go see and she looked up at me and said, "You know how you always say you're not sure you want me to grow up, hold my hand and let's go up to that one like I'm a little girl." If that hand holding heated up her hand it was because my  heart had been warmed and warned by that sentiment.

In Latin America, we have the Day of the Dead, a strange dance in Mexico, the country I was born, where we pray, remember, help people along their spiritual journey. Catholicism when it arrived almost anywhere seemed to incorporate the beliefs they found with the truth they proclaimed (some detractors have called that plagiarism at it's finest, defenders have called it clarifying what had been misconstrued). A simple walk through some neighborhoods shows the churches literally built on top of some ancient temples in places. This Aztec/Catholic tradition though is acknowledgement, one that we take so seriously it is  actually a public holiday. It used to be at the end of summer long before I was born but we made it match Halloween in due time even if it was a day apar like Mex-Tex Tacos we turned the candy into our own recipe of elaborate skulls. 

It is a rhythm of costumes and skulls and carved pumpkins and ghosts that comes as I get closer each year as I remember, remember the 5th of November, the day my cancer journey started. People take some of each of these 'holidays' with seriousness and lightheartedness both in acceptance and rejection. I see posts on social media and on the street with people just goofing off with it, people announcing the important of remembering the dead and of people proclaiming the 'truth' about what 'really'happens to dead people from their religious perspective. I take all of that in stride, absorb it all and reflect and on today in particular, I write.

Because I realize that I'm almost 6 years into this cancer journey and I am grateful and haunted. It was only a few days ago that I realized that for the first time since I won the marathon in March of 2013 I had no invitations to speak or race. I joked on social media that I might finally get to retire and both were fixed within 24 hours... no rest for the wicked, weary... which one is it? Retirement didn't last a full day. But I looked back on just the last month alone and continued to accept my fortune.

I looked back at October alone to keep acknowledging my blessings. I long ago said that if not another blessing came I'd give God praise for the balance of my days but they keep coming. I got to go back to Beaumont, that town I won a marathon to give a speech about raising money for Livestrong. I did it with a sad acknowledgement to that the speaker who had been there the year before hadn't made it one year later despite his health was in theory more stable than mine the previous year. This time I got to take Kiana and the girl who loves dressing up got me to do it for a change. 

I looked back at the St. George Marathon where I got to speak and race. Neither of those was the point for the trip. I loved them both but they were the byproduct of a thriller trip. It was one of the most scenic races I ever got to be a part of  and the longest speech I've ever been asked to give. I got to go to Mount Zion and see ancient rocks. I got to have dinner in one of those remarkable coincidences where I'd brought some of home with me but I also had someone there who was present at my first Livestrong Challenge in California, someone who was there at my first race speech in Idaho, someone who was there at my first Spartan Championship Beat in Vermont and we were all just having dinner where they met each other. We were all strangers who had become friends and were just joking over pasta, talking about sports and the weather in St. George, a town that none of us called home when we met. I definitely got a better bond while being there. What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot?

I looked back at the Livestrong Challenge that the last blog was about. I looked back at the fact that in the 6 weeks previous to the cancer anniversary I had given 6 speeches, done 6 events. In the 6 years I had done 6 Spartan beasts, 6 Livestrong Challenges, 6 Brain Power 5k's. The kid born 8/8/80 can't resist looking for patterns. On that last beast, there were 6 of us doing it friends and family all of which we had known each other essentially if not all of our lives . While they all talked smack before hand I beat them all during but then went back and checked on them at the course, medalling each one that I could. I do enough events where I get called a beast but the Spartan is the toughest thing I do each year so I'm glad it gives me a chance to properly earn the title. But we are beasts that hunt together. Someone recently gave me the analogy of the lion and the dog. When there is someone waving a piece of meat, the dog notices the meat and tries to please the person holding it; the lion notices the person holding it. Maybe this is why this Leon doesn't take many breaks from going from more of the puzzle but perhaps my favorite part is that Leons are part of a group and I'm glad that in all of these events, I have found ways to share them, shall we say I take pride in that. I was amused that where the Spartan is located, a lodge, actually had signs up that said not to go into the hunting area. I don't know whether or not we did or whether we were the hunters or the hunted but we came out still alive. 

I looked back at the Ragnar Relay. We put together a team of all ages but really if I'm honest they were all recruited because of respectable speeds. We would come in 2nd over all and would be the first coed team. 120 miles together through the evening, night and sunrise. It was a really fun night around fire places, s'mores and practical medals. It was funny as I was chatting with someone about how I would bring the things from s'mores I got an auto correct that I would bring the amores. I think we brought the love out there and I think we brought it home. Though maybe my displays of affection are interesting because the happiest I felt out there and the fastest leg I had was one where I tripped in the dark on a branch and got up and powered it all the way to the finish. Perhaps the adrenaline perhaps the rough wake up call in the middle of the night but I'd say my teammates said I came in pumped or on edge or happy and the answer of which one of those it was and I'd say all of them. This lifestyle has kept me tried and tired. Still through it all, people often ask what my results are and I'll give you a simple confession. I have not checked my results a single time this year. Some of that is that almost always people send them to me or someone is there who tell me but on some races I honestly have no clue what they were. I am a kid who was valedictorian for many reasons but primary among those was because i kept track of who I needed to beat. I had some school records as well because I was and am competitive. So it may not make sense to some, myself included why at the end of a race I don't check where I stand. I have no grand explanation other than as I'm almost six years into this cancer journey, I am above all grateful to be still in the runnings. 

There are people who genuinely care about me who think I should take it easy and relax. They see the bruise from the fall in Ragnar, the cut from the rock at the Spartan.  For me taking it easy and relaxing are antonyms. This is how I relax by leaving it out there though there are days where my body does suggest I take it easy. But I still just work off the reality that there will come a time where I'm laid to rest. So the day after Ragnar I go bike 50 plus miles with some Livestrong friends. The day after the Spartan beast Kiana and host a pumpkin carving party where you grab the pumpkin by the face and make it what you want. I often wear a make him work for it shirt, of a runner in front of the grim reaper. The grim reaper eventually catches up to all of us and we turn into dust but why make it easy? On this Halloween, I carved him into a pumpkin and will discard him in the trash on Dia De Los Muertos. You'll get your turn buddy but today, today it's mine. I think that attitude has resulted in me getting showered with goodness.

So what am I doing for the 6th anniversary of my cancer journey this Saturday. I am joining a race, a 10k, 6.2 miles to celebrate 6 years and then some. However it's not going to be a road race, I'm moving over to a single lane trail run, something I hadn't even done less than 2 years ago. Every year I've added a new physical element and kept them, daring to dream that if I keep messing with the system it has to figure out what to do with this new energy being channeled elsewhere and that the ones for the cancer cells can't have any chance of having fuel to grow. There will come a time where I return to dust but my hope is that on November 5 I'm kicking it back through some trails. 

But don't worry I still fuel up because afterwards I'm grabbing dessert with my friend Todd. At one of my speeches during the Q&A, someone asked if getting cancer had changed my diet. I said that I usually ate pretty healthy but that was primarily for athletic reasons not 'health' reasons. However after getting cancer I have dessert more often since the disease I have has no known dietary, genetic, lifestyle or environmental components. If I'm really not likely to be 40, you better believe I'm having dessert once in a while. Like last night when I made sure to test that some of Kiana's Halloween trick or treating wasn't poisoned by trying it first. Man I am a good dad ;). We had some fun for Halloween last night with the first time we ever coordinated costumes. She went as a pirate and I went as her missing eye. I'll keep watching out for the things she doesn't see as long as both life and her are kind enough to let me. 

The title of today's entry come from the song My Shot, from the Musical Hamilton. I actually have not seen it but a parody of it on tv recently made me want to hear the original

Rise up 
I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory
When’s it gonna get me?
In my sleep, seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin’, do I run or do I let it be?
Is it like a beat without a melody?

   -My Shot, Hamilton Musical

The cancer journey has never been a delightful one. Choosing to be involved and public has come at a high emotional cost because without exception at the events mentioned and others there have been people who I've met who are no longer with us. Some of them are in the exact media as I am, some of them were cancer free at the time. One of them died the night before Boston. One of them died on November 5. George Clooney of all people said that that's a challenge of life, you're either closer to death or you're having to bury many of your friends. I've moved past part of some Clooney elements of my life, choosing to at least give better bonding a try but I can relate to that. 

I am grateful to have had connections and make new ones that made me focus on the living, both my own and those here. It's good to give nods to those who have come before us, to remember the connection to those who got to the finish line before us. It's likely healthy as well to acknowledge that our own finish line will come and that it's distance is not as predictable as those at events. It is perhaps why those particular lines jumped out at me that I've spent so much time imagining death that it feels more like a memory? If I see it coming do I run or do I let it be, is it like a beat without a melody? I have a damaged memory so I'm thankful the concept of dying and that damage keeps making me want to make some new memories. And I used to be in a marching band and a fair share of the time the drums were the only ones playing. However some of those times were an introduction to start the music even if it would be the exact same beats that would play at the end of the song.
I've long called this cancer journey life Part II. I've met cancer survivors who for whatever reason disconnect from their pre cancer life and that's their call. Mine is not a new life, it's a sequel and I can't think of any good sequels that didn't keep some of the original connections, make new ones and work character development. 

However we acknowledge the day of the dead and Halloween, I hope it's never a way to make up for opportunities to easily available while f fully alive. So I'll keep aging, raging, rising up in the hope that however few or many days of life with cancer are left that I have not thrown away my shot.