I am sad. I am very very sad. I know tons of people and being in the cancer community, I deal with death too much but the last time I was this sad was when my great grandpa passed away when I was in 7th grade. I know that may seem over the top since well, it was a dog versus people and let's be clear people as a group outrank dogs as a group but she was always here. It's against my religion to have bad days and I rarely sin and I haven't committed at least that sin once this week since Puppy's passing.
But there have been moments, unpredictable some and some all but expected. When I finish my cereal and remember that I can't go put down the leftover milk for puppy to lick up that I tear up. When there's a little bit of salmon left and I tell Kiana and Elaine that we need to pack it up or finish it because it's expensive just to not bawl on that I can't put it in puppy's bowl. Puppy was never a loud dog, rarely barked but I miss the clicking of her too long nails in the wood and tile floors, the flapping open of the dog door and the magnets getting into place. I put away my laundry usually pretty fast since I fold it on the floor while watching TV but this week I let it sit in the middle of the living room for longer and took the coffee table purposely to where her food and bed used to be to make that space not look so damn empty.
Speaking of damned, I don't know what to do with words of comfort people offer. I say thank you every time and don't argue. I mean even the vet's pamphlet talked about some mythical rainbow bridge. I've gotten the all dogs go to heaven a few times. There was the suggestion of a tattoo because of how much I loved her. There was even one person who shared about dog cloning things. I get it, we all deal with sadness in different coping mechanisms.
I don't know what happens after humans or dogs die. I wonder if it's something like the movie from the invention of lying where heaven is just something we made up once to find comfort in. I have a degree in religion so I'm aware of the different portrayals/perception of the after life in both the good and bad. Even with humor as my usual coping mechanism, the only joke I've been able to make about it all was in response to "all dogs go to heaven" with a lame, "That can't be true about puppy cause they say dogs resemble their owners." I have enough of a sense of justice to where I understand the desire for people to get their just deserves when they've gotten away with much of life and I've received enough grace to know too many people like me, get a far lifer kind than they deserve here and dream up that maybe, just maybe the Universe forgives those willing to receive it in some way Forever.
I've heard intriguing stories about what people do with pet and human remains this week. We were very very practical about puppy's remains, not an ounce of romantic effort was put into them. I mean I'm the guy who wants to be cremated and flushed down the toilet. But don't think I did it so quickly. I almost got remains that I thought about holding onto and taking her back to the Marshall Islands in the style of Lindo y Querido. Or perhaps just spreading them in some of the best places we took our walks. But in the end we were strictly pragmatic. (I mentioned the toilet seat that a friend made for when my time comes to the vet after it was all done. Surprisingly or perhaps un-surprisingly since she regularly conducts euthanasia, she asked to see it.)
Let me be clear; this blog never has been, never will be a place for me to give advice (or take any thank you). It's just a place to describe the memories of this journey and if brain cancer takes a common path, life is kind enough to give me that luxury to read this story in my own words, to hear the story the way I remembered it at the time, with only immediate coloring in retro activeness not the one that we do with years past.
But how I grieved, Elaine and I have cleaned out more of our house during the recent past than ever. Shoes, tshirts, medals all types of things that were just sitting in drawers were taken to goodwill or trashed. I've heard the give me joy pattern going around and I respect it but to me it was simply is it used and is it useful and with very few exceptions if it didn't meet that criterion, it was time for it to go. I have great joy in my even damaged memory but I hope that somewhere until very near my final end, amazing joy on earth is always more forward than backward.
I also have been deleting hundreds of people on social media. I got my twitter and instagram down to double digits. On facebook I've been working on it for a while. The media and speeches had people follow my day to day. I never did know quite what to do with it simply running with it (pun intended) with the old idea that to whom much is given much is expected. I hope I've kept up with expectations but it's been over 8 years since I did my first interview about my cancer experiences with lots more in the 6 years since I won a marathon. I still have speeches in recent past and future but I think on my social media I'm just going to treat it like an old fashioned way to say hi in between chances to actually catch up with people. If that's the only way we can catch up, no real interaction in text, or calls or chat or phone calls, I'll pass. I want to know people better, not just mine and their short projected ideas dancing. I got along great with puppy for 15 years and we never once texted.
I'm not denying my grief. The tear ducts are in the system for a reason. In cleaning out my closet and puppy's gear and boxes of this and that, I dare to dream that open spaces, yes they remind me of what's missing and make a few or many tears burst here and there. But I hope, and hope is my 4 letter word, that leaving space open clears some room for those tears to give empty soil some new room to grow.
Monday, March 11, 2019
Theoretically this blog is about brain cancer changes but today I emotionally deviate to what has been the most consistent part of the story, my dog. With running events, I always say its like lights and sound, if we do our job we should go unnoticed. In our life story, we sometimes neglect other people but that's almost always entirely wrong, their job is not to highlight ours. Relationships are a dance, a back and forth. With pets, they're just animals right, just furry fuzzy fun critters to keep us company. I mean who overdoes things like that or gets too emotionally involved? A guy as stoic as me certainly would not.
But the truth is that I had to put my dog down yesterday. She was just past 15, by all standards well above average life span at her quinceanera. She had some rough moments in the last few months from something they literally refer to as old dog syndrome back in October to being attacked by another dog in November to where her heart has been giving out for the last couple of months. I don't know much about heart disease but apparently it was causing it to grow some, turns out the grinch and hers stories don't line up.
Still, I digress. Death is so rarely the most important part of our story no matter how dramatic or emotional we latch on. She was a beach dog came from when I was volunteering as a high school teacher in the Marshall Islands at age 23. We were both born poor in the third world walking the streets. From a young age till the very end this dog had brains and would look both ways before crossing the street. She was part of the litter of a stray that lived in the building across from my apartment and she'd come up to my place to say hi. The most common meal in the Marshall Islands is chicken and rice and fish and rice. To get rid of the dog, I'd throw the left over bones from my front door to get her away. She'd chase them down and be back for more regularly. My intent of getting that puppy out of there was not working. So eventually, I took her in and since my creativity knows no bounds her moniker was "Puppy." Her name tag would say only that for a few years with the"Leon" part to be added when she was well past the puppy stage. I'll fully grant that sometimes I'm slow to recognize family.
When it was time for me to leave the South Pacific, there were several teachers that were attached to campus or neighborhood dogs. The rest of them took the rational approach and realized these were strays and said goodbye. For me, I took the dog with me. At the time, as far as I could find record of, no one had ever taken a Marshallese dog back to the states so I had to get some customs laws figured out. I booked her on two separate flights, one from Majuro to Hawaii and the other from Hawaii to Texas. That made it more expensive but if I had done it all on once she would have had to been quarantined for a few months and I wasn't ready to bring her to the land of the free to start in captivity. Like me, she arrived in the US illegally through no choice of her own. I've wondered for both myself and her if we'd gotten to stay in the 3rd world how different our life would have been, simpler perhaps, just strays on rougher streets living simpler lives.
She was around one when all that happened and when we first arrived, after immunizations and vet appointments and weather changes and the beach disappearing, she pretty much wouldn't leave my side. The entire world had changed except me.
She would run with me in both of our younger ages. Back then I was usually running 3-5 miles most of the time and she'd go with me and look back during all these runs as if she were saying "Is that all you got?". If you think the guy who walks out of ambulances and put off brain surgery to run a marathon had her on a leash during all that, I assure you it was rarely true.
She aged well and even as I amped my mileage she would too. She did a training run of 13.1 miles with me. I never got her a medal. Unlike me, an irrational creature that want impractical things for external recognition, she never cared. She got a lot more white hair even before I started to get any gray ones but it would be a while before she'd slow down. She would leap super high for treats and even until a few months ago she still would remember and step as high as she could. The more she liked the treat, the higher she jumped. She was less than 40 pounds but a time or two with the right leap and enthusiasm and tile floor, she managed to knock me over. She never asked how I was after that, would just take the treat and go on her merry way. Perhaps because she'd been a stray anytime she got anything super special she'd take it out side and eat it where she was hard to reach.
Time comes for us all and Texas summers got hot so after a few years she didn't care about going on runs and just settled for walks but those were long with many going a few miles at a decent pace. She never seemed to want to turn around and it was usually my time constraints that got us to return. Puppy never seemed to like sitting still. They say dogs resemble their owners and we resemble that remark. Up and down steep climbs, across wet streams, hey if I was going she was going.
She never cared for 'dog toys' or things like chasing a frisbee. She'd look at me like why are you throwing random things that aren't food. Even when I tried to throw the ones that had food in them, she knew she'd won the game as I was sitting there struggling to figure out how to put peanut butter in one and she was licking from the jar I'd put down on the floor (yep, not at all at once but she got the rest of that jar and we never did a dog treat trick again).
She wasn't a dog that reacted to other dogs or people, didn't bark much. She was just home when she was with us whether that was outside or inside but when she needed a break she took one and well there's a reason there's inlaid bricks across every single section of my fence cause otherwise she'd stage breakouts to return later. There were neighbors who were annoyed with it because of her safety but eventually they realized neither they nor I could catch her when she wanted to take herself on a walk and again she looked both ways before crossing the street.
She put up with a leash when she had to which was gigantically when Kiana was involved so that I could be a proper law abiding dad in her younger age. She never tugged just to go faster so when she did jet to chase that squirrel or two she usually was already out of your hand by the time you realized it. But you also knew she was always coming back.
Puppy was the definition of home. For about a month or so, she will lead in the category of who I shared a roof with the longest with us buying this house a month before Kiana was born. She will for at least a few more years be who I shared all roofs with. I moved out of my parents house shortly after turning 14 and Puppy and I shared 4 roofs in 3 cities and two countries but she was my companion for a little over 15 years. When she turned 14 last year, she was fading much and I wondered how much time she had left but as I gave her a few special treats and I was recently engaged, I looked up at my fiancee and said see I hold onto my bitches. I won't tell you her full reaction but it wasn't a warm hug ;). Kiana will pass her in a few years and I trust and hope Elaine will pass them both in due time but I'm glad we all got it together. Still, with Puppy, I knew her from birth till death and shared a home with her that entire time. I'm highly skeptical anything like that will ever occur again.
The last few months were tough. Elaine and I came home one day to her barely able to get up due to a 'old dog syndrome.' She would still eat but only tiny portions hand fed and Kiana would slice them up and spend lots of time doing it. She had just healed form that when another dog attacked her and she required two surgeries. After that she was hesitant to take walks but eventually got back to it (it might have helped that she got 'human food' at the end of those). Still, that may not have been the best approach as it became the opposite it had always been where she was in a bigger hurry on the way home rather than on the way out.
As recently as the Superbowl she was still stealing chicken wings from people who put them down. She started to lose her appetite in the last month, stopping to eat all dog food and most dog treats and even pass up chicken. The early February appointment at the vet had shown heart damage but still stability. At her appointment a week ago, the vet said her heart was almost twice as big and the videos I shower her of the episodes she was having were as alarming to her as they had been to me. We'd noticed her stomach growing and apparently the inefficient heart beat was causing fluid build up and she had almost a liter of that in her stomach. The vet said if it was her dog she'd put her down within 24 hours. I bawled for half an hour, more than I've cried continuously since elementary school. She asked if I needed more time to make the decision and I said no, the decision was almost instantaneous but it would be a few days. She gave me meds to make things for up to a week. I talked to Elaine and Kiana asked them if they wanted to be there. They both said they did. The vet said her office actually does it for free but we aren't the dying in a facility type and I'd learned about Lap of Love who does it at home and we scheduled it for Sunday night.
Did I second guess it internally, a thousand or more times but never seriously. Even cooking her the foods she'd tried to steal off our plates she was eating very little. She didn't want to walk much and was mostly just sleeping and still had a couple of the episodes. There were logical statements made to me when I'd question why this was necessary when she 'looked so tough' during some moments like 'well dogs don't aren't meant to show weakness.' While during our soft moments she had questioned whether or not I was really a Lion descendant and I questioned whether or not she was a wolf descendent, we'd dropped all pretense and just laid next to each other eating peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies. A friend tried to reassure me with the statement of better a week too early than a day too late. It was logical and meant well and still painful to absorb. In the end my own emotional process was spent listening to a cover from Les Mis and while I dreamed we could spend more years together but there are dreams that cannot be and there are storms we cannot weather. I found comfort reminding myself that all puppy and I had done in youth and old age were dreams that were made and used, none wasted.
Her last few days were glorious weather with us going on walks, one the longest one she'd done in over a month, albeit very very slowly. The last thing we did before was all go on a walk together over rocky uncomfortable terrain. We all saw her take one last uncomfortable step over a steep rock about a block from home but with conviction. She had no leash on her last walk.
I had assumed we'd do this on her bed but puppy's most oft visited spot was on my deck over the stairs staring into the open space. Even as she'd become less physically capable, she would still stare at where we used to walk. As soon as the vet came in, she headed out there and the vet said it was up to us where to do this. I stared into her eyes and petted her for a bit from the front and Elaine and Kiana were on her side. All week long I said we'd save the crying for afterwards since Puppy had comforted us all in different times and well this one, this one thing was one she should not have to comfort us. Because her health issues were causing excess fluids she'd been having more water marks in her eyes which I would clean up frequently to avoid the salt build up. In over 15 years of life, I'd never once seen one come out. As I was petting her one last time, one came out of her eye like a single tear drop. I responded with a few of my own as the vet put something in her to put her to sleep. She would stay standing for a bit with her back legs collapsing and then her front ones buckling but she resisted as long as she could till she collapsed in my lap. Then a few moments later was the final formula and she died there with all of us. Elaine and Kiana went running immediately afterwards as I figured I should deal with the immediate remains as they'd warned me that her eyes would likely reopen and she'd have accidents to clean up off the floor. None of that occurred, she never opened her eyes again and had no accident. Even in the end Puppy kept her shit together.
We spent time cleaning up. Her food, treats, shampoo etc were given to someone who could use it for their dog. The rest was donated to an animal shelter this morning. I'm not super sentimental about things so Elaine and I kept one thing, the collar she wore at our wedding and Kiana kept her final paw print. We cried into each others arms many times and will again. I have no shame in my tears; there's a reason they are built into the system.
I could tell you the little things that have triggered tears yesterday and today but those are less important than the moments that brought smiles and laughter and company over a decade and a half. I lost some family member but the paths we shared I would not trade for anything. In the end it was her heart giving out that made this necessary and it was likely because she gave too much of it to me. While it feels cracked today, somehow, Puppy’s presence over such a huge portion of my life is a reason my heart is still intact.
Thursday, March 7, 2019
Like the act itself, it has taken me too long to write about breaking 3 hours in the marathon. The desire to do so predates my cancer diagnosis which is over 8 years old. But still if this blog is about wanting to remember things that brain cancer changed, there is no way to deny that this, this was one of those things.
I intended and thought myself capable of doing so in my first one back in 2010, when I was 29 years old. I was doing a series of races of the the Austin Distance Challenge. Each one was the longest thing I'd ever done period and the first time I'd really started to start training since college. I'd gotten a little faster each race, taking a couple of seconds of the pace from a 10k to a 20 miler, consistently dropping. It gave me enough... hubris... to believe I could do my first marathon at the fastest pace of any race. That didn't work out so well with me walking a fair share and finishing in 3:19, missing my goal by almost a minute a mile. I'd try it again two weeks later for a 3:23 in Fort Worth.
I didn't try it for every marathon I did, the next one the one that I put off brain surgery for it was just trying to get a Boston Qualifier which at the time was 3:10 and I hit a 3:07. I'd try again at Austin but hit a 3:16 the next time around. I was going to try when I ran Boston but I had a seizure a couple of week before and barely broke 4 there. I'd get within one second slower at the marathon I won with a stroller that put me on the media map but still about 8 minutes away. I'd be on pace in New York, Utah, Idaho, even requalify for Boston with a 3:04 under the lower 3:05 standard and try again at Boston but no matter how much my pride kept saying yes, my body kept saying no. I'd chalk it up the medication side effects like throwing up or improper training or bad weather or or or... I even took it to where I had 'almost' just accepted that maybe it just wasn't in me. The closest I would get would be in Seattle where my watch wasn't working, there was no clock at the finish line and I didn't see my results till my little brother printed them out and I had missed it by single digit seconds back in 2016. I took 2017 off doing marathons altogether despite it being the highest mileage year in my life. The only one I would do in 2018 was Austin during humid weather, always my kryptonite on the revamped course, which in my opinion was harder. I signed up again for 2019 within days of failing at it.
Why couldn't I hit it? By all counts, the guy who could break a 5 minute mile several times in his 30's, who had broken an hour in a 10 miler, who regularly still breaks 18 in 5ks and 38 minutes in 10ks and the very far back of 'elite' standards had a soft marathon time. The Austin marathon was hard but it was also home. So this year, I didn't train harder for it. I didn't follow any schedule or any plan. I just made a mission to run the course, to run every chance I got, to tell the body that maybe my mental capacity had memory issues but if just once, at least once, it would share that with my body that it would forget how to quit or at least forget how to slow down
Some people travel to destination races that are flatter or even down hill. The latter are not eligible for World Records due to having gravity be a contributor so I didn't want to ever do it there. I wanted my personal records to have the same standard. Like most good things in my life, I got there with good company. I trained more and more with my friend Chris who was training for a different marathon in California in December during most week days. On the weekend, I did a lot of my long runs with my wife since we were doing some runs together. On Sunday, I added a second long run with my friend Steward who was trying to hit his first Boston Qualifyer and we ran over and over the Austin marathon course until I learned it turn by turn, street by street. Spatial orientation being gone was no longer going to be relevant since I knew the landmarks. I started doing a gigantic percentage of Kiana's training runs with her, something that well is not really an easy task anymore making for a few two a days most weeks. I started to have an IT band injury and plantar fascitis. I rolled and ignored it. Three weeks from the race, in where most people start their taper, I did my first and only 100 mile week.
I got to the race line with hotter and more humid weather than I prefer. I'd lost my shirt by mile 1 from being over sweaty. It didn't matter. Chris and I were running together and we both had a goal of breaking 3, him primarily helping me do so as he's done it many many times. I let him know I intended to drop him in the end, he smiled. A warm up mile in the first one, passing the 3 hour pacers by mile 2 and on the pace I wanted to keep for most miles 6:45 per mile by mile 4. At mile 6, there was a car almost driving onto the road. I yelled at them to stop and they tried to argue with me they needed to go that way. While keeping pace, I informed them with strong conviction the road was closed. A friend who didn't quite see what was happening told me to focus rather than be yelling at the street; I'd argue that in that particular moment, I was properly focused. We kept going through friends that I knew from Runlab, from a Track Fundraiser I helped with was holding a water stop further up. Every time there was a steep hill along the course, I did what I do, I surged up and then got back on pace. When I got to half way, I was on pace with a little under a minute to spare. I let that build no confidence because I'd been there before. Got into the lonely section where we've split up from the half marathoners where it was uphill into the wind (that's actually true grandpa) but I took the wind as nature cooling the sweat not holding me back. I remembered the jokes Stewart and I had shared there. Chris and I made new ones. We had to laugh at the fact that the one place I nearly, out of force of habit, I almost crossed the street to get to the sidewalk I was literally almost run over. Humor is still my coping mechanism so I thought of headline, "Man trying to break 3 hour marathon gets broken by car into 3 pieces during same marathon."
As we headed to the east side, there was Mariachi under a bridge right before a hill, I definitely surged up after hearing that. I passed by the Team Japan group around mile that was holding a waterstop that had invited me to speak to their runners and tried to remind myself what I'd said to them that no matter how it goes, I should appreciate the fact that for 26.2 miles they were shutting down roads just for me. About a mile later, Chris said well this is the longest I've ran since my marathon over 2 months ago. I don't know if that was the right thing to tell me or the wrong one but I'm like ok time to leave this guy and there was nothing dramatic, I just slowly started speeding up. This was shortly before mile 20. Never in my entire life have I gone unpassed after mile 20. Too many times, I've gotten passed too many times because I was falling apart. I decided then anyone who passed me was now who I was racing in. As I passed a friend I was hoping he'd be the one and said come on now you're getting passed by an old fat man. It didn't motivate him as I'd hoped. At mile 21, I thought oh man I'm feeling good I got this. All course, I would never once check my pace. I would simply look at the band that had the splits I should hit at each mile marker. Since mile 3, I'd been ahead of it and growing. By mile 22 the body was hurting but I still thought I'm fine; heck I can even slow down to a 7:30 pace with what I've got in the bank. I kept trying to smile internally and said this is the longest I've ever ran without music, I'm going to do a whole marathon without any music. At mile 23, I put on the music. At mile 24 I was like I think it's about an 8 minute pace I have to keep, am I doing the math right? I hadn't slowed down but I was thinking about it. At mile 25, wait if I have almost two minutes to spare it's a 9 minute pace I just have to hold right. There are 3 hills in the last mile. I heard someone say there was a special place in hell designed for whoever designed that. I pretty much agreed with them on each of them. The last hill is a hellish one itself and lots of people would tell me they were cheering me on. They said I didn't acknowledge one of them or react. One said they stuck their hand out to high five and I did. I have no memory of that. I was singing in my head that I was very close to achieving this mission of nearly a decade of pursuing. Then well I could sign
I don’t ever want to run, I don’t want to start a fight
I just want to do my dance up until the morning light
I don’t want to fall sleep; I ain’t looking at the time
I’m addicted to the streets; baby steady on the grind
And I aint’ taking no more shit; I ain’t never going to start
I ain’t never going to quit till I make it to the top
Cause I’m a man on a mission
You can’t stop me now
No one had passed me after mile 20. I got across the line without stopping my watch but knowing that when I was looking up the time started with a 2. That's all i needed. Literally danced at the finish line where the announcer said, if you can dance that well at the finish line then you didn't run fast enough. Those people who can't dance have to express their jealousy somehow I suppose ;). I had always said I wouldn't retire from the marathon until I broke 3 but excused myself on bad days that it was just an arbitrary number. But last September they lowered the Boston Qualifying time to under 3:00 (it's theoretically lower for me since I'm older but I've always said I'm never going unless I qualify under the strictest standard). It took me one try once they raised the bar.
I'd stay there and watch Chris come in and also break 3. I'd watch Stewart hit his qualifying time. I'd hang there till my wife crossed the finish line and also qualify for Boston. It was her fastest marathon since we became a couple, though only her 2nd fastest ever. She was disappointed in that; her approach to life, that on a day she beats most of the field and qualifies for Boston she considers a bad day is impressive. Still we found some comfort in the fact we'd both come in 31st in our genders and 7th in our age groups. Talk about equally yoked. They had some bloody Mary's near there as it was getting colder. That's good for body temperature.
But the good times didn't end there. There was a girl who I've written about here before, Kayleigh Williamson who was on her try to complete the Distance Challenge for the 3rd time. On her first try, I was the one who had to tell her that despite getting to the finish line by walking on the sidewalk she was ineligible because she didn't have a proper time. She said she would be back. If you google her name, there have been too many articles about people being impressed with her doing that because she has Down's syndrome. I've never once thought that was what made her victories sweeter. It was the will power. The fact that immediately after failing she'd come up and tell me that she'd be back next year. The fact that she and her mother had started a club to help others. I was at a couple of finish lines where she gave me some meaningful hugs and I apparently was more endeared it by than hers because when people saw the picture, her mom told me she pointed out to people that I wasn't her boyfriend. Man, the number of women who recognize and point out I'm out of their league should make me grateful that I'm married now. The Distance Challenge finishers get their jacket at the party a couple of weeks later. I was waiting with Kayleighs at the finish line. She was beaming and apparently at least my eyes got hot again because they started sweating as I handed it to her.
I would write things about her on social media and I spoke about her during the award but I never once mentioned anything about her health. It is perhaps because I'm aware that people mentioning your achievements in light of a condition can be trying. Part of my past struggles with the Austin marathon is that the course passes along the place that fired me, it passes along the place I had my brain biopsy, where the brain cancer surgery started. It passes along places I've had medical appointments, ones I've given speeches about this process and a place I had a seizure in the middle of a 10 mile run. In many of the times I've ran it and on training runs, I mention that to people as we pass by it. The only two times I thought of my brain cancer in those 26.2 miles was when passing by some Livestrong people and some Camp Kesem people and the honest truth is that the only thought I had there was, aren't I lucky to be friends with some of these people? There may be times where my brain cancer becomes a lot more relevant again in many ways and there certainly will be again but for 26.2 miles, I got to just run this town at a 6:48 average pace to finish in 2:58.06. Mission accomplished.