Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Undiscovered Virtues

Emerson wrote that a weed is only a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. When I look at my lawn and realize that I need to be putting a little more time into digging weeds, I’m not quite sure that’s completely correct but I appreciate the romantic sentiment. I sat in soreness the day after the Marathon, still both thrilled to be alive to win the cancer survivor’s division but still disappointed with my time. Kiana had been sick a week before throwing up and I’d been having stomach issues since then and your body can’t cheat during a marathon and get your best time. But the better side of me realized that even while crashing and walking, I had done better than I had in my first 2 marathons while giving it my all.

But the weed in my brain was still there… and 2 days after the marathon instead of two weeks before came the 8 hours of neuropsychological testing. It was less than thrilling: testing vision, fine finger coordination, memory and language skills and personality. I joked that since they had noted my coping mechanism as humor before that I would try to seem sadder this time. I delivered the shirt I had won from the Lumosity contest to my neuropsychologist William Dailey (lumosity had asked me what size I was and when I told him that I wanted it in my neuropsychologist’s size, they were kind enough to send two, I had hoped that this and other games I’d played would make a difference and there appeared to be some good spots and some bad spots (the rarely used words test clearly became obvious that part of my brain had not improved). The first time I had been trying to figure out the tests, the second time I was worried about the fact my wife had left 2 days before, this 3rd time I was focusing on doing what I could. The second one showed some improvements in IQ and certain memory and language functions but also some losses. This test, because the tentacles of this thing are invisible to MRI’s, will show whether or not there’s been functional loss and thus possibly growth. I hope the undiscovered virtues to this are that those apps have helped keep things stable and/or improve but there’s another MRI and after all that’s done I get to sit with my neurologist and look at what’s next.

Last year, when I’d gone to California, it was in my mind quite possibly a goodbye tour. This year, thanks to the won trip from the brainpower5k, it was more of a hello tour. I saw many of the same people but this time I had my own rental car instead of having to be driven around. I got to stay for a while instead of making it a whirlwind tour since I wanted to minimize the days off in case surgery went poorly (though I'll grant I may have worked the holiday on Monday before just because I still want to have maximum amount paid time off). I also had Kiana with me and we got to do all kinds of fun things in San Francisco which she looked at with the wonderment only children have. I don’t know how long those memories will last for either of us but I am glad we get to keep making them. Many of the same friends showed up and of course, they had this question about the surgery and about the medical tests but without exception I tried to always move onto more important things about this person’s new job, or that person’s new boyfriend or the happy moments that had grown into their life, those virtues that maybe aren’t discovered as well until you talk about them. Some people actually noticed the differences in me, the calmer, more toned down demeanor, the more easily distracted guy but those meals ended and started the same way last year’s had, with hugs and love except this time, it felt more like I’ll see you later than goodbye to me.

I’d taken a trip with a girl I loved shortly after the marathon of my life before some medical stuff and that part also echoed itself but this girl was more thrilled about the trip. I had actually hoped to be back on this trip with Kiana to introduce her to people and I was here and she was loving it! I was here with Kiana showing her a new part of the world wanting to never ever lose that excitement. One of the things on the trip was that we got lost a lot. Apparently I now remember things more like girls by landmarks rather than street names (hey it was a girl who made that joke!) so I made a poor navigator. And while I definitely got reprimanded for getting us off track there were times I just took in the hills and the San Francisco bay and some gorgeous skyline and remembered that not all who wonder are lost. Kiana fell asleep in the car on the way home a few times leaning into me. If that’s wondering or lost, well I’ll take it. There was a sign that said Never Grow Up when we took her to the Disney store and on the days I’m worried about this and she’s asleep on my shoulder I so wish Peter Pan was real. I recognize and appreciate that this weed of brain cancer has given me some clearer views but at this point here’s hoping it’s only the undiscovered virtues that are growing.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Keys to Happiness

They say the key to happiness is low expectations and that’s probably correct but I don’t think it’s the key to success. I got a 3:16 today, not Boston qualifying like last year thought it is my second best out of 4 marathons; I also didn’t break 3. To be less than appropriate, shit happens. It was the first time ever in a race that I had to stop and lose some weight. And while I’m sure no one wants to hear about my bowel movements, it was the first time they didn’t happen before a race. So that was a mistake…I couldn't control. I had passes to the VIP section before and after and while I enjoyed it before, I left afterwards since I’m someone who regularly credits my successes to others and my failures completely to myself. Maybe some people have that misery love company complex but initially skipped the events I was going to do during the afternoon because I was pretty heart broken. I said it before, go big or go home and I went home. Several people have kindly expressed how they’d love that time and the honest truth is that I probably walked fairly close to 1.5-2 miles just because after I was done with the bathroom, I couldn’t seem to get it back together. I’ll be getting up 3-4 hours before Boston but that future does help, that Boston is on the calendar and let’s be clear I’ll be once again trying to leave it all out there.
I tried to make jokes to make myself feel better, quoting a comic that says “you can’t have everything, where would you put it.” But the digestion wasn’t the only problem, it was a mistake to have references to the ex on the playlist, sitting there thinking sad thoughts when you’re pushing your body hard is, at best, stupid. My ex and Dre had cheered me on together last year, provided support on the Austin marathon course and I couldn’t seem to shake that thought out of my head with call it post traumatic stress disorder remembering the points where I had seen them. I wish I could have mentally overcome that but we know I have problems with my brain. Solomon said that the race is not always to the swift nor does food come to the wise but chance and circumstance happen to them all. But I think today I failed at both being fast and wise. I’ll try to run Boston faster and make a wiser playlist.
Still, after I got home, trying to shake off, someone sent me of all things, the cancer survivor results and with all of 3 minutes to spare, I had come in first in that division. That wasn't even on my radar but then the focus started getting clearer... Last year I had put off brain cancer surgery to run this marathon; this year I came back to win the cancer division at the Livestrong marathon. Anyday above ground is a good one, and while it was the first race in months that wasn't a PR, I was ALIVE to run it.
It was interesting being at the Livestrong events this weekend meeting quite a few of the 500 members that had flown in from all over to run in the 2nd ever Livestrong Marathon. There was a breakfast Saturday before where mostly we talked about the marathon. On Sunday after the marathon, there was a happy hour that lasted longer. There I got to hear echoes of my journey that rhymed with others and others that were very distinct. People sharing of their journeys, their treatments, their family members successes, other's about their family members death, their worries. While it felt awkward to keep being introduced as the guy who won the survivor division, there was one thing that kept sticking with me. At the marathon expo, there was information on a variety of cancers but nothing on brain cancer. Among all the runners on team Livestrong, I met only one who had any connection to brain cancer, someone whose brother had died of it.
So today worked out less than adequately…but worked out. More importantly, it reminded me that while I gotta stay focused on running while running but also be infinitely thankful for being alive and having capacity to do both the focusing and running . Yesterday was hours of marathon running and celebrating and tomorrow is 8 hours of neuropsychological testing. Still, I need to stay aware to be glad I am alive and I gotta get back to working out because Boston’s what’s next.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Soundtrack of Quiet Desperation

Emerson wrote that most men live lives of quiet desperation. I am a few hours away from the Livestrong Marathon and I should be sleeping but the anxiety and the desperation is plenty loud so I’m awake. I finished the playlist today for the marathon. I always put effort into my playlists into each race and usually some of it is sentimental but most of it is about the beat or just some cheesy message. This year is the hardest I’ve worked on each race, in previous years just adding more songs from the previous race. Last year, the song right before the Boston Qualifying time was “I think I’ll go to Boston” with the one after that if I’d failed as “So you had a bad day.”
This year I am trying to break that 3 hour mark and it will be really close if I am able to take that 8 minutes off last year. I’ll either go right under from having pulled it off or way over from having crashed. I am very intimidated and the playlist reflects some of that. But most of all, it is the most emotional playlist I’ve ever created for a race. There are nods to the past, the present and the future. There are songs in there that reflect the break up, like “Little Lion Man” a song the my wife sent me as things were falling apart. There are a couple of songs of anger like “That’s a woman” and “not ready to make nice.” There are some songs about rebounding from romance like “For the longest time” and “I want to know what love is.” There are some ambivalent songs about these emotions like “Bells of Freedom” “With my own two hands”. The song to begin it both because it’s my focus and to slow me down at the beginning is “In my daughter’s eyes” and a few other cheesy Disney tunes to help me think of her(it’s more than heart breaking that this will be the first time that Kiana is not at the finish line because I don’t imagine her mother will bring her out to cheer) Right smack in the middle is “The time of of your life” hoping I do it well. There are also some songs hopeful for something like “Lonely no more” and “A Dios Le Pido.” And at the end, exactly at the 3 hour mark is “I’m still standing” dedicated to my tumor. This year there is no song in case I failed, trying to focus on going big or going home. Matt, the friend who finished last year with me is doing so again knowing I’m on extra anti- seizure medication, and has been told that if I have a seizure that they are going to have to drag me off the course to stop me from dragging myself across the finish line. I gave him my race shirt because he's literally my lifeguard.
But like life, the marathon is about if and how you finish not how you start so I am trying to finish well. Last year, I told Stacey Conley, the president of the marathon company, that no matter how many marathons I would do that 2011 would be the most meaningful… she said not to be too focused on that, that the future might bring something more powerful. She was right and this one is one of those. Before running this marathon, I took off the sticker from the first marathon I’d ran and put on this year's Livestrong Marathon sticker. Bib #8 is ready with a sticker of a brain and a lion and lion cub, wearing my livestrong shoes and my ship of fools shirt. I hope this is the focus… and that no matter how good or bad the past is, that I get to keep focusing on the future along the course, smiling, perhaps crying but at least singing my desperation and running as hard as I know how till the end.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Don't Call it A Comeback

The word comeback appears too often in parts of people's conversations with me… it comes with both negative and positive connotations. Do you ever wonder if your cancer will come back? What would you do if your spouse came back? Glad you got to come back to this race again. Glad to see you came back to be a father and a runner.

Perception is reality but mine and other people’s is sometimes miles apart and I imagine the truth is somewhere in the middle. Am I worried about my cancer coming back? No because my cancer hasn’t gone away; it’s not going to in any way that I can see; they just took out about 80% of the tumor; we’re just monitoring what was left during the surgery to see if it’s growing. I’m not coming back to MRI’s or neuropsychological testing just continuing with them, they are tools to see how the present compares to the past for sure but they are mostly about carving out the future. When I did those tours throughout California and Texas shortly before the surgery, I had learned to say something that revealed my fears in a well received manner. I said,” I’m not sure the guy going in is the same one coming out, but this one loves you guys.” Having read a book that someone from my running group gave me “I had brain surgery, what’s your excuse” and one from my psychology back ground “The man who mistook his wife for a hat,” I knew that neurological damage can dramatically change a person and wasn’t just something we could wave off. While I embrace our romantic idea that will power alone can overpower the universe, this is not exactly the path of luck of all human beings. But I still don’t want to ignore the fact that the harder we work the luckier we get (anyone who reads this blog knows that I clearly need to learn to avoid clich├ęs like the plague). Anyway, there were some changes in calmness and impulsivity but its also calming that the guy that loved those people remains mostly intact to this point and so do most those people.

A year ago, people were putting on a tournament to raise money with my medical bills and there were more friends cheering me on for the Austin Livestrong marathon than there were miles in it. This year I was running the tourney and raising money for Livestrong, a restoration of some of the kindness I hope. Between donations and the profit, we made them about a grand (though again with the great irreverence of my friends, it snowed/sleeted during the tournament and an atheist friend said God really hates you man, first he gives you brain cancer and now it snows during your thank you tournament. I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist but this reminded me of the story of the butterfly who struggling to get out of her cocoon is “saved” by someone who cuts it too make it easier, and that butterfly, by losing the struggle loses the ability to fly. Sometimes we destroy and lose things by struggle but other times it helps us build character, muscle?) I’ve raised about as much money for brain cancer research as I have for Livestrong and a fair share for the ultimate community in other tourneys. But even if I ever surpass the amount of money they raised for my medical bills, there is nowhere that the bills are even; I don’t owe them money, I owe them life. I was doing tours of where I’d lived because surgery was a few weeks away and people came heavily to them. I’m running the marathon again and I hope it will be faster and I still do dinner and parties with friends and they are still well attended and I hope and pray that I don’t lose the focus no matter how long I’m standing because either way I’m going to die.

But it’s not a comeback from last year. I was a father and a husband, I was a runner, I was a probation officer, I was a cancer patient and I’m still almost all those things (I am going to the anti Valentine's day party with a friend telling me if I don't win I have to post the winning story on facebook; ironically/appropriately its at the first place I went to eat in Austin, Black Sheep Lodge right after I got out of the first hospital and the last place I went for a happy hour before heading out to Duke). Now, I am just trying to put more effort into improving the good parts and hoping the bad ones stay where they are. Wicked, the musical was recently in Austin and there are days where I wish I could hide echoing the scare crow’s voice about dancing through life, that life is painless when you’re brainless; life is fraughtless when you’re thoughtless and that those who don’t try never look foolish. And trust me I dance, sometimes to remember and sometimes to forget….

So the marathon is a few days away and the 8 hours of neuropsychological are two days after that…and then the MRI is a few days after that. We’ll see what progress/regress we’ve made a year later. I am watching the weather reports and doing the Rehab Apps trying to achieve that serenity of changing what we can’t and accepting what we can’t… Neither is easy but it wasn’t last year and it won’t be in the future but I’m still going and hope to continue so don’t call it a comeback.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rorschach Impression

Sometimes the way we process information says a lot more about us than it does the information. I have a scar on the side of my head and there have been a few different takes on it from people who don’t know what it’s related to but the most common response to it is that it looks like a question mark or half a heart. In light of all other events, both seem fairly appropriate. But today as my running group and I were walking around putting up flyers telling people that their house was about to be blocked in next Sunday for the marathon, I heard an interpretation that no one had ever thrown out. As I walked to a guys door, he started chatting me up and more directly than any other stranger, started talking about my scar and I told him what was going on. He had the awkward silence that people do when they first hear the brain cancer surgery story and then said as directly as he had started, honestly I thought maybe a donkey had kicked you in the head. We laughed and as I had to keep walking the streets, I couldn’t help but reflect on the simplicity that maybe it was the ass part of the universe that took a shot at my head and knocked me over…

Speaking of , I’ve been working on my marathon play list and a song that I hope will come on if I’m on the right pace will be Elton John’s I’m still standing, the song I most often dedicate to my tumor mostly for the chorus :

Don’t you know I’m still standing better than I ever did
Looking like a true survivor, feeling like a little kid
I’m still standing after all this time
Picking up the pieces of my life without you on my mind.

I hope I get decades of singing that cheesy song.

My medical bills from the past year are now part of the past (which is good because before November 5th, 2010 I had never taken a claim on my insurance and since there then there have been 91 claims, that’s an average of six a month). There will be new ones in the next few weeks and probably for as long as I live but the other ones are gone. It’s interesting, flattering, humbling and demasculating for a Mexican male to have had so much help. Some came during the diagnosis, some during the divorce, some because of recent race results. Some of the help was direct, some donations to the cancer research and Livestrong things I was doing, others have given things like clothes to Kiana, others to medical institutions and some were checks handed directly to me. Apparently a huge percentage of bankruptcies are due to medical treatments with most of those coming from people who have insurance, just not enough. It’s a relief that it’s not part of present circumstances. But some people have helped because their father had brain cancer, their mother had liver cancer, their spouse left unexpectedly, their mother left unexpectedly, some because I’ve run tournaments… some just because they are just good humans but all of them just keeps me thinking and infinitely appreciative of Abe Lincoln’s old idea that we have to hang together or we’ll hang separately.

The Media company promoting some Livestrong programs was at my house yesterday. I’ve done a few things because of this development, promoting the marathon, its trash runs, the Hawktober event… but those were all an hour or less. I didn’t realize when I signed up for this the intensity. These guys were at my house for 5 hours starting at 7 Am and staying past noon for what will be a minute or two of things. They were incredibly gracious and meeting with them reminded me that as bad as this blog is, I’m much worse talking to the camera. They wanted to get me waking Kiana up and asked what I slept in and if I would put that on. I sleep in whatever I wear that day so we didn’t pick a special outfit. Still when I told one of my friends from my running group about that request, he couldn’t pass up the joke that if they saw what I slept in they’d know the real reason my wife left me. My divorce awkwardly and painfully so was part of the story that we shared on video and who knows how it will come out edited but they also focused a lot on how I picked my own doctors and how my friends and families helped me both find doctors that we handpicked rather than the ones that came from the ER. We also talked about how my friends and family were helpful with every part of the process from driving me when I was banned from driving for a few months to feeding me as I was recovering at home to raising money to helping babysit Kiana. I looked into the camera and said what I believe above all: the doctors took out the cancer but my friends and family saved my life. At least that’s my impression.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Keeping it Colorful

If there’s anything this tumor has done, it’s to help me appreciate the colors of the rainbow of humanity and sometimes doing things in a more even fashion. There’s a huge range of people and other than some extreme ends I think most of humanity is decent. Two years ago as I prepared for my first marathon, I ate super healthy, not eating any junk food, training mostly by myself and ended up crashing in the end. Last year, thinking I might be dead in March, I essentially said “fuck it” and ate junk food and trained harder but did most of it with a group and got some respectable times in races including the Boston Qualifying Livestrong Marathon. This year, I’ve been taking a more middle of the road approach, eating some junk food but mostly healthy and been doing my trains almost exactly as the training group prescribed and beating some of the best times I’d ever achieved including as a hard core runner in high school and college. I am running less but running faster though probably pushing a stroller on many of those runs has helped the speed when I’m not pushing it (and I’ve learned to love it, even trying to encourage in my competitive spirit that the family 5k coming up in Austin have an official stroller division). I had been invited to do a color 5k, an event where they splash color all over you and kept going back and forth but in the end decided getting muddy and colorful could be done on the same day as marathon prep.

The middle of the road is interesting…usually where I run in races because that’s where the slant is the least. I belong to two very different communities, reflected in my superbowl party. While there were exceptions to both, most of the runners showed up early and left before the game was over. Most of the ultimate crowd showed up late and stayed well after the game was over with some games. I love both crowds.

Even when I sit here late at night, sometimes with the elation of being grateful for the human connections the universe has given me, sometimes trying to fight off darker thoughts, I look down at my daughter who far too often sneaks in to sleep in my bed and realize that gratefulness has to be the spirit that wins. Because as an old Asian saying goes, holding onto anger is like holding onto a hot coal to throw at someone later, it just burns you in the meantime. And I don’t know if Karma is a true mystical force but there is a back and forth. The people who have helped me with medical bills and Kiana and running and various things are my best friends still (though they’ve definitely had to thoroughly reprimand me about how friends don’t owe each other anything). I got brain cancer which inspired me to raise money for research which winning Leading fundraiser got me and Kiana a trip to Sonoma. I got brain cancer and kept going which got me interviewed for Livestrong which made me take time off work but a month after I’d agreed to it, got me great tickets to a Keith Urban concert that had been donated to them. A friend and I joked about how it doesn’t matter if you’re broke if you keep winning stuff… The tournament raising money for Livestrong happens this Sunday and their marathon happens the next Sunday. In the previous two years I stayed away from ultimate while marathon training; this year I’ve done both.

So maybe the lion king’s circle of life has some truth in it. Friends keep trying to get me to see this movie 50/50 about a girl who leaves her boyfriend as he’s going through cancer and he ends up with a new girl who is great. My friends tell me to hope for my Katie instead of sticking to my George Clooney mentality; right now I’m still way too damaged and scared. The bar where I had my happy hour before going to Duke, Black Sheep lodge, is having an anti Valentine’s day where they are encouraging people to tell their worst break up story. I am tempted to go.

There are still days where I am anxious and worried but I have a marathon and a trip to Sonoma and then training for Boston… And Kiana gets to be part of most of that. And while I embrace most days, on those rough days, sometimes the future gets you through the present. An old phrase that failed in one part of my life was the for better or worse but sometimes, just maybe, if you put up with the worse, you get the better.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Alone Together

Last week I had to deal with the most intense kid I’ve ever had to work with having a psychotic breakdown… The parents were very much against accepting the change from a kid who was previously in a college bound program to one who was being recommended into hospital admission. His parents couldn’t accept that it wasn’t just will power to overcome everything. The Judge, trying to get them to consent told them, that some things like cancer and brain tumors happen and we don’t see symptoms but they can thoroughly affect the brain and life… The parents never did concede. Those were strange moments as I watched all that happen. I didn’t eat lunch except one day last week and crashed for the first time ever on a training run, a nerve wracking event with the Livestrong marathon two weeks away, and the marathon itself two days before my 8 hours of neuropsychological testing happens. The neuropsychologist wants me to note what differences I have and I’ve been trying to both by self analysis and asking friends (the self analysis shows some of those memory deficits that I’ve noticed like when I pour orange juice for Kiana and drink it and then remember that it was for her or when I forget the jogging route on our marathon run. The language ones keep happening when I’m supposed to come up with unusual words, the most recent one being where I could see the word but couldn’t grab it but knew it started with an A… after a few moments I gave up but someone called it correctly. Of all the words, it was altruistic). But I’ve also asked that he point me in the right direction as he did last year but I know that sometimes I’m slow in recognizing self change when injured, trying myself to willpower it to a better place. Last year, as I struggled with IT band problems, my physical therapist couldn’t push my right leg down no matter how hard she tried and I couldn’t hold my left leg one up with her pushing no matter how hard I tried. Sometimes the mind can’t over power the body…and sometimes it can. Where the balance lies we’ve been trying to figure out for a long long time.

When all this happened, I joined some parent meet up groups, some divorced meet up groups and some cancer ones (went to more running than the other 3 combined, focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. Like the surgery, I may never know conclusively whether that was the right or wrong path.). The honest truth is that while I went to very few but was fascinated by the experience of so many of these things where we look for that human connection. In the end we want to believe that we have someone who gets us but perhaps as McRoberts said “I am alone, you are alone, we are alone, let’s be alone together.” I don’t get anyone perfectly and no one gets me perfectly but I’m glad to have enough rhymes and rhythms where there is some great occasional harmony. I threw a super bowl party where there was a large crowd with a huge range of people and I was grateful for the connections and harmonies.

The interview with Livestrong is a few days away and then they are going to post a link to my blog off their website and inviting me as a guest blogger. I’ve thought about going through and editing and I may still try to clean up some of the typos and add pictures but no content will change. Of all the angles they could have gone with, they are focusing on an entry I wrote about whether or not the way I handled cancer pushed someone I loved away. Life is odd.

As I’ve shared this with a few friends and acquaintance, I keep getting asked about Lance Armstrong. I understand he’s a controversial figure but I don’t think anyone is particularly critical of Livestrong’s mission. But I get asked about whether or not I think he doped and I don’t know but I keep thinking about his quote: “People keep asking what I’m on. I’m on my bike six hours a day.” I am out training for a marathon, sometimes with a group, sometimes with a running stroller. That’s where the work is done, not on race day. I don’t know if he was on anything else and I’m on anti seizure medication but pounding the pavement is where I have to keep pushing for the marathon. And frankly, while overwhelmed at times, broke at times and frustrated at times, I am starting to maintain happy. Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.

So who knows what’s coming in neuropsychological tests and MRI’s and marathon results and relationship and parenting and finances. And who knows if some of the reasons for changes in any of this are even discernible… And it may have its reasons but it will never have my rhymes, those rhymes being amazing people that the universe has leant me (I’ve always said only really good people can be my friends because only a good person can tolerate me). But at those tests and those MRI’s and that marathon and everything else, people have helped, so maybe in each of those I can just be grateful that in everyone of them, we are alone together.