Jun 15

A Shiny New Normal # 12

By mid-September, I could carefully maneuver most places with a cane, albeit a bit tipsy on occasion.  My legs still fought me over stairs, but I showed them who was boss with some fancy cane and rail-holding techniques.  My mouth worked somewhat with what now could be mistaken for some sort of slow drawl (neither Southern nor charming, I should add).  One of my lovely neighbors showed me how to hide my shining baldness with a bit of wiggery and creative scarf tying.  When she finished with me, I looked like a Gypsy preparing to read the future.

I was ready!

I was more than ready to get back to my office with its fast-paced challenges.  I could walk.  I could talk.  Certainly, I could manage sitting at a desk.  I could do it.

But here’s what I couldn’t do:

  • Count on a static, boring life from now on.
  • Fix my eyes on any one star and claim it as my true north.
  • Know all those future dimes on which my life could turn.

Every morning — when my eyes opened once again — I managed to locate the day’s pure possibility.  Maybe I no longer jumped out of bed, but rather carefully positioned my legs, gently talking to them before asking them to stand and carry their load.  Maybe I was more thoughtful before allowing my mouth to embarrass itself.

Maybe through the removal of 6.5 centimeters of brain tumor, I gained a 6.5 centimeter hole ready to be back-filled with whatever might become of this shiny new normal.  There were new paths to walk, gentle words to let fall like petals along those paths.  My goodness, I needed to occupy myself with the business of growing back a few wisps of stalwart hair.

Since July 6, 1994, everything that has issued forth has come from a dark roundness, slightly larger than a golf ball, deep in the bottom of my brain.  Every step.  Every word.  Every action and every precedent thought.  When I was still in the hospital, a friend said to me that I seemed a different person.  I would agree.  I am a different person; I’m now imbued with a certain knowledge that making something good out of something really bad isn’t a choice — it’s a necessity.

Understand, I never expected to have a brain tumor.  I never thought I’d fall through that Wonderland of rabbit holes and nonsensical outcomes to end up fifteen years later still here.  Five years ago, I was honored to serve on a Survivors’ Panel at the National Brain Tumor Association’s annual meeting.  I attended one particular session given by a well-known doctor in the field of neurology.  After mentioning that the average time between diagnosis and death for a brain tumor patient is eighteen months, he was asked by a shaken and frightened woman how he handled telling people they were going to die.

“I never tell anyone they’re going to die,” he said, pointing to me.  “I always figure you’ll be the survivor, the one who will well outlast us all … and I treat you as such.  Yes, the statistics sound grim, but every patient who walks into my office is my latest survivor.”

Now and then, I hear a miserly little voice that wants to convince me to feel bad because I was one who beat the odds.  Survivor’s guilt, it’s called, and it’s a ridiculous waste of emotion.  In my case, every lemon was squeezed into lemonade, but not necessarily by my own hand.  My tumor was found.  It was operable.  I was fortunate to have a brilliant surgeon whose hands were not satisfied until every remnant of tumor was removed.  I was lucky to be a paycheck-to-paycheck working girl just wanting to keep a roof over my head.  Being not of means propelled me to get out of bed and work, work, work so I could get back to work, work, work.  I had family, neighbors and friends who were selfless enough to look after me during those early days.  I had colleagues who were generous enough to give me the time and money needed to get — literally — back on my feet.

Finally, I had a good stubborn Irish heritage that taught me to see beyond what could certainly be considered a blighted heap of disappointment and rather, keep digging for the “good potatoes.”  If it was one twitch of a stubborn leg, I held on to it like a nugget of gold.  If it was one intelligible word, one follicle of hair, one moment aside from the crushing fear that surrounds the word, “tumor,” I took it.  I took every small thing I could.

The cumulative effect of any good moments, however small, eventually outnumbered the bad days.  I was different, for certain, but that “shiny new normal” hasn’t been so bad at all.  Here’s what it’s like for me now, fifteen years later:

  1. I no longer need wheels or sticks to get around.  Instead, I have a grand “fuzzy cane” in the form of a Labradoodle named Wilson.
  2. I can converse with the best of ’em now — just ask my beleaguered husband — he’ll tell you so.
  3. I almost have some hair … almost.
  4. It took five years, but I can now close my eyes and bow my head without spinning out of my seat with dizziness.
  5. My imagination and curiosity have led me to a writing life of quiet pleasure.
  6. In some ways, I wish I’d had this type of “normal” all along — I could have skipped all those youthful indiscretions and not been like Annie singing It’s a Hard Knock Life at the top of my lungs.
  7. But then again, I wouldn’t change a hair on my little hairless head.

I’ll end this narrative now to resume my regularly-scheduled programming of zipping around from one topic to the next.  That’s what my new brain does.  It zips!

I’ll leave with this, however.  Last evening, I attended a dinner to help raise money for a young single mom whose six year-old daughter is nearing her last days because of a brain tumor.  Six years old!  I have no good words for the brutality of that situation.  I only know that some of us survive; some do not.  And that shiny new normals sometimes seem neither shiny nor welcome, but rather, cruel and incomprehensible.

There is no sense to be made of tragic illness — either yours or that of someone else.  I hold no answers.  I don’t even know the questions.  I only have an experience to tell and, with that, if anyone gained even a small hope from these twelve short posts, then yay!  Hold on.  Sometimes that Donna Summers I’m Gonna Live Forever song contains the only sense to be made of it all.  I’m gonna learn how to fly, the song lyrics say.

So here’s a last thought:  Do your best to learn to fly.  If your wings break, fly in your thoughts.  If your brain breaks, fly in your heart.  If your heart fails, as eventually they all do, then let’s all meet up in that grand Somewhere Else where we can cheer each other on and EVERYONE can display their brand spanking, sparkling … Shiny New Normal.

Stay well, everyone.

–Auburn McCanta

Jun 10

A Shiny New Normal # 11

I spent all of August and part of September helping my one Amazing, Fabulous, Glorious Over-Achieving Brain Cell recruit others in kind of an Amway-esque pyramid scheme.  You get five friends and they get five friends and down the line, we’ll all be grandly rewarded.  Every day I bumped my way down the stairs and into the swimming pool for the Auburn Pool Wall Clutching Method of water aerobics.  At this point, I should mention that I absolutely HATE cold pool water.  Even in August with triple digit temperatures the norm more than the exception, that water felt like ice cubes down my neck.  But through gritted teeth, each day my legs found more confidence.  By mid-August, they were taking steps without my having to tap them first.  I still recited “left leg, right leg” in my head, but on a good day I didn’t have to tap at all and occasionally I’d even screw up the courage to let go of the side.

Without telling the doctor, I graduated myself from sitting endless days in a wheelchair.  By the end of August, I got around with a walker and even tempted fate now and then wobbling about in my apartment with a cane.  There was always a wall or piece of furniture on which to steady myself and if I fell … I figured someone would check on me eventually.

Ahh, there’s nothing like a dwindling bank account to propel one’s legs (and brain cells) toward excellence.

I worked on my mouth too.  In the delightful cool of those evening summer Sacramento Delta breezes, I sat on my small apartment patio and read books aloud.  I started out with the heavy slur of one who might have suffered a tragic stroke.  My tongue and lips were on permanent slow-as-you-go and the task was to speed my speech enough that others could understand me.  For example, a quick Hi sounded more like, Hiiiiiiaaaaahhh.  It felt like enunciating in a vat of mud.  But once again, I wondered if there was one Bright, Amazing, Over-Achieving Word-Loving brain cell willing to wake up its sleeping neighbors.

Yes, all through August and half of September — every day — I walked in water.  I read through mud.

My hair jumped into the game and valiantly tried to resume its rightful place on my head.  Sadly, the score was Head – 1, Hair – 0.

Nevertheless, I was a pool-walking, mouth-moving whirl of baldness under a baseball cap.  And as my father might have said … Life, she was Good!!!

Jun 07

A Shiny New Normal # 10

Thank you for your patience during this uncharacteristically long intermission.  We now resume our regularly scheduled program, already in progress.

The day following my free-wheeling, jibberish-hollering, whooptie-do through the winding corridors of my apartment complex, my helper decided that I was a handful too large for her small hands.  With her lips pursed into what looked like the top of a drawstring bag, she backed out of my door without explanation.  None was necessary.  She’d signed on to take care of me before she found out that I would wake up one day with such enthusiasm that I couldn’t help but make her an unwilling participant in my vociferous, unintelligible shout-out to anyone within range.  My behavior had been neither demure, nor proper and I couldn’t blame her for abandoning her post.  She’d been hired to cook, feed, clean, wipe, tiptoe and silently read.  She had no idea I wanted a party!

So I was helper-less.  But I wasn’t helpless.

Word spread quickly that I was now a lone wolf in need of a pack.  The apartment ladies organized a meal briggade and the guys were handy in helping me out of bed and into my chair.  Now instead of one helper, I had more help than I knew what to do with.  After just a couple days of all that neighborly hovering, I sent everyone away with huge thanks and a brave grin.

I had a refrigerator filled with fabulous home-cooked meals and I was able to scooch myself in and out of my wheelchair easily.  (Remember, I wasn’t paralized … just disconnected between brain and legs.)  I was able to stand, sit and scoot myself around fairly well.  Little niblets of hair had begun to give my head a good five-o’clock shadow.

I.  Was.  Awake.

It was August now and the pool below my balcony was busy with swimmers and lined up with swim-suited sun lizards all greased up and nicely frying on their lounge chairs.  Sacramento is a heat-lovers’ delight in the summer with its triple digit days and balmy breeze-filled evenings.  The pool below was a blue magnet.  It called to me.

Auburn.  Aaauuubbuuuuurrnnn.

When I could no longer stand hearing the siren call of that beautiful blue pool, a wild thought flashed through my now tumorless brain.  If I could get into the pool, and hang on to the side … maybe I could convince my legs to move.  Maybe there was one over achieving brain cell that still knew the Macarena and was able to teach its neighbors.  Maybe those legs of mine could dance yet.  The equipment was all there.  I just needed to turn on the electricity.

The stairway to the pool was just two steps from my door.  Literally.  Two steps.  I wheeled myself to the door, opened it and with a deathgrip on the doorframe, I stood.  I was so close to the entry to the pool, I needed nose plugs to keep from inhaling that fresh, cool water.  Holding the doorframe with my right hand, I let my left hand flutter to the side of my leg.  I patted my leg.

“Left leg,” I said aloud.  “Left leg.”

My left leg took a small, halting step.  Damn!  Hooray for one good brain cell, I thought.

I was now halfway to the top of the stair railing.  Just one step to go.  Precariously reaching my left hand toward the top of the railing, I bravely let go of my grasp on the doorframe.  If this didn’t work, I was about to do a serious taa daa trick down a long flight of very hard cement stairs.

“Right leg,” I quivered, tapping the leg with my right hand.

My right leg took enough of a step that my left hand was then close enough to grab hold of the stair railing.

I did it!  IdiditIdiditIdidit!!!

Except now I was at the top of a flight of stairs.  I could just as well have been on the moon.  There was no way I could “left leg, right leg,” tap myself down that stairwell.  So, I did the only reasonable thing for a bald-headed, jibberish-speaking, rubber-legged woman.  I sat down on the top stair.  Then I butt-scooched my way down those hot cement stairs, across a ten-foot expanse of only slightly less- hot cool deck and all the way ino the shallow end of the pool.  That glorious, butt-cooling, leg-encouraging blue expanse of pool.

With one hand on the side and a grand look of relief on my face, I took one big water step to the cheers of an incredulous audience and the crowing delight of my one Amazing, Fabulous, Glorious Over-Achieving Brain Cell.

Jun 01

A Shiny New Normal # 9

For three weeks I slept.  Except for a few now-and-then spoonfuls of soup or jell-o, I slept — sometimes quietly, sometimes with the small sounds of one in discomfort falling over the bridge of my lips.  Prescription pain medications gave me horrid bed spins.  My only help was a couple of Extra Strength Tylenol every few hours.

Then on a Wednesday morning, three weeks to the day after my surgery, I woke up.  Not the dreamy half-awake I’d been in, but rather, a vibrant awake that shook me with its awareness.

I.  Was.  AWAKE.

I could hear a bird outside my window.  I could see sunlight without wishing for it to be dark.  With my new post-surgery slurry words and diminished volume, I called for my helper.  “Get me into my wheelchair,” I said.  “I want to go outside.  The garden.  Please.  A bird.”

Twenty minutes later, we emerged into the morning.  My apartment overlooked the pool area with its carefully-maintained flower garden.  With some effort, we bumped my wheelchair down the stairs and out to the garden area.  I looked up.  Toni’s apartment was in the building next to mine, also over the garden.  It was in that garden and across our balconies that we had become friends.

“Toni,” I called from below her balcony.  “Look at me.  I’m awake.  Hey, Toni Baloney.  Look — I’m awake!”

It was Wednesday morning.  Toni was at work, but I called out anyway.

When it was clear that I was getting nowhere yelling up into Toni’s balcony, I switched to a different thought.  “Take me around the complex,” I said.  “I want to take a walk.”

“You’re sure?  It’s hot.”  It was evident from her turned-down mouth that my helper was uncomfortable with my behavior and “hot” was a good excuse to take me back to the relative obscurity of my apartment.

“I’m sure.  Take me around.  Please.”

With a shrug of resignation, my helper wheeled me through the winding corridors of the apartment complex.  There I was — bald with a Frankenstein scar running from ear to ear across the top of my skull.  Although I had feeling in my legs, the connection between brain and leg had been misplaced.  Further, the connection for clear, distinct speech was also missing.  I was a garish little bald woman with a horrid scar being wheeled through an apartment complex, yelling gibberish out to anyone who might be within earshot — a magnificent smile plastered to my face.

I.  Was.  Awake.

The following day, my helper quit.

May 31

A Shiny New Normal # 8

The body is a brilliant creature.  Every system, each organ, the totality of its container and all it contains is designed for survival.  It fights.  It flees.  It heals itself with near miraculous efficiency.  It grins and grimaces through it all, but nevertheless, the body moves through each day breathing and beating.  Rivers of fluids travel back and forth, up and down, expertly through miles of corridors all in perfect balance.  Cells grow, die, are replaced or sloughed away.  The body contains thought, imagination, dread, elation.  It restores itself within its own dreams.  The body is a vessel of strength.

The body is also frighteningly fragile.

With my head carefully wrapped, tubes dripping life-sustaining fluids to keep all my innards in balance plugged into my arms, while other tubes removed unneeded fluids, I must have looked a sight.

Yet, there was my friend, Toni — her face two inches from mine, cheering me on, telling me I was beautiful.  Some time later, she told me that I looked luminescent.  “They gave me glow drugs,” I told her.

The glow was from a fever, but there was a dripping medicine for that.  I had a moaning headache — another drug helped with that.  I was allergic to the first two seizure medications — they offered a third.  Eating was a difficulty — they had someone who did nothing but hold up spoonfuls of soft food for me to take in like a baby bird.

On the third day after my surgery, it was deemed I was past the danger point for brain swelling or hemorrhage.  Home care was arranged for me; I was loaded into my wheelchair and sent home to recover.  They needed my hospital bed on which to lay another bandaged head.

Three days!

Yes, the body is brilliant.  Sparklingly, brilliantly, crazy fierce.  And fragile.

May 30

A Shiny New Normal # 7

The night before brain surgery is supposed to be a fitful tracing along the corridor of one’s past; an examination of a life before its intersection with an event that will forever change the examiner.  For me?  I slept.  I was all out of prayers and last chance thoughtfulness on my own behalf.  I’d made my peace, settled my affairs, given away what tangibles I had.  I was ready.  I would wake, or not.  I would be changed, or not.  There was heaven, or not.

The following morning, July 6, 1994,  was a bustle of needles, last-minute questions, IV solutions, checking and re-checking my armband.  Was I who I said I was?  Was I the craniotomy or the appendectomy?

At last cocooned into soft blankets, with a final good luck pat on the arm, my gurney was threaded through corridors, elevated two floors, and landing softly next to a surgery table.  One, two, three … lift.  I was transferred to a table (its cold truth instantly screaming up my back) where life was to be transformed.  I would wake (or not) with a very bald head, 6.5 centimeters of growth completely removed (or not) from deep inside my brain and (hopefully) a rounded space left behind in which to fill back up with imagination, personality and a brand new essence of whatever would be.

Thank God for good drugs.  I needed every drop of mind-numbing liquid available in the anesthesiologist’s quiver.  Frankly, I was still scared in spite of my previous night’s reconciliation with all things brain surgery.

Eight hours of surgery later, I was quietly wheeled to an ICU for careful monitoring.  They’d be looking for evidence of brain swelling, bleeding, complications.  I didn’t wake until the following morning.  Slowly, I was aware of something like a stocking cap fitted over my head and the worst headache I’d ever experienced.  But this was great!  I woke up.  I hurt like hell.

I was alive.

In my face, I could barely make out the features of my friend, Toni.  “You did it,” she cooed into my floating, wandering, fuzzy eyes.  “And you should see yourself … you’re absolutely beautiful.”

“Sssaahh,” I said.  Yay, I meant.

Apparently the mouth sleeps longer than the eyes.

May 27

A Shiny New Normal # 6

With a big squirt of Valium sluicing its way through my body, it seemed there was no end to the “wheee” on that surgery table ride.  Surrounded by a staff of hand-patters and atta-girlers, the process of finding a blood source to my brain tumor was nearly delightful.  But then again, that depends on whether you’re the embolizer or the embolizee.  Being in the latter role, my job was to turn my head as directed, breathe, don’t breathe, hold still, move, be very, very still, sniff back threatening tears.  The injected dye gives one the sensation of heat.  Hot heat.  Liquid lava hot heat.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t so bad.  After numerous camera angles and grimacing poses under the bang, bang, bang X-Ray machine, the radiologist came out from his shielded position behind a large protective screen and pronounced me done.  “I’m done?” I asked.  “Did I live?”  Good old Valium — the drug of silly mouths and ridiculousness.

“You did great,” the doctor said.  “The good news is, we didn’t find a blood source to your tumor.  But then, the bad news is we didn’t find a blood source.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, trying to be serious in spite of the happy drug still bubbling through my body.

“It means my job was easy today, but your surgery tomorrow probably won’t be the easiest.  It means your tumor will be much harder to remove, but then again, you won’t have as much worry about bleeding into your brain.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“Half good, half bad,” the doctor said.  “We’ll hold good thoughts.”  Without belaboring the point any further, he disappeared to wherever radiologists go when they’re done dropping bombs onto drugged-up women.

For the next twenty minutes, one nurse applied vice-like pressure to the opening in my groin, while another nurse — the one apparently assigned to patting hands — patted my hand.

Now nicely bandaged, I was moved to my room and instructed to stay still in my bed for the rest of the day so my groin wouldn’t open and geyser all over the place.  Oprah and copious Popsicles helped my body stay quiet.  I can’t say as much for my mind that seemed to still bang, bang, bang like that X-Ray machinery.  Not even Oprah could stop me from thinking about that good news, bad news pronouncement over me.

Toward evening, the surgeon stopped by to give me a smile and a thumbs-up.  That was nice.  I figured he’d been informed of my little blood-supply-to-the-tumor issue, so I just smiled and gave him a return thumbs-up.  It was all in his hands now.

His amazing hands that were brave enough to enter the nether regions of people’s brains every Monday and Wednesday morning.

I was his Wednesday morning.

May 26

A Shiny New Normal # 5

July 4, 1994:

The day before I was to enter the hospital, the dear folks in my apartment complex got together and threw me a surprise “It Was Nice To Know You” party.  Hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill with all the fixings.  Tubs of beer (I wasn’t allowed) and sodas (make mine a Coke, please).  I lolled on a lounge chair beside the pool like I was Queen of Something-or-Other, while the peasants partied around me.

After dark, we lit fireworks.

Everyone figured it was my last day on earth, and they behaved as such.  Someone gave me a stuffed pillow in the shape of an angel.  Someone else clipped a rangy bouquet of flowers from her patio garden — she couldn’t look at me, but just stuck out her offering before quickly shuffling back to the barbeque grill to obscure her disolving face inside hamburger smoke.  Everyone drank a bit too much.

It felt like I was presiding over my own wake and, in spite of not being able to crack open a beer in solidarity with the now blurry-eyed, swaying, partying group, I was having a blast!  It was a true Irish wake for this soon-to-be either very dead or very different Irish girl.

Holding out a sparkler to write my name on the night, I had never been so happy as I was in that moment.

That happy queen of the world feeling lingered a while longer as I made the next morning’s 5:00 a.m. hospital sign-in.  My surgery wasn’t scheduled until the following day, but this was prep day — which included the scariest test one could ever have the pleasure of receiving.  I was to undergo an angiogram to search for any blood supply to the tumor in my brain.  Through a major vessel in the groin, a line is threaded through one’s body and up, up, up into the brain.  Once in place, photographic dye is injected and its course followed via special X-Ray machinery that tracks overhead and bang, bang, bangs along its course of scenic picture-taking.  When a blood source to the tumor is located, an expanding gel-foam material is injected, thereby giving the patient an embolism to cut off the blood supply.  Yes, I said, embolism.

Before the test commenced, the radiologist gave me a run-down of all the quirks and oddities of purposely giving a person a brain embolism.  The stand-out feature of this swell little procedure is that (as the doctor explained) they miss their mark half the time, causing all sorts of fun brain thingys such as strokes and sudden death.  After hearing the ultimate in TMI (too much information), I was handed a gown and told to meet them in the surgery room after I’d changed.

Whoo boy!

I went to a small bathroom where I was directed to change, softly closing the door and taking a quick look at my reflection in the mirror.  I sure didn’t look like someone about to be embolized into eternity.  I changed, then reached for the doorknob to head into the surgery.  A funny thing happened on my way to that surgery table, though.  No matter how hard I willed it, my hand absolutely refused to open the bathroom door.  I was stuck between the physical toilet and the proverbial toilet.

In that small bathroom, with just enough room to turn around, I performed the only reasonable act in my small arsenal of tricks.  I fell.

My legs buckled and I fell onto my knees.  Damn, this was dumb.  They were supposed to work on my head and I was about to present them with two skinned knees that seriously needed boo-boo bandages.

It’s interesting how one becomes suddenly spiritual when given the choice between schmoozing with God … or not.  There on my very skinned knees, with hands that refused to open the bathroom door and a crew of doctors and nurses waiting on me, I did the ultimate, yet quick, suck-up to God.  “Okay, God,” I said aloud into the small echoey space where I knealt between the sink and toilet.  “If you’ll be so kind as to make a brilliant doctor out of that man who’s out there waiting to poke things into my brain, I’ll do my part and trust.  I’ll stand up and open the door and we’ll get this thing done.  Deal?  Deal.”

With that, I stood, opened the door and climbed up onto that Table-o-Fortune for what promised to be another turn on the ride of my life.  Ready or not, there I was.

Tomorrow’s episode:  Say What?

May 25

A Shiny New Normal # 4

Diagnosis night I took my MRI films to show off to my neighbor and friend, Toni.  We drank tea and made up the lamest brain jokes we could devise.

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


Brain who?

Hahaha.  Fooled ya!  Lights are on but nobody’s home.

We were a couple of adolescents making up ridiculous jokes and spitting tea through our noses with each successive knock knock through comedy land.  We did our best to ignore our terrified faces and trembling fingers.  The goal was to laugh and forget and make the night go quickly.  It worked.

The next morning I met with the surgeon who would remove the top of my skull.  He was a gentle person with magic hands that dipped and swirled into the brains of his patients every Monday and Wednesday morning. The rest of his days were spent convincing the likes of people like me that we wanted his hands in our brains.

He explained the procedure, carefully guiding me across the chasm of pitfalls and the sheer gravity of brain surgery.  I listened carefully to every sentence.  His words were meant to comfort, inform and soothe.  In succinct language, he outlined what was to become my new normal:

  1. If all goes well, you’ll need a permanent wheelchair.
  2. Your speech will most likely be affected.
  3. You’ll have seizures the rest of your life.
  4. The biggest immediate dangers will be brain hemorrhage and swelling.
  5. You may have personality changes.
  6. Sudden death is likely.
  7. I can give you a face lift if you want when I close up.

With the thought of useless legs, slurry speech and sudden death clanging in my head, I stupidly said, “Don’t worry about a face lift.  I’m still young and I just want you to save my life.”  WHAT?  What woman in her right mind would turn down a free face lift?  Already, my mouth was betraying me and I hadn’t even entered the hospital.

Surgery was scheduled for three weeks hence, which would give me time to give autologous blood for the transfusions I would most likely need.  At least two pints would be my own blood returned back to me.  I ordered a nice blue wheelchair to match my eyes … and carefully wrote out my will.

Except for during the initial shock of diagnosis, I didn’t cry.  Not once.

Over the next three weeks, I stayed very busy.  My first task was to reconcile the disappointment that I wouldn’t be going on to finish my law degree.  Although I’d completed my AA with a 4.2 average (with an undetected brain tumor squatting in the bottom of my brain, I might brag), my college days were over.  I was to be a word-slurring, wheelchair-riding flunkie … IF I survived.

If I survived.

I arranged for temporary disability payments and, swallowing hard, informed my office of my condition.  All this time, I’d quietly kept my medical issues to myself.  My colleagues were stunned.  They offered to loan me the difference between the puny amount of money the state would pay in disability and what I was currently receiving in my paycheck for the next six months.  We created a legal agreement (leave it to attorneys!) and I gathered my desk items together just in case I didn’t return.

Then they gave me a cake and a Get Well Soon card.  Nothing like a brain tumor party to perk up the ole spirits.

Still, those pragmatic California water law attorneys sat with me in the conference room, fidgeting with their feelings, but nevertheless smiling, patting my back and passing around slices of triple chocolate cake.  Damnit!  Those suckers made me cry — they gave me a loan to help me survive financially.

These unlikely people helped me forget all the pondering over who and what I might become once the lid of my brain was pried open and all my contents were revealed.

They gave me a cake.

That afternoon I called the surgeon’s office and requested that he play classical music in the operating room.  I said I wanted gentle stuff.  I also asked him not to utter “oops” at any time, for any purpose.  I reminded him that my brain would hear everything he said.

Next, D-Day minus one.

May 24

A Shiny New Normal # 3

A herd of deer congregate each morning and evening on the golf course outside our hotel room.  We stand on our second floor patio, holding a glass of wine, and marveling at their tender habits.

I wished to take it all back — the MRIs, the too-kind receptionist, the serious dark eyes of the neurologist as she seated me at her desk, my hands trembling on my lap.  I knew something was wrong because everyone was too nice and although Sacramentans are known for their good nature, there was an undertone of pity and I knew it … I knew it.

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but you have a very large brain tumor,” the doctor said, her face pinched with the gravity of her words.

The drive to San Antonio from Phoenix takes about fourteen hours and travels through flat Arizona Sonoran desert terrain to the uniquely beautiful Texas hill country.  We delay the gratification and stop slightly more than halfway in Van Horn, Texas.  I do most of the driving because I seem immune to fears of threading our small car through the gamut of 18-wheelers on rain-slicked hilly roads at 80 miles-per-hour.  I’m fearless.

Terror hit me.  My hands wanted to cover my mouth to keep it from crying out.  Instead, they sat quivering in my lap.  I suppose my eyes widened, but I said nothing.  How could I?  What does one really say when a doctor hands you a 6.5 centimeter brain tumor?

She slapped an MRI image into a light box and pointed out a roundish lit-up area.   She explained that my tumor, although larger than a golf ball, was, nevertheless, in an operable position.  It squatted deep at the bottom of my brain and, from my perspective, didn’t look so … what did she say? … operable.  By then, my eyes had filled with tears.  She came around the desk to pat my hands, which only made my eyes flood more.

Below street level, the San Antonio River runs through the center of the city.  It’s the famous River Walk and we’re excited to explore its myriad shops and restaurants — a tourist trap for sure, but still it’s rife with history and color.  We follow a winding staircase down and step into a guided gondola with a gum-chewing jokester at its helm.  Halfway through the tour, we decide we’re trapped on a boat being wheeled around by a smart-mouthed pipsqueak.

I left the neurologist’s office with an appointment with a neurosurgeon scheduled for the following morning.  I carried with me an armload of MRIs and a mouthful of jokes to replace my earlier tears.  Brain jokes.  Tumor humor.  A staggering comedy act hardly fit for the days ahead.

I didn’t want to scare anyone.  I was frightened enough for us all.

Tomorrow, we’ll explore the staggering importance of a steady-handed neurosurgeon.