February 23, 2007
Starts with a cold; doc notices elevated white blood cell count, swollen lymph nodes. Then biopsy confirms diagnosis: chronic lymphocytic leukemia. Doc says the cancer is indolent. Recommends watchful waiting.
A New Kind of Weather
And so it comes to this:
a gray-white cirrus
trapped in the bowl of the Yuba’s
canyon green forest
and I stare down
into an impenetrable soup of air,
It’s clear enough
the weather is changing.
The wind chimes go almost raucous
in their pentatonic scale,
as doe-brown, newly leafed limbs of oak
bend backwards in a sudden gale,
and three new words dance strangely
in a strained assonance
indolent lymphocytic leukemia.
They rattle about in my brain
while I stand still
before the coming storm.
Watchful Waiting, One Year Later, September 16, 2008.
PET scan detects hot spot on 7th rib. Lymphoma has come up through the bone. Radiation treatment successful.
Watchful Waiting, April 16, 2009.
Scan reveals new aggressive mass behind and above lungs, transformation of CLL into diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Time is of the essence; it came up fast.
What It’s Like
for Dr.Bill Newsom
The shock of being struck,
blindsided, as they say,
in the middle of an ordinary day
in the middle of a discussion
with my son and his wife
when the Asian girl runs a red light,
hits us at speed just
as we are making a left turn
for the freeway home,
That’s what it’s like,
that piece of bad news,
that word coming at me out of nowhere,
the kind doctor’s lips still moving,
the surprise of it
knocking me off course.
I get out of the car,
see the girl is in shock,
want to put my arms around her.
“Where did I come from?” she stammers.
“My name is Shi Yi Lin.”
There are no easy answers.
She keeps touching her knee.
She’s a pretty girl,
with a lovely name.
No More Watchful Waiting
April 22, 2009.
Chemo begins a few weeks after removal of swollen lymph node in my chest. Surgeon goes in through my back with camera, scalpel, and tongs. Deflates right lung, moves it out of the way; severs, then removes the lymph node. Says afterwards that he got all of it.
Day one: Drugged. Slept. Helped out of bed to pee. A hard stick in my back.
Day two: Vacuum tube sucks air from lung cavity; with effort, lung expands. Get up, take one step at a time; slowly walk down hospital hallway wearing white gown and blue slippers, hold onto silvery I.V. pole, jar and attachments clank against pole, metallic, cold. Turn around. Breathe. Walk back. Collapse. Take more pain meds. Sleep.
Day three: Morning: practice taking deep, difficult breaths, inflating lung. Afternoon: removal of tube; sitting on the edge of bed, nurse easing it out of my back; trying to relax; breaking out in a cold sweat; gripping the covers with both hands.
May 7, 2009.
First day of “R-CHOP” infusion. Bad reaction. Chills and itchy rash. It’s the drug, Rituxan, the “R” in “R-Chop,” the new one, the one that can kill you. They stop. Start over. Slow the intake; 800 milligrams looks like a quart jar of it; mixed and coded just for me; hangs upside down by my bedside; drop by drop, it enters me.
Watching the slow drip, drip, drip of the drugs. Puts me in a meditative state, understanding surrendering. Nurse asks again my birth date, and I am reminded of the carpenter’s code: measure twice, cut once.
Total infusion time: 8 hours.
May 10, 2009.
Almost normal for two days; on third day, it hits, hard; eyes dry, sclera red; bright light impossible to bear.
Start a sentence, lose the thread. Doesn’t seem to matter. I walk outside, eyes closed. Feel the sunshine. Carry my mind before me, hold my body steady, carefully, each is somehow now separate from the other. I listen, but the world seems far away, out there, distant, like I’ve fallen into a gravity well, a black hole. Sensations arrive like messages interrupted in transit, bound for elsewhere, clumsily translated.
May 12, 2009.
White blood cell count low, blood pressure very low. Lost seven pounds. Restricted to house. No guests. Immune system compromised.
Asleep. I am asleep, yet I am awake. Like the Mars explorer, Spirit, I’m hibernating, all systems down, on drift, watching: cold fog swirling around, on a distant planet, waiting for the return of the sun.
May 20, 2009.
Walk fifteen steps, twenty, uphill, to front yard fence, mailbox. Breeze brushes against my cheeks, my hairless head. Stop. Two cheerful notes, a bird’s song, a robin; stiff legged, he hops twice, alert, in the grass. A squirrel crashes above us, leaps limb to limb in the treetops. I close my eyes. Listen. Hum of insects. Bees. Big black bumble bee.
Mind somehow distant from my body, sounds filter through, the day an untouched pond, quiescent.
It is what it is,
cannot be denied.
I am alive,
and I am witness
to the green sheen
of tree moss
in winter rain,
than a lizard’s hide,
and soft and furry,
and growing outside
my bedroom window.
Because it can.
Because it’s the same
neither more nor less
II. Second infusion.
May 21, 2009
This time we are prepared. Acutely passive. Unresisting. It takes seven hours.
My body adjusts. Gail, my wife, my advocate, is by my side with warm blankets; Gail reading from a novel, THE BOOK THIEF, a story told by an omniscient author, Death, who always does what needs to be done and explains why things happen the way they do. The dice are rolling. I have no say so. I go on drift.
Night. No sleep. Feel poisoned. Everything hurts—arms, legs, chest, lungs. At 2:00 a.m. I give up; take the pain meds; sleep.
May 22, 2009
Drugged. Slept late. Functional, but harsh pain, sticks in my eyes.
Lunch brings a sudden onset of hiccups. Food tastes terrible; will not stay down. Everything hurts. Throat aches. Ceaseless bouts of hiccups.
May 25, 2009
I begin to wonder: how much does my body know? Is it dying? How much do I, apart from my body, know?
Two sessions and I am discovering what the nurses refer to as a period of “nadiring,” the bottom of the curve, when the killing is at its peak. I imagine the drugs are killing all the rogue cells that my immune system couldn’t or wouldn’t kill. The fight rages on within, and I can imagine all the dead and dying cells piling up, cellular waste, clogging the system, the waste of the war inside me, like trench warfare, a war of attrition. All the dead and dying bodies. Is there a tipping point?
Gail shaves her head. Her beautiful red hair, gone. She places her life inside mine, comforts me. Naked nurse by my bedside. Two bald babies, we sail on.
May 29, 2009
Feel breakable. But Gail is also becoming fragile. We must be careful with one another. Her hair gone, she seems apprehensive, distrustful of attention. We say we haven’t changed, that we are still the people we used to be, but we are each other’s mirror, reflecting fears. How bad is it? The telltale signs of just how we are losing ground. Even as we struggle to be normal, the costs are visibly with us. I fear some of our wounds will not heal.
(A Conversation with Myself)
If I told you, you have cancer,
would you separate out, body of mine,
from me, this self, this mind
that listens and argues for wakefulness
in all things?
Take that orange flame of a rose
for instance, the one on our doorstep with a perfume
redolent of sex just before orgasm
when merging is the only possibility
before you have to separate.
I think the mind is the flower of the plant
If I told you, you have cancer? You do.
You know it too. You’re suffering.
But we are still whole. Here,
let me comfort you: something happened,
a damaged cell, unrepaired, not your fault.
Someday we will have to separate,
but not now. Today we start to take this walk together,
you and I, a trek across the desert, carrying a back pack
of chemical poisons. They are assaulting you.
I accept it, you must too.
On a good day, our flower is open.
Listen, I can spread my words on the wind,
for the passing stranger,
for the ones I love the most.
III. Third infusion.
June 18, 2009.
Open a vein, get the drip going, watch the flowers droop, fall down in the weeds, wait for the hallucination; it doesn’t come; the doors of perception do not open.
June 27, 2009
Gail and I visit Berkeley’s botanical garden to see a blooming corpse flower from Sumatra. Blooms once every four years. Blood-red blooms. Prehistoric. Smells like rotting meat.
Safe in our Sierra Nevada
cool mountain breeze, listening to the
hot tub bubbling around us, we lie back
pink in the last of the daylight,
watch a pale green praying mantis
strike a tai-chi pose, become a twig
an uninvolved stick,
a part of a leaf on the deck,
and then as I’m about to speak
the mantis, nature’s ninja,
blurs like a film in fast forward,
snags a black bumblebee from flight,
drags it to a sudden stop.
But then the counter movement of life
swirls before the death bite,
and I watch the diaphanous wings
And as the black bee takes the air,
something inside me sees
a second chance,
the life I have not yet lived.
IV. Fourth Infusion.
July 9, 2009
Waking with a bad feeling. Indigestion, nausea. No sleep.
Weak, wobbly. Eyes hurt, bright light impossible to bear.
July 12, 2009
Attempted to go to the movies with Gail, son Nate, and two grandkids, Nick and Clay. On entering the darkened theatre, I suddenly can not see anything. I stop. Wait. After a few minutes Nate returns, takes my hand, and leads me to a seat. But then, as the movie starts, I can see again. The movie, “UP,” a kid’s movie that seems to be about dreams: the ones you think you have that you can share, the ones you brought with you from childhood, the ones imposed on you from the outside, and the ones you actually get to have because you are who you are.
I’m wandering about in a Berkeley fog, at night under reflected street lights, by Spats on Shattuck Avenue, and then later at People’s Park. No one’s there. And then at Cody’s book store after a poetry reading. Empty. Everyone’s gone. Telegraph Avenue is also empty. A lost location dream.
Promises To Keep
Fog falls over the coastal range.
Heat heaves off the ground.
At the end of the day, in waves,
cold, ocean-gray mists
drift down damp
over my green yard.
My eyes dim as
I stand at the window
witness the blue shift
from sunshine to shade,
to impenetrable gray.
At the end, my grandmother was blind.
She shuffled through her house, her fine
gray-brown hair wound tight in a bun.
I slip into the life of this moment,
lose distance, perspective. My sense of time
disappears. Inside, in the quiet,
I wait for a word I cannot say.
I have gone on drift,
afloat in changing weather. Today
the burdened old apple tree lost a limb.
Outside, a hawk cries out for its mate.
V. Fifth Infusion.
July 30, 2009
Drugs suppress my body’s reactions to the pain, the nausea, the vomiting, but leave me elsewhere. Not here.
August, 5, 2009
Have fallen into invisible gravity well, a black hole that no one can see, only witness the last event horizon, things that happen outside me. Voices drift in toward me, but no one knows where I am, unseen. All my normal habits have collapsed.
Losing the Light
As if you’ve been thrown
like a stone,
skipping across moments
the surface tension,
the rings circling outwards
from where you have been,
leaving you behind
in the here and now.
as if you are being pulled under,
beneath the surface of a lake.
But you are not drowning.
Only a seamlessly closing down
and the world is still outside
in the growing distance.
And while there is no pain,
there remains the ordinary day
all around you,
and so you ask your wife,
What happened to the light?
Though dead and unhappy with his end, my father comes to lie down beside me to listen to my worries. He’s put away his stand-offishness and become congenial, a friend, who’s willing to be understanding about my cutting classes and being unprepared for the final exam. We lie together in our bare feet, unwilling to get out from under the warm covers.
Just who is this father figure? I guess I invent what I need, forgiveness for being unprepared for the test before me. My father, because I never pleased him. A poet, I could not be the football star he wanted. We fought until he died. Now, 15 weeks into my chemo therapy, he visits me in my dreams.
January in August
This is no time to be struggling
in sand. Seasons are mere smudges.
Erased like ashes on one’s forehead.
Dreams fall through these empty nets.
There is no reason to wait
for reasons to become clearer.
The moon will have its way.
Whenever I choose to think, drifting
deeper, that I can give in,
or purchase a peach,
or not see or be
willing to understand,
I come back, and I almost remember
the way lizards and skinks sleep
and wait to lie in the sun
and I tell myself nothing is wasted,
VI. Sixth Infusion.
Day 7 of my last infusion. I lie down. I stand up. I lie down again. I wait. I don’t feel like this is end game. Not yet. But I do feel as if I’ve been yanked out of my life, like a fish pulled out of water, trying to find my way back into the stream. So one more week, and then my PET scan, and we will see what we will see.
How I feel: like water turning, just beginning to spread out, running uphill, no wind, but running uphill, beginning to flatten out, pebbles glistening under a flat surface, yes, steadily rising from an upwelling pressure, from increasing volume, seeping upwards, percolating, yes, new cells rising up, yes, from my bone marrow.
Appearing in the sky, a great
gray-blue heron, size of a small child,
drops down out of the wild, lowering
feet, knobby knees, and he swings
in a backwash of wings to a stop
on my rooftop.
Next to the chimney, on stilts,
he flaps once, then smoothes
his near-black feathers
into a tight-fitting coat
all around him.
I sit and stare. I am not alone.
The oncologist has phoned.
My scans are clean.