By mid June of 2006 I had already undergone six weeks of radiation treatments, which included carrying a chemo pump that was attached to my body through a needle inserted into a port surgically installed just under the skin on my upper left arm. Earlier that same month, on my 41st birthday, I had undergone a surgery to remove significant portions of my body as well as to create a stoma on the left side of my lower stomach where my colostomy would reside.
All of this had been necessitated by the January diagnosis of stage III rectal cancer after what I had been assured would be a routine colonoscopy to detect the source of some bleeding I had experienced. I was told by my doctor and the gastroenterologist that it was likely nothing more than a hemerhoid gone wrong. I wanted to believe they were right, but in the back of my mind I felt as if there was more to it. After all, someone has to be diagnosed with these horrible kinds of things otherwise, well, they wouldn't exist. Right?
That June I was flat on my back unable to move except for very short walks as the pain from the surgery was excruciating. The radiation had turned my skin and inards into something close to vinyl, which was irritated and very slow to heal. The surgery created an inch diameter incision on the left side of my belly as well as an incision that went from my belly button down to just above my pubic patch in the front and an incision in the back that went from about two inches above where my anus used to be into the bottom of my scrotum.
Helping me deal with all of this was my mother who spent her time talking with me when I was awake and reading or watching a little TV when I wasn't. It actually was an incredible experience to have so much time with her. I love her very much and she really is one of the sweetest women on the planet, so despite the circumstances, I enjoyed her.
One morning that June mom checked my email and read aloud one that I had received from Automotive Quarterly, a magazine that published stories on rare and interesting antique automobiles. About a year prior I had sent them a query and given up on hearing anything back from them, but the email was to ask if I would write the story I had pitched. I told my mom that yes I would and to send an email saying as much and asking when they wanted it. Fortunately, they gave me a couple of months so I did what I normally do when I get a new assignment, which is to worry about it and get anxious.
There was nothing I could do, though. I couldn't do more than seek out a few contacts and send preliminary emails because sitting in my hard chair at my desk was something I simply could not do. Through my mom I sent some emails and received some responses and began to create a list of contacts and set up interviews for when I hoped I would feel better. As June became July I was still in considerable pain and developed some issues around the surgical scar. I also was having problems adjusting emotionally and physically to my colostomy, but I kept at the story in little bits and pieces. By August I had conducted a few interviews and felt close to being able to sit down and write the story.
The magazine was paying me $2,000 for a 4,500 word story with two sidebars. It felt good to have it hanging over my head, but at the same time I worried about finishing. I thought in early August that since the chemo that I tool with the radiation didn't affect me too much--certainly less than the radiation--that I would be able to work through it. Then I went for my first chemo treatment. Laying again on my couch, unable to move and my mom back home, I was as sick as I have ever been in my life. The drugs made breathing difficult at times, especially if I was exposed to anything cold. Ice or a cold glas made my fingers feel as if they were being sliced by razer blades. My body hurt. I couldn't sit up for very long and I felt a nausea that affected my entire body. I called my parents and when I heard my mom's voice I simply cried out of shear frustration, feeling as if I had fallen so far back and death became even more real than it already had been.
I also worried about ever being able to finish the story and whether my brain would have the juice needed to write and write well. Taking all of the chemo and pain meds and anti nausea drugs and everything else felt as if I were searing my synapse and I felt dulled and slowed and like I couldn't think as well as I used to. As the chemo would continue for the next 18 weeks, this sensation of losing my intellect, or at least my ability to express it through writing became more insistent and caused me greater anxiety.
Two weeks later, mid August, I went for another treatment, but this time I didn't take the drugs to prevent nausea and some other side effects. Instead, I returned home with the chemo pump attached to my port (for each treatment I would have the pump for three days) and a modest amount of marijuana and a bottle of Adavan. These were my aids. They didn't take the pain away or the sensation of not being able to breath or the sickness, but they did take the edge off. After smoking a single hit, which is all I would take at any one time, I could eat and while not entirely function, I was able to exist. I was also a little high and that helped too.
Toward the end of August I began to finish the interviews and research and had a folder of materials that I felt was enough to write a pretty good narrative. I was worried that my brain would be dysfunctional and the words would take forever to find and not be all that good, but I kept scratching away at the reasearch and developing a basic outline. During this time a friend mentioned that she was going to a yoga retreat on Star Island, which is one of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire. It has an old hotel that is run by Unitarians and where a wide range of meetings and conferences are held. I had heard it was beautiful out there and so very quiet. She asked me to come with her and said I could sign up for the yoga courses, but that I wouldn't necessarily have to do them. There was no way I could of as I was still waiting for my incisions to fully heal.
I was scared to go and thought with all that I was going through it would be a risk, but I felt too that I needed something like that and I needed to live a little as I went through this experience so I said yes. I signed up for the conference and paid my due. I packed my research and outline for the story as well as a yellow legal pad and took them with me. The timing was perfect as my next chemo round would be the Monday I came back from Star Island.
I met my friend and we boarded a reconfigured lobster boat and rode out to the hotel. Pulling into the small harbor you can see a green yard that flows up toward a large front porch and the very large facade of the hotel, white with a bit of paint pealing here and there. I climbed off the boat and new that the porch with its very many rocking chairs would be my office for the next couple of days.
She went off to her yoga and I sat in an oversized rocking chair with my yellow legal pad and coffee and simply began to write. The car I was writing about is owned by an older family friend and is a Lancia Belna Eclipse. It is a beautiful car designed before the war by Georges Paulin, a French designer of tremendous talent who was killed by the Nzis during the war for helping with the Resistance. My friend had found the car in a dilapidated condition, but with the help of a professional antique car restorer, nursed into beautiful condition. The narrative arc of the story followed Paulin and his story and cut in and out to describe the modern effort by my friend to restore the car.
For two days I sat in that chair. My friend would venture by to check on me and hold my hand for a bit and then off to her next yoga class. I wrote and enjoyed her company and paused now and again to talk with others on the porch and enjoy the sensation of life, the beauty of the quiet ocean spread before me and the feeling of words flowing through my pen onto the pad. And I finished the story. It was good too.
We returned late Sunday afternoon to land and the real world. I had that evening to enjoy feeling reasonably okay before returning the next morning for more chemo. As time progressed I got sicker and sicker and did for a bit lose my ability to write easily. I could write a little, but my body and mind simply could not respond to what I wanted and I spent hours in bed, nearly unable to move, sick and in pain, but by then the story had been sent. When it was published, my friend's daughter-in-law said it was taken as truly an act of love.
Causes James Buchanan Supports
Expanding health care in the US, ending war as a viable tool of foreign policy, and issues related to social justice in general.