Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The fragility of life

About two years ago, my uncle had what he thought was a raging case of hayfever, allergies, etc. Constantly coughing. Hoarseness. "Stuff" all in his nose and throat around the clock. He put up with it for months thinking some OTC med would eventually knock it out.

When nothing really helped, he finally relented and went to the doctor. Diagnosis? Cancer.

He was diagnosed with cancer of the epiglottis. Of call the places one can get cancer, I've never known anyone to get it there. Fortunately, the doctors were able to treat the area with heavy rounds of radiation. My uncle was zapped pretty much every week between September and December 2008. In January 2009, he was deemed cancer-free. The radiation was successful.

Or so we thought. Last Friday, April 16, I got the call. The cancer has returned. Its now in both lungs and in his brain. Worse yet, the oncologist said it was terminal.

They plan to give him a round of radiation on his brain beginning today (April 21, 2010) with the hopes of shrinking whatever lesions or tumors he's got up there. If he didn't undergo it, he was told he'd have about a month to live. If the radiation is successful in shrinking the tumors a bit and if some early rounds of chemo are effective, he's been told he may have up to 6 months. Depending on how he reacts to on-going chemo, he might have about a year - max.

He is my mother's younger brother. They have two older brothers. My two older uncles and mother are a good bit older than their younger sibling. While all have had their own health issues, all are still alive and in pretty good health all things considered. So its pretty stunning for everyone to see their kid brother who was a bit of a "surprise from heaven" to my grandparents likely being the first to go.

While I'm not happy with this turn of events, I've found myself pretty composed so far. He and I are really close. When he went through his radiation two years ago, my aunt asked for all of us to limit our phone calls to him. His throat was pretty raw, and his voice was weak. I respected her request and got my updates through her e-mails or via my mother. This time I'm not sure what I'm going to do. Everyone is going to want a few minutes, hours, or days to visit with him before he is gone, and my aunt clearly is going to want to maximize her time with her dying husband.

I visited him most recently in February when I was in town as part of a work trip. But that was just a normal visit. The game was different than it is now. Or is it? Is that altogether a bad thing if it turns out that was our last visit? We spent about 3 hours eating dinner, drinking a couple of beers, swapping stories, laughing, wringing our hands over certain political events, etc.

That's probably how I should act if I'm fortunate enough to visit with him again before he is gone. Would it do either of us any good to spend hours talking about cancer and death? I imagine he's going to have plenty of those conversations with other family members, friends, his wife, his docs, his minister, and himself.

Rather than dwell on his cancer, his treatments, or his looming death, I plan to think of as many ways he positively affected me as I can. Crying doesn't come easily to me. I'm not a songwriter, poet, or painter so crafting my inner thoughts into lyrics or a piece of canvas is out for me. So just ticking off fond memories is about the best avenue I've got to deal with it.

I can't possibly think of all of them now, but here is a starter list. Now way am I hustling him out of this world before his time, but I'm going to start blogging a few of these from time to time as they pop in my head.
  • He was the first relative to treat me as an adult vs. a kid when I was a teenager. My "promotion" from the kid's card table to the adult dining room table at Thanksgiving was due to him.
  • My mother kept me on a short leash when I got my driver's license. But once when my uncle flew into Nashville, he recruited me to drive him to my grandmother's house in his rental car - some 80+ miles away. He taught me about making sure I accelerated on the entrance ramps to blend into traffic and to move to the left to allow other cars to blend into their lane. I wish he could give everyone the same guidance because rarely do today's drivers follow either tip.
  • He got me my first Richard Petty postcard of the STP Charger. He mailed it to me from Florida in the mid 1970s, and I still have it.
  • He took me to my 1st Daytona 500 - 1980 - when Buddy Baker won.
  • My first trip to Hooter's was with him. San Jose Blvd in Jacksonville, FL. More than a mouthful indeed.
  • It was at his house in 1991 after we had a large time at the Firecracker 400 NASCAR race where I had the "too much country" nickname hung on me.
  • His refrigerator always seemed to have an endless supply of cold beverages. With every visit to his current house from 1984 until February 2010, his welcoming words to me: "Hey, how ya doing? Wanna beer?"
  • He taught me a lot about professionalism in the workplace. For example, true professionals don't wear yellow shirts.
  • When I was in college, he opened my eyes a lot about politics and the direction this country was headed.
  • My first dinners of blackened redfish and etouffee were with him.
  • He explained to me the differences in various types of red and white wines. He opened my eyes to enjoy it, match it with a meal, and try wines other than what my budget allowed at the time (e.g T.J. Swan's Easy Nights).
  • I lived with my aunt and him for two summers during college breaks and worked at a warehouse in Orange Park, FL. We frequently stayed up until 2 AM on Friday and Saturday nights drinking beer in the dark on his patio. We talked careers, sports, politics, and relationships. Sometimes we just sat in silence for a few moments until both cans were empty and time came from a fresh one, a bathroom break, or both.
An even dozen. That sounds about right. A dozen doughnuts. A 12-pack of beer. A dozen oysters. The 12 disciples. Good place to end it for now.

But speaking of doughnuts and oysters, let's make it a baker's dozen.
  • I first ate freshly shucked, raw oysters with him and his father-in-law in 1984. Those first few certainly took some getting used to, but I ended up eating a ton of them that night.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Washington DC

A couple of weeks ago, the family vacation was to one of those obligatory destinations - Washington DC. Isn't there a short list of "must visit" places all families must eventually go? Orlando, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, the beach (plenty of latitude granted here - can be any beach), Washington DC?

Our itinerary went something like this...
  • Sunday - Shear Madness show at the Kennedy Center
  • Monday - International Spy Museum (very interesting), Holocaust Museum (very disturbing), Jefferson Memorial
  • Tuesday - Tour of the US Capitol, Duck tour of DC and a splash in the Potomac, National Botanical Gardens
  • Wednesday - Smithsonian Museums of Natural History and American History
  • Thursday - Newseum (very cool and most up-to-date of all museums we visited)
  • Friday - Air & Space Museum on the Capital Mall
  • Saturday - National Gallery of Art, Lincoln Memorial
We stayed in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. In old times, a lot of transportation was by horse and buggy. In contemporary times - especially in big cities - trains are used to move people and freight. And they run...a in all night...and just outside of our bedroom window. The Metro, CSX freight, Amtrak, some sort of Virginia commuter line, etc. While we were there, I couldn't care less what kind of song Todd Snider's friend wanted to hear. I wanted to sleep at night rather than hear the rumbling of the tracks and blaring of the signal horns.

As always, I took a lot of pictures the first couple of days. But then, I tried a different strategy this trip. My kids are old enough now to know how to handle a camera. So by day three, I turned it over to them to take pictures of whatever they wanted. I took it back just every so often for a particular shot I wanted.

So while I could share all sorts of shots such as how the cherry trees were in bloom...

...or how the Tidal Basin cherry trees framed the Jefferson Memorial...

...I'll instead present some alternate views of DC rather than continuing with pictures and commentary you've likely seen and heard a million times before.

As I mentioned above, the most up-to-date museum we visited was the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. It focuses on how the media has covered key news and pop culture events both domestically and abroad.

In particular, three exhibits truly stood out from the rest.
  • One was a collection of Pulitzer Prize winning photos. I've seen many of them over the years, but to see them all together was pretty stunning.
  • The second was the 9/11 exhibit featuring some unbelievable photos, headlines of the tragedy in dozens of newspapers from across the country, and the remnants of the transmission antenna recovered from the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center.
  • The third was the section of the Berlin Wall on display. The wall facing West Berliners still had all the graffiti. The reverse side of course had nothing much on it at all as East Berliners didn't exactly get to spend their spare time doodling political messages on the wall.
When I last toured the Smithsonian Museum of American History two decades ago, I was amazed at all the cool stuff they had archived. Archie Bunker's chair. A full set of the 4077th from M*A*S*H. Richard Petty's STP Pontiac he drove to win #200. Don "Big Daddy" Garlits' Swamp Rat dragster. Linotype typesetting machines similar to what my dad used when he started in the printing business many decades ago. And so on.

We stood in a queue for about an hour to view the pop culture exhibit. When we finally got to the top of the line, two realities hit us right between the eyes:
  • One, a sign announced the pop culture area was being re-done and to enjoy the few exhibits they had available. All they had on display was Archie's chair, Dorothy's red slippers from Wizard of Oz, Apollo Ohno's Olympic skates, Brian Boitano's Olympic skates, a Kermit the Frog puppet, and a mask from the Broadway production of The Lion King. That's it.
  • Two, my kids neither knew who Archie Bunker was or even cared to know. When we told we were disappointed the other stuff wasn't on display, all we got were bored looks and yawns.
An hour to see just four or five things - and things the kids didn't give a flip about anyway. Man, I felt like such a dumbo.

In just about any US city I've ever visited, I could swing a dead cat in any direction and hit a convenience store to get a single beer or two - but not in Old Town Alexandria. I asked various staff members at our condo joint about any nearby 7-11 or the like. None were within walking distance. So instead of paying $7-$8 for a six-pack, I ended up buying individuals each night at the neighboring Hilton bar for $7 PER.

The nearest grocery store was Whole Foods. You know the place - the grocery store where guilt-ridden, Birkenstock-wearing, dirt people can buy overpriced, generic, organic Cheerios. Yet even with that stereotype in my head, I was hoping even these folks could enjoy a cold brew. Oh they could alright. For about $11 a sixer, I could enjoy a gluten-free Red Bridge beer. No barley or wheat! What's the matter with these people?

I thought this picture might be a good candidate for Fail Blog.

As my son and I strolled 23rd St. between the Foggy Bottom Metro stop and the Lincoln Memorial, I spotted the Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy window-unit air conditioned building at George Washington University. I don't know about you, but when I think Jackie O. I automatically think "cool". Am I right?

As difficult as it was to score beer at a convenience store, it was comforting to find it in abundant supply at the Austin Grill restaurant on King Street in Alexandria. My eyes also immediately found the Joe Ely Big Combo. Of all the Texas songwriters, it seems Joe would be one of the last ones to have a meal named after him. But he did, and I got it along with a couple of Shiner Bocks to wash it down.

St. Mary's foggy bottom? Hmm, just a suggestion Mary. Maybe you should cut back on the broccoli and bran muffins. I mean I'm just sayin...

This painting in the National Gallery of Art...

...reminded me of the scene in Animal House toga party right before Belushi pulls his best Pete Townsend imitation.

And this painting...

... reminded me of long-time Grand Ol' Opry performer Little Jimmy Dickens.

The Magic Gourd? OK, this one is yours. Be original. Be creative. Take the high road or go to the gutter.

I'll wrap it up by saying the view from the top of the Lincoln Memorial steps never gets old. I could sit there for days. Though I've gotta admit I did have a faint vision of Robin Wright Penn traipsing through the reflecting pool calling out "Forrrresst!" and my yelling back "JENNY!"

All in all, it was a good week. For the first time in about four years, we took our vacation without my in-laws. So in that respect, this trip was a great week. And that's no bull...