Thursday, June 22, 2017

Everything We Need

The Flying Dream

At breakfast you tell me your dream:
You are swimming in the ocean.
It is warm and calm. You move
effortlessly, like a ray.

the way I fly in my dreams

Soft water glides along
your skin in a caress.
You shimmer. Kelp touches
you like a lover’s fingers.

it’s becoming my dream

You have no need to breathe.
Amazing fish, coral, sponges,
anemone all welcome you.
The undersea joins you in dance.

like the music in my dreams

But when you surface you see
only water and sky. No waves
point the way to an invisible
shore. Nobody comes to

where am I?

your rescue. Nobody hears
the calls you don’t make. In
the giant ocean you find yourself
lost, alone, complete, serene.

At the Movies

You walk into the movie late.
You are not sure why the tattooed guy
is so angry at the old guy
who might be his father,
and why he winked at the girl
on the elevator.

Not sure who are ex-lovers,
who the tattooed guy is whispering to
on his cell phone,
why the cute blonde is mocking him,
or what anyone does for a living.

Everyone seems upset about something.

At night they all meet at a restaurant.
“You can’t get away with that,”
the old guy says.
The others seem to agree.
His apparent wife nods, drains her glass,
and heads for the bathroom.

They all leave. It’s raining. They go off separately.

You feel you should be taking sides
and check the lighting and music
for a clue about how to feel.

This happens to me every day.

            Everything We Need

The deer snorts and I turn, in my hand
a just-sprouting-legs tadpole moments ago
raked from the pond while I scooped

string algae, and as I glance from tadpole
to deer’s antler nubs, reddish coat,
flanks thin from a cold spring, and he

stares back at me, bends to nibble
tiny buckthorn I should pull from the woods,
and he grazes past the poison ivy I sprayed,

ferns moved up from the fen to behind
the hickory tree, and I say, “Stay, but
don’t eat the flowers,” the cat emerges

from behind the woodpile, creeps
closer to the buck, who looks from me
to the leaves to the approaching cat

and then back to the leaves he snatched
from the redbud we were hoping to save,
and his jaw moves narrow and loose

as he stares, chews, stares, looks back
at the stalking cat, lowers his nose to her,
a tawny white calico blending with

the reddish tan deer, both enclosed
in deep green shadows, dark brown
path and woodpile, vertical rainbow

of gray, brown and green trunks,
diagonal sunlight slicing the air
of our woods, and I balance

our whole life in this one moment
then drop the tadpole into the pond,
and the buck carefully walks away,

lifting his feet high, and the cat
follows him, until all that remains
is everything we need.

Thursday, June 15, 2017


            Kim and I are underway in the long process of healing from her back surgery, and this week we started to treat this latest attack from cancer: first radiation, and then whatever medicine the oncologist suggests.

            We have asked our doctors about the prognosis. The word is derived from Greek words meaning “before” and “know.” This origin is misleading. Our future with cancer, wherever or however it might pop up next, is not at all known, or even knowable. The definition of “prognosis” includes words like “probable” and “likely,” and our doctors use words like “might,” “may,” “possibly,” “as long as” and “several years.” These words are a long way from “know” in the root of the word.

            The word “gnosis,” interestingly, means “knowledge of spiritual mysteries,” which appears oxymoronic because aren’t mysteries mysteries because they are unknown?

            But still, that word “know” lingers as a troubling reminder of how far from really knowing we are. We are living with uncertainties. Of course, we have always been living that way, but now we are more aware of it. There was always the possibility that we would get hit by a bus, or that a refrigerator would fall out of an airplane to crush us while we were going for a walk. But this uncertainty is different, largely, in my case, because the course of our lives had seemed pretty secure, even including the certainty that we would grow old and die. And then cancer jolted us off the rails.

            There are some near-future uncertainties:

·      How will Kim respond to radiation? So far, nausea and fatigue, which she is fighting through.
·      Will the upcoming PET-scan show more cancer in Kim’s body?
·      How quickly will the pain subside?
·      When will we be able to remove the rented hospital bed from our living room?
·      How long will Trump stay in office?
·      When will the idiots get dumped from The Bachelorette?

            But there are larger uncertainties, too:

            Two of our docs said that with metastasized cancer, we can never say that we are “cancer free,” or that we are “cured.” One said that the situation is more like “managing a chronic illness.” Think diabetes, fibromyalgia or arthritis, two of which Kim has been “managing” for many years. “Managing” sounds like a good thing, and Kim is a good manager. But “cured” sounds a whole lot better. What will it be like to manage her illness? We were given descriptions of possible medications in our future, each with about two pages of side effects. The description said the side effects would end when the treatment ended – which in our case would be never. Genne’ suggested that we research the probabilities of each side effect for each medication, stated as percentages, but that information is very hard to find. Instead we find words like “common” or “rare.”

            There is also uncertainty about where will we live, and how will we live there? We are going ahead with our plans to build a home on Torch Lake – that’s one of Kim’s passions – but what will it be like to live there if Kim’s recovery is not complete – and how can it be complete with stage 4 cancer? At the same time, we are looking at houses with Alice because it's a lot easier to buy a house than to build one. And if recovery is complete - her disease "managed" - then there is a good chance that we will become old. It happens. Then what?

            Perhaps the quantum physicists are right. In Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment, a cat is trapped in a box with a vial of poison that is released when a radioactive atom randomly decays. You cannot tell if the cat is alive or dead without opening the box. Schrodinger argued that until you open the box and look inside, the cat is neither alive nor dead but in “an indeterminate state.” We are the cat in the box. Always have been, but we are just now realizing it.

            Kim said the other night, with a wisdom that is typical of her, “Whatever happens, I want to do it with grace.” If anyone can, she can. “Grace” is one of my favorite words.

            Coming home from a session of radiation therapy I picked up the mail. It included an ad from a local funeral home. I said, “Fuck you!” and gracefully tossed it in the trash.

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Thursday, June 8, 2017


            The word “passion,” I recall from my teaching career in a previous life, is derived from a Latin word meaning “suffer.” That should have warned me.

            Experts on aging advise how important it is to have a passion in your life. I’m not sure it’s as important as regular exercise or flossing, but it’s close. These experts are experts in staying young. Their passion is giving advice.

            My wife has a passion for photography. I encouraged her in this passion – I believe the correct term for me is “enabler” – by buying her an inexpensive digital camera. She began indulging her passion by snapping pictures of my face as I was undergoing plastic surgery following melanoma surgery. She soon moved up to grandkids, high school kids in saggy costumes, the moon, manhole covers, and construction workers.

            Passions really become dangerous when they merge with other passions. You know – like drinking and gambling. Kim’s passions really started heating when her newfound zeal for digital photography merged with her longstanding zeal for birds. This soon led to a need for an improved camera, one designated “SLR,” which I believe stands for “shoot, look, reject.” Then there was a bigger telephoto lens, then a better SLR camera, and currently being shipped, an even bigger telephoto lens. So it goes. We have some great photographs of birds, and Kim recently won a prize. It’s a photograph of a horse, but we were looking for birds when she took it.

            You know how addicts frequently try to hook others onto their addiction? So they can say, “See – I’m not the only one whose life is consumed by this. So, shut up.” The logic here is a little sketchy, but you see my point. Well, Kim is trying very hard to get me hooked on photography.

            So far she has had limited success – limited because she underestimates my technophobia. She is dedicated to learning how to use all the dials, buttons and “menus” on her camera. Now, I know what a menu us, and I can usually deal with it unless it’s in French. But no matter how patiently she explains this stuff to me, after about six words it just slides off my brain, out my ear and onto the floor. Of course, it does me absolutely no good to realize that Kim experienced the same frustration but managed to push through it one step at a time through trial and error, asking her birdphoto-buddies, and finally, reading the manual. None of these approaches really appeals to me. I’d rather point and shoot with her first simple camera and hope luck brings a nice image onto my sensor. As I said, photography is her passion. She reads photo magazines and camera manuals in the bathroom; I read fiction.

            But Kim is difficult to discourage. She praises my pictures whenever she can, saying that I have “a good eye.” I realize that my eye is not the problem – it’s the camera/brain interface. She also has designated her pre-upgrade SLR camera as “your camera” and is exploring the best tripod for me to purchase. She’s already bought me a couple of shirts that are great for bird photography, and soon I’ll have an “outfit.” She’s convinced that if I really try photography, seriously, I’ll get one great shot, realize what all the excitement is about, and be hooked. Other people had the same theory about why I would take to golf, but I never hit that great shot. I do have an OK one of bugs on a “No Swimming” sign, but that’s a long way from bird photography. Kind of like miniature golf and golf.

            I enjoy using my binoculars, a wonderfully low-tech device. What I don’t enjoy is lowering my binoculars to grab the camera also hanging from my neck (along with my bag with spare batteries and “cards,” along with water and a candy bar), remembering to turn it on, check the ISO and aperture, remembering to remove the lens cap, see if the image stabilizer is on, decide if I want manual focus or auto-focus, and perhaps also check the white balance and maybe set it up for bracketing if the lighting is weird. By the time I do all this, the bird has migrated to northern Canada, and I’m left with a clear shot of an empty sky or perhaps some smudgy bushes. Still, I’m content with my plodding progress with “my camera.” Low expectations help.

            But don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy photography. Just not my own. I have to be reminded to download my images onto the computer. I occasionally enjoy taking photographs, because a camera, like binoculars, helps me pay attention. But I lack the passion. I love the slide shows Kim presents on the computer after she has narrowed down the day’s 300 shots to a manageable 25. And I love being out in the woods or on the prairie with Kim, enjoying her enjoyment. I love being her spotter. While she is looking at something through her viewfinder (if that’s the right term), I’ll see a small brown movement in the bushes or a distant flapping speck and shout “Bird!” and point. Come to think of it, that’s not very different from what a bird dog does.

            Does Kim’s passion for bird photography help to keep her young? I believe that it does, especially when she awakens me at five in the morning with the news that there might be birds waiting for us out by the bridge, and the coffee is made. Or when we’ve been out on the prairie for a few hours – she hauling her camera with mega-lens and the attached tripod, me dragging behind with my binoculars and candy bar – and she says, “Oh! Let’s try this side path! We might see a Purple Gallinule, and the light is perfect. It won’t take long! Are you getting tired?” That’s the sound of passion.

If you have any passions you'd like to share, write me at

From Jerry Shimp:
Dave, my passion has been flying since 1958. On Tuesday I got to fly a P-51 (WWII Mustang), something I have dreamed about for 50 years. One of the great moments of my life.

Thursday, June 1, 2017


            I learned at lot at Amherst College, where the ideal graduate was described as “the Whole Man.” The means to this end was the Core Curriculum of required courses and distribution requirements. Nursing was, decidedly, not part of the Core Curriculum. I’ve had to that learn on my own.

            Wound care is definitely part of nursing, and I have successfully observed the hospital nurses, and then Genne’, change the dressing of Kim’s foot-long incision down the center of her back. My education was successful, as when Genne’ left on Wednesday, Kim’s wound no longer needed a dressing. Now I will watch for the steri-strips to fall out, a task well within my skillset.

            Kim has to be very careful with her newly repaired spine. One of the doctors said she should avoid BLT: bending, lifting, twisting. Kim is fortunate to have me around to help her get dressed. This is harder than it looks. The first time I put on her socks I put one on inside out, and then I had to decide whether I should match the second one to the first or take it off and start over. I put on her pajama top backwards twice, but to my credit I did not put it on upside down. Kim is working hard to dress herself.

            Kim is going to have to wear a brace for several months. Fortunately, this is not the turtle-shell device we feared, and she does not need to wear it when lying down, which is most of the time. A good nurse knows how to put on and then remove the brace. She has to put it on when lying down, which involves her log-rolling (hips and shoulders on the same plane) while I reach the device around her, in a nursely embrace, and then clip it shut. This act resembles a hug. Kim, my independent woman, is learning to do it on her own.

            Then there are the bathroom related activities – not easy while observing BLT. We bought Kim a deluxe wiping device that looks a lot like the toilet brush that Kim bought for me, thinking I would clean the toilets, with a place to clip a wad of paper. We took it back. Kim found a way. My job as a nurse was to flush the toilet because Kim can’t reach back or down to do it.

            Showers are another BLT challenge. I watched Genne’ give her mother a shower using the showerhead on a hose that I installed ALL BY MYSELF. Kim is a modest woman, so I tried not to look, focusing instead on the process and the equipment. Afterwards, Genne’ suggested that we hire someone to come in twice a week for the showers. She knows her mom – and me – pretty well. I would not consider this a nursing defeat because, after all, I did hook up that showerhead. Randy thinks I might enjoy bathing Kim. We’ll see.

            Genne’, of course, was the real nurse for the week she was here – caring for her mom, analyzing her pain as a gifted physical therapist and then dealing with doctors to try to come up with the best solutions. She also coached Kim on the best ways to move, sit, recline, get up from the toilet, get into a car – all those daily motions that most of us take for granted. Then there was the occasional affectionate massage and the ongoing words of encouragement, paired with alerts that she had better take a rest.

            And Scott came up to give her a break from our nursing. He took his mom for a walk outside, which for Kim was a spiritual experience.

            Kim has been resting and sleeping on a rented hospital bed in the living room. It features a continuously inflating mattress that provides a pulsating surface that eases her back pain (somewhat). It also provides a sound track for our new life: the continuous hum of the air pump punctuated by shrieks and moans that the mattress emits when it’s pumped too full or Kim moves suddenly. Or it may be our haunted mental institution speaking through the mattress.

            In some ways, things are slowly getting back to normal. Kim and I have resumed going for walks, though they are usually in the hall outside our door with Kim driving her walker. And we are just about out of carryout leftovers and gift casseroles, so Monday under Kim’s direct supervision I fixed mac and cheese – a success even though I’d bought Swiss cheese instead of Cheddar and topped it with slivered almonds. My efforts sometimes amuse her, helping her healing.

            And Sunday she spent the night in our bed instead of the hospital bed in the living room, and I briefly made love to her right arm. Nice to wake up with your wife in bed with you!

            On top of her ongoing pain and her feeling helplessly bedridden, Kim worries that I will resent all the caretaking I am doing – which is about half of what she has been doing daily for the last 26 years. No worries, Kim. Nursing, however clumsy, can still be an act of love.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hang On

            Kim may be surprised to learn that taking care of a house requires a lot of work. While she has been doing her brave and painful thing in re-hab, I am doing her thing in our condo. Where my previous duties involved taking out the trash, getting the mail, helping make the bed and drying dishes, now I have to do a bit more.

            The toaster, for example, does not shake out its own crumbs. I have to do it! And the mold in my shower does not simply die of old age and then evaporate. No! Who knew?! You get the idea . . ..

            Before you get to feeling too sorry for me, I should note that with Kim’s encouragement, I hired Olga to come in and do the cleaning. She put in four hours on Tuesday, and to her credit, she didn’t make any comments about the quality of my cleaning in the weeks before she arrived. (One of my duties is “floors,” which I take to mean “visible parts of the floors.”) She mopped our cork floors using diluted white vinegar – something I’d read about but never tried. Kim is coming home today. I’m trying not to spoil Olga’s handiwork.

            Then there is cooking. So far I have gotten by with breakfast cereal, peanut butter sandwiches, and the meat loaf and chicken salad that Abbey thoughtfully donated, paired with carrot sticks and red wine. Saturday was my first real cooking (if you don’t count toast): bacon and scrambled eggs. For dinner.

I pause here to veer off in a different direction.

            I miss her. Even when I’m enjoying my bachelor solitude, I miss her. Kim is in a rehab facility about 200 yards from where I sit, and I’m not there, and I miss her. When I clean the condo, I try to do it to her standards – knowing I will fall short, but I try. (When I had to ask her where she kept the big bucket of cleaning supplies, I was embarrassed and she was not surprised.) When I go to bed at night, I fold down the blanket on her side, as if she were going to join me.

            And today she is coming home, but it won’t be to our old life. I have been working to prepare our condo for her arrival – shopping for a hospital bed, raised toilet seat with rails, grab bars (she does not want chrome – preferring brushed nickel – appearance not being my primary concern), and we moved my old reclining Archie Bunker chair out of storage so she can sit at an angle that does not damage her back. She will be using a walker for months – Marsha loaned us a deluxe model with large wheels and a place for camera gear, but still . . .. She is in so much pain – Monday was her worst day yet – with her repaired spine so fragile, that hugs are dangerous and thus avoided. Genne’ arrived Tuesday, and with her loving expertise Kim has made major improvements, but her pain is still my pain.

            And then yesterday, when I became visibly frustrated because I could not get a human being on the phone so I could resubmit our application for a handicapped parking tag, Kim had me lean over so she could comfort me! “I’m supposed to be comforting you,” I told her, fighting back my tears.

            No road trips for us in the near future. And how are we going to build that house on Torch Lake? Kim has to be involved in the process, but there is so much pain, so much limitation of movement, so much fatigue. And even when she has healed, or partially healed from the surgery, there is cancer that needs to be treated, and we still don’t know the precise nature of her cancer and thus the kind of treatment we will undergo. Together.

            And yet, and yet – she phoned me yesterday morning to say, “I have an idea!” Let the next adventure begin.

            “Uh-oh!" I said. "Hang on - here we go!”

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Funny? Not Yet

            “Some day,” Kim said, “we will be laughing at this.”

            But not yet.

            Kim is on heavy painkillers to control what her surgery has done to her. Her nurse, Marva, said that her body thinks she has been in a knife fight – it doesn’t know the difference between a scalpel and a switchblade. On Saturday while she was eating breakfast she fell asleep with a spoonful of raisin bran halfway up to her mouth. I removed the cereal bowl from her chest. Funny? Not yet.

            And two days after surgery when Genne’ and I showed up in her hospital room, Kim raved to the nurse about how handsome I am and how beautiful Genne’ is. True, of course, but it was a potentially funny moment with the drugs doing much of the talking. Not quite funny yet. I wonder if I can get hold of those drugs . . ..

            Before her surgery we met with Dr. Schermerhorn, and he described the “cage” he would construct to support the section of Kim’s spine that the cancer had eaten away. “A cage?” Kim said. “Can you put a bird in it?” The doctor, focused on explaining what a massively complex surgery was coming up, gave only a quick smile, but I thought it was very funny, and very Kim. And to round out the story, Genne’ announced that her Mother’s Day and Get Well gift to Kim would be a bird in a cage for Kim to care for and, of course, photograph while she is healing at home. We decided to name it “T-11” after the damaged vertebra that the cage has replaced. Or maybe, Kim suggested, “Tweet-11.”I get pleasure out of picturing our shopping for that bird.

            Sunday was Mother’s Day. Kim told me on Mother’s Day Eve that her first thought when she opened her eyes after surgery was how great it is that she will be around for another Mother’s Day. I would have guessed that her first thought would be, “Ouch! This really f***ing hurts!” That may have been her second thought.

            Monday was rough. Kim transitioned from the hospital to Grand Traverse Pavilions, a “residential care facility.” It was a difficult transition for Kim. She had been making some progress in managing her severe pain, but her pills did not make the journey (about 200 yards through a tunnel) from the hospital, and her medical information (the very serious nature of her surgery, the proper use of her brace, etc.) was not on the computer at the Pavilions, so the staff could not treat her properly. They could not, according to regulations, remove her brace so she could lie down with any comfort – they did not have written instructions. So I removed the brace. And I had to persuade the staff to get her prescribed painkillers from their reserve supply while they were waiting for her own pills – we would pay them back. This part will not have us laughing some day.

            Despite the bureaucratic sludge and the insensitivity of a doctor who examined her, Kim tried to keep up her spirits, and the spirits of those around her. When a nurse brought in some homemade granola bars, Kim could not get hers down, but she insisted that I eat most of it so the chef would feel appreciated. And then when another nurse made the kind of human connection that Kim creates so well, Kim rewarded him with a joke she had just created:
            “Are you Christian?”
            “No, my name is Trevor.”
            “No, Christian – the religion?”
            “No, not really . . ..”
            “Well, anyway. You know in the Bible where it says God created Eve out of Adam’s rib?”
            “Yeah . . .?”
            “Well, God created a brand new creature out of my rib. He created Zack, and God said, ‘It is good.’ And that put an end to prejudice because you could have men, and women, and Zack, who is just an acceptable and lovable creature who could be anywhere on the continuum. . .. I did a lot of good for the world with my rib.”

            Let me provide some context. They had to cut off part of Kim’s rib during her surgery, and “Zack” comes out of Kim’s rib. Of course, Kim has been taking heavy painkilling narcotics. She’s experienced some hallucinations – I’ll write more about them in a future post. And she has been struggling, usually successfully, to frame her experience in a positive light. She thought her joke would help, and she asked Trevor to bring her a joke the next day. Kim’s joke was funny, in a way, but it turned into a serious point about love and acceptance. We will be laughing at this some day, but not today as I head over to the Pavilions to see how my Kim has spent the night.

            Two weeks, they estimate, until I get her home. Kim estimates one week. Now, that puts a smile on my face.

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

In the Moment

            As I mentioned in an earlier post, I started reading a guide to mindfulness – living in the moment. Well, for now I have stopped reading it. There have been too many moments in which I do not want to live. Seeing Kim in so much pain, despite all the meds, after her six-hour spinal surgery is a moment – a long series of moments – that I regret having lived in, though I’m grateful for having lived through them.

            Living in future moments sometimes helps. I try to fast-forward to when Kim’s pain level is down below 5 from last night’s 9. I fast-forward to when Kim is back home and I am able to demonstrate my dormant caretaking skills. And I think about our future together, kayaking on the lake or simply enjoying a pain-free and cancer-free morning hug. The future is better than the present.

            Living in the future does not always work. Sitting with Genne’ in the well-named Waiting Room for 10 hours, we fearfully imagined the immediate future. Surgery always has risks, and major surgery means major risks. Possible paralysis loomed. Kim and I have discussed what to do with her ashes, how to divide up her estate, etc. It took a not-always-successful act of will to wrench our thoughts away from that future into whatever distraction we could find in a book or cell phone. Genne’ even responded to work-related phone calls as her mom’s back was being cut open, her spine rebuilt and reinforced, the cancer removed.

            As I write this Kim is starting to feel better. She looks like herself, and amazingly, she took a brief walk in the hall. Her pain slips in and out of control, and when it’s bad it’s a spear through my heart. My Amherst friend, Jerry Shimp, wrote of his wife’s illness, “I would never consider leukemia a good thing, but it has caused me to be more aware of my life's blessings, like friends who stay in closer touch and each day having its own gifts. We don't know how many more days we have at age 75.” Kim’s illness has caused me to feel closer to friends and family, especially Genne’, who has guided her mother (and me) through pre- and post-op, and closer to Kim. There is a kind of joy in living in this awareness of love  – a blessing indeed, though at a terrible cost.