Brain Cancer: After ecstasy, the laundry

The title of this post paraphrases that of a wonderful book of practical Buddhist life-wisdom by Jack Kornfield. (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry) The point being that no matter how spiritually evolved you become, the business of ordinary life is the real practice.

I was reminded of that because after spending 13 hours at the Intensive Care Unit today, I came “home” to my motel and faced the fact that my clothes are all dirty. Ugh: laundry. So, tired as I was, grumpy as I was about submitting my favorite jeans to the not-so-tender mercies of a motel washing machine, I walked down to the office to get quarters. Which brought me the gift of a brief but very sweet interaction with the young night manager, her husband, and their eight-month-old chocolate lab puppy.

I left smiling. And remembering one of those duh! spiritual lessons: Live with your heart outstretched as if it were your hand, and you’ll likely find grace notes even when you’re exhausted and grumpy–which is, after all, when you really need them.


The day’s ecstasy of course is watching Richard slowly but surely recover his right-brain function in what seems like a permanent way at long last, and the gift of having Molly here for a couple of days to hang out with us at the ICU, help my dad get ready for his move, and generally be a cheering and loving presence.

(That’s Richard and Molly in the photo above, obligingly posing for the camera this afternoon. Richard’s impressive gauze turban not only protects the suture from this latest craniotomy, it also holds in place the temporary drain tube emerging from his right brain–the tube and valve are visible to the left behind his head.)

The laundry–besides the literal load in the washer right now–is dealing with life through a veil of exhaustion. No ordinary exhaustion either. This is the kind that sets in after unrelenting months of crises that would test the stamina of Wonder Woman herself. And I’m no WW. (Not only do I not have the figure, I don’t have those cool bracelets either. Dang.)

The biggest load right now is that we have no idea how long Richard will be in the hospital.

Thursday’s surgery did not go as expected: instead of installing the permanent shunt in Richard’s brain, his neurosurgery team ended up removing much of the hardened, thickened “pillow” of membrane from the hematoma, a swollen area of clotted blood that formed over the lobectomy cavity in his right brain after last August’s glioblastoma removal surgery. Instead of subsiding and being reabsorbed, the hematoma became walled off in a membrane that seems to have been part of what’s severely compressed his right brain over the past several months. Removing this thick, inflexible lump is risky since it’s attached to the living, vascular membrane that protects his brain itself. Still, it had to be done. And it seems to have been successful beyond imagining: As they carefully cut away the hardened membrane, his team reported, they could practically watch his right brain rebound. Hence his immensely improved brain function.

A brain shunt may still be in order, if the fluid isn’t finding its way through the blockage created by the hematoma. If so, they’ll go back into his brain again sometime next week to install the shunt. Which means a week in the hospital could stretch to two weeks…


We both want more than anything to be able to go home to the simple joys of sleeping together in our own bed, tending the kitchen garden and the tomato seedlings, eating our own healthy, local food, writing, thinking about sculpture, doing yoga in the morning and watching the stars appear at night.

But tending to the “laundry” in this case involves tending to Richard’s medical needs. Which means staying here in the city, he in the hospital and me in this motel, and meeting each day with as much grace, gratitude and joy as we can muster.

It’s hard, but it’s good practice–for ecstasy, laundry, and life.