Ups and Downs

Yesterday morning, Richard and I set off over the mountains to Denver, on a drive that over the past year and some has become much too familiar as we’ve commuted to the Big City for his cancer treatments. Even though we try to clump his appointments and procedures to save time, money, and fossil fuel, we end up making the three-hour drive that I have dubbed the up-and-down trip for its wide elevation swings about twice a month, much too often. (Those elevation swings? Our route begins at home in the bottom of a deep valley at 7,000 feet, climbs to over 10,000 feet–nearly two miles high–for fifty miles of mountain ups and downs, before plunging to Denver, the “mile high” city at the edge of the Great Plains. The up-and-down route is always an exhilarating ride, even in good weather. That’s Mount Yale in the photo below, one of the peaks over 14,000 feet elevation that bound our valley, a familiar sight before we climb the first “up.” )

Yesterday’s trip agenda was an up and down one too, at least in the metaphorical sense, including a belated Mother’s Day visit with my parents on the west side of the Metro area, a night for me at the Colorado Authors League Awards banquet where my memoir, Walking Nature Home, was a finalist for the creative non-fiction book award, followed the next morning by a trip to the VA Medical Center for Richard’s quarterly cystoscopy to make sure that his bladder cancer, which is apparently totally unrelated to his brain cancer, has not returned. 

A howling tailwind blew us out of our valley and across South Park, with snow showers hiding the high peaks. When we wound our way down to Denver though, spring was in full swing. The crabapple and apple trees were in bloom (that’s a “snowflake” crabapple above), the tulips still fresh and the iris beginning to flower–all a definite “up” for me. Our plan had been to take my folks to Denver Botanic Gardens to ogle the flowers and look at the Henry Moore sculptures. The weather was chilly and showery, so instead we visited nearby Echter’s Garden Center to wander the fragrant greenhouses and select plants for the planters on my parents’ apartment balcony. Back at their place, I transplanted colorful petunias, clove-scented dianthus and sweet alyssum in cream and purple mounds as rain began to fall.

Later, Richard and I drove across Denver in splashy rush hour traffic to our motel, where I changed into an evening-in-the-city outfit including my lucky red suede shoes. By the time he dropped me at the hotel where the awards banquet was held, the rain was beginning to feel like snow. Still, it was a great evening, affording time to hang with a collegial community of writers, and hear a talk by mystery writer Margaret Coel about where she gets her ideas, followed by Olympic gold medal winner Frank Shorter on winning, losing, and cross-training for writing and life.

The “down” part: Walking Nature Home did not win an award. Ouch. Judges rankings are a matter of taste, as the wise and sympathetic writer friends at my table reminded me. (Thank you, Deb Robson, writer/editor/publisher of Nomad Press and Mary Taylor Young, author of the popular “Words on Birds” column in the late Rocky Mountain News, plus numerous books.)

That night, I slept uneasily, listening to the wet snow dripping off the balcony outside our motel room and the distant roar of freeway traffic. This morning, I looked out the window to a several-inch-deep layer of snow on the cars outside, clumps of white bowing down the tree branches and shrubs, but bare pavement. The latter was a good sign, I thought.

Indeed, the morning at the VA Medical Center went pretty well. Richard’s bladder was “boring” in the words of his cystoscopy team, a definite up. (A cysto, as they’re called, for those who don’t know, is a procedure where a tube containing a tiny scope is snaked inside the bladder to look at the inner walls, without having to cut the patient open. If you wonder about the route the scope takes, well, a friend calls it a “peckerscope.”) We were hoping they’d clear Richard to come back in six months instead of three, but the team wants to see one more clear quarterly cysto before they lengthen that particular leash. That’s a down, although not a big one in the general scheme of things. The other up for the morning is that we were successful in getting his next dose of Temodar, the chemo he takes for his brain cancer. That may seem like an odd “up” the drug is a poison, but getting the prescription filled requires jumping through some serious hoops, and having it in hand means he may be able to start the next cycle on time next week. (Unless his platelet levels drop, something I’m not going to contemplate right now.)


As Richard drove us home, winding up into the snowy Front Range foothills (that’s Turkey Creek Canyon, where US 285 climbs out of the Denver Metro Area in the photo above), across windy South Park, and down into our own home valley, I thought about ups and downs, both literal and metaphorical. Especially as related to his cancer and to my work right now. I feel like we’ve had more downs than ups for the past while. And the effort to stay “up,” to keep believing in this life path is wearing on me. My smile is fraying, my steps slowing, my spirit wavering.

And I remembered something Frank Shorter, the first American to win an Olympic medal in the marathon, said last night. He was on a panel with several other Olympic medalists in running and asked the group if any had won more races than they had lost. None had. These elite runners, the best of the world’s best, had all lost more races than they’d won. They’d all experienced more downs than ups, in other words. That hadn’t stopped any of them from winning Olympic medals and other world-class races. 

What that says to me is not just that these elite athletes are determined and incredibly talented (and perhaps crazy), but that they’ve learned from experience that you “run” through the downs, what Shorter called “the bad patches.” How do you do that? As Shorter put it, “You breathe, relax into the movement and keep running, and eventually you find your rhythm and surge again.”

That makes sense to me. Breathe. Relax into the movement. Keep running (in my case, collaborating with Richard on his care, and writing). And look for that rhythm, that surge of energy and belief in yourself.

I’m going to work on that. I bet I’ll find my rhythm again.