Brain cancer: Here we go again…

Richard’s in the Denver VA Hospital again with another potentially fatal fluid accumulation in his right brain–for the third time in seven weeks. He’s scheduled for brain surgery number four on Thursday morning to have a permanent shunt installed that will drain excess brain fluid into his abdominal cavity. 

It’s still a shock to see him in a hospital bed. This is the guy who in nearly sixty years had never been in a hospital at all until September, 2008, when he had a rather lovely and flowerlike but not exactly healthy carcinoma removed from his bladder. And even that was outpatient surgery, after which he regained his seemingly unshakable good health–until he began seeing birds a year later.

To say those hallucinations changed our lives is a serious understatement.


Richard has always prided himself on being a strong guy. He still is. But in the past 19 months, he has had to absorb huge and repeated doses of humility, learning how to give up control as a patient, how to survive being incapacitated, and how to accept the prospect of losing his intellect and creativity–and perhaps his life. 

We each did some serious thinking about life after the discovery of his glioblastomas, with their predicted survival rate of poor to grim. I didn’t cry until the neurosurgery resident went through the list of potential complications for the lobectomy to remove them, ranging from blindness to brain damage, and ending with the biggie, death. Then, just when he felt like he was recovering enough to work on his sculpture again–he could actually see himself getting out to his studio and clearing away the debris–came these whip-sawing crises in the fluid accumulation in his right brain, the first of which nearly killed him before even he reached the hospital.

If it is ever possible for a human being to live on a daily basis with the fact that death is not only inevitable, but could happen at any moment, we’re there. It’s been impossible to ignore. If it is ever possible for a person living in a mind temporarily or permently damaged to accept his loses, I think Richard has faced that grim reality too.

I’m still struggling with it. If he has had too little practice coming to grips with frailty before this grueling journey with brain cancer, I’ve had too much. I’ve lived with a chronic, life-shortening illness my entire adult life, so I’m perhaps too used to imagining and preparing for the worst. And I have a very vivid imagination; it keeps me awake some nights. (I wrote about what I’ve learned from my journey in Walking Nature Home, a memoir Barry Lopez called “lovely, brave, inspiring,” and Kathleen Dean Moore called “a glorious love story.”)

I take my metaphorical pulse every morning when I wake, surprised to be alive: What’s going on inside? Am I feverish? Where’s the pain? Is everything working? What’s different today? Does facing another day seem like a good idea? Paying that kind of detailed and unflinching attention inside and out keeps me as balanced as I can be. Now, I find myself trying to teach my often-oblivious husband how to notice the condition of his body, mind and spirit on a regular basis.

And all the while I’m doing my best to keep our everyday lives on track: starting the tomato plants for the kitchen garden, cooking dinner, sorting out the checkbook, getting Richard to the hospital, helping my dad learn to live on his own without my mom, carving out time to write…

I should be overwhelmed, and often I am. I should be exhausted, and that I definitely am. What I am not is distressed, depressed, angry, hopeless or grieving. For reasons that I don’t entirely understand, I truly believe that Richard and I will make it through this okay. I can’t explain that faith. It’s wordless and completely illogical. But it’s what keeps me walking forward, gritty-eyed, aching, longing for a break, into the reality of whatever each day brings. It’s what helps me notice the moments of grace life offers, even in the bleakest of times.

Thank you for walking with me. Your company on this journey we call life is a great blessing.