Brain cancer: Miracles are still possible

We’re home after a week that involved some serious creative work, serious napping (for Richard), serious driving (for me), and ended with something I regard as a small miracle.


The first part of the week, we stayed at The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch, a four-hour drive away in northwestern Colorado, continuing work on our interpretive garden project. This time, we had help in the form of three intrepid LEAF interns from New York City, plus their mentor Aaron, and Carpenter Ranch interns Ethan and Tate. The guys (photo above) dug up native shrubs to transplant to the garden, and hauled and laid several truck-loads of native sandstone for the outcrops Richard designed in the cliff part of the garden, in progress in the photo below.


In return, I taught them about pollinators and restoration ecology, all the while endeavoring to not be eaten alive by Carpenter Ranch’s legendary mosquitoes or be intimidated by the film crew from The Nature Conservancy global office. (Yup, I’m going to star on screen–in a small way–in two video projects. Stay tuned…)


Our collaborator in the garden project, Steamboat Springs landscape architect Erin Dickerson, helped us “ground-truth,” adapt the concept design to the site. Erin is full of energy and knowledge, has a passion for the particulars of a site and the stories to be told with plants. In the photo above, she’s spray painting the plan lines on the ground, all the while narrating at top speed, “…and we’ll just follow the contours of this high ground all the way out to Richard’s cowboy zen pagoda…” She’s a gem.

Wednesday morning we woke to cloud underbellies turned fiery pink by the sunrise and sandhill cranes calling across misty hay meadows. We packed up our stuff and headed to Denver for the week’s other adventure: Richard’s testing, oncology consult, and his sixth Avastin infusion. (That’s our cabin at Carpenter in the photo below, with the new edible garden in raised beds in front.)


On the four-hour-drive to the Denver Metro area, we passed through fields of wildflowers in high country that was buried under 300 percent of normal snow pack last winter, so it is as green and lush as Ireland. At one point I said to Richard, “It’s like another universe.” He nodded.


So was Denver: hot, noisy, and full of drivers in a Very Big Hurry. Still, we made it to the VA in time for Richard’s testing, and then had a lovely treat: an oh-so-cosmopolitan dinner outside under the umbrellas at Lala’s Wine Bar & Pizzeria with friends Nancy and Dave Mayer of West Creek Studio.

The next day, when Dr. Klein asked how things were, I brought up the dexamethazone, the steroid Richard’s been taking since early April to reduce his brain swelling. It’s a psychoactive drug, and each time he’s taken it, I’ve noticed a change in his personality, most importantly in his his emotions. He’s always prided himself on being an even-tempered, reasonable sort of guy. (I’m a redhead, so I have never claimed anything like that.) With dexamethazone, he’s still mostly even-tempered, except…

One of those exceptions happened a week ago on the morning of his birthday. I said something careless and he became enraged so quickly that he really scared me. He didn’t shout or lash out, but the force of emotion pumping off my usually good-natured love was frightening.

Dr. Klein listened, asked a couple of questions and agreed to stop the dexamethazone, as long as we watch for brain-swelling symptoms: headaches, vision changes, or cognitive decline. Then she sent us up to the infusion center.

Three hours later, Richard’s infusion finished, we headed to my dad’s to help him out, and then we drove home over the mountains. We arrived just as the summer sun was slanting low over the peaks, got the car unpacked, and I watered the garden (yup, it’s still dry here) before we crashed.

This morning, not quite 24 hours since his last dexamethazone dose, Richard woke in a light-hearted mood. He laughed at my silly jokes (I’ve had to work hard to make him smile at least once a day) and surprising to me, joked back. He was almost carefree, like the Richard I knew for 28 years–until this spring, when brain-swelling and two craniotomies in a month rearranged his brain significantly.

All day, he’s been smiling, happy, and much less… “fretful,” he supplied when I was looking for a word. More Richard. The chance in his temperament seems as much of a miracle as the waterlily blossom below, which opened to welcome us home.


Some days I despair about this grueling journey with brain cancer. Then along comes a day like today and I find myself smiling, walking with a spring in my step, and believing in miracles.