I have heard that ocean waves come in sets of 7. Whether true or not, I think some years of our lives are certainly bigger than others. 2016 was one of them.
3 quotes have been floating around in my head in looking at the year:
A Seattle area lymphoma survivor
I could complain about a lot of things, that the fact I am here with the chance to complain makes me forget what I was going to complain about in the first place.
Krista Tippett, Running as Spiritual Practice
The blessing is outside your comfort zone
Jalal al-Din Rumi
The grapes of my body can only become wine
After the winemaker tramples me.
I surrender my spirit like grapes to his trampling
So my inmost heart can blaze with glory.
Two inexorable, good, constants in 2016: my two sons continue to grow and thrive like baby sequoias with long, towering and prodigious futures for which they are preparing. Of them I am so proud, that I often sit back mystified at the sublime gift they represent. I have started an exercise I call "why me?" where I ponder the good things in my life, and Paul and Sidd are a recurring theme. Gracious me, they are the kind of blessing I wish every human had the chance to experience, even for an hour.
Paul at 14 has discovered a love for cross country, and is settling in to the high school years with its hints at the more torrid pace of the larger world. He still has a keen sense of observation that he puts into lucid words when the need arises such his note about parents’ 55 wedding anniversary. Performing Vince Guaraldi tunes remains a favorite, but by year end, Paul’s love of robotics may get dethroned by biology. High school cross country has put a new level of sinewy muscle on him too – he’s much more a man-boy than a boy.
Sidd at 13 can be found noodling thru philosophy, whiling away time doodling or reading. He loves to create chaos for the other soccer team’s defense, and still pushes his math and piano skills. It appears that a years-long fascination with paleontology is ebbing (to my dismay) but something else will come into the picture. He’s got an active social schedule and is good at navigating his parents’ ebbs and flows – a valuable skill for sure. Sidd whimsically calls himself a "jerd" – a jock and a nerd.
Other aspects of our lives are in a great place. My sister Cindy is well squared away at UMich’s school of Art and Design and the relentless bulwark of our family. Mom has the mental stamina of a Navy Seal and is the canonical example of how to be sturdy in a time of trial. And my younger sister Susan and longtime boyfriend Chris first got engaged back on New Year’s Eve of 2016, and then this past Nov celebrated a breathtaking wedding ceremony. They are two good souls who complement each other in their journey forward.
The personal surprises of 2016 were two nasty intrusions of cancer into the family: into me in the form of something aggressive called "peripheral T-cell lymphoma, not otherwise specified"; and into my dad from a relapse of prostate cancer from more than a decade ago. Cancer is akin to weaponry banned by the UN, such as poison gas, yet used by a rogue state.
I am in a better place after 6 rounds of chemo due to at least 4 remarkable pieces of good fortune:
- It was caught early, luckily being in the lymph node in my left tonsil
- Living in Seattle with health insurance gave access to truly world-class expertise
- My large and phenomenal extended family and longtime friends fought back viciously with the heavy artillery of logistics, love, prayer and scrumptious food
- I was in good health when this occurred
My dad’s condition is a different matter. After 81 vigorous, productive & intellectually curious years, the last 3 months have seen a relentless siege on his persona and body. They say for 500 years Baghdad was one of the great fortified cities in history with unrivaled libraries, art and mosques; a magnet for scientists, thinkers, mathematicians, and linguists. Yet it fell to the Mongols in 1258. The cancer has laid siege on my dad, all his wondrous stories and encyclopedic repository of knowledge & wisdom – – his own assessment of his situation is grim. Yet FWIW, a quote by the mystic Teilhard de Chardin always struck me as describing the rarified ways of my dad and mom (from the book Many Lives, Many Masters):
"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.
We are spiritual beings having a human experience."
Lastly, and largely a good thing, Molly and I finalized a legal separation after 3 years of an informal separation. If you throw a frog into a beaker of boiling water it jumps out; but put a frog in a beaker of room temperature water and slowly bring it to boil, and it never leaves, ultimately dying. After years of our marriage running asunder, Molly and I tried out a trial separation back in Feb of 2014 with a 50% / 50% parenting plan. We were jumping out of the beaker of boiling water, which turned out to be better for each of us, for the boys and the family overall. This past February a legal separation took hold at last. The path to that milestone had worrisome (& expensive) twists and turns as Molly dismissed two different, well regarded child-centered lawyers for a traditional, aggressive litigator. We are now past that bumpy phase and on to the next, and the four of us are doing well.
Two instances of cancer, and finalizing the separation: just one of these is all you need in a year. Together, it was a putrid 3-patty burger, slathered in old bacon and nasty cheese, to be eaten in a single sitting, with a smile.
Ten insights from 2016:
- "Deforestation" – nothing like whimsical detachment. When I told my sons about my lymphoma they listened the way they play Minecraft, full on, and after some questions the 14 year old smiled. Why the smile? I asked him. "Well Dad, you know I am not a fan of your hairy chest and back. I guess this chemo will be kind of a deforestation, at last, right?" Good to not take ourselves seriously no?
- Hardship renders blessings. Only due to my bout of lymphoma did my parents come and stay for over a month at my place. The weeks together were tremendous and given dad’s current state, I doubt the time together is something we can repeat in any comparable manner. The relaxed schedule gave the boys peerless time with the grandparents, be it during grocery shopping, walks, or conversations in the back porch. In that respect, the lymphoma was a godsend.
- New skills can come fast with focus. The boys swam as fast as drift wood when they joined the local neighborhood swim team. Joining was embarrassing for them, as the other kids had swam for years. Yet in a mere 6 weeks of daily swims and patient coaching, they competed in the medley (backstroke, butterfly, breast stroke, front crawl, and flip turns along the way). They did not win, but were in a very new, different, better place. Again, in 6 weeks.
- Prayer is powerful. There is a broadcast channel flooded with inquiries, intercessions, thank yous, demands, sadness and joy. I have known of it since a child but almost academically. This past year, a routine comment was, "we are praying for you," or "we just did a novena for you," or "our priest said a mass in dad’s name." Such news hardens the constitution, lashing carbon-fiber panels around sensitive areas, for the battle at hand.
- The essence of a tradition is mobile, versatile and concise. Take two common events in the U.S. – Thanksgiving and weddings. Both carry a wonderful amount of pomp and circumstance: large gatherings; waves of food; deeply adorned settings. Yet at the core is simply people who care for each other, meeting to share a moment. And in truth this core does not need the other trappings to be magical. I witnessed this twice in my dad’s hospital room: when we celebrated Thanksgiving dinner; and a few days later, at my sister Susan’s wedding to her partner, Chris. Love, mirth and magic were in abundance, its loud volume was somewhat to my surprise.
- Don’t inadvertently miss the obvious daily routines. It is the pedestrian things in life that are what make it remarkable, yet I think we do miss many of them. They are like a fine aroma in a room – – we just have to find the source, marvel at it and bathe in the inspiration created by it. When I was getting a tonsillectomy last week, and lying in the surgical theater watching the team get ready, I realized my dad (a retired general surgeon) did this thousands of times, yet I did not witness one of them. There I lay, palpably excited to see this team getting ready to be "in the moment" for an operation – a mix of seriousness, intellectual prowess and relaxed banter. To have seen my dad in action – well that would have been profoundly inspiring – and helped me better understand aspects woven deep into his DNA. Perhaps my path would have been different had I done so. Same regarding my mom creating her watercolors – I have witnessed it only twice, each occurred when she came to Paul’s and Sidd’s 3rd grade class to instruct and then show how a seasoned pro drums up magic. The oohs and aahs from the children were just remarkable as her instructions all of a sudden crystalized – in front of them, in 10 mins, a still life of roses came to being. From nothing. After so many years, I learned so much about my mom watching her in her medium.
- Samson Uncle’s lies. Thinking of my dad’s profession reminds me how the crushing paperwork in the US always bugged him and soured my view of medicine. To that end, my dad’s younger brother Samson, a physician, shared an observation a long time ago, "On the one, hand many people want their children to take the same profession as them, but on the other than, when they come home all they do is complain about work. Why would the kids ever follow in the same footsteps?" His solution was an age old one: lie. "Every day I come home and say untruths – the patients are all getting better than when they came in, the nurses are fantastic to work with, hospital administration solves problems before they happen, malpractice insurance rates are falling. What a time to be a doctor." The downside : guilt. With a chuckle he concluded, "Now both my sons want to be doctors and they have such a poor idea of what it is like. When I am in church I ask for forgiveness for what I have done. Gosh I hope they like it as much as I do."
- "Time and tide wait for no one." An often said phrase, it has been on my mind this year. Life proceeds inexorably forward which can be both exhilarating and distressing. Our kids are growing in glorious ways, politics is moving almost randomly, destruction is happening in places like Aleppo – – life doesn’t stop, it just proceeds. So love and learn from this moment, fortify yourself for an unexpected distraction, help those in tough situations.
- Eat your food as your medicine, or you will eat your medicine as your food. I look at my fingernails, where the base is again pinky and the upper parts are dark as they are polluted with the chemo drugs. A pretty trippy sight to see. Yet, the same is true from eating organic versus non-organic and processed foods no? Why settle for this – why not pay up front for better raw materials rather than later for a myriad of medicines?
- Good health is your first and best asset. Being out of work in any manner due to health issues is financially expensive. Period. So now when I see someone walking, running, swimming or bicycling in an awkward manner, rather than commenting how dopey they look, I ask when was the last time I took similar action, and get out there. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to happen.
2016 was remarkable in ways I did not ask for, yet that is never an option, no? And no complaints, I am happy to be alive with the chance to complain. 🙂 I do hope your 2016 year was a wonderful one. And the treasures, experiences and talents applied this year will make 2017 into the next great adventure.
Wishing you only the very, very best, Abe…