Biopsy results

It might have made for more interesting writing if I had cancer, but I don’t. The doctors don’t know what I have. They suggested that I have a follow-up CAT scan in three months to learn if C-5 has done anything else weird. Peggy thinks it is a space alien; it does look other-worldly.

My surgery was at the huge new hospital, and the operating room was also right out of science fiction. For one thing, I counted five large screen, flat panel televisions from where I lay with my throat exposed and my head in a plastic doughnut. On each of those screens was an inside view of my neck, and everything in my neck was in some shade of gray; everything that is except for C-5, which was a brilliant white. It was weird, I tell you, to lie there with these enormous C-5s staring down at me from every angle, and me knowing that a team of strangers in masks was about to stand in the glare of two huge round spotlights; press a razor-sharp knife to my throat; and cause my blood to flow up my neck, down either side, and even into my ears and hair (Peggy did wash blood from my hair).

Yesterday, the surgeon went ahead and sent me to the scheduling clerk to set a date for my next operation, one to unpinch the nerve that makes my right arm tingle. She said she doesn’t think I need shoulder surgery, that this neck surgery will eliminate my shoulder pain. My last neurologist and my orthopedist think differently, but it’s hard to argue with a woman who just cut from the front of my throat all the way to my backbone and made it almost as painless as opening a bag of tortilla chips.

Her assistant walked to the desk with me, and I happened to say something on the way about the pain in my left shoulder. He disappeared and a moment later reappeared with the surgeon. “You have pain in both shoulders?” “Yes, the pain is in both shoulders, but the tingling is only on the right.” I didn’t remind her that she already knew this. “Then that’s a whole other and more drastic surgery, so I want to try a series of steroid shots first. They give some people relief for years.” Okay. Cancel second surgery. Schedule first steroid shot. This is the kind of weirdness that I run into all the time with doctors. They spend almost no time with you, don’t listen to half of what you say, and then send you off for risky tests and procedures.

I back the van out of the garage for Peggy when she goes to work. I do this because it is almost wider than the garage door and scary for her to back out. Today (Friday) was her first day back at work. The van’s CD player took up where it left off on Monday when she brought me home from the hospital. I was puking IV fluids at the time, so the relaxing New Age music struck a different chord this morning.

Peggy and I felt pretty good when we left the doctor’s office on our bikes. Then she remembered a paper she had meant to bring (a form she needed the doctor to sign regarding the days she took off from work). I could tell she was really mad at herself for forgetting it. “Peggy, we just found out that I don’t have cancer. Why are you so bummed about a damn form?” A short while later, my own exhilaration wore off, and all I felt was enormously tired and even a little empty. Once we got home, we had all these phone calls to make to people who were awaiting my biopsy results, and I simply wasn’t going to make them, because I knew everyone would be happy and relieved, and that they would expect me to be happy and relieved too. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel these things; it was just that I was drained of all energy. Within minutes, I had gone from planning a celebratory meal out to wondering if I could stay awake long enough to eat a salmon burger at home.

I can best explain my feelings this way. Imagine that you’re crossing the street a little distracted—listening to your iPod maybe—when all of a sudden an 18-wheeler comes barreling down on you with its air horn blowing, its brakes screaming, and misses you by six inches, the turbulence alone almost knocking you to the ground. Would you feel like going out to celebrate the fact that you were almost, but not quite, killed?

I was surprised by my ennui because I had been relaxed at the surgeon’s office. I had two really distressing events this week, both of which I had known about and dreaded for days. The first was having my throat cut, and the second was getting my biopsy results. Yet, I went to both of these events relaxed. I’ll try to explain. A stressful event is made such by the nature of the event itself, but also by our emotional resistance to the event. In the case of my two events; I knew that they were going to happen, that there was no rational way I could stop them from happening, and that I might as well surrender myself to them, thereby giving them permission to happen. I transformed myself into clay, into water, into a complete pacifist; and this enabled me to approach these formerly dreaded experiences with disinterested curiosity.

So why then, when I had felt relaxed at the surgeon’s, did I feel so tired afterwards? Had I not really been relaxed after all, but had only fooled myself into thinking I was relaxed? These were unsettling questions, and I simply didn’t have the emotional energy to entertain them. Instead, I reminded myself that I had survived a very hard week that had come on the heels of many very hard months; that I had behaved bravely; and that I have earned the right to forgive myself for not being a perfect human being. Being human is a devastating proposition because it also means being flawed. My doctors are flawed; my nurses at Sacred Heart were flawed; I too am flawed; and I forgive us all. May God help us all, and may God save us all because we most certainly cannot save ourselves.

Awaiting a possible death sentence

Twenty-three hours and ten minutes from now, I will be told whether I have metastatic cancer. That moment will either be the beginning of a new life (a life that will include an early death) or it will be, more or less, a continuation of my old life.

Once is how many times I have seen the surgeon who will carry the news (the second time I was unconscious). How might I prepare for hearing my death sentence from the lips of a stranger, a woman stranger? Getting through that moment seems, in this moment, like the hardest thing I will ever have to endure. Mostly, I don’t want to cry. Silly at this might seem, I am, after all, a man, and I possess a man’s vanity.

Along with terror, I feel a strange exhilaration, as if I had bet my life savings on the roll of a roulette wheel. Sure, I could lose big, but I could also win big, and what bigger prize to win than my life?

Post surgical adventures

I don’t have biopsy results. The surgeon said she would replace the bone while I was on the table if the lab could tell right away that it was malignant, but the lab couldn’ tell right away. No news is good news, I suppose—or at least it’s not bad news (I’m too tired and drugged to know which). I am to learn if I have cancer at 3:00 Thursday.

I feel much better than expected, but that could be because of the Percocet. I observed after past surgeries that I would feel good enough that I would think I didn’t need painkillers, only to have the pain return with a vengeance when I stopped them. It’s definitely harder to beat pain back down than it is to keep it down in the first place. Still, I will replace my next Percocet with a Vicodin and see what happens.

I was in excruciating and ever worsening pain yesterday after being intubated, and I got no relief even after being given the highest dosages allowed of at least a half dozen painkillers. One of the funny things about painkillers is that they can knock-you-on-your-ass if your pain level is within their ability to handle, but if it’s beyond what they can handle, you can’t even tell you’ve taken anything.

The nurses were at a loss to understand my pain since it was well beyond what most people experience. They just knew that my oxygen level was below ninety, and that I was reporting intolerable pain even after having taken everything they had to give. They wouldn’t discharge me, yet they couldn’t help me, and they wouldn’t let me use the one device with which I thought I could help myself—my CPAP. They didn’t appear to know much about the machine, but their main objection was that they would have to call the hospital electrician to inspect it, and that this was too much of a bother for something they had no confidence in anyway. When I degenerated to the point of no longer being able to speak (due to the pain and lack of oxygen), they called the electrician.

He arrived in five minutes; picked up the unplugged CPAP; examined it for five seconds; said, “Looks okay to me;” and put an orange sticker on it. Ah, the security that comes from a professional safety inspection. With my first breath, I felt significant relief, and my oxygen saturation soon jumped from eighty-eight to ninety-nine. My theory is that a swollen trachea caused the pain. By opening my trachea with positive air pressure, the CPAP both relieved the pain and allowed the passage of air. Since a CPAP’s normal use is for sleep apnea, I can understand why the nurses didn’t believe it would help a patient who was awake, yet they could have spared me hours of misery if only they had called the electrician sooner.

The morning of surgery

The time is 4:20 a.m. I have to be at the hospital at 5:45. I am calm. What will be, will be, and I am prepared to face it with dignity.

People with their throats cut generally look dead; my first death

I never saw anyone with their throat cut but what they looked the worse for wear; in fact, they looked dead and they didn’t die smiling either. Judy (that would be Doctor Judy) says not to worry, that she cuts two and three throats a week sometimes. What I want to know is how she finds that many people who (a) need their throats cut and (b) are willing to let someone do it.

I had my first serious surgery about eight years ago. It was such a new and unusual procedure that I had to drive 110 miles to the Oregon Health Sciences University to see the one doctor in Oregon who knew how to do it. Dr. Hwang was so young, and little, and smart, and cute—not to mention caring—that I would have adopted him in a heartbeat. He suggested that I have the surgery in two parts to minimize the risk, but I wanted it ASAP, and I had no qualms about trusting him to do it up right. The morning he was to operate, the anesthesiologist came in first (as they always do), and offered to give me a little something for anxiety. I told him I wasn’t the least bit anxious—I was just enthusiastic. He thought I was putting him on, and we got into an argument about whether I was anxious. When he saw that he couldn’t win that one, he left. I thought he might hold it against me, but he and Hwang both did bang up jobs in surgery and, what with being awake but stoned out of my gourd, I enthused all over the place about what great doctors they were.

God, but I miss those days when trust was a given and surrender came easily. By now I know the routine well—the pre-dawn drive to the hospital, the forms to sign, the wrist-bracelet, the humiliating gown, the hasty “vitals,” the endless questions from the endless procession of nurses about why I am there and when I last ate, Peggy’s attempt at casualness, the anesthesiologist’s visit, the trip to the bathroom with a nurse carrying my IV, the stretcher ride to the holding area with the lights passing overhead and the curious strangers looking down at me, the inevitable crashes at corners, and finally into surgery. There, the many people in masks and gowns, the perfunctory courtesy, the move from the stretcher to the operating table, my diseased fingers turning white from the cold, my arms being stretched to either side like the crucified Jesus, the additional warm blankets that are never enough, feeling helpless and exposed, waiting eagerly for an injection of happy juice. Then recovery. I will have stayed awake for surgery if possible, so I pass the time listening to other patients moan and puke, and trying to recollect everything that happened. If the surgeon gives a shit, he comes by to tell me how it went.

Is recovery where I’ll be told if I have cancer? Probably not. I’ll be put to sleep this time, so I’ll be among the moaners and pukers. Probably Peggy will know first, and probably Peggy will be alone. Then again, maybe no one will know. The surgeon said that calcification might make an early diagnosis impossible. If this is so, and if I have cancer, it will mean a second surgery to replace the bone. Or not. I’m not going balls-to-the-wall unless I have a decent chance of survival.

I used to wonder how a doctor tells a patient he has cancer. I thought they would have learned some special words in medical school. I’ve had four doctors this year (three in October and one in January when I had hernia surgery) throw out the possibility, and I was struck by their casualness. The neurologist who brought it up in October told me over the phone. Phone calls from a doctor usually mean bad news, but I wasn’t expecting anything like what I heard. “It might be cancer, and if it is, it would have spread from someplace else—possibly the prostate. You need to see your internist about what to do next. Good bye and good luck.”

If someone who didn’t know English had tried to judge the nature of the call from the tone of the caller, he might have thought that Blockbuster was telling me I had a movie overdue. I imagined that this doctor never gave me or my problem another thought after he hung up. And why should he?

I first watched a man die when I was a fourteen-year-old ambulance attendant. The call came at 7:30 on a Sunday night, right in the middle of Mission Impossible. We found the man alone and unconscious on his partially mopped kitchen floor, and he died as we lifted him into the white Ford station wagon that passed as a Mississippi ambulance. CPR hadn’t been invented, and when I started to apply an oxygen mask, the boss laughed and told me not to waste his money.

As we drove back through town, the streetlights were still burning, the man at the filling station was still pumping gas, and people were still leaving church. I had expected the world to stop, and it hadn’t even slowed down. That was forty-five years ago. My belief that my kind was the center of the universe and the pinnacle of God’s creation also died that day.

If only I have enough time to finish editing my journals, I will be grateful. If I don’t have cancer at all, maybe my other problems won’t seem quite as bad.

What good is God?

It takes about four hours to do the yard up right, and I don’t remember a time in my adult life—except once when I had the flu and twice when I had strep—that the job would have tired me out, yet I only lasted 45 minutes today before I had to slow down. After ninety minutes, I felt the need to take an extended break. This is how I am spending my break.

My fatigue made me remember my neighbor, John. Five years ago, he drove 120 miles over the Cascades, climbed a 10,358 foot peak, and drove home, all on the same day. Few people could do as much at any age, but John did it at 55. Instead of being pleased, he was upset that it drained all his energy. He went to the doctor the next week, and died of prostate cancer the next year. While I was working in the yard, I seriously entertained the thought that I really might be facing death.

It was this melancholy realization that made me think of Eugene Sledge, a World War II soldier who wrote about the battles on Pelieu and Guadalcanal. Sledge said that new soldiers typically think they’re too smart to get killed. When they observe that more experienced soldiers than themselves get killed all the time, they conclude that they could die, but that they probably won’t because they’re special to God, and God will protect them. Then they see their friends die—sometimes horribly—and they are forced to ask themselves what makes them more special than those people. When they can’t think of anything, they conclude that, not only might they die, they are almost certainly going to die.

Then I remembered Dana Reeve, the wife of Christopher Reeve, who died of lung cancer less than a year after his death. I saw her on a DVD about health care recently. She was well dressed and appropriately made-up, but her eyes were tired, and her pauses for air came too often and lasted too long. I admired the hell out of that woman because she radiated such incredible courage by trying to help other people live longer when she was so near death herself. I had the thought that a good death would go a long way toward making up for a life that, if not failed, is nothing to brag about either.

When I listen to Pachebel’s Canon in D, I often reflect that, if Johann Pachebel didn’t do another thing but to write that one piece of music, a piece that comes nearer to embodying the divine than anything else I’ve ever seen or heard, it would have justified his entire 53 years. What, then, have I done to justify my years?

The one thing that I just cannot see my way to bear is my knowledge that I will be leaving Peggy alone. If only I could have her hypnotized so that she would come home from the funeral wondering how she ever put up with me to begin with and glad that I was dead, I would prefer that a million times better than to think that she will experience a grief that is beyond anything I can imagine. I picture her here, in this house, crying alone in the wee hours. I picture her coming home at night without me to greet her and without her supper on the table. I picture her taking her bike out for a ride while my bike remains behind. I picture her sitting in this chair, at this computer, getting things all fouled up, and not knowing how to straighten them out, and not having me to call.

If I could imagine now everything she will feel then, she might feel less alone for knowing that I traveled the same road ahead of her, but I know I cannot. Writers from Job to Eugene Sledge were right; God’s favors are not bestowed according to merit. What then, is the good of God?

Fun with having my throat slit

I finally had my appointment with the neurosurgeon. She will be my first woman surgeon (no, my second, come to think of it—I must be having too many surgeries). She is probably in her thirties; probably a lesbian; wore corduroy jeans, cartoon socks, and funky tennis shoes; didn’t blanch when I called her by her first name; and seemed utterly confident of her skills but without any trace of arrogance. She gave me a prescription for ninety Percocets (Percocet being the best thing short of morphine), and I added them to my narcotic’s stash.

“Are you saving up to kill yourself?” Peggy asked. “No. I just remember what it’s like to be in the worse pain of my life, and have no way to control it.” Actually, I had about sixty Vicodins and Percocets on hand (from my last two surgeries) when I was hurting my worst, but I was afraid to take them for fear I might need them even more later. Now that I have six weeks worth of narcotics and a couple of doctors who actually give a rip when I’m in pain, I feel secure.

The CT scan showed a line of grayish vertebra in the midst of which was one glaringly white vertebra. A five year old could have pointed to the problem. I am scheduled for a “Biopsy C5 Vertebral Body—Possible C5 Corpectomy w/Interbody Graft C4-C6 w/Anterior Plate C4-C6” next Monday. What the big words mean is that I am a terribly smart patient for whom small words aren’t adequate. Besides that, they mean that the doctor is going to slit the front of my throat to examine the fifth vertebra at the back of my neck. If my fifth vertebra is malignant, she will cut it out, replace it with part of a dead man’s lower leg bone (either the tibia or the fibula—I didn’t ask), and attach a metal plate to the fourth and sixth vertebras to hold my neck together until the dead man’s bone has a chance to grow. Have you ever heard of anything more fun?! Don’t you wish you were me?! Peggy doesn’t. When I told her that I had rather it be me than her, she agreed.

I thought her answer lacked a certain romantic element, but what we both meant was that I can better deal with being a patient. What I also meant was that I had rather die than to see her die. If she too prefers that I be the one to go, I’m just glad that that’s the way things might play out. She will no doubt spend a lot of lonely nights wondering if hers was the easier path after all, but I think it likely she will at least survive (and eventually flourish), whereas I’m not confident I would.

I questioned that the surgery is a good idea since my fifth cervical vertebra is one of the few body parts that isn’t bothering me, but Peggy and the surgeon considered the operation a no-brainer. Their argument was that I need to know what’s going on in case it needs treatment. That made sense, but it seemed to me that there are also risks in having my throat slit and part of my backbone taken out, and that maybe the information gained won’t be worth those risks. They disagreed, and the surgeon added that she also disagreed with my last neurologist about the tingling in my right arm being unrelated to my spine (although she’ll need a second surgery to fix the problem). I signed on the dotted line—all ten of them—my thought being that Peggy is too freaked out to let things be, and that the orthopedist won’t operate on my shoulders until my back problem is out of the way. This means I’m facing at least four operations, which will bring my lifetime total to fifteen.

I asked the surgeon why, when I can put my hand behind my neck and feel my vertebra, she needed to approach it from the front. She (I’ll call her by a made-up name since I’m going to paraphrase her rather loosely, i.e. lie like a dog about some of the nonmedical stuff) said she can’t take a bone sample from the back because the vertebra is too thin there. “Well, uh, won’t all that stuff in my throat—trachea, esophagus, major arteries, and such—be a problem if you go in from the front?” “Nope, I use spreaders. Put those suckers in there and crank them to the sides, and everything just gets right out of lil’ ole Doc Judy’s way.”

I asked if there was any way she would let me stay awake during all this since I’ve stayed awake during lots of surgeries by now, and REALLY prefer it that way and REALLY do good that way, and REALLY, REALLY hate being knocked out.” “Nope, you’d be gagging like you’ve never gagged before. Altogether too stimulating,”

“Too stimulating? Is that a euphemism for ‘patient jumped from table and ran out door’?”

“Hell yeah, gagging all the way!”

While we spoke, the The Ballbusters and other fem groups were belting out their music in the background. The only song I recognized was a Castraette’s hit that was set to an old Beatles’ tune, “I wanna debone my maaaaaan…. I wanna debone my man.” I noticed a poster on the wall that depicted a big woman on a big Harley. She was heavily tattooed and dressed in black leather. Her bike was parked atop a bookish looking little man in thick spectacles who appeared to be pleading for his life as she snuffed out a cigarette on his throat. The caption read, “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” I looked back at my doctor and saw that she and Peggy were rubbing legs under the table. I pretended not to notice.

“Are there any serious risks to this surgery?” I asked.

“Hell, son, all of life is a risk. The only question is whether you’re man enough to face it.” Then the doctor laughed. Then Peggy laughed. Then they both pointed at me and kept on laughing. “Yes,” I said in a quiet voice that would have been reminiscent of Clint Eastwood if my pitch hadn’t kept changing. “I am man enough, darn it. I really am.”

“Oooooh,” they cooed, and laughed some more.

Peggy and I went from the doctor’s office to the anesthesiologist’s office to get my pre-op out of the way. I picked up a New Yorker magazine and looked at the cartoons. In one cartoon, two women were sitting on a couch talking. One of the women was holding a photo of her late husband. “No, he didn’t suffer,” she said. “And that is my only regret.” Peggy, predictably, didn’t get it.

This is a good time for having a morbid sense of humor. I just hope I can laugh all the way to the hospital at 5:15 Monday morning. Peggy doesn’t find humor in sickness and death, so things are harder for her. I’ve wondered if she might actually hold up better if I were falling apart. I tell her that I’m fine and that nothing she says will scare me, and this gives her permission to tell me some things she might not otherwise say. Whether sharing terror dissolves it or makes it grow, I can’t say.

I’ll try to get the house cleaned and the yard work done. I’ll also make out a will and a medical power of attorney. I don’t know that I need a will since everything is in both our names anyway; and the surgeon said I don’t need a medical power of attorney. But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture myself lying brain dead in a Catholic hospital, and Peggy having to go to court to get my feeding tube disconnected. I keep asking myself whether it’s still true that I don’t fear death. Yes, it is still true. I fear suffering, and I grieve in advance to think about Peggy being alone, but death holds no terrors for me.

Still no appointment

I still have not seen the neurosurgeon. First, her staff lost my referral, then she cancelled three appointments at the last minute due to emergencies. These cancellations are understandable but frustrating since Peggy took off from work to go with me, and I even left a funeral early to get to one of them. Also, the doctor’s nurse told me to stop taking my anti-inflammatory a week ago in preparation for an early biopsy, and this has caused my pain to grow exponentially, yet she will not schedule an operating room until I see the doctor.

On the good side (maybe) I’m told that my next appointment (tomorrow at 8:00 a.m.) is a”100% sure thing.” Right. Sort of like when I call a doctor’s office and the receptionist says, “I’m going to put you on hold for just a moment.” Now, I would define “just a moment” as longer than a second but shorter than a minute. People who work in doctors’ offices have a different definition. They define “just a moment” as an indefinite quantity of future time that would normally transpire before the caller dies—assuming that the caller is not too sick or old, and his call is not disconnected. This means that a “100% sure thing” could mean, as I define it, a 0.4% sure thing, or a 50% sure thing, or anything else.

I took the following summary to the neurosurgeon's office today along with some other forms:

A Summation of Why I Have Come

I have impingement problems in both shoulders. When the pain got so bad that I could not carry on a normal life, I went to Shapiro for surgery. Shapiro said that a tingling/burning sensation in my right arm was not connected to the impingement problem, and that I would need to see a neurologist before he operated. I waited six weeks for an appointment with Balm who said Shapiro was probably wrong, but that he would test me anyway. He did an EMG and a nerve conduction study, and ordered an MRI and a CT scan. These tests proved Balm right, but they also showed a “shiny fifth cervical vertebra.” Balm suggested that I see my internist, Jacobsen, to determine whether I have metastatic cancer that, he speculated, might have originated in my prostate.

I told Balm that the pain in my shoulders (and to a lesser extent in my back) often leaves me just short of tears, but that despite my fervent and repeated requests for adequate pain relief, Shapiro had not seen fit to prescribe anything stronger than 25mg Elavil (of which he said I could take a whole tablet if I needed it—the first night I took two tablets and still got little if any relief). Balm gave me a prescription for hydrocodone, but it makes me itch so bad that I rarely take it. I partially control the pain by: taking Piroxicam each morning and Elavil, Ambien, and Requip at bedtime; sleeping with a heating pad under my back and a pillow under each shoulder; and not doing any physical activity that involves my arms if I can avoid it (I even keep my hands in my pockets when I walk, and I ride my bike with only my left hand on the handlebars as much as possible).

I also went to an acupuncturist for eight visits. I wasn’t sure he helped (or if it was my constant experimentation with other measures that accounted for the pain reduction), but I observed that he stuck me in the same places each time, so I ordered some needles and have been doing almost daily acupuncture on myself. I’m not sure what combination of measures I can attribute it to, but I have reduced the pain sufficiently that I am no longer obsessed with suicide as a means to escape it.

Jacobsen suggested that I see you. Bridget lost my referral, and three appointments on three consecutive days were cancelled by your office at the last minute, so it has taken me three weeks to get in. Last week, Debbie suggested that I go off the Piroxicam in order to obtain a speedier biopsy. I did this, and the shoulder pain and the pain from an arthritic left knee is getting worse.

Lorna, in Jacobsen’s office, told me that two other doctors said a biopsy was too dangerous, but that you are willing to do one. I don’t know why they thought as they did or why you think as you do. No one who I have spoken with knows any more than I do.

My poor opinion of Christianity

I came across the blog of a young man who is studying Catholic theology and challenged his assertion that suffering is invariably a lesson from God. He replied with a polite but paternal note in which he did nothing more than reiterate the point I had challenged. I wrote a second time asking him to explain what he thought God’s lesson was for starving infants and abandoned dogs. He then accused me of showing contempt for God (or at least his version of God) and for himself (I had no intention of being disrespectful), and suggested that I not visit his blog again. I apologized for having caused offense, not because my challenge was unreasonable but because I expressed it bluntly.

I respect the right of the blogger to hold any opinion about anything as long as that opinion doesn’t cause him to infringe upon the rights of others. But what is his rationale in demanding that I show respect for the opinions themselves, and did he believe that he was doing as much for me? I daresay he would argue that my opinion was sacrilegious, and that reciprocity was therefore impossible.

I was not taken aback so much by his unwillingness to address my questions as by the vehemence of his response. His blog was about love and peace, and I assumed from this that he was loving and peaceful. This tendency to take people at face value is a failing in someone of my age and experience.

…I have a great many objections to Christianity, regardless of the version offered. I have made several attempts to be a Christian, it is true, but this was not because I assented to Christianity intellectually, but because I wanted the comfort it promised; and it was this attempt to squash my intellect that eventually defeated me. I might as well have tried to squash a coiled spring or a slab of foam rubber, objects that have infinitely more patience and tenacity than I.

Even so, I might have overcome my intellectual reservations if only I had seen Christianity delivering what it promised. Namely, if Christians have the guidance of the Holy Spirit, why isn’t this evident? I have known people who were strong and people who were weak; people who were honest and people who were crooks; but I have never observed that Christians were stronger or had more integrity than non-Christians. If anything, I’ve wondered if they were as good; my speculation being that Christianity might appear most attractive to those who are weakest of character.

The “defense” of Christians about why the guidance of the Holy Spirit doesn’t enable them to stand out as moral examples runs along the lines of, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” but this doesn’t address the argument; it ignores it. In regard to the really bad things that Christians have done (inquisitions, religious wars, frightening children, burning heretics, etc.) I have heard Christians offer that atheists are just as bad (Communists being the example given). That Christians would attempt to mitigate the behavior of their fellow Christians by pointing out that it is no worse than that of the very people who they consider the lowest of the fallen strikes me as extraordinary. It also misses the point. Atheists don’t claim the benefit of divine guidance, and there is a vast difference in Christians persecuting people in the name of God versus atheists doing it in the name of Communism. I have yet to hear of a single atheist killing anyone in the name of atheism.

I don’t believe that the failures of Christians to live up to their own teachings is entirely their fault, and this leads me to another serious flaw of Christianity, namely that it is not grounded in reality. I’ll give an example. Jesus commanded those who are robbed of the jackets to offer the robbers their coats also. Does anyone live this way? Should anyone live this way? I see signs in church parking lots that read, “Unauthorized Vehicles Will Be Towed At Owner’s Expense.” What if, instead of towing cars, churches followed the spirit of Jesus and gave two parking spaces to everyone who took one parking space? What if, instead of calling the police when their houses were being burglarized, Christians helped the burglars carry heavy objects and gave them more than they had intended to steal?

There is practically no end to my objections to Christianity, and I don’t recall that even one of them has been answered in a manner that made the least bit of sense to me, this despite my very great desire to embrace the Christian faith. Yet, I have known many people who, though not Christians, expressed a great admiration for Jesus. Have they actually read all of the things he supposedly said? The part about abandoning your family and following him, or selling everything you own to buy a sword, or hiding the truth from those whom God doesn’t want to save?

There is the Jesus of the Bible and there is the Jesus of popular culture, and the Jesus of popular culture is kindly, patient, tolerant, peaceful, and forgiving. The Jesus of the Bible might have taught some of these virtues on occasion, but he was inconsistent in his teachings. He was also bad-tempered, humorless, prone to sweeping generalizations, intolerant of sects other than his own, disrespectful of his mother, had an adolescent zeal for offending his elders unnecessarily, insisted on teaching in parables even though his own disciples couldn’t figure out what he meant, and often acted contrary to what he professed to believe. Of course, most Christians seem to hold that Jesus meant for very little of what he said to be taken at face value. Well, okay then—I’ll leave it to them to interpret the words of their verbally challenged deity. Unfortunately, they can’t agree among themselves as to what he intended.

Out of mind, out of body; out of body, out of mind

I see my new neurosurgeon tomorrow to hear her thoughts about a spinal biopsy. Peggy is sick with worry and can’t understand why I am not. I tell her that my biggest fear is pain; my second fear is disability; and my last fear is death. I still have hope that I can stop the pain. The other two fears may or may not be realized, but pain is the only one I don’t think I can handle, yet it is the only one I am having to handle.

Permanent and unalterable pain would, in all likelihood, lead me to suicide. I should imagine that Peggy could better survive my demise if it wasn’t voluntary, and that is one reason I fear a fatal illness less than I fear pain. In the face of unalterable pain, a fatal illness would be a godsend. In the absence of a fatal illness, I might feel it necessary to continue my life on Peggy’s account alone.

I just hope I have time to finish editing my writing. When everything has been added to my blog, I will create a synopsis. Whether I am gifted at recording my life on paper, I cannot say, but there it is, the exemplary and the shameful, the trivial and the profound, the sane and the crazy, the boring and the entertaining; a quarter of a century worth. Very little will be left out; it will just be cleaned up for the sake of readability. I entertain little hope that anyone will be interested in it, and I can’t even think of a compelling reason why they should be, but such considerations are of no great importance; only the work is important.

If I had the wherewithal, I would seek publication, but that would mean taking topically oriented portions of what I have written out of journal form and putting them into chapter form. Next would come working with others to make my work saleable. I do not say that this is a low end, it is just not an end that I can see my way to accomplishing.

I’m tripping today, and I haven’t even taken any mind-altering medications since last night. I don’t altogether like the feeling because it’s too near the outer edge of control. I’ve been here before, and I know that all I have to do is ride it out as if I were a surfer…. I feel tired, cold; every thought and every fact seems equally and unbearably profound; every object looks equally distant. It is a very old feeling; it puts me in touch with my childhood, as if what I feel now, I felt then, and what I felt then, I feel now; as if time hasn’t moved, as if my whole life is happening at once, and I’m observing my life through eyes that aren’t entirely my own.

I think my present state comes from being too inwardly focused. I’m not taking on projects, not seeing people, not exercising, and not leaving home except to run errands; my mind is feeding on itself. I am tempted to stop surfing, to lie back and see what will happen, how bad it will get, and then to see what lies beyond how bad it will get. When we come to an intersection, are we really free to choose which way we go?

Do-It-Yourself acupuncture, fun with pain, fun with drugs for pain

I went to the acupuncturist eight times. Seven of those times, I saw no improvement. After the eighth, my shoulders felt better for a few days, and I could only think of two possible explanations. One was the acupuncture; the other was that the pain had gotten so bad that I had stopped doing almost everything. To test the first theory, I went to the acupuncturist one last time and asked him to do whatever he had done on the previous visit. This treatment didn’t work the same magic, but I took careful note of where he stuck me, ordered a box of needles, and have been doing acupuncture on myself. There seems to be a slight improvement, but since I am experimenting with other self-help approaches, I can’t pin it down (ha) to the acupuncture.

One of the humorous aspects of pain itself and the narcotics that relieve it is that you become a complete idiot. Yesterday, I got out the dogs’ collars, leashes, and poop bags; put on my windbreaker and bicycle helmet; and went for a walk. Pretend you are taking an IQ test, and you are asked to identify something that doesn’t belong in the above sentence. Right! But I didn’t find the correct word or words until I was halfway down the street, at which point I sheepishly returned home and put on my cap. Also yesterday, I was frustrated by not being able to find my keys. After a few minutes of furious looking, I discovered them……in my hand.

An updated account of how things have played out

When I last updated, the diagnostic neurologist had referred me back to the internist for cancer screening. The internist ordered a vertebral biopsy, said it could take a week to get it done, and told me to expect a phone call from whomever he referred me to. Unknown to me, he faxed referrals to three specialists (he apparently had doubts about which one was appropriate). When I received no call, I called the internist’s office repeatedly—or rather the internist’s office answer machine—to ask what was happening. I finally learned that two of the specialists had declared the procedure too risky (I have no idea why despite my best efforts to find out) and that the third specialist was insisting upon an open incision instead of a needle biopsy. I got the name of the third specialist and called her office. I was told that no referral had been received, so I commenced more calls to internist’s office. His referral clerk finally called back, and insisted that the referral was faxed a week ago. And so it goes, and so I wait… A procedure that was supposed to take one week won’t be done in two.

My dealings with doctors and their employees have led me to be more surprised when things go well than when they get fouled up, so I am far from childlike naiveté. Even so, having to struggle continually just to get people to do what they said would do, what they were hired to do, is awfully wearying. Clearly, if I had not badgered the internist’s office, I would not have heard from anyone. I have no doubt but what sick people die because they get lost in the shuffle and lack the strength to fight their way to the top. My problem is that the longer I have to put up with all this bullshit, the more obnoxious I am tempted to become. I can imagine calling twelve times a day to rub myself in their faces for being such fuckups. I don’t do this only because I know it would hurt rather than help.

My father had a spinal tumor removed in 1955. The surgeon told him that there was a greater chance of death than of recovery, but Dad said he didn’t really care as long as he escaped the pain. For months he had only been able to sleep standing in a corner propped on crutches. I always thought of my father as emotionally weak. Now I am in awe that he was able to keep from blowing his head off. Doctors then were even more reluctant to provide adequate pain relief than doctors today.

I took three different pills last night to knock myself out, yet I awakened five hours later in pain. I took a Vicodin when I got up, and wish I had something stronger, although I hate taking any narcotic because of the side effects and because the more I anesthetize myself now, the harder it will be to anesthetize myself after I start having surgeries. I had to get the Vicodin from the diagnostic neurologist—my surgical orthopedist just told me to go home and apply ice. I wish for him that he will someday feel the pain that I am experiencing.

It is hard for me to accept that I am but one patient among scores to my many doctors, and that most of them really and truly don’t give a rip. If they see me at all, it is only as whatever body part they specialize in. I can call their offices all I please, but I rarely get a real person, and when I do finally hear back, the caller is often someone who knows less than I did before I called. Then when I go in for an appointment, the typical doctor is in a hurry to get rid of me. I don’t take this personally. That’s the problem; the system is impersonal. No one means to behave badly; they’re just not rewarded for behaving well. The more patients, the more money and the more praise from their employers. The average doctor visit lasts six minutes.

Even so, I can’t say that all this has been a totally negative experience because it has given me a greater appreciation of my strength. Even with Lexapro, there are days when I am obsessed with suicide, and find a strange comfort in fantasizing how I would accomplish it (my latest plan is to make a paste of my medications and wash it down with cognac). Yet I know I won’t harm myself, at least not until I’m pronounced hopeless, and maybe not then. My reasoning used to be that it would hurt Peggy too much. That is still true, but I have also learned that good can—and already has—come from my suffering, and that it would be a mistake to block that good.

I used to be too willing to blame other people for their pain, to think that all they needed to do was to exercise, or think positively, or clean up their diet, or stop taking so many prescription drugs. Now, I see that it’s not the Army Rangers who are the toughest of the tough but the people whose lives might appear to be a complete mess. City buses invariably contain old people with walkers and bent up people in wheelchairs. With all my pain and disability, I look at them, and I don’t know how they do it. Their bodies are shriveled, yet their spirits keep moving. I can still walk, and see, and hear, and use my arms for something other than pushing a knob on a motorized wheelchair. No one has to shave me or change my underwear or cook my food. What I can no longer do is a loss, but what I can do is a miracle. There are times when several minutes pass during which I don’t think about how much I hurt, and I am more grateful for those minutes than I used to be for my entire life. There truly can be redemption in suffering, not that I would wish for another moment of it if I had the power to choose.

Buford Stewart and the unpardonable sin

I cursed God when I was twelve. I was delivering newspapers on my bicycle, and I remember the exact spot where it happened. By this time in my life, I was having serious misgivings about Christianity, and my recollection is that I let loose on God out of frustration. As I saw it, God had given Gideon not one sign but two really impressive ones, so I figured he could give me a sign too. Even a mediocre sign would do, I said, but the heavens remained silent, and my anger waxed hot. The curse was hardly out of my mouth before I remembered the Bible verse about the unpardonable sin, and there came into my heart an UH-OH feeling that would torment me for years.

“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation” (Mark 3:28-30)

Now, you would think that God would have gone to great pains to spell out just what constituted the unpardonable sin so that nobody would stumble into it accidentally, but he did not. Some think the sin is apostasy because, as they argue, an apostate wouldn’t ask forgiveness, and that would be the reason the sin was unpardonable. Others think it’s cursing the Holy Ghost, but why would God forgive a person for cursing two-thirds of his august being but not the final third? And why hold this one sin above all the others anyway? If God can’t forgive it, then he is not all-powerful; but if he won’t forgive it, he isn’t all-loving—or so it seemed to me.

In any event, I spent the next several years in mortal terror. Not everyday to be sure, but a lot of days. I would go through periods when my own certain damnation was all I could think about, but just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the fear would lessen. I couldn’t see living that way indefinitely, but I couldn’t see telling anyone what I had done either. When I was sixteen, I screwed up enough courage to drive out in the country to Buford Stewart’s house, Brother Stewart being a preacher whom I regarded highly. I posed my problem in what I hoped would pass for intellectual terms, something on the order of, “Brother Stewart, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the unpardonable sin, and I just sort of thought I would drive out to your house at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night in the hope that you might be able to tell me exactly what a person would have to do to commit it.” I don’t recall what he said, and I have no idea if he ever figured out where I was really coming from.

Brother Stewart died several years ago, and I miss him—or at least I miss knowing that he still walks upon the earth, for I hadn’t seen him since I was eighteen. He took me along on a revival to Kentucky once, to the area below Bowling Green. The families in whose homes we stayed were poor, and he and I were often obliged to sleep in the same bed. One night, he rolled over and put his arm around me. I knew he was sound asleep and thought himself home with his wife, so I lay real still—so as not to embarrass him—and he finally turned the other way. A poor man himself, he still turned down a pay raise so that the money could be used to “advance the gospel,” and I was mightily impressed by that since I knew there was no way I would have turned down more money, whether for the sake of Jesus or anyone else.

But what stands out in my mind most about him was how kindly and uncondescending he was to kids like myself—and how much he loved cornbread and buttermilk. As a boy, I could no more understand why a man would get all worked up about something so plain and omnipresent as I could understand why pigs loved slop. Now I too love cornbread and buttermilk, more than almost anything else, even more than things like lemon meringue pie and banana pudding made with vanilla wafers, and I often think of Brother Stewart when I eat them. Alas, like Father Abraham, I have moved to a heathen land where the people know not how to make cornbread the way God meant it to be made, neither do they know how to eat it, and I must therefore make my own. Selah.

May the Good Lord bless you, Buford Stewart, wherever you are, and may he be a far better God than your Church of Christ theology allowed you to imagine.

After death

Peggy fears being dead because she doesn’t know what awaits. I don’t fear being dead because I envision death as an everlasting sleep. There is irony in our divergence. Peggy was never a religious person. True, she was taken to church three times a week as a child, and was sent away to a Baptist College that required chapel and Bible classes; but religion never held any interest for her. She neither embraced nor rejected it—she simply didn’t think about it.

My parents were haphazard church-goes. If my father was in one of his religious phases; my family went. If he was in an atheistic period; we stayed home. Everyone but me, that is. I’ve belonged to four churches, visited scores of other Christian and non-Christian groups, and was even a non-resident editor for American Atheist Magazine. What I’ve never been in regard to religion was uninterested. If I don’t think about it so much anymore, it’s only because I’ve turned over every leaf and run out of leaves.

Yet, of us two, the one who never entertained questions about God fears death, and the one who has been consumed by the search for God has no such fear. Does this mean then that I am so sure that death is a state of non-being that I will admit no doubt? No, I could be wrong, but then I could be wrong about a lot of things that lack evidence. I could be wrong in thinking the earth is older than 6,000 years, or that polar bears and hummingbirds were divinely cursed because of an unfortunate incident involving a snake and a fruit tree. I could even be wrong in denying—as a branch of my early church believed—that an angry god will condemn to everlasting flames anyone who uses more than one cup for the “Lord’s Supper.” By the same logic, I must admit that my garage could be inhabited my invisible space aliens. After all, I can’t prove that it’s not.

I only fear being in pain while I’m still alive. The longer I hurt, and the more death looms as a real possibility, the less I fear it for itself. I would regret leaving Peggy, and I grieve in advance for all the other good things I would lose; yet I know that such grief is for the living, that the house of the dead is empty.

Here is my account of how things have played out

Here is my account of how things have played out current to yesterday. Most of it is actually true.

Early in 2006, an orthopedic surgeon operated on my left knee and made it worse.

I went to a yoga instructor because yoga is good for worse knees.

I went to an internist because yoga made my shoulders hurt.

I went to an orthopedic shoulder surgeon because that’s what the internist told me to do.

I went to a physical therapist because that’s what the orthopedic shoulder surgeon told me to do.

When physical therapy didn’t help, I went to a massage therapist who made my shoulders even more worse, and who told me to go to a dermatologist about some “funny looking moles.” (Ha, ha.)

I went to an acupuncturist because the more I read about shoulder surgery, the more scared I got—and because I remembered how my last joint surgery turned out. The acupuncturist stopped just short of offering me a money-back guarantee that he could “heal” my shoulders. $550 later my shoulders were worse. “That means the treatment is working,” he explained. “And what would it mean if they had gotten better?” I asked. “It would mean the same thing,” he offered. “WOW!” I said, scarcely able to believe my luck.

I then went back to the orthopedic shoulder surgeon who said, “Alas and alack, you have new symptoms that could mean you will need spinal surgery before you have the two shoulder surgeries; I am sending you to a neurological diagnostician.”

The neurological diagnostician ordered an MRI, a CAT, an EMG, an IRA, a thousand shares of Eli Lilly, and a nerve conduction study.

The radiologist who read the MRI and the CAT said, “Alas and alack, this man might have metastatic cancer in his fifth cervical vertebra.” He and the neurological diagnostician jumped up and down waving their arms in the air, squealing like little girls, and screaming, “Oh, gross!”

When they calmed down, the neurological diagnostician sent me to the internist whom I saw in the first place. “I thought you’d be back someday,” he grinned while rubbing his palms together in a manner reminiscent of a mortician I used to know whenever he had sold a rosewood coffin. The internist ordered a WBC, an HGB, an HCT, an RDW, a MCHC, an LDL, a PSA, and an XJ6. Everything but the XJ6 was a blood test so it’s not like I had to drive all over town to get them done—which was pretty much what I had been doing.

Meanwhile, I finally got in to see a dermatologist, and he presented me with a clean bill of dermatological health. He obviously missed class the day they taught new doctors to refer their patients to other new doctors in a permanent circle broken only by a patient’s death or insurance cancellation. This was the same day when all the new doctors hugged, cried, and knew they were full-fledged members of the medical fraternity.

Then I returned to the internist whom I saw in the first place to ask if he was happy with my blood tests and his vintage Jag. He said, “Alas and alack, you might indeed have cancer, but then again you might have osteonecrosis.” “DEAD BONE!?” I screamed, putting the root words together. “Dead bone,” he repeated sadly. “Worse yet, my XJ6 won’t be here in time for the weekend…. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, I’m sending you to a neurological surgeon for a biopsy.” I told him I was truly sorry about his XJ6. His eyes moistened with gratitude, and I patted his hand.

He then became thoughtful, turned pale, and upchucked some sturgeon eggs. “Please excuse me Mr. Thomas, but rotting bone marrow smells SO GROSS that even thinking about it makes me want to puke.” “More than ‘want to’ I would say, Mr. Doctor Man.”

That was yesterday. I am now waiting for a call from the office of the neurological surgeon. I’m told that I won’t hear anything until he hears from insurance, and that this could take a week or more. I am excited about having a bone biopsy because the anesthesiologist will give me Vercid before I am stabbed in the back with a humongous needle, and Vercid is an entertaining drug even if it does make me say things that I later regret.

Many doctors have made many monies, but no doctor has helped my shoulders, and now my back hurts too, and I might be dying—but I doubt it because I still have upwards of two million dollars in insurance coverage, enough to keep me alive at least until early January and maybe into February. My savings might be in the pockets of Wall Street bankers, Exxon Mobil executives, Communist China, and the military industrial complex, but, by god, I’ve got insurance, and if I’m lucky my everything will get well by itself before it’s all gone.