#TimsNewLife

What a seven months it has been since my cancer diagnosis in October. What a six years it has been since I lost my job at the College.  During that time I’ve sent my first two children off to college, I’ve made a new and wonderful life for myself as a high school teacher–complete with new friends, new adventures, and new challenges–and it is one which has been far happier than the one I left behind.  

The interesting thing about staring cancer in the face for a few months is how it reorients one’s thinking.  It now appears as though the worst is behind me: I have recovered rapidly; I am back at work; the surgeon believes he got all of the cancer; and with each passing day I feel more like my old self.  I have held back very little in this blog so I’ll go ahead and say it:  to my great happiness, I was able to go back to school NOT wearing Depends! I only needed them for about three days.  And today I had my first post-surgery PSA reading and the results came back “undetectable.” Meaning no evidence of cancer cells.  One is not pronounced “cured” of prostate cancer for ten long years, so I’ll go in every six months until January 2025 to have my PSA checked. (You are all invited to a party on that day!)

There were a few dark days early on in this adventure–when my numbers looked serious and my PSA level had risen significantly in three months–when it dawned on me “I may not make it out of this alive; I may not live to see my grandchildren.”  As the news has gradually improved since then, it has given me the impetus to ask myself that Francis Schaeffer question: “How then should I live?” If this thing had gotten me, would I be satisfied with the life I have led? What do I want the rest of my life to look like whether it is a few years or many years? How do I want to be remembered by my children and grandchildren?  A health analysis at Roswell estimated that, apart from Prostate cancer, I can expect to live another 34 years. So now that (it appears) I have been given the precious gift of being around to bug you all for another three and a half decades….what should those years look like?  How do I want to set my sails for this sweet journey I’ve been given? This new lease on life is absolutely exhilarating!
I don’t quite have a plan in place yet, I don’t have any plans to run off and join a traveling rock band.  I don’t make enough money to buy a Corvette and head out to see the world.  And I am blessed to already love the work that I do. But I do know that I want to worry less and laugh more.  I want to spend less time stooped over endless stacks of papers and more time interacting with my students and pouring myself into them and being sure that they know I love them.  I know that I want to travel more and I want to see my friends in real life and not only in facebook pictures.  I want to live a life and not watch others live an imaginary one on television. And I also have resolved to work on my blog to record and process this next phase of my adventure. You are all welcome to follow along for the ride.  #TimsNewLife

Dreams

The Day I Became a Dad

21 Years ago…March 27, 1994

It felt as if I had waited my whole life to be a dad.  I have always enjoyed being around kids and even babies. When Uncle Bruce and Aunt Kathie adopted Brian in 1969 I was enchanted:  I said to Aunt Kathie, “Finally there is someone I can tell, ‘I knew you when you were a baby.’  Three years later they adopted Suzanne.  When two members of my church family, Wayne and Marilyn, adopted precious little Robbie, he and I became inseparable on Sundays and at youth group activities.  I loved carting him around.  Then two other dear church friends Bob and Betty McClimans adopted Celynd and she gave me my first real experience with childcare. In the summer of 1978 her parents were stuck without a babysitter for the summer and I had not yet found a summer job.  Suddenly I found myself–a college freshman–caring for a baby: feeding, diapering, bathing ….everything. And, I loved it.

Loving all of those wonderful adopted kids always made me wonder whether God was preparing me to be an adoptive parent.  And in fact, it took me so long to get married, I was not sure if I was ever going to be any kind of a parent.  By that time I had doted on several nieces and nephews. Spending Amanda’s first year living near them in Nyack and seeing my precious little niece every day only deepened my desire for fatherhood. In 1992 I finally did get married, and then to my surprise–but delight–we found ourselves almost immediately pregnant. (So much for my paranoia about infertility.) But to our great sorrow, we lost that baby at about six weeks.  When our dear obstetrician–Dr. Miller–told us the news, he broke down and wept with us. Again, I wondered if I would ever realize my dream of fatherhood.  In the sad empty void after the miscarriage I got started on a PhD program.

Then in February of 1994, we discovered that we were once again expecting a baby.  Sally and Chris were both expecting babies that spring and we went down to visit New Wilmington on Palm Sunday weekend.  We’d been to church that morning and I was in the kitchen helping Mom fix dinner when Olga appeared in the doorway with an ashen look on her face.  I knew something was terribly wrong.  “It’s happening again,’ she said.  We jumped into the car and hurried down to the emergency room at Jameson Hospital in New Castle.

There we encountered an ER doctor whose command of the English language was somewhat lacking.  He explained “threatening miscarriage, perhaps an ultrasound will tell us if baby alive.” Olga lay on a gurney and I knelt beside it and we cried and prayed.  They had to summon in an ultrasound technician who had a long drive to the hospital.  That endless, agonizing wait at Jameson is seared into my memory forever.  When the technician finally arrived, still wearing his civilian clothes, he took us off to another wing.  As we passed through the lobby, I saw that my sweet mom had driven in after us, still in her Sunday clothes, the uneaten Sunday dinner still on the table.  She sat in the waiting room and gave me a brave and encouraging smile as we whisked past.  I knew she was praying for us.

The technician–who spoke English as his first language–was very kind and friendly.  He explained that an ultrasound at only about five weeks may not show anything at all as that was barely enough time for the heartbeat to begin.  I asked if he would tell us what he saw.  “That’s against policy,” he explained, “the doctor has to go over the results with you.” That seemed so unfair and illogical to me, the man in the ER was not our doctor and he barely spoke English, but I was too emotionally spent to try to argue against the policy.  He looked sympathetically at our tear-stained faces as he hooked up the equipment.

Time seemed to freeze as he rolled the sensor around Olga’s stomach, searching for any sign of life…my hopes dwindled.  Then….”I SEE A HEARTBEAT!” he crowed!  Then immediately, “Don’t tell them I told you!” He guided our eyes to the screen and showed us a faint little flicker in the fuzzy pattern.  It mostly looked like a TV channel that was not coming in.  But once he put his finger on it, we could see the steady pattern that he meant.

I know that people agonize deeply over the question of when life begins, and I’m not here to attempt to answer that question for anyone else, I know only that in that moment, I became a father: In that moment, I first glimpsed Anthony Jay Nichols, who would arrive safely about 30 weeks later.  In that moment, I fell in love with that teeny-tiny pinprick of a heartbeat, as surely as I love him today as a big, strong, senior in college.  If anyone had tried to harm that microscopic beating heart, I could have torn him apart with my bare hands.  My 21-year (and counting) adventure as a father–the greatest in my life–began on that glorious afternoon.

“I guess the world is not a wish-granting factory.”

In a wonderful example of cosmic irony, I made my annual pilgrimage to my dermatologist on Monday, Oct. 13th where, upon the 20th anniversary of my melanoma, he declared the book closed on that cancer case.  On Thursday, Oct. 23rd, my urologist told me I had prostate cancer.  Thanks universe: it was a swell ten days.

I first learned that my PSA level was a little elevated this past summer.  “It is probably nothing,” my doctor said, “but let’s have you see a urologist.” “It may be nothing,” the urologist said, “but let’s have you do another blood test to see.”  “I wish I had better news,” my urologist said when he called with the results of the second blood test.  And so it was that I found myself lying on an examining table in Rochester undergoing a biopsy a couple of weeks later, quite literally the biggest pain in the ass I have experienced yet.  After those results came back with more bad news, I headed back to Rochester last week for two more tests to determine whether the cancer has spread to my bones or my lymph nodes.  When you first hear that you have prostate problems, I think every man first worries about whether he will end up wearing Depends or worse, with a loss of function below the equator, so to speak.  It is amazing how words like “bone scan” and “lymph nodes” change the equation of what we have to worry about.  The doctor says I have a “medium grade” cancer which means that there is a medium level of concern that it has or will spread and so it must be treated.

This past weekend was a dark and gloomy one. Worrying about my prostate interspersed with doing prep for teaching Edgar Allan Poe next week.  Great timing on my part. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to focus on my schoolwork Friday night when I saw my son bounding into the house, returning from his Halloween party. But as the figure drew closer, I realized it was not JonDavid at all, but his long-lost sister: Samantha. I had dropped her off at William & Mary in August and did not expect to see her again until Christmas.  But when she got the news about my health woes she began cobbling together planes, trains, and automobiles to make a surprise trip home to cheer me up.  From the time she was born I’d always sung to her, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey.” And indeed she has always been my sunshine, never more than this weekend.

Beyond Samantha’s surprise, I’ve been blessed by such great friends in this ordeal.  One of the first people I told my dismal news was my dear Academy buddy, Janyce Smithley. I couldn’t have a better support at work than Janyce.  She cries with me when I need to cry, tells me jokes and funny stories when I need to laugh, and comes around offering chocolate and cookies in between.  “Anytime you feel like you can’t handle one of your classes, come and get me, I’ll take over for you!” she offered.  If any of you ever have to go through something like this, I hope you have a Janyce in your life!

Also on Friday evening, I had such a special visit from two of my favorite people, Bev Rhett and her son Thomas.  Bev is on her own cancer journey and has only recently returned from several months of treatments down in Virginia.  As soon as she heard about my prostate problems, she and Thomas put together a basket full of cancer-fighting food and snacks, a copy of her favorite book “Anti Cancer: A New Way Of Life” and an orchid plant, loaded up their precious puppy, Lincoln, and came over and paid me a much-needed visit.  Bev came to offer advice, love, wisdom and support as I begin my own journey. While Lincoln and Tillie romped around the house together, Thomas and Bev cheered me up with their loving friendship and support.

Be it resolved already that if I make it through this, I want to be a Janyce and a Bev to anyone who is struggling with cancer.  Ugh, that revolting word. I am reading what I can on prostate cancer and treatment options and most of what I read just makes me want to cry.  But I know that I am going to have a lot of decisions to make in the days and weeks ahead.  This is one of those times in life when I desperately wish that I could change the channel, but sadly, that is not an option.  If the cancer has not spread beyond my prostate, then I am facing a less deadly battle that will hopefully be more annoying than anything else.  If it has spread…then God help me.

The Great Western Trip

Tonight we finally pulled into our driveway a little before 9pm, tired, satisfied, glad to get out of the van, and happy to see the pets. Even as happy as I am to be back, I’d gladly climb back into the van if it meant that we could have more time with every friend along the trip. I’ve started to upload some more trip pictures onto facebook and the kids, who until about four days ago were on Pacific time are having trouble winding down and getting to sleep, so they are still upstairs talking and planning a slumber party. Perhaps the sweetest part of the day was Anthony thanking me tonight for the trip and saying “It did turn out to be a good idea after all Dad.” That really meant a lot as I know he was missing his girlfriend a lot on the whole trip but he still enjoyed the experience, which was what I was hoping for. I was asking them tonight about their favorite aspects of the trip and while they all had particular favorites a few themes emerged: they all mentioned Glacier National Park as being the best sight, playing with their Spokane cousins, the Mall of America, deep-dish pizza & Tyler LeVan, Pete Sbanotto’s eggplant parmesan, and they all loved Oregon. But the longer we talked, the more apparent it became that they’d really enjoyed all the different segments of the trip, if not the long car rides in between. I’m so, so grateful for this experience of a lifetime and thought I would conclude with a few last thank yous and reflections:  First of all, thanks be to God: we prayed for safety and had it in abundance, secondly, thanks to our old van – Eight years old, 145,000 miles, and not a speck of trouble on the whole trip, even driving over the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide, and through the 115 degree Arizona desert!

Trip by the Numbers:

Miles on the van: 8191

States visited: 27

Number of new states for me: 5 bringing my total to 48!

License Plates spotted: 48 – We still have not found Delaware or Rhode Island – TWO cars from Hawaii made it, but no one from Delaware or Rhode Island can even make it to Ohio?! Obviously I’m still bitter! I’m extending the deadline until the end of August!)

Calories Consumed/”Hey guys! Look at that!”/Vacation-Griswold Family References: Too Many to Count!

Even though I goaded the kids into picking favorites, I really loved every moment of the trip so much, that I don’t know that I can narrow it down to any specific favorite. I did have these thoughts:

Things I’ll miss most about the trip:

  • Renewing old friendships
  • The Open Road
  • Having the kids always within five feet
  • Hotel Jacuzzis
  • Stopping for 64 oz. Diet Cokes

Things I won’t miss about the trip:

  • Stopping at every rest stop in America because of my addiction to 64 oz diet cokes
  • The smell from the back of the van (“Anthony?! Was that you?! No! It was JonDavid! No! I wasn’t me…”)
  • Goodbyes

Things I want to be sure and include on our next Western Trip: 

  • Bring Sabrina along!
  • Stay LONGER everywhere we went this time: Especially MN, Chicago, MT, OR, and AR!)
  • Add Yosemite and Sedona
  • Spend a full week in Glacier!
  • Always stay at Red Lion Inns!
  • Spend a full week in California visiting friends
  • Get a classic car and cruise Old Rte. 66

But if I did have to pick a broad category for my favorite experiences on the trip it would be this – watching all of these dear friends throughout all the chapters of my life interacting with my kids and being so sweet to them – whether it was watching them so comfortable and at home at the Trudeaus, or listening to Leslie LeVan laughing with them, or Dan Foley treating them to the rides and aquarium at MOA, or Ann Snowberger instructing them on the finer points of marriage, rafting, and rattlesnake hunting, or Sara Hall fixing blizzards for them on a hot afternoon, or perhaps my favorite: Pete Sbanotto hosting a Texas Hold’Em tournament for them while Elaine toured Olga and me around town! It has all been such a great reminder about what wonderful friends I have and how much I love all of them.

Now somehow I have to come back down to earth and resume my regularly scheduled program which this year isn’t particularly one of my favorite episodes: “In Which Tim turns 50, loses his job, finds his first issue of the AARP magazine in the mailbox when he gets home from the trip, and has to go on a big fat diet to make up for a month of unbridled eating!”

Years ago Mindy sent me a greeting card that said “I’ve woven the memories of our times together into a patchwork quilt and when life gets hard or lonely or cold, I wrap up in that quilt to keep warm.” That is what this trip has provided for me – a wonderful quilt of new memories with old friends.