Archive | March, 2012

To make plans for life, you have to be alive

31 Mar

Everyone has core beliefs that chart how they live, how they behave and how they react. Those beliefs are trained into us as children, worked into us by experience and ingrained in us by outcomes that seem to reflect their validity.

The Golden Rule was trained into me. Not the sarcastic “he with the gold rules” rule, but the Christian version that dictates we treat others as we wish to be treated. I was raised in traditional Methodist family; baptized into the faith as a baby; indoctrinated into the church as a youngster and “got my Bible” as a 13-year-old.

I quit Sunday School about then when a teacher told me that God wouldn’t love a kid who missed a Sunday because he was hunting with his dad. I was willing to turn the other cheek, treat others – even the bully down the block – as I wished to be treated, but I wasn’t going to miss a day hunting with my dad.

When I turned 16 and a car gave us access to Michigan’s trout streams, my church attendance became spotty as well until one day my maternal grandmother – who had only just come to peace with the fact her children danced and played cards – challenged me about my lack of attendance.

“Gees, gramma. When I’m not in church right now, it’s because I’m fishing up on the Manistee… Gramma, there’s not much closer to God than standing waist deep in a trout stream on a beautiful spring morning, really.”

Her response was gentle and firm: She told me that if she could believe I was spending even one minute of that experience contemplating my immortal soul, she’d be okay with it… but she didn’t. “Mister, you need that hour every week. We all do.”

And I came to believe that if you did the right things for the right reasons, good things would come your way, and that with the Golden Rule became my personal approach to life.

And in many ways it worked beyond my dreams until last year. My family has had to face few of the dire challenges families routinely face. Our children were born healthy and bright. We grew in our chosen fields, and despite having to move frequently, we found ourselves fortunate in the wonderful people we met in our travels.

We had been so fortunate that I found we were really unprepared for suddenly without warning facing complex real-time and emotional upheavals.

It started in March of 2011 when I was unceremoniously fired from my job. No warning; no explanation. At age 64, I was suddenly on the outside of a profession that I had cherished for 36 years, and I had to come to grips with the fact that profession had no use for me any longer.

Hundreds of applications received no response whatsoever. The few responses I did get were either that I was over-qualified or were boiler plate that they had found someone who “better fits” our immediate needs – code for younger.

We had always been careful with money so we didn’t have too much to worry about in that quarter, but I struggled finding myself unemployed and unemployable for the first time since I was 16.

The retirement dream was never mine. I figured I’d work as long as I was able to perform to my standards, keep up with the pace and make a difference. I knew in the back of mind there would be signs and I’d have time to make plans for a change. I’d have time, say, to upgrade my vehicle while I could still qualify for a loan. Maybe do some final investment in the home to make the later years more comfortable. Who knew?

I fretted for almost a year. Then, on March 9, 2012 – just 12 days shy of my first anniversary of “being retired” – I got a perspective jolt.

We were notified that day that Susie was suffering from endometrial cancer and would require a radical hysterectomy. We were directed to a gynecology oncologist at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics in Iowa City who would do the specialized surgery.

Dr. Goodheart – no kidding, I’ve collected names that go with titles and I know this gentleman started out thinking he would be a cardiologist, but he is in his true calling if not his name. (Aside: Our first mortgage loan officer’s name was DeNial. The bone surgeon who operated on my hands when I was 15 was Dr. Patella.)

We’ve all heard the repartee: Serious? Serious as a heart attack. Cardiac arrest has little on cancer. On Monday we were Iowa City with an appointment. After his own inspection, surgery was scheduled for Wednesday and the rest of Monday was spent in pre-op tests. It was a 12-hour day, and we were grateful – if you’re not exhausted in these circumstances, sleep is hard to find.

Despite my cautions, Molly and Casey declared themselves “all in” on Wednesday. Casey would pick Molly up after work in St. Paul Tuesday night, spend that night in Rochester where Casey lives and meet us at the hospital at 10 a.m. Wednesday.

I had explained that if the operation was successfully completed through laparoscopy as planned, their mom would be home on Thursday, and they could come down for the weekend. It never occurred to me that they were coming for me and not her… I can be really dim at times.

We got together at 10, and they talked with Susie and touched her, wished her well, and finally we were sent off to the waiting room. I had been told that we would be notified when she went into surgery, updated during the surgery, and told when she was done.

My plan was to get word they’d started, and then go off in search of a shopping list of things we can’t get in our rural home … anything to keep from sitting, stewing in my own juice. I hadn’t planned on quiet, assured, moral support, but it dawned on me as my kids handled me over the next four-plus hours that I was indeed being adroitly handled by experts.

I appreciated it.

Susie had been told by a friend who had survived cancer surgery that the most difficult period is after the surgery, waiting for the pathology reports.

Dr. Goodheart was totally encouraged when he met us after Susie was in recovery. He told us that the operation had gone perfectly, and was a complete success. He said he didn’t see any sign of complications (code for indications the disease had spread) and then he started the count down: Of course, we’d have to wait for the pathology report on the samples such as lymph nodes, etc., to be sure of what to do next if anything.

Your life goes on hold waiting for the pathology report.

There’s an old gag about being so old you never buy green bananas. Waiting on the pathology reports is about as old as you can be. We were about to buy our fishing licenses when the local gynecology department handed us over to Goodheart. Our life went on hold.

Two of my favorite truisms are: “Want to hear God laugh? Make a plan.” And, “Life is what happens while you’re making plans…” Do the right things for the right reasons and good things will come your way?

Praying for the strength to be the man she thinks I am and the man she needs me to be became the litany of my daily walks. The spring-like weather has me searching for morel mushrooms while she recuperates on the couch, reading so she’ll be prepared if she can make the next book club meeting she’s supposed to host in May.

Experience, I’ve always believed, is the best teacher because it gives you the test first and the lessons after. Cancer is experience of the cruelest kind, but when it threatens the one you love more than life itself, it’s a sure cure for feeling sorry for yourself.

We are hosting a wedding between Casey and the lovely Jessica in August. It is to take place on the dock on our pond. It is a scene that Jessica has fallen in love with. Our lives have broken into two halves: Before the diagnosis and after.

Before the diagnosis, I had arranged a bloc of rooms at a local motel for wedding guests. Before the diagnosis, Susie had started contacting caterers to establish a time when the kids and Jessica’s parents could meet them, perhaps sample their wares before committing.

After the diagnosis Susie was the first to stir and start thinking about the future. She confirmed the time of the kids’ visit and then re-called the local providers to nail down firm appointments. It was tricky, but she persevered – call, sleep; call, sleep. She got it nailed down, and then rested.

She built a list for how I’d have the house ready for the visit. Life happens while you plan? You can only plan if you’re alive.

We are alive. The pathology report came back in short, direct statements. Stage 1 cancer; minimum invasion of less than 15 percent; and, the kicker, no further treatment indicated.

“It’s like I got my life back,” Susie said on hearing the report.

For me, too. Time to “get over it and on with it” where living is concerned. Time to buy those fishing licenses.


Birthday thoughts

2 Mar

Sixty-five years ago today, as a blizzard rampaged through central Michigan, Georgia Pearl Puffpaff Balcom went into labor for the second time in her life.

Clifton Waldo Balcom loaded his 6-year-old son, Richard, and his suffering wife into the family car and, despite the warnings of hazardous conditions, negotiated the 50 or so miles of M57 from Lincoln Lake to Carson City.

On March 3, 1947, Georgia delivered her second son, David Harry, so named on the condition that he would never be called “Davey.” That day she also consigned herself to 18 years of torturous agony at the hands of Rheumatoid Arthritis that had attacked her after the birth of her first son. Doctors had predicted that her apparent recovery from the dread disease could be derailed by a second pregnancy, but she was adamant that Richard not grow up an only child. Her pain would eventually be put to an end at the hands of Lupus. She was 48.

She has always been the standard for courage and commitment for her younger son; a standard he has never attained.

I couldn’t help but think of all this as I set out today to walk with the veteran Ark and tyro Kris as the first flakes of a forecast blizzard started drifting down through the stark reddish brown limbs of our forest.

The dogs romped in the skiff of snow, but the big, wet flakes were piling up fast. In fact, as we turned the corner to start a second lap around the woods, the snow had erased all sign of our first passage. A lap is only a quarter of a mile.

The quiet of a winter woods became muffled in the falling snow. The silence was accented by occasional sounds that are always out there. A flock of north-bound geese, snows and blues by the sound of them, passed over head but out of sight in the white-out sky.

An energetic squirrel tried out his “chuck a chuck” call, but gave it up after a few seconds.

Early March in Michigan is high school basketball tournament time, and everyone expects a blizzard during the tourney, so my birthday blizzard story was told and retold as I grew up. Even then I noticed the snow got deeper with each telling, but the real message was about the commitment my parents demonstrated to insure that I got a healthy start.

So what would they think of their younger and only surviving offspring if they could tell me? Georgia would be 95; Cliff would be 106.

It’s hard to know. It’s even hard for me to know how to react to this “milestone” birthday. My friend Jim Whitney in Pendleton, Oregon, drilled a point home when I asked him how it felt to turn 60. “I’m grateful when I think of all the guys I knew who didn’t make it that far.” Amen to that.

And I’m grateful for the good fortune that has blessed the people I love. Susie, Molly and Casey are and have been for the most part healthy and hardy all their lives. All of us at this age have friends who have had to deal with one of those tragic losses, and I’m very glad not to be one of those.

Kris’ ears flopped as he puppy-galloped on his stubby little legs to keep up with the long-legged Ark, and I remembered those days when my little legs were not able to keep up with my older brother and his friends. Like Kris, I whined in my frustration, and then celebrated wildly when I caught up with them. I didn’t know then, and Kris can’t comprehend, how keeping up with bigger and older makes a youngster strong.

Watching him romp gave me thoughts of what’s ahead. I’m coming to grips with the probability that my working career is over. I’m looking forward to the freedom to fish while others work; hunt the weather I want rather than the weekend weather I get.

I’m excited to consider becoming involved in a project to provide food to hungry people in our part of the world, and, as I’ve preached to my children, friends and strangers for years, the fastest way to getting over the blues or the blahs, is to get involved with helping strangers.

As I walked in that snow-filled woods this morning, I thought about the courage and commitment that my parents demonstrated 65 years ago, and felt an overwhelming urge to keep making a difference as long as I’m on this side of the turf.