Everyone Knows Someone

(If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you know why this issue is ever-present in my mind.)

I read this comment the other day: “Everyone knows someone who has had cancer.” Someone? As in one? Off the top of my head, I can name ninety people I’ve known personally who have had a cancer diagnosis. Ninety! Not ninety people I’ve heard of. Not celebrities or friends of friends. Ninety people whose hands have touched mine. People I love—family and friends, work colleagues, teachers, childhood play pals or schoolmates, and a few more distant acquaintances.

If I try making a list tomorrow, it will be different. I’ll remember new folks and inadvertently overlook some on today’s list. But today’s list looks like this: breast, 34 (!); prostate, 11; blood, 5; brain, 5; colon, 4; lung, 4, skin, 4; tongue, 2; cervical, 1; and others—those diseases whose names I don’t know or are too complicated to spell out here, 20. (btw, 34 related to me, 17 of them by blood)

And those are just the people I happen to know about (and that my brain recalls). There are friends and relatives I’ve lost contact with. I don’t know their stories. And some people are more private about personal issues. My best friend might have cancer and decided not to share, at least not yet.

Is this—ninety—is this normal? Seventeen blood kin? Is that the way it looks for others? Or am I the only one in touch with so many whose lives have been hijacked by this awful disease?

Now, I know cancer is an inclusive term for more than a hundred so-called different diseases, but they are a family, all identified by abnormal cell growth that spreads and crowds out healthy cells and interferes with necessary body functions and steals nutrients from tissues.

Cancer is a cruel disease, mean, vicious, painful. One whose treatments can be as bad or worse than the disease itself. It doesn’t matter how good you are, how old or young, what gifts you have for the world—cancer doesn’t care.

At least some people with cancer have found unexpected gifts along the way. Some of us know how to do that—to find some good, to learn something valuable, to grow, even in the most difficult of circumstances. But that doesn’t negate the atrocity of the disease itself.

For forty percent of the people on my list, cancer, or complications thereof, was their cause of death—mind you, some of those deaths are from as far back as the 1950s when early detection and advanced treatment technologies we have today simply didn’t exist. Others have almost sailed through treatment and are, at least at the moment, cancer-free. For still others, an uncertain prognosis hangs over them like the sword of Damocles. That sword actually hangs over everyone who has received a cancer diagnosis, whether they’ve been declared ‘cured’ or not, because those potentially deadly cells can hang around, unseen, for years. Every next check-up is a question mark.

People live with that question mark or that sword in different ways, but are rarely, if ever, unaware of it.

The same is true for those who love them.

Three Little Words

(I wrote the following a little more than two years ago, knowing it wasn’t yet time to post it. Now the time has come. It may be a little disjointed since it was more or less stream of consciousness. I thought it better to leave it as it was, only adding an update.)

Three little words. Thirteen letters. Words that will dramatically change your life.

You hope not to hear them. But you have that feeling in your gut. You wait for them.

He has your fate in his hands. Why is he keeping you waiting? Doesn’t he know you’re anxious?

Finally, you hear the light tap on the door before it opens and he walks in.

And there they are. Those three little words. Laid bare.

“You have cancer.”

You’re different now.

Except that you aren’t. The truth was already there. The cancer was already there. You are the same today as you were yesterday. Your fate wasn’t in the doctor’s hands. What he said didn’t change a single fact. It just changed what you know.

Today you know a thing you didn’t know yesterday, or even a moment ago. You suspected it. Maybe you feared it. But you didn’t know it. Yet, it was there.

You have cancer.

You had it yesterday.

You had it last week.

Nothing is different today except that you know it. And you’ll know it tomorrow. And the day after that. And the next day. Forever.

If you hadn’t made that appointment, you wouldn’t know it today, either. But you’d still have it. Nothing can change that truth.

* * * * *

For the few weeks we were waiting for the biopsy and then the results, we made a conscious decision: we weren’t going to worry about it. It either was or wasn’t. Nothing we could do, say, think, or get worked up about would change a thing. We could hope for the best and prepare for the worst, but nothing would change what was. We went on about our daily lives.

And now we know. The question now is what to do about it. Here’s what.

Get informed. Listen to the doc. Take notes; review them. Ask questions. Read the literature. Research.
Get a second opinion or consultation, if we want. (We didn’t. It was pretty straightforward.)
Make a treatment decision.
Tell the family.
Make plans.
Do what it takes: schedule surgery, get radiation, take meds—whatever the regimen is.

But most of all, meanwhile and forever, live life.

You can’t change what is, but you can decide to continue doing what matters. You can make the best of what you have. Cancer may change you. It may not. It may shorten your life or it may not. So may or may not any number of other things. With or without a cancer diagnosis, your decision should be the same: live whatever life you have the best you can. On your own terms.

I’ve heard it said everyone will get cancer if they live long enough. Some people get it sooner, but eventually, if something else doesn’t do you in first, it will be cancer. It is part of life itself. At a certain point, your body starts to turn on you. Metabolism slows. Bones get brittle. Joints creak. Age spots and wrinkles appear. Hair thins. Minds become less elastic, less quick. And maybe your cells get all out of whack. It is all part of the end. The end starts at the beginning.

We won’t forget those three words, those thirteen letters. Certainly not that one, loaded, six letter word. We’ll do what it takes. But we won’t stop living. Tonight we’ll sleep snuggled together (maybe a little closer). Tomorrow we’ll get up, dress, make and eat breakfast, check e-mail, harvest vegetables, mow the grass. We’ll plan our upcoming trip. We’ll laugh.

Cancer is now a part of us. But cancer will not define us. Cancer will not control us.

P.S. The cancer diagnosis was not for my body. It was for his. But it somehow feels the same. At least for me. He agrees, but there’s surely a difference when it’s actually your body. Nonetheless, from the first moment we heard the three word pronouncement, both of us have thought in terms of “we.” The surgery, the treatment, the decisions, the life we lead—they’re ours together. And we aim to make the best of it.

Update: The diagnosis was prostate cancer. For eighteen months after the surgery, there was no evidence any cancer cells remained. Then, just like that, it was back. (If you’re so inclined, you can read Ron’s version of this story and journey here and here.)

The very good news is there is no indication that it has spread beyond the prostate bed, and a combination of hormone and radiation therapy seems like a winning strategy. For now, we’re waiting for the radiation oncologist and his team to complete mapping a therapy plan so radiation treatments can begin.

Off and on, I’ll likely use this blog space to share more thoughts and experiences about how we’re navigating this new territory in our lives. Stay tuned.

Good Vibrations!

(Date stamp: late afternoon, August 3, 2019)

The Gnome and I don’t do all that much entertaining up here on the diagonal. That’s partly choice and partly circumstance. It’s funny, because as we were planning our open design floor plan all those years ago, we pictured lots of people milling about and even imagined having only giant floor pillows for seating so they could easily be shoved out of the way for more milling or even dancing.

I don’t know why we thought we’d be party-givers here—we hadn’t hosted many get-togethers back in Kentucky, either, though those few we did were always fun, whether is was sharing an evening of the Mille Bornes card game (with my French teacher colleague, of course) or hosting a Thanksgiving potluck with almost more people than could fit into our small suburban tract home.

Perhaps we had visions of showing off the fruits of our hand-building labor, but that was before the hustle-bustle of gymnastic lessons and competitions, track meets, and cross-country races. And it was before we realized we’d be living in a construction zone for years to come.

The way our forever home looked when we moved in–horizontal girts make perfect narrow shelves in our designated kitchen space.

But today was one of our rare company occasions. It was an almost-last-minute, spur-of-the-moment event, which probably made our day all the more enjoyable. We just relaxed our way into it. Our guests included my college roommate, Jan, and her spouse. The four of us had shared several outings in our college days, but decades intervened before we found our way back to each other. Only three visits in the last couple of years, each one making us wonder why we wait so long.

The other couple we’d never met.

For a couple of introverts, that’s the kind of thing that could create a pile of anxiety. But Lyn and I serendipitously and inadvertently had gotten to know each other rather well on social media—through Jan. (They are in-laws.) We became instant pals, each intrigued by the other’s life experience and appreciative of our common values. With Jan’s help, we’ve been trying to get together for a while, so today was a very big day.

Lyn has been eager to see what our ‘modern homesteading’ life is all about. If she was disappointed to learn that we keep no animals and that our garden is at rest this year, she didn’t show it. Instead, she—and all our guests—wanted to know how and why we up and left a familiar life and tried our hands at hand-building a home in a strange place, pretty much away from everything.

Working from the second story

Well, they got answers—and how! The thing is, since the Gnome and I are sort of on the reclusive side, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about this life we’ve chosen and the experiences we had living in a tent and then a barely less flimsy structure while clearing our land, leveling a hillside, and wielding hammer and saw as we also raised our family.

Our first ‘home’ on the diagonal

Oh, we were in our element, talking about those early days. Retelling our story today brought back so many memories—funny, daunting, and sometimes scary. It reminded us just how proud we are of the home and life we’ve built in this little slice of paradise. There are lots of other reasons our visit today was so special, but revisiting our early days on the diagonal warmed our souls.

So, thank you Lyn and Jan and Bob and Jim for rekindling old memories. I can guarantee we’ll go to sleep tonight with big smiles on our faces.

Friends, old and new

A Day in the Life

We could have been washing dishes. We could have been cleaning the bathroom. We could have been weeding in the garden or mowing the lawn or taking care of any of the other chores on our frighteningly long to-do list. But we didn’t do any of that.

Instead, we sat for more than an hour watching ‘our’ baby Carolina wrens. Sometimes, we stood—to get as close to the screen door as possible to watch the mesmerizing sight in front of us.

The parents showed up about two months ago, first razing their former home, presumably in anticipation of a major remodel. Sticks and leaves were strewn all over our deck floor. Ultimately, they chose an alternate site—on the opposite end of the deck, but in a similar location. They did well, choosing a crevice so tiny and well-hidden that their babes were almost sure to be safe.

The nest is in the cranny beyond where these two boards intersect. It’s only one and a half inches wide in there. How can a whole family of wrens plus a nest can fit into such a small cavity?

For two months we’ve watched the wrens bringing, first, sticks and grasses and other building material and, next, bits of food for the nester and then the chicks. We’ve listened to Mr. sing his beautifully melodic songs to Mrs. and, later, his babes. He has many songs, and they can be ear-piercing. How can so much sound come out of such a diminutive being? And for two months we’ve been loudly and soundly scolded whenever we dared to venture onto the deck. We know when Mama raccoon is around because she gets the same insistent scolding.

And for the last couple of weeks, we’ve heard the almost unceasing chirps of young wrens begging for their next meal. In the last few days, we’ve noticed a head or two peeking out from their refuge, too eager and curious to stay concealed.

But today—today was different. First one, then a second, and—surprise—a third, slipped out into the open, standing on the wooden beam that supports their home. One ventured even further away from its protected nest. It tested its little wings. It slipped and almost fell, but clawed its way back up. One at a time, the birdlings peered over the edge into what must have seemed an abyss.

One soon-to-be fledgling eyes the horizon while the next investigates the gaping distance to the deck floor and the third lingers at the opening to its nest, ready to dart back in if danger appears.

We were sure this would be the day, the day they would fledge. As many birds as have nested near our home over the years, fledging is an activity I’ve never witnessed, and I didn’t plan to miss it. Not unless they dilly-dallied until we had to leave for an important appointment. I stayed glued to my seat. The Gnome had to go upstairs for a brief shower. “There are four of them!” I cried as another head popped out. “Five! “No, six!” He made it back downstairs in record time.

By the time the last two bashfuls made an appearance, the second bird had joined its sibling on the beam. Their four brothers and sisters, lined up like a chorus of dancers waiting for their cue, weren’t going to miss the big event any more than we were. Perhaps they were gathering courage.

The most adventurous, the first to slip out onto the ledge, finally made its leap of faith. It wasn’t a long flight—just a couple of feet, but it was a huge success, nevertheless.

The wren on the left has flown all the way over (barely down at all) to a cross beam and gives an encouraging look to the one still pondering its options.

Then off flew another, and another, until finally only the most timid little bird was left, alone and surely waffling between the desire to be brave and free and a wish to hold onto the security of home.

Clinging to the beam

Mama brought a last bite of nourishment. That was all it took. The last little bird took the longest flight of all.

We cheered. We hugged. We cried.

We’ve been reading North Carolina writer Leigh Ann Henion’s book, Phenomenal, for the last week. She traveled the globe to explore the world’s greatest natural wonders. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful tale, full of awe and wonder and great truths. I highly recommend it. Yet, today, we experienced our own exhilarating phenomenon. And we never left the living room.

And then there were none.  No more begging, no more scolding, and nearly a year’s wait for the gusty, mellifluous songs heralding that a new generation is on the way.

 

 

 

 

Celebration

 

Today marks a big anniversary in the Gnome and Crone’s household. Exactly forty years ago, our family began our biggest-ever family adventure when we came to this little corner of paradise to stay. Two thirty-something adults, two children only weeks away from their sixth and ninth birthdays, and two formerly housebound cats. We came with a suitcase each of clothes, a tent, and not much else except a whole lot of enthusiasm. Almost everything else—including jobs and any sense of financial security—we left behind.

We’d seen our property twice before—once in early April when we signed the contract, and again in late May. There was no sign of spring on either of those visits.

We had expected our Memorial Day weekend trip to be filled with clearing debris. Wearing nothing more than shorts, tees, and flip flops, we were unprepared when we opened the tent flap the next morning to snow! Clearly, we had a lot to learn about living in the mountains.

But this time was different. On July 2, 1979, summer was in full swing. No longer bare, the five acres of woods were lush with full-leafed maple, oak, beech, poplar, cherry, locust, and wild magnolia trees. The almost equally large section of open meadow was a massive sea of daisies, with the occasional black-eyed Susan thrown in for variety. It took my breath away.

The first few days were for exploring. We discovered the delicate deliciousness of tiny wild strawberries growing everywhere; we visited our wooded mountain creek; we discovered an old locust fence in the edge of the woods along our east boundary line; we found twists of downed trees and ferns and mushrooms and wildflowers.

We found home.

Forty years later, things look a bit different around here. Most of the meadow is gone, thanks to trees sprouting up when mowers were out of order or when we were too busy with life to get around to mowing. We jumped on the Christmas-tree-growing bandwagon and planted a few hundred Fraser Fir and Norway Spruce seedlings. Those, too, got out of hand. Today, they are crowded evergreen giants making a home for birds and other wildlife. Most of the daisies have gotten crowded out.

Just the lower portion of a few overgrown Christmas trees

We got the house built—and decades later, rebuilt. All with our own hands. As dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfers, we can’t bear to farm out any of the work on our place even if that means it gets left undone for far too long.

But we have done a lot. We cleared the land of some trees and over time planted more; we built our forever home with our four hands—as well as the help of four much smaller hands (setting out the building lines, foundation, plumbing, electrical, roofing—the whole bit); we built a spring house and pumped water up from the creek; we built a couple of outbuildings.

We started and abandoned one garden only to begin again a few decades later. This time we enclosed a 5400 square foot space, a space where many of those gorgeous daisies once lived, for vegetables and fruits—we’ve been working on that project for four or five years now, and we do a pretty good job of feeding ourselves from it throughout the year.

 

 

(It may not look like it, but that 5,400 sq ft of enclosed garden space (ready for planting) could hold six clones of our house with a decent amount of space left for landscaping. A couple days’ worth of harvest in pictures 2 and 3.)

Most of all, we raised a family. A family where our children learned the value of making do, of making their own fun, of how to do things with their hands, of learning by doing, and that it’s okay to take (certain) risks—to try new things with an entire world of unknowns in front of you.

(Hover over each photo for caption.)

And now, we have grandchildren to share it all with, too.

It’s been a good forty years. We are looking forward to many more.

     

Same view (more or less) 1979 and 2019. Our road is under the snow.

 

    

Version 1.0 in need of serious rehab after 30 years vs. Version 2.0

If you want to learn more about our early homebuilding experience, you can start here.

Dancing Trees

DSCF7829

The Gnome has enjoyed playing a woodlands game with our grandchildren during their respective toddlerhoods. He’ll pick them up, hold them in his arms, and place their ears next to one of the large trees in our small forest. “Shh,” he’ll say, in his own hushed voice. “Listen.” After a few pregnant seconds, he asks if they can hear the tree.

Inevitably, they do. Is the unfettered imagination of childhood innocence at work, or are the sounds real? Whatever, watching a small child’s eyes light up, a grin spreading across a lollipop-cheeked face—such moments are pure magic.

On these spring days and nights when the wind skims across the peaks of our mountains in its furious attempt to get who-knows-where, it leaves a few things in its wake.

The crack of still-bare limbs clanging against each other as if they’re engaged in some ancient battle, wooden branches as swords, breaks the silence. Sometimes, one cuts the other to the quick, sending it crashing through other branches on the way to its final destination below.

The wind has an entirely different effect on other trees. Norway spruce and Fraser firs we once imagined growing into a profitable Christmas tree business overwhelmed us—and everything else around. Today, they are jolly evergreen giants, having grown to eighty feet or more, long branches drooping under their own verdant weight.

Wind bends, but never breaks, these resilient trees. Instead, they nod their heads to each other in rhythmic time, their outstretched branches bowing and swaying as if in some sort of complicated old folk dance. It seems they’re almost smiling, wordlessly saying, “It’s okay. I’ve got you covered.”

And they have, in a way. In such close proximity, each supports and shelters its neighbors from the wind’s potential danger. Even more, they create a haven for the wildlife that give us so much pleasure: deer, bears, the squirrels who race through branches in the height of their springtime romantic frenzies, hoppy rabbits, stripey skunks, and of course, the myriad songbirds who seek solace and grow little bird families in the protection of their branches.

 

The long, graceful, ballerina arms of our tallest neighbors wave at me through the glass door that defends me from wind’s ravages. They invite me to join their happy dance. And I do, if only with a smile as I wave back.

Nothin’ But a Hound Dog (Or a Hundred or So)

The Gnome and I took a day off last weekend. In theory, we can do that every day of the year now that we are repurposed. Reality is a bit different. We’re each working on major projects, and we push ourselves as if the world will end if we don’t finish sooner rather than later. Actually, that’s the truth—we have way more days behind us than we could ever hope to have in front of us. One day our time will run out and chances are we’ll still have more than a few unfinished projects lying about.

I think that’s the way I prefer it. Much better to be in the middle of something I care about, anticipating the results, than twiddling my thumbs feeling that there’s nothing left to do.

But back to our day off. We decided to visit a small, picturesque waterfall in the small county that borders ours. I’d never seen it, never in our almost forty years here even heard about it until a few months ago. In his work, the Gnome had driven past but, zipping by in a car, he hadn’t had a chance to stop and enjoy it, either.

Falls and a swallowtail at Newland’s Waterfalls Park (Photos by Ron Wynn)

After soaking in the beauty of the place for half an hour or so, we decided to continue on the same rural road to a popular general store, dipping and climbing on curvy mountain roads. Our route took us through the unincorporated community of Cranberry, population 500 or so. (Even before it was settled in 1850, Cranberry was known for having one of the largest veins of iron ore in the United States.)

We passed the grounds of the former high school, which is now being used for occasional community events. The place was crammed with cars and trucks, mostly trucks. A metal yard sign next to the road read, “Heritage Day.”

That sounded like fun. We whipped the car around and headed back. As we drove onto the property, our ears were assaulted with barking, howling, yelping,  baying. We found ourselves surrounded by dogs, dogs, and more dogs. More than a hundred, we were sure. Dogs with their wiggly noses sticking out of car windows, crated dogs in pickup truck beds, dogs pulling people on leashes, dogs tied to fence posts on the shaded lawn. They were not, not a one of them, sleepy yard dogs. These dogs were on the alert. They were, in the truest sense, rarin’ to go.

Hound dogs.

Have you ever heard a hundred hounds baying simultaneously? Well, let me tell you, it’s deafening, each dog with a distinctive and  urgent voice. We couldn’t help but smile.

This was a very particular breed of hound, a scent dog known as the Plott Hound. If you’re not a North Carolinian, maybe just a Western North Carolinian, you may not be familiar with this breed. The dogs were brought to North Carolina by Johannes Plott when he emigrated from Germany in the 1700s. In the early part of the next century, his son Henry moved with his family to the mountain range that bears the family name: the Plott Balsams in Jackson and Haywood Counties in the southwestern corner of the state. Henry continued to breed the dogs, mostly for bear and wild boar hunting. The Plott Hound was named the state dog of North Carolina in 1988.

As it turns out, my mother was born and raised in the shadow of the Plott Balsams, and I’m interested in anything related to that heritage.

plott balsams wikimedia commons

View of the Plott Balsams (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons (wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Plott-balsams-pb-ll-nc1.jpg)

Somehow, we had landed in the middle of a Plott Hound barking competition. (Never heard of that before.) What a stroke of luck! We followed the dogs.

In the far corner of a temporarily fenced-in section of the school grounds stood a cage, ever so slightly camouflaged. Inside the cage was a bear. Not a real one, thank goodness. But it moved. And it growled. I’m willing to bet bear scent had been sprayed around the cage, too.

In the near corner, dog handlers were hanging on to the leashes of their dogs. From the looks of it, that was some kind of hard work. When the whistle blew, three dogs at a time were turned loose and inevitably flew straight to the cage where they positioned themselves, barked, repositioned, and barked some more, stopping only when the timer blew his whistle and the keepers releashed their dogs, leaving the arena for the next trio to advance.

We didn’t fully understand how the process worked and we left before trophies were awarded. But from what we observed and overheard, we gathered this much. The event is timed. There are three judges. The judges are looking for degree of aggression, number of barks, and focus.

We looked, but if there was anything to Heritage Day other than the dog competition, it was well hidden. Never mind. Listening to the baying of a hundred eager hounds left us buoyant.

We almost always manage to come across some bit of serendipity—chance magic—when we’re out and about. Maybe a four-leaf clover, a funky art gallery, or longhorn cows in a meadow of buttercups. What a treat to happen upon a Plott Hound barking competition.

Have you encountered a bit of serendipity this week?

(Take a listen to the Plott Hounds.)