Last Sunday morning, I walked six miles. Then, I spent the afternoon working in my garden. I dug up a row of potatoes. I rooted after the spuds like a wild pig. I got down on all fours and, with a potato fork acting as my snout, unearthed the crop. I washed and sorted the modest yield before clearing the clutter of my overgrown tomato and pepper plants. I trimmed and weeded them under the inscrutable gaze of my cat, Buckwheat.
An east wind carried the sounds of Hood River’s pear harvest to my home. In the distance, tractors strained to lift bins full of ripe fruit. High in the trees, pickers chattered and whistled to one another. Our valley is one of the predominant pear producers in Oregon. Anjous, Bartletts, Bosc, and Comice constitute the principle varieties. The harvest lasts from mid-August until mid-October in orchards ranging in elevation from 600 to 2000 feet.
2008’s harvest slipped by me unnoticed. One year ago, this week, my wife and I returned from Seattle following 3 1/2 months of cancer therapy. There, I’d undergone an autologous stem cell transplant as treatment for multiple myeloma. It included 10 days of comprehensive testing to determine my fitness for the procedure. Then, a pre-transplant chemo protocol was administered. This was followed by a brief hospitalization caused by pneumonia and six weeks of recovery. Finally, I received the transplant: high-dose chemo and stem cell rescue. A month later, I was released to return home bald, bloated, and weakened from the ordeal.
By the time I became sufficiently cognizant of my surroundings, the pear harvest was completed. From then on, my recovery exceeded any benchmarks one might have established for a myeloma patient. My recuperation did not result from positive thinking or prayer. Those are useful tools for coping with the emotional turmoil but have little effect on the biology. Instead, I benefited from excellent medical care and lots of good luck.
I entertain no illusions about my disease. It will return. Yet, it comforts me to acknowledge that reality. Only by confronting it can I let it go. For now, I am as healthy as anyone daring to peer into my little world of cancer survivorship. I enjoy a drug holiday that stretches into its second year. My stamina continues to improve, demonstrated by last weekend’s activities.
One of the things I’ve gleaned from this cancer experience is confidence in the wisdom of being here now. Don’t worry; I won’t attempt to articulate a theory of “acceptance of what is.” Such efforts often end up complicating what should be left simply observed.
My sensei, Buckwheat, communicates all we need to know about how to cope in an unpredictable world. She is 20 years old. Her arthritic hips add a little hobble to her step. My lap is the maximum height of her ability to leap. Day to day, she must feel physically worse than many of us do. Yet, she finds nirvana in simple routines: a nap on a sunny ledge, restful proximity to her companion as he digs in the dirt, or a water cup in its familiar place next to the pellet stove. She accepts these routines as gifts and purrs with gratitude. She doesn’t worry about whether they will be available tomorrow. She is too busy enjoying them today.
Next Sunday, September 27th, I will be 63 years old. I think I’ll go for a walk.