Makua Kane

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My Mother has a hutch.  As with most hutches, especially in the midwest, hers is filled with old plates and bowls and glasses and mugs and pictures and greeting cards and tchotchkes, all holding some kind of sentimental value.  When I was visiting in July, I found a pair of ceramic mugs with the Hawaiian phrases Makua Kane (Dad) and Makua Wahine (Mom) on them.  I have no recollection of buying them, but it is assumed that these were gifts I gave to them when we went to Hawaii as a family in 1980.  Which means, those mugs have been collecting dust in that hutch for 37 years. Or, I guess I should say, had been collecting dust, because I asked my Mom if I could have them back.  “Sure,” she said and added, not for the first time, “All of this will be your headache someday anyway.” On that visit, one of our goals, the three of us, was to declutter some of their house.  We had mixed results.

Anyway, I brought my two Hawaiian mugs home to LA.  I showed Eric, we both have a thing for old stuff and tiki stuff and sentimental stuff so it was a perfect fit for our home.

A few weeks later, on the morning my Dad began his chemotherapy and radiation, I saw the Makua Kane mug hanging from one of the nails in the converted ice box (old building) that stores our plates and mugs and bowls.  I selected the Dad mug and began my daily coffee ritual.  One packet of raw sugar, a little half and half, poured cold, then the coffee.  I sat on the couch with my coffee and I thought about my Dad and Mom, in Bartlesville, kicking things off.  They were on my mind, in my heart, and in its way, this time was a sort of prayer.

The next morning, I did the same thing.  Same mug, same ritual.  My Dad’s early response to his treatment was exceptional.  For several days, he felt few side effects.  On one day, I skipped my mug ritual, and on that day, he hit a rough patch.  Certainly, I know the rough patch was not because of me, but still, I did not want to take any chances.  Except for that one day, every morning since August 14, I drank my morning coffee from a hotel souvenir I gave my Dad 37 years ago.

When I drove back to Kansas, to help in his final weeks of radiation, I brought the mug with me.  Too cumbersome to fit in the car’s coffee holder, I balanced it in my lap.  The next morning, I brought a coffee up from the hotel lobby and poured into my mug that I’d cleaned out with the hotel’s Pantene shampoo sample.

In Kansas, my parents did not ask me why I had brought this mug home.  No mention was made, but knowingly, as I packed to leave on Monday to return to Los Angeles, they both said, “Don’t forget your mug.” And then later, “You do have your mug, don’t you?”

On Tuesday morning, me just leaving Albuquerque where the dog and I had stopped for the night, my Dad took his last radiation treatment.  I drank hotel coffee out of my special mug.

On Wednesday, it occurred to me that I needn’t drink out of the mug, the whimsical deal that I had brokered in my mind, was just to get my Dad through his radiation.  I could drink out of my favorite dog mug now.

Of course, I didn’t drink out of my favorite dog mug, which is a very cute mug. (Fishs Eddy.)  I opened my packet of raw sugar, poured my cold cream then added the coffee.  And I sat on my couch and thought about my parents and all they’ve been through and how well my Dad navigated it all.  There were rough patches, of course.  Quiet moments and painful moments and worried moments. It will be weeks before we know the effectiveness of the treatments.

Until then, we wait, doing the things that keep our mind busy.  My Dad is golfing today, my Mom listening to her books on tape.  I go back to work tomorrow.  But every morning, until I see a reason to veer from the habit, I will pour my daily cup of hope and drink from it.

 

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We’re Looking at Christmas!

loopedopen460eNo surprise here, I have been following Valerie Harper’s cancer journey since she announced it last March.  I remember hearing her tell the story of receiving the dire diagnosis and the effect it had on her, her husband and daughter.  At the time, it reminded me of something my family experienced about the same time one year earlier.  I’ve talked about my Dad’s cancer here and here, but hearing Valerie’s story last March reminded me of the day that my mother left a message saying, “We just got out of the doctor’s office.  Go ahead and give us a call when you get a chance.”  I knew my parents had gone to the oncologist and I knew that if the news had been remotely good, she would have indicated as much on the voicemail.  I called her when I was in my car, driving home, along Olympic.  She asked if I was driving, I said I was.  She asked if I wanted to pull over, I told her I was fine.  She told me that the doctor told them that Dad had cancer in his jaw and they were going to perform surgery to remove the jaw.  It was not a surprising call, my Dad had been bothered by a persistant sore in his mouth for a few months, but it was not a diagnosis any of us were prepared for.  And soon, we went into the saddest, longest, weirdest summer of our lives.  My Dad had his surgery and after 2 surgeries, 5 weeks of hospitilazation, 3 or 4 staff infections, countless cards, flowers and prayers, he was back home.  And then, with each week that passed, there seemed to be more hope that he would get better.

Valerie Harper was on the Today show today, the link to the article and video is here.  The cameras were with her when she visited her doctor recently and he told her that her cancer was “pretty close to a remission”.  It’s heartwarming to watch, but what tugged at me the most is toward the end when Valerie and her husband Tony Cacciotti are talking to the cameras and he says, “Going from having three months to live, or less; we’re into our sixth month, and now there’s even hope beyond right now we’re looking at….” and his wife finishes his sentence with, “we’re looking at Christmas.”

Of course it made me think of my parents.  After such a precarious summer, it was not until October that I thought maybe my Dad would be with us to celebrate Christmas.  And as he continued to heal, I looked forward to the holiday in a way, I had not appreciated it in a long time.  When he and my Mom picked me up at the Tulsa airport at Christmas, I could not believe how healthy he looked.  And I felt very lucky, all three of us did.

I realize that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but whoever you are, there are the yearly events, often holidays, that mark the passage of time.  I realize that none of us have the promise of another Thanksgiving or birthday or Christmas or New Year’s, but it’s nice to have something to look forward to. It’s all about hope.

So, today, I celebrate Valerie Harper’s good news. I know how much it must mean to her family and it reminded me of a time when the bad news turned into better news and we, too, said to ourselves, “We’re looking at Christmas!”

It’s a Mean World

bette-midler-8-25-11There is a video that’s travelling around Facebook and other social networking sites right now of Bette Midler talking on the phone to a young cancer patient named Anna Greenberg as she sits in her hospital bed with loved ones gathered round her.  The 8 minute video ends with Bette singing an emotional, vulnerable version of Wind Beneath My Wings.  I’ve thought about the video a lot in the days since I first watched it.  There is a moment in the video that I’ve most wrestled with.  At one point, Bette tells Anna, “It’s a mean world, a really mean world and I think the idea that people are kind and they enhance the world, their life enhancing, it’s so important.”  I think that Ms. Midler was talking about how cruel it is that people suffer from deadly cancers, but I think she was also referring to the unkindnesses that occur in this world.  

Just last week, I wrote a blog post about something unkind that I did as well as something unkind that was done to me.  Both parties involved were culpable.  I think about the things I write about here on this blog and I think the theme I’m most obsessed with, particularly at this point in my life, is the way we vacillate between kindness and cruelty.  It’s a theme that’s amplified in my work environment, but it’s also always everywhere I turn.  On Facebook, I see the nicest people say the most hateful things about our president.  I have neighbors that greet me kindly on the sidewalk that seemingly don’t know how to stop at a stop sign when they are driving in their cars.  

The fact that Bette Midler took time out of her day, especially during a very busy time in her life, speaks volumes as to how big her heart is.  I don’t think she did it as a publicity stunt, I actually think she had a connection to this young girl, saw something of herself or perhaps her daughter, and it made her want to do what she could to lift Anna’s spirits.  I could be wrong about this, but I do believe Bette’s gestures, Bette’s involvement, made Anna’s exit from this world a little bit easier.  At least, I hope so.

The internet is littered with stories of unkind acts committed by celebrities, Bette Midler is no different.  Google Bette Midler bitch and you’ll have reading material for hours.  I don’t think all the stories or true, but I suppose some are.  I’ve only had two interactions with Bette Midler.  The first was not face to face: I attended one of her concerts in Oakland over 15 years ago.  It was the most amazing concert I’ve ever attended (Sorry, Amy Grant!) and the entire audience went crazy, laughing at every thing she said, crying when she sang The Rose, riveted by every word and movement.  And the funny this was, she kept telling us what an ungrateful audience we were, that we didn’t seem to be enjoying ourselves or appreciating her enough.  We 4,000 gay guys and 10 straight women looked at each other incredulously and thought, HOW COULD WE LOVE HER ANYMORE?  I’ve thought about that night so often.  Here was one of the wealthiest, most talented, most revered performers in the world pleading with an audience, “Love me. No, that’s not enough, love me a little more.”  

My other interaction, I can’t actually talk about here, but I will say it was face to face and I would not say that she was kind to me.  For a while after the interaction, I felt a little sad when her name came up in a conversation or she was interviewed on television.  I had loved her so much for so long and my thoughts reverted to the memory of our interaction, where I felt like she didn’t really like me very much or take me in as a fellow human being.  When I listen to The Rose or From A Distance or Hello in There, I feel like she is singing to me, just to sensitive, easily crestfallen Ray Barnhart.  It’s so personal and poetic and beautiful and it’s a gift.

There are any number of people that I know that could tell you stories about their interactions with me.  There are folks who would tell you how sweet I am and folks who would tell you I am cruel.  And the people who really know me would tell you I am both.  We are all both. I actually think I started this blog to “work out” some of the themes that play out in my life, to try to make sense of them.  Yes, Ms. Midler, this is a mean world, a mean, mean world.  But it’s also a beautiful world and you taking the time to sing to your friend Anna Greenberg one of her favorite songs is an indelible, magical example of this world’s beauty.

My Father’s Garden

20130615-213737.jpgWith any luck, my Father’s garden will have a bumper crop this year. Already, it’s produced lettuce, radishes, strawberries, peas, green beans and spinach. The basil, bell peppers, banana peppers, tomatoes, carrots and more are on their way. Almost anytime I call home, unless the sun has already set, my mother wistfully says, “Your Father is in his garden.”

Now, I’ve written a bit about my father’s health before on this blog, here and here, but it brings me much joy that he’s thriving after a challenging year. It also brings me much joy that his garden is thriving as well. Last Summer, while my Dad was in the hospital in Kansas City, I drove down to Independence to spend the night and take care of some business matters for my parents. It was the first time, in a long time, that the house was empty and the quietness broke my heart and even frightened me a little. And my Dad’s garden, at the end of a markedly dry July, was dying. Though a few of his friends had made visits to water and pick the produce, it was failing without the regular attention, one might even say love, of its caretaker. For my dinner, I picked some peppers and tomatoes and cooked a steak I found in the freezer and it should have been a meal for a king, but I felt so sad, so alone eating it. At that point, I honestly did not know what the future held.

My Dad did get better, he did leave the hospital and gradually he has regained his health. And I think that is one of the reasons he has spent so much time in his garden this Spring and Summer, because he is thrilled to have the energy to work so hard. But also, between you and me, I think there is another reason. My father had cancer, in fact, he had jaw cancer. On July 10, 2012, the longest day I’ve ever experienced, he had a 12 hour surgery to remove the tumorous jawbone and replace it with a new jawbone created from a bone graft and titanium. He was hospitalized for five weeks and the rehabilitation process was arduous and lengthy. And while the doctors had hoped my father would be able to eat food again, he has had difficulties swallowing and he currently feeds himself through a tube in his stomach. It’s his daily routine and I know it must depress him sometimes, but I have never, ever heard him utter a self-pitying word. He has made progress, he drinks water and Sierra Mist and coffee and can eat a little ice cream or mashed potatoes. We have a hope that he will eat again, but we do not know when it will happen. It is a regular plea in all of our thoughts and prayers.

Some would say it’s ironic that the man who can not eat is on a mission to grow the most vibrant garden so he can feed everyone in his world. I actually think his fervor is his way of making sense of the situation. If he can’t enjoy his tomatoes, he can derive a little joy from how much you love them. Happy Father’s Day!
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