Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks

This past Monday, I had the privilege of reading something I wrote to a small audience. I won 2nd prize in a memoir writing contest -- and a $50 Barnes and Noble gift card to go with it. The memoir had to be 500 words or less, and, long-winded as I can be, I came in a exactly 499 words -- after a whole lot of trimming.

And when I say I read in front of a small audience, I mean just that; I think there were more boxes of free pizza than there were people in attendance. So I ended up with some extra pizza, in addition to that gift card -- plus the applause I got from the audience.

Anyway, every year on Thanksgiving Day, I try to write something about what I'm thankful for. This year, I thought I'd share my 500 word memoir. It's a story I've told before, just not necessarily in this particular form. It is called, appropriately for this day, "The Gift":


"The Gift"

When I first took up running, an experienced friend told me, “Some people who run are running away from something, and some are running toward something.”

When I started running, it was toward something: better health. I wanted to be around for my wife and kids.

Soon, I realized I was running away from something. For a few moments in the mornings, I could block everything out, just listening to music or the rhythm of my breath.

On my 40th birthday, my wife bought me a treadmill. She knew I enjoyed running outside, but she worried about cars not seeing me, or slippery ice, or twisting an ankle far from home. A beautiful treadmill, it sat idle for a month; cool June morning runs were just too tempting.

Then it stayed idle because of a bout of bronchitis. The doctor gave me a prescription, and I asked her when I could run again, and she said, “A couple of weeks.” When I felt better, I finally tried the treadmill. The hiss of the belt and the grinding of the motor and the pounding of my feet were loud, even with my iPod at full volume. I missed the outdoors, and I couldn’t wait to get back to the peace.

The bronchitis never really went away, and I was back at the doctor’s office twice in two months for stronger antibiotics. On the rare days that I could breathe well, my run was on the treadmill. Tree pollen and car exhaust made it too hard to run outside.

Then late in the summer, the bronchitis turned to pneumonia. What should have been peaceful, cool fall morning runs were half run/half walks on the treadmill. To make matters worse, my oldest child, an early riser like me, started to join me in the basement, wanting to talk about the highlights on ESPN, turned up loud, joining the motor and my pounding feet to disturb my peace. Eventually, all that noise got to him, too, and he stopped coming downstairs in the mornings.

The pneumonia cleared, but a follow-up CT scan showed some swollen lymph nodes in my chest. A few months later, more nodes, more tests, and a biopsy that came back fast and grim: Follicular Lymphoma, an incurable blood cancer. Still limping from the biopsy, I asked the doctor when I could run again. “Two weeks,” he said.

Back to the treadmill.

I worried about myself, but I worried more about my wife and kids, and I watched and listened for clues about how they were feeling. One night, my ear to the door to my sons’ room, I heard the older one talking to the younger one. “I’m telling you, he’s OK.”

“How do you know?”

"I heard him running on the treadmill. He’s fine.”

Sometimes when we run, we are running toward something. Sometimes, we’re running away from something.

And sometimes we run because we want to stay, blissfully, even for a little while, right where we are.


I wrote a version of this story about 5 years ago and submitted it to the magazine Runner's World, which often publishes short memoirs about running. They rejected it, of course, which was fine. That version was more focused on running, naturally, and did a lot more explaining about what I considered to be a gift.

When I wrote the piece for the memoir contest, I thought about renaming it "The Treadmill." That would make a lot of sense for a story about having Follicular Lymphoma. It feels like being on a treadmill sometimes, at least for me. Lots of watching and waiting. Rituxan gave me a Partial Response almost four years ago, so there's still come FL cells floating around in there, but not enough, apparently, to need treatment. No scan in more than three years, so I'm not getting better, but I'm not getting worse.

Just walking on a treadmill.

And "the gift" in the title is definitely my birthday treadmill. But that story wasn't just about the treadmill itself; it was about the way I was able to connect to my kids. And that's a gift.

I know lots of people who choose to look at cancer as a gift, at least indirectly -- cancer let them get their priorities in order, pay more attention to their health, or get closer to people they care about. Plenty of others think it's crazy to think of cancer in any way positive.

I guess, if I had to choose one or the other, I'd lean toward cancer not being much of a gift. (Of course, Follicular Lymphoma is the gift that keep son giving -- hah!). I'd never re-gift it, but if I had been given the choice, you can be dang sure I would have politely declined.

Still, on the other hand, I can see where, indirectly, it can result in some good. And if this memoir is as much about my kids as it is about a treadmill, I'd say my cancer has given me some things. I think my kids, now 16, 14, and 12, have become better people because of my cancer. They seem to me to be less fearful. They have seen what it is like to face something difficult and do what is necessary. They certainly aren't fearless, but they are a little less fearful.

And more importantly, they're a little more compassionate. They notice people who need help, and they provide it when they can. Small things, usually, but they can see the big results that can come from small actions. At a time when lots of young people are focusing more on themselves, they are, at least a little bit, looking at others. That makes me very happy.

So, what am I thankful for?

My treadmill. And the relative good health to keep using it. And my wife, for taking care of me.

My kids, who are growing up into fine people.

My extended family, who I wish I had more time to spend with.

And finally, for being able to share whatever gifts I have with all of you. I thank you for the feedback you give me. It means a lot.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your day.


Christina Stijnen said...

Dear Bob,

In this first year of my FL diagnosis I have become a very regular reader of your posts. Today I really enjoyed the threadmill for the story. All other days thank you for opening up scientific literature and thus providing 'laymen' (like myself) with usable information. This information has helped me stop panicking.

I wish you and your family all the best and I will continue reading your posts as they help me 'keep calm and carry on'.


Anonymous said...

Great post. If we ever meet the pizza is on me.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Anonymous said...

Happy thanksgiving Bob to you and your family, we are thankful indeed for your blog, take care - Jeanne

Lymphomaniac said...

Christina, I'm glad I've been able to help you out. Thanks for your kind comments. And luck with your FL, and keep carrying on.

Jeanne, thank you. I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving, too, and that your husband is doing well.

Steve, I will accept your offer of pizza any time. New Haven pizza is especially good -- the white clam at Pepe's is outstanding. But I'll take whatever you have. I'm not one to turn down free pizza (obviously).

Michael Buller said...

Thanks for this post Bob. Another great one. And as a runner and FL survivor, it resonates a lot with me. Running has always been part of me, but since my diagnosis 2.5 years ago, it's become a more important part of me.

Anonymous said...

Love this post.

And bravo on 499 important words! I am drafting a 500 word personal statement right now and am inspired by how much you fit in such a short piece.

Love and hugs,

PS: If this personal statement gets me in to Rutgers, you can bet I'll get to spend more time with you all!

Lymphomaniac said...

Thanks, Julia.
Hey -- I haven't seen you post in a while. What have you been up to? ;)

Anonymous said...

Haha, oh you know me and my rock and roll lifestyle Uncle Bob! Staying out late (at the library), throwing cash around (on books after ILL briefly froze my borrowing privileges), speaking my mind (in a tedious, 90 page paper). The usual. :)