The show “Louie” premiered it’s fourth season this past Monday, with an episode titled, “Back.” In it, Louie (Louis C.K.) visits a doctor for a consultation on back pain. This is a great depiction of an apathetic doctor, and almost feels like the ultimate answer I received after all the appointments/tests:
Even still, the doctor (Charles Grodin) does drop a grain of wisdom during his half-assed evaluation, when he says, “Every second spent without back pain is a lucky second. String enough of those lucky seconds together, you have a lucky minute.”
Leave it to Louis C.K. to once again blend that perfect mix of absurdity, tragedy, and truth. Watch “Louie” Monday nights on FX, or: Amazon // iTunes
Hello. It’s been awhile. How are you? How’s life? Good, I hope. Or, at least better than it’s been for you (if it hasn’t been easy).
Me? Oh, I’m alright. Pretty much same ol, same ol. No real news to break. Pain versus quality of life. Some days are rough, as usual, and some days are not as rough.
But every now and then, there’s a rare instance. A day that approaches close to feeling plain, boring, and normal. Or, as I like to call it, “a good day.”
Today is good. For a few reasons. Woke up feeling pain (nothing new) but for whatever reason, the pain meds worked more than usual. I got drowsy, also usual, but decided to opt for a cup of coffee. Caffeine usually is a no-no for me (slows digestion/can dry out water retention/increase heart rate). But, it also keeps me alert. And today, again, for some reason, it perfectly countered the drowse.
The result? Pain relief and no sleepiness. But wait, the day’s goodness did not end there. No pain, but still nausea (as usual). So, a little morning herb and soon after, I hit near normalcy. No awareness of pain, no drowsiness, and lovely hunger.
What happens when one feels suddenly normal? My energy level rises. Now it’s brunch time and I’m on a date with my wife at a local Mexican joint. I had 3 tacos. And no other issues. Bliss.
Ah… But the day’s goodness rolled along. My medical cannabis patient recommendation expires in a few days (which means another payment for a renewal to be scheduled soon). I decided to be safe and refill medications now, before my expiration.
I went to a local dispensary close to home, called Doctor’s Orders. I was getting a budget variety medicine, when a kind budtender suggested a much better quality version of medicine.
“It’s definitely nice but a bit out of my budget,” I replied.
“Trust me, this is what you want. Here, take it.” Then he dropped it in the paper bag that already had my budget choice inside.
“It’s on me,” he said, and I’m pretty sure I got a lump in my throat and blurred vision.
I thanked him very much and left them a note with my web address. Hopefully you guys read this and if you do, thanks again. Cannabis patients, check them out if you’re in the area (but don’t be a-holes and try to take advantage).
I just recently watched the new-ish movie, The Grey, starring Liam Neeson and I can’t stop thinking about it. Cold, hard, unflinching. Beautiful, graceful, loving.
The movie is about a group of oil workers whose plane crash-lands in the frozen wilderness. For me, it worked as a standard adventure/thriller, but so much more as a personal survival story. Ultimately, it’s a showcase of the human spirit.
I don’t think another movie has resonated with me as much as The Grey did. I found it deeply personal, on many levels, but I don’t want to ruin any plot points if you haven’t seen it yet.
Now, if you have seen it, allow me to dig into why it affected me as much as it did:
Wolves in The Grey are not really wolves. They are a symbol for hardship, struggle, danger, fear, and the great unknown of death. The wolves are the film’s version of my cancer demon. They are the mythic beast you wish you could be rid of – that same beast that will never leave your side. Like cancer, they are not angry or sad. They simply are, and they exist to end you.
The Hard Wilderness
We all know life can be harsh. The Grey only helps to simplify that idea by setting the story in the middle of a giant frozen chunk of nature. The men trudge, scrape, and crunch their way through piles of ice and snow. Their bodies scarred, bloodied and chapped. This setting, this seemingly endless march through a snow storm, again reminded me of my own chemo post. Are these men symbols of cancer survivors? For me, there is no question.
The Beautiful Wilderness
There’s a scene where a character comes to terms with his own inescapable death. He realizes he has nothing left physically, so he chooses a spot by a river and sits. His fellow survivor asks why he is giving up and he replies, “Look at that (pointing at scenery). I feel like that’s all for me. How do I beat that? When will it ever be better?” He comes to his own graceful end, through appreciation. He is not giving up, he is choosing how to spend his final moments. As cruel as it can be, nature can be even more beautiful.
God The Scapegoat
The film only gets more intense as it continues, and at one point, we find our hero has lost all his survivor friends. He is alone, afraid, tired, and completely helpless. He looks to the sky and calls to God in a fit of desperate rage and frustration. As I watched the scene my fists instinctively clenched, feeling the raw power of this man’s words. Again, another deep, personal mirror of my God Complex and other post. He says (the following is not for the faint-of-heart or extremely devout):
“Do something. Do something. You phony prick, fraudulent motherfucker – Do something! Come on! Prove it!
Fuck faith, earn it! Show me something real! I need it now, not later, now!
Show me, and I’ll believe in you till the day I die! I swear. I’m calling on you! I’m calling on you!“
Then, after a painful silence from the heavens, he shakes his head and says in a whisper, “Fuck it. I’ll do it myself. I’ll do it myself.” To say that I saw myself in this guy is an understatement. The scene captures the despair of the inevitable against the wish of life. It’s like a piece of my pain is on film. I love it. Absolutely spot-on. Right, fuckin’ on.
To clarify, I’m not happy at the insults at God, I’m just happy feeling like at least one other person completely “gets it” – that helpless desperation and the lashing out that comes with it. It’s natural, and so welcome for me to see in motion.
Raging Against The Dying Of The Light
In the beginning of the film, our hero was prepared to kill himself. We knew he lost his love, but not why. In the final scene, while remembering his fallen companions, he finds himself trapped in the middle of the wolf den. There is no getting out of this situation alive. He remembers a final memory of his wife, and we realize then that she passed away from a terminal illness. Her final words to him are “Don’t be afraid.” And it is with this memory of her love that our hero straps on broken-bottle brass knuckles onto one fist and a knife in his other hand. He faces the wolf, grits his teeth, and in a final clash they leap into each other.
We don’t need to see the fight – it’s irrelevant. He will die like his companions. What matters is that he fights. He lives to the very end. This is not a tragic ending for me. It is a REAL ending, with grace, dignity, power, ferocity, and ultimately love. This is an example of a true survivor, demonstrating real strength of spirit. He rages against the dying of the light. He rages for his lost friends, for family, for love, and for life itself. That is victory.
It feels nice knowing there’s a film out there created just for me (of course it wasn’t, but I can dream). See it. Now.
The highlight of this past weekend was attending a dance program featuring my daughter. I invited an old (but not old) friend who I had not seen in a long time, and it was great to catch up, and finally meet his lovely wife. I’m happy for you, Paul!
During the dance show, my wife was busy with backstage and other duties, so it was up to me to record the performance. Right before my kid was due to go onstage, however, her mom came out and let us know she was shivering with chills. Apparently a bad cold decided to set in right then and there.
But… it didn’t stop her. She went out, still shivering, and performed her full set. She said later that a few minutes into the dance her bad symptoms faded away. When I tucked her in that night I told her about how much heart she showed. I think I used the word “badass”. It fits.
Whoa. Last Saturday was amazing. Thank you. Grazie. Arigato. Merci. Danke. Obrigado. Gracias. Yes, it’s been a week and no, I’m still not done processing the many wonderful moments I was able to experience that day. I was, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the love and support of my dear family and treasured friends. I am lucky and blessed to have you in my life.
To my lovely wife: You got me. You got me GOOD. I’m mad at you, though. See, before last Saturday, I had a trump card. If we ever had a disagreement, I could say something like, “But honey, remember the video I made for you?” I had the upper hand! But not anymore. Oh, no. You just had to love me way too much, didn’t you? Dang you for loving me so! I got no upper hand now! D’oh! (You are the greatest. I love you so much!)
The following is an account of last Saturday as I remember it:
I woke up that day like any other. I was expecting to visit my parents later because I heard my sister and her family would be in town to visit them also. This was the weekend after my birthday, so I figured it would be a nice treat to see some family. My wife was not feeling well and asked if we could go later that afternoon so she could rest. I was fine with that, and at around 2pm, we left our apartment and headed to my parents’ place.
We were soon in their neighborhood, and as we turned the corner onto their street, I noticed a bunch of cars parked around the block. “What the… I wonder what’s going on?” I said. I figured my folks must have had some friends over and maybe the neighbors were having a party at the same time. We were all surprised at the suddenly busy street (normally, there’s plenty of parking spaces available). We found a spot and pretty soon we got to the front door. My wife wanted me to ring the bell, but I had our daughter do it. My mom answered the door with a, “Hi mijo!” and I remember my wife asking me to go ahead, but I waved her and our kid in first. I didn’t want to be rude. Then I came through the door and was completely stunned.
Horns were blowing all around me. The entrance of their house was packed with people. They were shouting “SURPRISE!” and then the Happy Birthday song. At one moment I glanced up and it looked like people were hanging from the ceiling. I couldn’t believe it. For me? It was a sense overload. I felt like everything was cranked up to ten: noise level, visual information, and emotion.
It was sometime during the crowd’s singing that the specialness of the day really began to sink in. My eyes scanned the room. Their was family, supportive as ever. Their were childhood friends, smiling their genuine smiles at me. Their were former coworkers and advocates, their own eyes welling up with the energy of the room. It was a who’s-who of Chris supporters. It took nearly everything I had to not start bawling right on the spot, but I made it. It was surreal. I felt humbled, and deeply, truly grateful.
My friends, you know I don’t lie about feeling down and out sometimes. It’s true, life ain’t always easy. And that is exactly why the surprise felt so good. It was medicine. You were my healers. I was a dry sponge who walked under a waterfall. I was floating on happiness. I felt real love, as if it was crackling in the room. The energy was electric. I felt a high (no, not that kind), and it only increased throughout the day.
After warm hugs, hellos, and thank yous, I was asked to go check out the backyard. On my way, I noticed the decorations. The house was decked out with colorful streamers and balloons. The theme of the party was Superman (or, “Super Chris”). One of my sisters even made a poster of me as the Man of Steel:
Once I saw the backyard, I was awed again. More decorations, people, and… what was this? A taco guy making 4 kinds of tacos, with all the trimmings? Awesome! They had gone all out for me. But that wasn’t all.
Soon, I heard my name called and turned. My sister said there was another surprise for me. At that moment, a mariachi trio strolled outside and began singing Las Mañanitas (Mexican birthday song). I couldn’t believe it! I have always loved the sound of a trio. It’s one of those likes that my wife definitely knows about. I remember I wanted a trio to perform at our wedding, but we didn’t have the budget. Now there was a trio in front of me, performing for me. More wonderful medicine. Thank you, honey, for giving me the gift of my own private concert.
While the trio was singing I thought, “Where’s [my daughter]?” I wanted to put her on the spot and ask her to dance to the mariachi music. Really, I expected her to be shy and say no. But she wasn’t around. I figured she was playing with her cousins inside the house. Well… I was wrong!
After the mariachi had played a few songs, I saw her step into the backyard. She looked beautiful. She was wearing a white Jalisco dress with blue trim. She was accompanied by 3 of her dance class friends. They were going to perform! It was like my mind was being read. All the things I love were unfolding live before me. When the first dance started, I could not help myself. Just moments before, I had to struggle to not cry at the big surprise entrance, but this dance tipped me over the edge. My vision blurred and my eyes watered. This was a dream. I felt magic.
I was on cloud nine after the kids’ performance. I then had a chance to catch up a bit with the many guests. I cannot express just how thankful I was for everyone’s presence. I later told my wife that the day was full of magical moments, and that includes the conversations and brief exchanges I had with everyone. I felt supported like never before. It was strengthening.
I couldn’t get over how personalized the party was. It felt like they had a map to my happiness and followed it to a tee. When the mariachi were not playing, my brother (the DJ) was pumping Young The Giant and Kings of Leon through the stereo system. They had thought of everything. The photos and videos I’m showing here aren’t my own, either. They are also thanks to friends and family. No one missed a step! Amazing.
Trio? Check. Daughter dancing? Check. Good tunes? Check. Tasty food? Check. Amazingly wonderful people? Check. Even the birthday cake was chocolate. Yep, my favorite. I couldn’t have asked for more. But there was.
Before I blew out the candles, my sister explained how instead of gifts, she had asked guests to place a donation in a special box. The money, she said, was to be used towards the purchase of a new tablet. This was another “dream” gadget I had no intention of buying soon. I figured I’d be sporting a tablet in… oh, five years or so. Not so anymore. I’m actually writing this post on my new tablet. It’s everything I wanted. Unlimited reading and entertainment options. And best of all? My boring doctor appointments now have a new contender to mess with. Boredom? Meet the tablet, and kindly get the hell outta here! Woohoo!!! It’s beautiful. Thank you, thank you, thank you, lovely people!
After the cake was piñata time. There were 2 piñatas: one for the kids, and one just for me. I gotta say, it felt good to crack it open. Nice energy release.
We eventually went inside the house again and I sat on the couch while a slide show played. It was full of old photos of myself and family. A sweet blast to the past. Truly, this was my day. The love never ended. I even found out that people had been writing letters to me in a personalized notebook. It was a “dedication journal” and full of thoughts, prayers, and well wishes for me. I actually haven’t read it yet. My mom still had to write in it, so she kept it. I know it will be a treat to read through people’s messages. Yet another example of the day’s never ending stream of goodwill and gifts.
That night I was exhausted, but in the best way possible. Even my cheeks hurt from all the smiling.
I am blessed to be here and to be surrounded by such genuinely good people. You made my day. Heck, you made my life with that party. Thank you.
If life is a battlefield, then you, my friends, are my ammunition. Sometimes I feel like I’m out of ammo, left to fight with my bare hands. Not anymore. I am drowning in bullets. Bless you all.
That surgery I’m so freaked out about? Not happening. The plan was derailed put on hold.
In July, The Spine surgeon had referred me to a General surgeon (his job would be to go through my ribs and remove scar tissue/move lung over so Spine guy can then get to work on my vertebrae). General surgeon said although difficult and risky, he would be able to assist. Okay, one step closer.
Next, I had an Echocardiogram (like an ultrasound, but aimed at the heart) to evaluate my heart health. The results were good: everything seemed within normal to above-average range and although my pulse is fast, the heart seems to work well. Okay, another step closer to surgery.
Then I met back with Spine surgeon to review those referrals. He seemed positive that the General surgeon was on board but also reminded me of the complexity of the situation, and wanted to know where I stood as well. I told him, I’m ready. Flat out, I need to feel better. I need to gain weight. If there is even a slim chance of my stomach moving faster with a straight posture, then I want to do it. He then referred me to one more specialist: Plastic surgery.
The Plastic surgery appointment was yesterday. The purpose was to see how he could help in closing the eventual long incision I’d have going down my back. He was a really nice guy, and thorough. He checked out my back, but most of the appointment was him explaining the situation and us reviewing options. First, he reviewed the problem: “If we were to simply close you up, imagine a piece of metal just under your skin. Of course, it makes sense that in a small amount of time it could pierce through without fat or extra skin.” Right. That’s what happened after my first spinal fusion in 1993. The rods eventually broke through.
“Ideally,” he continued, “we would take skin from your flanks (sides) and use them as patches to lay over the wound. But since you have had prior surgeries, you have scars where I would normally take skin. And the other obvious concern is that where I would normally NOT take skin, you don’t have any to spare because of your weight loss.”
I ask, “What about tissue expansion, putting balloons under my skin?”
“Yes, I could do that, but did you know that any tissue that is gained from becoming inflated is half as thin as normal skin? So, unfortunately, it does not make sense to use that to cover a large incision. It would be like replacing the thin skin you have now with something even thinner.” Damn.
I said, “My sister asked me to ask this: can she or a family member–”
“Donate skin?” he interrupted. I nodded. “Is she your identical twin?” Nope. “Do you have an identical twin brother?” Nope. “Then, unfortunately, although family has the best intentions, you will reject any tissue that is not your own.”
“So I guess that rules out cadaver skin, too?” I ask. He agreed, and said cadaver skin is not used for that reason. Damn.
I ask, “How about synthetics? Is there some kind of lab-made fiber or sponge-like material that can be used as a skin replacement or padding?” He explained there ARE materials out there to add padding. But just about 1/8 inch or less. He said these materials are used for smaller wounds, in places that are not touched often, such as the back of the foot/calf. If he used synthetic material to cover a wound on my back, with hardware underneath, it would break down.
At the end he said, “I am sorry, Mr. Rodriguez, but as it is, I will have to advise your Spine surgeon that we delay the procedure. If you had another 20-30 pounds on you I could have more padding to work with and then I would be more confident in your healing after an event like surgery.”
“That’s exactly my problem. Gaining.” He only repeated his apology and said he understood. What more could he do?
Spinal fusion, option: GONE. And my gut instinct that my kyphosis was responsible for the slow stomach: irrelevant now.
So now my next option is to meet with the Gastro (digestion) surgeons/specialists and see what procedures they might have for me. And if they have nothing… then what? Time will tell.
I’ve got some fear, I’ve got some anger, but I ain’t got quit.
Just a few nights ago, I was in a particularly fatalistic state of mind. A lot of times, I think in the moments before going to sleep. Sometimes I listen to music (with ear buds, to not wake Telly), and that was the case that night. Pandora was playing in my ear. I was feeling very melancholic and afraid. Mostly afraid of the ultimate complication: ceasing to live. In other words, my thoughts were swimming in uncertainty. I then had the feeling that this was inevitable. It had to happen. It was never a question of whether to have surgery or not, but rather to have one soon or later. And choosing later only increases the odds of more complications. Then this song came on, and depressed the crap out of me. But that’s only because it seemed to strike the very core of what I was feeling. And it helped me process, because when I heard it… the waterworks began. I appreciate songs that bring the deep to the surface. It’s not a happy song, but still a beauty I think. And one that captures the feeling of doubt overcoming hope.
Hold your grandmother’s Bible to your breast.
Gonna put it to the test.
You wanted it to be blessed.
And in your heart,
You know it to be true,
You know what you gotta do.
They all depend on you.
And you already know.
Yeah, you already know how this will end.
There is no escape,
From the slave-catchers’ songs.
For all of the loved ones gone.
Forever’s not so long.
And in your soul,
They poked a million holes.
But you never let ‘em show.
C’mon it’s time to go.
Yeah, you already know
How this will end.
Now you’ve seen his face.
And you know that there’s a place,
In the sun,
For all that you’ve done,
For you and your children.
No longer shall you need.
You always wanted to believe,
Just ask and you’ll receive,
Beyond your wildest dreams.
Yeah, you already know
How this will end.
You already know (you already know)
You already know (you already know)
You already know (how this will end)