Monday, August 31, 2015

The Landscape of Cancer: Depression, Grief and the Undertoad

Today, we leave for Europe, for a trip of a lifetime. One would think I would have been extremely excited about it, especially during the past few weeks.

But I wasn’t. 

Until last night. Mark has been excited for the past two weeks. He kept saying so, when all I could do was smile and wonder why I wasn’t experiencing the same thing.

Last night, thanks to some thoughts shared in an email from a friend and a couple of other thought-provoking circumstances, I realized why I haven’t been excited: I’ve been experiencing depression. I didn’t recognize it, however, until within the last 24 hours. As I wrote a year ago, I have experienced (mainly undiagnosed) depression most of my life, but it has been a long time since I’ve had a bout of it. So long, in fact, that I didn’t realize that what I had been experiencing the past few weeks was depression. 

Signs? I didn’t feel motivated to do much of anything. I simply couldn’t get excited about Europe. I lost interest in reading. I was feeling physically ill, having headaches that I haven’t experienced in a long time, feeling exhausted, nervous stomach, etc. At times, I was irritable. At other times, many tears came.

Why? To some extent, I’m not sure. But I think it was probably connected to another realization that came to me this morning. I didn’t recognize it because I’m not that familiar with it. 


I have grieved over things in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever (consciously) experienced true grief, a grief that comes from the permanent loss of someone you are deeply in love with. This kind of grief is a stranger I don’t know very well, but whose strange power I have felt in the past couple of weeks. 

Of course, I’m referring to Mark, who has advanced, inoperable prostate cancer. There are times when his mortality comes sharply into focus and overwhelms me. As I looked toward taking this trip, the thought that this will likely be our last big trip was always there, tempering my excitement. And as we drew closer to leaving, those thoughts – I came to realize – engendered grief.

In my friend’s email, she referred to the presence of the “undertoad” – a word, she explained to me, that was used by children in the book, The World According to Garp (which I never read) to refer to the ocean’s undertow. The undertoad is always there. Sometimes I can hardly feel it. At other times, it is extremely powerful and can sweep me out, I have realized, into a sea of depression and grief if I am not prepared. This has been an important lesson for me to learn at this point of my journey with Mark through the landscape of cancer. 

As of last night, I am officially excited about our trip. Thoughts of Mark’s mortality have again been faced, but I’ve turned a corner. I intend to enjoy every day of our trip together and let whatever lies in the future stay there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Landscape of Cancer: Of Pain, Art and Europe

The last time I wrote about Mark's cancer was six weeks ago. Since then, he has experienced increasing levels of pain and decreasing levels of energy. He is no longer able to do any sort of exercise, and in mid-July, we canceled our cycling trip to Italy in September.

Mark now spends most of his time on his art - painting, drawing, and sketching. He's quite talented, and he enjoys branching out and learning new techniques and working with different mediums. In July, he spent quite a bit of time on a drawing of himself and his sister, based on a photograph taken in 1955, just before the family moved to Japan. He presented it as a gift to his sister, Deb, when we were visiting in Portland earlier this month.

We cancelled out cycling trip, but we're still leaving for Europe on August 31st. We had to rearrange some things and fill up the time we would have spent cycling with other activities, but we're going. We will see some sights, and Mark will likely do some painting while I write or read. Mainly, however, we will simply enjoy each other's company, have fun and create memories amidst the beauty of Europe.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Portland With Family

We arrived in Portland on Friday afternoon to spend the weekend with Mark's sister, Deb, and her husband, Neil. They hosted us Friday evening on the Willamette River in their boat, a new experience for us. 

Deb and Neil

Our daughter, Hannah, arrived on Saturday afternoon with her husband Cary and beautiful daughter, Hazel who could hardly believe it when she saw the playroom that Deb keeps for her grandchildren. Below, she's trying to explain to Mark that something is wrong with her dress-up dress. It took Deb to know immediately what the problem was. All that was needed was a clothes pin in the back to keep the dress together. By the end of the day, Hazel was calling Deb "Grandma."

Saturday Evening on the River

On Saturday evening, the extended Koepke/Zeller/Broom clan went out to eat on a barge on the Columbia River.

Hannah and Hazel

Cary and Hazel

The Stewart Family

Father and daughter

Sunday With the Family

Hazel and her "Rachel" Barbie

Mark and his grand-nephew Gavin on his tractor (which he drives)

Neil and Cary jamming on the patio

It was a great weekend, a great way to end our trip to the Pacific Northwest. Grateful for extended family. Grateful for my daughter's family. Grateful for the health Mark has. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Anacortes: The Beauty Beyond the Corridor

Months ago, we made plans to visit some of our cycling friends, Malcolm and Michelle, in Anacortes, Washington. Another friend, Tom, was to fly in from Philadelphia, and the plan was for all of us to go riding together for a few days in advance of our cycling tour in Italy in September. A month ago, however, we realized that Mark's cycling days are behind him (due to cancer-induced pain), and we cancelled the cycling tour. Nevertheless, we still wanted to come up and and hang out with our friends for a week, and we're so glad we did.

Our friends' home in Anacortes, an oasis amidst cedar and fir trees.

On our first day, the others went riding while Mark and I drove around Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. That evening, we had a wonderful dinner that included two more cycling friends who also live in Anacortes. Lots of good food and laughter, topped off by a game that was new to us, "Cards Against Humanity." I highly recommend it if you're good with a bit of crude humor.

Rick, Tom, Michelle and Malcolm

On Tuesday, Malcolm, Michelle, Tom and another Anacortes cyclist cycled up the slopes of Mount Baker to Artist Point. Mark and I drove up and met them at the top with lunch. We so wished we had been cycling, if only to take in the gorgeous sweeping views as one neared the Mt. Baker ski resorts. 

On the way up and again at the top, I thought of the dozens of times I have passed Mt. Baker on I-5, both when we lived in Vancouver from 1986-1996 and while visiting since then. I also thought of the countless times I used to see the mountain from Vancouver on a clear day. Yet, I had never been there, never explored outside of the I-5 corridor. 

As we drove up the slopes of the mountain, I was reminded of a post I wrote over three years ago when I first started cycling after tackling Millcreek Canyon in Salt Lake for the first time. Here are some (slightly edited) excerpts:
"Yesterday, we cycled all the way to the top of canyon, and I was blown away. I again marveled at the beauty that has been there all these years that I have lived in Salt Lake, but which I never saw or experienced. There were a number of reasons for this, but it basically boils down to the fact that I was going through life with blinders on, my nose to the grindstone, oblivious (and almost willfully so) to a landscape and a world that I refused to see or visit. It didn't escape me, as I rode up and down the canyon yesterday, that this could be a metaphor for my life in general - particularly with respect to my hidden sexuality:  it was always there, a land rich in emotion and beauty, but I refused to go there ... 
"For most of my life, I have been in survival mode - simply putting my head down and trying to get through whatever crisis or challenge I was facing at the time. I would go all out, trying to just get to the top of the metaphorical hill ... But by putting my head down and focusing on the "top of the hill," I missed out on the journey. I didn't care about the journey; all I cared about what the destination. I had to "get through" the next challenge so that I could then "get through" the next challenge, so that I could then "get through" the next challenge, etc., etc. In the process, I exhausted myself and missed out on all the beauty that was beyond the corridor of my life."

On Wednesday, I joined the others on a ride around Anacortes and Fidalgo Island. It was the first time I'd been on my bike in a month, and I enjoyed getting out.

On Thursday, Mark and I went whale watching along the southern edge of the San Juan Islands. It turned out to be a beautiful day and an unforgettable experience.