Tuesday, 18 November 2008

What it is to be a carer

I seem to be writing, slantwise, about Christine's cancer. I realise that I have been avoiding what is actually on my mind, which is about being a carer, about what it means to care for someone who has cancer.

Christine's cancer story, briefly, is this. We met virtually through the website everything2.com - I lived in England, she lived in California. We met in real life four years ago today. She was diagnosed with infiltrating ductal carcinoma in February 2004, following a trip to England. I flew out to be with her, to help her through the start of her treatment, which we hoped would be simple. As things turned out, she would be needing a mastectomy, chemo and radiation. I wound up staying here, as she was clearly going to need more than a little moral support. We were married on 1st May, 2005.

Since then we've been nursing her back to health. This is not as easy as it sounds. Cancer is no joke, neither for the patient nor the family - we've often said that cancer is a disease that affects the whole family. The patient is affected in fairly obvious ways, the family in ways that are not always so obvious. And each case is, of course, different. In this case, the difference was, and is, twofold. Christine has a daughter Tess, now aged ten. Her husband (me!) flew six thousand miles to care for, leaving behind his family, friends and support, to be with her.

Now the cancer has reared its ugly head again. That it did so made me angry at first. I came to realise that I was grieving. This grief is real - after all, there's a chance I might lose her at lot sooner than I'd like, and that's rather annoying, as it took me all this time to find a keeper. I also lost both my parents last year, Dad to cancer, Mum to a broken heart. My sister I lost because she feels I let them all down. I don't intend to let Christine down, or Tess.

I want to talk about my feelings, and I hope I don't bore you, or drive you away. I know I'm not alone, but I feel alone. It's not that I have no-one close, I do. I have Christine and Tess. There are thousands of people, millions, going through similar processes during their caring journey, but that's not the alone I feel. Our family is surrounded by people who love us, and bend over backwards to help us, but again, that doesn't address my alone-ness. It's the being alone inside my head with all the hopes and fears, no matter how reasonable or unreasonable, rational or unfathomable.

There are too many things worrying me right now. Things I can barely express, thoughts and feelings that are a knotted jumble. I need to get them out, and I hope that there is someone there who can help me make sense of them. Of course, along the way, maybe I will be able to help someone else. I hope so.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Autumn, Fall, whatever. Still my favourite season

Going into Autumn is complex for me. It always was - the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" used to fill me with a desire to flee England's dismal shortening days for milder weather and above all, daylight. Living in California now means that I don't have to fear the coming winter, miss the light, bright days or plod around in wet-weather gear just in case it rains.

Now, it means the season of abundance at the Farmer's Market. We're just out of the best bit, with the piles of tomatoes and peppers, but apples are beginning, so just as I start to miss one crop, another comes along to excite and delight me. How can anyone not shop at the Market? All those Safeway shoppers don't know what they ar
e missing by buying their "fresh" produce in bags and boxes, shipped from God-knows-where and treated in dreadful ways that a man ought not wot of.

Now, of course, it saddens me because my Mum died last year, in late October. This year I'm also dealing with Christine's cancer and the grief that's attached to that. But it's not about to drag me South with the autumnal emigre birds.

A final note on autumn, for my many English or British friends who enquire after my dealings with "American English". "Fall", they say, "is an Americanism best done without. Use 'autumn'".

Sorry to tell you this, but the words fall and autumn are relatively new words, dating from the 17th century. Before that, the season was known as "Harvest", and both words were used alike in America and Britain (or at least, England), though in time, each country had its own preferences. In fairness though, most Americans know what "autumn" means, and few Brits fail to understand the "fall" season. Of the two, once again, the Brits are the ones who gripe most.

I still love you, Harvest season, by any name.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Shooting Cancer

So following my recent bash at shooting, I went back to Vacaville today, and I SHOT AT CANCER. This was the best group, .357 Magnum Smith & Wesson at about fifteen yards.

It was a lot of fun, and for a beginner, not a bad effort, according to the chap at the counter.

Just tell me it won't make me rush off to join the NRA and vote Republican.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Speaking of flying the flag...

How's this for wearing your heart on your sleeve? Found, apparently, in Northern California. So where do I get one?

Flag? What flag?

Here's a funny thing. Another great difference between our two great nations. It's all to do with those symbols of national pride. Yes, I mean flags.

It certainly seems that some in the US think that flying the flag is a Good Thing, and flags are certainly scattered liberally (if you'll pardon the phrase) about, not just around the patriotic holidays, but outside houses and businesses on a day-to-day basis.

Go to England and you'll see nary a one. Not even on Saint George's Day. You know Saint George, patron saint of England? Of course not. The Irish, bless 'em, beat us to the draw on that one, spreading the word about their patron saint until the whole world knows him and his Day. But I digress. In short, you won't see many English flags. You might see a few Union Flags, but that's the flag of Britain, which includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So what's the deal? Simple. In England, the flag has been hijacked by the racist extreme right, so much so that even prison officers have been told not to wear a flag pin, and police told a motorist he couldn't have one on his car. That, and there's little national pride left. Go to Scotland, you'll see Saint Andrew's cross flying, but south of the border, nada.

In the US, there's a different take. Here it's only the liberals who seems to fear the flag - others seem to fly it with impunity and pride. Where did this come from? I have no idea. But I do recall a time when both ultraconservative and hippie liberal alike were proud of the flag - this from a news item when I was but a tad, showing a hippie at an anti-Vietnam march, with one around his shoulders, and another held proudly. Yes, proudly.

If someone would take the time to explain why the liberals seem to need to reclaim the Stars and Stripes for their own, I'd gladly hear them out.

In the meantime, as a potential future citizen of this country, I prepare to fly all three flags with equal pride.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Two pints of lager, and a packet of crisps, please.

I never thought how much I was reliant on traditional British fare until I landed on these shores. You see, the English live on very different foods to you lot over here. At least, so it seems at first glance. Take, for example, the humble bacon sandwich. This is the staple of workman's caf├ęs up and down the country, as well as railway stations and motorway service stations. It consists of bread, and bacon. You might get the choice of butter or HP Sauce, but that's your lot. It's basic, filling and no-nonsense. Some of my American friends have asked me how to make a bacon sandwich, and I have to describe it as "a BLT without the LT". To say the least, British food is simpler.

Davis, where I find myself living, is a university town. In England, the equivalent town would have at the very least five fish-and-chip shops, a scattering of sandwich bars and maybe a workman-style caff where you can get a cheese sammidge and a cuppa tea. No such luck here. David Sedaris wrote about the simple ham sandwich transformed into the gourmet delight complete with four types of heirloom lettuce, two rare handmade cheeses, before finally being spritzed with rancid musk-ox oil. I,like Mr Sedaris, prefer the old-fashioned version, but can I get that here? No, Sir, I cannot. And we are all the poorer for it.

Then there's the pork pie. This is (wait for it!) a pie containing pork. Simple, you think? Not worthy of consideration in overstuffed gourmet America? You have to be kidding. Along with the Cornish pasty, this is a true delight of British cuisine. Tender pork, cooked with a few herbs and spices (notably pepper) and finally encased in a hot water pastry and topped off with pork jelly (aspic). Served cold with salads, pickles and good bread, it knocks the socks off any fancy sushi.

Last, but not least, the humble pub snack. There's nothing like the British pub anywhere else in the world. With apologies to everyone in the American hospitality industry, you need to do more than serve your beer slightly warmer, in a 20-ounce glass. You need real crisps. Crisps, not "potato chips". Crisps with character, flavour, attitude. You need roast chicken, beef and mustard, and ham and pickle. Sea-salt and cracked pepper, indeed.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Dude! Where's my car?

Well, let me tell you. Last I saw your car, it was failing to stop at a stop sign. After that, it was shooting down 6th Street at about 30 mph. Shortly after, it was straddling the railway line behind the Davis Food Co-op, and you were doubtless feeling both foolish and bloody lucky. Foolish because you clearly were not paying attention to the main business of driving safely, and lucky because believe it or not, there are trains that run down that line. Big trains. Heavy trains. Trains going fast enough and with sufficient momentum that they would crush you and your car like bugs.

Does this ring a bell with you? Goodness, I hope so. I really wish I'd had a camera because I would be posting a picture of you along with this post. What were you thinking? Clearly, your mind was elsewhere. Maybe you were (illegally) on the phone. Maybe you were texting someone. You may have been reading a map. But whatever you were doing, be aware of this - you were not driving in any way safely, and you were putting other people in danger. In short, you are an idiot and a scofflaw.

Sadly, you are in great company. And I don't mean "great" in the sense of good, either.
You are in that great multitude of drivers who clearly don't feel that the basic, common-sense rules of the road apply to you. I've seen them everywhere. On freeways, doing 80+ whilst reading or using a phone, or putting on lipstick.

Now clyclists, don't start feeling all superior and the like. It's not just motorists, you know. At least in Davis, there are dozens, nay, hundreds of cyclists who regularly flout the law and ignore safety. They do all of the above, with added bonuses like riding without lights, the wrong way down the bike lanes and with no hands on the handlebars.

Let me just get this straight. The poor deluded souls in their cars are at least protected by a high-tech steel cage with seatbelts and those explody-bag things to protect them in case of accident. You, on the other hand, are exposed to the elements, and I don't just mean the weather. You are as bad as the guy we started with, who was risking his life by potentially going up against hundreds of tons of train. All teh protection you have is your clothes and a helmet. Good grief.

What is wrong with you people? Do you think you are immortal, or are you just stupid? Evidence points to the latter.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

The .357 Calibre Stress Management System

So for those of you who don't know, the reason I came to the US was to court Christine. I first came over in November 2004, fell totally in love, and we were engaged "real quick" as they say. In February 2005, she was diagnosed with cancer following a trip to the UK. You can read the full story here, but the short of it is that she's been cancer-free for just three years.

Or so we thought. She recently had a PET scan, which showed enlarged and over-active lymph nodes. This in turn triggered a return of the kind of uncertain stress that's associated with being in the anxious darkness of not knowing. At this moment, we're not sure whether it's new cancer (which would be bad) or some other infection (which would be not so bad). In short, we're all a little variable in our moods. I'm unafraid to admit that I've been running the emotional spectrum from anger through anxiety to tears of pain. None of us are immune to this, and it's a tough one to cope with.

So what to do while we wait for the medical machine to give this fear a name? We continue to work, though my boss, bless her heart, has kindly given me Saturdays off for a while. Tess continues her schooling (Grade 5, she's doing so well, too!) We're trying to live normally, but the worry is apparent. Sleepless nights, poor appetite and all the trappings of the tension.

I have many hobbies. I read, I write. Christine knits, makes jewelry and both she and Tess do ballet. I lacked something physical, something that wo
uld burn off some adrenalin. If I were up at our summer cabin in Ontario, I could dig out the old foundations of the deck and porch and make them sturdier, I could build the workbench I promised myself, fix up the dock. Chop down trees. That's how I get rid of stress.

But the problem is that I am basically lazy. I do a little Tai Chi now and then, but not regularly, and I am loth to run because I feel ridiculous. And as for anything else physical, I don't dance and the pools are closed, pretty much. So a couple of weeks ago, I went down to Vacaville to do what many red-blooded American males seem to do. I joined a shooting range and went and shot a rifle.

Now at this point, I will remind you that I am an Englishman. In England, we don't shoot things. You can own a shotgun and shoot clay pigeons or (if you're rich enough) go hunting. But rifles and handguns? No way. Not for many a year has it been legal to own or use a firearm. So for me this was a big deal. I have never fired a gun before, never wanted to. But here in the US, I have t
he opportunity to do just that, and I decided to give it a shot. So to speak.

The news that I had done this attracted a few raised eyebrows among my mostly-liberal Davis friends, none of whom I can imagine owning or using a weapon. Many have never used one, nor would they consider it necessary. But I went and rented a .22 rifle (a Ruger 10/22, in case that means something to you) and bought 100 cartridges, got a brief demo as to how to load and use the thing, and off I went into the indoor range. It was okay, after I got over the initial nervous shakes caused by "this thing could kill someone" thoughts. But I did it, and even learned how to hit the target close to the bull. Pulled to the left a little, but hey, I'm new at this.

Trouble was, it was interesting, but not really that much fun. The rifle made a crack rather than the BANG that my neighbour got w
hen he was firing his much bigger handgun. So this week, I plucked up even more courage and went back, and this time, rented a handgun. A Smith and Wesson 686P, .357 Magnum. Now that is a gun that goes BANG.

It kicked a little, too. I knew I was firing something, because I could feel it in my shoulder. The .22 didn't ha
ve that, there was no immediacy, no impact, no...oomph. This felt like it was doing something, and as another plus, I could see the holes in the target, clear and round and large and black. It was satisfying and, dare I say it, fun. Next time, I shall write CANCER in big letters on the target before I shoot.