Monday, February 17, 2014
Existing in New York City: "Sorry, pal, but you've got the Big C" Part 3
How Wolves Invigorated Yellowstone Park, Even Changing Its Rivers
Say Goodbye to: Peter Phillips, pianist extraordinaire. Peter finally succumbed two days ago to a cancer he had fought for 15 years. I had the privilege of recording an album with Peter and then becoming friends with him when we both played a gig for several months in a downtown Manhattan restaurant music room. The last I saw Peter, he was in terrible shape, unable to hold his head up, unable to talk (he wrote things out in a little notebook he carried with him); yet, stoically accepting his dilemma with a surprising good sense of humor. Finally, Peter gave up. He died in a Pennsylvania hospital with his wife (an old friend of mine) and his kids and family around him. Goodbye to a good friend and great musician.
Cancer in the New Millenium
2000 started off with a bang. I brought in the new century playing a New Year's Eve party at the downtown Manhattan restaurant where we had been the New Year's Eve band for 7 years. 2000 proved to be our last year as such. We got fired in favor of a bartender's girlfriend's band.
The first bad news I got in the new century was that my brother was going blind and deaf, though he, a defiant man, was being very stoic about his problems due to his having a heart transplant back in the late eighties that destroyed his immune system. He confessed one night on the phone that going blind and deaf weren't his biggest concerns. What was his biggest concern was cancer. Due to his crashed immune system he had suffered skin cancer over the twelve years he had survived the heart transplant, which was no problem except the extravagant costs to have the skin cancers removed. This time the cancer he was concerned about, recently diagnosed, was a rare nerve cancer that had taken root in one of his optical nerves. After the operation for this cancer, he found he couldn't close his eyelid on his left eye so the doctors devised a solid gold weight to hold it down, which left my handsome brother looking cockeyed, a disability he made the best of by wearing horned-rimmed glasses that made his cocked eye hard to see. All went well for a while but then one day in early 2001, he informed me that this nerve cancer had returned, this time spreading up to the nerves behind his eye. By late 2001, this cancer had spread to his brain. He was officially diagnosed with brain cancer at that time.
That September just prior to 9/11, he was invited to the White House by Laura Bush, one of his admirers due to her being a promoter of book reading and libraries and my brother being by that time a highly regarded and awarded Texas author (author of 30-plus books). Photos of him at the White House show him reduced to being confined to a wheel chair but smiling joyeously proud as he was honored at a White House luncheon and then getting a tour of the White House by Laura and G.W. (Laura my brother liked, though he totally disagreed with G.W.'s policies as Governor of Texas and as President).
By January of 2002, the brain cancer began to eat away at his rugged constitution; yet, in spite of the pain and attacks where he lost his bearings, during periods of awareness and full-blown reasoning, he continued to write a newspaper column he did for a large Dallas newspaper.
In the meantime, one of my best friends for life ever was a man I had become the closest of friends with in junior high back in West Texas, a friendship that had lasted for almost 50 years as this exceedingly smart man succeeded in rising to the top in his professional field of Quantitative Physics. My old friend had suffered a spinal column problem in his early 20s, which due to botched surgery left him a cripple for life. This spinal problem had eventually (in his later years) left him so wheelchair bound he had to take an early retirement from his professorship at West Virginia University.
I received a letter from him in December of 2001 (very short since he could no longer type without excruciating pain) in which he said he was coping with his debilitating situation by listening to music (we both were into jazz and blues and classical music), listening to audio books, and sitting in the mountain sun in his backyard and given his condition, doing quite fine, thank you.
So how surprised was I to get a call from his wife in January of 2002 telling me my old friend forever was no more. He had died of an excruciatingly painful brain cancer. After gathering his wife and son around him in the hospital and after watching a pro football game (another of his passions), he had personally pulled the plug on his life-support system thus leaving the mortal coil via his own desire.
I was shocked by his death to say the least.
My brother in the meantime continued on going in and out of moments of total awareness and moments of not knowing who the hell he was. In late March of 2002, my sister-in-law called me and said she needed my help because my brother had become an uncontrollable ass, wanting no help when trying to get to the bathroom, then falling, at which times, she said, he was too heavy for her to pick up so she just let him lie where he had fallen until he regained strength enough to get back in bed by himself. She said it was my brotherly duty to come to Texas and help her with him. Instead, I got one of his sons to go down there and help this helpless woman, which he did, though, since he hated her (she was my brother's second wife), he made life even more miserable for her than my brother's uncontrollableness. In April of 2002, I called my brother and we had a long intelligent conversation in which he told me he was feeling better, was working on his newspaper column, and was defying his doctors by continuing to prove them wrong in terms of his cancerous doom. Two days later, I got a call from my sister-in-law. My brother was dead. Ironically, she said, he was cognizant and energetic enough right up to the day he died to finish two of his newspaper columns. [The Dallas newspaper published those two final columns in black boxes.]
My brother was 78 years old when he died. Besides having a heart transplant and living 14 years after that operation, with no immune system, battling skin cancers all that time, he finally succumbed to the cancer that started in an optical nerve and spread slowly into his brain. My brother was also totally blind and deaf when he finally flew the coop off the mortal coil.
One of my brother's last published books was a book of poems. The last poem in the book is Note Found Appended to a Balloon:
I leave, but in glory,
To the sky.
And if I never come to Earth again,
It's no disgrace to die
Among the stars.
In April 2002, my big brother died and he certainly died among the stars.
In 2006, a friend of mine in New Mexico sent me an email that said he had read in the Santa Fe New Mexican of the death of a woman using my last name and he wondered could it be my ex-wife, the Welch-Mexican-Choctaw beauty who I was married to for 10 years, living with her during my nomadic years in New Orleans, Mexico City, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Victoria (British Columbia), Key West and Boca Raton (Florida), and finally New York City, where we were divorced in 1974.
I tried getting information from the Santa Fe New Mexican but they said they charged a fee for information, so I slammed the phone down and instead went on the Internet and found her twin nephews listed as Santa Fe real estate brokers and I called their office and got one of them (I was once his uncle and he certainly remembered me). Is your aunt dead? I asked. Yes, was the reply. She had died in 2005.
My wife was a heavy smoker. She was addicted to Salems. I once pled with her to quit smoking (I couldn't stand the smell of cigarettes) and she told me she'd rather risk dying of cancer than to give up her Salems. Well, what did she die of?, I asked my ex-nephew. Breast cancer, came his reply. She was only 57 years old. Though we had been separated for 20 years and I had not seen her during that time (I did talk to her on the phone), I felt terribly sad at hearing she was dead. It was as though she were still a part of me...and she had kept my name and hadn't remarried. She had called me once back after our Haitian divorce with some concern because she had read that Haitian divorces were maybe not valid and she felt that maybe we were still married. I weirdly thought of that while thinking of her being gone and in a deep corner of my subconscious, I let our still being married be justified as truth.
Three years ago, a dear old friend of mine, the former bass player in the cult band for which I was the lead singer back in the 1980s (and a member of that New Year's Eve band I started this post off with mentioning), found out he had oral cancer. thedailygrowlerhousepianist and I visited him while he was in the hospital getting chemo and he was hooked up to all kinds of machines and enduring a twenty-four/seven chemo drip treatment. Miraculously, he survived and today is in total remission and back working as an NYC museum director. How ironic was it that back in January, after a visit for a routine check up with his Ear, Eye, Nose and Throat doctor, thedailygrowlerhousepianist informed me that he had been diagnosed with oral cancer, a tumor under his tongue. This brave soul, one of the best persons and friends I've ever met, is currently undergoing seven weeks of chemotherapy. All my fingers and toes are crossed and I'm mentally projecting "HEAL" towards his spirit. He is currently entering his third week of chemo/radiation treatments and so far is doing fine, his doctor telling him the tumor under his tongue has shrinked to half what it originally was.
I sit and wonder why oh why since Madame Curie invented radiation therapy (it killed her, by the bye) has there been no progress in finding a cure for this horrible disease. A disease on the rise rather than on the decline. I also have had a bit of a cancer scare, my cardiologist worried about me showing signs of anemia (a sign of colon cancer) in my blood tests. On the last tests, however, I came out clean. One, however, never knows. When taking courses at the Louisiana State University Medical School (I was studying to be a Social Psychiatrist), I took an oncology course with a Dr. Miller who said we all had cancer cells dancing about throughout our bodies looking for stressed cells to attack and eat. [He promoted hypnotism as a possible cure for cancer.] I have never forgotten how intensely his teaching stuck in my mental craw. I have ever since then decided never to worry about a damn thing and never to tense up so as not to welcome aboard the cancer armies. That I had a heart attack two years ago proves I didn't quite control such anxieties and that situation now leaves me thinking, "crap, when will the Big C get my proud ass?" As Fats Waller said, "One never knows, do one?"
for The Daily Growler