“Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials…” (Jam 1:2)*
Dear family and friends,
Various trials” is one way one might summarize the year 2020. Let’s go deep on my list, shall we? I’m kidding. Please don’t ever allow me to do that. We’ve all had a rough year. Mine has been no rougher than anyone else’s, and a great many people have dealt with grave loss, sadness and isolation this year. A huge percent of the world population is facing life adjustments that haven’t been required previously in their lifetime. And yet it’s not as though similar loss, privations, and changes have never been faced by the human race before. Kendra and I have made it a habit in our family that we often direct our kids, when they inevitably meet with sadness, suffering, or struggles, to examples of people who have met trials with joy. Some of them have changed the course of history. So this post is a little reflection on real reasons I have found joy in 2020.
Death, but the happy kind
In Kendra’s always-terrific writing in our annual Christmas card message, she shared that on the day of her grandmother Anita’s death in April at the age of 100, she “put on a smart pantsuit, watched Mass on TV, said the Rosary, lay down for a nap, and passed away peacefully in her sleep in the home of her son. Praise God for a happy death.”
|Just before the COVID lockdown, we were able to travel to Memphis for Anita’s 100th birthday (St. Patrick’s Day!). She was as lively and talkative, charming and engaging as ever, and I will always be grateful that we got to have this visit with her and that entire side of the family before she left this earth.
I grew up in a heavily Irish, Catholic neighborhood in Chicago. I know Irish drinking songs about wakes
. It seemed during my childhood that we went to an open-casket wake about once a month (many of the people were known to my parents but not by me), funerals maybe 4 or 5 times a year. We lived as part of a community where death was a normal thing and where it was a routine gesture of support to just show up, express sympathy, organize a fundraiser for funeral expenses, offer to bring meals for a month and tell funny and touching stories about the beloved deceased. Funerals were followed by a banquet which was a joyful celebration of the loved one who had passed on.
Not living in Chicago for most of my adult life, I have missed these traditions a great deal. As a family we actually try to attend all the wakes and funerals we are made aware of, but those occasions are few. I’ve guessed that it owes to living in California, addicted to youth, health and the unreasonable preservation of this poor earthy life as I assume so many of my fellow Californians are. Well, anyone who recoils at the idea of a happy death is missing out, in my book. I am grateful to have known Kendra’s grandmother Anita as well as a grandson-in-law who lives 3,000 miles away could. She was loved by many people. I took great joy and comfort in the way that she left this life and I aspire to be as happy in my death when I am 100.
Being in healthcare, it looks like I picked the right industry to ride out 2020 in. I couldn’t be more grateful to have a stable job and I get joy out of being able to help people. The hours are long and the work to do is endless. Someone has to take care of these people. I’ll do it.
First, the cancer update: not great, not terrible. I had a new brain tumor pop up, a tiny one they zapped with the same radiation technique
I’ve had other times. Had that done two days ago. Feeling good.
At the same time, my last CT scan of the abdomen showed several enlarged abdominal lymph nodes. A likely explanation is that the drug I’m taking to reduce swelling around dead brain tumors
is causing abdominal inflammation. I’m also having some protein metabolism issues show up in my labs, and so because of those two side effects, we’re stopping the brain swelling drug. The hope is that I’ve had enough of the drug over the past 8 months to allow it to do its job and that I won’t need it any more. If brain swelling returns, for instance around this tumor they blasted this week, we’ll have to make the decision of whether to return to the anti-swelling drug temporarily to get the good effects before the undesirable side effects settle in. I’m looking forward to a break from the abdominal inflammation. It caused intermittent cramping, probably about 2 days a week. And if you asked me about the pain, I’d probably say 6, but if pushed I’d have to admit it was about an 8 on the 10 point scale.
|This is my favorite version of the pain scale. You usually see this one in hospitals and it looks like it has been photocopied about 300 times. I’ve never been able to figure out what’s going on with #4.
I go in for another abdominal scan in two months. If it shows the inflammation holding strong, it’s probably new tumor growth. At that point it will be time to get on a new therapy, possibly getting into a new clinical trial. So we’re inviting you to join us in a prayer that the abdominal inflammation will go away and we don’t have to make an aggressive course change.
Okay, so now to the joy that I’ve found in cancer. We all have 100% certainty that we will die. I think a big difference between when I didn’t have cancer and now that I do, is that I believe cancer gives me more clarity about what I should do between now and the time I die. It couldn’t be more clear to me that even if I do live to be 100 (see above – I think it’s possible with the magic treatments
they’ve come up with), time is running out for me to learn to treat people better, to stop being so touchy, to stop wanting things just my way, to quit expecting others to have a different personality than the one they were born with. I might still mess it up, but I know what I have to do. That gives me a lot of hope that I can do it. This is part of what has made me see cancer as a gift
. While it’s not wrapped up like a birthday present, in a way that I admit could seem impossible to understand, it has helped me, it has proven to to be something I needed to become better.
Extended family and friends
I recently spoke to a cousin I hadn’t crossed paths with in many years. One of the first things he told me was that he prays the rosary for me every day. It’s something that has struck me throughout this whole journey – people all over the world, without my knowing it, and whether they know me or not are praying for me. What an amazing thing to be able to say.
There are some friends who did some very heavy lifting for our family this year. Someday I’ll say more about it, but for now I’ll just say that it takes me back to that same neighborhood of my childhood. Back then and this year I experienced people going above and beyond to help each other. It’s a joy to know that despite all the problems I might see in our world, lots of people sacrifice for others.
My friends are great for sending me funny texts and setting up zoom calls, too. A few of them made me a “mix tape” Spotify playlist
for my radiation session this week. Pretty great. (It’s public – I’d just ask that you keep it as-is and don’t add songs).
|Try to get us down. Dare ya.
Kendra launched a book and a consumer products business. Jack, when offered the guest room during his year-long COVID exile from USC’s campus, declined in favor of staying with his brothers in the boys’ room. Betty introduced herself to the manager at the grocery store last week. Bobby hand-made amazing Christmas presents for people this year. Gus was a good sport in the face of older brothers’ taunting about him not knowing what he’s talking about (he doesn’t, but they don’t have to taunt him). Anita has figured out dad’s sense of humor and started firing back. Frankie saved George from drowning. Lulu continues to sigh contentedly at the most ordinary things in life. Prickly Mary Jane, not a cuddler, not a hugger, and at the time not yet five years old settled on the profoundly self-aware Lenten observance of hugging Jack once a day for the 40 days of Lent. George, breaking fully with the Tierney kid habit (which we break) of saying “I don’t know,” when asked any question, will offer a concrete answer or opinion on any question he is asked (e.g. What size shoe does Spiderman wear? Where do Christmas trees come from? What was the name of that cat who was playing with Fr. O’Malley’s hat in The Bells of St. Mary’s?) He might make it up, but he’ll say something. Barbara, our dear baby, calls her baby-talk name for each member of the family and comes running to them whenever she hears their voices.
At home I’ve been surrounded by goodness and beauty this year. We’ve serenaded the neighborhood, hiked, played wiffleball and ping pong, judged backyard pool diving contests, RVd practically to Canada and back, played board games and listened to audio books. We’ve sent a kid away to college online, upstairs and not had to grieve that loss – and had him be a really good sport about it all. We’ve missed friends, but found ways to compensate and stay even more in touch in some cases.
With fortitude and prayers for you,
*hat tip to my brother in law Bryan for this post’s scripture quote.