Part 29. Every Grain of Sand
When I came home from the hospital a second time, I found it hard to do nothing. I even had something to help me relax — Xanax. I was prescribed this anti-depressant for reasons that will soon become apparent. Yet I still felt like there was an internal hamster running endless laps on a wheel in my head.
Give us this day our daily meds. I had so many pills to take that Christian Corwin, my cancer surgeon, suggested I take a sabbatical from some prescriptions.
For years, I’d been taking stuff for blood pressure and cholesterol. With all of these new drugs in my system, Corwin thought I could take a break from those and not suffer ill effects. All of the new drugs moving into my neighborhood should help me regulate well enough, he said.
When I’d been at the University of Florida, I’d been part of a study in which I was asked to drink pectin every day to see if my extremely high cholesterol could be lowered. The pectin was a thick mass of pulp in a Tropicana container and I rather liked it. I’ve always gone for the grove-stand variety of orange juice and don’t trust citrus if there’s no real evidence of its having once been in a grove. I like hunks of pulp. Unfortunately, Seagram’s bought Tropicana and cut out all research projects, so I went back to dull old medicine.
And high blood pressure and I go ‘way back. I’d been an unreliable pill-taker, however, so it wasn’t until my “acute hypertensive episode” in 2013 that I became devoted to my medicine cabinet. Nearly exploding will do that for you.
But suddenly I had a bouquet of medication. There were more pills that came with being a cancer patient. Chemotherapy had affected my lower extremities most severely. It had given me neuropathy, which offered the sensation of walking with someone else’s feet. When Rolf Freter, my oncologist, first told me about this, I thought he said it would last three or four months. He later amended that three or four years.
Each day started with the shaking of a pill canister in the bathroom and the ritual line-‘em-up-and-swallow. I’ve always had trouble with pills larger than a drop of water, so it was somewhat arduous. It wasn’t like digging ditches, but for a guy with a bad gag reflex, it wasn’t easy to rip through my lineup of meds.
Oddly, the pills I always wanted, I never get.
I’d long wanted to try recreational Viagra. When I’d see the ads and hear the warnings of possible side effects, I’d get kind of excited. A four-hour erection sounded like my kind of party. But absent evidence of need, I couldn’t get anyone to prescribe it for me, and Nicole discouraged me from trying to obtain some. I think she was worried that my already hyper-charged libido would make the jump into hyperspace.
And then there was medicinal marijuana. Nicole’s mother had a prescription during her cancer treatment, but Corwin — perhaps as a nod to its long-illegal status and his military background — chose not to prescribe it. I didn’t have the nausea that seemed to be the regular reason for marijuana prescription and he was uncomfortable with it. I asked Freter, and he too demurred.
Jesus, I thought. What’s one more prescription?
I definitely needed help to relax. I was racked with the constant worry: did he get all of it? Is my tumor gone? Am I cancer free?
Occasionally, the cumulative effect of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery would put the utter smackdown on me. But still, there were those nights when I lay awake listening to the dull metallic sound of the hamster’s claws finding purchase on the metal wheels of its cage.
They sent me home from the hospital with cancer bags. They had age-appropriate bags for me to give children and since the kids at home spread from 10 to 18, the contents of the bags varied, with the usual variety of stickers, coloring books, stuffed toys and other items intended to explain to a kid that mommy / daddy has cancer. Alas, there was nothing for me to give the kids in their thirties.
“Cancer sounds awesome,” Charley said, when he dug into his bag. And I had to admit, the people who’d made up the bag did a good job of explaining how cancer was just another thing that people had to go through in life, like getting a flat tire or changing jobs.
During my on-site weekly chemotherapy treatments, I’d had several regular visitors — aside from the lovely woman with the chicken-salad sandwiches.
A social worker came by each week, as I sat in my reclining chair as fresh new chemicals coursed into my body. She asked about the children and how they were handling everything. I told her we tried to turn everything into a game or a funfest for the boys but that teary-eyed Jack wasn’t really falling for it. Her message was simple and obvious: don’t hesitate to talk about it. Reassure them, yes, but also let them know that death was just another stage of life.
Of course, as a lifelong Dylan fan, I heard His Grand Exalted Mystic Bobness in my head: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
The social workers told me that the best way for Jack — or anyone else in the family — to deal with the uncertainty was to talk about it. Jack seemed content with curling up with me, and so was I. If he wanted to talk, he would tell me when he was good and ready.
But thoughts of death naturally lead into the whole mystery of what comes next. Another regular visitor to the stool by my cancer recliner was a eucharistic minister from a Catholic church in Weymouth.
My church attendance had slacked off a good deal since moving to Massachusetts. In Florida, I’d not only attended the church across from campus every week, I’d passed by two other parishes to get there.
My devotion to that parish was simple. The pastor of the university’s student center, Father John Gillespie, was a fascinating man and the opposite of the paint-by-numbers priests I’d seen in so many other pulpits.
Looking back, I realized he was probably the reason I converted to Catholicism in my mid-thirties, not long after moving to the University of Florida in 1986. What others disliked, I embraced.
Often, parishioners would softly groan when they saw Father Gillespie coming down the aisle at the start of a Sunday mass. There were three priests and the schedules were not predictable to laymen. One of the other priests, Tim Loshar, was also gifted at crafting engaging homilies. But he was also more succinct than Father Gillespie. For the watch-checkers in the congregation, Father Tim was preferred. I loved hearing Tim’s homilies, but I never dreaded a John Gillespie stem-winder.
We became such a part of the church’s life that Nicole became a eucharistic minister and I became a lector. We’d manage our weekly miracle of getting all the kids dressed and in the pews in time for a 9 o’clock Sunday mass, then find ourselves among friends. It’s as if in middle age I finally discovered the whole going-to-church thing.
I grew up religion free. This is odd, considering that both of my parents had traditional, midwestern church upbringings. Methodists, both of them. But when I was a child, I’d wake on Sunday to learn that my father was on the golf course with his friends and my mother was in bed with the Miami Herald.
One day, when I was eight or so, I woke, bathed, and put on my best clothes. I informed my mother I was going to church. The Air Force base had a non-denominational church and I walked there, sat among the (mostly) strangers, and tried to understand what church was all about.
Later, when we were stationed in Texas, my sister had the same sort of spiritual adventure, and ended up at a Lutheran Church. That’s also where she met the man who would become her husband (and remain so; they’re closing in on 50 years of marriage).
In the end, my brother became a Methodist, my sister was a Lutheran and I was Catholic. As it turned out, I was returning to the fold. My grandmother Frances — on whose birthday I was born and who I most resembled — had to leave the church, back in the first part of the 20th Century — because she married a non-Catholic, my namesake, William Harlos.
So my spiritual path was not pre-ordained. I didn’t follow a template. We all found our way, with only the most subtle of encouragement from our parents. My father knew the Bible well. His mother had taken him to church regularly, perhaps the reason he never pressed the issue with us. He also had a book called The Bible as Living Literature, which was published in the 1930s. It took out all of the notations and presented the scripture as an epic story. Many times, he would quote passages from the Bible and seem irritated that I did not recognize them. But perhaps he was more irritated with himself — for not teaching me — than with me.
So, back to St. Augustine Catholic Church in Gainesville, Florida, where I landed in 1986: It was an odd parish in that it mixed a lot of town folks in with students who staggered into church after a long Saturday night of partying and puking. I’d see a lot of students in church but I taught such large classes that I didn’t always recognize them.
I remember once, while fumbling for a collection, I pulled out my wallet, a silent and steadfast tribute to Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. It had “Bad Motherfucker” embossed on it. I heard giggles from behind me and turned to see two young women, both of whom were apparently amused. A few minutes later, during the sign of the peace, one of the women stuck out her hand. “Peace be with you, Doctor McKeen,” she said pointedly.
So, St Augustine Catholic Church had been a huge part of our lives. It was also a political church, sending money to families in need in Central America, bringing in speakers to talk about the conflicts in those areas, and feeding the homeless in Gainesville. That would seem to be simple human decency and not a political act, but the Church’s St Francis House was an irritant to downtown merchants. I stood up for Father Gillespie and St Francis House in a letter to the editor of the Gainesville Sun and it was one of my proudest moments as a writer when Father Gillespie read my letter from the pulpit.
(One of my girlfriends from the 1990s refused to go to St Augustine’s and referred to it as “the Communist church.”)
As I grew to know Father Gillespie well, I felt bold enough to tease him about his homilies, some of which lasted nearly an hour. They were never dull, though, and often set the agenda for a week of thought and reflection. (And they were always thoughtfully composed and relied on no apparent notes.)
“Some people see you coming down the aisle,” I told him once, “and they think, ‘Time to pitch a tent; we’ll be here for a while.’”
He was not perturbed. “I’m not doing the mass for them,” he said, then indicated the heavens with his eyebrows.
So, since moving to Massachusetts, there was a yawning hole in my life because of the absence of a spiritual community. It had defined so much of my life in Florida. It wasn’t that I’d given up on the church since moving to Cohasset. We attended church, but it was obvious that the parish was like a Spiritual Inn-and-Out Burger joint. The parishioners expected homilies short and sweet and the serving of communion to be modeled on the Church of McDonalds, Ray Kroc, minister.
Gradually, I’d stopped going. Even when I felt the greatest need, it wasn’t to my local parish I turned to, but Father Gillespie. His political activism had led him to be reassigned to a more rural church, yet he drove all the way to St Augustine when I flew down for a book event. He was a great man. Is.
So, when the eucharistic minister came to see me during the chemo treatments, I eagerly took part in our truncated communion-with-a-prayer-chaser. I had been faithful to my church, so I didn’t feel like a hypocrite with some near-deathbed conversion.
When some people get the cancer diagnosis, they turn to religion like desperate wild-eyed shoppers at Walgreens at 11:20 on Christmas Eve.
I suppose we call these things spiritual journeys. Mine was odd, considering my parents’ laissez faire attitude. I was married the first time to a Catholic woman and learned a lot from her, and from attending church. Our three children were also baptized Catholic. But there were parts of Catholicism that bothered her — the occasional merger of church doctrine and superstition. So, if our little girl isn’t baptized in three weeks after birth and she dies ,she’s going to hell? As a cradle Catholic, she called out the church’s inanity on that stance.
It was during my Oklahoma years that I really began to understand the nature of spirituality. A young woman gave me her Bible — a weathered paperback, annotated in her script, something she’d carried for years — and that was the beginning of a change.
Soon after, I moved to Florida, found my church, and converted to Catholicism.
I remember the all-night conversion service. Father Gillespie was there with two other priests. By the middle of the night, the priests were all punchy as we — there were about twenty of us — went through the statements of faith on the alter. I had been baptized before, but for those who had not been baptized, the church set up a hot tub on the front lawn. This part of the ceremony coincided with high tide at the town’s most popular student bar, the Purple Porpoise. As the new converts were being baptized, students stood around drinking their beer from plastic cups, cheering on the participants and offering commentary.
Each priest did a certain number of the converts. When it was Father Gillespie’s turn, he lifted his robes as he crawled into the hot tub. “Just like at the rectory,” he said. “I’m always last with the bathwater.” Even the drunks cracked up.
So, I didn’t need to make any rapid-fire conversion just because I had cancer. I’d made my conversion — when I’d walked myself to chapel and when that young woman gave me her Bible and when I joined St. Augustine’s.
Plus, I’d died — back on that porch in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had bargained for my life and been given the gift of these years. I often wondered if now my check was being cashed. I’d gotten more time and fathered three more children. Maybe the marker was coming due.
It wasn’t the Church — or any church — that defined me. It was the understanding that there was more than this. God wasn’t the property of any religion. God was in the public domain. We’d find out, someday, what it all meant so I often wondered why there was so much fuss over organized religion.
But one thing I’d always felt was not to ask God for things. I have a list of “rules for my sons” posted on the refrigerator and I instruct the boys not to ask for things but to thank God for the blessings in our lives. If I was done at sixty, then I should be quietly grateful for those years and not ask for more than my share.
William Blake said he could see God in a daisy. Bob Dylan said he saw God “in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.” I saw God in the eyes of my children: in the way Sarah, as a child, danced when she didn’t know I was watching; in the way Graham squinted into the sun when we were fishing; in Mary’s furrowed 18-month-old brow as she showed concern for the family turtle; in the way four-year-old Savannah resolutely sucked her thumb as she stroked her mother’s ear. And the boys now, and the boys then: Jack, dancing to a strolling mariachi band; Travis, at two, responding to a gift from a dinner guest. “Oh my,” he said, “you have made me so …. happy”; and Charley, running naked through the paddock of our horse farm.
No matter what I’ve done with my life as a teacher or a writer, it’s as a father that I’ve made my greatest contribution.
So, I’d sit there in my chair, the chemicals coursing through my body, praying with a stranger. I was praying not for one day more — though I desperately wanted one more and many more —- but in gratitude for what I had. I’d made my bargain fifteen years ago and if it was time for me to settle up, then that’s what I must do.