Poker face

“You know, there’s this really great support group at a church in town. You may get something out of it” she said. Roxanne had startled me, I was zoning out in the chair. I removed my headphones, retracted the extendable arm of the TV, turned and gave her my full attention.

“Do I look to you like I need to go to a support group?” I asked. “I’m the last one in this room who needs that.” I subtly pointed out the people around me, nodding my head in their direction. “I mean, look around.” All around me were cancer patients, attached to bottles and tubes getting chemo, plasma and god knows what. They looked very sick. I was the only non-cancer patient in the infusion center, there for an anemia deficiency. I thought I looked pretty good in comparison.

“Bill, you’re carrying around an awful lot of baggage, you can deny it all you want but this is what I do. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to someone.” I didn’t question Roxanne’s pedigree, she was good at her job. She knew all of her patients that had walked in after me, enough to hug them and in some cases elicit tearful responses. This was my first time at the infusion center and I felt like I have known her for twenty years. She was older yet youthful, matronly but attractive, professional but very comforting. I had come in expecting a simple shot, I was to find out that I was to be seated for a 90-minute infusion. In the time it took her to swab my arm, insert my IV and hook up the bag she had extracted my entire medical and personal history. She was very easy to talk to. I felt like she knew me. But did she know me enough to tell me I need help dealing with my apparently visible emotional baggage?

The problem is that I think I’m doing pretty good with everything. A lot has happened, and I have lost a lot of what is dear to me. But I roll on, in my family tradition and I try to stay positive. In doing so I make an effort to concentrate on my body language and facial expressions. Beneath it all, I am a control freak through and through. If I look like I am handling it, then I am handling it. What goes on in my mind will not show on my face.  I’m not feeling bad for myself, I don’t ask anyone for anything and I don’t want pity. “Why me?” is not part of my lexicon.

It never occurred to me that maybe I’m not pulling it off as well as I thought. Maybe only someone like Roxanne, the infusion center cougar, whose job it is to provide relief and comfort to the truly sick among us, can see through it. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. Maybe I should talk to someone.

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I always thought I was a good poker player. I won a lot of tournaments. Until one day I played with my friend Jeff. He called all of my bluffs and beat me handily. It turns out I have a lot of “tells” that he picked up on. If I don’t have the poker face I thought I did, then maybe Roxanne is right. I mean, it can’t hurt, right?

Integrity and $2.25 will get you a coffee

I have been on a nice, even emotional ground lately. I have rolled with adversity and conflict without anger and frustration. The only good thing to come out of recent events is that I have reconciled my past, forgiven myself for past mistakes, and tried to approach my future as positively as possible. I was doing great until yesterday when I saw my wife.

As part of the divorce proceedings, we are required, as parents of a minor child, to take a class on the impact of divorce on children. Our youngest is 15 and she is fine with everything so the course would be a piece of cake. Sit through it, sign your certificate of completion and head home. I would drive her home, I would head back up and we would not see each other until Christmas.

When my wife initially proposed that we get divorced, she put it out there as completely amicable. There was no money to argue about so alimony was out of the question, no assets to bicker over, and an agreement that I would give whatever I could towards supporting the family. No court mandates required. Completely civil. She just wanted to move on and I agreed.

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In the ten-minute ride to her house, she completely changed her tune and started talking about what would happen once I started receiving my disability checks. I didn’t know how to answer that, particularly because I still have no guarantee that I will actually get approved. She began to talk about how much she would need for the youngest two children in the way of clothing, food etc.,. I explained to her that if I am approved I will do whatever I can for my family, reminding her of our previous conversation. She pushed on further, speculating again on a check that I can’t guarantee. Finally, I asked her to just give me a number. She wouldn’t. She refused. Apparently, her monthly expenses are private. They always were I suspect. She handled the finances and despite how well we did we were always broke. Exasperated, I told her she was unaccountable and it was unfair. She replied that I was trying to walk away from this marriage without consequence. Are you absolutely kidding me?

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This is a direct affront to my character. My character is all that I have left in this world and it is not in question. I am committed to always doing the right thing, especially with regards to the children I love so much. I have shown her my ass, figuratively speaking, by disclosing everything and offering it all if needed and she thinks that I would let my family go without anything when it is within my means to prevent it? All I ask for is some transparency, something I have never had in the time we have been together. I may have to have an agreement drawn up after all. I can’t believe that my integrity is on the line after the sacrifices I have made to do right by her. I never say this but I’m offended.

As my dad, a very honorable man often said…”sometimes, it’s just the point that matters.”

My Friend Tony

Can I tell you the story of Tony? It would mean a lot if you would let me.

I spent a lot of years working at a restaurant. 17 to be exact. I have some great memories and I have some bad ones but overall it continues to be a formative period in my life. I made some great friends, learned some valuable skills and I met my wife there. The place is still there, as busy as ever, but I don’t go there as often as I used to. The food sucks, speaking as the former kitchen manager, and is too expensive. Additionally, my soon-to-be ex-wife still works there and I don’t want to go in and deal with all of the uncomfortable conversation. You see, we were a big story, a famous Prince (the name of the restaurant) couple. But there is one thing that I will always go there for, and that is to see my friend Tony. He works part time now, doing small chores to keep busy, He’s retired but he can’t sit still. Yesterday I went in to see him but he wasn’t there. He is in a Hospice…dying of Pancreatic Cancer.

Tony, now 80 years old, is the son of a Sicilian immigrant. He moved here when he was a teen, entered school as a senior, and despite a serious language disadvantage, graduated and joined the Army. His father worked on the docks in Boston and his mother dutifully cared for their modest home. Tony’s father never learned a word of English in his 92 years, his co-workers and his son worked around it. When Tony left the Army, he met a lovely young lady named Linda and he married her. Soon after he responded to a help-wanted ad posted on a little Northern Italian eatery in the town in which he lived. The owner was also an Italian immigrant who was glad to hire him. By the time I met Tony he had busted his ass, and I am understating this, for that man for 20 years.

When I first met Tony, I was a young college drop-out, freshly recovered from a motorcycle accident, hired as a “kitchen hand”. A title which entailed anything from prep-work to scrubbing pots. I hated it, the hours were long, the work was brutal and mind-numbing. I didn’t complain about the work because the after work beer was free and I was in the company of some very hard workers, most of them immigrants with limited English, big hands and bad tempers. They also didn’t speak to me. Tony was the first one. He called me a “slow Irish prick” and told me to “hurry the fuck up.” The fact that I was Scottish and going as fast as I could apparently irrelevant.

I didn’t know what “old school” really was until I started working at Prince. I came to understand their version of it as a rite of initiation. You must pay your dues, earn their respect, become worthy of them including you in conversation. If you are really “in” they will speak English in front of you. The golden ticket was a shot at working on the front line. Serving dinners for the laypeople out there. You must be worthy of their training and you had better be good. Sadly, at that time in my life my only goal was to move up to the line. I got my shot after a year of grunt work. I would be working next to Tony.

After my first few months on the line Tony did loosen up some and talked to me. I learned fast and I worked to his liking. It was if one day he realized I was for real (as a worker, maybe as a person). When that day came, and the curtain fell, I instantly liked him a lot. He was genuine and without pretense. And it was all about respect with him. Apparently, I earned it because before long we were laughing as we worked, enjoying the disapproving looks of the others. I became his protégé, although it felt more like “whipping boy” at times. Every shift we worked we were paired up. We would eventually become great friends but it took a while and several obstacles.

I would come to know Tony as a very nice, often obstinate, family-oriented and honest man. He believed in the American values of hard work, family and prosperity. He was respected at work and at home, but he did a tremendous job of keeping the two separated. His family was off-limits. No jokes about his wife were allowed, and no one who worked with him would ever date his beautiful daughter, or he would absolutely snap. If you could respect that Tony was easy. But there was one other thing, he didn’t like to be called stupid. Ever see Marty McFly when someone called him “chicken”? Yeah, something like that. I crossed that line a few times and the fights were awful. He would go days without talking to me. I hated it.

After 16 years of comraderie, hard work, a few fights and many after work drinks, Tony began to slow down. His age, a growing menu, my increasing skills and speed made it necessary that he and I would change places. I would become shift leader and he would assist me. It wasn’t my idea but I offered to be the one to tell him. To my surprise, he wasn’t upset, He was tired and welcomed the break. He would have been mad if I wasn’t the one given the position and he made that clear. We worked together exclusively until he slowed down further and was relegated to other responsibilities. He would retire soon after, not interested in a supporting role and more interested in enjoying time with his wife. He would stay on and do small jobs such as make salad dressings and take care of the hundreds of plants throughout the 700 seat restaurant. Working the line would never be the same, I missed having to repeat myself constantly. I missed listening to him tell the new help jokes that I had heard a hundred times. I missed having him tell me how I “wasn’t shit” compared to him in his day. He was probably right. Soon after, I found a full- time job in the world of business. My restaurant experience had gotten old.

I would visit Tony frequently at home and at work. I would time it so we could have a drink together and talk about the old day. What we did, who he hated, etc. It was always great to see him. I was really looking forward to having that drink, to update him on recent events, to see how he is feeling after he recently beat the odds (15%) with a bout of Pancreatic Cancer. I had sent him a long note about how much I loved him because he couldn’t have visitors. He called me and tearfully thanked me for the note.

When he recovered I was almost as happy as he was. I had recently heard from my wife that he was doing good for a while and that he was back to work. I now know that he isn’t. No one knows where he is, per his request. I want to see him so bad. I want to tell him again, in case he forgot, how much his friendship meant to me. To reflect on the thousands of conversations we had over the years. The world is losing a great man. What he taught me about hard work, being a simple and honest man, and to make the most of your situation will always be etched on my being.

If I don’t get to see him, I am comfortable that he knows how I feel about him. We’ve pretty much said everything to each other. But I will always be able to visualize him shrugging his shoulders, with his goofy self-effacing smile, saying  “After all, It’s just a job.”

be careful what you wish for

You were a waitress, fresh out of school

Me, a lost soul, living for the moment

You loved me immediately

At least thought you did

You chased me, I rejected you, all part of the game

You were so much younger, what would people say?

You persisted and insisted, that I was the one

You wished for my attention, hoped that I would break

I warned you I was not good for you

My illness and demons would take us down

Remember when I met your mother?

The disapproving look on her face should have said it all

 

A few years passed and your interest had not faded

You were older, I was stagnant, I gave it a shot

We began to date, there was no turning back

You’d loved me so long I couldn’t hurt you

We became a great story, despite all the odds

But hard times would come sooner than later

The fighting began, worse all the time

Bad times outnumbered good,  cracks began to show

Out of nowhere,  you were off to Florida

I would later learn that you went to think

stay with him, or leave him, a decision needed to be made

You chose to stay, the rest is history

21 years of marriage and 4 beautiful kids later

our great story now comes to an end

We were never a good match, I tried to warn you

I couldn’t provide for you, I knew it even then

Years of bitterness and struggles, you could have avoided it all

Sleepless nights, foreclosure and bankruptcy all that remain

If regrets were currency we’d be rich

Tomorrow we go to court to make it official

The story is over, bring in the shovel

When we sign the papers, making it final

Will you be thinking about that trip to Florida?

It’s not your fault

Next time, and I hope that you have one…

Be careful what you wish for

Another anniversary

Six years ago, at this very hour, I was undergoing Kidney transplant surgery. My family and my donor’s family waited nervously in the waiting room and friends and co-workers at home anxiously waited to see how we were doing.

I woke many hours later. I woke to bustling nurses, the beep of numerous machines, flashing lights and tubes and wires coming out of everything. The incision area was very painful, but I quickly realized that I already felt better than I had in years. Kidney disease patients often complain about a “fuzzy head”, feeling “off”. My head was clear.

The next day my donor and I were flooded with visitors. She was in a lot of pain but mobile, I was not, so she hung out in my room. Because we were co-workers many came to see the both of us it worked out great. I was still really sore and heavily medicated but the company was welcome. We were all celebrating a truly amazing thing, a co-worker donating a vital organ to another is such a selfless act, I felt like I was witnessing a historic moment.

As my recovery progressed, I committed myself to be better than before. I wanted to get back the strength I had lost, to truly commit to good health and get the maximum out of the estimated 15-20 years that I could expect from this kidney.

While I did enjoy some physical milestones in hiking, basketball, mountain biking and weight training, a mere 4 years later  I hit a wall. I got sick again, and by the symptoms, I knew what it was. After several biopsies, it was determined that the original disease that had destroyed my original kidneys over the course of 30 years had come back and done a ton of damage in just one year.

I’ve struggled to reconcile this for the last 2 years. I feel angry that I wasn’t told of this possibility. I feel sad that I can’t do the physical activities that came easily to me a mere 2 years ago. I even feel bad that my donor’s generous gift wouldn’t last as long as she and I had hoped. But I do not feel bad for myself and I do not ask “why me?’ I got a shit hand, it happens.

Six years ago today my Facebook page virtually exploded with encouragement and positive messages. I have truly never experienced anything like that. Some people may never experience such an outpouring of support. Some people may never experience a second chance at anything. I did, and for that, I am grateful, regardless of what the future holds.

delays, delays

I haven’t been able to write lately. I wasn’t feeling it. I have been reading the works of the great bloggers that I follow but that’s it. I’m in pain. This is notable because I have a notorious tolerance for pain and I’m still suffering here.

Last weekend I had my youngest son for the long weekend. It was great having him. We were fortunate enough to have a couple of unseasonably warm days so we were outside a lot. Target practice with the pellet guns and yard work. He wanted to learn how to split wood so I indulged him. He’s one of those kids who is immediately good at everything he tries and it wasn’t long before he was splitting logs with the ax with precision and strength. I let him chop while I stacked. But I made the mistake of standing too close and as he struck one log I watched helplessly, as if it was slo-mo like on TV, as a half log shot left and hit me on the left shin. I yelled out initially then curbed my reaction so that he wouldn’t feel bad, it wasn’t intentional. But it hurt like a sumbitch, and it still does.

Fast forward to Tuesday and I can barely walk. The pain is the kind that radiates through the entire body. In addition, I noticed that my fistula, a surgically created port for dialysis, is swollen, red and sore to the touch. I have had it for 8 years, it has never been used because I was fortunate enough to get a transplant without being on dialysis. It has never been swollen, red or sore. I knew I had a problem. So I called my transplant team.

Anything other than a cold or flu goes through my transplant team due to my history. When I explained to them what was going on they referred me to PCP. I questioned them on that, isn’t the fistula a pretty major thing? But they were insistent so I made an immediate appt for the next day. Yesterday I drove 2 hours to meet a Dr. whose first reaction was “why didn’t your transplant team feel that this was worthy of their time?” Facepalm moment. She immediately left the room and called them. I was confused by her urgency. My confusion was eradicated when she came back in. She had told them that I have cellulitis, a potentially deadly bacterial infection, in my fistula. She then told me that they now want to see me. Facepalm again.

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I wish that people would just listen to me. I am in tune, I know what is going on with my body. Now I am going to have extra appointments and more driving. Which I can’t do because I’m ordered to have the leg and arm elevated until the antibiotics kick in. I take cellulitis seriously, it almost killed me in 2006. White light, tunnel, the works. A random bed check is the only reason I’m alive today. I’m not going to lie, beyond annoyed at unnecessary delays I’m a little concerned.