|" Autumn is majestic trees,
dressed with dancing leaves;
painted in crimson, orange, gold.
Aromas rise from boiling pots
of apples, cloves, and cinnamon.
Stirred by gypsies in gowns
of scarlet, turquoise, royal purple.
Ciders leave one feeling euphoric;
falling into eternal love”
Olivia Alexander loves the fall. Leaves are dying but they go down in majestic honor, swirling in shades of brunt orange, tones of burgundy and rustic reds. There is magic in the sound of wind against the house. Olivia takes time to listen and believe that as seasons change, life is renewed. Nature opens your heart and right now she needs Mother Nature's magic. Her husband Mark has advanced cancer.
In the fall, she decorates the house with seasonal ceramic "stuff," as Mark calls it. She is proud of the spooks she and the kids painted years ago. They are crooked and paint splattered. Susie was attempting perfection at seven, her little hands shook as she painted the witch's evil eyes.
Olivia puts candy in several bowls. She finds herself eating the sweet addictive treats. The candy fills that aching spot of anxiety about Mark. She also eats for him, hoping osmosis between married people will put weight on him.
"Very scientific, Olivia!' Mark chuckles about her osmosis plan.
"Glad I make you laugh, honey."
It seems like just yesterday when their four kids raced home, dumped candy on the living room floor to trade for what each liked.
"I’ll trade my candy corn for your Snickers," Gary, the oldest, made his demands.
"That's not fair!" John jumps in, "Dad always lets you have your way!"
Rolling around on the carpet, they trade punches. Patrick joins in. Brothers can't resist a good fight.
As they are fighting, Susie quietly steals the Snickers, giving them her candy corn.
Olivia watches with a smile. 'That's my girl! Let the boys kill themselves as you rule the world!'
On June 10, 2007, they buried their son; Gary was only twenty. If she could just understand this war in Iraq, maybe Olivia could accept her son's death. But war never makes sense. So Olivia eats candy and remembers innocent times when she could protect her kids and fighting was tumbling on the floor.
Olivia was always close to Gary. He had asked her advice and confided in her.
"Mom, I need an idea for my science project. It needs to be about recycling because...you know, I believe in that."
The two would talk about it until he had a plan. He would have been such an asset to this Earth. He would always say.
"Nothing is trash, Mom, if people would just see that."
She raises her head to the ceiling to rage at whoever is in charge, "There are enough brilliant stars in the Universe. Gary is needed right here, damn it!"
She and Gary would talk about all the wars, how useless to kill. Olivia always told him she was caught between ages. If she hadn't been so young, she would have marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., put flowers in the National Guard rifles. She would have joined the Peace Corps but she married and had kids. Gary was a pacifist, just like her. He was the last of her kids she could ever imagine walking into a recruitment center.
At the time he made the decision, Gary had been sharing an apartment with a friend. He was taking Computer classes at community college and working at Starbucks. Olivia had been busy with school board work and Gary hadn't been over for a while.
He came to eat dinner.
Then he shocked them.
"Hey, guess what? I have decided to enlist in the Army."
He had a list of reasons why and had been watching news constantly.
They could not talk him out of it.
Olivia became upset. “Son, can you imagine getting so close to another human that you see the features of their face; the color of their eyes? To open fire on them and watch the shock, agony and pain? See their brain matter splatter into the air, a final scream as their body twitches. Can you do that? It isn’t a video game.”
In bed that night, Mark suggested, "I think he feels like this will gave him some self discipline. Ya know, after he got picked up for under age drinking."
"Bullshit, Mark, it is brainwashing by our government not self discipline. You have to make the act of killing another human sound like a service to our country. It is not a natural instinct. Gary never even wanted a BB gun."
Olivia believed it was a religious sickness, like a teenage bomber killing herself and twenty people in a market. People do these awful things for money, religious beliefs, or to please those who give the orders. A young girl would die without knowing only three were were US Army "infidels," the rest were women and children simply buying produce.
The Army sent Gary home in pieces. He died believing he was helping others, keeping our country safe. Like most of the country, Gary had bought the package put before us. Fear can lead almost anyone down a road with a probable solution.
Olivia wondered how life just kept going, but it did. Since Gary's death, Olivia’s sleep erupted in bombs and thrown bodies.
Mark lay snoring beside her.
'How can he sleep? Doesn't he care?'
She doesn't ask though. This is a subject better left alone between the two of them.
The kids, now all grown, call about once a week to see how things are going, promising to come home for Christmas. The three of them always comment about how much they miss Gary.
Every day Olivia would get up, make coffee, remove dinner from the freezer, climb in her car and go to work as a massage therapist. It was a therapuetic job for her. Most of her patients either wanted to talk or they were quiet. She could pour her hurt into their tight muscles.
Janet Jones was an hour appointment for three mornings a week. She had Fibromyalgia, an autoimmune disease that causes muscle pain so Olivia even used her elbows to creatively help work out spasms. She lit the room with aromatherapy candles, played a variety of nature sounds and used her Homedic waterfall.
Janet usually rambled about her marriage.
"Olivia, I gotta tell someone this or I'm goin burst!"
"Well, sweetie, you are laying down and mostly undressed so I think it better be me."
"I was puttin a load of wash in and guess what falls out of Joe's pocket?"
"A hundred dollar bill and you are giving me half for a tip?"
"I wish that was it!"
She began to sob and Olivia was ashamed she had joked.
After tissues and a drink of green tea, Janet asked Olivia to continue working on her.
"I need to tell someone and I don't want to see their face."
Olivia put her in the face down position and started kneading her shoulder blade.
"There was a condom in his pocket. You aren't goin to believe this but.....it was open!"
Olivia couldn't speak for a moment. She was glad Mark was such a wonderful husband.
"What did you do?"
"I picked it up with a glove.. put it in a paper bag then I drove to the Medical Complex. I want every speck of DNA they can pick up from it."
"That was fast thinking. I don't know if I could have been so cool."
"I am not even going to mention it to him until I get the results. I believe I will talk to a lawyer first. I told you he was doin' that piece of trash hygienist."
"When did you find it?"
"Yesterday... he slept on the couch last night and was gone this morning. He knew I was upset.”
"I'm so sorry, hon."
She sat up then. "Thanks for listening. I’m going to “The China Sun” and sedate myself with some plum wine."
Olivia left discreetly and when she came back to change the sheets there was a fifty dollar bill on the pillow.
Olivia thought 'Janet’s a survivor... good thing her husband’s a successful dentist'.
Lana Ferall was quiet during her hourly appointment. Olivia needed the change.
Her last appointment for the day was Susan Aaron. Susan was a Social Worker and always encouraged Olivia to talk. Susan said it helped her to relax.She said it made all the difference between what she dealt with at work that was her responsibility and other peoples' problems. She could be empathetic and still distant.
Olivia poured her heart out about Gary's death and then the surprise of Mark's illness. They had worked out a deal where they traded massage for psychological therapy time. Since Social Work doesn't pay crap, it was a blessing for both of them.
Mark's diagnosis had shocked them. He was replacing gutters and became dizzy on a ladder. Suddenly he lost his balance and fell. Olivia rushed him to the ER with help from their internist neighbor. He put him in their SUV with his leg wrapped and braced with a slint and tape from their garage to keep it straight. The color of his face was white with pain, the reason was a compound humerus fracture. Due to the vertigo, a variety of tests were done showing abnormal blood counts. Then CT scans and an MRI solved the riddle, exploratory surgery was the only answer.
Terrified, Olivia found herself angry.
'God, why is this happening to us after losing Gary? Haven't we had enough tragedy?'
There it was though, life punches you in the gut and you roll with it, reminding you that someone else is in charge.
She even yelled at David Sloan, the oncologist, as he explained the plan without Mark in his cheery professionally decorated office. He was used to emotional outbursts and held her as she cried.
Mark had so much courage. His leg was casted and painful. Normally, surgery would have been put off for two weeks or so but they wanted to get in there soon.
Mark talked about the cancer but it was so unemotional. Olivia tried to get him to go to a therapist or a group. One night, he told her he had called their attorney to make sure all was in order. She started crying as he spoke about the will and life insurance.
Mark wiped her tears as they ran down her cheeks.
"This is what my life story is, babe. I don't want it but...God has other plans."
"You really accept this and you aren't scared?"
Then he began to cry. He laid his head in her lap and like a hurt little boy, he cried for an hour. He admitted he was terrified. They made a pact to share from then on.
So, surgery followed. There was hope that since they had removed the bulk of the tumor, radiation and chemotherapy would do the rest. Mark finished his first round of chemo at Thanksgiving. He didn't feel like eating and it was difficult even getting out of bed. They told the kids to wait until Christmas to come home. Being an Accountant, he was able to work from his comfortable study with his secretary running the office.
Christmas came and Mark was "in remission." Celebration was in order with a party. Presents were for living; a fancy fishing pole and fish finder for Dad from Santa.
John, their oldest, gave them open dated tickets for a flight round trip to a Hawaiian vacation resort with spa treatments and the best restaurants.
Their middle son, Patrick and girlfriend of two years, Elaine announced their engagement. The date was "wait and see" for right now. They were still in college.
Susan had been promoted to District Manager for a high end kitchen products chain called "Classic Kitchens".
Her partner, Kathleen, was pregnant. This was thanks to a turkey baster and her brother, John. The little boy, Gary, was due in six months. We were all thrilled. They had waited to tell us, not knowing what the next medical drama might bring.
Mark and Olivia looked at each other with awe that comes from years of what is important. Every reason to live longer is a celebration to taking the next step on the road.
Then her handsome spouse raised a toast at dinner,
"I always loved Harry Chapin. When he sang "Life is like a Circle," I knew that is what it is all about, as our family grows I am just so proud of you all!'
Hugs and kisses were passed all around.
It was a Christmas of blessings and honor for Gary's courage. Mark seemed well and ate his share of ham and turkey.
During the next months, Mark talked constantly about their grandchild.
His face lit up with each plan. Every time they went to the mall, a new toy was added to a pirate's toy chest Mark had built for little Gary.
There was a tiny fishing pole for a pal not yet born.
"I am going to teach him to fish. My favorite memories are of my Grandpa teaching me to fish. He's going to need a man in his life."
Spring brought bright golden daffodils but Mark began to complain of severe back pain. The MRI's showed extensive reoccurrence of the cancer.
Mark said he didn't think he could take more but Olivia wasn't ready for Dr. Sloan's suggestion of Hospice. That meant less than six months of life.
Olivia was exploring the Internet and making phone calls. Mark continued work from home and controlled the pain with Vicodin but it wasn't enough relief so they switched to opoids.
Now, Mark and Olivia walked through the grounds at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. For a hospital, all seemed tranquil and serene outside with atruims inside, both had picnic areas and comfortable patient chairs and flower beds. Most areas had peaceful colors of teal, taupe and peach. The patients pushing IV machines were the only clue as to where you were. Each room was a suite with a seperate sleeping area and bath for a family member. There were patient whirlpools and family rooms so privacy was available.
Mark was put through every test they had. The CAT Scan and MRI's were done for a second time because they covered more areas. All of it wore him out and he had to have a Morphine pump put into the epidural spine area. Olivia squeezed Mark's hand as they both listened to another oncologist. The diagnosis was the same, stage four lymphoma.
It was Olivia that requested a second opinion and the best cancer treatment center. She knew this was the best place, they did have lymphoma studies going here.
Mark was so tired and ready to lay down but he would do it for her and the grandchild they had coming.
They did have an experimental drug that was still in a study and offered it to him. Out of ten patients with stage four, six had lived an extra year because the tumor had shrunk.
They went into the Chemotherapy Center on a Monday, after a weekend at a hotel where they swam and napped. She dined and he reluctantly ate scrambled eggs and toast. At first the waiter brought Eggs Benedict.
Mark laughed. "I wish I could eat this.”
These were strange days for them, walking around words like stepping over lawn lizards.
"I am so sorry you had to go through this all again," as tears swam in her eyes.
"I am okay, honey, look at what Gary went through."
That was it. The reason he was so mellow and accepting.
Why didn't he beat the walls like she did? Why wasn't he angry?
Olivia would not lose both of them.
Mark still had his IV port, they had kept it open with a blood clotting agent so no new sticks, even for blood work. He was hooked up and the Oncology RN started the Chemo very slowly. There were three other patients and their significant others.
A man that appeared to be in his mid thirties with an athletic build introduced himself as Lenny. He had stage three lymphoma and had his spleen removed.
He also was a pro golfer and divorced with three young kids. He took out their pictures, two boys and a girl, beautiful kids all under six.
His girlfriend, Karen, looked like a model and clung to him constantly.
"You're going to be okay, right honey? He has been through so much. He has a big tournament coming up."
Lenny winked at us with dark circled eyes.
Henry was probably sixty.
"I beat Korea so I can beat this, ain't so bad except the runs and puking for a day or so. The radiation was the worst. Now they say it is in my brain. Thought I smoked enough dope to burn those cells already.”
We all laughed.
Ginny was the only female and she looked about fifty. She was beautiful; perfect make-up, a blond-streaked wig.
She was a hair stylist to the stars. I couldn't believe the number of famous people she had done.
All she said was, "I know where the suture lines are."
Said she had to sign an agreement not to say a word about them, even their name, but she hinted.
About herself, "I had breast cancer when I was twenty-five, had them both lobbed off.”
Then she cried silently from lovely gray blue eyes.
"Who would have thought I'd be here now? I took every vitamin, antioxidant and macrobiotic diet known to man. Goes to show ya, it's a crap shoot."
Olivia smiled at Mark.
He whispered, "It will be okay, my darling."
When they left, he hugged her with all his strength. She knew what a toil this had taken on him. He was silent as they rode back to the hotel. He didn't feel he needed the hospital yet but it was there. This particular study was five treatments a month. He could hit the remission of a year and/or something new could come out. They all were buying time.
The month went by fast. Mark had few side effects, some fever and nausea also fatigue.
Lenny finished his treatment and headed for the tournament. They watched him on TV and he placed seventh with a hefty purse.
Ginny developed a terrible cough and she was admitted to the hospital as an inpatient with pneumonia. She died without leaving the hospital. She was a sweet brave woman.
Henry was in remission and went out on a boat to sail for three months. At each port he would send a postcard.
As summer brought humidity and a blazing sun, Olivia accepted Mark wouldn't be here much longer. He seemed to be fading away. She watched him closely and his aura was fainter. The two of them snuggled, carefully making love. They watched favorite movies, and went through family picture albums. He told her all he could remember about his childhood. She made videos of him talking about memories, all the sentimental and special incidents that had happened in the family.
Fall arrived, Olivia's season of faith and Magic. Mark was feeling stronger. He wanted to try an Eastern Cancer Treatment Center in the Bahamas. The insurance wouldn't cover it so they took their savings and went. They had rented a condo on the water.
It was so beautiful. The water was crystal blue, a salt water aquarium and you could see the gorgeous tropical fish. They did go snorkeling and rented a boat one day with a picnic lunch and skinny dipped.
Mark was so real to her those days, like a vividly colored neon fish that you could see through. His beautiful shining eyes and veins running under his skin pulsing with life, the muscles rippling as he would swing the pole to fish or golf. He was more like the young man she remembered. He had a zest for whatever was left of his life. He believed!
Mark was examined from head to toe again.
Then the whole staff got together for a conference. Holistic oncologists, certified nurses in alternative medicine, physical and occupational therapists, nutritionist and psychologists all specializing in Oncology studied him. There was a treatment plan just for him after looking at his medical records and radiology reports.
Each specialist sat down with the two of them and asked questions. Then they listened, really listened to what Mark said.
"I want to be in charge of my treatment plan because I know my limits. I will push myself so if someone says slow down, I promise to listen. I just want to know why."
Everyone was smiling.
Timothy Lansford, the Director of the center said, "We have a real stubborn one here. He has an attitude of not rolling over that may save his life, no matter what we physicians think."
Dr. Lansford explained how most cancers still baffle the medical world. They may have drugs that seem to keep people alive longer but the side effects can kill you or certainly keep you very sick. What they did not know is there is a variety of reasons why cells change, mutate, multiply and attack good cells. It can be a virus, environmental poisoning, exposure over a long time to chemicals, or even a long period of stress or heredity.
He said they just didn't know enough yet, so you throw everything that has helped in medical trials at it, and pray something sticks and helps. Hope, prayer and a positive attitude always help.
So Mark helped with his treatment plan. Each day was a different menu, yoga or Tai Chi, journaling about his illness and what he would do when he was better. Then hypnotherapy where he visualized the disease leaving his body or he was fighting bad cells with good cells.
He spent time in the pool exercising where the buoyancy of the water lowered the pain from his moving around. He drank a daily vitamin shake with antioxidants. Acupuncture helped the pain and there were narcotics if he needed them. His pump had been removed.
He still had blood drawn to check his blood counts and his electrolytes. He didn't vomit, looked healthier and gained weight. He became stronger, the excess fluid from ascites of the liver went away. His liver enzymes went down to normal along with jaundice disappearing from his eyes.
They both spoke to the Oncologist and he said Mark was no longer toxic but that didn't mean the cancer was gone. He wasn't doing an MRI unless we requested it. He told Mark just to relax and believe the cancer was shrinking each day.
Feel well, be positive and celebrate the joy.
Olivia had her husband back. Since he wasn't working yet, he announced.
"I want to fly. I think I will sign up tomorrow for flying lessons and to parachute."
Mark is fearless and Olivia's hero. The two of them had been through so much, they fellt like combat veterans. When the day came, he invited her to join him, so Olivia was the one to put faith first and jump. They felt like Gary was with them, a sense of him was all around. She felt so calm that she enjoyed the scenery, even writing down some words to create a poem later.
Mark came home from the Center with his schedule and hooked up with therapists near them. He worked from home again and was the person his Oncologist told patients to call for hope.
They took their Hawaiian vacation and it was everything they could hope for.
Mark scuba dived and caught a wave with a rented surf board. Olivia was amazed at this man. He said cancer had given him a second chance at life. At night they watched full moons, a lunar eclipse and marveled at the wonders of this world. Sunrises were made of vibrant colors only a supreme Creator could design.
The two of them talked into the night of childhood memories, school days, dates, the kid's births, and their dreams that had come true.
After that, there was a gorgeous formal wedding. A Buddhist Priest officiated. The church was lit by cream colored candles, the color of Elaine's dress. I have never seen such a romantic wedding. Patrick had found a local singer for Bruce Springsteen's stunning romantic ballad; "If I Should Fall Behind”. Vows were handwritten.
Olivia cried in awe at the visible love in the air as their eyes met and promises were made.
Mark was going to see his doctor every three months, an MRI showed the tumors had shrunk but were still there.
They have a beautiful grandson that is walking and talking. Little Gary is a couple years from fishing but the pole is waiting along with an anxious grandfather that has taken his solo air flight.
It is autumn again, the wind is rising; the air is wild with leaves.
Listen to the magical wind, Mark!
It is whispering our future.
His hand is gentle but strong in hers.
By Kathie Stehr
Edited April 2013