I put the phone down after a brief call with my doctor, and waited for the reality to hit me. You have a large mass in your pelvis. I didn’t really know how to feel, other than thinking, Fuck, I’m supposed to have another ten years or so before this shit starts happening.
I’ve been noticing my pants getting tighter around the waist since January. At first, I figured some of them had shrunk in the wash. By March it was happening with all of them, and I’d gained a couple of pounds. This is weird because I’ve been the same weight since 1989. I chalked it up to the fact that I’ve crested the middle of my 40’s and I’m probably due for additional padding. When I pulled my shorts out of storage in May, there were only a few that I could wear comfortably–shorts I’ve worn for 10 years. I’d been in for a physical with bloodwork in February, and there was absolutely nothing out of the ordinary to report there. It took a closer look by Jen and then some insistent prodding to get me back in to the GP for a follow-up. He listened carefully and palpated my stomach. After some questions, he ordered a CT scan and I made an appointment to ride the donut.
It was the result of this scan, and that call, that got the circus underway. I made an appointment to get a MRI and another with an oncological surgeon. Jen and my brother in law got me another appointment with a different doctor across town a full week earlier. I did the MRI (fell asleep inside the tube), then went to meet the doctor two days later. She was an excellent source of information, and after telling us everything she could, found a surgeon within her practice who could talk to us later that afternoon. We went out and got some lunch and tried to remain calm. On the way back for the consult, the contrast from the MRI started burbling in my stomach and decided it was time to GET OFF THE BUS. We made it back to the hospital with seconds to spare. Can I just say that relieving oneself of iodine contrast is like shitting fire?
The surgeon, a pleasant, reserved fellow, showed us the MRI results: a self-contained mass within my stomach cavity, 8 inches long. Basically, I’m four months pregnant. They asked me if I was having any symptoms–problems with my bottom system, gas, pain, heart issues, breathing–and I answered honestly: nope. The honest truth is that I feel fine. My new bloodwork was all normal. This mystified all of them. He filled me in on his course of action: go in, get it out, and then do a biopsy. He warned us that there could be complications: severed nerves, bleeding, loss of continence, motor function, or worse, depending on what it’s hooked up to. He was kind, but fair and honest. That was last week. Strong drinks followed that news.
On Wednesday, we saw the second doctor at Mercy, where Finn was born. We got a great vibe from the people in his practice, and then the man himself. His take on things was that it’s most likely benign based on the symptoms, labs and the images. He took the time to show us the MRI, and talked us through what we were seeing. He seemed confident it would come out relatively easily, but he wanted to start with a biopsy and move to surgery after he knows what we’re dealing with. I liked his conservative but confident approach and we both got a good feeling from him. Then we hustled over to Hopkins for a third opinion.
The third guy was a referral through a friend. He is an orthopedic surgeon in the oncological practice within Hopkins–so, not a soft tissue guy. He looked at the charts and images outside and without much preamble told us it’s most likely malignant, recommending a biopsy, surgery, radiation, and ongoing treatment. That was a punch in the dick. He talked everything through with us and we nodded our heads and then ate a tasteless, quiet, shocked lunch in the cafeteria. Then we headed home to pick up Finley at our sister’s house where we started pouring strong vodka tonics.
From what they all can tell it’s not growing out of any organs or bone. My white blood cell count is normal. All of them say that our vacation is important for the family, there’s not much they can do in the next two weeks with scheduling anyway, and that the baby will be fine until we get back, so fuck it, we’re going. I am going to sit my ass down on the beach, drink some cold beer, watch the kids play in the surf, and try not to think about things. Obviously it’s coming out; we have to decide who and where.
That, among a succession of shit luck and bad news suffered by friends and loved ones, has put a bit of a damper on vacation. I’m having a hard time focusing on preparing for the beach while also trying to be supportive, stay positive, wrap up and reschedule work plans, and generally just deal with a fucking parasite in my stomach. Jen has been a wonder this week, shuttling me across town and back, scheduling care for Finn, running pre-vacation errands, getting me to and from work, and being a rock beside me while I wait for informed opinions. I couldn’t have made it this far without her. She’s going to need this vacation as much as I will, because when we get back our lives are going to be chaotic.
I love you blondie, and I’m sorry I completely forgot your birthday.
I’m sitting on the couch trying to figure out how to put the last 72 hours into one coherent narrative. Fuck it, here goes.
Friday: a whirlwind of cleaning and scanning and organizing and shopping. That’s the boring stuff. in the early afternoon I picked up Matt and Sophie, whom I haven’t seen in over 10 years, and slipped back in time as easy as putting on a new shirt. As we got settled in and poured cocktails, Jen got taken down by a migraine, courtesy of the storm system that was gearing up to blow through the area, so Finn and I took them out for dinner and we commenced to catching up.
Saturday we got a slow, easy start to what would be a heavy day. I picked up some bacon egg & cheese sandwiches for my family and fellow NY expats before we all got ourselves ready for the drive over the bridge. Which, as Siri was happy to tell us, was backed up by two and a half hours. We’d left an hour early to get there and set up the slide show. After some WRC-worthy driving from Jen on the back roads, we wound up only a little over an hour late. Finn, who had been napping in the car, spiked a 103˚ fever, so Jen dropped us off and turned right around to go find some children’s ibuprofen. Have I mentioned recently that she is a saint? Meanwhile I hustled to the back of the bar to hook up the displays and then someone slammed a drink in my hand.
So many old friends were there. Charles, looking the same as he always has, tall and tan and bearded. Beth, smiling wide and cheerful. Karean’s whole extended family, her sister, Rob’s brother Steve, who I’d spent two and a half hours catching up with on Wednesday night while picking up photos to scan. Rodney, my Scout and carb guru. A bunch of other guys we went with on that epic rafting trip. The rest of the afternoon was talking with friends, drinking, checking on Finn (who soon recovered and dove into Minecraft with Zachary), and telling stories about Rob.
Karean and Steve got up and said a few words that made the whole house cry.
By dinnertime the crowd had thinned so we got a table and sat down to an exhausted meal with Karean and her family. Finn’s fever spiked up again and an already late night for her was compounded by a drive back over the bridge so we piled in the car and headed home. After getting her into bed (and Jen, whose migraine had returned), Matt, Soph and I stayed up until 3:30 talking and laughing and telling stories.
Sunday morning my internal clock got me up at 8 but I wasn’t functional until I’d had 2 cups of coffee. We got a slow start to the day and roused ourselves for a lazy walk through Patapsco to shake off the cobwebs, then headed over to Tim & Betty’s for an afternoon of cocktails on their deck and some barbecue for dinner. Again, we all slipped into the familiar rhythms of laughter and stories, and I realized even though we’re all greying, wearing reading glasses, and talking about mortgages, we’re all still the same band of fuckup art students who were lucky enough to find each other in one of the country’s most permissive and dangerous cities of the early 90’s.
As the sky got dark (and Game of Thrones loomed on the clock) we packed up the car and headed home to prepare for the Monday workday. I said goodbye to Matt and Soph and we all made a promise not to fall so far out of touch again. This is something I am not good at, but if there is one single takeaway from this whole shit experience, it’s that I don’t have the time to lose sticking my head up my own ass.
I will reach out, call my friends, and ask them how they’re doing. And then I will get better at listening to them.
I just found out via text that Brian had a catastrophic fire which leveled his garage today, enveloping part of the house. Brian and his family are OK, but Chewbacca, which was sitting in the bay of the garage, is likely destroyed. The pictures he texted me show a pile of charred timbers sitting on the shell. I can’t believe it. It’s a shit end for a reliable, faithful truck that I was sure would outlast Peer Pressure.
For anyone following along, Chewbacca was my first Scout, and I secretly sold it to Brian’s wife as a Christmas present for him. He spent a year restoring the whole thing, using a Kentrol tub and new parts wherever possible, and the result was a work of art. Some might say it was a different truck entirely, quoting Theseus’ Paradox, but I always knew her beating heart was the same.
On Tuesday night, I got a call to tell me that Rob, one of my oldest and dearest friends, is gone.
I met him sometime directly after leaving college–I’d estimate 1995 or thereabouts. My memory of those years is hazy and I didn’t have a weblog to help me remember events. One of my roommates started dating a girl and later moved in with her. She was renting a room from Rob in a huge house on the northeast side of Patterson Park, and our crew of friends found ourselves there at parties almost all the time. It became the center of our social world for several years.
Rob was a little older than the rest of us, but was generous and funny and had a spirit that was half Cub Scout Leader and half juvenile delinquent. He had been a Marine for several years, was discharged honorably, and had a real job as a mechanic for the DC Metro. As I got to know him, I immediately knew he was more than just a mechanic. He had a passion for art, music, and culture. He had a subscription to the symphony. Living with a bunch of art-school graduates, he bought our work and our friends’ work, and was proud to hang it in his house. He dressed better than any other man I’ve ever met. He was always reading, always asking questions, always thinking, always making himself better in some way. I called him the Renaissance Marine. He inspired me to think beyond what I knew, to challenge myself, and to find ways to make my life better.
Early on as we got to know each other he pitched a business idea to me, and I created a bunch of artwork for him to use, working with the primitive technology available to me at my first job. We sold his merchandise for a couple of years at festivals and events, and while we didn’t get rich, we had a great time and built our friendship.
He taught me how to mountain bike. Not just how to climb a hill and ride slowly back down; in his prime, he was fearless. He’d lived in California for years, and was experienced on the higher, tougher trails of the West Coast. He was shorter and more compact in stature than me, but built solid from years of lifting weights on his breaks at Metro. With a lower center of gravity, he attacked steep cliffs and switchbacks with equal parts technical skill and reckless abandon. I followed his lines and tried to keep up with him. For a few solid summers, when we both lived in the city and enjoyed free time, we were riding twice a week and once on weekends. As I followed him and listened to his advice, I got better. As I got better, we sought out bigger hills to ride, and it got to the point where I could throw myself down a slope and keep up without thinking about it.
He showed me how to throw a classy, exciting, and memorable bachelor party without limos and strippers and blackout arrests: by organizing a kayaking trip down the Shenandoah river for about 20 guys ending with a riverside barbecue, camping, and drinking under the stars. His toast was on point, his food was delicious, and the liquor he brought was top-shelf. By setting the tone of the day, and carefully orchestrating the activities, he kept things friendly, safe, and inclusive.
As I got serious about my girlfriend at the time, I looked at buying a house in the city and found a house in Canton, which was directly across the park from his place. A few years later he and Karean sold their house by the park and found a place blocks away from mine closer to the square in Canton.
When he and Karean married, they had a lovely DIY ceremony in a restaurant in Canton, and asked me to shoot pictures of the ceremony. With my limited skills and equipment I did the best I could, but I was just happy to be part of the day. Looking back on this, I see it as sort of the high-water mark of the group of our friends; in the years directly after we all started scattering to distant cities and states. Soon after this I split up with my girlfriend, but the three of us stayed close.
Time passed, and I met Jen. He and Karean welcomed her into their lives and our friendship grew. The four of us made time to get together for dinner and trips even as we made plans to move out of the city. As Jen and I got serious about getting married, I asked him to be the best man at my wedding. Here again, he organized a quiet, classy, fantastic bachelor dinner. With his typical class and grace, he outshone me in all of the pictures (served me right for asking such a photogenic man to be in my wedding), understood and leapt into action when I realized I’d left the rings on the shelf in our hallway (the church was down the street so the problem was a minor one), and stood beside me as I asked Jen to be my wife. Once again, his toast was on point.
Later that year, when our friends Matt and Sophie got married, we all flew out to San Francisco for an epic wedding and the four of us spent a couple of days kicking around the city together.
We got together to visit new restaurants, explore the Eastern Shore, and spend time together. The time between our calls got longer but we still got together and kept in touch–in no small part due to Jen and Karean. When Jen and I found out she was pregnant, they were some of the first friends we shared the news with, and some of the first people to meet her besides our family. Not long after that, we found out they were expecting too.
As our kids grew, we made a point of getting together more, both for the adults and for the kids. Dinners, concerts, Wildkratts, and day trips over the Bay Bridge. In 2014 we planned our vacation together and found a house in Delaware to rent. For an idyllic week we hung out on the beach, watched the kids play together, and ate guacamole.
Somewhere in that week, as the kids played in the surf, he told us how much the vacation–and our friendship–meant to the two of them. He asked if it was OK with us for Zachary to call us Uncle Bill and Aunt Jen, and we were honored. It was a natural extension of our friendship–we thought of each other as family.
This year I planned early and had a beach house located and rented by March. We were all looking forward to our week together. I don’t know what happened. I don’t have details, and if I did I wouldn’t share them here anyway. I do know that part of my family is gone, and I’m still dealing with that reality.
I spent time on the phone Saturday with a select group of old friends to let them know what happened, and found myself trading stories and photos via text until about 10PM. Part of that time I was down in the basement going through my print photos and another part was spent in my Amazon Prime archives pulling photos together.
I will miss his humor. I’ll miss his quiet intelligence, his advice, and easygoing warmth. I’m going to miss growing old with him, like we joked about–two old farts sitting on a porch drinking beers together. I’ve got a hole in my heart where he should be.
I realize I’ve been sort of light on details around here lately. The weeks leading up to the 4th of July were a hot, sticky blur of activity as the family and I got the house put together for our guests. I spent several weeks on ladders scraping and painting the windows from the back corner of the house around to the front, and made it as far as priming the front windows before I ran out of time. Jen went nuts with mulch and cleaned up the entire yard. Our front garden looks healthy and lush this year, for the first time since we’ve lived here. All of the wood is cleared out of the backyard minus three big rounds, which are tucked up against the woodpiles waiting for a chainsaw. Unfortunately, the week before the parade, the original cradle, which was built over 10 years ago, decided to fall apart and topple over at about 1AM. I moved the wood off to the side, quickly made repairs to both cradles, and the girls and I restacked everything.
The day before the parade, our kegerator decided to crap out. It had been making a bubbling sound for a few months so I knew the time was near, but all of our beer was getting warm. I pulled all of the loose bottles and cans out and iced them in a cooler and left it for after the parade. The replacement I bought is 1″ narrower but both kegs fit just fine. I built a new collar around the top out of trex and got the lid mounted, and all of the beer is back to just-north-of-slushy 39˚.
This weekend we decided to spend some time on the cars. I made a quick dump run (old cooler: bye-bye) and then we busted out the cleaning supplies and aimed them at the CR-V. All the mats came out and everything got vacuumed. Then we got the soap out and washed the outside, sills, rockers, and roof. I pulled the spare tire off and scrubbed the leaves out from underneath. I even used some engine brite to degrease the motor. The clearcoat may be peeling off the hood, but the rest of it looks like a new vehicle. Finally, Jen asked if I would show the girls how to change a flat tire, so we held a clinic in the driveway.
Then it was off to Oregon Ridge for our friend Jen’s client appreciation party, something we’ve done almost every year since she started them. She’s an old friend from the Cidera days and she has ice cream and bubbles and facepainting and Finley has always loved it. This year she had food and Kona Ice and we got to catch up with friends under a big pavilion in the shade.
The whole weekend has been awesome weather, actually; Sunday the humidity was low so I took advantage and did a bike ride with my neighbors through Patapsco, stopped for a bloody mary at the bottom of the hill, and then rode home. My legs felt like jello but it was worth the workout. Then after Finn’s piano lesson we took the bikes across the street to get her rolling on two wheels. She was nervous at first but pushed off and within seconds was doing easy laps around the parking lot. I couldn’t be prouder of her.
Our 2017 parade party was filled with friends new and old, laughter, and an easygoing vibe. We didn’t knock ourselves out to provide 13 menu choices; we offered two jumbo cases of water (which was all consumed), we had a mister and the sprinkler running, and we had plenty of shade available. The parade itself was fun, but there weren’t any giant bugs, Elvis sightings, Lone Rangers, Jesus dancers, or Mummers (although we did have a Falun Gong float, which was odd). It was hot enough that by 5:00 all but two families had left for home. We cleaned up the yard and then holed up in the air conditioning to cool down and recuperate.
Peer Pressure has been out and running strong all spring. I haven’t done a thing to her other than keep her running weekly through the winter, and she has responded by staying dependable all year. I haven’t tackled any kind of major project because money and time have been tight. I’ve also not talked to any Scout friends in months; they mostly converse via Facebook which I haven’t been on in over a year. I did have to hop on there last week and found that Wagonmaster Brian is now without a Wagonmaster. He decided to sell it and pick up an Edsel Pacer instead. After the 4th of July I’m going to see if I can organize some beers with the locals and see what’s happening.
On the way home from getting some frozen yogurt last Friday night, I spied a familiar shape parked at a local gas station and swung the car around to get a better look. It was a primer gray ’80 Traveler with fresh Maryland plates, and as I was preparing to shoot a picture, the owner came walking up. We got to talking, and he told me it was a relatively new purchase he’d gotten from out west. I got his card and dropped him a line last week, offering a beer and conversation if he was interested. We’ll see if he reaches out.
The Lockardugans had a busy weekend and I think we were all paying for it Sunday evening. We were invited to the neighbors’ for a Cinco De Mayo party on Friday, which meant margaritas, Mexican food, piñatas, and staying up late. We all had a good time, although Finley had a run-in with an older boy outside which turned out bad for him; two other girls stepped in and helped her fend him off. When she was asked to explain what happened, she sat calmly and rationally outlined her side of the story, which I don’t think the other parent was expecting (her kid was hiding behind a pillow). Her story never changed, and she stood tall in the face of pressure. She is such a confounding mixture of clueless disorganization and razor-sharp self awareness, I don’t understand how the different parts of her personality exist in the same brain together. But hearing how she carried herself, I couldn’t have been a prouder father–and we made sure to tell her so.
Saturday we had the Morrisses in from Easton, which was fantastic; Finn and Zachary got along like best buds the whole day. We drove into the city to check out the Science Center, but first had a delicious lunch at Encantada, the bistro on the top floor of the American Visionary Arts Museum. Sadly we missed the kickoff of the Kinetic Sculpture Race by a couple of hours, but the Science Center was relatively quiet for a Saturday, and we got to check out all three floors of exhibits.
One area I’ve never been to with Finn was the Kid Lab, where eight tables are set up with different science experiments to accomplish. Finn and Zachary extracted plant DNA, did a blood test, and checked out a bunch of different slides under a microscope. And rocked a pair of lab coats.
Sunday I got up to mow the lawn in preparation for my neighbor and a friend to come and split more of the wood in the backyard. We’d rolled three of the big 36″ rounds on their sides last fall so that they wouldn’t suck water up out of the ground on their flat sides. With the splitter running, we made pretty short work of each of them and filled his truck twice. I was working on getting a bunch of the smaller pieces down to size when the shear bolt on the hydraulic ram gave way. Luckily I’ve got a bunch of Grade 5 and 8 bench stock from working on the Scout and had it fixed in about 10 minutes, but soon after that we called it a day. There are only a few pieces left–mainly a few medium sized stumps and one huge round that was cut too thick to go in the splitter–and a huge pile of bark.
I also took fifteen minutes to put the soft top hardware on the Scout (the hardtop came off two weeks ago, just in time for the rain) and get a bunch of smaller stuff in the garage straightened out, as well as putting a new wheel on the barrow I got from Mom & Dad (the original rusted through at the hub, which made it impossible to use).
Finally, I filled the feeders on Sunday morning and let the birds discover the new seed; within two hours a squirrel was poking around at the base of the poles. I took one shot and nailed a female, who got bagged and thrown in the trash. There were more outside this morning, and they will soon meet their maker.
For various reasons, we took a break from our traditional Thanksgiving meal last year. This year, we offset it for a week to coincide with a visit from my folks, which left us open on the big day itself. Graciously, our friends invited us to their family celebration, which we thankfully accepted.
We’ve known the extended family for years now, so there was a lot of catching up to do, but we could not have felt more welcome and comfortable the minute we walked in the door. As always, the meal was delicious, and we left feeling stuffed with food and love and thankfulness. I would have taken more pictures but I was having too much fun talking and eating and drinking.
The water filter is installed and flowing, after a couple days of engineering challenges. The broken unit is on its way back to Amazon (looking carefully, it appeared that it had been returned once before, thanks) and the new one arrived on Friday afternoon. I spent the rest of that evening getting it set up and then held my breath while cutting the old filter assembly out of the piping. Then the new unit went in without much fuss, and I carefully filled it with water before restoring service to the rest of the house.
Feeling triumphant, I got some leftover pumpkin pie and brought Jen down to inspect. It was then that she noticed a slow leak coming from the threaded fitting in the housing itself, and my stomach fell. All of the other connections are brazed copper, which means it might need to be cut apart to fix the threaded fitting, unless there’s another solution I’m not aware of. I’m out of time to work on it myself, so I have a second plumber’s number to call tomorrow morning who should be able to help us out.
Even so, running the numbers last night, we’re $550 ahead of the quote we got from the first plumber. Hopefully the repair won’t exceed that amount.
We took Finley to see the Festival of Trees at the state fairgrounds Saturday morning, and she got to talk to the Big Man. The Festival is a huge assortment of custom decorated trees, gingerbread houses, and vendors set up in the main hall of the fairgrounds, and they have events, a stage, games, pony rides, and other attractions for kids to play. On any given day it’s absolutely mobbed with people, but because Finn had her unscheduled trip to the hospital a couple of years ago, we get in early with other former and current patients. This meant there were only three kids in the line to see Santa in front of us and not three hundred.
The afternoon was consumed with shopping and errands. In the evening we threw some wood in the fireplace and started burning some of the new wood, which is a lot more combustible than it should be for only seasoning six months. After eating some leftovers, we busted out the marshmallows and roasted until bedtime.
I had a total of five days off, but I don’t know where it all went. It sure did go by fast…