Monday, April 03, 2006

My latest column

I can barely read this now, but I wrote it surprisingly easily. The arly feedback has been really uplifting and fairly voluminous.



A Family Illness Back Home
Makes Distance Seem Greater

March 31, 2006

I was washing my hands early one morning when I got the call that everyone dreads. I stumbled to yank my mobile phone out of my pocket, only to have it slip out of my still-dripping hand. I picked up the skittering phone and answered almost breathlessly.

"Hello."
"Hi, Alan. It's dad."
"Hi. How are you doing?"
"Ah, not so good. I have a little bladder CA."
"A little what?"
"Bladder cancer. Same thing that got Doc Meyers."

Doc was a lifelong family friend who passed away a decade ago. My dad, too, is an old-school physician and it didn't surprise me to hear him speak about his own diagnosis with clinical matter-of-factness. It was the diagnosis itself that left me speechless.

"I know this is hard on you being so far away, but don't let it be," he said. "I'm fine. I'll have a little surgery, take the tumor out, biopsy it, then see what's what. Don't worry about it."

My head was spinning as I tried to digest this mixed message: Don't worry about it. It's just "a little bladder CA." "Same thing that got Doc Meyers." I worried.

Everyone who has ever lived abroad will tell you the same thing – everything looks different when a crisis strikes back home, suddenly making you acutely aware of the distance between you and loved ones. The problem is lessened by modern communications, which make it far easier to stay in close contact, but you still can't jump on a plane to see someone on a moment's notice. Were I still living in New Jersey, I would have traveled to Pittsburgh to be with my dad two days after that phone call when he had his "little surgery" to remove the tumor.

But this is Beijing. The operation occurred in the middle of the night China time. I called my brother as soon as I woke up and learned that dad had recovered, only to have some complications and have to go back under the knife. I went off to coach Jacob's soccer team, waiting anxiously for another call, which came mid-game as I was sprinting up and down the pitch. I took the call, pulled over to the sideline and waved my hand around vaguely hoping someone else would take over. The news was good. Dad was awake, responsive and feeling fine. By the end of the week they would know whether or not the tumor had metastasized into the bladder, necessitating further surgery, or out of the bladder, meaning there was effectively no treatment to be had.

Three days later, I escorted my visiting in-laws to the Summer Palace, a massive park of gardens, royal residences and lakes. We were walking down the Long Corridor, where the Empress once strolled, when my dad called. I ducked away and strolled aimlessly, hearing a pinch in my own voice as I explained where I was. I barely heard him describing an upcoming gig for the Dixieland band that earned him the nickname Dixie Doc playing the trumpet. We both knew he wasn't calling to chat and I was certain the unusual delay in getting to the point was not a good sign.

Then he said he had some results. The tumor hadn't spread beyond the bladder, which was good, but it was in the bladder walls, so the whole organ would have to be removed. I asked logical questions about treatment options and likely outcomes, but I barely heard the answers. I leaned against a railing, looking out over Kumming Lake and the famous bridge that bisects it. Thousands of Chinese tourists moved around behind me, massive lines following umbrella-wielding tour guides. My in-laws were back there somewhere, but I had lost interest in the place – and I don't think I'll ever visit it again. Not quite ready to discuss the news, I silently rejoined my small group, walking numbly through the grounds.

Over the next few days I was more deeply affected than I anticipated, finding myself thinking morbid thoughts and occasionally overcome with fear and grief. This even though the prognosis was pretty good – about a 75% five-year survival rate for men his age (70). Dixie decided to have the surgery at New York's Sloan Kettering, opting for their more aggressive approach, which dictated chemotherapy first, though most hospitals prefer to operate right away.

When my dad started chemo last December I suggested to my brother and family friend David Kann that we shave our heads first in support. The idea gained currency and before long, almost ten friends and family members had taken to the clippers. The blog I had set up to share pictures and tales of China became a festival of bald-headed photos. The ploy had its desired effect, as Dixie delighted in the support and shaved his own head before his first chemo session. It felt good to contribute from so far away. When we went home for Christmas, the visit took on added significance and we readjusted our plans to add a few extra days in Pittsburgh. I escorted my dad to one chemo session.

Next week he will have surgery to remove his bladder and have a new one constructed out of his small intestine. I will again be in China, waiting for a phone call. A few days later, I will leave my wife and kids to fly to New York for a week's visit with my recuperating father, leaving one part of my family to be with another part half a world away.

It is a difficult situation but I have no guilt about living so far away, and I know my father understands. He was one of the biggest supporters of our move. He immediately understood the impulse, having moved to Alaska in 1963, when it was truly a frontier, with my mom and their two young children. I was born there. Last February, when we discussed my possible move to China, he said: "I think it's a no-brainer. Opportunities like this don't appear all the time. Our time in Alaska really defined who we were in ways that stuck with us for decades."

His only concern was my own career, as the move would force me to scale back my regular magazine gigs. He was extremely proud when I started writing this column, but I don't think he ever expected to be the subject of one.