Fun With Cancer

I was diagnosed with testicular cancer June 17th, 2014. Life goes on.

Odd.

A year ago I said, “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now.”

So, how am I doing?

Even at the time it seemed stupid but when my second anniversary of being cancer-free came around I was in an emotionally very dark place. Cancer was supposed to change my life, but year two was when I started feeling that it hadn’t really changed anything. It’s not something I should complain about because my life before cancer was good and being able to resume that life, with a few small changes, was something I should have been happy about. I’ll always have the scars, but those are just skin deep, and a year after finishing chemo I was, physically, more or less back to where I was before I’d had cancer. And for most of that year I was fine, but as it went on, the closer I got to the second anniversary, the more depressed I felt about it. September 22rd, 2014, was my last day of chemo. When I was still in treatment I met and heard about people who’d been through cancer and their lives had gone on pretty much the same as before, which is a great thing. There is nothing better than to be able to say, “I survived”. And yet at the time I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be like them. Cancer had changed my life so suddenly and yet, in the middle of it, I couldn’t imagine life without it. I couldn’t imagine what lay beyond. My last day of chemo there was no fanfare, no great celebration. It was just another day at the clinic. I sat in a chair and let a nurse pump poison into my veins, just as I had so many other days, and when it was done I got up and walked out. A year later I hadn’t gone back to the clinic but there had been so much follow-up, so many doctor visits and consultations and new drugs that on September 22nd, 2015, I celebrated my survival even though I felt like I was still fighting cancer. And then over the year that followed, even though I had fewer doctor visits and no reason to think the cancer would ever come back it seemed even harder to accept that it was over. I wondered what “over” meant. On September 22nd, 2016, I looked back on what I’d been through and, difficult as it had been, all I could think was, is that it? The cancer, as far as I knew, was dead and life was back to normal. Was that what I wanted? Shouldn’t things be different? Why had I survived?

What a long strange trip it was.

Last day of chemo–and I couldn’t process it at the time.

Yet I said “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now” because I wanted to give myself something to look forward to. I was staring into the abyss and there seemed to be a strong chance I would fall. Instead I decided to jump.
There’s something powerful about the number three. Three is lucky. Three is the smallest odd number greater than one. The smallest number of straight lines that can create an enclosed space is three. There are three primary colors, three rings in a circus, three laws of motion, three Stooges, three blind mice, three sheets to the wind, three face cards per suit in a standard deck, three miles in a league, three little pigs, three wise monkeys, three men in a tub, the third time’s a charm, there are five stages of grief but you can skip two of them, and three basic particles that make up an atom. If you take any group of numbers, no matter how large, and add them up and the result is three, six, or nine then that number is divisible by three–something that’s obsessed me since I learned it in school. I can’t look at a zip code, phone number, or any string of numbers without figuring out if it’s divisible by three. If it is it makes me happy.
There were three months between my initial diagnosis in June, when I spent three days in the hospital, and my final day of chemotherapy, which came in three rounds, in September. I would have three surgeries–the first orchiectomy, a minor one to install a chest port, and a major one to remove lymph nodes–in the six months between June and December.
So how am I doing?
Every year, every day, every second that I go on takes me farther away from cancer. Maybe it will never be completely out of my mind but I don’t dwell on it like I did. I’m genuinely glad I survived. My wife, the main reason I’m still here, tells me that, according to the doctors, technically the anniversary of my being cancer-free is in December, when I had the last big surgery. I have my reasons for picking September 22nd as my personal marker. The day I finished chemo was a great day, September is when the season just starts to change, and, hey, I’m the one who had cancer. I get some say in this. And yet while I shouldn’t take my health for granted I’ve started to wonder if I’ll even mark the occasion next year, whether September 22nd, 2018 will be anything special, other than a Saturday, and I always look forward to those. Maybe by the end of year three I’ll have stopped thinking in terms of years I’ve survived and instead I’ll only focus on being alive.
So how am I doing?
I’m good. I’m great. I’m odd.

 

The Next Step.

IBEATCANCER

Within my first week of chemotherapy I got a port implanted in my chest. This would save the veins in my arm which was a good thing because, as I discovered on my second day of chemo, one of the drugs in my cocktail could not go through the same vein two days in a row without feeling like my arm had been dipped in gasoline and set on fire. The port also meant I wouldn’t come out of chemo looking like a drug-addled rock star which is kind of a downside..

The surgery to implant the port was done in July 2014 and was one of the easiest parts of my trip with cancer. The doctors gave me a local anesthetic which knocked me completely unconscious, the whole procedure took less than half an hour, and I woke up reciting lyrics from Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb.

I then got stuck in the recovery room for a couple of hours waiting for someone to tell me I was good to go while a man in the bed next to me kept demanding beer, but that’s another story.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

For some reason using the port was also less painful than being stuck in the arm, and easier for the nurses who wouldn’t have to hunt for a vein. They’d just take the big needle and aim for the lump.

Even after I was done with chemo I still had to get the port flushed at least once every six weeks to prevent blood from clotting in it. And this wasn’t a big deal. It meant sticking a needle through skin so it did sting a little and then they’d pump saline through it and I’d get a cool salty taste in my mouth.

It was a reminder of what I’d been through but I didn’t need it. Several times I told the nurses I thought it was time to get it removed. One nurse told me, “There’s a woman I see sometimes who’s had her port in for twenty years.”

I hope that was a matter of choice rather than necessity. Or maybe, like me, she just kept putting it off.

I’m not putting it off any longer. If you’re reading this today, December 12, 2016, this is the day I’m getting my port removed.

It’s not the end. It’s merely another step. As the saying goes the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but after that first step there’s another and another and another, unless you have freakishly long legs.

I’m still on a journey and hope to go many thousands of miles more.

Update: Thank you for all the well-wishes. I’ve been successfully de-ported.

 

It’s Another Day.

IBEATCANCERIf I think carefully enough I can almost completely reconstruct June 17, 2014, in my mind. Conversations may not be strictly verbatim and the mileage may vary but I definitely remember going to get an ultrasound, something I’d been through before, although this time instead of examining my back I got a lot of goop smeared between my legs before a technician started shoving a large plastic scanner up there, which isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds even though we did have a pleasant chat about Minnesota, where she was from. And then I went in for a CT scan. Being shoved through a large metal doughnut while getting a warm feeling in my groin that made me think I’d lost all bladder control and being told by an automated voice to hold my breath was exactly as much fun as it sounds. And then my wife and I got in the car and headed home. I seriously underestimated the speed of current medical technology and figured it would be a week or two before we got the results, and if it was really bad news I assumed in a week or two my doctor would call me into his office for a somber, private chat which, as I’ve said, is how he and I both would have preferred it happen.

On the way home I worked to file all the day’s experiences away into my memory and trying to think of how to turn it into a funny story. It didn’t seem all that funny but I remembered the words of Steve Allen who said, “A comedian is not someone to whom funny things happen. A comedian is someone who sees things in a funny way.” And he even had an exercise for aspiring comedians: while driving keep up a running funny commentary of everything you see. I think that sounds like a great setup for a joke starting with, “So the officer asked me why I was driving through a hotel lobby”, but that’s another story.

And then, just a few blocks from home, my wife’s phone rang. She answered it and, although I try not to eavesdrop on other peoples’ phone conversations even when they’re in the same car with me, I could tell it was pretty serious. I was sweating even as my body went cold. I was on the verge of tears. That’s when she, on the verge of tears, told me I’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

Oh, I thought, what a relief. She’d been to the vet a couple of days earlier and I thought something was wrong with one of the dogs.

And the doctor had told her I had a blood clot in my leg and we needed to go to the emergency room immediately which is why he was delivering this news over the phone rather than in person.

That was the start of a long and strange trip that included the discovery that I did not have a blood clot after all. And it’s a trip that hasn’t ended yet but has helped me get reacquainted with my regular doctor whom I hadn’t seen for about three years before I went to see him about the pain in my leg. Before that if someone had asked me to describe him the best I could manage would be, “I think he’s tall.” He could have been in a lineup and the only one wearing a doctor’s coat and I’d still have had trouble picking him out. Now I’d recognize him if I just saw him out on the street as I walked by, babbling, “And there’s my regular doctor. Funny thing about him…” It’s also been a chance to meet a lot of nurses as well as an absolutely fantastic set of specialists: an oncologist, a cardiologist, most recently an endocrinologist, and just for fun I’m going to add an ichthyologist, a scatologist, and an exobiologist.

I’d been so certain that the tests wouldn’t show anything, or at least not anything major because I never get sick. Let me rephrase that: I never got sick. Before that day I had never taken more than two consecutive sick days at work and had approximately 57.9 years of sick leave banked, which was a good thing because I would spend most of the next five months out of work only to return for a brief spell and then have to spend six weeks out of work following major follow-up surgery.

I’ve told and retold this story and I keep retelling it because every day that passes makes it a little different. Every day that passes puts the day I was diagnosed, what my wife lovingly calls The Day From Hell, a little farther behind me. Technically I won’t be able to celebrate another year of being cancer free until September 22nd—but I can remember June 17, 2014, as the day when it all started. I couldn’t pinpoint the exact day when cancer decided I looked like an easy mark, but I know when the fight started, when I stepped into the ring for ninety-seven days of tests, surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, weight gain, nausea—and that’s just the fun stuff.

This is something I can’t ever forget. It’s with me every day, but every day is another day that I’m alive and another chance to see things in a funny way.

Fill ‘Em Up.

IBEATCANCERIt hasn’t even been two years since my diagnosis so maybe I just haven’t gotten there yet but I hope to reach a point where I can go an entire day without thinking once about cancer. Most days it just pops into my head without any warning or explanation. After all I’ve been clear since I finished chemo and I only get checkups about every three months. In between that I have a plastic access port in my chest that needs to get flushed—or, as I like to call it, any storm in a port—every six weeks. Oh yeah, I also have surgical scars and multiple medications that I take daily. But as long as there are no bumps in the road I can keep cruising along quite happily with the top down, the world’s greatest song on the radio, looking at cows and sheep and the occasional llama, at trees and billboards that tell me there’s a place just two miles ahead where I can buy firecrackers, stopping occasionally to grab a fish sandwich, get gas, and also put fuel in the car.

That metaphor got away from me.

During my most recent checkup my oncologist told me there was good news and bad news, and more good news—the bad news wasn’t really bad. The good news was most of my numbers looked fine. The bad news is my tumor markers were up just a tick. Oncologists, of course, measure tumor markers in small bloodsucking arachnids. The markers were still in the very low single digits and there was a strong possibility that it was a mistake and she was going to have the lab re-run the numbers to be sure. And let me be as emphatic as possible that even if the numbers are right the uptick is so small it’s nothing to worry about.

I’m emphasizing that because there was a moment where I emotionally slammed the brakes and came to a screeching halt, left skidmarks fifty feet long, did an impressive Tokyo drift maneuver across a stretch of highway, and blew out one of the tires. Fortunately I have a complete emergency kit including a can of that stuff you can use to temporarily refill a punctured tire so you can drive to a service station, although people passing by did wonder why I felt compelled to put out flares in the middle of the day.

Yeah, I really need to stop using cruise control with my metaphors.

It’s not been easy making the transition from “I never get sick!” to “I spent three months getting chemo for a disease that could have killed me and has affected the rest of my life!” The first phrase is easy, jaunty, and allows me to go on with my usual happy blind optimism and be the life of the party while the second phrase is clunky and long and doesn’t even begin to sum up just how complicated the reality is which is annoying because just by itself it’s enough to give me the fantods.

Rerunning my numbers required me to go in for a blood draw—meaning I had to get a second port flush in less than a week, which, by the way, was a reminder that even though I may never need chemo again it’s still too soon to get my port removed. There may not be storms but there are still squalls. And she wanted a urine sample too. And not just any urine sample. It had to be a first-thing-in-the-morning urine sample instead of a quick drink-some-water-and-fill-this-cup sample. I was given a specimen bottle to take home.

Specimens in mirror may be larger than they appear.

Specimens in mirror may be larger than they appear.

Almost every time I’ve been asked to give a urine sample I’ve been handed a cup or bottle to fill and it always feels like a missed opportunity to repeat a Groucho Marx joke. When he was called up for military service he and his fellow recruits were taken into a room for a medical exam. The doctor pointed to a row of bottles on the far wall and said, “Fill ‘em up.” Groucho said, “From here? Who do you think we are, firemen?”

Anyway I’d have to remember to fill the cup first thing in the morning, preferably after I’d taken the dogs out for their morning disembogue, and not join them in marking the tree. There was also a strong possibility—and it came to pass—that I’d have to make my passage before the clock crowed. In the event of that my wife suggested I put a note in the lavatory that read “CHRIS—PEE IN THE CUP!” She’s smart like that and through this ordeal has spent a good amount of time in the driver’s seat. So I took a heavy black pen and wrote the note. And then to sharpen the point I took a lighter pen and added, “Make it fun. Pretend you’re an astronaut using a zero-G toilet. And don’t spill any because if your urine’s floating around in zero-G the other astronauts will lock you out of the capsule.” I wish I could say it ended there but I went on to write more, referencing everything from the Apollo program to Quisp and the final scene of Dark Star and now I have to spend the rest of my life carrying a note reminding me to not drink and write notes, but that’s another story.

The real point is I can hopefully always get back on track, fueled by my sense of humor and the occasional fish sandwich.

Update: My oncologist has already gotten the new results back. Everything is back to normal and Beatrice and Benedick lived happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

Brave? No Question.

IBEATCANCERI think the adjective “brave” is overused when talking about people who’ve just been diagnosed with cancer or are about to start treatment. We don’t say someone with a cold is brave for staying in bed and eating chicken soup. Surgery and chemo may be a lot harsher but most of us are numb right after we’ve gotten the diagnosis. Even once we get past that all we want is to get better, we want to survive, and we feel there’s no other choice. There’s nothing brave about doing something when it’s your only option. The real test of a person’s bravery comes after the treatment. Real bravery is defined by how a person moves on with their life even if they’re lucky enough to be in remission. Maybe it even takes more bravery to live in remission because there’s no clear path for those of us who’ve fought the crab and won.

Even before her cancer diagnosis Tig Notaro, whose birthday is today, was brave. She pursued a career in standup comedy, voluntarily going into something where there is no clear path. In 2012 just after her diagnosis she did a now legendary live set in which she told the audience she had cancer. Two years later she performed part of a set topless, showing the audience her double mastectomy scars. In her comedy she sometimes strips away pretense, purposely violating the rules of standup, and with that act she confronted people with the reality of life after cancer. She’s been described as dry and unsentimental, a comedian who keeps audiences at a distance, but talking about cancer with inspirational thoughts and platitudes would be the coward’s way out. Tig Notaro made a choice to be brave.

And this is just hilarious.

Resolved.

IBEATCANCERIt seems to be hip to not make resolutions which is why I’ve decided to make a New Year’s resolution. After all I’m very concerned about being a trendsetter rather than following the trends. Actually I don’t care whether anyone follows me. Others may march to the beat of their own drummer, but I’m standing off to the side playing the hurdy-gurdy, which is really the only instrument I’m capable of playing. I’m that musically inept. I realized I should just give up any musical ambitions when I couldn’t even play the didgeridoo. Now before I hear from all those angry professional didgeridoo players let me clarify that it’s like the piano: it’s really easy to play, but difficult to play well, but that’s another story.

I understand why making resolutions has kind of fallen out of favor. Do you even remember the resolutions you made last year? I think they’re like “the check is in the mail” or “yes, I’ll respect you in the morning” or “club soda will get that out”. Most people, I think, make resolutions under duress. They feel pressured to come up with something to show they’re really intent on putting in some effort in the new year and then they fall off the wagon or slip out of the harness or whatever the appropriate metaphor is within a week of the new year starting.

As part of being hip I’m going for the ultimate cliche in resolutions: I’m going to lose weight. Not surprisingly this all goes back to my cancer diagnosis. It’s now more than a year and a half in the rearview mirror, but when I check my rearview all I can think is that objects appear larger than they should. It doesn’t help that not too long ago I was struggling to fit into a pair of jeans and the button above the zipper popped off, pinged off the wall, and hit me in the eye. This is really a resolution I should have made last year, but I’d been through a lot in 2014 and went a little easier on myself in 2015. Maybe too easy. And it’s not like I wasn’t aware of this even a year ago. During my last round of chemo I looked at a picture of myself and thought there were two of me, and that one of us had swallowed the other.

overlay21

Last week of chemo and fading in all the wrong places.

Everybody else who’s had cancer since before Hippocrates has lost weight, but me, being the iconoclast who marches to the tremolo of his own didgeridoo, had to go and gain it. The worst part is that two days after my diagnosis my wife put me on the bathroom scale and even though I hadn’t been on the scale in months I knew what my normal weight was. The cancer had eaten away at me to the tune of almost ten pounds. That actually sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Cancer is when your cells suddenly go beserk and reproduce like rabbits on fertility drugs and even if they’re drawing resources away from other parts of the body you’d think things would at least even out. Maybe I’ll ask Hippocrates about that later. Anyway my wife decided to fatten me up. She said, “I want you to eat like a Hobbit.” If you haven’t seen or read The Lord Of The Rings Hobbits typically start each day with breakfast followed by second breakfast then elevenses, lunch, afternoon tea, and I don’t know what comes after that but basically the life of a Hobbit is an endless buffet. The problem in those early days is there wasn’t a buffet in this world that could tempt me. This was not the cancer or even the chemo, which I’d barely started at that point. It was the stress of being diagnosed with cancer and not knowing what chemo would involve. Facing an uncertain future I was metaphorically and literally shrinking. Then the anti-nausea drugs kicked in and suddenly my daily schedule ran something like this:

9:00am-wake up

9:15am-Breakfast (Six pieces of French toast smeared with chocolate spread and crushed pecans)

10:15am-Second breakfast (Two sausage biscuits)

11:00am-Elevenses (Granola bar smeared with peanut butter)

12:00am-Lunch (Liverwurst sandwich, chips, milkshake, cookies)

2:00pm-Afternoon snack (Another milkshake, or maybe a can of smoked oysters or an eight ounce bag of almonds)

Dinner would be cobbled together from anything edible that was left in the house. I think one night I ate an entire bag of flour mixed with soy sauce, a can of vegetable shortening, two sticks of butter, a package of hot dogs, and a block of frozen spinach. At least I hit all the major food groups.

It didn’t help that in addition to turning me into a vacuum cleaner with teeth the chemo made me really tired and gave me an allergic reaction to sunlight so there was no way I could keep up my regular level of exercise. My wife tried to get me to exercise and I tried to listen but it was kind of hard to hear her over the constant sound of chewing.

Cancer is the gift that keeps on taking. I didn’t just lose parts of my body to the disease. I lost my health, my happiness, my ability to say I never get sick and my belief that I have no allergies. I lost my hair and while it’s mostly come back it’s thinner than it was before. I just wish the rest of me were too. I could just accept that this is how I am now, but I refuse to let it define me. I am who I am, and I’m determined that this time next year there will be less of me.

 

The Deep End.

December 8, 2014. I'm really not as cheerful as I look.

December 8, 2014. I’m really not as cheerful as I look.

Recently I passed another milestone. It’s now been a year since my big surgery, the retroperitoneal lymph node dissection. In plain English they sliced me open from my nipples to my navel and removed all the lymph nodes from my midsection. When I was told I’d have to have the surgery I was devastated. I stupidly thought chemo would be the end of my treatment, that the scans would give me the all-clear and my life would return to normal. And at that point my life was returning to normal. The big surgery felt like a setback. It would mean more weeks of recovery. I hadn’t been able to swim since I’d been diagnosed and I was itching to get back in the water. Not literally itching because that might mean I had some kind of skin condition and shouldn’t be allowed in a pool used by other people but psychologically itching. The big surgery meant I’d have to forget swimming for at least a few more months.

Swimming for me isn’t just good exercise. Actually for me I’m not sure it is good exercise because I’m kind of a clumsy swimmer, but it burns some calories and works the major muscle groups. It’s very mentally liberating being suspended in water. At the pool I go to regularly I start every lap in the shallow end then as I swim across the pool it gets deeper and deeper. When I turn to go back I like to dive down, completely submerging my body. I like to go as deep as I can, all the way to the bottom. I sometimes wonder if this freaks out the lifeguards. Or maybe they don’t notice. Well, I hope they notice, but maybe they realize that as long as I’m down there doing the breast stroke everything’s okay. I admire lifeguards. It’s one of those jobs where a good day is one where absolutely nothing happens, so I admire their ability to sit in one place and do nothing for a really long time and not fall asleep. And it’s mostly adults at the pool so we aren’t subject to the mandatory ten minute rest period every hour the kids get. When I was a kid and went to the pool almost every summer day I hated that rest period. That ten minutes always seemed interminable and it never occurred to me that it was a rest period for the lifeguards too, and that for them ten minutes was barely enough time to smoke a couple of cigarettes and maybe have a beer, but that’s another story.

When I’m deep under the water it’s very peaceful. It’s as though all the problems of the world disappear into the silence of the depths and I’m alone to contemplate big questions. Do we have a purpose in the universe? Can we survive as a species? If you swim hard enough do you sweat in the water? How can I keep my goggles from fogging? Is that a hairball?

At least that’s what I could do before the chemo and surgeries. When I first got back in the water I noticed I couldn’t swim as many laps. And I expected that. I was out of shape. The whole experience had been physically draining and emotionally it wasn’t easy either. There were a lot of times when I could have exercised that I spent lying around, times when I just felt so down I wouldn’t even have wanted to swim if I could, times I didn’t even want to get up and walk. There were times when the flesh was willing but the spirit was weak, and then the flesh got weak. So once I started swimming again I knew I had some catching up to do. And after a few months I could see the improvement, but I still couldn’t dive like I used to. I couldn’t stay under long enough to touch the bottom of the deep end.

Chemo left me with lung damage. That was one of the trade-offs: I could either get rid of the cancer and have lung damage or, well, eventually the cancer would probably have spread to my lungs as well, but at least with chemo I’d have lung damage and still be alive. I just accepted that the depths would forever be off limits to me. It was hard to accept that I’d be stuck almost at the surface for the rest of my life, but at least I was still swimming.

In some ways my recovery has been so gradual I really haven’t even noticed it. After all I’ve been through I should be a lot more conscious of my body, but I’ve been so determined to focus on what’s wrong that sometimes I don’t even notice what’s right. Some things take me by surprise. About a month ago I had reached the wall of the deep end of the pool, turned, dove, and realized I was descending. I kicked, went about halfway down, then turned and came back up. I breached like a humpback whale and took a deep breath which I’m almost positive freaked out the lifeguards but then kept swimming so they could relax and continue doing nothing. I started pushing myself, spirit and flesh working in tandem. And a few days ago I did it. At the deepest point in the pool, the ten-foot mark, I planted my left foot flat on the bottom. I’m five foot six inches on a good day so that meant there was a four and a half foot column of water over me. Then I pushed off gently and glided back to the surface.

Cancer has changed me permanently but not every change is permanent. It’s taken time but I realize that some of the things it took from me can be taken back.

IBEATCANCER

That One Place.

Ozone Falls.

Ozone Falls.

Within a few hours of being diagnosed with cancer, while I was still in the emergency room, I told my wife, “I want to go back to Ozone.” Ozone is a small town in eastern Tennessee that has some quarries and Ozone Falls, a state park around a picturesque waterfall formed by Fall Creek, and slightly northeast of Fall Creek Falls, another waterfall and state park that, in my humble opinion, isn’t as nice. I’d been to Niagara Falls, which was big and noisy and exciting, but Ozone Falls, formed by a creek, is smaller, quieter, and easier to understand. When I first saw it I was spellbound because this is what a waterfall should be. And unlike Niagara Falls which you can see from a distance Ozone Falls has to be approached from a distance that makes it come into view slowly. And then it’s a difficult climb down into the basin where, if you want, you can stand under the waterfall itself. Try that with Niagara.

 

 

 

Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Ozone Falls. Basin view.

Just up the road from Ozone Falls is Camp Ozone. It was a Presbyterian Church camp when I first went there at the age of eleven and went back over several successive summers. I’d heard people talk about Camp Ozone and seen older kids wearing t-shirts with the logo of a cross on a hill with the moon rising behind it, but experiencing the camp for myself was, well, special. It’s a very frustrating thing to try and talk about because I can’t really put it into words, and I’m not sure why I keep trying to talk about it. I think I could describe staying in the cabins, tromping through the woods, finding oddly colored mushrooms. I could describe the bath house where the light stayed on all night so in the morning we’d find the biggest most gorgeous moths clustered on the walls, moths whose names we learned, whose names were almost as weird and beautiful as the moths themselves: luna, io, cecropia, imperial, sphinx. I could talk about swimming in the lake. Ozone Lake is manmade and, I learned recently, was dug in the sixties by some people who didn’t know what they were doing. They just took it as a summer job. Its manmade nature explains why it’s no more than twelve feet deep at any point. You can even take a canoe out into the very middle and look down and if the light is right see the bottom, or even touch it. Radial water plants that look like green anemones grow there. It was my first experience swimming in a lake, which was very different from being in a pool or even the ocean. It was cold and murky but I still loved it. I could float or let my feet slip along flat rocks or over to silky mud. My toes would even sometimes touch those prickly water plants which kind of freaked me out.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

Lake Ozone. The boat dock on the right is new to me but the rest is just as I remember.

I could even talk about the friends I made there in just a week and then never met again, or how the last night of every camp session we had a talent show. One year I did a stand-up comedy act and no one, not even the minister who was head of the camp, blinked an eye at some of the off-color Buddy Hackett jokes I told, although the laughter might have been a little bit forced.

For various reasons, mostly having to do with church politics, Camp Ozone closed when I was sixteen. From my very first year there—almost from the very first day—I’d hoped to one day come back as a counselor. That wouldn’t happen. My family and their friends would also take weekend trips to Camp Ozone for Memorial Day or at other times of the year. When we went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville we stayed in Camp Ozone, a little over an hour away. These trips gave me and my friends a lot of chances to explore the place without the normal camp schedule. There was also time for me to go off alone, to get to know the wilderness by myself. When the camp was officially shut down these informal visits also ended.

In a way I kept going back to Ozone, though. As a teenager I was taught guided meditation by some older friends and Camp Ozone was always where I went. I could, and still can, mentally walk all the way around the lake or stand in the waterfall basin. It was the place I always went to because it’s a place where nothing bad can happen to me. Maybe that’s why I was never afraid of going back, and while it took more than a year from that moment I told my wife it’s what I wanted she still managed to make it happen. I was prepared for it to have changed but the Ozone in my mind is a place I’ve been to so many times nothing can change it. And going there I was surprised by how little had changed. It’s now run by Children’s Bible Ministries and I was shown around by the current director. Most of the original buildings I remembered were still there, even if they’ve been repaired and renovated. He seemed to find it funny when I pointed to a large propane tank covered with green moss and said, “I remember when that was white.” He took me past where the hogans had been. The younger kids stayed in the cabins but when we got older we moved to the hogans which were canvas covered frames, open at either end, with wooden floors where mice lived. He showed me the top of the hill where I’d spent the night under the stars and then left me to walk back down by myself. What had changed didn’t matter. What was still the same made me happier than I can say.

And that’s the problem. None of this may have any meaning for any of you reading this, especially if you’ve never been to Ozone, because there are some things words just can’t convey. There is, however, something I think that can be shared. When I was in the hospital I was facing an uncertain and frightening future and while remembering a place that made me happy helped what mattered even more was the goal of going back. It’s not enough to say I didn’t want to die. I had something to live for.

So what’s your Ozone?

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