February 5th began as a normal Tuesday in Paris. Friends were in town. We ate lunch at our favorite restaurant. The sun shone. It was pure pleasure. That evening, I received a flurry of texts. A phone call. In an instant, everything changed. I collapsed into bed convinced that I had just lived the last happy day of my life.
Back in the US, our grandson, Jack, had had phantom leg pain for a month. On February 5th, a pediatric orthopedist had ordered an MRI scan. The scan revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor on his pelvis and innumerable tumors in his lungs.
Diagnosis: Stage four cancer
Age: Three years
If ever I was going to write what the fuck in a blog post, this would be that time.
The next day, Wednesday, we packed while a surgeon biopsied Jack’s tumor.
Thursday, I sat immobile—not eating, not watching a movie, not reading—for eight hours as we flew from Paris to Philadelphia. That evening, we received a preliminary diagnosis of germ cell tumor.
Friday, as we drove to Charlottesville, the diagnosis was confirmed.
Early Saturday morning, Jack had a port surgically installed into his neck and began chemo.
I won’t recount Jack’s journey. This is captured in a beautiful CaringBridge site that my daughter-in-law and son maintain. Jack’s cancer will not become the fodder for this blog.
But for years, I’ve written dispatches describing our far-flung homes: Bratislava, Budapest, Austin, Guatemala, Philadelphia, Berlin, Paris.
This dispatch comes to you from Cancerville. The Pediatric neighborhood. It’s where we live now.
Stay with me. It’s not as grim as you might imagine.
In Cancerville, I have learned to live in the moment. To laugh more. To cry less. As a family, we deliberately create the best experiences for Jack every day, and in doing so, we have slogged through the worst days of our lives, and cherished the best days. I was wrong that night in Paris. I had not lived my last happy day, but no one could have convinced me of that then. Then, all I saw was blackness, and terror.
I have learned to find happiness in each day courtesy of a 32-pound string-bean who has taught me how to wring joy from adversity. He has demonstrated strength beyond measure. He lives in the moment and is teaching me to do the same. He is completely fearless. His default state is joy. I teach him the mundane lessons of life: reading and numbers and colors. He teaches me its essence.
This isn’t to imply I would willingly select cancer for Jack. If I could figure out how to wring the bounty of the last six months from a cancer-free existence, I would, but that’s not the way things work here in Cancerville.
Again, I won’t hijack Jack’s story, so allow me now to turn this post back to this blog.
We gave up our apartment in Paris last month. As I turned the key for the final time, I realized that I hadn’t paused for one last glance. It was over. It had been over for some time. We stayed in Paris well beyond its expiration date because we had no where else to go. I wanted to return to the road full-time. I find a base stifling. Pat wanted a base. He finds our nomadic existence stifling.
The compromise became Paris, but inertia is almost always a destructive life force.
In May, we signed a one-year lease on a tiny, furnished apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia. Shortly after we signed the lease, Jack’s treatments moved to Philadelphia—specifically the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, or CHOP. Through the end of the year, we have an Airbnb here. It’s where I’m writing this post.
We will someday return to our nest in Charlottesville, but we won’t obsess about when. Cancerville is calling the shots now. All we can do is grab tight, and ride.
Paris has reverted to its rightful place as the most perfect spot in the world. When I’m there, I wallow in it. When I’m gone, I don’t miss it. Once again, I love it without condition but willingly accept that my life is elsewhere. It always has been.
My lack of writing has had nothing to do with Jack–at least not initially. For months, a year perhaps, Paris had become staid. In the years before, blog posts had assaulted me. On the street. In the train. A blog post would race through my head word for word from start to finish as though whispered to me by a blog genie. I would grab my phone and scribble as many phrases as I could remember. The finished product never read as well as that which flowed unbeckoned through my brain.
Then the assaults stopped, so I stopped writing.
Recently, the assaults have returned.
Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States. It is a majority minority city founded by immigrants and enhanced by an ever increasing array of new immigrants along with their culture and food. I stand outside the black baptist church on the corner near my apartment. The Italianesque campanile is clearly Catholic. The rollicking choir that I echoes down the street, is clearly not. I wonder what alchemy brought us from there to here.
I ask my Vietnamese Uber driver where I can eat the best pho. And my Iranian driver where I can eat the best Persian food. They gladly oblige.
I rue the loss of Toni Morrison in Shakespeare and Company with people who share my sorrow. (And YES! There’s a Shakespeare and Company in Philadelphia!!)
Virginia is the birthplace of the heart of the presidential batting order. Shortly before we left Charlottesville to come north, we visited James Madison’s home, Montpelier, and stood in the room where he wrote what would become the Bill of Rights.
Am I the only one who didn’t know that James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights?
The surrounding Albemarle County is a haven of every sort of organic, free-range edible. It’s where Michael Pollan went to research the farm to table movement for The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Everything I love in life exists in these two cities: history, food, diversity.
And my 32-pound sensi.
My brain has reengaged with my surroundings. The itch of the road will return, no doubt. The allure of my new home will fade. Cancerville will become, I hope, a distant memory.
But not today. Today, I’m content in this life.
Yet I’m starting to crave structure. Over the last eight years, writing has anchored me whenever I felt adrift. Perhaps it’s time to dabble once more.
In the darkest days of my life, I have found light. Happiness. Spontaneity. Purpose. And now, the blog genie has returned.