This pool table reminds me of my favorite Stephen King novel, The Stand.
The ball on the table hasn’t moved in almost a month.
Long before any government said we shouldn’t hang out together, our apartment building banned people from its common spaces to stop the spread of the virus. Not that we hung out all that much anyway, but a round of eight ball might ease our boredom in the afternoon.
Here’s why that lonely cue ball reminds me of The Stand.
In the novel the Army sets off a pandemic that kills almost everyone when a bioweapon flu called Captain Trips escapes the lab. One solider panics, escaping as the gates are closing to seal the facility. He carries the virus into the world. That sets up a good guys versus bad guys scenario that is typical of King’s novels.
In an early scene, one of the last people left alive in the Army lab is sitting in his office looking at images on the surveillance cameras of the cafeteria where a man has died face down in his now congealing soup. The flu has stopped normal life and nothing will ever be the same for the novel’s characters.
As we walk across the lobby bridge to head up to our apartment after our daily walk, I always look down at that ball on the pool table. It’s become my congealing bowl of soup.
We’re not in a King novel. There’s no battle between good and evil with the good guy winning in the end. There’s only washing our hands, staying away from other people and waiting it out.
King’s novels always show the resilience of people. We’re experiencing that resilience with neighbors bringing food to neighbors, calling each other and saying Hi to strangers on the street from six feet away. We will get through this without a battle to end our novel. Just diligence. Normal life will return.
I don’t have it. Joe doesn’t have it. No one we know has it.
The little virus causing so much havoc around the world has changed the way I deal with people and the things they touch.
Two weeks ago for the first time I grabbed an antiseptic wipe to wipe off the handle of the grocery cart in the Giant Eagle. I’d always thought people who did that were paranoid or silly. I’ve become one of them.
There were no large bottles of hand sanitizer on the grocery shelves. I bought a half dozen of the little ones you attach to your purse or backpack.
I read a lot of what I call apocalyptic literature where a virus, zombies or political upheaval turns the world upside down and puts us back in the stone age. I know how to prepare for the end of the world as we know it.
Two weeks ago I snuck in extra canned tuna into the grocery cart and told Joe we needed more canned veggies sneaking in those as well. I’m actually stocking up in case we get quarantined.
The following shopping trip Joe admitted that he’d been thinking the same way. We bought more canned veggies, a large bag of rice, noodles and extra spaghetti sauce. I haven’t added extra toilet paper to the list, but I have stocked up on cough syrup, Tylenol and tissues. We’ve made sure we have enough of our medications to last a month.
I stretch my long sleeves to cover my hands when I open doors in public bathrooms. I flush toilets by using my foot to karate kick the button or push the lever. (Don’t laugh, some of you do the same!)
I sing “This Land is Your Land” in my head when I wash my hands for 20 seconds.
This week we started bumping elbows with friends we meet at church.
Then there are the things I’m noticing about others such as how close we stand next to each other and strangers.
Grabbing a chai at Starbucks on the Ohio Turnpike I stood at least 6 feet away from the group ahead of me in line. I watched the barista push her hair off her forehead, scratch her nose and pour the tea into a cup before she handed it to me. The chai wasn’t contaminated, but I wondered what bugs her hands had left on the paper cup.
I’d never thought of that before.
When we arrived at a friend’s home for Sunday dinner, he went in for a big hug. I backed away and offered an elbow. He made a joke about it, then hugged me anyway. I stiffened.
Since Charley’s immune system is already compromised we’re trying to avoid her getting sick, Joe explained.
We’ll we’re not staying 6 feet away from each other, he replied with a laugh. I had already taken a couple of steps back bumping into the couch.
We’re not changing our other routines. I have a movie matinee date with a friend later this week. We’re still volunteering to serve community meals. We have tickets for the Empty Bowls fundraiser for the foodbank next Sunday.
We leave for Florida in our motorhome after my next treatment later this month to visit with friends and family, and do some disaster rebuilding with Nomads there.
I’m not paranoid about a virus, maybe a bit silly.
So, if you’re not my family, don’t expect a big hug when I see you. You’ll get a hearty elbow bump instead.
Most people don’t say that. It’s a pain in the butt. There’s no fame or fortune linked to it. The $9 a day isn’t enough to pay for parking, let alone lunch, in downtown Pittsburgh.
I’m an old reporter and I thought it would be exciting to be in court again.
And the irony wasn’t lost on me when I took an oath to be impartial in listening to evidence senators acting as the jury in President Trump’s impeachment trial were being asked to do the same.
Allegheny County’s criminal courts are in a beautiful ancient Romanesque building centered around a courtyard and linked to the old county jail by a bridge my mother called the “Bridge of Sighs,” when she worked there as a nurse in the 1970s.
Entering the courthouse is like going into a dungeon. All dark with old signs that haven’t changed since the 1930s.
The jury room is up several floors in a big courtroom.
We jurors entered the room like we were entering a church for a funeral, except there was paperwork involved. No one spoke to each other and if you did it was quietly, respectfully. Except for the girl behind me complaining that this was her fourth time in two years she’d been summoned.
Paperwork signed, vouchers handed out, we awaited our fate. It’s a roll of the dice. One day or one trial.
Courts in New York state where I worked for 30 years are very simple, there’s no romance to it.
The court clerk begins the session saying “All rise. This court is in session the Honorable XYZ presiding.” Blah, and business begins.
Pennsylvania is a commonwealth, a more English definition of government.
“All rise,” sang out the court clerk. “The Court of Common Pleas is now in session. The Honorable Judge Edward Kozlowski presiding. All those with business before the court draw near and be heard. God bless the court and God bless the Commonwealth.”
The judge sat down. Then we sat down.
The judge explained what was expected of us and left. I read one of four magazines I brought with me. (I knew it was going to be a long day.) I could see a woman in front of me knitting. (Man, why didn’t I bring mine along.)
The young man next to me looked bored. I handed him a magazine. He told me he was worried about his job working in a warehouse. He earned about $15 an hour and he wasn’t sure his bosses would pay him for the time off if he got picked to be on a jury. Nine bucks a day in jury pay wasn’t going to cover him.
About 15 minutes in they called the first 20 of us to a separate room for jury selection. I was juror 20. We filed into a room where two defendants and their defense teams and prosecutors looked us over.
This was jury selection for a big trial. The clerk read the charges. The two were accused of a mass murder that killed five people and an unborn child at a backyard barbecue.
The clerk handed out a four-page single spaced witness list that had more than 100 names on it. It looked like cops in three municipalities would testify.
The judge warned us we would be asked to serve 10 to 15 days on the jury.
The judge, defense and prosecutors left the room. They called the first juror for questioning. Fifteen minutes later they called the next juror, the young man I’d been chatting with.
We waited some more. I fidgeted. I had a blood test and treatment scheduled for next week. I flagged down the clerk as she collected the witness list.
I’d be more than happy to serve on the jury, I told her. But I have stage 4 cancer and treatment next week. If you could tell me when the court’s day normally ends, I could call and reschedule them to later in the day?
She patted my hand. There’s no problem. They won’t let you miss your treatments, she said.
A little while later they sent us out to lunch with orders not to go to the courthouse’s fourth floor and not to say anything to anyone about the trial. We wandered out, smokers lighting up when they hit the sidewalk.
An hour later, we were back in the room looking out at downtown through the big windows and trying to figure out how to pass the time.
The clerk returned. Turns out they only needed two more jurors. You’re free to go. Thanks for your time. Your check will be in the mail.
The chatty young man had never returned to our room.
The trial lasted almost three weeks. The charges against one defendant were dropped the day the trial began and the jury acquitted the second. It’s a big scandal. People want justice.
The West Penn Hospital parking bridge is strung with green garland, red bows and lights. It’s cheery.
Joe and I gasped at the same time the first time we saw it.
We cross that bridge
West Penn is home to the Mellon Cancer Pavilion and where my cancer doc is located. I have metastatic malignant melanoma. Stage 4 skin cancer. There’s no cure for it. There’s only keeping it at bay with treatments every 21 days to kick start my immune system.
I haven’t written in
a while because I was terrifically depressed.
When I was first diagnosed, every night I lay next to Joe in bed and cried. Sad sobs, telling him I didn’t want to leave him. And how selfish me didn’t want him to be alone, but didn’t want him to take up with another woman either after I died.
(He is a catch.
Devoted husband, father and grandfather who has supported me twice through
cancer and still brings me tea every morning. I am spoiled.)
The first time I attended church I cried. The lady behind me handed me a pack of tissues during the service. I’m not angry at God or even questioning my condition. I’m just sad that I’m going through it and sad for losing the life I had planned. Sad for my family.
Friends have sent me
wonderful cards and best wishes. It’s nice to know people care.
Over the course of the month, really after my first infusion, my outlook lifted. I feel like something is being done. I have a slight rash, which the doc says occurs 90 percent of the time when the therapy is working.
I’m happier. I look forward to our changed future.
We’re stationary. We live in a one-bedroom apartment in a converted school in Pittsburgh. There’s a pool table in the lobby. Joe keeps making jokes about walking the halls wanting to tell students to get back to class.
The apartment is HUGE compared to the motorhome. One bedroom with big classroom sized windows and a dishwasher.
The future doesn’t include living full time in our motorhome, but we still plan to travel in it between treatments.
We can walk to the grocery, a really good bakery, restaurants, the drugstore, our bank and our church. We’re a mile from our daughter. We saw fireworks from the building’s rooftop on Light Up Night in Pittsburgh.
We’re still volunteering, just not traveling the country to do it. We hooked back up with the church we attended last year and volunteer with their community meals and food pantry. We fold clothes for the clothes closet. We painted the stage ceiling.
I love their vision:
Love God, Love People and Do Something About it.
When the homeless shelter on Smithfield Street reopens we will volunteer there again too.
Joe’s back climbing
at the rock climbing gym and I’m doing yoga there. We take long walks
overlooking Pittsburgh. I plan to run a 5k in the spring.
And in July we’re
taking the whole family, eight of us, to Hawaii.
I’ve decided not to
put off the things I’ve always wanted to do. If I’m going to have a shorter
life span, then I’d better get crackin. There are places to go and people to
In the meantime,
I’ll cross the West Penn Hospital parking bridge at least twice a month. I
wonder if they decorate it for Easter?
17 months ago we left our old lives in Auburn NY and began a journey into a life of travel and volunteering. Yesterday we awoke on the first day of a new journey we neither planned nor wanted. Yesterday we met with Charley’s doctor to get the plan for dealing with her metastatic melanoma. Boy talk about waking in fear and trepidation.
4 A.M. awake and staring at the ceiling, stomach tied in knots and no way I am going back to sleep. Lying here with the last 3 weeks running over and over in my head. A phone call telling that a recent biopsy of Charley’s enlarged iliac lymph node is positive for metastatic melanoma. Maybe if I use this word enough it will be less scary. The list of things to do is endless: drive from North Carolina to Pittsburgh, find doctors, find an apartment, see a doctor, drive to State College for a game, buy furniture, see a doctor, get medical tests, wait for results, turn on the lights and cable, wait and worry. It has been a long three weeks of prayer mixed with tears but today we get the results of the tests and hear the verdict.
9 A.M. and we are both up and nervously looking at the test results that popped up in her online chart. Looking up medical terms and trying to come to grips with things is just making things worse. A little bit of knowledge is truly a dangerous thing and can take you to scary places. We decide it is time to stop taking counsel of our fears and listen to God.
“Fear not for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with My righteous hand.” Isaiah 4:1
The Lord promised us that he would be with us and we must have faith in that. This is an easy statement to make but harder to live by when things go wrong. It is easy to focus on our fears, not what God has accomplished in our lives to date. It is easy to focus on the negative in life and not the daily joys.
12 days ago, a random phone call to Allegheny Health’s find a doctor number reached a nice, helpful young man. He scheduled appointments for Charley with an oncologist, Dr. Younnes and a dermatologist, Dr. Gaulding. Several hours later Charley gets a phone call from the cancer coordinator recommending Dr. Younnes who specializes in melanoma. The coordinator doesn’t know Dr. Gaulding but it turns out she also focuses on melanoma. Now some would call this luck but we see the hand of the Lord.
“Remember the Lord in everything you do, and he will show you the right way.” Proverbs 3:6
2 P.M. We are sitting in Starbucks reviewing the list of questions for Dr. Younnes.What stage is the cancer? What are the treatments and side effects? How long will this last? What is the prognosis? Wait is that a question we really want to ask?
Charley is not a statistic and the numbers for the world of people with metastatic melanoma point a way and offer both promise and dread. We will deal with this as a chronic problem that can be dealt with one day at a time.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make your paths straight.” Proverbs 3: 5-6
3:45 Well the dreaded doctor’s visit is over. We have a treatment plan and a timeline of treatments that can go on for years. Charley tells Colleen that, if the treatments work, as we hope and pray they will, it will be similar to treating a chronic disease like diabetes.
So, our journey begins anew. The road now moves onto highways with no maps but not without guidance or hope. We trust the fact that the Lord will continue to guide our steps down this new road. He promises us that we are not alone. We may not know the specific plan God has for us or the route to our destination. He will get us there if we just have faith and pray.
As we move off the physical road and move onto a spiritual one our new motto is found in Thessalonians:
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances. . . “ 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
I look down at my freckled legs propped on the dashboard of our motorhome as Joe drives north from North Carolina where we’ve left our mission project early.
Which one of your betrayed me, I think. Who’s the little bugger that turned off his blockers to set cells free to grow anyway they want, also known as cancer.
I can hear them in my mind. The set free cells are giggling in high-pitched voices like the blue Cornish pixies in a Harry Potter movie.
In August while working on a project in Indiana, I felt a hard lump in my groin. It didn’t go away and I set up an appointment with my general doc in Pittsburgh. He set me up for an x-ray, CT scan, blood work and recommended I see a surgeon to get a biopsy.
I had a biopsy before we left for our next project in North Carolina. A week later, I got the results. Metastatic melanoma likely stage 3 or 4.
Some freckle or mole went rogue and its whacky cancer cells are now in three of my lymph nodes. And here we are back on the road again to Pittsburgh seeking doctors who can offer treatment.
We’re going to find that rogue freckle or mole and kill it and its little cell friends too.
Resistance to Donald Trump’s whacked out policies comes in all forms, including scarves.
It’s evident at the Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Farmington, Pa. The park commemorates the skirmishes that sparked the French and Indian War, which then ignited a world war.
As we entered the small visitor center, I noticed the National Park volunteer behind the counter was knitting a beautiful multi-colored scarf.
I’m a knitter. Knitting is a universal language. I’ve met knitters in Mexico, and even though I don’t speak Spanish, we exchanged knitting techniques.
Forget the historic battlefield. I immediately wanted to know what the volunteer was knitting, what kind of yarn she was using and what stitch.
I’m knitting a scarf with colors representing climate change, the volunteer explained. Volunteers across the country are knitting the scarves as part of a tapestry project to show visitors how climate change affects the national parks. The different colored yarns represent daily temperature for a year. Blue yarn represents cooler temperatures. Yellows, reds and oranges represent warmer days.
One scarf represents the year the park was founded and the other will be the current year, she explained. They’ll be displayed together so that people can easily see how the park’s climate has changed, she said.
That’s cool. A small act of resistance.
The resistance to the Trump, though, goes further.
Later Joe went back to buy a postcard at the small park gift shop. He got to talking to the volunteer again.
National Park rangers have long kept track of the weather statistics for their parks, she explained. The collected information was uploaded to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s databases, adding to the agency’s knowledge about the nation’s weather and climate.
Two weeks after Donald Trump took office rangers were ordered to stop tracking the climate, she said. They were told it wasn’t their job to collect information on the climate.
That’s when the volunteers stepped up. They now keep daily records. When the Climate Denier in Chief leaves office, the information will be dumped back into NOAA’s databases, she said.
Viva La Resistance! Whether it takes the form of a scarf or recording data for future generations.
A chance encounter
at an ice cream stand in Bedford Indiana this summer brought home the gun
debate to me.
It had been a long
day working in 90 plus heat and humidity repairing cabins at Camp Riverdale on
a NOMADS project when Joe and I drove to get ice cream at a little mom and pop
stand in Bedford.
I sat at an outdoor table people watching while Joe waited for our orders. Members of the high school football team and some girls were in one corner licking cones and hanging out. Couples with little dogs were at other tables.
Then I noticed a woman with her family. I was drawn to her belt, hand tooled with flowers embossed on the leather. At first it looked like there was a grip of a tool of some kind was poking up out of the belt’s side pouch. My mind was on carpentry. What kind of tool looks like that? I wondered.
Joe returned to the
picnic table with our treats.
Is that a gun on
that woman’s belt, I asked.
He turned around to look and turned back. Yep, he replied, digging into his sundae.
We had most recently lived full time in New York and I’m originally from Pennsylvania. I can’t remember ever seeing a gun on someone’s hip unless they were also wearing a badge.
I brought the gun
subject up at next morning’s NOMADS meeting. I’m naïve, I said. I’d never seen
anyone carrying a gun out in the open.
It’s not uncommon for people to openly carry guns in Indiana, the camp caretaker and leader assured me. They then speculated how many members of the Methodist church we had attended on Sunday were packing heat. Five, 10, they guessed. There had been maybe 30 people in church that Sunday.
A couple of weeks
later Joe and I were at Penn State’s first game of the season. (We are….)
It’s not uncommon to see police and state troopers in big gray hats walking in the crowd of 100,000. Families with little kids dressed like cheerleaders or the Nittany Lion, college students, alumni and fans.
This time, however, there were officers dressed in SWAT team black, boots and bullet-proof vests carrying assault rifles wandering in pairs through the crowd.
We had great seats. Just above the student section. I could see the whole stadium, including the police sharp shooters, with rifles fixed on tripods, on the four corners of the flat roof above the box seats.
I knew all the police were there for my safety. Yet, it made me uncomfortable to see all that fire power in a place where people were out to have a good time.
The game was a good one, a blow out. As the football team sang the alma mater to the student section, I checked the latest headlines in Washington Post on my phone. There was another mass shooting in Texas. Seven people died and more than 20 injured, including a baby.
Since then CVS, Kroger, Walmart, Walgreens and Wegmans have asked their customers not to openly carry firearms into their stores. The sight of a gun is alarming and “we don’t want anyone to feel that way in Wegmans,” the chain said in a tweet.
We travel across the
United States. We meet all different kinds of folks and have parked our house
in some dodgy communities. Joe and I don’t feel the need to own a gun.
I’m not saying people shouldn’t have guns for hunting or protecting themselves.
But I can’t help but
think the woman packing heat at the ice cream stand, the church members
carrying guns into the sanctuary and the assault rifles openly carried at a
football game say an awful lot about the American culture.
Life off the grid isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
We haven’t had
internet or cell phone service for much of the summer.
That means no chit chats on the phone with the grandkids. No checking the latest news on the internet. No tweets, no messages, no Sirius radio, no television. Off the grid.
It amazes me the
number of places where you can’t get a cell bar.
We didn’t have service in national forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for a week, but I expected that. We’d drive for 20 minutes before seeing another car. Locals told us that AT&T had towers there. We have Verizon phones.
The lack of service
was the running joke at Camp Rivervale in Mitchell, Indiana, where we replaced
lights, painted and did other odd jobs on cabins as part of a three-week NOMADS project.
There are a lot of
tall trees on Rivervale’s property, which is surrounded by cornfields. The camp
caretakers told us that we couldn’t get service because the cell signals
couldn’t get through the trees. Huh?
I have another
Mitchell is a dead town. It’s claim to fame is that it was the home of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, a Gemini astronaut and the Carpenter school bus factory. The factory struggled for years before closing in 2001.
street has one café, three thrift stores and a lot of empty store fronts. It
appears residents are selling their junk to each other.
In other words,
there’s no reason for Verizon to invest in cell phone towers in the area. Who
would use them?
We found that you
might get a bar or two on the phone if you got up before 5 a.m. The service
died by 7 when everyone else got up and began making phone calls and getting on
From then on phones
dropped calls in mid-sentence and text messages telling us to break for lunch
arrived hours late. Forget email or trying to get a weather forecast.
I had no idea what
was going on in the world, which is a horror for a news junky.
So when my daughter
Colleen called one afternoon for her weekly chat I asked what was happening in
wants to buy Greenland.”
See what you miss
when you don’t have cell phone service.
Charley and I have been living on the road for 13 months, 19,000 miles and 21 states. The journey has been wonderful, fun, exciting, confusing, frustrating and sometimes just plain scary. To quote the Grateful Dead: “What a long strange trip it’s been!” So what have we learned in this baker’s dozen of months on the road.
First, the Boy Scouts got it right when they said “be prepared.” This is especially true when you live in a motorhome. Things break and others thing just need regular maintenance. Driving your house down the road tends to shake things lose: Screws need to be tightened, seals treated and seams caulked. Selling our bricks and sticks didn’t eliminate the maintenance list. It created a new one. Driving your house down the road also means things break.
The electric harness connecting the car we towe to the motorhome has been repaired three time in the last year, once by a professional and twice by me. The cable connecting the gear shift to the motorhome transmission shook lose and stranded us in the middle of a driveway in the Washington-Jefferson National Forest for 24 hours. Water began leaking into the house around the dinette slide-out window when driving through torrential rains. It took two trips to rv dealers for that problem before one of them “fixed” the window on the wrong slide-out. Recently, one of the two air conditioners died and had to be replaced. That meant three weeks on one air conditioner in ninety degree weather. Then the other one died too.
While sitting in Mitchell the second air conditioner died. The fine people at Camp Rivervale lent us a portable air conditioner. Good thing too, since the temperatures in stayed in the 90s during our three- week stay. This past Saturday while re-positioning the house the leveling system broke and the jacks needed to be raised manually. Oh, and for good measure the driver’s wiper was about to fall off, the only door on our house would not close correctly and the lock needed to be fixed.
No problem we were scheduled for service on Monday and everything can be fixed. These repairs entailed three days of breaking down camp, packing up in the morning and then setting up again in the evening but all repairs were completed and under warranty too. Yahoo! no cost except for the oil change! This list doesn’t include what I broke.
I ripped the awning off the side of our house by driving away with it extended. I backed into a small tree and damaged the left rear panel of the motorhome. I also did not check a weed patch when pulling out of a campsite and crumpled the exhaust pipe on a hidden tree stump.
So be prepared to play mechanic, carpenter, plumber and jack of all trades as you drive down the road in your house. Stuff happens and not all of it is your fault but you must either fix it or pay to fix it.
Second lesson, learn patience. All of my mistakes were made when rushing instead of taking my time.
Third lesson, be flexible. Living full-time in a motorhome requires a level of flexibility and a willingness to accept the unexpected.
We quickly learned to be flexible in our plans. Our plans called for six weeks on the beaches of North Carolina last fall. We were evacuated twice by hurricanes, we ended up in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville Va.
We had a good time on the beach and enjoyed our unplanned side trips. Our plans called for us to spend last January and February in the Southwest. Minor medical problems grounded us in Pittsburgh.
We volunteered at a local church and a soup kitchen. We spent time with our family and managed to sneak down to Mexico for a week on the beach. Our plans had us working a Habitat for Humanity project in June but it was cancelled. So we ended up on a Nomads’ project in North Adams Massachusetts. Being flexible and ready to make changes to our plans is just part of our trip.
Don’t get me wrong, even though the comments above sound like I am complaining I’m not. We have enjoyed the last year immensely.
We have spent more time with our children and grandchildren then we ever could while working. We can go to Pittsburgh and Waterford and spend more than a weekend. We have camped with family in St. Joseph, Michigan and Cedar Point, Ohio. We rafted on the New River and spent a week with our family in West Virginia. We took the grandkids to Gettysburg and Philadelphia.
Traveling with our grandchildren is fun and we can’t wait to do more of that. Mobility allows us to spend time with our family in between our travels.
Our journey around the Eastern United States has been great. We stood on a mountain top in New Hampshire from where you could see four states. In Acadia we stood on Cadillac Mountain and looked for miles in every direction. In Michigan and Indiana we toured abandoned iron mill and farming communities.
Volunteering for Nomads has taken us to Florida, Louisiana, Indiana, Illinois and Massachusetts. These service projects have introduced us to great people and took us to areas we would never have picked as stops on a road trip.
It has been a long strange journey and we have loved it and are looking forward to continuing down the road. So the final lesson is simple: enjoy life’s journey no matter where it takes you!!