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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Life (and Death) is What Happens While We are Making Other Plans

“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you.”  ~ C.S. Lewis

    My mother always said bad things come in threes. Some can rationalize this as superstition, nevertheless it has been a tremendously difficult week aboard the NB Valerie and three was the operative number. Late last Saturday a call from the States informed me that my brother-in-law was dying of liver cancer brought about from overexposure to de-icing fluid when he worked at Anchorage International Airport. Another call early Monday morning informed me he was gone.
   I've known my cousin Nick since I was four years old when I met him on the stairs of his mother's house in St. Paul. We, his blond Northern cousins, were in town for a visit. Our mother Florence and his mother Sally were sisters. My sister Susan was fourteen at the time and, as Nick and I sat watching on the stairs, Susan was modeling the new clothes bought for her earlier in the day. I truly do think it was at that very moment Nick fell in love with Susan. He was clearly mesmerized by her beauty as anyone who has known her over the years can relate. Even still at Sixty-something, the beauty of Susan's 1000 watt smile is still evident.
   Nick's best quality to me was his sense of humor. I've seldom known anyone who loved to laugh as much as Nicky. Laughter is one of the survival techniques that comes with being part of a larger multi-generational family with a dark thread of dysfunction and depression traveling through its core. True laughter is such a gift and Nick gave me plenty of really great funny memories. I can honestly say I've never laughed so hard or so deeply with anyone else I have with Nick and Susan.

Two memories stand out against all the rest...

   I flew back home in 1994 when my mom died. I stayed with Susan and Nick while I was here. I am generally known as the great cook in our family, and Susan and Nick generously turned their kitchen over to me while I was staying with them. While Susan is known for many things, gourmet cooking is not one of them. She hails from the Norwegian farm style of cooking taught to us by our mom, who learned to cook from her mother-in-law as a young girl of eighteen, in which salt and pepper are the only true spices ever relevant and white sauce goes with anything.
   I enjoy cooking and feeding those I love. Cooking for Susan and Nick was a joy that salved my aching heart over the loss of our mother. One morning after I had fixed a particularity spectacular, spicy Chinese dinner for all of us, I woke about five a.m. and could not get back to sleep. I quietly wandered up the stairs to the smell of coffee brewing. I found Nick sitting at the breakfast bar in the early morning dark, hunched over with his head in his hands. As I approached, Nick lifted his head, his brown eyes bleary with lack of sleep.

   "Are you all right?" I asked
   "Oh Jaq I had THE worst nightmare--it was truly awful,"Nick replied.
   "Well tell me about it while I pour us some coffee."
I sat down next to Nick and as we sat sipping our hot Java Nick continued:
   "It started out as a really great dream. I dreamt you were in the kitchen cooking Barbecue Ribs. Oh Jaq it was so real! I could smell those ribs--I got a spoon out of the drawer and tasted the sauce. It was incredible--spicy just the way I like it and just really good. You said the ribs needed to cook all night and we all went to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up and realized Susan was not in bed with me. I put on my robe and dashed upstairs. I was too late to stop her. Susan poured white sauce all over those ribs!!" In true Nick fashion he looked at me, I looked back at him and we started laughing hysterically, waking up the whole house.
   Later in the week after Mom's body had been cremated we asked for her ashes to be split three ways between us three daughters--Susan, me, and our sister Sharon. We priced the cost of urns and realized we could not afford one let alone three. As Susan, Nick and I sat puzzling over this situation Nick got that look of sudden inspiration mixed with a bit of mischief and said, "Leave it with me. I know what to do. I'll be back in a bit." Off he went down the stairs, intent on his mission, his head bobbing from side to side under his thick, dark, curly hair as he went out the door. 

   Nick came back several hours later with a large cardboard box in his arms. He set it on the breakfast bar and said, 
   "When Aunt Florence came back home to Alaska she was too ill with cancer to do much. She was feeling housebound one day so I suggested she come sit in a chair in the garage and watch while I sorted through all our junk and cleaned out some of those boxes. (Nick had inherited the Pack Rat gene which also runs through our family). I got Aunt Florence into a chair in the sunshine and covered her with a blanket, and we talked while I worked. I came across a box full of empty tins--Nabisco cracker tins, Oreo cookie tins and the like. I started to throw them away and Aunt Florence said, 'Nicky boy don't throw those out--they may still come in handy. Those are good tins.'"
   With a flourish Nick opened the cardboard box and pulled out three tins of similar size: Ritz crackers, Saltine crackers and Oreo cookies, and that is how I came to carry my mother's ashes home on the plane in a bright red Ritz cracker tin! We all burst into crazy laughter, and Nick said he could feel that our mom's spirit was laughing with us.
   When Nick laughed it didn't just come from his mouth. His laughter actually started in his big brown eyes which would crinkle up in the corners. It would spread to the rest of his face and pour from his chest and belly. Nick's body would literally heave with laughter and the joy that comes with it. The sound of his laughter was infectious and no one who heard him could fail to join in. This is how I choose to remember Nicky. I know
 that those who are remembered, live and Nick will live on in all the precious, funny memories I have of him.
   I spent last Monday morning quietly grieving, experiencing that strange sense of discontinuity resulting from the knowledge that someone we know and love is gone--forever--we will never again know them in this life; yet the sky is still blue, birds still sing, I am still alive, and life goes on.
   Later Monday morning we decided to find a lovely bit of countryside, so we cruised from Fenny Stratford to just above Stoke Hammond lock and set our pins on a lovely quiet bit of canal in the late afternoon sunshine. The hedge was bursting with blackberries, Les was happy, chilled out and feeling great. He went shirtless and sock-less in the heat of the day, sipping a cold lager. I have seldom seen my Best Beloved so relaxed.
   Then the phone rang and it changed everything. 
   It was the MacMillan Cancer nurse who was charged with informing us that some abnormalities on Les' recent CT scan two weeks ago required Les to meet with Mr. H--the colorectal surgeon--on Wednesday. She wasn't giving out much more information than that and Les lost it with her. She finally coughed up the basic fact that due to the findings of Les' Ct Scan the stoma surgery might-or might not occur, and left us both to sit in agony for thirty some hours. Little sleep was had by either of us that night or the next as we imagined the worse case scenario of metastasized cancer spread throughout his bowels. 
   The meeting Wednesday went quite well and we were pleasantly surprised. The scan turned up two very small lesions on Les' liver. Mr. H. said "You aren't going to die in the next two or three years that's for sure. They are very small and perfectly operable."
   We asked if it could possible be cancer and he replied that at this point no one knew but they were quite well aware of how Les felt about chemotherapy. Mr. H. has sent Les' scan results to a liver specialist at the Royal Free Hospital in London for immediate action. The liver surgery must occur soon, so the stoma surgery has been postponed for now. 
   The good news is the liver regenerates itself and at this stage it is felt Les' liver will do so just fine. We are waiting for the letter to arrive telling us when we meet with the liver specialist in London, as we change our winter plans once more and begin sussing out the best place to moor the boat which will be reasonable for me to access water and services, safe, quiet, and still be close enough for me to travel to the hospital in London.
   On a treatment note, I want folks to understand that while we planned for Les to undergo Gerson therapy--which is a medical therapy researched and developed by a medical doctor--he had not been able to do so because of the tumor in his rectum and the stoma. Coffee enemas are a major part of this medical therapy which heals the immune system so it can attack disease. We were hoping to begin after his stoma was reversed but this sudden turn of events has played put to our plan for now...
   After a very frank discussion between us I've told Les I will support him in whatever therapy he chooses to have. He in turn has said he will not have chemotherapy or further radiation treatments. We will permanently change our diets to mostly vegetarian, remove as much sugar from our lives as possible,  and begin taking the host of supplements I had him on just prior to his initial surgery last October but which we discontinued when he came home. I will continue researching and we will make use of any other reasonable treatments that don't destroy what is left of his immune system or leave him with devastating permanent side effects. This is Les' choice and I support it.
   Finally, our daughter-in-law Joanne is having gall bladder surgery today. We will visit her this weekend to administer some loving care, fingers crossed that all goes well and the law of threes is now satisfied for the time being... 


antinady said...

So sorry to hear of your troubles. Our hearts and thoughts are with you.

I was beginning to wonder if something was up as the blog had gone quiet - now I know.

Take care of yourselves and keep us up to date of any developments.

Tina & Andy

Arthur said...

What a blow! We are on our way back from London, currently just below the Marsworth flight. If there I anything we can do, please call. Our best wishes go with you both.

Jane Fritz said...

Hi Jaq and Les,

I support you in your path to good health! I'm sorry that you have had to deal with another complication. May the liver surgery go smooth so you can get on with your beautiful lives!

My condolences Jaq for your loss. Life is indeed as fragile as a moth. So take care and be gentle with yourself!

Maybe it's time to start a new tradition: Good news comes in threes!


Tom and Jan said...

Hi Jaq & Les,

After recent events, here's wishing things now change for the better!

All the best

Tom & Jan

Unknown said...

I have replied to both of you under seperate cover. The Ritz tin carrying your mother's cremains was a true stroke of genius. May your departed Nick'sashes be treated so likewise. My later mother's cremains were placed on my request in a standard
low priced (C$25.00) sliding lid plastic box which had the lid glued in place. Those urns for cremated remains are just another method by which the funeral industry makes money. In ground burial accomplishes the same purpose, the return to mother earth. And that ono doubt is to where Nick has returned as well. May your remember him in your dreams
and fondest memories.

As for Les, do keep the worl of us posted. And BTW the publications sent arrived in one piece.

Keep happy you two...

Marilyn, nb Waka Huia said...

We are sad to read of your b-i-l's death, Jaq. You will miss him, that is clear.
We are also pleased that the scanning process has picked up Les's liver problems - if there was no stoma op due, they would not have been seen. So a good outcome is definitely on the cards. I will support Les in the almost vege diet and make sure David drinks his cider/lager/wine to save Les's liver. There are two lovely photos of Les on my blog from earlier today - check them out. In one he is giving a two finger salute - now I know that is to the big C and not to me! The other is with you - as we see you both in our minds' eyes - laughing, happy, in love. Nothing can change any of those factors, Jaq, and it is those factors that will see you both through this next part of the adventure.
If Joanne is having key hole surgery, she will be bouncing around in no time, and the only things that will hurt are laughing and sneezing and coughing ... So control your sense of fun, girl, leave the pepper pot on the boat, and give her a chance ...

Love and big hugs to you both, Marilyn and David xoxo

Anonymous said...

wow wow and wow :-( and wow wow wow.

Jaq you write so beautifully and movingly and effectively about your lives and your trials. I rejoice in your love for your uncle and for Les. Keep up the fight a day at a time, a step at a time.

May you find the perfect mooring to enable you to support Les. You brighten my day and my nights. May mother earth and the universe conspire to heel all.

A nice early fall day in Pullman

Jennifer said...

Peter and I send big hugs and lots of positive vibes. Keep smiling. nb. Mactra;s Filia, Bollington

Del and Al said...

Oh gosh, thinking of you both and sending lots of love and positive thoughts, take care xxx

Unknown said...

Jac, we were so sorry to hear of your recent news. We know Les was anticipating the stoma reversal soon so it must be a blow. Should you need any help moving the boat nearer to London or wherever a suitable mooring would be please get in touch as we may be able to help. We have transport so could easily get to the canal. Janet and David, NB More.

Unknown said...

My thoughts and best wishes are with you both.
Dave (Bracken)

Lisa said...

Dear Both,
Such sad news to lose a loved one. Our love comes to you both via these magic airways. Keep strong and I wish well.
Lisa & David

Dave,Beryl Bradshaw said...

Can anything else happen this year Thinking off you Beryl & Dave

Les Biggs said...

Hi everyone
Many thanks for your comments. I will blog shortly.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Tina,
Thank you so much for being there for us. We miss you two and will defo keep you up to speed.
Love Jaq and LesXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Arthur,
Yes indeed it is but we are on our feet fighting back now. It was lovely to see you both as you passed last week. Thank you for your offer. We are all sorted for now. Just waiting for the letter from the specialist and hope the wheels turn faster this time 'round.
Jaq and LesX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Jane,
I feel a little fragile right now. I was still reeling from the news about my brother in law when the call about Les' scan came the same day. We are so fortunate to have so many folks all over th world pulling for us and holding us in their hearts and mind.
Love JaqXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Thanks Tom! Give our best to Jan. I assume her broken owie has mended? Perhaps one day we will actually catch up with one another on the canals. That is something fine to look forward to.
Jaq and LesXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Marilyn,
We appreciate Dave making such a deep and abiding sacrifice for Les. It is a tough job drinking Les' share of wine and cider but it msut be done! ;)

Thanks to you two we now have a yogurt maker and Les has fallen in love with yogurt--something I didn't think possible.

Joanne's surgery was keyhole and she asked for the stones so she has a vial with 15 ugly looking rocks in it! She's doing great. We visited on Saturday and I made a pot of chicken noodle soup, baked a loaf of bread and made homemade chocolate pudding for her the kids.
Love to you both,

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Karen! Thank you for your inspiring and thoughtful words of comfort. This too shall pass as they say. We sat down two days ago and sussed out the best place to moor up (Berkhamsted) while Les is in hospital in London. I can walk five minutes from the canal to the train station and catch a train to London and bus to the hospital. I will blog more about this in a few weeks.

Thanks for continuing along on our journey with us. We love you and miss you girlfriend. Love to Jim too.
Jaq and LesXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Oh Jennifer how lovely to hear from you! We understood from Dave and Marilyn (Waka Huia) that you and Peter were still cruising. Isn't the Maccie gorgeous??

We appreciate your support and good thoughts. give our love to Peter.
Jaq and LesXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Thanks Del. We know you know how this song and dance goes. We sure do appreciate your good thoughts on our behalf.
Hugs to you both,
Jaq and LesXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Janet and Dave,
Thank you so much for the offer of help! We will keep you posted via the blog of our plans and if it looks like we may need some help moving the boat we will email you directly.

It certainly was a blow and coming on the same day my brother in law died really hit me hard. I've stopped reeling now and am in attack mode. :)

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Dave,
Thank you and we will keep our eyes peeled for NB Bracken. It would be grand to see you in person and have an natter over a cup of tea.
Jaq and LesX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Lisa and David,
thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words. It means the moon and more to know so many people are thinking of us.

Here's to meeting up in person again one of these days soon!
Jaq and LesXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Beryl and Dave,
Have you noticed how many Dave's there are on narrow boats? Crikey!!

Thanks for thinking of us. We hope to catch up with you again some day too for a cuppa and a natter. We know you know what this is like and so here's to a new year which is full of healthy, happy, and prosperous news.
Jaq and LesX

Anonymous said...

Dear Les and Jaq
I am so sorry to hear this news, but as always I am thinking about you both. I know you will both tell it right where to get off and give it a good kicking. At some point we will catch up. Lots of Love Carol Blog Virgin

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs