Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,
When I start each diary page, I try to create a title that hints at what the story will be. That requires a certain amount of guesswork and, in current times, lots of luck. For this edition, expected to cover the rest of February, I chose "Approaching Normal", more for hope than anything else.
This recent chemo round has been going well, as well as one can hope when dealing with ingesting poison. The double-drug week was tough, but matched by the tough patient, without complications from a finicky heart. Three other "first rounds", two with pill-based chemo, and one infusion-based, had brought on unacceptable heart reactions, so we are thankful. The single-drug infusion has been tolerated extremely well, considering the list of potential common side-effects. There has been tiredness, and some unsettled stomach, but overall we have been allowed to think about a return to normal, and what that will mean. Chemo is scheduled to last until somewhere in the range of early April to mid to late May, four to six three-week rounds in all. That no longer seems like forever.
Of course the other shadow clouding us, and everyone else in the world, is Covid. In Fresno county, the case rate is down to one-quarter of what it was four weeks ago, from 2,475 to 651 per day. By the time chemo is done, local Covid cases might be below 100 per day, about the rate it was when we felt comfortable enough to leave on our two-month Big Western Road Trip. Extended travel is what we want to do in our "normal life", so we are giving ourselves permission to think about another road trip: Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and even beyond. Flying trips after that. Lots of people and places to see.
This diary edition starts with Friday, February 18 and a free yellow flower.
Marianne left the house for a morning physical therapy session. This work is related to Cancer-Round-One, but has served as hands-on medical consulting for all forms of cancer care since then. We both appreciate it. After Kaiser, Marianne was still feeling good, so she worked in shopping until almost 4pm.
I did my normal distractions: YouTube, reading, puzzle-making, and a neighborly visit. Vern's television was not working and, while I would generally like the non-screen quiet during our visits, I could see it was crucial to get his standard distraction up and running. I did the easy debugging, such as checking power and signal connections and turning all boxes off, waiting, and then turning them on again. Finally, it was time for the dreaded help phone call to the Xfinity help desk. I hate these calls and the computer-voice questions. However, eventually, the computer voice told me to turn off the power again and the company would do a reset at their end. Someone would call back in twenty minutes if it did not work.
You know what? It DID work. The Sellands were grateful and I was personally delighted to have been able to help. They are in their 90s (Vern) and 80s (Joan), so this 75-year-old appeared as helpful as kids are supposed to be with current technology. ( I attribute it to luck, but I'll take it.)
That evening, we had our Trotter family Zoom game session. As usual, one of the two teams won and the other lost, but minutes after it was over, I could not remember if I was on a winning or a losing team. Besides, we got to check on everybody's health and well being. All were just fine.
Saturday was also a family day. Marianne and I drove two hours to meet Gabby, Ava, and Sam for outdoor lunch at Casa de Fruta. This is the extent of in-person socializing we feel comfortable with, given Covid incidence and chemo-compromised immunity. It was great. We got to meet Zarbi, the new puppy, and enjoyed walking through the kitsch of the century-old roadside attraction. Ava will be 13 in a couple of weeks, so birthday was part of the celebration. Three hours of fun. Not "normal", but close.
Back home, the rest of the weekend went as normally as life does nowadays. Marianne chatted a fair amount on Facetime, Skype, and even regular telephone. Chin called and the two made up for the more-crowded Kyiv Friends Zoom call a couple of weeks ago. The conversation was reportedly heavy on health talk, but that's to be expected in our current situation. We hope to move beyond that being "normal".
She also had a Sunday session with Claudia, covering art lessons. THAT is definitely normal. Later in the day, Marianne's second mom Klare, called and the two briefly touched base, with brevity being Klare's regular style. Her 90th birthday is coming up, and we will make that family gathering no matter what remains of the room elephants.
I walked a little, watered the yard and garden, took springtime blossom pictures, visited neighbors a little, and struggled with my very difficult puzzle. Of course, I also kept up with the half-dozen or more electric car YouTube channels I follow. I'm not exactly sure what all the attraction is for me, but it seems to be a combination of nerd technology, future purchase guidance, Tesla "self driving" lessons, and a task that's easy and addictive.
Early Monday we went to Kaiser to start our work week with blood tests and a 12-lead EKG. The blood test went well enough (and the results were adequate for Wednesday's infusion), but heart folks apparently don't work on President's Day. The EKG would wait for Tuesday.
As I write this three days later, memory of other Monday events have been overshadowed by neighborhood, friends, and world events. Even the cancer elephant got pushed into a corner. But that's for later in this story.
Tuesday did start with an EKG for Marianne. It seems the new heart medicine is still working. On the way home, we stopped at Gazebo Gardens for an indoor plant for the Great Yellow Alligator. I also wandered around trying to get inspired for new back garden plantings. We have had some bare areas show up as plants or trees pass on to plant heaven. The garden store has so much to offer that we need a plan. Another home chore.
Back home Marianne headed to the studio and I went down to deliver the NY Times to neighbor Vern. When I got there, he was sitting in his usual recliner, watching People's Court, one of his standards. He was quiet and I was unable to start up a conversation, something I attributed to the television distraction.
However, when I turned down the sound, as I sometimes do, Vern started repeating: "I'm going crazy." "It's nutty." Soon, it was clear that there was something seriously amiss. I found Joan to see what she thought and clearly, her husband of fifty-some years could not communicate, even with her. I managed to get home and pick up Marianne for her help. She came and we all managed to talk to Vern, and he could repeat what we said, but he could not make new words to say what was in his head. Meanwhile, Joan had consulted with their son and daughter, who suggested a call to 911, a call she made before in the minutes before they showed up.
With the family there, and paramedics on the way, Marianne and I bowed out. I left as shaken as I have been in years. As I write at noon on Thursday, all we have heard was that Vern was held overnight in the hospital ER hallway, for, as he told Joan, "the worst night in my life". We hope to get information when the family has a chance. (We did. Vern returned home late Thursday and I visited again on Friday. He was much improved and naturally far happier to be back in his chair, from family and friends around.)
Our distracting mid-week activities were as usual: Marianne painted and I snapped pictures.
Wednesday started with another infusion, routine in a way, but our family patient was still nervous. It went well enough, and by lunchtime, we had picked up bread and sandwiches and made it home. We ate and Marianne retreated to the Mamo chair to rest. While there, she received news that our friend Knute had lost his own battle with cancer. He had been part of the group of friends in Bavaria that we had hung around with for years. Our hope had been to visit the group when chemotherapy and Covid travel restrictions allowed, and that is still our hope, unfortunately for a smaller group.
Late Wednesday evening and continuing the next morning, our attention was snapped to Ukraine. Scenes of explosions, filmed from the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel just blocks from our former home in Kyiv, were shocking. Since those first scenes, I have been locked into CNN, watching the world order change. World War III? Maybe.
Our thoughts were personal. We looked on Google Earth to see the turn-of the-century building we made our anchor in Kyiv. This brought memories of good and of tough times in our three-plus years in the country. I also pulled up a street-view picture of the building on the other side of our block that was the American Embassy at the time. In September, 2001, locals had spontaneously filled this entrance with flowers, in honor of the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks. We need to repay those thoughts.
Thursday, February 24 - War, Day 1
Our thoughts were almost completely on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Dictator Putin ordered tens of thousands of well-armed soldiers across the border at about 9am (Kyiv time). From when we woke up, we stayed glued to the television, CNN mostly, because of live reports from throughout the country. Ironically, I think the last time we were anywhere near this hooked on the 24-hour news channel was when we lived in Kyiv and watched the aftermath of terrorist attacks on New York and Washington twenty-one-and-a-half years ago. Now we were watching state-controlled terrorism.
Reporting during this first day was not easy to digest, or, obviously, to do. CNN reporter Fred Pleitgen stood at the Russian highway exit toward Karkiv in Ukraine, calmly commenting on a steady stream of tanks and armor. He painted a threatening picture. A few miles away, at the target of that armor, a CNN reporter joined citizens sheltering in subway tunnels. Her interviews were difficult to hear.
In the south, a battle over a Dnipro River bridge felt like a movie set, albeit one with real soldiers, lying stilled in the roadway. Reportedly, possession of the bridge went back and forth over these first several hours, a sign that the Ukrainian army was not folding in front of the giant bear.
We related most to the reporting in Kyiv. CNN and others were based in our old neighborhood, so we could recognize some of their street shots and the backdrops of St. Sophia's in green and St. Michael's in gold. Although it has been decades since we were there, we looked at the street and subway scenes, recognizing the sense of the people and places, even if we no longer know faces.
International response has been essentially uniform in condemnation of Putin's plan and actions. He feeds the old media in Russia with lies, but I have to believe modern social media's far different story will penetrate the country. It will be up to Russians, civilian and military, old and young, to stop the 21st Century Tsar
Official foreign response, sanctions and such, is directed at the long term, when what Ukrainians need is sort term, immediate. It is hard to see how this temporal gap will be resolved.
Inside Ukraine, the first hours and days of military action remain hidden by the cliche: fog of war. What's clear is that the Ukrainian side is and will be a formidable opponent to their Slavic neighbor.
Friday, War Day 2
This day was also Ukraine-focused, but with breaks. I visited Vern. Marianne worked and talked with family and friends. We had the Friday Zoom game evening with Brian, Jen, and Geoff. Throughout these interactions, people asked us for our insight into what was happening in Europe. We answered, but I'm not sure how well-informed we were; well-intentioned, but it's impossible to be well-informed.
It's a struggle to think about anything we can do to help the situation. Hopefully, just helping others understand the world, can be a part. That, and keeping our world aware. Hanging two small blue-and white flags by our porch and keeping up social media posts is all we are doing so far. Any suggestions?
Saturday, War Day 3
Sleep stopped at 4:30 am and I turned to CNN again. Kyiv had not fallen. A friend from the old Chornobyl days ("Chernobyl" in Russian, but the Ukrainian spelling is appropriate) had posted a report from The Economists that Chernihiv, a town near the workers' housing village, had fallen to the Russians. He got almost immediate responses from friends in the town saying, "no, not true". They reported that the Ukrainian Army, North, had in fact, defeated the Russian advance. This small anecdote illustrates that Putin may have bitten off more than his minions can chew. So far, we can hope.
Then we tried to do regular home stuff. Writing this two days later, I think we failed, except for the most predictable. Marianne in the art hut and me taking pictures of Spring blossoms:
Mostly, we watched CNN and thought about friends and everyone else in Ukraine. I am worried enough that even the cancer elephant has been pushed down a notch in the list of worries.
Sunday, War Day 4
More of the same. We start reaching out to Kyiv people we have not heard from in twenty years, in hopes of some sort of good news to balance the foreboding we get from television and internet. My first reach-out success was Sergey, a ceramicist we bought a dozen pieces from in our time there. His almost immediate response was indeed more positive than I could imagine writing myself:
"Hello !!! Dear friends !!! thank you very much for your support...it is very important for us...we feel like we are supported by the whole world and we are very grateful for it...without your participation it would be very difficult for us!!! your friendship and love fills our hearts and inspires us to win!!!!! thanks many many times!!!! sincerely yours Sergey!!!!!"
For distraction, we drove out into the fruit and almond orchards, looking for the peace and beauty of Spring Blossoms. Still, I could not help but remember that the fields and orchards of Ukraine are still weeks away from emerging from Winter cold.
Monday, War Day 5
A morning trip to Kaiser drew us away from news. Strange to think of a blood test and EKG, needed to allow further chemotherapy, would be a break. The excursion was extended to include a little grocery shopping at Gabby's Fruit Basket and a few supermarkets for very specific needs.
While Marianne had her fingers and toes painted, I went over to visit Vern. I learned that on Sunday he had needed another ambulance trip to the hospital, but the stay was limited to just a few hours. He was so happy at having avoided an overnight stay, that he joked easily about the inconclusive interaction with the medical world. People are tough, from Fresno to Karkiv.
This brings us to the end of February, so I will start another diary web page. I must say, this page ended far different than I had in mind when it started. "Approaching Normal" seemed like the right title, just a few days ago, but now there is no doubt that "normal" has changed.
John and Marianne