Friday, March 20, 2009

What, Again?

Joe in Lyon, France with chicken liver salade, happy

I figure it’s time to talk to my friends and readers who may be interested in what I’ve been up to lately. The quick answer is I learned that I have cancer. Again. After thirty joyous years of being a proud “survivor” I’m back being a “patient” again.

As I have written about here in the past, my first experiences with cancer and recovery actually led to some good things, like my intense interest and pleasure in food and wine and “life its own self”, to quote the sainted Dan Jenkins. Most of my cooking and eating experiences since 1979 are the outgrowth of those battles with cancer and the aftermath in which I began to reprioritize my new life.

Since then my wife and I wrote a quirky little cookbook/novella, “The Amazing Afterlife of Zimmerman Fees”. We teach cooking classes at Central Market in Austin and we have been known to cook for parties and dinners for money, and to be serious about it. I have written for Saveur magazine and others. We cook for our own pleasure and the pleasure of our friends and family and guests, as another expression of our artistic personalities. Cooking is fun, is expression, is life, family, reunion, reinforcement. And, as one of my writer heroes Jim Harrison says, “Eat or Die!”

So, to find out I have cancer now is rather unnerving. I have a small cancerous area on the inside of my gums, next to my jaw. Nobody knows yet just how large or deep it may be. I plunged into fear- fear that I would lose the ability to eat at all, much less slowly and laboriously as it is now. That I would lose my lower jaw, that I would lose my face, or my life. When you learn something like this your imagination runs as wild as a pet chimp let loose in a mall of horrors. What if this? What if that? What will they do to me? How much pain? Horror? Misery? Blood? The human mind is capable of both soaring sweetness and mindless blundering fear.

However, there is a vast beaming City on a Hill (a hill of hope only, since Houston is so flat the gutters don’t flow) called M.D. Anderson. On going there last week I met a team of brilliant doctors and speech pathologists and nurses and beaming staff, smiles and kindness at every turn. Capability everywhere brought to an acute point- you realize you are in the place where the best people are doing the most advanced and specialized things.

Instead of sadness and despair, people are undergoing treatment with hopeful eyes and confident faces. Treatments that out there in the world look sci-fi. Chemo, radical surgeries, skin and tissue grafts, skin radiated until it is literally glowing red. Out there we are great oddities and people stare at us uncontrollably (more on that later, I have thought about that a good deal over the last 30 years) but inside MDA we are all just people being worked on, no big deal.

In a week I went from runaway terror to runaway giddiness after I finally got a dose of reality. A brilliant lady surgeon who made me feel a hundred times better within an hour. A chemo specialist whose intelligence and sense of humour were like a cool drink of water on a West Texas summer day when the grasshoppers are louder than the oil derricks. I am apparently to be surrounded by a team of doctors and researchers all of whom would be considered the best in their fields in any hospital in the world. An oncological dentist whose mind, while examining me, begins to fly through vast expanses of possibilities and then quickly draw up tentative plans and ideas to make me better, almost whole, again. We ask her what she is going to do and her answer is “I’m going to think!” And when she thinks, big stuff happens.

I like being in the care of women. It reassures me. There is nothing in the world more competent than a woman who has triumphed in a man’s world, as this Western medical world surely has been for hundreds of years . As I observed to Kimmie afterwards at late lunch at our favorite Houston bistro, CafĂ© Rabelais, you can bet that any girl who makes it this far would have been able to kick the classroom-ass of any guy in school, both because she is really, really sharp, and because she has had to work harder to prove it.

And, now, as the final, wild, impossible cherry on top of this sudden Gulf Coast Good News Sundae, the women (again) in speech pathology say I should be able to speak again. Uh-huh. I, in my sternest fashion, say that I come here with very little hope of that possibility. Jodi the speech pathologist is not fazed by my fatherly gravity. She sneaks up on me and jams a little white tube up my nose and down my throat and tells me to loosen up and quit whining. When she has it halfway to China, she tells me to breathe in and when I breathe out, say “One, Two, Three”. Ok. I breathe in, open my mouth which I haven’t used to speak a word in exactly thirty years, and out comes a gurgling, deep “one, two, three” and it is me, talking quite clearly. I look over and Kimmie has tears coming out of the corners of her eyes and down her sweet cheeks and she says “that is the first thing I ever heard him say”. I laugh and say I sound like one of those movie swamp monsters. They ask me if I want to say anything else and instead of saying “I love you” to Kimmie like I, played by Russell Crowe, will say when they make this movie, I just raise my hands in claws and gurgle “AAAaaaaarrrrghhhhh” like a swamp monster. It gets a big laugh but I notice the other speech lady also has tears and she has to leave. My nose-tube taskmaster Jodi tells me about this patient she has who is in exactly the same shape I am in- no larynx, no tongue, but he is, like me, shaped correctly to be able to use this method to “speak” and has been now for six years. She will put me in touch with him so I can get it from the horse’s mouth, via email.

Yikes. As of today, I’m still walking around this one, kicking the tires and wondering if I can drive this baby or not. It is the Porsche Cayenne of my dreams, as Rodney said later. I am imagining the comic possibilities of this new toy, saying ridiculous things, cursing, singing in a monotone in a voice like Tom Waits. Let me at it, I can’t wait to try this out. Surgery, smurgery. Pain? Gimme morphine for my pain and red wine for my brain. The memory of pain is short. Me talking again? The crazed wonder of it is carrying me away on a river of impossible happiness.

So, that’s what I been doing while school was out. Wish me luck and wait for the audio file of me singing “Picture in a Frame” to appear soon in this space.

Peace and Love,
Joe Gracey, Jr.

23 comments:

Sarah Wrightson said...

(Sarah Wrightson, Vince Bell's wife) so I have tears in my eyes as well. Himself is in Austin, but we are both sending much love and luck.

Brad said...

That is great news, although a bit scary given what you're probably up against. I'm glad you have this opportunity, and I wish you the best of luck!

Paul Kirsch said...

Hey Joe, we're all pullin for ya!

Thanks for sharing and I truly hope for the best in your treatment and in what must be the ultimate dream of speaking again.

Anonymous said...

Best of luck to you and family and you are in our prayers.
Jim

Joe Gracey said...

Y'know, one aspect of all this that I need to write about next is how what seems like a terrible thing can and almost always does, lead to really good endings. I hate to sound like f*cking Pollyanna, but I just keep finding it to be true, over and over, and this is an obvious example! Love to all, Joe

notsnot said...

Awesome...so is this the end of the fabled Joe Gracey Brand Magic Erase?

Jacquilynne said...

This is both heartbreaking and inspiring, Joe. Best of luck to you and Kimmie as you face down this new challenge.

Nina M. said...

Oh, Joe. So very, very happy. I am speechless at your speech.

Jeff Wall said...

I love you. But I want to be on top this time.

Joe Gracey said...

Any comments by Jeff Wall may be derided, ignored, or taken as serously as is desired, but beware.

Meshel Knaus said...

Wow - what a roller coaster of a blog post...xxoo!! - Meshel

Keith said...

Leave it to Jeff...

Joe, that is so beautiful. What an inspiration. Hang in there and pray for the f*cking Hollywood Pollyanna ending. You have a lot of people out here who love and respect you, who you have never even met.

Laetitia said...

Thinking about you Joe! On pense bien a toi... (Love the picture of the liver salad in Lyon and absolutely LOVE Rabelais.)

Kevin J. Hosey said...

Wow, wow and wow. Good luck and godspeed to you and Kimmie, Joe.

Carmen said...

It's 7:30 in the morning,and I had chills running up and down my arms,as I read your blog.I love your writing,and I love you.You have to be okay,because you are my favorite one in the family,shhh,don't tell anyone else.

sebish said...

Dear Joe, Marilyn passed your link on to me and I will be keeping up with you from now on. You are a remarkable man who I have been hearing about for many, many years. Someday I hope to meet you and we can say "hello".
Sarah

Joe Nick said...

Good 'un, Gracey.
Go get 'em, and make some noise while you do.

steveray said...

This time its me who is speechless Joe. Keep us all posted!!

Redbendad said...

The last time I talked to you was in the Spring of 1977. I called you at the station. Sounds like you've travelled a far piece since then, Joe.

The first words your wife heard you say were, "One, two, three." And they made her cry. Sounds like a long rest between notes works for you.

My heart is with you and my will is with your growing health.

Nancy Ennen Schaefers said...

Joe, I am crying like there is no tomorrow - you and I have been friends since we were 2 1/2 years old and when I read that you have another battle ahead of you and that you are able to talk again - I remember your first radio gig with Sandy McConnell. I am thrilled and scared for you. I am sending prayers to you from all over Texas, Georgia & Las Vegas (where Ann & Bill now reside) - please keep me posted - you know I love you so much and it is hard for me to type because I really care for you. Love you - Nancy

Ed Ward said...

Not much I can add to all these comments, but I'm pullin' for you, too. I've seen MD Anderson work miracles before, and you've got the attitude (well, to be honest, you *always* had attitude...), so I'm sure we'll toast each other soon in France.

Jayne said...

You are the only person I know in the world who could write a joyful, hopeful, inspirational piece about your cancer coming back. Sending lots of warm Maine energy your way...Jayne

Joe Gracey said...

Thanks, y'all. Everything is rolling along nicely, with surgery scheduled for the 31st. I'm scared but glad to be getting on with it.