Afterwards, Sleepy

Email to friends:

Date: Thu, 11 Jul 2002 17:25:32 -0700 (PDT)

Baruch atah H', hatov v'hameitiv.

To be brief, since I have to get back into bed (my wiufe is growling at me,
and rightly so) -- The cancer is gone -- removed with the testicle. No chemo
necesary; 95% no radiation necessary either. Feel free to pass this along to
anyone interested.

THANK YOU for your prayers and support!

Baruch Hashem,

Neal Ross Attinson

Calm Before the Knife

The weird thing is, I’m still trying to figure out why I’m not SCARED.

I often think I’m too stupid to realize when my life, reputation, or other reality-anchors are in danger. I mean, I experienced the certainty of death in February 1988 while serving as a deckhand on the Golden Hinde II, when a freighter loomed out of the midnight fog and into our tiny ship just west of the shark-rich Golden Gate (I recall turning to my fellow foredeck-perched shipmates just before impact and actually saying, “I know this is a cliche, but it really has been nice knowing you all”). Since then, everything has seemed like “Free Time” — it’s helpful to tell myself, “As bad as this current situation is, at least I’m not Carcharadon carcharias poo.” My self-perception is thus of this well-meaning fellow bumbling from one situation to the next, lope-diddy-lope, something like Swee’Pea gurgling in the robot factory while a frantic Popeye rushes frantically (and unnecessarily) to save him.

Well, I don’t always feel that way. But a lot of the time I do. Maybe everyone does. I don’t know.

It’s therefore probably a mistake to obsess over why I don’t feel something. Mostly what I’m feeling right now is testicular discomfort (I really should go lay down), happy wooziness from the painkillers, frustration and inconvenience, uselessness, and a deep gratitude for having this opportunity to learn stuff I otherwise wouldn’t have. (Did I write that already? Well, I still feel that way. I hate writing it out, though, because it makes me sound like some sort of pious religious fanatic. I hate pious religious fanatics. Hypocritical ones, anyway.)

So. Surgery tomorrow. The schedule, I have been informed, is as follows:

  • 12 a.m. to 10 a.m. — No food intake except for clear liquids.
  • 1:30 p.m. — Registration and pre-surgical prep (IV drip, interesting drugs)
  • (1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. — Hold Ann’s hand and lamely attempt to entertain her with gallows humor peppered with Seinfeld references
  • 3:30 p.m. — Surgery
  • 4:30 p.m. — Recovery room
  • 6:30 p.m. — Homecoming

Then, on Thursday, a trip to my oncologist in Marin County to get the pathology.

Impatient Patient

Well, two weeks after the diagnosis, and I’m waiting another week for the surgery. I actually could have had it done sooner (like last week) had I elected to have it done in Petaluma (where my new urologist is based), except that I wanted it done here in Sonoma for two reasons: a) the hospital is three blocks from my house, instead of a 20-minute drive over hill and dale and b) two of the four people who would be operating in Sonoma are good friends of Ann’s and mine. (The third is my new urologist, and the fourth — an OR nurse — is the wife of a close colleague at the newspaper.) Since it’s not jeopardizing my health to wait that long, I figured I’d opt for the unique experience of being wheeled into an operating room full of friends.

Speaking of friends, and cancer, and how I’m doing, here’s what I wrote this morning to an online friend and mentor, a Breslover Chasid living in Jerusalem:

"I go in for surgery (a starboard orchiectomy) on July 9, at 3:30 p.m. California time. My CAT scans and bloodwork look good, with the doctors saying there's no evidence of lymphoma, Baruch Hashem. But we won't know until the orchiectomy and pathology thereof whether or not that's true, so perhaps I ought to say 'B'shaa tovah [in a good hour].' ;-) For now, anyway. The doctors assure me that, as far as they know, I should be ultimately fine, though it's unclear at this point what that will entail -- either surgery followed by a little chemo and radiation, or surgery followed by a lot of chemo and radiation. Either way, it's a useful experience which I hope to use in my rabbinate.

"One downside is that I'm in a bit of pain since last Sunday, so am taking mild opiates (Vicodin, or hydrocodone). I'm also drawing disability because I went into the newspaper office three days after my diagnosis, looked at my desk, and thought, 'There's no

&^%$#@!

way I can do this right now' (pardon my language). After assuring my boss that I'm not a wimp (his response -- "You've pretty much proved that on numerous occasions -- but you have a priority, now, so go home"), I discovered that the pain and attendant medication would keep me from working anyway. I can't believe how supportive and loving everyone has been.

"To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from the TV program The Simpsons, 'Baruch Hashem for sending the doctors to save me from the cancer Hashem sent.' However, the vicodin is making it difficult for me to study -- intolerable! ;-) Here I am, literally surrounded by seforim [holy books] and the time in which to study them, and unable to concentrate! But that's one of the reasons I love Hashem -- because Hashem's sense of humor is weirder than my own."

The waiting is sort of getting to me, in that it’s trying my patience, in that it’s a TOTAL DRAG not to be able to read (my first love!) since my attention wanders after about a half-page or so. Fortunately, however, I was hard-bitten by the original Dungeons and Dragons bug while a wee high-school junior lad of 16 in 1978, and have been writing a largely Arduin-basedcampaign off-and-on ever since. I’m doing a lot of work on the basic document right now, since it’s pure creativity on a deadlineless basis (“Should the elves live behind this mountain? Where shall I put the goblins? Why hasn’t anyone slain this dragon yet?”) It’s nice to have some mental knitting; maybe I’ll post it when I’m done.

Follow the Bouncing Ball

If one more person tells me that I can go on to win the Tour de France, I’m gonna scream.

On Tuesday, 6/18/02, I was told that my right testicle has to be removed due to a cancerous tumor therein. There is a possibility that it’s linked to lymphoma, but the doctors (and I) won’t know until the pathology is done (meaning — until they slice up and analyze the offending organ). Surgery is tentatively scheduled for next week or the week after.

It’s definitely cancer, but we don’t know much more than that. However, as a doctor friend told us Tuesday, “If you’re going to have cancer, this is the kind to get” — meaning that it’s treatable and beatable. If it’s testicular, it may be gone with the testicle. If not… things will suck for a while, and then, G-d willing and from what I hear, get much better.

This all “started” in late May, when I had exited the shower and was clowning in front of Ann a la Charles Atlas. “Hmm,” she said. “What’s that lump? You’re calling the doctor on Monday.”

I did so, also because I’ve been having some weird gut pain for about two months now — no loss of appetite or digestive problems, just low level, colicky pain with occasional spasms. (Interestingly, this caused me to lose not only a week’s work last month but also triggered an intense spiritual crisis of the “separation-from-G?d” variety, from which I seem to be fully recovered, thank G-d.) But “that lump” turned out to be an indefinite mass which, while itself benign, triggered an ultrasound which disclosed that my right testis is cratered like the moon. And so we come to the present, awaiting surgery and wondering what’s next.

Meanwhile, I seem to be surrounded by an amazing network of friends who are, literally, coming out of the woodwork to express support. I don’t know what I did to deserve that (although my rabbi tells me that I should try to figure it out), but I’m glad — it’s nice to be hugged so soundly and unexpectedly. But this Tour de France stuff… I thought it had something to do with the narrow bicycle seat, etc. But there’s this Lance Armstrong fellow who apparently beat testicular cancer and went on to win the Tour de France twice… Personally, I’d rather play the violin. (Does anyone still make that joke?)

Right now I’m still sort of in the “what the…?” stage. I passed through anger for about five minutes during dinner Tuesday, but as I don’t do anger well, it didn’t stick around for long. What I mainly feel right now is weird — my gut pain is actually subsiding somewhat, most likely due to the laxative I took last night (an abdominal X-ray yesterday disclosed to my gastroenterologist that what everyone suspected about me is true. So to speak. Nonethelss, it’s a colonoscopy for ol’ Nealo on July 9). But I feel weird because, while I have a serious illness, I don’t feel seriously ill. It’s a bit of a cognitive dissonance. I mean, I’m not minimizing this or anything — but I don’t feel sick. I feel optimistic, and trusting, and mostly worried about Ann, since I know from experience that stuff like this can be harder on the loved one than on the patient.

It’s interesting that one of the first things I thought was, “Well, maybe I can use this as a tool when someone comes to tell Rabbi Neal that he or she is going through something similar.” I think that, just as in anything else, there is an art to being sick — to being cognizant of one’s own needs, but also the needs of well-wishers. To hearing, for example, “Well, my Uncle Hymie went through the same thing — you’ll be fine” not as a minimization or a dismissal (as some protective people in my life have implied), but from not knowing what else to say in support and comfort.

To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins: “Don’t lessons ever have an end?” Gosh, I sure hope not! Anyway, I’ll write more as something develops — or doesn’t, as the case may be.

Shema Echad, Shnei Regalim

Couple of random recent things:

1.) An amazing and unexpected side effect of daily prayer (which, last night in the shower, I have decided to call “Jewish text-guided meditation”) is the feeling of expansion and contraction. This occurred to me… a week ago? when I was davening in the morning. The morning before, I felt that my prayer-session contracted me into a single still point from which I could then go forth into the world. The next morning, I felt it again — with the added fillip of feeling that I was at the point between the waves, so to speak. I’m not sure I’m explaining this well, since it’s more of a visual impression than anything else. But it gives me something *ELSE* to shoot for.

2.) During a Shabbos walk-discussion with Ann (one of our great Shabbos joys), I was able to put into words soemthing that had been bugging me for a while about treading the rabbinical path — the balance between humility and self-aggrandizement. In other words, the paradox between seeking the center of attention in order to remove yourself from it. “I like being the center of attention,” I told Ann, “but I don’t like liking it.” She looked at me with her wise and playful eyes and said “There’s your problem and solution right there.” (She’s the one who really should be getting s’micha.)

Strange Connectors

After covering the fire training Sunday, I came home and showered before writing out the sermon/message I was asked to deliver at that afternoon’s annual interfaith Service of Remembrance, sponsored by one of the local hospices. They do a lot of important work, and I’ve written stories about their events every year I was a reporter. Everyone I talk to describes them as “angels of mercy who take over your house and help you more than you’d ever imagine.”

One year, they asked me to represent the Jewish community at the remembrance service by delivering the kaddish. The next year, they asked me to speak a few words at their annual tree-lighting ceremony in Sonoma Plaza (after I had written about one of their client families). Here is what I said this year:
—————————————
D’var Aveilut – 28 April 2002

Today I’d like to tell you about one of the scariest things I ever did.

I write for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Two years ago, I also began assisting Rabbi Bridget Wynne in her duties at Congregation Shir Shalom here in Sonoma. I think religion and reporting have the following in common: both can make us pay close attention to the world in order to help people make sense of it.

Jewish tradition describes two early stages of mourning, respectively called aninut and shiva. Aninut describes the period between death and burial; shiva encompasses the first seven days after burial, when grief is the most intense.

One of the traditions of shiva to hold the three daily worship services at the mourner’s home, so that they can say the obligatory prayers without having to go out. Judaism is mostly a religion of law, so any community services are required to have at least 10 people, called a minyan, in order to be legal. From a psychological perspective, this also means that, in a shiva minyan, the mourner is never alone.

Last autumn, one of our congregants, Gail Lutolf, died after a long illness. Our rabbi conducted the funeral, but wasn’t available to lead the shiva minyan. So she asked me to do it.

At this point, I had led a variety of services, but never in a house of mourning. But this is one of the things I have pledged my life to do. So with a pounding heart, and a sense of being in way over my head, I drove to Gail’s small but spacious house off Arnold Drive and knocked on the door.

Up to that point I had been arguing with myself over the most appropriate way to conduct the service. I mean, I knew the liturgy inside and out. But I didn’t know what to say to the people inside. What words of wisdom or comfort could I offer? For one thing, I’m not very wise, and for another, words aren’t all that comforting. For this reason, Jewish tradition teaches us that when we visit a mourner, we don’t say anything – we let them say something first, if they want. But when I knocked on the door, that all sounded trite to me — and all I could feel was afraid.

But Gail’s family – her husband, brother, mom, sister and assorted relatives – welcomed me warmly into the house. Some of our fellow congregants were there, too, to help make the minyan. They didn’t seem to know any more than I did what we should be doing. So we did what we thought best – we got out the prayer books and began the service.

I had never met Gail. And after the service, I didn’t speak – I listened. I learned a lot about her that night – her love of dogs and people, of writing, of her husband and family. Her infectious laugh and broad sense of humor. What sort of impression she made on the world of those who knew her – and what sort of hole remained when she left. By turns, we all laughed, and cried, and sat thoughfully, and then finished the service and said our goodbyes. When I went back the next night, it was like meeting old friends. And when I left again, I felt that I too had lost a friend – one that I had never known.

Let’s take a moment to look around the room.

We may not know each other, but we all have something in common. All of us have been touched by someone who isn’t here any more. We can see it in each other’s eyes, hear it in each other’s breathing, and know it in each other’s hearts. We don’t need to speak it in order to know it – we just have to be here.

In that way, I think the lives which touched us individually also touch us as a community. We learned something from these people – we carry them with us wherever we go – and whether or not we’re aware of it, we pass a part of them along to everyone we meet.

As I said, I never met Gail Lutolf. But she taught me two valuable lessons about connection.

The first is that, like an endless chain of relay racers, we are the link between those who came before us, and those whom we ourselves will leave behind. We stand in the center, holding hands with the future and with the past. And this is true whether or not we see it.

The second is that those links are easier to spot than we may think. In fact, they’re as close as the person sitting next to us – if only we learn how to listen.

Trial By Fire Trainer

The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t see or hear anything. And on top of that, I could barely breathe.

My knees and hands already hurt from the rough steel floor. The hose I was helping to drag weighed a ton, despite that the two other guys in front of me knew what they were doing and were holding up their end better than I was. When I tried to lift my head, my helmet smacked against the top of the airtank cinched on my back, forcing me to look at the floor or squat back on my heels. But I was previously told to stay as low as I could, so that didn’t seem like a good idea. In any case, my face mask was halfway fogged up, so all I could see — and that dimly — was a dull red glow at an indeterminate distance ahead.

The man closest to me, who had previously told me to stay an arm’s length behind him, turned his head in my direction. “Flaghhh! Flagghhn!” he shouted above the muffled white noise of fire and smoke generators and the clicking whine of my airtank.

“What? I can’t hear you!” I replied.

He gestured me forward, then put his mask close to mine. “Flagghn toff the fire!” he said urgently, and crawled forward.

I scooted forward along with him, crawling past a sheet of flame under the stairs to my right and toward the further glow which resolved itself into an upward-licking fountain of fire boiling up to and against the ceiling.

The man in front of him aimed the hose nozzle at the fountain. Through my soaking leather gloves, I felt the canvas tube jerk softly as he opened the nozzle, sweeping it in an arc parallel to the floor.

My breathing became labored and painful. I felt like I was trying to suck the whole airtank into my mouth with each desperate breath. My chest hurt and I fought the urge to claw the constricting mask from my face.

“I can’t breathe!” I shouted.

No one heard me.

I tapped the shoulder of the man in front of me. He leaned toward me, a caricatured shadow against the leaping flame behind him.

“I can’t breathe!” I repeated.

I’m not sure what happened next. I think he managed to hear me, and communicate my distress to the man in front of him, then pointed behind me. Somehow or other, I found myself crawling toward the door by which we’d entered, keeping my right hand on the wall so I wouldn’t get disoriented. The safety officer opened the door for me, and I stood up and outside in one motion, trying calmly but desperately to reach the fresh sweet air millimeters away on the other side of my protective headgear.

Succeeding with careful dignity, I inhaled deeply and walked over to sit down on a low brick wall edging some bushes behind the Valley of the Moon main firehouse.

It was 8:30 a.m., Sunday, April 28, 2002. I had just had my first real taste of structural firefighting, and I felt like a wuss.

Cut to a month or so earlier…

When I first returned to the Index-Tribune and was heartily reacquainting myself with the “fire guys,” I was discussing what I’d missed with a longtime and close contact who had since become the training officer for the entire Valley fire service. He’s one of the local “old-timers” hereabouts, one of four or six with whom I used to chat (frequently and happily) and who exude the quietly confident competence that’s particular to people who have done what they love for so long that it’s first nature to them. The annual Valley volunteer fire academy was just starting up, and as I love to write the stories behind the stories — especially about the fire guys, who before Sept. 11 were commonly perceived to be doing nothing all day except waiting for the alarm to ring — I asked him if there would be anything particularly interesting to tell people about.

“Well, we’ll be having the fire trailer come down here,” he said. “How do you feel about putting on turnouts and an SCBA and doing some live fire training?”

I replied as I usually do (and as he and everyone else in the Valley fire service expects) when a similar suggestion is made.

“Cooooool!” I breathed. “When?”

The arrangements were made, and we spoke again a day or two beforehand.

“Should I bring my yellows?” I asked, referring to the wildland turnouts (Nomex protective clothing), emblazoned “PRESS,” which I wear when covering big grass fires.

“No,” he said. “Structural firefighting is a whoooole different ballgame.”

Something in the way he said that sent a tickle of apprehension through my brain. He asked me if I was claustrophobic and if I’d ever done any scuba diving, then when I said “no,” asked if I felt okay about using a SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus, or airtank and mask) with only five minutes’ instruction.

“Yes,” I said, wondering what I was getting into. Then he asked me for my shoe, pant and jacket sizes, and said he’d also get me some gloves and a helmet.

I arrived at the VOM station around 8 a.m. to find a couple of dozen men standing around the main engine bay in various states of firefighter undress, checking airtanks and other equipment and making small talk. My contact introduced me to one of the fire captains (we both felt we’d met before, but couldn’t tell) who proceeded to suit me up and briefly train me in the art of how to stay alive and breathing inside a burning building.

First I tried on the boots, then the jacket, then took off the boots and jacket so I could pull the boot-tops up inside the pants and put both on in two smooth motions. This is why the protective gear is called “turnouts” — you keep them at the foot of your stationhouse bunk so that when you turn out to answer the alarm at 3 a.m., you can slide into the boots and pull the pants up to your waist, slipping the suspenders (yes, they’re red) over your shoulders. I donned the coat, slipping my thumbs through the loops in the ends of the sleeves which keep the sleeves from riding up and exposing bare arm-flesh to the flame’s tender kiss. Everything fit me as though it had been tailored. I told the firefighters that Ann wanted to know if I could borrow the turnouts for the evening, and they laughed heartily and knowingly.

Next, a white Nomex hood went over my head and bunched down around my neck. The breathing mask went on, held by netting and straps and surprisingly forming a tight seal despite my short beard. Then the Nomex hood was pulled up over my neck and the top of my head, slightly obscuring the edges of the faceplate which had already begun to fog slightly.

The fire captain explained the workings of the SCBA tank — how to turn it on, how to connect it to the mask, how to disconnect it without losing any of its 20-minute air supply. After a quick run-through, we left the bay and walked toward the Mobile Live Fire Trainer parked behind the station.

This was a huge blue semi trailer with a six-foot by eight-foot hut sitting on top, which I later learned was one of the simulator’s three rooms — the upper “bedroom,” connected by internal stairs to a “kitchen” and “hazmat storage area” (think “paintcan-filled garage”) below. Propane jets and peanut-oil burners provided the fire and smoke inside the non-flammable trailer. As explained by the man in charge of the simulator, the captain and I and one other firefighter were to be a team which would go inside the “house,” crawl past a burning wall to knock down the fire in the hazmat area, pull back, climb the burning stairs to quench the bedroom (after passing our hands under the “bed” to check for “victims”), then reverse course downstairs and douse the kitchen.

As narrated at the beginning of this piece, I didn’t do so well. But our team was one of several cruising through the simulator in various rotations, so I vowed to do better on the next session. (The captain and other firefighter, who had completed their rotation without me, graciously told me I wasn’t at all a wimp and asked me if I wanted to be nozzleman on our next attack. I told them I’d think about it.) Meanwhile, I had caught my breath, and walked around doing my reporter thing, talking to some people I knew and a few I didn’t. (I always enjoy that part, and sprinkled with the interviews were quite a few “Welcome back!”s from people I didn’t know I had missed when I was away.)

The next rotation was a slightly different scenario: We were to climb an external ladder to the bedroom, carefully enter it (“There’s a foot-and-a-half drop that’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful,” warned the trainer), knock down the flames against the far wall, then proceed down the burning stairs, make a hairpin right into the corridor leading to the garage, douse the garage, then double back into the kitchen and put out the fire there. The captain asked me again if I wanted to be the nozzleman, and I heard myself saying, “Sure.”

I climbed the ladder, connected my airtank to the face mask, and stood waiting while the other members of my team flaked out the hose on top of the trailer. Now that I had been through this already, and had learned of the simulator’s fool-proof safety features, I was a bit more prepared. I realized that my earlier breathing problems weren’t caused by panic so much as ignorance — I had never used an airtank or been in a situation where I had to regulate my breathing, so I took steady, deep breaths as we prepared to go inside.

I pushed open the door to the burning bedroom, stepped over the edge and crouched low on the deck, clutching the hose and nozzle with my right arm and hand while my left grasped the nozzle-release lever. Take that, I thought as I opened the hose.

The water blasted into the base of the flame-wall on the other side of the room. “Sweep it!” came the muffled yell from the fire captain behind me. I slowly swept the nozzle from side to side, quickly dousing the fire.

Wow, I thought. That’s pretty cool.

“Down the stairs!” shouted the captain over the omnipresent din.

I crawled forward and paused at the brink, seeing flames licking a foot or two below me. “Just go ahead!” he shouted, barely audible.

I slowly descended the stairs, dropped to hands and knees, and, waved on by the safety officer sitting in the corner, turned right 180 degrees and dragged the hose with me.

This time I paid attention to my breathing, which while still labored was a lot less difficult. Approaching the flaming garage like Charles Atlas’ reborn 98-pound weakling returning to face the beachfront bully, I braced against the wall to my left and opened the nozzle.

“Closer!” shout-whispered the captain behind me.

I scooted a bit closer, directing the water jet toward what I thought was the base of the flames slightly above the garage floor. But I couldn’t see through the thick smoke! I could see my hands holding the hose, and I could bloody well see the fire, but the water jet might as well have been invisible. I swept it back and forth anyway, but nothing happened.

The captain’s hands reached around me, pulling the nozzle sharply upward. I saw the flames billow back against the aqueous intrusion, nodded, and swept with gusto. The flames flickered, hung on for about 20 seconds, then went out. Gotcha, I thought, shutting off the nozzle.

Then a fresh sheet of fire broke out about three feet above the first, washing the ceiling in lambent scarlet. I swore, then attacked it in calm fury.

When that enemy had been routed, I swore again when the lower bank re-ignited. But I grimly set to the task a third time, wondering if this was one of the unpredictable conditions faced by firefighters when they’re doing this for real.

Slowly, I became aware of a burning sensation at two points on my left cheek. With alarm, I realized it was the metal buckles on my face-mask straps beginning to heat up. If they don’t get any hotter, I’ll be okay, I thought. Uncomfortable, but okay. I continued spraying the burning garage wall.

They began to get really hot. Painfully so.

DAMN IT! I screamed to myself. Here we go again. I continued sweeping the garage wall, and when it was finally out, I motioned to the captain. “My face is burning,” I shouted calmly, tapping my face. “I think I need to leave.”

He nodded, then shouted “Back out and up the stairs!”

I didn’t know he meant that literally. The flames extinguished, I dropped the hose (breaking rule #1, as I learned later) and turned my back on the now-smoking garage (breaking rule #2), headed down the corridor, climbed the stairs and went through the bedroom to the sunny Sunday morning outside.

Postscript: As I told a couple of longtime fire service contacts before I left the VOM station, “I’ve been covering the fire beat for three years, but I don’t think I really understood it until today. It’s one thing to know this stuff from the outside — it’s quite another to be engulfed by it. And even though I’ve pretty much understood why you guys do this, I didn’t understand how. Thanks for shooting my personal learning curve through the roof!”