DANCING WITH CANCER (part 4) – Grateful For This

This is Part 4 of the series, Dancing With Cancer. Here is Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. More here and here.

On December 20th, 2002, I arrived back in Los Angeles from a 6 week work trip in central Europe. That next morning I woke up with a pulsing pain that reached from my right kidney down to my groin.  There was something about it, this pain, something about how deep it felt in my body and the resonance of it, the way it carried through my system. This was something new, something untold. It didn’t have a beginning or an end, it had a pulsing quality to it and felt ‘eroding’. The pain persisted throughout the holidays, then soon after the new year I had a first visit to the doctor.

Over the next 4 weeks the news went from ‘nothing’ to ‘maybe something but not major’ to ‘something there but no worries’ to ‘you need to see an oncologist’. I was introduced to oncologist Carol Nishikubo at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, CA, a kind and caring woman who took her time with me, answered my questions, ordered more tests and when she realized how my condition was beyond the scope of her abilities to diagnosis and treat, referred me to the next and higher level of the medical gods.

Around the end of the first week in February, 2003, I found myself at UCLA Medical, in the office of Fred Eilber, chief surgeon of the oncology department. What I remember most about meeting Fred for the first time was his handshake, it was firm and solid, and I liked the way he looked me in the eye – there was a moment of recognition between us, something that said, ‘I know you and you know me’. Fred took the envelope of x-rays I had brought with me and left the room.  He returned five minutes later, brought the lights down a bit and gave me the news, flat out and straight up. He said it was serious, a leiomyosarcoma in my inferior vena cava, that I had 6 months max to live and how was Tuesday of next week to operate?

Right then a lot of things hit me at once, but most of all I knew how Fred’s frank delivery was reserved for someone like me, someone who he knew could take the news in this way.  I was a tough guy and he knew it. I was smart and I was a fighter and he knew that also. When I said to Fred, “Ok, I understand…let me think about”, Fred reached out and placed his hand squarely on my shoulder, gave a firm squeeze and said, “Doug, you don’t have time to think about it.  If I could I’d operate tomorrow, that’s how serious this is.”

From somewhere in the small cubicle of Fred’s office, there in the bowels of UCLA oncology, the wind begin to howl in my ears and over my skin, it ran through me, hot like a fire in my veins and forced me to recognize the size and scope of the moment and in an odd and determined kind of way it reminded me how I’d been here before, at this door swinging between two worlds, sitting square in the face of something larger than myself. Life is big and wide and deep. You either do or you don’t, you will or you won’t, you either make it or break it. At once I saw the depth of it all, how far I would be falling, how steep I would have to climb, how long the road of return would be.

On the drive home, back to Venice from UCLA, I thought most of all about my daughters, Malia Luna and Bailey Rye, who at the time were 12 and 11 years old.  What to say…how to assure them…

Turns out, when you’re a father, there is no choice but to be a hero; you set your sights high, aimed squarely on the mountain top of recovery and return, and make your way there through the fog and the pain and the cold and the night. You may lose sight but that’s ok, you keep going, one step forward, then another.  You fall and get dusted, then you crawl until you pick yourself up and wheel a turn against every grain of pain to get there, back where you began to begin again, back to a place of breath and love and light and air. This is how life is.

A year later, having found myself teetering on the edge of recovery’s road, my daughter Bailey came home from school and gave me a printout of this essay she wrote for a class at school. Her words lifted me like hot air in a big balloon and I wept, realizing how great this gift of life is and how magical it is we even breathe at all, and how God IS Love, and Grace and Beauty, all at once.

By Bailey Rye:

Like most children, I have been influenced by both my parents, and I admire them both tremendously, but in this case I want to talk about my father and how he overcame his difficulties.

Last year, my father was told he had maybe six months to live. They said he had terminal cancer, and even after they had removed his kidney, he would still die. It was a really rare cancer, and not many people have had it, but the ones that had, have not survived. It was a really awful surgery, and he went through a lot of pain, but through all of this, my father seemed really confident, and that everything would be all right. Instead of us telling him it was going to be okay, he was the one who was telling us. He told my sister and I that he knew he was going to get through it no matter what the doctors said, and something about the way he said it, made me believe him. And not just because I wanted to, it was because there was something in him that made me feel confident and safe. And he made me feel as though he might know more than the doctors did.

It turned out he did know more than they did, at least in terms of himself. Luckily for us, my father isn’t dead. Far from it. He is now completely free of cancer, and has a free bill of heath. Even when everything was against him, my father stayed positive and determined. He remained certain of his own recovery. I am sure my father was frightened sometimes, but that didn’t did not stop him from doing everything he could to get well, and looking into as many ways as he could to get rid of the cancer. He never gave up, he never lost hope, and he believed things would turn out right in the end, and they did. These are the qualities I admire in my father. I hope he has influenced me. I hope by being around him through this terrible illness, that his heroic spirit has rubbed off on me, because that is what my dad is, he is a hero to me.

Thanks for tuning in…
Doug Lewis
April 20, 2012

Malia Luna, Doug Lewis, Bailey Rye
Image by Cara Tompkins 

Bailey Rye

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DANCING WITH CANCER (part 3): The Kindness of Strangers – Mel Gibson at the VAC

This is part 3 in an ongoing series titled Dancing With Cancer. Here is Part 1 and Part 2. The introduction to this series and to this blog is available here.

It was mid-December, 2009 when Mel Gibson and his then girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva knocked on the door of the Venice Arts Club in Venice, CA. Mel had heard about the VAC through Michael Ruppert, a regular at the VAC and a founding member of the New White Trash, one of several music projects produced by the VAC. Being a Sunday evening, it was a slow night, with perhaps only a half-dozen people in the studio. I answered the door, greeted Mel and Oxana then ushered them through the studio and into the backyard where a fire was blazing in the outdoor firepit.

I can tell much about people according to how they react to the VAC dogs, especially to Squishy, a pit bull with a poker face.  It’s typical of Squishy to wait until the other dogs have made their introductions before coming around and introducing himself.  His big mug can be intimidating, and on more than one occasion someone visiting the VAC has refused to enter, simply because of catching sight of Squishy.  This was not the case with Mel, who, upon spotting Squishy, let out a big chuckle and made his way over and introduced himself to the Squish.

It was a great start to a fun evening, all of us sitting around the fire, telling stories, playing music. Oksana explained how she was looking to re-mix a track off of her recently released album, Beautiful Heartache, and would the VAC be interested in the project?  In getting to know Mel, it turned out we had both lived in the same area of Sydney (Paddington) at the same time back in the late 70’s.  I mentioned Zelda the ‘cat lady’ and he knew exactly who I was speaking of.  Small world. Mel took a genuine interest in the years I spent fishing on the Great Barrier Reef, turned out his love of Australia was equal to mine.

Somehow Mel and I got on to speaking about my bouts with cancer.  When I told him I had twice been given 6 months to live and had pulled through on both occasions, he let out a low whistle, put his arm on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and just kind of nodded his head.  And that was that, no more was said about it.

A short while later Venice guitar god Michael Jost showed up, unpacked his axe and played for all of us.  Fortunately, mix-guru Andy Kravitz was in the house, at the board, and was able to capture the moment.  From that, CAMPFIRE SONG was born and now appears on Volume 6 of the VAC MUSIC PROJECT. Mel makes a cameo appearance at the end of the song with some words of praise for Jost’s playing. Around about midnight, Mel and Oksana said their goodbyes and drove off. And so ended another evening at the VAC.

The next morning around 10am my phone rang from a number I didn’t recognize. I answered and said hello.
“Doug, it’s Mel.  Thanks for last night. How are you?”
“Mel? Fine, how’s everything?”  My mind was racing; having figured that he or Oksana had left something behind I walked outside to check the grounds for anything stray or out of place. “What’s up?” I asked.
“Doug, I want you to come up to my house, there’s some people I want you to meet.” Mel asked if I could make it the next day. I said yes, he gave me the address and said see you then.

I spent the rest of that day thinking, WTF? My first thought was that I had mentioned to him about an Australian writer he had never heard of and that he wanted more info.  So the next day, armed with that writers book, I drove up to Malibu and found his house.  Mel greeted me at the front door, gave me a bear hug and invited me in. He then introduced me to his family, who were there for the holidays, including his kids, his sister and  his father.  Mel then ushered me into another room where a team of health care practitioners were waiting to discuss my health/cancer concerns and offer advice and information on various forms of treatment.  After a while, Mel stuck his head in and asked me if I was hungry.  I said sure. He went into his kitchen and proceeded to make me a sandwich which he brought on a tray with an iced tea!

This went on for several days, each day I would meet with experts in the field of health and healing, all of whom had insightful information  about treating cancer and maintaining my health. And each day Mel would offer me whatever it was I wanted in the way of food and drink.

In the end I realized there was no motive to Mel Gibson’s generosity, he was simply doing what he was able for someone in need of what he had to offer through what he could arrange.  His cause for concern followed by his acts of kindness were genuine and touching and real.  I am sorry to hear about his ongoing troubles.  The Mel Gibson I know has a heart as big as a house and a warm and generous spirit geared towards sharing light and love.

Doug Lewis
April 16, 2012

CAMPFIRE SONG – Venice Arts Club Music Project

VAC BACKYARD  Image by Cara Tompkins

MICHAEL JOST at VAC  Image by Cara Tompkins

SQUISHY!

SQUISHY.2  Image by Cara Tompkins

DOUG LEWIS  Image by Malia Luna

 DL AND SQUISHY  Image by Cara Tompkins


DANCING WITH CANCER (part 2) – “You Must Do The Thing You Cannot Do”

As described in the ABOUT section of this blog, in 2006 I was confronted with what felt like, at the time, insurmountable odds relative to my survival. Cancer (Cancy Wancy) had again come-a-calling and brought with it a diagnosis similar to the one received back in 2003 – 6 months,  max. (Dancing With Cancer, Part 1 is here).

Some things you write down, a word, a clue, a quote, a statement, and like a raft on a sea you cling to those words, that idea, in much the same way a shipwrecked sailor clings to a point of light on a darkened horizon, as a way forward and a direction home through the fog of long night. I remember always a conversation I had thirty years ago with my friend, the jewelry designer, Esmeralda Gordon.  We were chatting about one thing or another, philosophically speaking, when Ez said to me, “you know, Mr. Dougie, it’s not about survival, it’s about development.  Another friend, Mark Bautzer, chimed in, “that’s right, baby, it’s all about evolution.”

This thought, this idea of survival vs development, or evolution, has served me in such a way as to provide distinction and clarification through times of personal trouble and uncertainty. It has allowed me to move forward into unguarded territory and to surrender myself to the situation at hand, to commit to the effort and embrace the experience of developing an expanded set of tools, a way of thinking, a path of proceeding past the edge of the darkness and beyond the seen into a realm of accepting what unknown lies ahead.

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt

FOUR, the final album of the FELL MUSIC PROJECT,  is a diary of my second turn on the dance floor with Cancy Wancy.  The final song on FOUR, titled XYZ, relates directly to the above enlightened quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. For me, issues of  survival and development are related not only to an acceptance of my personal situation but to meaningful aspects of personal growth. I would not wish my journey on anyone, nor would I trade it for anything.  Living and dying several times in this one lifetime has provided a unique and extrasensory perspective. Thanks for tuning in.

Doug Lewis
041412

FELL MUSIC – XYZ

XYZ

Been running on the high
Temperature side
Breaking out in wet chills and hot sweats
Skin burns silver, red – too hot to touch
Doctor comes in, light goes down says
You may have a year – What was that sound

When the night falls
You just have to look it in the eye
Like you’re staring down the barrel of a gun
Staring at the sun
And it’s buring you away

Headed through a nigh turn
Driving home, I’m alone and thinking
Trails of taillights snake and burn
Some freeway flashers blinking
Everybody lies – it’s true
But when there’s no one left to lie to
No one left to fool, no one left but you

What’s that sound
When the night falls 

You just have to take it for a ride
Down the center of the other side
Down the center of the middle
And it’s blowing you away

I need someone warm to stay with me
With a kind heart, the gentle touch of someone sweet
I’m alright, I know where the light is
I know the cost, I won’t get lost
I need someone warm to stay with me

What was that sound
You just have to make another start
Somewhere from the center of your heart
Like you’re staring down the barrel of a gun
And it’s blowing you away

DOUG LEWIS

FELL MUSIC


DANCING WITH CANCER – The Waiting Room

Leaving UCLA Cancer Clinic, I do what probably most people would do upon receiving very bad news. I sit down. Outside. I should say, we sit down, the cancer and I, me and Cancy Wancy.  The year is 2003.  We would meet again in June of 2006, but for now, with all options considered and after much research and opinion, the operation would go ahead on Valentines Day, 2003.

In any waiting room, there is the feeling of being immersed in an altered state. But the cancer wing is experienced on a different dimension – you are at once there and removed.  A feeling of empathy runs deep and goes out to all those waiting for their name to be called.

This is a self-portrait of me in the waiting room. Probably not one of my better days; hard to tell what’s going on behind the Persol’s.

Around this same time I created this piece of fridge-art. It became my mantra and gave me confidence to carry on.