The Ouchiest

House of Pain
House of Pain


It was the tumour that broke the camel’s back. I was the camel.

One evening last week, I was reading a book (okay, a comic book) when I noticed a slow throb in the middle of my back. By 2 a.m., I lay on the floor, crying. My wife called an ambulance (a 40-minute wait for a 5-minute drive). I waited an hour for a bed, my back spasming the entire time. I yelped, growled and pleaded with my back to “Stop it, stop it, stop it!”  I finally got a bed, where I was reunited with my one true love. Morphine.

The next day, a CT scan found a new tumour had caused a hairline fracture in my seventh vertebrae. I am awaiting stereotactic radiation to eliminate the tumour.

I told Robin how the fracture felt like I was growing knife-edged angel wings. She remarked how much time we’ve spent talking about pain over the past three-and-a-half years.

It’s true. Before cancer, my pain threshold had been established through a hiking-related back injury. Since then, I’ve pushed that threshold again and again.

First, I suffered lightning bolts down my left leg, where the undetected tumour pushed against my sciatic nerve. After my first lung surgery, I felt a deep, sharp stab every time I moved. Morphine got me through two weeks of a sizzling radiation burn on my thigh. I have spent two days on a couch, unable to stand because a blood clot felt like needles being pushed through my legs. I’ve awoken in the middle of the night with chemo-related cramps that imploded my calves.

I can even rank them, pain-wise: 1) the broken back, 2) the lung resection, 3) the radiation burn, 4) the calf cramps, 5) the initial tumour, 6) the blood clot. That earlier hiking injury — once the greatest pain I had ever known — now ranks a lowly seventh.

There are silver linings. When I get my next blood clot, I can tell myself  “Could be worse. Could be a (see 1 through 5).”

I’ve also become a connoisseur of pain medication. Percocet? It’s okay. Oxycodone? Meh. Morphine? “You had me at hello.”

Also, I can play “Would you rather…?” really well. Example: “Would you rather have a spinal fracture or a radiation burn?”

I can answer that.

But I would love to stop playing.

The other half




Indulge me please. This is a love letter.


I planned dinner and a movie. Instead, you got to sit up with me waiting for the ambulance. I was the one on the floor, squirming. You got to visit me early the next morning, where a doctor explained how a new spinal tumour has  cracked  a vertebrae. So it goes, being married to one of the cancerous.

Just over six years ago, I promised to love you, make you laugh and grow old with you. I meant every word. We have had fun, travelled, built a household and created an affectionate, funny, mischievous  little boy.

You also got some things you did not sign on for. I am often cranky or tired, depending on my chemo schedule. We have lost some things financially, and we’ve added an asterisk to each of our dreams (*should not extend beyond three months at a time. )

Those are just the concrete things. I know you have fears you hold close to your chest. You don’t talk about it much, but I’m sure they’re there. You did not sign on to become a widow in your 40s or to raise Will on your own. Maybe you worry about being lonely. I know that if things don’t go well for me, I don’t have to stick around for the consequences. You have the harder job.

Please know that I am not worried about you. I see how you juggle multiple clients and contracts. I watch you engage people with your warmth, humour and curiosity. I watch you care for a young boy, an aging dog and a sick husband. Above all, I see how gleefully you play with Will, making crafts, lining up toy trains, tickling him. Those moments tell me Will’s future is secure.

As was so evident this week, you are the glue, the rock, the load-bearing bridge (Women love to be compared to infrastructure.) You make what we are going through so much easier.

I wish I could promise you a lifetime of fun. I do promise to give you that in heaps, for as long as I can. After that, you will have memories to make you smile, and a son who will make you laugh. (“I’m Will. I tell jokes about poop.”)

Thank you for absolutely everything.

And Happy Birthday!

Team Will


The one thing I most want to give Will is advice. Wisdom. Unfortunately, it’s hard to teach a four-year-old about  personal debt. I could tell him a second mortgage is like The Joker: evil and impossible to destroy.

I may not be around to teach him these lessons when he’s old enough to understand them. I write him letters to read when he’s older, but these are still limited by the quality and quantity of my knowledge. Fortunately, many of these lessons have also been expressed by writers who are more eloquent and more dead than me.

I will leave him a reading list, one that includes Kipling’s If  (“If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs…”) or Polonius’ fatherly advice in Hamlet (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be….”) The problem with that last one is that I still remember the musical version of Hamlet the castaways staged in an episode of Gilligan’s Island. For the young folks reading this, Gilligan’s Island was like a 1960s version of Lost, but without all the …. everything.

I especially admired something I read in a recent local obituary:

“If ever there is a tomorrow when we’re not together… you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’lll always be with you.” — Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne)

I know he will also find his own way to many great books, where wisdom is abundant, from Raymond Chandler to Saul Bellow.

Best of all, I am reassured by Team Will. These are friends, grandparents and others who I expect to fill Will’s head, expand his world and shape his character. They are as old as my mother, who can tell him about growing up when everyone was poor, or even how to read (she was a teacher).  They are as young as Keaton, a three-year-old friend who is all boy and is already teaching Will how to roughhouse joyously.

Our son is insulated deep within that circle of good, wise people. I am Will’s dad but, if need be, we are Will’s dad.

He can’t go wrong.