Valar morghulis

Translated: “All men must die,” in High Valyrian from the fantastic book and HBO series, Game of Thrones. The customary response to this greeting is “Valar dohaeris (all men must serve.)” They are two sides of the same coin.

I only think of this because I received my amazon pre-order I placed yonks ago of Game of Thrones Season 5 recently. I’m watching the season that portrays the book I was reading exactly 2 years ago while I was on holiday in Singapore and the Philippines. I still remember not being able to leave my hotel room in Quezon City in Manila because I was trying to finish A Dance with Dragons, despite being in a new city with so much to explore.

On March 13, my cousin Larry was admitted to the hospital for symtpoms that eventually led to a diabetes diagnosis. Just to be safe, as any doctor would have done, they ordered cat scans to rule out what they could. Those brain scans showed multiple tumors on my cousin’s brain, growing at an aggressive rate. On March 22, he had surgery to remove the two largest tumors on his brain forming one large one, basically.

Today, as he has the past couple days, he’s sleeping most of the time. There is a large amount of water in his brain. He’s supposed to be healing and rehabbing to get strong for a course of chemotherapy and radiation 4 weeks after his surgery. We wanted him to be strong to continue the fight, so he could have begun treatment as early as 2 weeks, but the doctors recommended 4 weeks.

Tonight, the outlook that he’ll make it another 2 weeks is bleak. I’ve been prepared by two separate family members that he’s on his way out. My cousin is dying.

Since I came back from Australia, I’ve flown back to Rome, NY, where most of my mom’s side of the family lives twice: once in June of 2014, when I first came back, and again in December 2015, for the holidays. Both times, I hung out with my cousin Larry the most out of anyone, besides my mother with whom I was staying. He made an effort to spend quality time with me, after all, he told me I’m the only cousin he really hung out with. My generation in my mom’s family has 6 kids, so I have 5 cousins. To some that’s a lot; to others, that is so very few. I was only close to Larry and his younger brother in that group of us. They were older than me, but I always hung out with them when I’d go back to New York for family trips. I went back once at 8, and again at 16, then perhaps not again til I was 32. Exponential family time, here…

I remember being 8, in a shed in back of the house where my cousins lived. They were probably 13 and 17. They were playing Dungeons and Dragons with other teenage boys, and my mom had sent me out to go hang out with them in the un-air-conditioned hothouse that was that shed. They were smoking cigarettes, but I didn’t tell. I channel that moment in Donnie Darko where Donnie asks his sister what’ll happen if she tells mom he’s smoking. “You’ll put Ariel in the garbage disposal,” she replies. “Goddamn right, I will…”

Both times I was back in Rome recently, I shared laughs and memories with my cousin. This was one of the best photos I showed him while we were shooting the shit at the dining room table, and he laughed so hard, and still said it nearly everytime I talked to him.

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Here he is, clowning around at the dining room table in a wig I found lying around the house he lived in with his mom and dad, my aunt and uncle.

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The last two times I’ve been back to visit family in 2014 and 2015, we’ve gone to the Outback Steakhouse. Everyone orders prime rib but his daughter (2nd row from the front, to the right of him) and me. He ordered prime rib and crab or lobster. Surf and turf.

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And this is a great photo of my cousin probably making a crass comment, his younger brother Steven laughing, and his father and namesake (my uncle Larry) folding his arms in pretend discontent but real happiness being surrounded by his sons sharing a moment.

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This has all progressed so quickly. The cancer is aggressive, and he may not make it to the 4-week mark for the all-clear post surgery to begin chemo and radiation treatment. He’s fighting for his life right now. I don’t know if he stands a chance or not.

My heart is heavy with the weight of many more memories I haven’t shared here. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my family is small, but it is mine. It’s not perfect. And when something happens to someone I’m related to and with whom I’m also close, it penetrates all walls and invades, no matter the armor I wear.

I sit here, hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. I feel like so many others, he too will become lost in the chasm of all the other statistics, with words like “Fuck cancer,” and “It’s not fair,” swirling in my head.

I don’t know that he ever boarded a plane and left his hometown. He had a day job, and it was hard work. The pay was crap, but he found meaningful ways to contribute. He lived with his mom and dad, and contributed to this world via a daughter he loved with all his heart. He never asked for much, and he was someone content to be part of the garden, but never the star.

A friend of mine unexpectedly lost her mother on March 25. She’d had some seizures, then the doctors told her it was an infection and it’d gotten too far, and the next thing she knew, her mother was gone. True, that moved a lot quicker than my cousin’s demise, but it still seems so fast. My family is made of people built like brick shithouses. They rarely get sick. Nothing ever happens. We’re as boring and normal as can be. This has thrown everyone for a loop, and we’re all coping the best we can. For some, that’s not very well. Up until today, for me, I was utilizing the pure art of distraction. There is no distracting myself anymore.

Valar morghulis. Valar dohaeris.


A storm to eclipse all other storms

The storm clouds roll in for a severe thunderstorm as predicted by all the weather apps on my phone. Yesterday 65mph winds tore through the state, downing trees, cutting power, and chilling me to my very core for the time I spent outside in it. My only thought right now, watching it approach and envelop is, “Good,” as it adequately reflects my mood.

Adulthood really is like looking both ways for cars before you cross the street, only to be hit by an airplane. Saturday, I got some bad news about my cousin. I’m only close with two of my cousins and he’s one of them. He hasn’t been feeling well for about a month or so, and finally went to the doctor. The doctor had him admitted to the hospital right away due to super high glucose levels, somewhere around 230 when they should be 90. Scientific measurements that seem too clinical to be real. Long story short, after a bunch of tests, the doctors diagnosed him with diabetes, then said he has a virus affecting his pancreas which could also be affecting the glucose, so it may not be diabetes. Symptoms could subside once the infection goes away, but he’s responding well to insulin treatments.

They also did cat scans and MRI’s and found “masses” on his brain. Now, after getting results from a few more tests, they’re no longer calling them masses, but tumors. And there are a lot of them. All over, some close to his brain stem, which would be inoperable. What I’ve heard is the doctors ran tests on the rest of his body and it didn’t spread from somewhere else, as there is no cancer elsewhere in his body.

He’s terrified, and doesn’t usually show his emotions, but he’s been crying and telling us he loves us. He’s only about 9 yrs older than me so he’s the first in our generation to have any problems – but he is the oldest of my cousins and me. The doctor has suggested chemotherapy for those tumors near his brain stem, and they’ll also have to operate on some of the others. And they can’t commence any operation until the diabetes is fully stabilized. Well, fuck.

My family is small, but it is mine. When something happens to someone I love, shit gets real. I don’t have family members to spare, I mean, not that anyone does. A life is a life. He’s my blood. And he’s a good guy. Sure, he swears a lot, and he’s not perfect. But he’s always tried to do the right thing. He’s been a great dad, involved in raising his daughter. He goes to work everyday, when he’s not in the hospital, and it’s not a glorious job. People probably don’t thank him nearly enough.

More news came along this evening which bears an update: it’s an aggressive form of cancer, and while no evidence can be found elsewhere in his body, the way his brain is reacting (swelling, etc.) indicates it’s moving quickly and likely spread from elsewhere. He has surgery scheduled for Monday to extract as much of the two large masses near each other forming one large mass, but for the at least 4 other masses and other lesions, chemo will need to be done. However, no course of treatment can be determined until the mass is extracted and studied. The large masses are on his temporal lobe, which controls speech and language, but there are also some on his cerebellum which ultimately control motor skills. Since he’s left handed, and the masses are on the side of his brain that controls his dominant side, extra caution and precision will be required in Monday’s surgery.

The deluge of information from different sources is a lot to handle right now, and the story changes as we go, and depending who I talk to. My uncle also had surgery scheduled for next week, for a couple of months now, so now, more than ever, my family will have to learn to pull for one another, be strong, and come together.

Lightning. Thunder. Rain. Anger. Sadness. Support. Strength. Tears. Shock.

The storm never presented lightning or thunder from what I experienced this evening on my commute home. Maybe the worst case scenario doesn’t always present itself, despite forecasts and best guesses. I don’t know how things will be on the other side of next week, but sometimes, the only way out is through. Hold on folks, the ride’s about to get bumpy.

And in the mean time, love your family and the one you’re with tonight. Even if it’s just yourself. Things may not be perfect, but you’re breathing, you’re alive, and you’re still here. This isn’t the first time this has happened to a family, nor will it be the last. I’m glad my cousin went to the doctor when he did, or else they may not have discovered this in time to do something about it, and it would be far worse. So also, when you feel like shit, and think going to the doctor is a pain in the ass, just bite the bullet and go. It could save your life.

Sending out love to the world, so it comes back around. I feel so many feelings tonight. When my father passed away, I was halfway around the world in Australia. Now, more bad things happen to people I care about when I’m on the other side of the country. There’s nothing I can do from so far away, except lend support, talk, text message, communicate, and calm my family down whilst their world turns upside down. It’s easy to be strong when distanced. Even if I don’t feel very strong. We all contribute and help how we can. Like Mr. Fred Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Memories of dad

My dad passed away on June 13, 2013. It’s been 2 years, 3 months, and 6 days. Time has proven an ally in reducing the pain, but there is still a dad-sized hole in my life nothing fills. And dad was a wide, short man. It’s not a small hole.

I went home for the funeral, and while I was there, my mother gave me some of his old shirts that I still have with me today. They hang in my closet, amongst my clothes, but they don’t get worn often, if at all. They’re not on display. They still smell like his closet. They’re just there.

Last night, I wore an old flannel of his to a professional mixer. It was big on me, but comfortable. It would suffice as a “Friday shirt” in a swanky environment. I swear, when I put it on, any social anxiety and awkwardness disappeared. I started conversations and navigated LGBT professionals who got too drunk too fast with ease. I made people laugh. I laughed, too – despite the inner turmoil I’ve been struggling through on a daily basis, especially of late.

I have a memory of him, in that particular flannel, one year when we went to chop down a Christmas tree. We drove along in his truck in silence, listening to a Pink Floyd cassette tape, watching the scenery go by.

I’ve missed him lately. In Sydney, I used to go up on our roof deck, play a Pink Floyd album on my iPhone, and have some champagne or a glass of red. There were 4 chairs in our outdoor furniture set, so I could easily imagine him with me on any one of those chairs. We’d listen to Pink Floyd together and enjoy the silence and the view.

My version of that back in my tiny apartment with no roof access in San Francisco is putting documentaries on Netflix, ones he’d like, being the big National Geographic and public television buff he was. America’s Secrets, Wildest Africa, Antarctica, whatever is available. There’s room on my couch next to me. So when I miss him, he comes here to visit.

I don’t have much to say, I guess it’s just the presence he had in my life. I always knew he was there. He never elbowed for room in my life. He was content to be in the shadows, much like the wind beneath my wings.

He and my mom would have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary tomorrow, September 20. They married in upstate New York in 1975, and I came along almost 6 years later.

It’s something you don’t notice til it’s gone – the invisible love and trust your parents have in you (or in the case of my mother, the much too visible love evidenced by shrines to you all over her home.) When one of those foundational legs is kicked out from underneath you, when there is no more wind beneath your wings, your flight is cancelled. You cannot stand for long on one leg. You try to fill the parent-sized hole in your life, but nothing fits.

If you’re lucky, you have a new family of your own. The pain subsides, knowing you’ve carried on the family name or bloodline with a new generation of which your parent would have been proud.

I am not lucky enough to have that. That hole can make you feel so empty that sometimes you think nothing can ever fill you up again.

No one loves you like your parents. And no one ever will.

Looking forward to leaving

Life has been a little busier than normal lately, between work and basic things like eating and sleeping. I’ve been working quite a lot as it’s my busiest time of year at work. There is an end in sight though, and that end is May 5. That is the date I go on leave for 2 months and head to Europe.

I don’t think I’ve shared my full itinerary with you yet, dear reader. I’ve only just hinted at bits and pieces. Perhaps I shall clue you in now, as it’s one of the main things on my mind, getting me through the days and nights.

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On May 5, I shall board a flight I acquired through use of United award miles for an ungodly low amount, and head to London, UK (1) as my first stop. There I will visit a friend and my former flatmate from Sydney who lives there now. I went to London in 2009 and saw many of the tourist attractions then – Kensington Palace, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Tate Modern; I even saw the crown jewels of Henry VIII that was on display at the time. Therefore, London is about unwinding, detoxing, acclimating to a new time zone, and seeing good people. I’ll have time to deprogram from work and I’ll call London home for about 2 weeks. Then the real adventures begin to countries and cities I have not yet visited.

I depart London on May 21 for 5 days in Paris, France (2), with said flatmate from Sydney. He spoke French in school, and knows many things about the culture. I know next to nothing. I’ve never been to Paris. I was holding out on Paris and most of Italy until I had a romantic significant other, to make the experience that much more enjoyable. However, life is too short to hold out any longer, so I figured it’s time. On the docket in Paris is the Champs-Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre, Notre-Dame cathedral, Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Louvre, Moulin Rouge, and possibly the catacombs (though I’ve heard the last one is actually somewhat illegal, so forget I mentioned that.) I shan’t forget the wine tasting experiences and food to try either – though I doubt escargot will make an appearance. Snails are for throwing, not for eating…

After Paris, my flatmate and I will take a train for 5 days in Rome, Italy (3). After reading the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, I knew just what I wanted to see in Rome – and it’s a loooong list. Too long to include here, but rest assured, I’m going to see the hell out of the city, all the things, and probably get lost a few times, too. There will be pizza, pasta, carbs of all shapes and sizes, balsamic vinegar, serrano ham, buffalo mozzarella, and all kinds of amazing food and drink.

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From Rome, we’ll head back to London for 1 night, and then my flatmate returns to work while I venture elsewhere. I hope to not have a tearful goodbye; rather, I hope to have many more memories of hilarious moments and funny accents with him. Retreating back to London after our Paris/Rome debauchery also allows me to travel lighter in those two locales, and leave my larger luggage in London at his place. I’ll repack my bags and head off on June 1 to Helsinki via Oslo.

In Helsinki, Finland (4), on June 1, I will meet up with a travel buddy from Sydney, a friend I’ve mentioned in my blogs before called “Hank Moody”. Hank and I have a couple days to explore Helsinki, with its Bronze Age historical sites and unique cafes, and then will meet up with my aunt (also formerly mentioned in another blog post), “Auntie Chianti”, before we board a train to St. Petersburg, Russia (5).

I’m very excited for St. Petersburg. I’ve written posts on Russia and the Anastasia adventure I want to have there. The excitement of having obtained a Russian visa, and the contact drunk from being near so much vodka, crescendos with tickets to a Russian ballet production, just a single day after Russia’s national Dostoevsky Day on June 3. While we only have a couple days in Russia, I hope to see the beautiful unique architecture, and hear the husky accents en masse. That is, of course, if they let me in.

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From St. Petersburg, we’ll head back to Helsinki via train for one more night, and then the following day we’ll depart for Stockholm, Sweden (6) via ferry. It’s an overnight ferry, and in my imagination, it’s a giant Viking ship with a beautiful wooden mermaid at the front, which I’ll stand behind wearing Viking horns, pretending I’m flying on the Titanic. In the land of IKEA and meatballs, I hope to see much more beautiful architecture. We have nearly a full week there to let our hair down and experience the local flavors.

From Stockholm, we’ll take a train to Oslo, Norway (7). In Oslo, Auntie Chianti will go her separate way onto Budapest to visit family living near there, giving me a total of 2 weeks with my aunt abroad. The last time we travelled together internationally was over 10 years ago, to Mexico. For two people who enjoy it so, that is much too long. Hank Moody and I will enjoy a bit of Oslo and then depart for Berlin, Germany (8) for a brief weekend.

I’ve heard amazing things about Berlin, from people who’ve visited and even from someone raised there. The wall came down when I was only 8 years old, and I didn’t have an appreciation at the time what that meant. I learned about the Holocaust in history classes, which I admit to halfheartedly committing to memory, and have since read a couple great books and seen a couple great movies which depict stories about that time. I highly recommend the book “Not Me” and the film “The Book Thief”, if you haven’t seen them. Also a huge influencer in my life is Pink Floyd’s video for the entire “The Wall” album, which is artistically fashioned with Germanic references.

After experiencing what Berlin has to offer Hank and me, we’ll fly back to Oslo in time to catch a train to Bergen, Norway (9). The train from Oslo to Bergen, east to west, weaves throughout the fjords and offers amazing views. I’m more excited for the ride than the destination, if I’m honest. However, most of this trip’s accommodation will be spent in hostels and backpackers, which is also a first for me. The first hotel I’ll get to enjoy is a Best Western in Rome, Italy, and won’t enjoy those creature comforts again until 1 month later in Bergen. Hank and I splurged on a cozy bed and breakfast hotel with chunky wooden furniture and a very homey feel.

We waive bye-bye to Bergen on June 24, and jump half of the Atlantic to rest our laurels in Reykjavik, Iceland (10). I’m probably most excited for this locale. The inner geology rock nerd I let out every so often is going to have a field day there. Geysers, waterfalls, volcanoes, the Blue Lagoon, northern lights, glaciers, and a spa day at an eclectic and hip hostel in the center of the city. We plan on doing day trips and tours to see everything we can while on that tiny island.

From Reykjavik, I fly home to San Francisco on June 30, adding 9 new locations in 8 new countries to my travel experience. I want to learn how to train my dragon, possibly get a dragon tattoo (or maybe not), visit Rasputin with a cute little bat named Bartok, hopefully not fall on some ice, ride a pretend Viking ship/ferry, and take train rides through beautiful scenery, all while experiencing a backpacker lifestyle with friends and family.

What I started out planning, and what I ended up with all said and done, are two very different trips. I anticipated using the time to be with myself, think through things, rediscover what makes me happy, write some blogs, take some photos, and grow from the new experiences. While I won’t be as solitary as initially intended, I have a chance to make great new memories with people I truly care about. I can soul-search another time, sans Viking horn hat. After all, Nicaragua is calling… but I digress.

Going home

I’ve taken some time this summer to visit family I’ve not seen in a very long time in upstate New York. The last time I was here, I was 16 years old, and I was only 8 the time before that. In fact, visiting family in NY is the only reason I was exposed to airplanes at such a young age and do not have a fear of flying.

Life is slower here; in fact, I feel as if I’m in a bit of a time capsule. On one hand, the buildings are old, and history can be seen everywhere in abandoned buildings with glass windows missing, rust around the edges of cars from salt used to melt snow on roads and driveways every winter, and the dated homes and furnishings. However, the area also seems to be taking on that distinctly American feel: big box stores like Walmart and Big Lots, peppered with McDonalds, Taco Bell, KFC, and other chain restaurants.

My mom’s house is different too. It contains many of the things it did when she and my dad lived in California, but now the things are in different places, in different rooms, and my dad isn’t here. I still feel closer to him here with all these things around, though, despite being so far from my childhood home.

I’ve recently spent a lot of time traveling internationally, but going back to my family’s roots can be just as much of an adventure as traipsing across new terrain in a foreign land.

It hit me as I was telling my family stories of the snakes and spiders in Australia, the homeless people in San Francisco, and other oddities in some Asian countries, that I do have many stories to tell they haven’t heard. I’ve also a unique point of view and a humor/wit that tells stories in such a way that some of the family claim not to have laughed so hard as they have since I arrived. They ask me where I heard my material. The thing is, I’ve lived it. I didn’t hear it anywhere on TV or in movies – these are my experiences.

Perhaps I may be a story teller after all. Perhaps I have stories to tell.

I’m still figuring out where home is now. Home used to be the three bedroom house in Silicon Valley I was raised in for the first 18 years of my life with my small family. Then it was my rooms in apartments during college, the flat I bought in San Francisco with my ex, my very first apartment in which I lived by myself. More recently, it was that wonderful three story apartment in Sydney. Now, with a lease on an apartment in San Francisco, living on my own again, that will be home. But home for me is also inside. It’s where I come from, and what I’m trying to find at the same time. It’s where I long to be yet where I am.