Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Multi-Chapter Story


So much time and so many events have passed since my last entry that I have to do this in chapters. . .

Chapter 1: Alabama Folly

Walter and I got away for a long weekend before Thanksgiving--the first time together and alone since Erin relapsed in March 2005. Our prime time, A-list destination? Birmingham, Alabama. . . to a history convention. Does the man love me, or what? We traveled uneventfully, and only tempted fate once. That was the night we decided to walk twenty blocks from our hotel to a restaurant, when it looked like waiting for a taxi would take too long. Did I mention we had walk through (poorly lit) industrial Birmingham? Did I mention we had to cross a bridge over an impressive set of railroad tracks (designed to carry iron ore into the city and steel products out, and perhaps to serve as a hobo outpost)? Did I mention how stupid we thought our choice was upon later reflection? Oh well, at least we had the brains to have a taxi ride home.

After that, we had no place to go but up. And up we went. . .to Walter's college roommate's house in Tuscaloosa. Moses Mortimer "Mort" Swaim and his lovely wife, Minunie, and their daughter Monnish live within blocks of the University of Alabama ("ROLL TIDE") in an 1835 plantation mansion that takes up most of a full block of the city. The whole Swaim family were gracious and lively hosts. Friday night we hung out in the ballroom (how many folks do you know that hang out in their very own ballroom), fully equipped with deluxe sound system with three pedestal mikes, Peavey speakers, a sound board, a full trap set plus a variety of other rhythm instruments for the less rhythmically gifted (tambourine worked for me). Mort played along on the drums with the oldies (I'm sorry. . .classic rock tunes) on the sound system, while the rest of us kept time, danced, and sometimes sang into the microphones. A life-sized Elvis statue accompanied us on guitar in the background (and if I ever get pictures, I promise I will post them). If I remembered any of the rest of our trip, I would tell you about it.

Well, I do remember one thing. Mort picked us up in Birmingham, and we made it home before Minunie did. When she walked in, she had spent the day at Silver City gambling the slots. She walked in (I'm not making this up) a $16,000 winner. The kitchen had signs that this was not the first time this had happened to her!

Chapter 2--While the (Gumby) Cats Are Away

Erin had an extremely big time with the mom and dad unit out of the way. She hung out with her buddy Noah on Thursday and Saturday and spent the night with the Tjoelkers Thursday and Friday night. She was completely amazed (and I might add impressed) with the lifestyle differences at her friends' houses. The Tjoelkers, for instance, did not make her eat oatmeal either morning for breakfast, and apparently made her a lunchbox lunch without her having to find the school menu and prove that what was being served was inedible.

The biggest news was that her parents chose the weekend of the Bryan school district's UIL championship to leave town. Erin was competing in a new event this year, Oral Reading. She chose "The Gumby Cat" by T.S. Eliot and "The Mischievous Dog" by Dylan Thomas. According to Erin, she barely made it to the finals because she forgot to do her introduction and busted headlong into the poems. In the end she took first place and was happy to celebrate with her friends Aaron Wunneburger and Tori Saenz who tied for first in Music Memory. Considering there are sixteen elementary schools in Bryan, with three students competing in each event and only four events for fourth graders, I would say that Mary Branch did really well. They may even have done better than those three mentioned, but I didn't get any more out of Erin on the topic.

Chapter 3--Our Return

Our return trip to Bryan went off smoothly, though we arrived to find Erin suffering from a pretty crummy head cold. She had had the sniffles due to seasonal allergies for at least a couple of weeks before that. I was not excited about having blood work done, knowing full well that a cold could take her white count down far enough so that we would have to go off chemo (perhaps for as long as a week). There was also the added disadvantage that she would have to get a venal puncture this time rather than a finger stick, because we needed to measure BUN (blood urea nitrogen) and creatinine to see if the celebrex was still causing problems. Erin squeaked by with an ANC of 700 (below 500 was the trigger). The BUN was still elevated, but had not gotten higher, so we (Erin's doctor and I) have decided on waitful watching (or is it watchful waiting?) to see if it will come on back down over the next round or so.

The head cold has continued on, with the addition of nightly fevers. Davis explained this process to me. When the body doesn't have a strong enough immune system to fight off a virus, it heats up (runs a fever) in hopes of burning up the viruses that it can't clobber with lymphocytes. Erin and I both celebrated especially hard last week about the decision to have her port removed last March. The port would have solved the problem of the vein stick on Wednesday, but would have landed us in the hospital for at least a three day stay over Thanksgiving. Talk about something to be thankful for!

I'm not through yet, but I have to leave the office for the second shift, which starts soon. I haven't decided whether to add Chapter 4 here or in the Davis Report. Whichever it is, it probably won't be until tomorrow or Thursday.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dodge Virus


Somehow Erin managed to dodge Nico's virus, even though he spent Wednesday night with us, traveled with us to Houston and back on Thursday, and sat by Erin at Ian's birthday dinner on Friday evening. It's a good thing, too! Erin needed every bit of he strength and energy she could muster to play four games of soccer last weekend, plus sing in a trio (would have been a quartet if Nico had been there) at church on Sunday morning. The Chilis played their hearts out, advancing to the finals on two shut outs and a 1-0 loss. Sundays' championship couldn't have been any tighter (2-1, Red Hot Chili Peppers over the Golden Angels). I have added those photos to the photo page. I also updated the Davis Report (remember the French pronunciation) yesterday.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Mountain of a Week


What a mountain of a week! Last Saturday Erin's soccer team finished off the regular season with a 2-0 win over the second place team, leaving them undefeated with only two goals scored against them for the entire season. Tomorrow is the end of season tournament with 150 minutes of soccer spread over three games--plus a championship game on Sunday if they do well on Saturday. Go Red Hot Chili Peppers!

After a short post-game rest last Saturday, Erin showered and got dolled up in new Aggie duds. We met Chet, Lea Ann, J.T. (10), and Garrison (9) Edwards at the MSC. As part of the festivities, Chet introduced Erin to former President and Mrs. Bush. You may or may not know that the Bushes lost their daughter Robin to leukemia when she was four years old. Perhaps because of that or perhaps because they are genuinely kind people, they both took time to visit with Erin, even to the point of setting their dinners aside briefly. I received pictures of the evening (both at the Presidential buffet and at the game in the President's box), but I had to wait. Becky Gates (married to A&M President and soon-to-be Secretary of Defense Bob Gates) and Lea Ann Edwards served as Erin's photographers, and you may not have noticed, but they both had very busy weeks this week. Luckily, they found my pathetic pleas through email and send me at least one photo before they erased their cameras' memories.

During the Presidential buffet, Chet took Erin and his sons around visiting with various knots of people, mostly receiving best wishes for the upcoming election. Later, when I asked Erin how it felt to be introduced to so many different people, she showed a little bit of pre-teen-a and said, "Well, it was like this," and then she put on her mimicking voice and postured, "Aren't you the cuuutest little thang! Oh, what a cute picture that would be. Smile. Look this way. Smile. Oh your so cuuute. Smile. Look at the camera." I told her we didn't have to do anything like that again if it bothered her and that in all likelihood the photo takers were really only snapping pictures of Chet. She looked at me like I was an idiot and said she didn't mind smiling for a photo. In fact, it was one of her favorite things to do.

We eventually stopped politicking and sat down to eat. Garrison sat between Lea Ann and me, and Chet sat between J.T. and Erin. At some point in the meal, between rapidly flowing conversation and clattering forks, Chet looked over and noticed Erin was eating everything on her plate, except her piece of roast beef. Without missing a beat, he reached over and cut her meat into bite-sized pieces for her and without a word about it, continued his conversation. Now, I don't think cutting other people's meat is necessarily a skill you have to hone to be a good Congressman (in fact, it might bother your colleague if you cut up his meat for him at a Congressional banquet), but it sure told me that Chet was a clued-in dad, and not someone who just gathered his family around him for the photo op.

It was a great experience to get to know the Edwards family. Lea Ann is not only beautiful, but smart as a whip and very down-to-earth. Chet took a large supervisory role over the kids, giving us plenty of time to chat about a whole range of topics. The boys fit Erin's notions of fun friends, and it was really amazing how quickly and completely they took to each other.

The game was splendid, except the outcome. The kids watched the game (on the field, on the big screen in the end zone, and on the tv right above their heads), played cards during the slow parts, and spent a good deal of the time cutting up. Luckily, the really serious fans were sitting pretty far down the way. The man sitting directly next next to them (the rumor passed through the box that he owned a 54,00 square foot house in Beverly Hills. NOTE BENE: that's smaller than a WalMart, but large enough to divvy out 10,000 square feet to each of his five children, including the toddler and the 13 and a half month old) didn't seemed to mind them too much. He even took the time to teach them some card tricks. During the second quarter we took the children down to the decks so they could actually experience the crowd and the feel of the game. We watched half time from the first deck, and Erin has been humming the Aggie War Hymn ever since. She was also particularly amazed at how the band just turned itself into a marching ATM. I think Erin's only real disappointment of the evening was that we rode the elevator down from the box at the end of the game instead of running round and round the ramps to the bottom.

Those of you who know the Buengers personally, know that the magic of the week didn't end on Saturday night. We all stayed up late celebrating on Tuesday night as Chet led the way for incumbent Democrats to hold their seats and for Democratic challengers to win races across the country. I don't think I've seen Walter this happy since he became department chair, and certainly not this happy over an election since 1992. Erin and I figured that Chet was fairly confident in his race or he would have spent the last Saturday before election day campaigning or smoozing or both. The real surpise of the week, though, was that Chet, who had to be in Houston on Thursday for a personal matter, agreed to meet us at Texas Children's Hospital that morning and tour the facility. He was eager to learn what it was like for a child with cancer and what the prospects were for research funding for doctors in the field. I think Erin's doctors impressed him and vice versa.

The medical side of Erin's clinic visit also went well. Her hemoglobin and platelets were solidly normal. The white count and ANC were unimpressive, but better than they had been the last two weeks and just fine for week three of a three-week chemo cycle. Her AST and ALT numbers had crept up a little, probably a signal that she was fighting off a virus (which would be consistent with the nasal sniffles I've been hearing in the mornings and evenings). The only concerning number in the whole set of counts was her BUN. Yes, that is something that doctors actually measure in your blood. It was high, but not dangerously high. Celebrex can raise the BUN, but it is also a indicator for general health and nutrition. I'm guessing that as we have climbed the mountain of a week, we may have depended too heavily on granola bars and jerky, and not brought enough fruits and vegetables along. Now that I think about it, the snack bar in the President's box wasn't overly laden with cumquats and pomegranites.

Anyway, the bottom line was that Erin will start the eleventh cycle of oral etoposide in about a week and continue taking Celebrex every morning and evening. We will have our BUN measured again in two weeks I think I will start tuning into late night television or the Shopping Network to try to find one of those BUN reducing gizmos. It could only help.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Glimpses of Erin


Vignette 1--Erin and mom walking the dogs, chatting, and enjoying the beautiful weather last week.

Background: We eat fairly healthily at our house. Not absurdly healthy, but fairly healthy. Oatmeal once or twice a week, no sodas, limited breakfast meats. Walter has also made a big push to eliminate Trans Fats from our diet. For some reason (maybe because her parents dropped several yummy foods from the grocery list solely because they contain "partially hydrogenated vegetables oils," ie. Trans Fat), Erin is more afraid of Trans Fats than she is of cancer. We're not even allowed to say the words Trans Fat in her presence. It's TF or nothing.

Erin: "Mom, I have a question."

Mom: "Shoot."

Erin: "When I get married . . ."

Mom looks quizzically and wonders where this is going.

Erin (continuing): "And my mother-in-law invites us all to Thanksgiving dinner at her house. . ."

Mom still has no idea where this is going, but she really hopes that the scenario plays out some day, because it will mean that Erin has survived.

Erin: "Will dad come, even if my mother-in-law cooks with TFs?"

Mom, trying to make sense of this whole conversation and wondering how Erin ever got the idea that avoiding artery-clogging foods would be more important than attending a family holiday gathering: "Erin, your father loves you more than he hates TFs. Of course he would go to Thanksgiving at your mother-in-law's house."

Erin: "Would he eat?"

- - - - - - -

Vignette 2--Same scene, a few minutes later. The conversation has wondered to whether dad would ever retire.

Erin: "Do you think dad will ever retire?"

Mom: "Maybe."

Erin: "When he does, do you think he'll be like uncle Dave?"

Mom, thinking what a kind and interesting person Uncle Dave is: "I hope so."

Erin: "So, he'll have all white hair, learn to play golf, and grow a round, little belly in front?"

Mom corrects that impression, then goes on to give convoluted answer about retirement: "Well your dad will probably step down as department head in a few years, then later, he'll stop teaching, but he will probably always do research and read and write books. I doubt if he'll every play golf, and I can't really picture him with a round, little belly in front."

Erin: "Oh, so he'll be like one of those guys that sits alone in a dark corner, reading?"

Mom, thinks to herself: "Not a dark corner. He'll have a three-way bulb or maybe a compact fluorescent bulb, or maybe both. And he definitely won't be alone. I'm sure he'll have a dog at his feet and probably one in his lap."

- - - - - - -

Vignette 3--Riding in the car with mom (Mike, this one is for you.)

Mom has had a hard day and a hard week. She has had intractable, hard-to-figure out problems coming at her from her neighborhood, her family, and her students. She's mumbling to herself that she can't solve everybody's problems.

Erin looks up from the backseat and asks what's the matter. Mom doesn't want to share the burden or give any specifics. She just says, "Oh, sometimes I get into trouble thinking I have to control people's lives and solve their problems. I need to keep my eyes on my own paper (as Bob Leslie always said)."

Erin gives me a sweet smile and says, "You should just cut back on the number of people whose lives you control. You're really good at it."

Mom, thinking what a meddling fool she is, looks up in the rearview mirror. Erin winks and says: "Wisdom from the mouth of a child."

For those of you waiting to hear about game day with Chet. I am going to hold off for a day or two, in hopes that his wife Lea Ann sends me some of the photos she took of Erin, Chet, and their boys, J.T. and Garrison. I will preview that entry, by telling you that we had a wonderful time, despite the score of the game, and that our bubble about what a wonderful Congressman we have has not been burst.

If you haven't voted today, log-off your computer right now and go out and do it!