MASTERSON ONLINE: Grieving lost freedom

A big part of recovering from any major illness, certainly including cancer, lies between the ears and the strength of one's will.

That's certainly been my experience since I began telling valued readers about my treatments and after-effects from fighting and hopefully finally overcoming the squamous cell cancer in my neck I call The Beast.

Now four months past surgery day with Dr. James Suen at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, I've learned firsthand that surgery was only the first step in the battle.

Dr. Suen stressed afterwards how important it would be to become remain positive afterwards to most effectively promote healing.

That sounded logical and reasonable. Yet I've also discovered that can be more difficult to do than it sounds.

The Beast didn't surrender without leaving me permanently with a tongue and voice only half functioning. Swallowing also must be done precisely to keep from aspirating. I can only raise my left arm level with my shoulder. The left side of my head is numb.

There have been a lot of profound changes in a short time. I'm sure many readers fighting their own health battles can relate.

In visiting the other day with North Arkansas Regional Medical Center speech and swallow therapist Julie Brandon about trying to remain positive in my rehabilitation, I shared that I hadn't been able to put my finger on what was behind missing the upbeat fella with whom I've shared this body for over 76 years.

I told her I didn't feel depressed in the clinical sense of the word, just not as filled with zest as I'd been a year ago without understanding why. Glum might be a close fit.

Though being roughly half my age, she immediately offered this insight: "It's the loss of your freedom. You're grieving the freedoms you've had over a lifetime and now lost. It's normal with many people in your situation."

The truth of her comment soared directly into my heart. She had nailed what I'd been unable to with a simple objective observation rooted in her experience.

I've been unconsciously grieving the loss of aspects of me rooted in freedoms to choose and act that will never return.

For instance, I badly miss the freedom of enjoying golf with friends. I miss the freedom of being able to eat solid food and share meals with others. I miss the freedom of enjoying popcorn at movies and a burger or pizza, or enchilada every now and then (notice how much of my grieving involves food).

I miss the freedom of being able to speak and visit normally with others as I easily did a few months ago. I miss interesting conversation.

The profundity of Brandon's observation helped finally identify what has had me feeling like I've lost my lifelong best friend. For any of us, the freedom to live as we desire (and have known) is yet another aspect of our consciousness we take for granted.

When freedom is suddenly and forever yanked away relatively near the end of our lifetime, we are bound to miss it more than we realize.

I still grieve these losses, and always will. But at least now, thanks to the observations of an insightful mother and speech therapist half my age, I can recognize and better understand what's been transpiring in my psyche along with the need to discover what in the remainder of my new life is destined to become my normal.

Gun or pit bull?

A letter-writer to the paper Sunday wondered which might be more dangerous, people trying to board commercial flights with loaded firearms, or an unrestrained pit bull, of which I have written much?

Interesting question, to say the least. Considering there was no bloodlust or intent to harm with the loaded .357 Magnum in my luggage I accidentally tried to carry aboard a flight in Phoenix 20 years ago (and I did make amends for my stupidity by apologizing and shelling out $500 to the FAA), my vote would be with the pit bull, whose breed regularly kills and injures hundreds of innocent people, pets and domestic animals every year without apologies.

Of course, you must understand, I have a dog in this hunt. I wonder whether the writer might also.

Triggering memories

Our newspaper and my scribblings reach farther than some may realize. For instance, I received this message the other day from Sonny Wheeler, who lives in the Fort Worth area.

He said he'd read a recent column about challenges I faced at the U.S Coast Guard boot camp on Government Island in Alameda, Calif., during the late 1960s. That column clearly triggered memories for Wheeler of his own weeks on that small island in the Oakland Bay, prompting this slightly edited response.

"I arrived there the night of May 19, 1968, and was assigned to Golf Company, but was held back to graduate a week later with Hotel Company because they felt it necessary to rip out my wisdom teeth during my stay.

"Boot Camp there was a terrifying experience, and one people seldom believe when I relate many of my stories," he said. "My first morning I was singled out because I was from Texas. Boatswain Mate Harris, my company commander, sent me running a half-mile away from our barracks to the grinder to find, fetch and return a basketball-sized stone.

"As we both know, there were no stones larger than a ping-pong ball at the grinder. After four unsuccessful trips [on an impossible mission], I was publicly deemed stupid.

"Base Captain Burkhart caught me on my way to the wash rack without my hat; I was instructed to report to his office. After I can't recall how many pushups in front of the yeoman's shack. I was told to go into his office.

"There, he closed the door, stood me against the wall and proceeded to hit me with his index-finger knuckle right in my dimpled chin. I'm not sure how long that lasted but seemed longer than it probably was. He was convinced I would never be caught outside without my hat again, and I wasn't.

"I remember guys trying to swim to shore [about 100 yards to freedom] and being caught and put into X Company. I'm sure you remember what they endured when they wound up there. They were confined to a small area, all black walls, one red light bulb.

"Those in X Company dragged around a huge anchor chain, or if there were only a few they would carry a telephone around on their shoulders."

"I'll not keep you any longer, Thanks for the memories. Like you, for me it was a life-changer for the best. Made me the man I am today. A very proud Coastie."

There was a great deal of justifiable pride, Sonny, in all those who completed the eight- to 10-week stay in the place my drill instructor assured us on arrival was about to be "even tougher that Marine Corps boot camp." From all I've learned about the diluted nature of our military training today, there'd be no comparison now to either.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

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