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  • Writer's pictureDon Rearden

The Last Chemotherapy Dance, a Few Surprises, and More...

Fireworks on the Fourth of July are pretty silly in Alaska, because this is the land of the midnight sun. You hear a pop and are lucky to see a small flash. The holiday started fairly quiet for us. Annette had celebrated her last chemotherapy treatment two days before and so her plans consisted of lying on the hammock in the sun and possibly moving the hammock to the shade. I had other plans. Some fireworks, if you will.

On her last day of treatment our friends surprised her at the entrance to the hospital. As I pulled our car up she saw the balloons and handmade signs and commented on how cute that was, and then when our friends and their kids popped out she started crying. I would have filmed the whole thing, but I might have also been wiping away a few tears, too.

Once inside we learned that the rules changed due to the increasing covid-19 infections in our state and that meant I wouldn’t get to sit with her for the last round. She had her final song picked out (from the hundred that were suggested - thank you) and the nurses assured me that they would sneak me in so I could at least be there for the dance. From my vantage point, the last thing anyone feels like doing when they have sat in the chemo chair is dance, but I can tell you that dance she did when she was done, and the nurses who spent the last four months caring for her danced right there with her in the corner of the treatment suite. What song did she dance to? Well, I want you to imagine it was one you suggested, because if she could have danced to all of them she would have done just that.

When we arrived home, yet another surprise awaited her. Our neighbors decorated our front door and left gifts and food. (And luckily, we beat any neighborhood bears to the treats and chowder!).

The next day, while Annette recovered, her ever faithful caregiver totally ditched her for an epic bike ride and hike in the Chugach mountains with our dog Hawkeye and my buddy Joe. We rode our bikes up Powerline Pass, stashed them in the brush at the German Bridge (there are no actual Germans there, and no pretzels or beer either!) and then hiked up to the pass to the saddle between Avalanche and The Wedge, and around the back side on this killer sheep trail to summit The Ramp, and finally dropped back down to our bikes and rode out. Hiking behind Joe is like following a crazed mountain goat. The man eats mountains for breakfast. And if anyone knows the power of healing and rejuvenation found in the back-country it’s Joe. I’m pretty sure he knew I needed an ass-kicking like that, and I did. Those of us who live in Anchorage are so lucky to have such an incredible park right out our back door.

The morning of the Fourth of July was clear and sunny here. Annette kept telling me how bad she felt that I couldn’t be out doing something more fun. She didn’t know that I was having fun and planning something big. I made some silly excuse that I needed to go to a friend’s house and drop off a tool he needed. The truth was that I needed to meet up with someone and take a test drive of what would become our Fourth of July fireworks.

A few hours later I camer home and Annette’s only movement from the hammock had been when the neighborhood cinnamon bear came through and surprised them both. I resumed my spot in the lawn chair beside her and a half hour later when someone came rumbling up the road. Annette wondered out loud if it was the neighbor in a new hot rod or Harley, but the noise kept coming up the road, louder and louder and then an old silver and red truck rumbled up our drive. She asked, “who is that?”

“That’s your new truck,” I said, as this sweet 1958 GMC rolled right past her hammock.

Fireworks…my friends. In Alaska. On the Fourth of July.

Annette's hot new ride -- a 1958 GMC

That night she drove it around the neighborhood and then we rumbled down to visit her cousin Victor who rode his motorcycle up from Michigan to visit his sister and Annette. He is seven years free of his own Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis and he’s been a mentor for Annette through this whole process. (He drove the loop up to Fairbanks, and also hit Valdez, the ferry to Whittier, and a side trip to Homer…the guy gets after it on that bike!)

I wish I could tell you how many times she said “Oh my god” and “No way” and “I can’t believe you got me a truck!” but a buck or two for each phrase would have covered the cost. And the surprise alone and how the rumble of that truck got her up off the hammock and restored her energy made the old truck worth every cent. The wheels of the ’58 could come off, the engine explode in a ball of fire, and the frame turn to dust tomorrow and I’d still do it again. She had always wanted an old truck, and even a few months back when an classic truck drove past us, said, “when this shit is over, I’m getting an old truck.”

Now she’s the proud owner of the truck she always wanted.

And --- the shit isn’t quite over, but it’s close. She’s done with chemotherapy and we’re on to the next step. Tomorrow is yet another PET scan, and then on Wednesday we are off to Seattle for Proton Radiation Therapy. Thursday she will have another scan to prepare for the proton beams that will target the area of the tumor. They will tattoo her where the beams will be aimed, and then it will take a week or so for the clinic to map out the area of focus. She’ll begin once a day treatments for three to four weeks. Each visit will last about 20 minutes.

The big thing right now for us is getting there. We initially planned to drive, to minimize exposure to other people, but they wanted her there on Thursday, and we figured that was a little too tight to get through Canada (though it would have been a wild ride in the new old truck, right?). So we’re biting the bullet and masking and shielding up and making the flight. It’s one thing to willingly travel during a pandemic while you’re healthy and another to do so two weeks out from such intense chemotherapy. It’s a scary prospect, but we’re doing it and taking the kids. They will insure no one wants to sit near us on the plane!

We’ve rented a place in Seattle for August and we’ll take our kids over to my parents in Montana. They’ll have a blast along the Missouri River with my folks, and they’ll be within a day’s drive for us to go visit. I’ve never lived in a big city for that long, so it’ll be interesting to see what that’s all about. Or rather not see it, since we’ll be spending our time outdoors and away from people as best we can, which we’ve become pretty darn good at.

Stay well everyone. Thank you for the support through all this. Your love, kind thoughts, cards, gifts, and food have delivered us through the rough waters and while we’ve got a bit of a voyage left, we'll soon be sailing home.

Last Weekend's Road Trip into Denali National Park

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1 Comment

Sue McHenry
Jul 14, 2020

What a glorious celebration! Good move on the truck, Mark! 👍🏼 I’ll be thinking about you 4 on Wed. Safe travels. All positive thoughts all the way to the finish line!

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