Stage IV

You wait for a phone call. Your parents, alone, at an oncologist. They have friends that they’ve made there because they’ve been too many times. There are tears at the words it’s back, but mostly there is foreboding fear.

You sit in your apartment and you wait. The minutes tick and when you can’t take it much longer you text, any update? and you get the response you never want. it’s not good. call you in an hour.

You block it from your mind. Your leg twitches and you stare and you listen and you hear the silence of Spring inside – no heater, no air conditioner – and the awakening of new life outside. You shake the couch with your leg twitch and your phone stares at you, a black screen of death.

Thirty minutes after the hour passed you get the call and all you feel is a dam in your throat and a pressure in your head. You hear the voice of your dad and mom and the strength they are pretending to hold. You hear the cracks, and the tears that were there or are dammed like yours. Your dad starts to explain and all you do is hear noise, like you are in Charlie Brown’s classroom. You go and get a note pad and you write it all down. All the words you can’t hear.

Stage IV colon cancer

Oral chemo, but they don’t know how long. She won’t have the same side effects as last time.

And then the dam breaks because “This will probably be the thing that kills her.”

Your world – all the vacations and hugs and memories – falls like Pompeii. You feel the volcano go off, and the ash fall and swallow you up as Dad continues.

Average life expectancy is 2-3 years, but they don’t know. Most people get it when they’re older and Mom’s young. Could be longer.

There’s supposed to be hope in there, but all you hear is 2-3 years. All you hear is not enough time.

And then you can’t. You can’t feel your friend’s hand on your back, you can’t hear the words I’m sorry or What do you need? You are stuck in quick sand, so you ask about your siblings, and what’s next and you bite back wails until your lip is ready to bleed.

When there’s nothing left to distract the feels you say goodbye to Dad and to Mom and you tell them you love them as if somehow those words will magically restore the world. As if there is a power in them that will take away the pain, and the tumors, and the reality of treatment.

Then you say goodbye to your friend, and you promise you are OK even though you are slowly sliding down a sand dune inside that you don’t want to admit.

You fold laundry, and you stare out your window. You think about running, but your legs don’t work right. You think about drinking yourself to sleep, but the thought of putting anything inside your body makes your stomach sweat.

You find the strength to text, I need you, to a friend and you go. The drive and fresh air from a rolled down window save you, if only for a few minutes. You step inside their apartment and they hug you and you sit on the couch and like the little boy you were all those years ago you curl into a ball and you cry.

You feel the heat of the pain, and the clenching of your stomach as you fight back wails and then you let it out. All that you have to release you pour into your friend’s arms. Your shoulders shake, your stomach searches for breath, and your eyes make puddles.

You cry because you can’t do anything else.

You cry because it’s not fair.

Because Mom is too good.

Because Mom is too young.

Because you don’t want a world without her.

Because all you want is to be that little baby in a white blanket wrapped tightly on Mom’s shoulder in an ugly grey recliner being rocked to sleep because it’s the only thing that works.


Visit Mom’s caring bridge for more details.

A Little Man Named Oscar

Stories forever capture my heart. No matter the medium, I am a story junky. This year there are eight nominees and a couple of them feel like wasted space until I started writing. Here are my thoughts on who the little man named Oscar ought to go to for the Best Picture of 2015. Enjoy, and then tell me why I’m wrong.


Director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks took a nap and out popped Bridge of Spies.  Despite beautiful cinematography and a few captivating monologues about what makes a human human and what humans deserve, the movie is flat. Classic Spielberg takes you on a compelling journey through history, or on an adventure. This drags you along like your fishing for trout. It lays the line and prays the hook will snag. Educational at best, Bridge feels like it only received its nomination because of a long history between Spielberg and Hanks.


Fascinating. Shot like a documentary, but through a Wolf of Wallstreet lens, The Big Short captures the stupidity of the world lead by its baton wielding band leader the U.S. of A. The uniqueness of the storytelling is probably where the nomination comes from, and the connection of cinema to history – something the academy adores – but overall it drags on and is about the housing market. It’s like sitting in a class about stocks and bonds while being fed a five star meal. It’s classed up and gorgeous, but ultimately it’s boring and more commentary than story.


A self-published book, picked up by a major publisher after proven success The Martian succeeds as a companion piece to the book. It stands along as visually stunning. Director Ridley Scott showcases what Mars looks like in way that takes your breath away. Matt Damon as the martian pulls off the witty sarcasm and mannerisms that scream from the book’s pages, and viewers see the struggle for survival.

The Martian is a futuristic Robinson Crusoe only in this case Damon has the entire world helping to bring him home. This is what makes the movie resonate: what happens when the world rallies together to accomplish something great? It’s the story of man beating nature, and more importantly humanity beating nature. 

The film doesn’t try to do anything magical, or push an agenda, it simply tells one man’s story, and that man’s story’s affect on the the people he knows, the people he loves, and a world that until being stranded, didn’t even know he existed. The Martian does all this in a way that moves the viewer through the spectrum of emotion, and keeps them visually attune on the red planet.


One singular mission: freedom.

Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and Max (Tom Hardy) take us from the oppressive emperor’s walled kingdom filled with a starving and thirsty people across a desolate desert in what feels like a grown up roller coast at Disney World. The visuals and creativity of costume and surpassed by the unnoticeable lack of need for dialogue. Grunts, explosions, and revving engines filled the theatre as Furiosa and Max end up working together to free sex-slaves from the emperor and reach an Eden they believe exists.

Mad Max is visually  stunning – from desert landscapes, an imagined futuristic city, and bizarre vehicles – and masks itself as a simple action movie, despite a major exploration of faith and religion.

This is where its nomination arises: an old concept and formulaic premise turned on its head through subtle message play. The average viewer walks out reveling in the non-stop car chase and the bizarre rock concert that broke out in the chase, but a little thinking takes you to a deeper discussion of what we hope in, and what keeps our engines running every day.


There’s emotional, and then there’s Room. I’m not sure I can capture the heart of Room. One one level, it’s about a mom, Ma, struggling to survive and having a son within this shed that’s become her home, her love for that boy, and then the complete turmoil of freedom.

On another level it’s about discovery. Jack, the little boy, only knows this room. His whole world diminished to four walls, a sunlight, and a wardrobe where he hides when their captor comes to rape his mom. When he gets out, everything – even stairs – are new to him. His childlike discovery of all the details of life shatters hearts.

Room captures the smallness of the room, and the bigness of the world. It takes on the complications that surround that world, and the relationships that, despite unimaginable love, crumble in the wake of trauma.


The bear scene. The cinematography of The Revenant alone makes one sit up and take notice. Squirming with every paw swipe and teeth gnash. Add to it the beautiful shots in natural light, the fifteen to twenty minute camera shots that roll like Birdman, and Revenant should walk away with the cinematography award.

The performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy – each of their relentless pursuit of survival and then revenge – showcase the basest levels of humanity. Truly a beautiful film, it suffers under its own artsy-nature at times, drawing out the scenic shots and sacrificing pacing. Revenant gets away with it, though, because it is simply breathtaking.


This is the culmination of everything: story, acting, cinematography, sound mixing, etc. There isn’t a single element of this movie that you shake your head at, or walk out going why was that there? It’s simply good from start to finish.

Following the Catholic church scandal in the early 2000’s through the work of the Boston Globe. It pulls together perfect performances by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and the careful story telling of a sensitive historic time in the US. Riveting, they nail the pacing and the complicated intertwined nature of church, politics and the inner-workings of a city everyone is trying to protect, but no one is doing it right.

No one is perfect, and Spotlight shows the complexity of each of its characters to the minute details of a one-bedroom apartment with no food of one of their reporters. Everyone is layered and complicated, and real, and everyone is trying to do what they believe is the next right thing. Unfortunately people’s sense of that right thing is warped, and the understanding of this in some of the bad guys is heartbreaking.


In a lot of ways, Spotlight was my number one from the moment I read the synopsis of all eight films (see: newspaper connection). Ultimately it was dethroned by the last movie I saw of the eight. Not because it had anything wrong with it, but because Brooklyn is just that magical.

It’s simple: Irish immigrant comes to the USA for work, and to better herself. She leaves behind an aging mom and a sister who has a place in the world. Irish immigrant falls in love with Italian New Yorker. Then her sister dies, and she goes home for the funeral, only to fall in love with an Iris lad.

Simplicity, though, turns complicated quickly. Marriage, loneliness, displacement, home, and family are all explored in a deep way. Eillis, our Irish immigrant, grows up and finds who she is in America. She gains confidence and a renewed sense of who she wants to be, and when she meets and falls in love with an Italian plumber we are rewarded with scenes of a beautiful budding romance.

When her sister dies unexpectedly, Eillis returns home, or what she once called home and we’re confronted with how much it can feel welcoming, and at the same time like something alien and awful. As nostalgic as Eillis is upon returning, the worst parts of home are still there, ugly warts on the blight of a beautiful Irish backdrop.

The movie never transforms or forces any of these big themes. It simply flows through the script as naturally as if it were real life. Things happen, flowing in and out of one situation, and time really having no say in it all. It is in this that it stole my heart. Brooklyn captures life in a beautiful way that connects. As a viewer, I connect with Eillis’s displacement, her loneliness, and her strong desire for love and a place to call home. I connect with her emotions, and timid confidence, and her desire to learn the Yankees, not because she cares about baseball, but because she cares for her boyfriend.

Brooklyn is life, and as wonderful as it can be to be stolen from life and taken to a world you’ll never experience, it is this sense of me, too that makes it my best picture of 2015.

Some Things You Can’t Outrun

Lately it’s been the treadmill because Illinois in February. The tread keeps churning, and I keep dropping stride after stride, cranking the speed higher. Stagnant as my strides stretch.

Somethings you can’t outrun.

Dad texted after I ran for the night. After I pushed and Scoobs let me fly.

Call when you can.

No one wants that after your mother goes through surgery. You want a text that reads All good. Recovering. That’s not the story we get, though. Instead we get: It’s back.

Mom’s about to come back so I better make this quick. The cancer’s back. She doesn’t know yet. 


There she is!

Dad’s voice transformed from reserved to forced excitement and the line went dead. Surgery went well, hernia repairs, and a lymphoma removal, all a success. The surgeon found something hiding on her abdomen wall, though. He had it tested while Mom was under and it came back positive.

I broke my hat. I didn’t know hats could be broken, but after I texted Scoobs in the other room I walked to our kitchen and on the way back the tears came. The dam broke: my eyes watered, my shoulders tensed, my brow crinkled, and the anger came rushing through my arm to my hat through the air to the wall and the crown of it crumbled.

Back from IKEA, I built a bookshelf. I built a chair. I pulled the screws tight and I worked quickly, as if finishing the furniture would finish Mom’s recovery, finish her testing, and allow us to know what’s next. To know where we go from here.

There is no going, though. Only waiting. Waiting for recovery only to run tests to figure out how we break the woman who raised me yet again. Waiting to figure out what more Mom can take. What more her family can take. What more this bridge troll demands in order to let us pass.

I jumped on the treadmill and I tried to outrun it. I stared in the distance, just over the personal TV screen, and I raced to that spot, never moving. How do I get from there to here? How do we get from discovery to recovery? How do we make this disease disappear?

I’ve already written so many words about the fight, the struggle, the battle, the *insert-cliche-here* of cancer, and I’m afraid I don’t have any more to offer. I am stuck on the treadmill of grief for a pain Mom shouldn’t have to bear, and yet she does it. She puts one foot in front of the other and she marches on. Her grandbaby born and her grandbabies unborn propelling her forward. Hope the Little Engine that Could chugging inside of her screaming I THINK I CAN I THINK I CAN I THINK I CAN. And then she does.

Mom always does.

And I run. I run towards a spot of hope that I don’t believe in but I try because she does. She believes in better days, and the happiest of moments. The moments of gut-laughs, and tiny hand squeezes, and those first little steps before a face plant. I run towards hope of hugs, and treasured trips, and conversations across a beer or that snobbish coffee she buys because she sees my eyes light up when I sip it.

I run towards Mom. Hope incarnate.

325 Greenfield

Before it was gone, I needed to say goodbye. Weeks ago I was in the liquor store and there was a beer that screamed at me. Red Wheelbarrow. A red ale named after the William Carlos Williams poem. I bought it and put it in the fridge at the house with a note on it. After the final fight, the one where I drove off with Kristin running out of the garage like something out of a movie, I went back and popped the beer, going room to room, saying goodbye.

We stayed in the guest room the first night, thinking it was big enough for us. It wasn’t, though the square footage was the same as the room we eventually moved into.

When we changed our minds, we painted our to-be room. Mamma Irvin and her friend created an accent wall with a darker shade and some kind of plastic bag trick. It was a weird green blue color with a fancy name. It matched our bed spread, and Kristin moved her clothes into the closet. We split the dressers and I put my clothes in the office. Her clothes overflowed into the guest room.

Before we moved in, I’d taken a day off work to clean the carpets, renting a deep cleaner and blaring a podcast in my ears. I started at noon, maybe, and finally finished the house by 10 or so that night. Clean clean clean.

We put new carpet down in the man-cave. I put up movie posters and rich dark furniture. It was really the stuff we had in our first place – not quite an apartment, not quite a house. Still, I liked it, and it was good, so we kept it.

We got new used furniture, stuff we couldn’t afford, from a manager at the bookstore for which we used to work. The one where we met, and everyone fell in love with the idea of us.

We moved a giant wood desk into the office, and set up shop. At first it held a futon too nice to throw away, and later it held all our books. I spent hours in the office. Every morning getting dressed, and in the evenings pecking at the keyboard of whatever laptop we had going. Write write write.

After we moved in, I set to work on making it ours. Fixing it. Improving it. A real DIYer. My dad came the month after we moved in and we installed a new railing. Wood to replace the short salmon rod iron thing that was there. A new adventure for both us. We finished within the week.

The bathroom, and the office, and the guest room and the basement all needed painting. I spent hours with Kristin’s dad taking care of it. We did the ceilings, and then taped and cut in. Then we painted. In the basement we painted the old wood paneling to make it look fresh, like something that wasn’t from the 80’s. Brightened it. Marion came over and spent an afternoon helping me paint. We talked movies and books and got excited for video game nights.

Kristin helped paint the office. It was after I saw a movie with Marion. I ran to the liquor store. It was fall. I didn’t know beer yet, but I loved the Sam Adams fall seasonal Old Fizziwiggle. I took it home and got out the paint. Popped Old Fizzi and off I went. Kristin got home a short time later and picked up a roller. Together we turned the blue room into a nice rich olive color. Manly, yet warm.

The bathroom didn’t have a fan. This was a problem in winter when you don’t want to open the window in the shower. When Kristin was away on a woman’s retreat, Paul came over and we put in a new fixture. He climbed around in the attic and I mostly learned. Kristin was delighted when she returned. Later Paul would also help me install overhead lighting in the bedroom. A welcome reprieve from having to turn a lamp on with the alarm clock blaring.

We never got around to the kitchen, or the living room, or the dining room. That was always next. Wood flooring, new cabinetry and maybe add a drawer or two. Only having one proved problematic. That was some of the first furniture we bought for the place – stuff with drawers. A buffet and a couple of small shaped fixtures from Pier One. I didn’t really have a say, but they looked nice and were within our budget. I helped bring them in from the car.

The living room was where we stood while Kristin’s uncle did the inspection. She danced and did pirouettes  on the carpet. I smiled, wondering what we were getting ourselves into. Even now that picture window needs to be replaced. A draft sneaks in through the old framework.

These were the rooms of someday. The ones I dreamt about, and Kristin let me. These were the rooms of “what do you think of this” and “oh that could be nice.” Her only real care the old carpet by the back door that was marred from years of people leaving their shoes on.

The mudroom. Oh what a strange space. No air vents so it remained frigid in the winter and scolding in the summer. We kept our Costco olive oil carton out there until we went to refill our jar and found it frozen and separated. From then on we kept it in the coat closet.

There wasn’t a pantry or enough space, so I built one out of shelving units in the mud room. This worked except that we forgot about all the things in there routinely. Every once in awhile I’d scope it out and kick myself for not making this dish or that dish sooner.

I wanted to change out the entryway flooring and the landing to the basement right away, but we were on a budget and it was less of a priority than wall hangings. Wall hangings. The bane of my existence. You ever try to hold an 80lb mirror while your mother-in-law and wife decide if it’s in the right place? Awful. I always tempted my father-in-law with pizza before we hung anything. Ever the patient man when it comes to that, he would help keep me calm when all I wanted to do was throw the anchors and screws in the air and kick a hole in the wall.

The basement hallway, which lead from the man cave to a half bath, the laundry room, the work room, and the master suite of a guest room, was a royal pain. When we moved in there were no doors sectioning off the laundry and work rooms. Problem because eyesore. My construction worker friend visited once and said pocket doors. Brilliant man. I called my dad, he came and we installed. It was a unique problem when we realized how short the hallway was compared to new norms. We called Paul and he helped trim them and the framework down to size. Then it was just drywall and paint. Easy peasy, and I was thrilled. Nearly wrecked the carpet with the mess, though. Another thing on the list of some day.

The work room and the laundry room stayed the same after that. Added some shelving units, and kept it tidy. Was a real pain to clean the workroom before we put the house on the market. So much saw dust and dust bunnies and all the junk. Tedious and painstaking, eventually I got it spotless enough for showings. The previous owners never cleaned the laundry room. Silliness. Shop-Vac’ed the hell out of it and it looked like something on TLC.

The house was originally built as a split ranch with a garage underneath the rooms. In ‘89 the owners we bought the place from filled in the driveway, added the two car garage and created this master suite, complete with full bath and walk in closet. The windows were great, as was the spacious room and the walk-in. The problem was that full bath was built in the ‘80s. Terrible decisions were made on the tile and the faucets and just about everything. As it was the guest suite, it was way down the list of some day. It was going to be an epic learning experience.

The last room was the half bath. The ever hideous, odd half bath. There was a weird plywood closet, linoleum flooring, a strange marble painted plywood vanity, and a mirror fixture that was probably there from the time the place was originally built, rusty and brown on the inside. Disgusting a generous term.

When my life devolved into chaos I took it out on the half bath. I ripped out everything, including the wallpaper and wood paneling. I cleaned the space between the 2×4’s, and put in waterproof drywall. I sanded the floor down and replaced it with tile. I installed a gorgeous vanity with granite countertop and a matching mirror, and new towel and toilet paper bars. I painted so it matched our bedroom, and I put in brand new trim. Even the curtains needed replacing and I put in nice wood slated curtains, learning more than I cared to know about curtains. I painted the small door and replaced the handles. The only thing that remained was the overhead light fixture and the toilet, though I replaced the toilet seat. Those were worth holding onto.

After the half bath, I moved to the back of the house, out to the deck. Cigars, though infrequent, mark major moments in my life. My brother lived with me for a couple summers, and when we said goodbye we got cigars. The smell and the taste aren’t much to me, but it’s something to mark the change. I got a Hemingway cigar, a cutter, and matches. After I lit it up, I walked the deck.

The deck was my baby. I spent the first two years dreaming and the third ripping out the old one before putting in the new one. Paul helped me with this, too. Buying the wood and getting the permits. I built the benches myself, though, and dreamt up the size, making the case to Kristin and getting her to agree with me. The original deck was tiny, too small for a grill and had a stump in the middle of it. I paid somebody to rip it out because Kristin didn’t think I could do it safe. When it was gone, I drew the plans, I got the permit and we dug ground. The boys and I finished in late autumn, and the next summer was the only summer we got to use it.

Half way through the cigar, my fingers started to turn white. I took a puff and the exhale was a massive ball of breath and smoke all freezing as it left my mouth. Time to say goodbye. I walked the perimeter of the house. Along the sidewalk I shoveled more times than I wanted to remember. Past the realtor sign that had the sold sign break off and give me a fright earlier that week. I stopped at the corner, staring at the yard that I never could get right. Patches of missing grass, a tree dying year on year, and bushes that grew out of control. I puffed. Everything unfinished. Everything ok in its it un-ok-ness.

The street was empty, as was usually the case after ten on any night. Suburbia. I put the cigar out in the snow, dropped it into the garbage, got in my car, and texted:

Am leaving now. It was a good house until it wasn’t. Have a good night, Kristin.

Then I drove out of the garage – her stall – for the last time.


Just a Field Goal

In the end it was more than a missed field goal.

I sat on the edge of my couch, the one that friends just put in my new apartment because I had to sell the house. I looked over to my roommate, because my marriage ended, and I muttered “He’s about to miss this field goal.”

A chip shot. 27 yards. He should be able to do it with his pants down while reading the newspaper. Instead he pulled it left.

I jolted upright and paced the floor, squatting just outside my bedroom door. My head replayed it before the broadcast and it flew to ’99 and Gary Anderson and the yelling and then to ’09 and the pass across the body and the yelling. And it all felt so predictable. An endless loop of hopes built and dashed, and the death of dreams forever in front of me – the Roadrunner to my Wil E. Coyote.

Minnesota will find a way to get over the pain. We’ll find a way to hope. To let the emotional roller coaster crank its way back to the top as we near the 2016 football season. Fans always find a way to hold fast to the “There’s always next year” mantra, despite the nagging pea under our mattress begging to be felt. This year, this time, this moment…we were so close.

It’s more than just a field goal. It’s the culmination of endless gym hours, padded practices, radio interviews, and all those sleeveless games where the windchill was below freezing. It’s the symbol of greatness within our grasp. Of something immortal slipping away.

It’s my life pulled wide left. Hopes, dreams, happiness. Shattered. Not by me, but by something outside of my control. It’s the end of something beautiful. A flower unable to blossom because of an early frost.

The details aren’t important. The yells and the letters. The counseling sessions. The boundaries and the broken promises. The reality of everything settling over the world like a London fog in something Dickens wrote. Morbid, yet hilarious.

There were the moments of self sacrifice and selfishness, all in the name of trying to patch a sail in the middle of a hurricane. The constant weighing of pros and cons. The memories, and the projections, and then my faith and my grace slipping away to nothing under the guise of not enough. The gas light on my tank of life lighting up for the world to see.

The Vikings carried me. Mini camp started about the time the gaslight turned on, and then OTAs and finally training camp. The season kicked off, and I was across the pond feeling the reality of endings, begging for a beginning. The voice of the Vikings carried me on. Giving me hope in something I couldn’t control, in somebody fighting for me without realizing how desperate I needed them to fight for me. And they won. 11 games. They won the NFC north. They beat the Packers in Lambeau and the Bears in Chicago – two things that I’ve rarely seen in my 27 years. And there was the hope. This armor that came with each win – first the breastplate, then the greaves, and the gloves, and finally the Packer win that was the helmet.

Among the many other things I needed to survive, the Vikings provided an external, unbiased, unpromising hope. They said, we can do this, and they did. They got through it. They survived until they thrived.

And then it ended with a field goal. An event that happened over 190 times this season and was performed successfully over 99% of the time. The simplest of things provided our downfall. Hope slain.

And then it ended with a signature. We went before the judge, she stamped her judgement and it was over. A task she’s performed probably over 190 times in the last four months. The simplest stroke of a pen provided our demise. Dreams slain.

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