Monday, September 28, 2015

Tall, Y'all

The irony of living long enough to finally have a healthy body: having it start to grow old. My newfound energy is telling me to go! go! go! and make up for all that time I lost being sick. My almost forty-five year old stretch of bones tell a different story.

I was never much of an athlete, unlike my Dad and older brother. Blame it on the early onset of my illness, if you will, but the truth is, I'm about as uncoordinated as they come, and I never had much of an interest in competitive sports, save for the years from age 10-13 when I was a rabid Cowboys fan (the Danny White years, go figure). But I always enjoyed using my legs. I guess I was in third or fourth grade when I started to notice that I was a bit taller than the other kids. I had a naturally long stride. I wasn't really a fast runner, but I enjoyed stretching my long legs out to see how fast they could take me through the woods around my hilltop home. I would wander off into the thick wood for hours at a time during the summers of my youth, exploring the ruins of old farming equipment and rusted-out cars left by the freed slaves that settled the land. I would join my brother down, down, down, ten minutes down the dense trail, finally onto the vast shoreline rich with treasure: clams and fool's gold to be found while slogging through the water with my ever-growing legs. Stretching my legs out as I watched my brother cast long into a fading summer early evening, reel, pop, and bring in a striper that would be a hot topic of conversation once we got back home. Pushing my legs back up through the darkening forest, folding legs as I watch and learn while Dad fillets said striper, resting legs as I watch and learn whilst Mom and big sister gently work fillets into egg, flour, cornmeal.

As the cooler winds blew in and "The Greatest American Hero" was hours away from its fall premiere on ABC, I begrudgingly laced up my Keds to join Dad on the first of many mandatory evening runs. Dad had polio as a child and was laid up in the Galveston children's ward, all alone, for months as one of his calves atrophied. He recovered by lifting whatever heavy plowing equipment lay around the Angleton farm he grew up on. By high school, Dad was dead handsome and a football star to boot. He knew that hard work and Czech genetics could pay off for me too, even though, like him, I had spent much of my childhood in hospitals. So we ran, up the long road to our gate and away from my final chance to be able to discuss the hotly-anticipated premiere of "The Greatest American Hero" with my buddies the next day at school. Past the mailboxes, up the road just beyond Mrs. Casey's, cut across as the hill bends around and down, through the thicket and into the neighborhood below. Keeping pace with his long legs, past the aging, greased-hair and bespectacled execs watering lawns while smoking pipes, past the barking dogs, endless neighborhoods, all serene, all quiet, down another crest of another hill as the sun sets on the horizon in the distance, down along Lakeshore Drive as the cars zip by, back down Hillcrest through the thick dark wood, up the hill, around the bend, and home to our wooded acres. This procedure continued for a couple of years, and while I never became a long distance runner, I cherish the time I had with Dad, stretching out my long legs to keep up with his. I even added a terrycloth headband along the way to my running ensemble: long athletic socks, red shorts with white piping, and my best Spiderman t-shirt, for good measure.

Later, those long legs walked me across the stage to receive my diploma from Baylor University, up the aisle to my wedding, and across much of Europe, America, Mexico, and the Caribbean as I expanded my worldview.

As the years wore on and my illness became more debilitating, I watched in frustration as my legs began to swell, bruise, and turn yellow. They no longer moved the way I wanted them to. Most days, I was lucky if they moved at all. One simple tap on the surface of my skin could be debilitating. I remember one day early in the summer of in 2011 as I loaded up a suitcase after a long weekend in Port Aransas. The case barely tapped my left left as I loaded it into the SUV. The next day, the leg had turned black and was severely swollen. That one simple tap had burst all the blood vessels on my shin. I was on crutches for the remainder of the summer. Even still, I can see the blue-black reminder that has permanently scarred the surface of my skin.

The disease progressed rapidly in 2011 and putting one foot in front of another became increasingly difficult. I continued to get up every day and go into work, but the short number of steps from my car to my office near the back door of the station were becoming more difficult to navigate each day. I no longer could put on shoes with great ease as my feet had become too swollen to fit into most of them. Some days I would simply wear sandals if necessary. I hid out in my office most days and did my best to work, as my video editing job was something I could manage with little physical effort or social interaction. As the ascites added sixty pounds of water weight to my frame, I no longer was able to stand tall into my natural height and hunkered over, unable to fully support my increasing weight gain. My feet constantly felt as if they would simply burst open from the skin stretching out too far and taut. The pressure was unbearable most days, and yet each passing week seemed to be a new exercise in determining what "normal pain levels" meant for me.

Finally, and with some relief, the whole house of cards came crashing down in early 2012, as documented earlier in this very journal. What I've not written about are the gory details. I'll save the reader once again from this level of intimacy and simply try to relate the feeling of horror as one watches one's abdomen, legs, and every other lower extremity swell to an almost comically enormous size. I started to wonder if they'd ever snap back into shape (they have, thank you). But the most emasculating of these symptoms, believe it or not, was the loss of my legs. It took me several minutes and plenty of help to pull myself up out of the hospital bed, drag the iv stuck into my hand, the Port hardwired into my jugular, and all of the rest of the wonderful spaghetti of cords and cables with me to the restroom. As I pulled away the robe and stared at my self naked in the mirror, I did not recognize the bloated yellow corpse of an old man standing feebly in the glass. Within a day, my legs would finally fail completely.

After the docs found cancer in the second donor liver, they sent me home at around 11:30pm that evening (March 17, 2012) to wait for the next opportunity. We went back to Amanda's parent's home just outside of Dallas to try to get some rest. But I would not sleep. I had not slept in almost a month (the honest truth, I may hold a world record) and I knew I would not now. The burning pain in my stomach and intestines increased in intensity. Sometime in the middle of the night I tried to walk to the bathroom to sit upon the toilet. It has been weeks since I had gone, and the hot poker searing a hole through my abdomen taunted me. I sat and waited, to no avail. I tried to rise, the lights went out, and I fell forward. Amanda rushed to hold me up but could not support my weight. Her parents rushed in to help, and finally managed to move me back into the bed. Soon her hulk of a brother was there to pick me up and put me into a wheelchair. I was no longer able to use my legs at all. In the ER, I could not see the pen in front of my face to sign the admittance papers. I was placed onto a table in a bright room where doctors valiantly searched for a portion of chest to insert a pict line. This process took some time and several painful tries, as most of my surface veins had collapsed. They checked my stool. I was indeed hemorrhaging internally, but it could not be determined from where. After being admitted to ICU, I underwent an endoscopic procedure to determine the source of the bleeding. It turns out some veins inside the upper portion of my left leg had simply fallen apart, and I was slowly bleeding out. They managed to stop the bleeding with some drugs, but I was now completely paralyzed from the waist down. My once long and slender legs had turned a blackish purple and were swollen beyond recognition. I could no longer even register pain at this point... the lack of sleep for three solid weeks and insane amounts of physical torture had somehow separated my mind from my body, and I now experienced these sensations as something that was simply happening to this shell of a body that my spirit had separated from.

When the third and final offer for a donor liver came four days later, my liver had shut down completely and my kidneys were following suit. The surgeon explained later that I had about six hours left to live when they transplanted a healthy adult liver into my body.

These days, I marvel at the fact that I'm able to use my legs again at all. And yet, there they are, long, lean, and more muscular than ever, moving rapidly back and forth before my eyes, taking me further down whatever trail, treadmill, or city street I may happen to be on during my regular evening runs. I keep moving, and I think of my Dad, wondering if he'd be proud of the fact that I managed to pick myself up and keep moving, just as he had so long ago. I've seen my body suffer the most extreme physical torture and come back transformed and renewed. And I think, if it's capable of surviving that, what else is it capable of? Thanks to my donor's selfless gift of life, I'm looking forward to finding out. Standing Tall, y'all.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Twenty Easter Sundays

Twenty years ago on Easter weekend, I joined my best friends for our usual revelry... a few days spent at my childhood pal Ron Kimbell's uncle's land out in Groesbeck, Texas. It was very isolated, through a nondescript gate down a long dirt road down a long one-lane road out of Waco. I probably have been there a hundred times over the years and yet I'd be hard pressed to try and find it today.

We began the weekend as we usually did: a few beers and plenty of guitar playing around a roaring campfire. This evening seemed, however, to have a much more serious overtone. For months now, I knew that something was just not right inside. I had been to visit my doctor several times in the past few years, as they watched my liver enzyme levels climb higher and higher with no real explanation. In actuality, what was happening was that my portal veins became highly pressurized, causing a massive amount of blood to backflow into my liver, resulting in varicose veins in my stomach and esophagus that would rupture later that evening. By all accounts, this could have been caused by the removal of my spleen when I was merely six years old... it's quite possible that the re-routed blood flow of a missing internal organ caused the traffic jam as my body developed into adulthood.

Starting in the fall of 1994, I walked around in a haze, not knowing what was wrong with me or what to do about it. I was extremely depressed. I could tell my body was falling apart. I managed to break my wrist after a very excited friend tackled me at a bachelor party one weekend. A few weeks later, I somehow managed to injure my heel badly after jumping from a set of bleachers. To call me a gimp during this period would not have been a stretch... I looked quite a sight with my full forearm cast and limp. My doctors put me on antidepressants, which only seemed to have a psychoactive effect on me. During the final months leading up to my Easter weekend bleed, I was hearing voices and seeing horrific, violent images in my mind. I could barely make it to my college classes, much less focus on studying. One week before Easter, in my frustration, I punched a wall and shattered much of my right hand, which has still not been set to this day.

To say the least, I knew I was dying. I had a very acute sense that something foreign had invaded my body, that I had been possessed by something that was completely alien and very malevolent.

As the campfire died down that Good Friday in Grosebeck, I asked my friends if we should say a prayer together. The sense that something very heavy hung over us was palpable, and I thought that this one simple gesture on this holy eve would somehow help. We solemnly gathered hands and said our peace. I was no longer a religious person, but having been raised Roman Catholic, I still clung to all the feelings of guilt and doubt that came along with Catholicism. That spring semester, I was enrolled in an Eastern Religion survey course at Baylor University, and I was beginning to see my spiritually in a whole new way after many discussions with Prof. Brackenridge, an active Baptist who was able to put into context for me the place all world religions had within his personal paradigm, and why Christianity still works best for him. His reasoning was that throughout history, certain prophets, or avatars, were able to rise above the mundane world, access God, and give something important back to humanity. To him, Jesus was the most powerful of these figures because of the simplicity of his message: Love. Although present in most other world religions, the overruling concept of compassion was at the forefront of Christian faith, and that's why it worked so well for Brackenridge. One lunch meeting in the Student Union building was to forever change the course of my religious outlook. It was also the last time I would speak to Prof. Brackenridge, as I was soon to be hospitalized for the rest of the school year.

We doused the fire and snuggled into our sleeping bags for the evening. At some point during the night, I got up to water the blackberry bushes and stepped right onto a mound of fire ants. They quickly consumed my leg, covering me in almost a hundred or so painful stings. The shock was unbearable and yet I managed to slip back into my warm bag as the poison coursed through my veins and set my internal system on fire. I slipped into a sleepless trance.

As I awoke, I surveyed the early morning sky. To the east, a dark, black cloud seemed to be coming straight towards me, looming ominously over the horizon as a harbinger of doom. Just looking into the vast, darkening abyss seemed to trigger a feeling of panic within me. I rose from my bag, walked a few steps, and collapsed onto the ground as a sharp, stabbing, burning pain grew in my stomach. Violently, I vomited up a viscous red substance onto the ground. I sat down, feeling somewhat lighter. I surveyed the mass before me. Was this merely leftover from the Big Red and Taco Bell I had consumed the evening before? Surely that had to be it. I sat and looked at my friends, still snug and unaware, nestled in their sleeping bags around the embers of the fire. Then another wave struck me. I began to sweat profusely. Blood poured out of my mouth in a steady stream. In addition, I could feel myself losing control of my bowels to a burning sensation that enveloped my lower intestine. It felt like I was literally melting from the inside out.

When I called out to my pals, I was shocked at the fear in my own voice. I managed to rouse them and tell them what was happening. We all surveyed the bloody mass on the ground to try and figure out what indeed it was. Before long, however, it happened again. This time, I lost my vision and blacked out for a few seconds. With this episode, the initial shock passed and we all knew that something was very wrong. In the days before cell phones, all we could think to do was go seek help. My friends Ron and Jake quickly drove away to a nearby farm to find a phone they could use while my pal Jon stayed behind with me. I was extremely weak and barely conscious. Within minutes, however, the vomiting overtook me again. I was losing blood, and fast. I could see the panic in Jon's eyes as he asked what he could do to help. I simply requested that he hold onto me. I could feel myself slipping away, and I felt that contact with a human anchor was my only chance. He grabbed me from behind round the waist as I vomited blood again and laid down to die.

Soon, Ron and Jake returned. No luck. No farmers awake or answering doors yet this morning, oddly enough. Or perhaps the sight of two young, wiry, hungover males loudly banging on one's door at six in the morning was a bit alarming for most. Only one thing to do... they loaded me into Jake's truck and he and i sped off down the dirt road, making our way back to Waco. I remember dear Jake tried to crack a joke to make me feel less scared. Any sound at this point felt like daggers into my brain, and I let him know so, so he soon was quiet. Passing through the tiny town of Mart, Tx, I knew I would not make it any further. I asked Jake to pull over. On the side of the street, in front of a church, I lay down on the sidewalk and began vomiting much more blood... a seemingly endless amount this time. Jake ran away at top speed to go find help. I curled up into a ball and stared up at the cross looming high above me. I drifted in and out of consciousness and lost all sense of time. I became aware of presence above me and looked up. An elderly man with cane, white beard, glasses, and a Navy veteran's ballcap was out undoubtedly for his morning walk, when he came upon something quite unexpected. He asked me in a kind tone, "What's wrong, son?" I couldn't muster the strength to answer. The man knelt down and placed a hand upon my shoulder for what seemed like an eternity. The next thing I remember was the blaring sound of an EMS siren. Jake had somehow located the only ambulance within the entire county and brought them to me. I was loaded in and introduced to the kindly retired couple who owned and operated the vehicle. The man drove like a bat out of hell straight toward Waco while the woman urged me to lay down and try to be still. I vomited blood once more and laid down, drifting away into a semi-conscious slumber.

The next thing I remember, I was atop a table in a very bright operating room at Hillcrest Hospital in Waco. I was freezing cold, having lost so much blood at this point. A nurse asked me what was going on. I could barely form the words to tell her. She seemed less concerned than I was, which eased my mind a little. I remember telling her that whatever was wrong needed to be fixed quickly so that I could make an afternoon fishing date with my dad. I rarely spent time with him these days, too caught up in my own young man's world to slow down. And yet I knew today's fishing trip would be special. It would be just he and I, a very rare occurance indeed, and one I knew I needed with all that was going on my my life. Obviously I was in shock, and could not see the severity of my situation. But I had stopped vomiting and figured that I was getting better. Heck, maybe that stuff wasn't even blood. Just an adverse reaction to whatever shitty food I had eaten the night before. I lay alone in the room, waiting for a doctor to show up. I became very aware of the fact that I needed to go to the bathroom. I asked the attending nurse if this would be possible. She directed me down the hall to the patient bathroom, ushered me in, and closed the door. The moment I sat down, a searing hot rush of fluid shot out of my nether region. I looked down... it was pure red. I began to lose consciousness and fell off of the toilet onto the floor. What seemed like a flood of blood began forcefully shooting out of my mouth in a steady stream. I managed to crawl across the tile floor and reached up to crack the door open. I no longer had the strength to call out for help, so I just laid in the expanding sea of my own blood, surveying the pattern of red now painted across the walls. I began vomiting again with no control over my reflexes. Blood poured out of both ends. The gutteral sound of my convulsions mixed with gasps for air should have been enough to wake the dead. A nurse walked by, and without looking in, exclaimed, "SHUT THE DOOR!" My response came out of nowhere: "LADY I AM FUCKING DYING IN HERE! GO GET SOMEONE NOW!" She turned, did a double-take, her eyes big as saucers, and ran. Within moments an entire team was at the door, loading me onto a stretcher and into an even brighter white room. Somewhere along the way I must have given someone my parent's contact info, because the next thing I knew a very panicked-looking Mom and Dad were hovering over me.

A doctor came into the room and explained that they needed to get a scope into me to see what was happening. Two large tubes were inserted into my nose and forced down my throat. The choking sensation was unbearable. I began to vomit again, literally painting a spray pattern of red all across the walls of the room and the uniforms of the doctors and nurses. So much blood. I struggled to removed the tubes while two orderlies worked to hold my arms down. My mom was crying. The blood kept coming and coming. Fade out.

I'm not sure about all the details of what happened next. I'm not sure how long I was gone. From the information I've gathered over the years, it sounds like I died for approximately two to three minutes before doctors were able to revive me. I didn't see a white light or my Grandfather at the end of it. I didn't see anything. It was simply blackness. I had lost almost two thirds of my blood. Somehow, a very skilled doctor was able to go in, find the sources of the bleed, cauterize them, and pump enough blood back into me to get me going once again.

A hazy grey-bright image began to form. In the doorway of a small hospital room, I began to make out the image of my dear old friend Sam Osborne standing in the doorway, smiling. Soon other visitors began to show up... my older brother, my girlfriend, and, of course, Ron, Jake, and Jon. It was early evening on Easter Sunday.

(The photo above was taken during the afternoon on that fateful Good Friday by my friend Amber Brien.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Thoughts While Running 3/10/15

Nothing profound to say today, just had some thoughts while running last night that I'd like to get down on virtual paper. It seems that I get all of my best thinking done lately while moving my legs.

As I settled into the rhythm of my run, I fixed my gaze on a leaf outside the window. I thought about the concept that the leaf is no further or closer to me than the very edge of the universe. I could get off the treadmill, walk outside, and pick up that leaf and I would have calculated the time it took me to get to there through my experience. As well, I could climb aboard a spaceship, fly to the edge of existence, and experience the incomprehensible amount of time it takes me to get there. I am fully aware that the laws of physics, space and time govern our world. But we know those laws to be true through our personal experience. I know, I know... it's the old "If a tree falls in the forest" argument. But truly, within that moment, I was aware that distance, time, and everything else we quantify is merely an illusion set forth by our temporal existence. We are merely consciousness moving through a series of holograms made up of light and matter, and on a quantum level, the space that exists between is, in actuality, non-existent. It is simply my experience that creates that space and time. It can certainly be argued that if no life whatsoever existed in the universe, the same laws would still apply. But if not one living thing were present to experience them, would they really exist at all?

Next thought process: Ego can be a useful and necessary tool at times. In most Eastern philosophies we are taught to kill our ego... only by doing so can we truly reveal the free essence of our own spirit. And yet, in a practical sense, we do have to live and work together within this construct that we call reality. And to do so effectively, we must sometimes use our ego at times to navigate the playing field. One can be the most Zen, laid-back, peaceful person on the planet, and yet when push comes to shove, it is our ego we call upon to fight for what is right. Ego, in a healthy sense, serves as a wellspring for confidence, power, and beauty. Used correctly, this can be a welcome tool. It's a slippery slope, of course: Just a hair's breadth too much, and we become self-serving narcissists, assholes, and buffoons. Anyone who has ever purchased a "selfie stick" should probably take a hard look at their lives and put themselves in that category. And yet, too little Ego and we run the risk of being taken advantage of. So where do we find balance? I think that comes in knowing what our role is within this existence: To observe and learn, and to create positivity. Again, I am reaching an even deeper insight than religion would afford... If Buddhist thought leads us to believe that life is simply about learning to let go of attachment, even that ideology seems a bit limiting. I am starting to believe the key is in understanding that we are all simply nodes of experience for the one true God, and we are all learning, receiving, and processing information and uploading it to the one true source at all times. We are all God, experiencing creation in one simultaneous instant. All the pain and horror that adds balance to the beauty and goodness we find merely serves to underline the existence of God's Love for creation. If evil did not exist, Love would also cease. For only through suffering can we fully understand what Love is. When we truly see the beauty that lies within this realization, we come to understand our role here on earth, and who we do and do not want to be while we are here. I know that when I am doing good unto others, am present in the moment, and have let go of fear and want, I am at my happiest. And I know that when I engage in fear, desire, jealousy, and other negative ego-based activities, I feel pretty fucking shitty. So I'm learning, slowly, to do what makes me feel best. To pursue thoughts and activities that put me in clear lines of communication with the Source. When I view Ego as merely another tool within my reality that can be accessed, used, and put away, not unlike a nice sports jacket, I find balance within the world. That very Ego just gave me the will to run an extra thirty minutes because I liked the raw sexual and athletic energy that surged throughout my body, and I knew it to be a healthy thing.

On that point, I'm really glad that I updated my workout playlist. For some reason, Teddy Pendergrass and Donny Hathaway are much more motivating to me these days than the Clash and House of Pain. I'm none of these things: "Young, Gifted, and Black". I wish I were. But that song sure does help me stretch my legs out and get up that last hill.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Long May You Run

2014 was a year of ups and downs for me. Once the reality of divorce started to set in, I found myself reeling from a unbelievable sense of loss. Loss of my wife, her family, our friends, our future, our past. It was psychologically devastating to me in ways that even my father's death and my transplant were not. I felt helpless and alone for the first time in many years. I missed her. I began to suffer panic attacks and was unable to sleep through the night for months, afraid that I would again see my wife or her disapproving parents somewhere in my nightly dreamscapes. My financial future changed overnight, and I no longer had the security of privilege that my wife's family afforded. All of a sudden, my world became very small. On a TV Producer's salary I figured that I could no longer afford to own a home or even stay in this insanely expensive town. The reality of divorce was like a waking nightmare for me. I was sure that somehow I would soon wake up and things would be back to what they were before, given that things are much rosier in retrospect. I'm fully aware that I'm talking about a lot of "first world" problems here, and yet my mind was still locked in this pattern nonetheless.

So, I began to panic. I began to scramble, looking for higher-paying job opportunities, for cheap housing to buy before rates went up again, for anything that would once again give me a feeling of stability and normalcy. Through all this, I was attempting to form a new relationship with someone whom I very much loved and admired. Needless to say, this was not the most peaceful headspace to be in to allow myself to be emotionally available to another.

My brain simply was not working in a way that I liked. After all that I had been through, had I not earned some levity from the karmic powers-that-be? Weren't things supposed to get easier after I had conquered death and all? Shouldn't this story have a happy ending?

I had decided that I really, really wanted a certain promotion here at work and I definitely deserved it. I figured this would be the answer to all my current stressors as I would soon have more money and more esteem, something that was long overdue at my age. In my mind, I suppose I have been playing catch-up for all the years spend ill, unable to advance in my career anymore than simply being happy that I was able to get out of bed and show up on any given day.

After an initial interview, I thought I had the new position in the bag. And then I waited. And waited. I was unable to enjoy much of anything for more than a month, constantly engaged in the mentally exhausting hamster wheel of money/job/real estate search. Winter break came and went, and everyone returned to the office. My anxiety increased as I waited even longer. All the answer to my problems seemed to hinge on this one point that I became myopically fixated upon.

Finally, I had a second interview. As I drove to the office that day, I prayed to God to give me what I needed. I reasoned that this would be the only answer to my many problems. I knew that my happiness was directly tied to me getting what I wanted. And then, the answer came: I didn't get it. And that was that.

A thousand new questions now added more static to my already-overloaded brain. What's next? How should I react? And when? Something had to give.

On the drive home I thought, "God, I really want a drink. I need a fucking drink." And many years ago, I would have done exactly that. I could point my car down the street, find the most suitable watering hole, and sit on a barstool until I was able to think of something else but my own trouble. And that would work until it didn't. Which, for me, was pretty much every time that I tried to convince myself that alcohol was a friend to me; that alcohol, in my own sick mentality at the time, would aid my genetic disease in speeding up the inevitable process of killing my liver. But instead of ever relieving my stress, alcohol only served to give me even more. I was not built like my friends who could drink. And somehow, I had become the worst drunk of them all. This is perhaps the hardest subject for me to write about, as my owns struggles with alcohol addiction are not too far behind in my rearview mirror. I did not like the person I had become, and I sought help when I no longer was able to make healthy choices on my own.

Thankfully, I'm a little wiser now (I'd like to think) and I knew now that I was simply caught within a mental loop filled with destructive energy. It was going to get out one was or another, and it was up to me to decide which way I would direct it.

I had been going to my new gym for a little over a week now. A foot injury earlier in the summer had sidelined me for doing much walking for the rest of 2014. As a result, I had grown chubby, tired and anxious. This was not where I wanted to be physically, especially after everything I had been through. I got on the treadmill and set the course for a "weight loss" program, and added an extra five pounds onto my own for good measure. I began moving. The first solid run up a hill was somewhat of a shock to my system: An expected one, but one that caused all those old voices to pop up in my head. What if I pass out? What if I embarrass myself in front of all these people? Then, I remembered that encountered pretty much every type of embarrassing scenario before, when I was really sick, and nothing that happened here today would ever compare. And a funny thing happened while I was working through all these thoughts: My legs just kept going. Faster and faster. Steeper and steeper. Still, I kept moving. As the pace increased, I felt the need to straighten my spine and relieve the stress of hunching over into the sullen position of defeat I had grown accustomed to. I laid back into my own frame and began to appreciate the easy grace of having a long torso and legs. The endorphins began to take over, wiping out any trace of unease that I had previously harbored about my own endurance. Had I so quickly forgotten that I'm the toughest motherfucker around? I may not be the strongest or fastest, by I truly don't know anyone who has endured more physical pain for a longer and more concentrated period of time than me. As I continued along, I felt a storm of mental energies come back with more force and focus than in many months, almost immediately making a clean sweep through the darkest and most oppressive thought patterns I held so tightly to.

Ten minutes in, I began to think back to my prayers earlier that day. I think I was beginning to understand that what I wanted for my own ego and what God (my highest self) wanted for me may have been two very different things. I knew that I was still here for a purpose, and that purpose is to serve mankind in the way I know best. Would I best serve mankind by helping others through continued efforts in my non-profit foundation and through my writing, while adopting a Zen attitude about the daily work that I do to pay the bills? Or, would I best serve mankind by going down the hall to a new job with an entirely new set of responsibilities and stresses? The choice seemed pretty clear.

Thirteen minutes in, I began to understand that my brain had been stuck in a very unhealthy pattern of thinking lately. I began to realize that I've missed out on a lot of good things happening right in front of my face while I worry about the future. And in that moment, I made a conscious choice to turn the "happy" switch back on that had been missing for many months. I use the term "happy" as a substitute, in fact, for simply "being present in the moment." Being free from past and future anxiety, worry, guilt, regret, plans. Anything that did not have to do with being aware of my legs running beneath me did not concern me. Anything that was not entirely focused on breathing deeply as I ran harder was of no concern to me.

Seventeen minutes in, I used to think that my writing would only work if I were able to build to some point of epiphany, and then stop. I thought that when I received my transplant, and the subsequent enlightenment that followed, I would simply exist in a permanent state of bliss. I could write about all the wonderful wisdom and insights gleaned from my experience facing death, and living to tell about it. And I would simply pontificate this knowledge unto those needing of it. I realize now that this is complete and utter bullshit. While trying to remind myself that what I experienced is singular and important, I now understand that the real gift that I can give back is in processing the real struggles of daily life through my unique perspective.

Nineteen minutes in,  I began to feel loose, light, and childlike as a playful spring in my step began to sync with the music in my ears. I began to mediate on the concept of running: As children, our most basic instinct when we feel fear is to run away. As we grow older, this seems less like a solution to our problems and we seek other forms of stress relief; often very unhealthy ones. Whereas years ago I would have run to the nearest bar, I now felt in touch with a more pure, innocent, and primal instinct to simply run away until my anxiety was gone.

Thirty minutes in and my head was clear for the first time in months. I went back two days later and the same course seemed much more difficult. I remembered how much my father loved running. At about age 8 my dad would take me running with him in the evenings through the neighborhood near our home. I never could say that I really enjoyed it very much, but I could see that my dad really did. My dad also suffered from Polio as a kid and was unable to walk for awhile. He lost a muscle in his leg and spent the rest of his life compensating for the deficiency by becoming the most active, healthy guy out of all the Waco grown-ups that I knew.

I didn't get it until many years later, as I lay paralyzed from the waist down due to fluid buildup and internal hemorrhaging, I dreamed of having my legs back. I longed for the simple feeling of freedom that my long stride would deliver. I wanted to break away from this prison that my own body had confined me in, and run as far away from my world as I could.I could literally feel the surge of spirit rushing through my legs, looking for an outlet, with nowhere to escape.

As I ran the course for the second time that week, my legs seemed heavier. A million thoughts ran through my mind, and I realized that some strange feeling of fear was holding me back. I thought of my dad, running. I imagined myself as a child, running to him, unafraid and full of love. I remembered a time once, long ago: I believe we were at the Galleria in Houston, on the top floor. A balloon lingered atop the ceiling. My dad lifted me up to reach for it, but I began to scream in terror when I saw the people many floors below. He smiled. I could feel his strong hands around my small frame as he handed me over to mom. Then, he reached up and grabbed the balloon and handed it to me.

Just as this memory was crossing my mind and I was losing myself in the run I focused my vision once again ahead of me. There, at the end of the gym, was a black balloon, slowly bouncing up and down, tied to the end of an elliptical bike. I blinked to make sure it was really there. I focused intently on the object as I imagined myself as a child again, running across the green fields at home into my father's arms. All of a sudden, I felt safe for perhaps the first time in years within my own body.

Last night, I went again, and doubled my time, resulting in the longest run of my adult life. I think I'll keep it up.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

What's the Plan? Or, Is It Not Enough to Just Keep Breathing?

Dying is easy; It's living that's a challenge. A recent conversation with good friends put me on the spot in a way that I had not anticipated, and I'm grateful that it offered a different perspective of the path that I'm on. They asked: What was I doing with my life? Why won't I get a new job and try to make more money and advance in my career? Why won't I start doing all the things I say that I should do, and live up to the goals I've set for myself? Haven't you had enough time to heal, or is that a crutch and a cop-out? These are all valid questions, and rather than choosing to be hurt or offended, I saw it as a chance to answer those questions to myself. I love my friends and I've grateful that they care enough about me to challenge me with such counterpoint.

What am I doing with my life? Well, to plainly put it, I AM still healing. I am still adjusting to being alive at all. And to be honest, I haven't quite come back to this reality and I probably never will completely. After hovering for weeks over the gaping abyss of death, only to be pulled back in at the last possible second, I find that this temporal world we've built up around our souls to be nothing more that an educational workbook. A landscape that God has painted for himself to experience through each one of his senses, as every living creature serves as a receptor to the source. To imply that God and man are separate is a delusion. We are all but nodes of the one source, experiencing and processing information all in one instant. We ARE Gnosis. And, to acknowledge this connection is the most beautiful recognition of the love that pervades existence. "We" are not alone, because there is no "we". Only the one true God.

That said, what we put into this life is indeed what we get out of it. I treat each soul I encounter along the way with kindness, patience, and understanding. I really do. If there's one positive thing I can say about myself, it's that. I try to be open to what life has to teach me. I give of my time and energy to help others through volunteer causes that I believe in. And I know that I'm still here because I do have things to do. And I know what those things are. But I haven't quite landed yet. It's not just as easy as getting out of a hospital bed and deciding you can conquer the world. I certainly thought so then. The enlightened samadhi state one achieves while dying, and the raw chemical rush of vitality one experiences after beating death are merely temporary. I didn't know that then, and I thought that energy could sustain me. But almost immediately, life started to happen again. My wife needed a change from her role as constant caregiver. She saw me through my very worst, and was ready for a less grim existence. And who can blame her? I love her no less. But life since transplant has been ever-changing. The world has not slowed down one bit, when all I needed to do was heal for a moment. Divorce, moving, dealing with family and financial crises have rendered me sufficiently breathless. So forgive me if I take a moment, just a moment, to slow down and heal myself, both physically and psychologically. The war I've been through was traumatizing, and I haven't quite come home yet.

On to the next question: Career. To answer this, a bit of context. The town that I moved to was a much slower place, a place where one could make a good day's wage, live comfortably and enjoy the ruggedly beautiful oasis that we called Austin. This is NOT meant to be another "Things were better when the Armadillo was here..." statement. This is simply to say that I've seen the mindset of this town change. Even my closest friends are hypnotized by dollar signs as they look to profit off of this city's growth, which is completely understandable. Good for you if you got in while the getting was good. But the climate of "grab it while you still can" has left many of us out in the cold with a bitter taste in our mouths. The air of constant competition is akin to watching ants scurry to the top of a mound, jockeying for the best real estate, as the mound itself is surrounding by rising water. In Austin's case, oddly enough, it'll be the opposite problem.

Is it not enough, at least for awhile, to enjoy one's work? To exist in the moment and adopt the Zen Buddhist koan of meditation through work? I will have been at KVUE for eight years in October. When I first got the job, I told myself it was a temporary solution as I looked for other work. As my illness progressed, it became a buoy as I struggled to stay afloat. And throughout eight years, it has been the one consistent thing in my life where I know I can get up, go to work, be greeted by good friends, and do something that I really enjoy doing and that I believe provides a valuable service to the community we live in. I make just enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle, travel, and put a little money away for the future. I could work harder to get access to better stuff. To have access to more grand surroundings. But guess what? I've been there. I've had all that. I've been around wealth and luxury for much of my life. And I've never seen it make anyone happier. Not one damn time.

About a year ago I panicked with the prospect of impending divorce. With a changing financial situation, I figured I'd better hurry and start looking for a better paying job. And then something happened. I really, really started enjoying my work. With so much loss and change in my life, I started to come to work every day and feel true gratitude for the wonderful family I work with. These people care deeply about me, as I them. And we care about the work that we do, and love doing it.

Many ask what I actually do with KVUE. That's kind of a tough one to answer, as my position is one that is constantly changing and morphing as the way people consume media changes as well. News no longer exists solely on television. To say that it is a dying media would be inaccurate. It is simply evolving, as synthesis will soon occur to fuse it with the social sphere. My job is to get KVUE ahead of that wave. To be on the very forefront of that change. And my co-workers have trusted me to produce the content that will lead us there. It's creatively challenging on every level. And I really, really love it. Perhaps someday I will look for another job. Or perhaps I will see where this evolving position leads me. Either way, I'm where I need to be right at this moment, and I'm with the people I need to be with.

This may all sound like a justification. I suppose it is. But it's also a chance for me to check in and assess where I am in this moment in time. And where I am is fine. I'm okay. I just need five minutes.

This old image of one of my faves, Nick Drake,  sums it up pretty well:

Do you feel like a remnant
Of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving
Just a little too fast? 

Thanks for reading, and for joining me on this journey. Love to you all.

Until God say different, I'm still:

Pat Buchta

Monday, June 30, 2014

Finding That Which Was Lost at Marlin Marina

Summer of 1976: I remember vacationing at my Great Aunt and Uncle's beach house at the Marlin Marina in Freeport, Texas. The big movie that summer was "King Kong" and I remember enthusiastically coloring a poster of the mammoth icon atop the Empire State Building while munching on Jiffy Pop. Each morning I and my brother and sis would walk the sandy block down to Addie Marlin's place, also known as the Marlin Marina restaurant. Addie would serve up cokes and ice cream as we sat on the deck, dunking our chicken legs on a string into the murky water in hopes of retrieving a few crabs for dinner. Long before the Dow Chemical Corporation took hold of the region and effectively killed off most of the local sea life, we enjoyed a successful haul most days, consisting of three or four tasty crabs each.

I remember the evening of the bicentennial quite clearly. As I walked to Addie's for a coke, a group of boys that I had seen around beckoned me in to play with some cool new toy they had procured. A kid with sandy hair and glasses enthusiastically greeted me and ushered me in to play. I had seen him before and believed him to be Addie's kid. We played and had a wonderful summer eve watching the fireworks as the cool salty breeze came in from the Gulf. The moment etched itself into my memory as the nation celebrated two hundred years of freedom. And that summer, I felt very free indeed.

Just a few months later, at the Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, I had my first liver biopsy. I remember the doctors gave me a butt-shot to put me to sleep before the procedure. It did not work as thought, so in an effort to stay on schedule they proceeded with the procedure anyway. I have a very vivid and horrific memory of these men holding me down to a table as they removed what appeared to be a small vienna sausage form my abdomen. It was indescribably painful. The trauma of seeing part of my body removed while awake effectively ended my innocence at that very moment and set me on the very journey that continued until very recently. Of course, in grand fashion, the medicine finally worked after the surgery and I slept for sixteen hours. Afterwards my Uncle Howie took me to Red Lobster and let me pick out my very own crustacean friend to take home.

In the following months, my first major surgery. I spent two more months recovering in that hospital as my body adjusted to life without a spleen. I went on to have a normal and happy childhood, albeit an unhealthy one. I conquered every challenge I took on. I became the Student Council President, was voted Prom King and Mr. WHS, and received scores of scholarships and awards. In college, my illness manifested itself once again as I found myself coughing up blood one morning. I died. I came back. I traveled. I married. I traveled more. I fell ill again. I watched as a head injury slowly and violently took my father from us. I found God again. I received the gift of life through a liver transplant. A month later, my elation at having overcome death ended as my wife asked for a divorce. I grieved. I mourned the loss in my life. And I found love again. But the tragedy, the deepening sadness, the knowledge that I was forever scarred by life, still sat heavy with me these past months.

During all this time, my Uncle Howie, a WWII submarine vet, had been living his life in the same place all these years. He had lost my Aunt Edith over ten years ago, and now approaching 90, he had settled in to a quiet life in Lake Jackson with his dog Ebby. After my dad's passing, my mom began to spend more time with the man who had raised her as his own when her own father passed at age thirty, coughing up blood just as I had many years later. She stayed with Howie for months on end, and last summer I visited once again as we all journeyed down to Quintana Beach to catch a bevy of Whiting for a quick shore lunch.
We went once again to the Addie's and I was amazed that after all this time, it was still in operation. Addie, now 87, was still in the kitchen cooking up burgers and fries as she had done for the past 60+ years. The sandy haired kid with glasses, her son, now my age, waited on us.

We returned to Addie's this weekend. She's still there, older and more tired, as she regaled us with tales of drunken patrons from the previous weekend. I surveyed the old bar and thought of the thousands of tales of old salty longshoremen and oil riggers who must have sat on those barstools, gazing down at the formica bar, drunk on cold beer, as the salt air of the bay whipped in behind their backs.
I though back to the innocent child that still looked at the world with wonder and trust that Fourth of July evening almost exactly thirty-seven years ago. As Mom, Howie, Meg and I sat on the edge of the dock after lunch, dangling our toes in the water once again, I thought of all the places I've seen and all the people I've been.
All the loss, pain, sorrow, and joy I've experienced in my life. And throughout it all, this place was here all the time, playing host to thousands of other memories, other lives, other heartbreaks and tragedies, other loves, other triumphs and other letdowns. And that is a very comforting thought indeed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


I awoke in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Fumbling through the darkness, I showered and dressed and made my way to my car in the windy, cold morning. I arrived at the station early, in time to brew a cup of coffee before I sat down to my second television interview of the week.

Although the studio lights were blinding at that early hour, I could see the tears form in Jade's eyes as she recalled talking to my surgeon two years before and learning then that I had only hours to live when my gift of life came through.

Sunday marked exactly two years since my life-saving liver transplant. In that time, I have grown healthy for the first time in my life, launched a nonprofit to help increase organ donor registration, lost my marriage to the trauma that ripped through our lives like a wildfire out of control, and have started to reassemble the broken pieces of my former life into a new one.

Later that day, I celebrated my second birthday in the best way possible: with organ donor families and recipients who had come together to share their stories, mourn their losses, and rejoice in the gift of life. I watched as a mother grieved the loss of her twenty four year old son and celebrated the life of the young woman who received his liver. I watched as that same young woman, whom I had met during recovery at Baylor Medical in Dallas, tearfully thanked her donor family for saving her life. I rejoiced as the Mayor Pro Tem announced a city resolution to promote organ donation that will be on council agenda this very week. And finally, I humbly stood as a room full of gentle souls applauded my life and my work, marking my transplant anniversary as a true milestone.

The next day, I awoke anxious and tired. I could not put a finger on what was eating me, but I felt restless and unsatisfied. For the first time in months, I had no obligations looming on my calendar. I had steered my department through a very successful promotions campaigns during the Oscars. I had served as project lead on KVUE's media tent during a three-day outdoor music festival at Butler Park during SXSW. And now, just a week later, I had finished an emotional event to help save lives. So why was I so wound up? I arrived at home after work and immediately crawled into bed. Within minutes, I decided I had better shake this feeling off with some physical exercise, and went for a long walk. I arrived back at home later and felt physically better, but mentally I was even more upset than before, as if getting my blood circulating had only agitated this growing feeling of malaise surrounding me.

And then it happened. The bookend to years and years of unbelievable sorrow, anguish, misfortune, pain, and loss. For the very first time since before transplant, I broke. I wept uncontrollably for what seemed like an eternity. My body shook as all the trauma of what I had experienced finally caught up with me, feeling more real that ever before. I wept for the loss of my innocence. I wept for the loss of my father for the first time, an emotion I had not had time to process since his death was followed almost immediately by my own demise. I wept for the loss of my wife and her family, who had been by my side throughout the most difficult time in my life, knowing that I would never see many of them again, or experience the calm of knowing that I had a strong family support system to take care of me if all else failed. I wept in recognizance of the fact that I had been to war, and although I had won my life, the resulting casualties would make that victory seem much less sweet. And I wept lastly because it's over now. Because finally, my feet have landed. I'm going to be okay. And I have absolutely no idea what comes next.

Today the sun shone brightly as I rose. Today music sounded more rich, with more promise, than ever before. Today, I begin.