Last December, when I announced my lymphoma diagnosis on this blog, I promised I would be dancing at the Oct. 10 wedding of my youngest son, Tom, and Ashley Douglass.
At that time, my hope and plan was that I would be finished with treatment by then. I needed to wait a minimum of 21 days between each of eight rounds of chemotherapy (which would damage my immune system). Then they would harvest some stem cells from me, and then I’d get them back in a stem-cell transplant that would restore my immune system. Treatment started Dec. 20 (Mimi’s birthday), so I marked all my rounds of treatment on the calendar and figured we’d finish by late June.
Well, marriage is way better than chemo (at least mine has been), so don’t take this metaphor any further than this point: In both cases, you really don’t know what’s going to unfold when you start out.
If you haven’t already read about all the delays and complications of my treatment on my CaringBridge journal, you can find details there, if you care. But they involve low platelet counts, an infection, meningitis, a weak stem-cell harvest and a brain surgery. The only thing that worked out as planned was that chemo kicked cancer’s ass. A May PET scan showed “no active disease,” so that listing of delays is not a complaint (well, not much), but an explanation that for a while we weren’t sure whether I would make it to the wedding.
At one point, Tom and Ashley began exploring alternative dates, which would have been a huge hassle for everyone. We encouraged sticking with the date. At that point (before the brain surgery), we were confident I’d be finished in time to make it to the wedding. But the August brain surgery (and low platelets, which had caused the brain bleed) caused another long delay in my stem-cell harvest and transplant. And my oncologists and neurosurgeon all said I’d be OK to fly to the wedding. So, for the first time since early December, I left Louisiana Thursday, flying into the very familiar Dulles International Airport.
For much of the last decade-plus, I would fly two or three dozen times a year. Just packing for the trip took a bit of jogging of the memory. Early in my treatment, when I started losing my hair, friends and family brought and sent me a wide array of hats and caps. When the hair was falling out, they were kind of essential, to keep the fleeing strands of hair in the cap, rather than on my shirt or keyboard or in my food (though that didn’t keep beard hairs from finding all those locations and more). And maybe sometimes I wore the caps for vanity as I got used to the bald head. In Louisiana, I didn’t wear them often for warmth, but sometimes I wore them just because the hat felt better than the suddenly bare head.
But my last heavy-duty chemo was in June. And my hair is returning at least as thick as it was before. Even the strip shaved for my brain surgery was pretty narrow and has grown back. So I haven’t been wearing hats lately. Wednesday night, I considered packing a cap or hat briefly, but knew the wedding would be in a wooded area and I wouldn’t have time to walk much, if any, in the sun. So I didn’t pack any headgear.
The weekend was wonderful. I count 28 members of Mimi’s and my extended families who made it to the Maryland venues along the Potomac for Friday night’s rehearsal dinner and Saturday’s wedding. And I wouldn’t even try to count all of Ashley’s family and Tom and Ashley’s friends, but both joints were rocking.
We were pleased that some of the family allowed time for some touring in Washington, a city we have come to love. We also enjoyed a dinner Thursday evening in downtown DC with some of those arriving early, followed by drinks at the Virginia hotel room of another couple who arrived too late Thursday.
Five friends from my days in the Washington area joined me for lunch Friday at the Old Anglers Inn, where we would have the rehearsal dinner later that evening. It was a quiet contrast to the noisy events that would follow, catching up on people from different slices of my life and career, going back 30 years. We dined in the outdoor seating area, one of those lovely fall afternoons that make you fall in love with the Washington area all over again.
Seeing our granddaughters, Julia and Madeline, was a true highlight of the weekend. While all of our sons and their wives have visited during my treatment, Mike always visited without the girls. Given my battered immune system, hugging little girls who have invariably been exposed recently to some sort of bug wasn’t a good idea since I last saw them at Thanksgiving. But the doctors said I was OK for visiting family now. The girls could not have been more charming or more fun.
The afternoon was still beautiful when we drove down after lunch to the wedding venue, Rockwood Manor. The ceremony would take place outdoors, with mighty oak trees providing a lush, green backdrop. But falling acorns quickly raised concerns among loved ones. That brain bleed in August had been caused by a conk on the head, my doctors said, though I couldn’t recall any bump as notable as an acorn bouncing off my skull. For the rehearsal, I sheltered my recently repaired head with an umbrella. Nothing hit the umbrella, but the occasional pings of acorns on the manor’s metal stairs made it seem a good idea to protect my dome.
Custom gives the groom’s parents responsibility for the rehearsal dinner. Mimi and I had chosen Old Angler’s Inn as the venue before leaving the Washington area last year. When we reserved the date, we agreed most of the preparations could wait until this year. But when the time came to dig in to the details, it was a particularly bad time for Mimi and me, and Tom’s brothers and their wives — Mike, Susie, Joe and Kim — took over the planning. All I had to work on was my toast. And I started working on it months ago.
The brothers’ best planning move came a week or so before the dinner, when the long-range forecast showed a chance of rain. Mike decided to reserve a tent to cover the inn’s outdoor garden bar, where we were having the dinner. He figured that reserving the tent would ensure we’d have beautiful weather. Well, not quite, but it was still a great move.
The afternoon’s beautiful weather had given way to evening clouds. And before most of the guests arrived, we had a torrential downpour. Tables near the edge of the tent were getting wet and guests dashing in from the parking lot were drenched. On the edge of the garden, where the buffet table was set up, a roaring river a few feet wide dashed down to the walkway from the parking lot. Guests came in through the restaurant instead, still drenched.
But the bar was under an eave, and the restaurant staff quickly moved the food to a table in a dry area. And we partied on. Mimi and I had a great conversation with Ashley’s parents, Randy and Kathy. Mimi’s brother, John, and sisters, Carol, Donna and Mary had arrived in time for dinner, along with most of their children (all grown) and an assortment of spouses, boyfriends and grandchildren. My brother, Dan, also made it Friday evening, and more of my extended family would arrive the next day.
Nieces, nephews, siblings, in-laws and a great niece and great nephew asked me again and again to tell my story about being “marked” earlier in the week by Mike the tiger, LSU’s on-campus mascot, a live Bengal/Siberian tiger mix. It’s tough to top a good tiger urine story, especially one that involves needing to clean your glasses.
We had a great time, but with the noise and disruption of the storm, we decided to put the toasts off until the next evening.
Eventually the storm moved on and we just kept partying. Mike, Joe and Kim served root beer floats (Bailey’s Irish cream optional, an option I chose). And we were just getting started. The main event was coming Saturday. Friday’s storm was fierce enough to make a good wedding story, which every wedding needs, but brief enough to avoid a wedding disaster.
Saturday’s weather and Sunday’s were as spectacular as Friday afternoon’s. I went shopping for some sort of hat Saturday morning with my brother, Dan, and sister, Carol, but we didn’t find a nice ball cap at nearby shops. A stocking cap at a drug store and a hard hat at a hardware store were my best options. But Dan offered me his Detroit Tigers cap. I’d have preferred a New York Yankees cap or at least an LSU Tigers cap (both of which were among the array of caps I’d left at home). But I’m a good sport, and the Tigers had an even worse year than the Yankees this year, so I said yes.
Dan has as huge a head as I do, so the cap fit easily and I was able to pad it with a washcloth from our cabin. But my son, Mike, offered even a better option, a Kansas City Royals cap, so I protected my skull with the logo of my second-favorite team. Both the bride and groom were going to walk down the aisle with parents, so I took the risk to remove the cap to walk Tom down the aisle with Mimi, all of us beaming. Then I popped the cap back on. However, the previous night’s storm appeared to have pounded and shaken all the loose acorns from the trees. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any fall during the wedding. If any targeted my head, it was padded well enough that I never noticed.
By time for the wedding, all seven branches of Mimi’s and my families would be represented in our generation or Tom’s or both, as well as some from the next generation. I saw a three-generation photo being shot in Ashley’s family, too.
I’ve never cared much about the flower-girl-ring-bearer aspect of weddings. I’m sure it’s a lot of fun for the little boy or girl involved, so I was never annoyed, just kind of casual and disinterested: Sure, if you want to let a couple young members of the family join in the ceremony, whatever. But when I saw Julia and Madeline’s excitement over their lovely dresses and shoes, that was somehow different. And they weren’t just scattering flower petals. They were armed with bubble guns, leading the wedding processional with a cloud of bubbles. And I should add this: Someday Madeline’s going to be a bridesmaid (probably at Julia’s wedding, maybe a few more), and she’ll probably wear the dress(es) only for the wedding, as most bridesmaids do. But this bubble girl had her dress back on the next morning. She waited a long time to wear this dress and she’s going to get some use from it.
As a father of three sons, I never had a daughter to walk down the aisle, but I was pleased that we were in the procession, walking Tom down the aisle together.
Now that we’re into the ceremony, it’s time for a flashback. Three years ago, our niece, Meg and her fiancé Dave asked Mimi and me to preside at their wedding. In Colorado, we learned, it’s legal for anyone to preside at a wedding. So we were simultaneously deeply honored and a bit terrified. We’d never performed a wedding ceremony before and the last thing you want to do is screw up the wedding of a beloved niece. Well, we got through that OK. And that wedding was the first family gathering where Ashley joined our family.
Well, Tom and Ashley apparently liked how that went, so they asked Meg’s parents, Mary and Jim, to preside at Saturday’s ceremony. It was their turn to be honored and terrified. Each of our sons has had a different one of his brothers as best man, and the other, as a groom’s man. So standing up there in front of the assembled family and friends were all three of our sons, our new daughter-in-law and a sister and brother-in-law. The ceremony couldn’t have been more beautiful and meaningful. Mary and Jim and Tom and Ashley together wrote a personalized and poignant ceremony, with vows each had written, lovely readings and music by friends. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who both laughed out loud and brushed away tears.
Then it was time for an even bigger party, with ultra-cool lighting provided by Joe and Kim, pros who brought their lights and other gear in from Las Vegas somehow in checked luggage. We ate Vietnamese food catered by a truck (the bride and groom are from DC, where food trucks are enormously popular).
I met a journalist friend of Tom and Ashley’s who knew of me (some journos do read this blog), but had never realized I was Tom’s Dad. I met a friend of Ashley’s who follows me on Twitter and encouraged another friend to livetweet her chemotherapy, citing me as an example. I re-met friends of Tom’s from high school and college, and Washington roommates from his pre-Ashley days, as well as meeting some of his and Ashley’s friends I hadn’t met before.
— Just the Bottle (@JusttheBottle) October 11, 2015
I won’t repeat the toast here (embarrassing but sweet stories from a grown man’s childhood are best told among family and friends), but it went over well. And, as I vowed last December and several times since when it looked doubtful, I danced at my son’s wedding. Promise kept, even if it wasn’t a pretty sight.
A Sunday lunch buffet continued the fun as family prepared to scatter. I didn’t get enough time to spend with anyone, but I reconnected under happier circumstances with family who have visited me during treatment and chatted up several nieces and nephews I hadn’t seen since before my treatment started.
We got home from the wedding Sunday night, exhausted and happy, but a little nervous. Monday afternoon I was scheduled to visit my oncologist and learn the results of last week’s PET scan. Everyone at the wedding told me I looked healthy, and the PET scan confirmed that: No sign of cancer. My important blood counts for my stem-cell harvest – platelets, white count and hemoglobin – are all rising, too. The transplant team will meet Friday and discuss when to schedule my next harvest and my transplant.
I didn’t dance over that news (I was sitting down at the moment), but I did regard it as a continuation of the family’s weekend of celebrating.
Back to CaringBridge: Since announcing my diagnosis on this blog, I have provided treatment updates mostly on CaringBridge, rather than here. Since I promised on the blog that I’d be dancing at Tom’s wedding, I decided it was time for another personal post here. I’ll resume blogging mostly about journalism here. If you’re interested in more frequent updates on the stem-cell harvest and transplant — and any other treatment — you can get those on CaringBridge.
Thanks for the photos: My cellphone was giving me problems this weekend, so I thank family members who provided photos for this post. And I apologize for those people working on the Instagram scavenger hunt in the wedding program who didn’t get a shot of me looking at my phone (it was actually an item on the list). I don’t need my phone to have one of the best weekends of my life.