The Transmutation of Sufjan Stevens

sink hair“Can I sail through the changin’ ocean tides? “ – Stevie Nicks

 Almost three years ago Angie and I made a road trip up to Indianapolis during the weekend of Record Store Day. We had tickets to see Sufjan Stevens perform at the Murat Theatre, which still remains one of my favorite venues to this day. It was the best Record Store Day we’ve participated in. We spent the day standing in line at a local Indianapolis store to pick up new releases, and we wrapped it up with an amazing concert. Since then, listening to the music of Sufjan brought back memories of that trip

Last Tuesday Angie went in for second round of chemotherapy. Unlike the first visit, the nurses pumped Benadryl into Angie’s system quickly, and she passed out within 30 minutes and slept through the entire session. The needle was inserted into the port with very little discomfort, and Dr. Rodgers felt good about Angie’s blood cell count. It was a near-perfect chemo session, if there is such a thing.

Two nights later, I was sleeping soundly when I heard a voice.

“Cam?” It was Angie standing over me at 2 A.M. in the morning. “Can you come to the bathroom,” she asked of me? As I stood up, I could hear music playing. It was coming from the bathroom, where I found a sink filled with a football-sized clumping of hair. Angie’s face was grief-stricken. She had been standing over the sink for a while just shaking the hair from her head. She felt lonely, even with the music playing, so she woke me up to be with her as her hair continued to fall out.

I haven’t asked her why she was listening to Sufjan Stevens while all this was happening. His music is calming. His voice is soft. Maybe she found comfort in that. Maybe it brought back memories of a better time and place, like that one weekend in Indy. Nonetheless, for me, the music couldn’t possibly distract me from the hurt that my wife was experiencing at that hour.

But then the lyrics began to break through my confusion and stress:

I drove to New York

In a van, with my friend

We slept in parking lots

I don’t mind, I don’t mind

 This song, according to Sufjan, is about a trip he made when he was 19 years old. He and a few friends took a weekend trip to Chicago to get away from school and they managed to survive with only $20 in their pocket. Suddenly, I was struck with the urge to grab Angie’s hand, jump in the car and drive off, leaving behind her pains, her discomforts, and this terrible fucking disease. Of course, we can’t do such. Treating cancer isn’t as easy as packing up and running away. There aren’t many problems that can be solved in such a manner.

So, there we were in the early hours of the morning, watching significant physical changes take place right before our eyes.   Angie’s new haircut lasted about a week before the chemotherapy took it away. As the sink filled up with hair, and my wife sulked in the mirror, I am reminded by Sufjan that “all things grow.” I hope Angie doesn’t forget this particular change is not a permanent one. I’m confident in her ability to accept what she cannot control so that she can continue forward.

After the hair settled and I cleaned the sink, we both went back to bed. I reminded myself of a question I asked Angie last month pertaining to songs taking on new meaning after being diagnosed with cancer. Next time I hear the music of Sufjan Stevens, the first thing I think of won’t be our trip to Indianapolis; it will be the memory of the ache on Angie’s face as she began to realize the cold reality of this unwelcome disease and it’s constantly changing tides.


Two Birds, One Stone

IMG_3545hair“There ain’t no words for the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my hair.” – The Cowsills

When Angie was younger, she got a wad of gum stuck in her hair.  The only reasonable solution was to have her mother cut her hair.  From the description Angie gave me, the right side of her head was much shorter than the left side.  It was a bad haircut and it was documented courtesy of her school picture day; a nightmare for any adolescent.

We spent the Christmas holiday in the frozen tundra of Springfield, Massachusetts, Angie’s hometown.  The larger part of Angie’s family still lives there, including the matriarch of the family, Angie’s grandmother.  It’s a sixteen hour drive from Nashville, and to be honest, the monotony of being in the car for that amount of time causes my brain to zone out.  It’s hard to recollect any conversation, jokes or music from such a long drive.  Either way, we were looking forward to spending the next week with the nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles.  But, in the back of Angie’s mind, she had another item on the docket; a brand new haircut.

It was strongly suggested to Angie to go ahead and do what she wants with her hair before the inevitable.  Shave it, buzz it, Mohawk, spikes, mullets, anything that she has ever wanted to try.  It’s a way of taking some control over something which she really has no control.  Most of the Springfield fam gathered at Marie’s (Angie’s Aunt) house one night after Christmas.  Angie’s cousin Guilmond had scissors and clippers, and Angie found herself sitting on a stool in the middle of the kitchen.  It was bittersweet.  Angie’s little niece, Emma, obviously began to grow sad as the first locket of hair was cut off.  Emma loves hair that is as long as the princesses she idolizes.  I was sad, as well.  With all the fun that was being had with the kids opening presents from Santa, and the Yankee Gift Swap where I ended up with a comically large flask, this was the first moment since we arrived in Springfield that I was reminded that my wife was sick.

We blasted some music as Angie’s hair fell to the floor with each snip. Her family took their turns clipping and shaving her hair. Everyone was talking, laughing, catching up and carrying on as if this was just a regular haircut. It was a strong statement.  There couldn’t possibly be a better way for her family to say, “We are here for you.”  After the ears were lowered, Angie’s cousin Meaghan began to apply the new hair color.  Turquoise was Angie’s choice.  Since there was less hair to dye after the cut, the rest of her family each decided to color a streak of their own hair as a final statement of support.

Angie was excited about the new style.  It was edgy, current and looked really good on her.  She was excited to show her friends and coworkers in Nashville.  I was happy to see how happy she was with her decision.  Unfortunately, a few days later, while taking a bath, Angie began to notice hair loss for the first time.  It was a quick and hard fall back to reality for both of us.  She won’t be able to flaunt her new hair for much longer as Dr. Rodgers thinks Angie will be hair-free by her third chemo treatment.

At least she won’t have to worry about school picture day.

New customized playlist:

Angie’s Army

unnamed“I’ll be there for you when the rain starts to pour.” – The Rembrandts

Since we’ve lived here, there have been a couple of conversations between Angie and me about whether or not we should move away from Tennessee.  Maybe we were thinking about moving to her hometown in Massachusetts, where she can be closer to her only sister.  Maybe we were talking about moving back to my home of North Carolina where we could be closer to my only brother, Pat, and his wife and two boys.  We’ve obviously never followed through, and we probably won’t since we settled down this year.  I feel stressed just writing about the idea of packing all our stuff.  But, it also makes me realize how much I would miss our friends (and all the dope concerts).

Our first day of chemotherapy began with a 5AM alarm.  I have to give myself time to shave and shower before I wake Angie at 6AM.  My first attempt to wake her was countered with a, “Give me ten more minutes.”  I obliged.  It’s not like they’re going to start the chemo without her.  What are a few minutes of tardiness?  Once she makes it to the bathtub, I head out to the living room to make sure we’ve got everything we need for our long day.  Headphones, blanket, nausea candy, lip balm, and so on.  Our dogs seemed a little baffled to see Angie up that early.  While she was in the bath, it sounded like Angie was blasting the Insecure Soundtrack.

Our car ride was very calm.  The Wild Reeds came on over the radio.  Angie proposed that we buy the Carolina Panthers as a Christmas present to ourselves.  There’s that humor I love.  Once I parked the car at the hospital, I immediately took note of which level we were on because I’m trying to break a terrible habit of getting lost in parking garages.  As we walked away from the car, I could sense tension coming over Angie.  Maybe it was her sudden realization that today was the beginning of a battle.  Maybe she realized that on the other side of those doors awaited her battle ground.  I started growing tense as well, but unlike Angie, I knew something was about to ease the tension.

It wasn’t a big surprise like the ones where people jump out from behind couches, turn on the lights and yell “surprise” when trying the give someone a 40th birthday party.  It was better than that.  Several coworkers, friends and family were inside waiting to show Angie the amount of support she can expect during her treatment.  She didn’t expect it, but then again, maybe she did.  With folks like this in your life, how could you not know that they’ll be there for you?  After Angie was able to distribute about thirty hugs to everyone, we all gathered around for a prayer before she headed up to begin chemo.

It would be impossible for me to estimate how much that collective show of support improved the day.    It confirmed what we already believed.  It is also the cancer insight I have to offer today:  Surround yourself with people that care for you.  They’ll be there when you need them.

Inserting the needle into Angie’s port proved to be more painful than we thought it would be.  It took two nurses to get it in correctly.  Angie described the pain as “being stabbed.” Dr. Rogers finds it amusing that patients keep choosing to use that word.  While this “attack” was happening, I could hear Christmas music playing from the hallway speakers every time a nurse or doctor opened the door to the “stabbin’ cabin”.  It was surreal watching my wife getting a needle stuck in her while Burl Ives tries to convince me how rough Rudolf had it.  Angie also used this experience as a chance to share her own brand of self-defense with the staff.

“If someone came at me with a knife, it wouldn’t be a matter of fight or flight.  I would just get stabbed and fall down. “

Angie spent the majority of the session asleep in her chair, with headphones on and her feet propped up on my lap.  We were greeted in the “chemo room” by a gentleman named Carl.  He could tell this was our first time.  Carl is currently fighting his second bout of cancer, so he offered several points of advice for Angie, like the magic of ginger.  “It can be ginger root, ginger candy, ginger ale, or ginger snaps,” he told us.

“I love ginger!”  Angie was a little too excited to announce this fact.

“Well, you’re going to be fine, then,” Carl concluded.

Right on, Carl.  Right on.

Today’s customized playlist:

The Port-o Rican

“When life is hard, you have to change.” – Shannon Hoon

Angie and I became first-time homeowners in May of this year.  It was an important step in our lives.  A big step.  We saved up and shopped for a home for an entire year before we found our current home.  We loved it when we saw it.  It wasn’t perfect, and we knew there would be a lot of changes we would make during renovation.  Making the house our home quickly became our focus.  We were excited and looking forward to the hard work we’d have to put into it.  Nothing good in life really comes easy, and this home was going to be our shining example of that fact.   I think we’re going to miss those days when our only worries revolved around laying down floors and mounting cabinets.

Angie is in surgery as I write this.  She is having a port installed for chemotherapy.  The port will be placed underneath the skin.  This will make it much easier for a needle to be inserted, and that is how the chemo medicine will be administered.  It would appear that she has really skinny veins, because it took three or four different nurses to get a needle inserted, so this port will save her some pain over the months.  My aunt (a breast cancer survivor) pointed out this fact earlier in the week by claiming, “Nurses are infamously bad at finding the viens.  They treated me like a pincushion.”

We had to be at the hospital by 6:15 this morning.  Due to that fact, we passed on a Birdcloud concert last night at The Basement East.  I bought tickets about a week before we knew this surgery would happen.  I woke Angie at 5AM before I started warming up the car.  Angie drove to the hospital because she is easily the superior Nashville driver between the two of us.  She scanned through a few stations on the radio before she settled on The Cranberries “Dreams”.  I derive great joy from hearing Angie sing Cranberries songs, but I suppose it was too early this morning to get a sing-along out of her.

While we waited in the lobby, Angie mentioned that Matisyahu, a jewish rapper, was coming to Nashville.  Like I said before, music is a huge part of lives.  As soon as we attend (or miss) one show, we’re usually looking for the next one to attend.  I couldn’t help but recall the last time she saw Matisyahu.  It was in Myrtle Beach, and we had been dating for a short time.  Anyone that knows Angie will attest to her bizarre fixation on the jewish culture.  So, needless to say, she was more than happy to dance in a venue full of jewish men while Matisyahu performed on stage.  If we buy tickets to that show in Nashville, she’ll have to be a bit more conservative with the men she dances with, she’s a married woman now.    

Angie was in a hospital bed by 7:30 AM, and many nurses had attempted to stick her.  She was getting fed up.  We were both hungry and thirsty (Angie couldn’t eat or drink past midnight), and I wasn’t going to let her starve alone.  After the nurses left the room, Angie pulled up a song on her phone.  “Come sit next to me and listen to this”, she said.  

The song started with a slow bass line, a snap on the snare, then a clean guitar solo rang in.  After a few minutes of instrumental calm, the lyrics finally arrive:

Oh, that city music.  Oh, that city sound.

I’ve never heard it before, but it was obvious that Angie had.  She knew what song she needed to hear to ease the angst she was feeling from being poked with needles.  A smile quickly replaced her sulk, and she slowly closed her eyes as if she were trying focus only with her ears.

When the nurses rolled Angie out for surgery, I took her phone (and music) away from her and headed down to the cafeteria to eat breakfast and plan out the weekend, which is preparing Angie for Monday morning.  I’ll need to clean the house, buy food that is chemo-friendly, and get the bills organized.  Basically, everything that doesn’t involve home renovations.  But, we’ll have a fun little shopping spree with her, finding items to help her stay comfortable and warm and occupied during those coming days, weeks, months after she begins losing her long, beautiful hair.  

Life is about to get hard.  Luckily, Shannon Hoon warned me years ago.

Enjoy the newest customized playlist here:  The Port-o Rican

The Gift of Forgetfulness

“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” -Bob Marley

You’ll have to excuse me for not rolling out the red carpet. Unlike the music award shows that are held in Nashville, this isn’t exactly the type of event that anyone would really celebrate.   Instead of a guest list that features the likes of Charlie Daniels, Reba McEntire, or Sturgill Simpson (like he’d show up anyway), our only guest is uninvited. It crashes the party that we call life, and makes itself at home. I’m talking about cancer, or in Angie’s case, Invasive Ductal Mammary Carcinoma.

Over the course of the next several months, my wife, Angelica Dones, and I will begin the eviction of this unwanted guest. I will share with you information about our battle, as well as the music that we use to cope, empower, and move forward. Each post will feature a link to a new customized Spotify playlist that will give you an opportunity to step into our shoes and experience this battle as we do.   You may not lose your hair. You may not experience fatigue. But, you will hear how we decorate our time battling a stage IIB cancer.

On a Friday in November, I came home to find Angie on the porch and her work car in the driveway. She never gets home from work before I do.  Twenty minutes prior, she had called me and asked that I come home from the office. I couldn’t tell you how far along I made it down Ellington Parkway before I realized I wasn’t listening to any music. I remedied the silence by turning on SiriusXM, the Tom Petty Channel, just as I had left it that morning. As I walked up the steps, Angie was sitting at our bistro table, hunched over and ending a conversation on the phone. The leaves on the Bradford Pear Trees in our yard had just started falling that week, a sign of the coming changes.    

That was the day we found out. That’s the day everything flipped over into the Upside Down. I broke down in tears as Angie struggled to say three words, four syllables, “I have cancer.” She sobbed as I put my arms around her. It wouldn’t be another several weeks until we got the full diagnosis. But, in that moment on the porch, we were hurting as if Angie was handed a death sentence.

Let me tell you this now: Angie isn’t dying.  

There is no amount of time greater than the weeks spent waiting for your wife’s cancer diagnosis, at least from what I can tell. After we spent an entire afternoon calling our immediate family, all we did was wait without a definite answer to the question, “Is it bad?” We were ready to get some solid information so we could plow forward and beat the cancer!! But, as I read in the book Breast Cancer Husband, any good doctor will double-check an MRI or biopsy before declaring the stage of a cancer, even if it means following up with a repeat of prior tests.  The following weeks were spotted with visits to the Cancer Center at St Thomas, in Nashville. Angie would have to go through two biopsies and an MRI before we met with a medical oncologist.

At this point, we now know the extent of the disease of which we are dealing.  We know chemotherapy will start on December 18th.  Her port will be installed this Friday.  We do know there will be a mastectomy.  I imagine as things develop, she and I will begin to find new appreciation for things we may not have given enough time or thought.  One thing we have always had a deep appreciation for is music.  Heck, while we were on the elevator headed up to see the oncologist for the first time, Angie was on her phone trying to snag tickets to see Margo Price at the Ryman. Fortunately, music radiates in our lives, and we’ve used it to help us cope with the news of cancer.  Also, let me point out that Angie listened to B.I.G. and Salt-N-Pepa when I first met her.  Eight years later, she’s trying to see Margo Price in concert.  I’m proud of that progress.

I asked Angie if there are any songs she’s giving special attention to lately because of the song’s message and how it relates to the cancer.

“Most of the music I’ve listened to as of late has given me the wonderful gift of forgetfulness.  The artists that have been on heavy rotation have allowed me to escape.  I just groove to them, or belt out like a motherfucker (mostly alone, you’re welcome, public).  Yaeji, Kendrick, Zephaniah Ohora, Whitney Houston . . . “  

Damn, I guess Bob was right.

Click For Playlist: