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Essays

How Birdwatching Helps Save Me From Chronic Pain

'Peace and patience' are rare commodities when you live with pain... but a day spent birding is an extra day added to your life.

I was a sickly, underweight nine-year-old using borrowed skates in the playground when one leg went east and the other west. That dark night, deeply in shock, my hospital bed was packed with sandbags to stop me moving. Full of morphine so the shock would wear off before surgery, I was fearful of the long sleep so, to stay awake I grasped onto and befriended my pain. This strange relationship with pain and disassociation with physical reality augured a life beset with, but not defined by physical dysfunction.

Even after I was out of the hospital, I spent a year barely walking, and doctors told me that perhaps I had some underlying condition, which would turn out to be ankylosing spondylitis. Struggling to find alternatives to bed, books, and boredom, my Dad took me to the lake, where we drowned worms and watched wildlife while fish ignored our bait.

One day, quiet and still on the water’s edge, a kingfisher landed on my rod, dived for a minnow, and flew away. He left behind a birder.

Almost sixty years after that kingfisher landed on my fishing pole, I still fish a little, but my lifelong passion is birding… and in watching birds, these everyday miracles of feather and flight have helped save me from the pain, depression and tiresome routines of a life of chronic illness.

These everyday miracles of feather and flight have helped save me from the pain, depression and tiresome routines of a life of chronic illness.

For two decades now I have been defined by birds and birding; writing about birding under the name ‘Fatbirder’ (the curvature of my back may be fickle fate, but the curvature of my front is mostly overindulgence.) During that time, I have traveled the world to see new birds, and found where the developed world makes a big deal out of the cost of making things accessible, the third world uses their ingenuity. (At home, it can take a week to get a wheelchair puncture fixed and months to install a ramp, in Kenya a puncture was repaired in minutes and a ramp installed between arrival and lunch an hour later!) Those travels are recorded in my book, A~Z of Birds.

Through birding, I have come to appreciate the ‘social model’ of disability. The disease or injury you have isn’t what disables you: it’s society’s response, (or mostly lack of it) which is disabling. The advantage of this concept of disability is that it stops you from seeing yourself as the problem, or relating to the world only through your disease or injury. Pursuing that model is just and proper. Moreover, when you stop relating to the world only through its interface with your infirmity you can transcend the labels that society often applies.

For me that transcending behavior is watching birds.  One could be quite simplistic and assume it’s all about the freedom of flying that birds embody. Our earth-bound bodies seem a poor second to the three-dimensional life of birds. What we must do at rest, some birds do on the wing. Some, like Swifts, fledge and stay airborne for as long as four years eating, mating and even sleeping high in the sky. But it is so much more than this.

Our earth-bound bodies seem a poor second to the three-dimensional life of birds.

It is hard to define the magnetic attraction of observing birds. Yes, they master an element we have taken millennia to even enter. Yes, many have intrinsic beauty. Yes, their songs can transport you to a concert hall or haunt you with their sadness, and yes, many show amazing intelligence despite their tiny brains. The truth has many levels from beauty to awe, from the loyalty of life mating storks, to the super-fast voracity of a hawk or the plaintive call of a curlew on a moor. For me, it is that I become captured by their movement, haunted by their song, inspired by their jeweled or cryptic plumage. It is no one aspect, nor even all aspects, but the fact that I become lost. And in becoming lost, I lose my pain, transcend my physical restrictions and forget the daily drudgery of medication and disabled daily living.

The novelist wrote ‘I am camera’, not ‘I am a photographer’. Somewhere around twenty years ago I stopped being someone who watches birds and became ‘birder’. I watch birds, make a living through birds, write about birds, travel for birds, and  passionately defend birds against habitat destruction. Birding doesn’t just define me: it saves me from myself. It’s not only mindfulness, although doing what you enjoy definitely does you good. Bird song is the choir and nature the cathedral that define my spirituality, taking my soul where the frail body cannot go.

Birding doesn’t just define me: it saves me from myself.

In 1653, in ‘The Complete Angler’ Isaac Walton talked of Sir Henry Wotton, describing him as… ‘a most dear lover and a frequent practicer of the Art of Angling’; of which he would say, “‘Twas an employment for his idle time, which was then not idly spent, a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness;” and “that it begat habits of peace and patience in those that professed and practised it.”

All of which could be said about birding, but in spades. ‘Peace and patience’ are rare commodities when you live with pain, the daily grind of taking hours to achieve what able-bodied people can do in minutes, or the frustration of seeing what is often out of your reach. Those vicissitudes rob you of days, but a day spent birding is an extra day added to your life.

Photo provided under Creative Commons license by Flickr user coniferconifer.

Essays

How Do You Talk To Your Kids When You Have Cancer?

My diagnosis is teaching me about fatherhood, and how to prepare my kids for the day when I'm not around anymore

Weeks before my son was born, I had my first seizure.

It exploded in epic grand mal fashion, turning the evening sky into the brightest rainbow I had ever seen. For a minute or two, the corner of Austin’s 3rd and Congress turned into a dance of brilliant color.

When I opened my eyes, less than a second later, I was strapped to a gurney, covered with blood.

The author and his son, Soren.

This traumatic turn of events was what led to me being diagnosed with oligoastrocytoma, a type of terminal brain cancer. But before I could even think about what this meant for me, I needed to think about what it meant for my pregnant wife–then in her third trimester– and the child that was soon to come.

I didn’t have long to think about it, though. Six weeks later, and only hours after my second brain surgery, my son Soren was born. The surgeons had only just finished closing the hole in my head with 140 staples, having just extracted the last visible traces of my tumor.

Ever since that moment, almost four years ago, I’ve been two things: a cancer survivor, and a father. I’m technically living on borrowed time, but my wife, Erin, and I do our best to keep moving forward. After Soren, we added a brand new set of twins to our already cacophonous lives, and I joined the ranks of stay-at-home dad to give myself more time to heal.

Each day brings new challenges — not as traumatic as chemo and radiation, but interesting in their own way, because beginning a family while dealing with cancer isn’t something most people have to go through.

Beginning a family while dealing with cancer isn’t something most people have to go through.

The moment my son was born, I was catapulted into the always moving, always changing world of fatherhood. Having a new child would have been difficult enough to manage in simpler “normal” circumstances, but adding the layer of this major health challenge caused the experience to go screaming past the sound barrier.

Before I had it, cancer was always a strange, black magic sort of topic to me. Until it was in my life, it was as mysterious as the stars in the sky. But every time I heard the pulsing of an MRI, smelled a radiation machine burn my skin, or felt the spark of an oncoming seizure, I had to learn a little more about how to speak about cancer–not just with adults, but to my children.

Soren at his first baseball game.

Soren and the twins aren’t quite old enough yet to fully understand the significance of my illness. They will someday soon, though. The other day, my one-year-old, Mira, looked me in the eyes and said “Hi!” I was delighted to hear her first word, but in the back of my head, I asked myself: how long until she’s asking me about my sickness?

At night, I think about what I will tell them when they start to ask about my cancer. Or maybe they never will, and it’ll always be just a normal part of their life. “My dad has brain cancer,” they’ll say to their schoolmates, as if-you-please as if I were a postman or fire fighter.

There’s a darker possibility, too. Will they be saying “my dad had brain cancer, but he’s not here anymore?” These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.

Will they be saying “my dad had brain cancer, but he’s not here anymore?” These are the thoughts that keep me up at night.

Right now, I’m just trying to share my love for them as openly and honestly as possible. I also want to show them that their dad isn’t afraid, even though there are private moments when I am, and think desperately about how much I want to live through this. 

And more than ever, I do want to live through this. The mere fact that I’m still alive–let alone feeling healthy now–amazes me. Yet I hold on to the deepest knowledge that, short of a major new medical advance, I am going to die of my disease someday. And yes, I am afraid of that, not just for myself, but for what this terminal diagnosis means to me and my wife and children.  

Mark, Soren, and the twins on a day out.

I work hard on my fear, and try to keep my voice level so that my wife and kids can’t hear it. Yes, my wife and I are scared shitless at times. But I don’t want my kids to sense that fear. Instead, I want them to understand: to be able to talk to them about what is going on inside of my body without focusing on the fear. 

So I talk to them about my cancer in a roundabout way. I try to teach all my kids as much about science and medicine as they are capable of understanding. New medical breakthroughs are happening all the time that could potentially cure me, so to my oldest, I’ll talk about neuroscience, so those breakthroughs will one day be grounded in something he understands, whether I’m here to talk to him about them anymore or not.  (Yes, you can talk about neuroscience with a toddler!) 

Whether I’m cured, or whether I eventually succumb, I want my kids to truly understand what their dad went through…

Whether I’m cured, or whether I eventually succumb, I want my kids to truly understand what their dad went through physically as well as emotionally. That’s why I write about cancer elsewhere, and why I’m writing this. There’s no easy way to talk to your kids about having terminal cancer. But while I’m still here, I’ll do it as best I can: with integrity, and without fear.

Because even if I die, I want my kids to one day know that because of them, I won my battle with cancer. Their presence in this universe would have been impossible without me; to have survived long enough to help give them life has already made my life valuable. This strange experience of having a body, a somewhat mis-calibrated one, a mis-created one, was a part of their life story. And  because of that, to understand themselves, they’ll need to understand cancer too.