the mask and the music

“If music be the food of love, play on.” – William Shakespeare

What we play is life.” – Louis Armstrong

“If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution”Emma Goldman

Bobby McFerrin, World Science Festival, 2009


As of 11/11/11, I completed my 33 radiation treatments. This was oddly bittersweet. On the upside, the daily shlep of heading north and south on I-91 for an hour each way is over, and reminded me why, as much as I loved working for Dartmouth, spending two hours a day commuting was not for me. Thanks to the hard work of Barb and many friends, we had a drive-pool to make it all happen as I was told I would be quite tired after treatments.  Car time with friends can be invaluable and it was. (thank you all…in addition to your love and support, for six weeks, I-91 from exit 5 to Lebanon, NH was that much safer without me on the road)

On my final day I gave Lake Champlain Chocolates and a card to the sweet, kind, women at the registration desk: Rosemary, Judy and the others. And the same to my radiation team on the Trilogy. Ed, Duke, Kerry, JB, Krista, Becky, and many more who guided me daily through the routine of laying on the table, locking me down and calibrating the machine. I will miss them for they made what could have been a complete drag much more tolerable. At the end, I was handed a “diploma” and my radiation mask which will be kept as a totem or perhaps as a macabre Halloween costume. Incidentally, I have two friends who have been treated for throat cancer who also have the same mask contraption. We would make quite a trio.

I do wonder what certificate they have for those who don’t pass with high honors:  “Mark Green has barely completed the prescribed radiation therapy with a substandard grade and did so with infantile resistance and the worst attitude shown to humankind we have seen in many, many years. The Team wishes you good riddance. Next time, try using your microwave oven and see how that works”) I am sure there can be some gallows humor backstage from time to time.

When I walked in the door wearing the mask, the dogs went berserk.

The Mask. Mural by Sol Levinson.

Next steps: My headaches are actually heating up, literally, and I am told that this week through next will be the peak of my fatigue as the cumulative effects of the radiation take hold. Sleep remains an issue (I am getting very little) as my body fights the combination of radiation fatigue and the steroids I take to help reduce swelling of the brain. Most body parts can swell way beyond their normal state with little effect, but the brain, being encased in a skull has little room to expand without complications such as seizures or worse. Incidentally, female skulls are slightly thicker than male skulls with an average thickness of  6.5mm for men and 7.1mm for women. What both genders could do with that little nugget of data…

An MRI will follow next month which will act as a benchmark for all future MRI’s, which I will have every three months at the outset. It is likely there will be some changes as “artifact” from the two surgeries and radiation will result in a new landscape.  The subsequent MRI in March will be the one we will hold our breath for as we ascertain if new cancerous cell growth has occurred. If it does, we put on our crampons and start the climb anew. Radiation is a one-time thing. Chemo is not an option because of the blood-brain barrier. Additional surgeries are possible as well as clinical trials. I know my Sherpas, climbing partners and team is with me in love and support. I remain a lucky man. I understand, but do not always embrace, the usage of battle metaphor when dealing with illness. But it is a good war, if there is such a thing.

A close friend, an oncologist at DHMC, shared that on an emotional level, the hard part begins now, as we learn to live with the disease. The dust of this cancer will always hang in the air but some of the cinders will settle now that the intensity of events of the past three and a half months have slowed. I have memories from my childhood of waking up in the quiet of a Sunday morning, just lying in bed, birds singing, with the sun streaming though my window, the sunbeams illuminating the dust coming in floating like so many feathers.

Having worked part-time since the landslide, I am starting work full-time again and am eager to get my life back on the road, literally. The holidays are upon us. The snows will be coming soon. It is now time to simply live and laugh and love as if every grain of sand in that damned hourglass is as precious as the one behind it…

The Mask and the Music II

Music. It’s my lifefood. It has carried me out of despair. Lifted my body up. Calmed the torrential storms in my head. Helped me win races, bike long distances, bring me back to earth and sent me into the stratosphere. Music has helped heal a wounded heart and has been a catalyst for falling in love.

Studies have proven that cows will produce more milk if they are serenaded my Mozart than if they are in a silent barn. (Incidentally and unsurprisingly, the also produce less milk if heavy metal is played, Iron Maiden perhaps)

Goosebump moments happen daily. It could be the single-note wail from a Neil Young rocker, it could be a strain of Mozart, Haydn, or Maria Callas. The plaintive wail of an Appalachian folk tune, Dock Boggs on banjo, a cello, a hymnal, a viola, piano, a shape-note song, a Gregorian Chant, a Georgian Folk song, Miles Davis, Monk, Ella, Josephine Baker, the Uilleann pipes, a hand drum, African drums or Bill Monroe’s mandolin. The list of course is endless.

What does this have to with cancer? Everything. At Dartmouth-Hitchcock, there are musicians playing in lobbies. (In addition to a very well-defined art program) In Brattleboro, the Hallowell Singers have received international acclaim for their beloved work with end of care hospice patients. Of course music helps heal just as good diet and exercise is essential whether one is healthy or struggling.

To list the musical experiences which have molded my musical heart are too numerous to mention. But I must thank deeply the gift of the love of music given by my late grandfather, my mother, father and Abington Friends School music teacher Cathy Roma.  (now Founder/Director MUSE Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir, Co-Founder, Co-Director Martin Luther King Chorale,  Minister of Music at St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church and Professor of Music at Wilmington College )

Andres Segovia at 9 with Grandma Green, countless Joan Baez concerts, jazz, bluegrass and folk festivals, symphony concerts, ballet performances. I am a distant relative of Jascha Heifeitz but sadly did not acquire his musical fortitude. I do have 78 recordings of my great-grandmother singing yiddish folk songs. Like so may immigrant populations, the need and desire to assimilate was often challenged by the tug of the homeland and with it song, food, customs and traditions, eventually percolating into the cultural stew that made, and continues to make, America a dynamic and ever shifting multi-cultural jambalaya of sound. (A paella of song! A stir-fry of harmony!)

I recall as if it was yesterday, school secretary Helen Conkey playing harpsichord for Handel’s Messiah in the Meeting House of our Quaker School (founded in 1697, there is still “graffiti” or rather names and dates carved in the backs of the upper-level pews dating  from the 1700’s.)  or visiting as a whole class, classmate Jason Charles Walker’s father’s Baptist Church in downtown Philadelphia for a gospel concert. These moments were indelible and moved me even then, at a young age. Goosebumps.

My grandfather, a dentist by trade, was also an amateur luthier and I recall his workshop in the basement of his upstate New York home, with tables of bent and carved wood, banjo tuners, mandolin parts, drawers of ebony and ivory for inlay and the “boom-chick-a-boom” rhythm ace machine, the smell of musty wood emanating from the f-holes of a 1918 Gibson. Homemade guitars, banjos, banjolins, a double-necked mandola/electric guitar. These gifts still give…they live and breathe.

In 2004, Dr. Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at The Boston Conservatory, in his now widely shared welcome address to the parents of incoming students at The Boston Conservatory on September 1, 2004 stated:

“If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.”

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One Response to the mask and the music

  1. Carrie says:

    Love Bobby McFerrin! I think he’s brilliant, and his music helped MY mom through a terribly difficult time in Her life when I was a child.

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