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Fall foliage

Leaves display their fall hue at the Pere Marquette Nature Reserve near Grafton on Oct. 25.

Photo by Cristina M. Fletes,

On Thanksgiving, I was thankful for the leaves that were blowing onto my lawn. Tino, my 4-year-old grandson, enjoys trying to catch leaves as they blow around, and I take great pleasure in watching him do so. Maybe my kids once chased leaves. I don’t remember.

Four years and one month ago, I was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma, bile duct cancer. An inoperable tumor was wrapped around my hepatic artery. I asked the doctor at Barnes how long I had.

It’s hard to be precise, he said. Maybe 11 months.

That’s awfully precise, I thought.

Immunotherapy saved me. The tumor stopped growing. Later, I was diagnosed with colon cancer, and a surgeon chopped that out, but it came back. I went to the Mayo Clinic to have lymph node removal surgery. That was in April.

A couple of weeks after I got home, I went downstairs one morning to make coffee. I could not raise my right arm to get the coffee from the cupboard. I am a glass-half-full person, so I figured I must have slept wrong and done something to my shoulder. But even as I considered this possibility, my right hand clawed up. I didn’t feel anything, but my hand half-clenched and I could not unclench it. Maybe the glass is half empty, I thought.

Sure enough, it was a stroke. and I was back at Barnes. I felt like a medical student. I had done my rotation in oncology, and now I was doing a stint in the neurology ward. A surgeon cleaned up my carotid artery. Doctors told me I was fortunate. Had the artery gotten more clogged, I could have had a very serious stroke. I saw some folks who had had serious strokes when I walked around the ward. Science does not yet know why some people get lucky and have an early stroke.

Not long after I recovered from the stroke, I learned that the colon cancer had come back and had metastasized. So I went back on chemotherapy, and so far, things are holding steady.

I do not mean to violate the sanctity of the chemo room, but there was a young man in the bed next to me this past Monday. He is 21. He has lost one leg already to a rare bone cancer. He made a joke of the fact that he used to get his treatment at Children’s Hospital where he was too big for the beds. He said he hoped to teach English in high school someday, maybe in the Pacific northwest.

High school English, I said. Very cool.

I’d like to make a difference, he said.

If I were writing the script, he would have a wonderful career as a teacher and would be beloved by his students, many of whom would credit him for their love of reading. He would live in the northwest, maybe in sight of the ocean, although on a teacher’s salary, that is unlikely. Then again, maybe he’d marry a young woman who becomes a dentist. Things like that happen. People who don’t believe in magic aren’t paying attention.

Which is, I think, our natural condition. We don’t pay attention. At least I don’t. Most of the time, I am a Muggle. They were the “normal” people in the Harry Potter books. Magical things were going on all around them, but they didn’t realize it.

On the other hand, how would we function if we spent all our time marveling at the magic? The day-to-day has to go on. We have things to do. There is work to be done. We can’t give too much thought to that other realm.

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Still, I watch Tino chase leaves. The very best times are when we stare up at the trees waiting for a leaf to fall. Waiting, waiting and then we see one! Tino charges in the direction of the falling leaf, but it never comes straight down. It zigs and zags. He is right there, twisting and turning, but it always eludes his grasping hand.

“I almost had it, Coach,” he says.

Coach is the name I gave myself when Tino’s older sister Evelyn, who is now 9, was learning to talk. Because her father is from Nicaragua, she called him Papa. Because her mother, my daughter, called me Dad, Evelyn started calling me Dada.

“I’ve been Dada, and I loved it, but I don’t want to be Dada again” I said.

Pick a name and we’ll start calling you that, my daughter said.

So I’m Coach. I do not think of myself as a life coach. I am more like a softball coach in the rec league, which, come to think of it, I once was. Actually, I was an assistant coach. Now as then, I am more a spectator than a real coach.

Tino likes it when the leaves from across the street blow into my yard. Blowing leaves are somehow easier to catch than falling leaves. Don’t ask me why. I was never good at science.

I try to balance the magical with the mundane. I feel thankful as I watch my grandson chase leaves, and thankful also that I can afford to hire somebody to rake them.