Celebrating Being Cancer-free

Anniversary flowers.

Anniversaries of momentous events are generally worth celebrating. Even though we kept it low-key, our 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year was a memorable milestone.

Birthdays fit the bill, too, especially if they end in zero or five. That’s our western culture for you.

Even the anniversary of a loved one’s death needs to be remembered, reverently, openly, and most certainly emotionally. My dear mother would have been 100 on June 22. I can still hear her comforting voice, soft and clear.

Some anniversaries, however, give me pause. I always feel that way each year I get the all-clear pronouncement from my urologist.

I have been cancer-free for 10 years post-robotic prostate cancer surgery. My PSA continues to be immeasurable, meaning no detectable cancer.

When I posted those results on social media, I did so with hesitancy. I hesitated because I know too many people who have not made it through their cancer journey or are currently struggling with the disease.

I am a sensitive old guy, and posting about my good fortune could be tantamount to rubbing it in. I certainly didn’t want to come across with that attitude.

Research shows that such a mindset stems from survivor’s guilt, also called survivor’s remorse. It’s a circumstance where a person survives while others in the same situation don’t, and you feel conflicted, guilty, and remorseful about your outcome versus theirs.

It might seem irrational, but the condition applies far beyond dealing with cancer. People who survive motor vehicle wrecks or a military conflict while others are maimed or killed exhibit survivor’s guilt.

A friend of mine survived the bombing of the Marine base in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. He happened to be away from the barracks at the time of the explosion. Guilt and anger ebbed and flowed throughout my friend’s life.

I empathized with him at the time but didn’t fully comprehend his feelings until I went through my own traumatic experience. When I met other prostate cancer patients who didn’t have the same successful outcome as me, I understood my Marine friend’s agony more fully.

Despite my reluctance, I am glad that I shared my decade of good fortune on social media. I credited my skillful surgeon and expressed thanks for the excellent medical insurance that got me through physically and financially.

A few of the comments in response to my post drew my attention and perhaps sent me over the hump of the lingering compunction. One particularly caught my eye. A former student shared about her current struggle with cancer.

She thanked me for sharing my good news. She said that seeing that others make it through the Big C gives her and other patients like her hope. Reading that brought me great joy.

Signs of hope in nature.

Her response deeply touched me because she has already been through the cancer medical mill with her husband. As a young man, he fought the good fight and won. His humility concealed his challenging journey.

Now his wife is traveling down the cancer highway. I wish her and her family all the best and will endeavor to stay in touch.

Society can easily be dismissive of others without really knowing their unique situations, hardships, and achievements. Friends need to pay attention.

Venezuelan visual artist Carlos Medina captured my sentiment with this quote, “A soul that carries empathy is a soul that has survived enormous pain.”

We can empathize by recognizing and being with the hurting, listening to their stories, or simply holding them in prayer. In those encouraging actions, there is no remorseful guilt. 

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Welcome to Autumn!

Welcome to autumn for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere. Today is the Autumnal Equinox, where summer rolls into fall without much autumnal fanfare.

I took this photo during a partial solar eclipse. I was standing atop a hill near Charm, Ohio, in the heart of Ohio’s Amish country in late October 2014. The eclipse occurred close to sunset, which created an eerie glow in the air. If you click on the photo to get a closer look, you can see that the sun’s rays made tiny rainbows in the hundreds of spider webs blown straight out from the barbed wire fence by a strong westerly wind. The coloration of the leaves in the background accentuate the fact that fall had indeed arrived.

“Welcome to Autumn!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Never Give Up on Hope

The first rain after weeks of drought in the Shenandoah Valley. Photo by Bruce Stambaugh.

I remember standing on our back porch watching an approaching thunderstorm. It was the middle of July 1988, and we hadn’t had any substantial rain for weeks. Ohio and adjoining states were in a severe drought.

Temperatures were consistently in the 90s, sometimes reaching 100. The humidity was oppressive, yet we had no rain.

I stood there watching the lighting in the west, hoping that the rain would reach us. But it wasn’t to be. The storm fizzled out that night, and my heart sank.

A storm that fizzled.

That exact scenario occurred here in the Shenandoah Valley this summer. June turned warm and dry after a chilly, wet spring, and July followed the same pattern. Even if it did cool down for a few days, no rain came.

Crops withered. Lush cornfields turned ugly with curled, stunted, sickly-looking cornstalks. Farmers reported small ears of corn or none at all. The times seemed desperate, hopeless even.

And then there is the awful wildfire situation out west and in some Canadian provinces. Millions of acres of land have been burned, along with hundreds of buildings that included two entire small towns. The resultant injuries and deaths only added to the catastrophe.

In these trying times, it’s easy to give up hope. People are at their wit’s ends. Emotions and frustrations can run as high as the hot temperatures.

Instead, what I have observed here is farmers making the best of a bad situation. They made fodder out of the cornstalks while some green remained. Farmers harvested the outer edges of cornfields and sometimes entire fields of standing corn, chopped it, and filled their silos for livestock feed.

A withered cornfield in the Shenandoah Valley.

What they will do for field corn remains to be seen. But from my lifetime of observations, hope is a necessary prerequisite for farming.

The dictionary defines hope as a feeling of expectation and a desire for a sure thing to happen. In other words, hope points to the future, not the past.

Hope puts us all in the present moment, observing, touching, participating, listening, learning from all around us. We absorb it all and look to tomorrow, hopeful that the life we are experiencing will improve no matter our situation.

Just like I had anticipated rain that Ohio night long ago and was disappointed, I continued to hope. Ironically, a few days later, the rains arrived in torrents.

We had over six inches in less than two hours, and flash floods ensued. In that space of time, we went from no water to too much too soon.

And just like those former Ohio days, a similar pattern happened here in Virginia this summer. It didn’t rain for weeks, and then the heavens opened up multiple times in a few days. Later came the remnants of Hurricane Ida, and we had even more rain.

For some of the crops, it was too late. Late ripening varieties drank up the moisture. Lawns went from crunchy brown to lush green. A few brown spots still linger, but hope and patience won out.

Perhaps there is a lesson here for all of us. We must hang on to hope. Hope keeps us going. Hope inspires us to focus on the future while still acknowledging our current situation, whatever that may be.

Just when you think you are at the breaking point, hope will come. Much like the rain, hope will find a way for you. Though we cannot see it on the horizon, the rain will eventually arrive, filling our hope to overflowing.

As summer yields to autumn, hope shines forth regardless of the weather.

No matter what comes your way.
There is hope on the horizon.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Pollinator at Work

This bumblebee worked these lovely New England Aster blossoms for all they were worth. When I cropped the photo, I realized that the bumblebee had a spectator. On one of the flower’s petals to the right of the pollinator is a small, greenish spider. Perhaps it was the owner of the web behind the blossom.

“Pollinator at Work” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

September Is a Moody Month

Enjoy what comes your way

A hazy sunrise in Ohio’s Amish country.

September is underway, and she has already walked on the wild side. Hot, steamy days evolved into torrential rains and flooding, mainly thanks to the remnants of Hurricane Ida.

Cool, refreshing days immediately followed. Bright morning sunshine sparkled dew-laden lawns. Blue skies filled the day from sunrise to sunset.

The cooler evenings made for pleasant sleeping. For that reason alone, September is a favorite month for many folks. I’m a card-carrying member of that crowd.

I will confess, however, that I didn’t fully appreciate September’s many personality traits until I retired from my education career. Sure, I enjoyed the pleasantries that September offered. But I did not truly comprehend the many moods of her 30-day span.

As a youngster, September meant school, and that garnered most of my attention. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the month. I just wanted to enjoy the pleasant evenings by playing after school. Homework? What homework?

I was too preoccupied during my college years to embrace September’s temperaments fully. Working full-time during the day and attending night school for two years left little leisure time. Then, it was all campus life once I became a “real” student.

After graduating, my educational career demanded my utmost attention as the school year unfolded in September. Still, I managed to roam the hills and dales of Holmes County, Ohio if only to get acquainted with my new surroundings.

Now, decades later, I am replicating that experience by exploring the Shenandoah Valley. September’s fairer weather spurs day trips to historical locales up and down the valley and into its adjoining alluring mountains.

It’s one of the blessings of being fully retired. You truly get to enjoy each day without the pressures of study or labor. September and retirees seem made for one another.

September isn’t always gracious, of course. As already noted, the damaging, drenching, and deadly consequences of Ida bear witness. Fortunately, September’s blissful days usually outnumber her unruly ones.

September serves as a monthly measuring stick. Her moods lull us while she melds summer into autumn in the northern hemisphere. The autumnal equinox occurs on September 22 at 3:20 p.m.

To fully appreciate all that September offers, it’s best to rise early. Fog-shrouded sunrises spread sunbeams across the morning sky. Like the dawn, those scenes fade quickly.

Long before that, however, September always gives us hints of things to come. The first frost, changing leaves, golden mums, plump pumpkins, and flocks of migrating birds all weave their way into September’s algorithms.

My morning walks in Holmes County verified that fact. Overnight fog dappled the landscape opaque, with millions of dewdrops revealing the once invisible spider webs intricate artistry.

Once emerald poison ivy vines blushed crimson capturing weather-worn fence posts like kudzu. Eastern bluebirds sat cooing in an already leafless walnut tree. Crunched by passing cars, trucks, and tractors, the tree’s tarry fruit stained black splotches on the rural road’s chip and seal surface.

I see similar signs of September’s power on my morning strolls here in Virginia. Vibrant succulents brim with luscious heads of pink flower heads. Pollinators squabble for their nourishing nectar.

Sensing fall’s onslaught, we humans pack artificial gatherings into our already busy days. However, street fairs, lawn parties, and backyard barbeques are no match for September’s natural wonders.

In these intermittent days that transform summer into fall, September allows us to catch our collective breath. As September days thrill us with her majestic magistery, our senses absorb her offerings.

Will we stay still enough to observe, hear and appreciate them? How we each respond to September’s opportunities reflects our joy.

A September evening in the Shenandoah Valley.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Hanging On!

This female American Goldfinch prepared to join the rest of the flock after feeding on these dried up Black-eyed Susan seedpods. The cluster of still-blooming Black-eyed Susans in the background gave depth to the photo. I was grateful that the bird hung on long enough for me to get this shot. As soon as I clicked the shutter, she flew.

“Hanging On!” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Recalling Sept. 11, 2001

A personal reflection

September 11, 2001, dawned beautifully. The morning air was cool, as September mornings in Ohio tend to be. A light ground fog scattered the rising sun’s rays, delicately bathing everything they touched.

The morning’s beauty entranced me so that I lollygagged my way into the retirement community where I worked. There was no way to know then what the world was in store for on this glorious morning.

Before the clock struck 9, the day grew dark despite the bright sunshine and the clear blue sky. The day’s rapidly unfolding sequence of events changed the world. We know the sordid details and the global consequences all too well.

The events of that infamous day significantly impacted and altered our lives universally and personally. Our son Nathan worked near Times Square in New York City, nearly five miles from the World Trade Center. Would there be more attacks?

Before sitting down in my office that day, I had a phone call that tied me up for several minutes. Before that conversation ended, my second phone line blinked an incoming call.

However, that call went to voicemail before I could answer. It was Nathan. He wanted to know what was going on in the city. All the local TV and radio stations were off the air for some reason.

I immediately tried calling him back without success. I switched on the radio just after a commercial jetliner had crashed into the Pentagon. When I learned that a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers, I knew the worst was happening.

I rushed to the nearest TV and saw the devastation of both the towers. All was chaos. I tried calling Nathan repeatedly. All I got was a busy signal.

Soon came the report of a plane crash at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. No one knew if the attacks were over. The fear for our son and our nation intensified.

Then a miracle happened. Nathan had somehow managed to get a call through to me. Even 20 years later, I remember much of what we said in those few precious minutes.

Most of New York City’s communication antennas had been atop the Twin Towers. So, I quickly gave him the details of what I knew. Nathan said no one could leave Manhattan. The rest of the conversation focused on making an emergency plan if he had to stay overnight in his office.

I rushed up the hill to the elementary school where my wife taught and filled her in on what I knew. Other family members and friends kept calling the office to see if our son was all right.

The day dragged on with no further word from our son. Unknowingly, Nathan was on the first train out of the city, slowly making his way back to his Brooklyn apartment about the time my wife and I returned home.

What typically was a 20-minute ride to his subway stop took two-and-a-half hours. We were glad to know he was safe. Too many others couldn’t make that statement.

The trauma of this day forever etched these memories into our souls, and probably yours, too. The anniversary of this globally tragic event always revives them.

A wise counselor told us to keep on loving and communicating with those nearest and dearest to us affected by the day’s events. We have humbly tried our best to comply and have also redoubled our energies outward to those most in need by helping and giving wherever we can.

Keep on loving and communicating. Isn’t that good advice for all of us every day we walk this sacred earth?

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Words Mean Something

Use them carefully

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

As a writer, words are essential to me.

The words we use reflect our values, our soul, or who we are. Words mean something, whether spoken or printed in a story, letter, text, email, or comment. When strung together in sentences and sentences into paragraphs, the sequence of words reveals our true meaning.

Before speaking or writing, we need to ask ourselves: will our words enhance or hurt, build up or tear down? I recall too many times in my own life when I wish I would have considered the consequences of my words before I used them.

Actions may speak louder than words. But words reveal our hearts’ desire. How we use words, the tone in which we say or write them guides our actions for better or worse.

In this day and age of on-demand communication, mostly from our mobile devices, words are more potent than ever. Whether spoken or printed, words convey meaning. That’s the point of communicating.

Words have the power to build up or tear down. Free will bestows on us the choice to affirm or deflate others.

Our world seems to be spinning out of control. Our words can either slow or accelerate that spiral.

Consequently, before we speak or write, we need to be mindful of the power and importance of our words. Will they result in caring or harming?

My siblings and I knew the consequences of using foul language or lashing out towards others. There are no tasty soaps.

My public school teachers, elementary through high school, were just as strict about our English language, only in an instructional mode, of course. I am very thankful for their insistence on learning to diagram sentences properly and knowing the parts of speech.

I revered my 11th grade English teacher despite her highfalutin language. She used words I had never heard before, and I am so glad that she did. She whetted my appetite for writing.

Learning and using new words stirs our curiosity and expands our horizons. We shouldn’t be shy, ashamed, or hurt that we don’t know or use a particular word correctly.

Applying words to describe our everyday life is the way we commune. It connects us one with another.

A necessary means to expanding our vocabularies is through reading, and what we read influences what we think. What we believe often tumbles out in the terminologies we use.

Shouldn’t our communication with and toward one another be used judiciously? As author Anne Lamott suggests, one word is better than two.

Words can sting, heal, incite hate, and spread love and understanding.

Words come from humans. Humans have choices. Let the words we use be for better and not for worse. Let us be kind to one another in speaking the truth.

Likewise, let us be patient with one another if we disagree. The words we use should always reflect our virtue and simultaneously respect the other’s dignity. Otherwise, we might find ourselves in a war of words rather than at a peaceful center point.

I recognize times in my past when I have not lived up to my established expectations. I have used the wrong words at the wrong time with unpleasant results.

Consequently, I have also learned that sometimes, especially in times of deep despair, the best words are no words at all. Simply being present speaks louder and more comforting than any articulated vocabulary.

So, when it comes to words, let humility, curiosity, and grace be our guideposts.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Summer Scene

Nothing says summer like children fishing on a sultry August morning. These three youngsters enjoyed a time away from farm chores to make a few casts into the pond in front of their home.

The boy reeled in his line quickly like he had caught something. A closer look (please click on the photo) shows that he has a wry smirk on his face, and for good reason. He caught a weed, which you can see flying at the end of his line.

“Summer Scene” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Starstruck at Heavenly Wonders

A mountaintop experience

The Milky Way and Perseid meteors. Photo by Michael Mancewicz on Unsplash.

When was the last time you went out and sat under the stars and just enjoyed the evening?

We used to do that as kids regularly. But as adults, not so much. Come 10 p.m. or sooner, it’s lights out for this baby boomer.

Of course, enjoying and appreciating life often occurs outside our comfort zones. When my wife and I received an invitation to view the Perseids meteor shower on its peak night, we couldn’t refuse.

Our friend Edgar asked us to accompany him to his mountaintop cabin to watch the meteoric show. We left early to take in all that nature had to offer on Shenandoah Mountain.

The 30-minute trip was worth the drive alone. We traveled U.S. 33 west through a forested tunnel of hardwoods and pines, crossing the Dry River multiple times as it winds its way down into the Shenandoah Valley.

With a moderate drought in full swing, the rocky riverbed indeed was dry. We passed parks and gated lanes into the George Washington National Forest and zigzagged our way up the mountain slope.

Before reaching the summit, we turned a hard right into the private road that led to Edgar’s cabin. He unlocked the gate, and we began our rock and roll ascent on the two-lane drive, one track for right tires and the other for the left.

Soon the incline smoothed to wave-like rolling. We stopped at Big Hill, Shenandoah Mountain’s summit. My GPS read precisely 3,800 feet in altitude.

I was surprised to find that much of the rounded old mountain top was a meadowland full of wildflowers and butterflies despite the lack of rain. The verdant views in every direction were hazy but still impressive.

The best was yet to come. After a light dinner in Edgar’s cabin, we talked the evening away. When our daughter sent a text that she had seen a meteor from the city’s high school parking lot, we hightailed it outside.

We didn’t stay long. Residue clouds from afternoon thunderstorms lingered over the mountain ridges.

We retreated inside to continue our enlightening conversation. Edgar related the cabin’s history and how his wife’s family had acquired the property and built the place. Once they became owners, Edgar and his late wife remodeled it. The view from the deck was incredible.

At 10:30, we turned out the lights and headed outside. The three of us sat in the sloping yard and looked northeast. We knew the peak time of the meteor shower was yet to come.

We hoped for some early meteors, and we weren’t disappointed. Our lively conversation quickly filled in the gaps between the intermittent flashes in the night sky.

Crickets and katydids waged a surround-sound insect symphony. Soon an out-of-tune screech owl grated their nocturnal harmony.

A singular cry interrupted the concert from the tree line that marked the Virginia/West Virginia boundary 30 yards to our west. Several meteors later, the bobcat bid farewell from much farther down the ridge.

Even if there had been no meteors, the night sky’s sparkling diamonds captivated us. The clouds had dissipated, and stars, planets, constellations, and the Milky Way served as our canopy. Both the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper shone brightly as the mountain coolness enwrapped us.

The meteors put on a splendid show for this trio of grandparents. Some streaked long and brilliant, others short and dull. Grateful for one last bright burst from the heavens, we headed home, full of grace and in awe of nature’s wonders.

My wife and I felt honored to be under the spell of the starry universe and Edgar’s gracious hospitality.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

The view to the east from the cabin as the setting sun reflected off of clouds.