Axe Handles

A few days back, when Dylan’s throat was inflamed and any movement caused back pain and headaches, I said to him, “You know I’m really proud of how you have been brave through this whole thing.”

“I’m just laying here. I haven’t been brave,” was his response.

What is bravery? Is bravery getting up to brush your teeth when you can barely stand, all of your bones ache, and your throat feels like it is filled with hot rocks? Is bravery walking on the 12th floor with a bag of brown chemo drugs hanging from your IV tower? Is bravery losing 45 pounds and announcing you are going to start a weight loss website extolling the virtues of chemo? Is bravery taking 5 milligrams of Oxycodone instead of 10? Is it eating instead of getting hooked up to another IV bag? I think so. I think some of the bravest people I have ever met walk the 12th floor pushing an IV tower in yellow socks. (Swedish has color-coded patient-risk by socks: green socks=not going to fall, yellow socks=maybe I’ll fall and get hurt, red socks= get back in bed.)

Hospitals are places where people are brave each day. I have always known this, but it isn’t something I spent much time thinking about until faced with it. There is a reservoir of bravery stored up in each of us, in The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, he says he thought courage was like a bank account, he could make deposits by avoiding courageous acts, and when he needed it he could make a courage withdrawal. O’Brien comes to the conclusion that courage isn’t like that at all, you cannot store up more courage by saving it, by setting it aside, instead courage grows as it is used like a muscle. Cancer patients exercise their courage muscles each day. People who face potentially terminal illnesses are often told that they will come out on the other side of this trial a stronger person, which is true for those who survive, but there are people who fight and do not survive.

Yesterday, Dylan and I made the trip to Seattle for a blood draw and doctor visit. We had not been to the Arnold Tower Cancer Clinic portion of Swedish before so we got to town early and went looking for a place to eat a late breakfast. Dylan’s appetite has returned and he is finally gaining instead of losing pounds, but he is one of those visible chemo people: Gray, bald, and thin. We went to a small, clean café on 12th Ave to have something to eat. The waitress greeted us, and found a seat for us in the empty café. I could feel her nervousness. Chemo people are fragile and I didn’t help much when I said, “We need a safe meal. He is undergoing chemotherapy and can’t have anything undercooked or raw.” There were lots of options on the menu but Dylan wanted to be careful so he ordered scrambled eggs (well-done), 1/2 a baguette, and french fries. He wouldn’t risk coffee, water, or anything not assuredly germ-free. I talked him into some monkey bread and soon he was eating and enjoying food again. It had been five days since he felt so bad he wouldn’t eat: He had a headache, his spine hurt, and his throat was so raw he had difficulty talking. That night I read him some of my favorite poems. I started with Jane Kenyon who had written poetry right up until her early death from cancer and Let Evening Come is still one of my favorites. I talked about how brave it was for Kenyon to continue to write until her death. Kenyon’s writings reminded me of Stanley Kunitz who was still writing as he pushed past 90 years old, so I read his poem Haley’s Comet. For some reason, Haley’s Comet reminded me of Gary Soto’s poem Saturday at the Canal, so I read that one next. We (mostly me) talked about the feeling of being stuck somewhere when everyone else is leaving or moving on. Dylan’s college plans and work at Peninsula Mental Health as a Peer Support Conselor have all been placed on hold as he fights towards being cancer free. Life will wait for him to catch up and his battle with cancer might take him in a different direction, but for now his plans are going to have to wait. The final poem of the night was Gary Snyder’s Axe Handles. Dylan remembered the poem. I had a copy of the poem printed out next to my computer for many years to remind myself that I was an axe handle. (This statement will make no sense unless you read the poem, so read it. That’s why I linked it. Don’t be a poetry hater.) When I finished reading Axe Handles, Dylan said, “I get it. I remember that poem, and now I get it.”

That evening of poetry now seems long ago. As we went through check-in at the clinic, Dylan was worried about having a temperature, or a low blood count, or anything that might cause him to be admitted back to the 12th floor. His temperature was normal, he had gained another pound, and when the doctor finally came in to announce that his numbers had jumped from 1,800 to 20,000 we were overjoyed. Dylan was out of the danger zone. He could eat whatever he wanted. He didn’t need to take any meds. He could lick the sidewalk if he wanted to (well, maybe not). “You are doing great. Really good,” Dr. Pagel said. “So, let’s get started right away on round two. How does Monday sound?”

“This Monday?” Dylan asked.


Dylan looked a little shocked, we had been prepared for March 6th, not March 2nd. “How about Tuesday?”

“Tuesday works for me,” Dr Pagel looked at his calendar. “Yep, let’s do it Tuesday. It’s going to be about two weeks and we are going to kick the crap out of you again, but you are young, you are strong.” And here is where I wanted to add, “You are young, you are strong, you are an axe handle.”

13 thoughts on “Axe Handles

  1. I love the Poetry Foundation. I subscribed to their Poem A Day only last fall. Most days, I stop what I’m doing and read it. Sometimes when I’m busy, I have to force myself to, but I’m usually for the better for stopping by the oasis.
    Good luck next week.
    That sock system is brilliant, by the way.


  2. Joe, I think you’re in my head and it’s creeping me out just a little tiny bit. Just a little. I’ve been thinking about The Things They Carried for a few months now, since November when my grandmother passed away–but not for the same reasons as you. Mine have been from a much more literal musing of the physical things we choose to carry with us through our lives. But still. I haven’t read the book since high school lit class and to see your mention of it here just threw me off a little bit. Your posts here about this journey Dylan is taking, this journey that you only he can drive—it’s powerful stuff, Joe. You can’t drive the car for Dylan, but you can sit next to him in the passenger seat and read the map and tell him stories and change the radio station when a really lame song comes on, or maybe turn it up even louder and make ridiculous hand gestures, I don’t know. But while Dylan is concentrating on the road ahead, you’re making sure he’s got everything he needs to do that. It’s important. And to see it in your posts is profoundly moving. Right. On that note, I am off to read Axe Handles, which I have never read (and I am NOT a poetry hater) and also to sign up for the Poem a Day service. Who couldn’t use more poetry in their lives?


    1. And for some reason I just realized I am calling you Joe. Twice even. Sorry about that. My mind is playing tricks on me. Must be this white/gold blue/black dress thing that is making me call you Joe. Apologies!


      1. No problem, I’d blame it on spell check, who spells their name Jon anymore? Had an interesting argument with my daughter about the dress thing this morning. She didn’t understand that people were actually seeing this thing differently. When I told her it was white and gold to me, she didn’t believe me. Wacky world.


    2. Dina- I was thinking of The Things…Carried because of the final chapter (Lives of the Dead, I think) where O’Brien discusses the death of a girl in his elementary school. I don’t know if I can read it right now, but it has always had a way of grabbing me by the heart. Maybe when we are all done with this journey I will read that chapter again.
      Thanks for the kind words,


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