The Road Well Traveled

Chester Freeman among his beloved pine trees
11/19/20

Reflections from Chester Freeman

We all know the poem by Robert Frost “The Road Not Taken,” and the famous line “I took the less traveled by.” In my case I am traveling down the same road as if by déjà vu day by day. The drive from my temporary home in Hopewell to the hospital in Canandaigua is about twenty minutes. We all know the familiar roads. We take them to the grocery store. We take them to the Post Office. We take them to the pharmacy. We take them to the bank.

We all have our short cuts too. We found a short cut from Hopewell to Rochester traveling the back roads by the Mennonite Dairy farms and acres of cabbage and corn fields to get to the New York State Thruway. There is a back route to Canandaigua, but it is easier for us to take the same Route of 5 and 20. I am sure you know what it feels like to travel the same route day after day going to work or doing your errands. We pass the same houses, the same stores, and the same landscape.

When you are a passenger in a car and you have an opportunity to look out the window and really see what you’re passing by, it’s very different from the driver’s perspective. I am normally not nervous, although when I have blood work done, I feel a little bit of anxiety wondering if it will be ok, but I try to be prayerful about it.

As we head out this week winter has arrived. It’s cold outside. The cars are covered with snow, but fortunately the sun will melt it before the day is over. The first snow always has a magical air about it. The trees are lightly dusted and everything looks just like a picture postcard. As I gaze out the window of the car, I find myself looking at all the different types of trees. I have passed these same trees for years, but with cancer I am seeing them with a new lens. Not the rosy tinted glasses, but a real clear vision of 20/20. I am not just looking at the beautiful array of colorful leaves on the ground, but I am looking up to the heights of the trees and discovering there are some exceptional ones which reach way beyond the telephone poles. As A. E. Houseman would say they are “the loveliest of trees,” but there are no cherry blossoms here.

Down Route 5 and 20 I see the stunning weeping willows, white oaks, maples, junipers, elms, pines, crab apples with the red fruit dangling down the limbs and copper beeches. Now my thoughts are drifting! When most people hear the word cancer the first thing that happens is an overwhelming sense of fear. When the oncologist said inoperable colon cancer, the next thing I felt was an imminent death sentence. The first thing I did was call my lawyer and scheduled an appointment to update my health care directives, living will, health care proxy, power of attorney, and will. The second thing I did was write a friend who is a woodworker and asked him to make an urn for me. A few years ago, we had given him some black walnut boards that we had planed when we cut down a few trees in our back yard to make room for the Japanese waterfall. He suggested doing a combination of spalted hackberry with the black walnut. I had never heard of the hackberry tree before but once I saw the wood online, I thought it would be wonderful. The third thing I did was check our White Haven Cemetery papers as we had prepaid them at least thirty years ago. Once all of these things were in order, I felt that I could relax and prepare to die. I had gotten my house in order so to speak. There was a time in my life when I was afraid of death, but now that I am older and have had the experience of being with others who have died in the hospital setting as a chaplain, I no longer fear death. Whenever and however it happens, I accept it and embrace it as a part of life.

I have often heard people say that when one dies your entire life flashes before you like a movie screen. This is what I am experiencing as I sit in the car and ride to my cancer treatments. When I look out at the trees on the side of the road, I find memories of my childhood flooding my mind and visual cortex. As I pass the pine trees along the road there is a very strong memory that is called up within me. I do not recall the year, but I know I was eight years old. Along the side of my childhood home was a plot of land my parents decided to plant trees on. I remember my father digging the holes and my small hands planting the little pine trees about a foot tall into the soil and then using a hose to water them. I can’t recall if it we did it in one day, but altogether we planted 20 trees. I remember being so excited seeing the tiny trees and took great pride in watering and feeding them with fertilizer. As the years went by the grove of trees became my playground of the Sherwood forest where I pretended to be Robin Hood. As an only child I spent a lot of time alone and made up my own fantasy world of adventures. By the time I was in college the trees were tall and had indeed become the forest of my dreams. At this point I walked between the trees remembering how we spaced them apart so that their branches could have room to spread. Now they were fully matured. I touched the leaves and felt the bark. I picked up the pine cones with their woody scales and smelled the scent of the fresh pine sap. I brushed the pine needles around the base of the tree and just took in the beauty of each one. I think this was the moment when I fell in love with the trees because I realized that we grew up together. The trees were not just trees to me. They were my friends…all twenty of them. The same comfort they brought to me as a little boy was now heightened by the magnificence and majesty of their form. They were living sculptural entities. Nature designed them with my loving care. For me, each tree had a soul and I had this soulful connection.

Fast forward about thirty-five years, I came home to visit my parents. As I recall I arrived in the evening. When I woke up in the morning, I looked out my bedroom window to see the grove of pine trees and they were gone. I was shocked. I could not believe my eyes. I got dressed and went downstairs and asked my mother what happened to the trees. She told me she was nervous about them possibly falling on the side of the house during a hurricane and had them cut down. The only thing that remained were the tree stumps at this point as she was waiting for them to be ground up. I was so angry. I could not control myself. I stormed out of the house and walked over by the tree stumps and began to cry. As I looked down on the stumps I felt as if part of my heart had been ripped out. I felt broken. I felt lost. Even as I write this reflection tears are rolling down my cheeks. Those trees were my soul mates and on that day part of me died. I can’t believe this story still brings me to tears, but it does. Those trees were my childhood friends. They were my buddies. They were my magical mystical forest where all my dreams were stored. It took me years to get over that loss. Now I consider the barren area a sacred place where the trees have been returned to the soil. So, when I look at a pine tree, I see more than just a tree. I see a soul in bark. But even more than that I feel a spiritual connection. I feel at one with each tree that I touch. I agree with Joyce Kilmer, “I think I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.”

I didn’t mean to get carried away with this story but sometimes my feelings just pour out when I begin to write. Back to the issues of cancer. Once I had a second opinion and realized the cancer could be treated my attitude changed. I began to feel somewhat hopeful. I was told by both the radiation oncologist and chemotherapy oncologist the treatment would be rough and take a lot out of me. But once they met me, they felt I could handle it. Like most cancer patients I immediately felt the wrath of God falling upon me. God was punishing me. I was fraught with guilt. Eventually I realized that was not the case and tried to concentrate on a more positive attitude. I have been able to handle it with the support of friends like you. However, one of the things people never realize is the impact cancer has on the loved ones who become the care givers. This has been a tremendous burden for my partner who is dealing with his own prostate cancer that has metastasized. He has been in and out of depression this whole time and when you add on the burden of the disaster with our home, it seems more than one person can bear. This is when I get angry at God and rage against the power of the Almighty! How could a kind loving God allow this to happen? How could a contractor and architect in good conscious take advantage of us like that! I struggle every day to keep myself in check. My partner wakes up some mornings in tears and I have to do my best to calm him. He has nightmares almost every night and anxiety attacks about twice a week. I am trying to hold myself together and feel the weight of the house pulling me down as well. Next week John will have his own evaluation of his cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital and you can imagine how nervous he must be. When you live with cancer, you feel as if you are walking on ice. You never know when the ice is going to break and you will sink into the depths of the abyss. This is what we deal with every day of our lives.

And where do things stand right now in the fifth week of treatment? There are times when I don’t even know what day it is. I have to look at the calendar as it holds all of my appointments. The real issue is my blood chemistry. My platelet count is down and this affects my chemotherapy treatments. It is at a dangerously low level and that means stopping my infusion or delaying things until my blood chemistry improves. In the recent weeks my hands have become cold and turned somewhat speckled blue. I even put gloves on in the house to keep them warm. This is a side effect of chemotherapy. The nurse said that it is possible the skin on my palms will peel off. I do have a cream to use. I continue to struggle with the very restrictive low fiber diet as it conflicts with my diabetic diet so my blood sugar level is up, but there is nothing I can do about it because I have to eat something. Since I can’t have whole wheat bread, I have gone back to eating white bread. My primary care physician has recommended that I soak in a bath with Epsom salts every night before bed to address the bursitis in both of my knees and to help with sleep. It appears that elevation and cold packs did nothing to help me. So, we are trying heat. There is good news to share. My blood pressure holds steady as a result of my mindfulness meditation. My weight is good. I am doing my best to focus on healing. One of my friends suggested when I am getting my radiation, I focus my thoughts on the cellular level, so now I direct my attention to the nucleus of each cell in my body filling it with unconditional love and gratitude. Today I am thankful for the trees in my life.

As I travel down the road and pass the trees, I am grateful for their silent presence, for their astonishing colors, for their tender bending branches, for their stately magnificence. I will close with one of my favorite quotations from Maya Angelou.

“Sunsets and rainbows, green forest and restive blue seas, all naturally colored things are my siblings. We have played together on the floor of the world since the first stone looked up at the stars.”

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