A Travel Journal

Still a lot to add.  A small portion of this is a rehash of some of things you may have already read.  But there is a lot more you haven’t.  Read on!

What a crazy life.  Nancy’s brain tumor diagnosis, her treatment first with chemo and radiation, 3.5 yrs. of every 2 months sitting on pins and needles as time approached for the next PET scan,  later the tumor recurrence and treatment at the Duke Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center with a modified Polio Virus, , 60 Minutes following our family’s journey, the ups and downs of the treatment as her immune system was awakened to the cancer and the devastating side effects, Nancy’s stroke, my triple bypass surgery, Nancy’s decline as the tumor grew and I recovered from the bypass surgery, her subsequent death, then a couple of months later my diagnosis with stage IV non-small cell lung cancer (adenocarcinoma), months of chemo, then kidney stones, again the pins and needles as I await my PET scan results every 3 months.

Although it’s been difficult, I’ve kept a positive attitude.  How could I not with all the support I got along the way?

Besides, I’m in remission now, although my doctor evidently doesn’t think I’ll stay that way.  At my last appointment, when joking that at least 4 people survived out of one hundred, 5 years once the NSCLC has reached stage IV as in my case, he became very somber and said that he has a patient that has survived 6 yrs. and was still going strong.  But, he explained, now becoming even more serious, she is EGFR positive.  You know the protein pathways, he said (I had done a ton of research during Nancy’s treatment with the Polio Virus and understood cancer better than many doctors).  He looked at me with a level stare continuing, “And you’re not EGFR positive.”  If I wanted to do something with my boys, he said, I need to do it now.  Don’t wait.  I asked if I was still eligible for long term disability.  Yes!  Take the time, he said, to enjoy life while I still had reasonably good health.   I was back at work before I fully digested all that he had said.  That Friday night at dinner another doctor friend reiterated the same message.  Maybe something I needed to hear, but it could have been packaged differently.  At Duke, the doctors and nurses lifted our spirits.  Not so much at South Georgia Medical Center (SGMC).

So now I’m on a trek to several national parks out West with my sons.  They want to hike.  I’m fairly fit for my 60 years, but after what I’ve been through, I’m not even going to attempt to keep up with them on the trails they insist on climbing.

Even though our day began at 2:30 AM in Atlanta, the boys had enough energy for a strenuous hike to Angels Landing in Zion National Park Tuesday afternoon after we checked into the Holiday Inn in Springdale, Utah.  After dropping them off at the Zion Visitor’s center to catch a shuttle to their trail head, I went back to the room to tidy things up, get a shower, and to see if I could find a nice restaurant where we could enjoy dinner.  I settled on the Switchback restaurant which is fairly upscale and even higher priced.  But the aged rib-eye I had was excellent, Zach wolfed down his rack of pork ribs too quickly to notice if they were any good, and Luke enjoyed his shrimp.  The highlight of our night was our Philippine waitress.  She asked us where we were from and in the course of the conversation she shared that she had moved to the states with her new American husband in 2002.  Her husband had died in 2015 after a long bout with skin cancer she told us through tears.  I very briefly related that we had experienced similar tragedy and to google Nancy Justice to hear the rest of the story, which she did before she belatedly came back to check on us.  She had the same sound advice I’ve heard one hundred times before and know intuitively.  She still lives not only with, but in the hurt and pain of losing her one great love.  I don’t want to live like that.

Life is too short, especially mine, even though I feel okay physically once I recuperate a day or so on the weekends.  And while I do not want to forget the pain of the loss I’ve experienced, I do desperately want to move on.  You cannot experience a great love without first being willing to risk the pain and heart ache of losing it. My girlfriend couldn’t, or most probably has chosen not to risk it.  I’ll be damned if I do.

Our first full day at Zion began slowly.  We were worn out from our travel the day before.  The flight out of Hartsfield Jackson in Atlanta was for 5:45 am.  We drove the 3 ½ hrs. to Zach’s apartment near the Georgia Tech campus the evening before.  I slept on the couch my girlfriend and I had helped pick out.  We were up at 2:30 am and Ubered to the airport.  The flight to Charlotte and then on to Las Vegas and the car rental went without a hitch.  The drive in our Ford Expedition rental through the desert from Las Vegas, Nevada to Springdale, Utah would have been monotonous had any of us ever driven through the desert before.  No houses for miles and miles.  Very few places to fill up or eat.

Once we came to the Virgin River valley things changed.  It’s mid-May and the river was high and muddy with snow melt. It’s not a big river. I imagine it practically dries up in summer.  While awe inspiring, the drive on Rt. 9 from Virgin thru the Virgin River Gorge was unimpressive compared to what we would soon encounter in Springdale at the entrance to Zion National Park and in the park itself.

Our day having started at 2:30 AM, ET and finally hitting the sack at 10:30 PM, PT, we were tired beyond measure.  I had intended to awake early and write the next morning.  I was disappointed when I awoke and looked at the time on Luke’s phone and saw that it was already 9:00 am.  An hour or so later when I finally rousted the boys out of bed and checked the time on my phone and found that it was only 8:00 am local time, I was simultaneous relieved and pissed.  Luke’s phone was still reading Eastern Time.

By the time we dressed and had lunch it was after 11:00 local time.  The boys wanted to do the trek to Observation Point, supposedly a 3 hour hike.  I don’t know what got into me, but I decided to attempt to go with them.  Unknown to any of us, the first part of the trail is the steepest part.  After the first few hundred yards, winded while the boys had yet to draw a deep breath, I told them to go on without me.  And I had been telling my doctor I was not short of breath.  I hate to admit it, and I still probably won’t tell him I am. I would go a little farther and take some pictures and then go back to the visitor’s center where I would meet them at the end of the day.  This was hard for me to do.  I did not want to give into chemo, cancer, or even age.  If you don’t die suddenly in an accident, I believe death is a long, slow slide.  Not being able to go on, to me, was a sign of things to come.

But like the energizer bunny I kept going, and going, and going.  Stopping frequently gave me a chance to converse with other hikers and to more appreciate the awesome views.  About a mile from the top I met an older couple from Phoenix who gave me 2, 8 oz. packages of coconut water.  I had already begun to suck on a pebble to relieve my dry mouth. Zach had taken our water in his backpack. I continued on until the trail leveled out at the top of the mountain and the ponderosa pines began.  But by this time my feet stung with every step.  The chemo had left me with neuropathy in my toes and the balls of my feet.  Like when I was a child in WV in the winter and there was a big snow on and my feet became wet and cold, with every step it was like being shot with a rifle through my toes and the bullet exiting through the balls of my feet.  It made it better for a few minutes when I stopped to rest but got worse the farther I went.  I was only about 30 minutes from Observation Point hikers told me who passed on their way down.  I decided to turn around.

I had pushed myself to the limit and I felt good about that.  I could make it to the top no doubt, and I felt good about that.  I had seen some of the most awe inspiring views on planet earth and taken some great photographs.  I felt good about that.  But I didn’t want to have to be carried off the mountain by my boys.  If I turned around now, depending on how my feet held up, I might even be able to beat them off the mountain.  And I did…

Luke lingered in bed until we were almost ready to leave Friday morning.  I ate breakfast early, came back and got Zach out of bed and he also ate before we left.  I enjoy having meals with my sons.  Maybe it’s a leftover from having dinner together every evening as they grew up.  Nancy insisted on that.  Lord, I miss her.

We took Rt. 9 through Zion National Park to get to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  There were no guard rails and the sheer drop over the cliffs were intimidating even for someone who grew up passing coal trucks on the narrow mountain roads between Man and Logan WV.  At least we had guardrails back home.

We decided to stop at Bryce Canyon National Park on the way.  The views were spectacular.  The hoodoos of the canyon were whimsical looking spires, the road winding around the top of the ridge providing different angles of the view of them.  From the hoodoos in the foreground to the desert valley and the mesas in the far distance, one was left in wonder of the time and forces that created them.  Did God do it in a day as in the literal interpretation of the Bible, or did he put in place the circumstances that created them over time as scientists proclaim?  God is patient with me, perfecting my character (I hope) over time with the storms I’ve encountered in my life.  I think he created the wonders of the Southwest the same.  That’s one of the advantages of my health issues.  I’ll know soon enough.

I checked the time on my computer Saturday morning.  Nine o’clock already.  I can’t believe I slept that late.  I took a quick shower and rousted Luke out of bed first.  When I unplugged my phone from the charger I noticed it was 6:30 PT.  My computer was reading Eastern Time.  Fooled twice, dummy me.

After Zach showered we loaded up and drove the Expedition around the building to the restaurant at the Prospector Inn.  There was one large table with 16 people seated so I felt compassion for the one waitress waiting on the entire room.  It took 20 minutes to get our drinks and there were no refills without reminding the gentleman who came out of the kitchen to help the waitress.  I imagine they are married and took over management of the restaurant with no prior restaurant experience.  It’s hard to make a living in a town where there is no industry except for the tourists who come thru.  It appeared they had their two teenage sons working with them on weekends and I’ll bet the cook was a relative, too.  I would have laughed at the poor service had they been waiting on anyone but me and my boys.  But the food, despite the poor service, was okay.  It was the first time in my adult life I can remember not leaving a respectable tip.  The tip came to about $1.32.

Saturday morning we stopped first at Devil’s Garden in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.  It’s down Hole-in-the-Rock Road about 23 miles South West of the town of Escalante off Rt. 89. The hoodoos and arches in Devil’s Garden were worth the entire trip out West.  At times I held my breath and cringed as Zach and Luke climbed the rocks, scaling up the sides of hoodoos to a precarious perch created eons ago where a layer of sandstone weathered differently from that laid the epoch before.

We drove several more miles down the road toward Hole in the Rock.  We stopped at Dry Fork Coyote Gulch.  When we got out of the car, the wind gusted so hard we had to turn our backs to it to keep the sand out of our eyes.  We hit several dead ends attempting to wind our way to the canyon bottom.  Finally we traversed a 70 degree cliff face where I wondered if our shoes would hold to the rocks.  No way could we do this if the rocks were wet.  I cussed to myself thinking I had to do this again on the way out.  Down, down into depths of the canyon we descended.  And all I could think about was clawing my way back out in a desperate attempt to keep up with two very slim, in shape kids in their prime at 21 and 23 yrs. of age.  They were great encouragers, “Wow, Dad, you’re doing great,” but not empathetic at all as I sucked air into lungs that still had residual pleural edema.  To be their age again!  I still hold the Logan County, WV record for the 440.  Always will since now they run 400 meters.  I wrestled in high school and college. I’m 60 and recovering from lung cancer and chemo.  Dammit boys, have a little empathy for your father.  At least remember this when you’re 60.  Hopefully, you’ll still have what I’ve written to remind you.

Once we hit the canyon bottom we made a turn up Dry Gulch.  It is a narrow gash in the sandstone bedrock.  After a 1/2 mile of winding through the narrow, monotonous corridor, I was ready to explore something new.  Zach insisted on going further.  Luke eventually came back with me.  The two of us walked about a mile down the canyon before turning back attempting to reconnect with Zach.  When we finally found Zach, I had come to the conclusion that I was not going to chase them through the canyon as they ricocheted from side canyon to side canyon.  I said good-bye to them and headed out of the canyon at my leisure.

I made a sandwich and wrote as I waited for them to come back.  We had seen just a few cattle and no wildlife on the drive in.  What must it have been like for the Native Americans who lived here a thousand years ago?

Zach had planned on us traveling to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon later that day until he got internet service as we traveled back through Escalante and discovered the North Rim didn’t open for another week.  We settled on traveling in a great “C” so we didn’t have to backtrack through Las Vegas.  We made reservations at the Hilton Garden Inn in Flagstaff Arizona.  We crossed the desert down to the Colorado River Basin and crossed the river in Paige Arizona.  The bridge was smack full of tourists marveling at Lake Powell Dam.  We stopped for pictures of the sunset on the descent from the high mesa to the desert floor about 45 minutes outside Paige.  Then through the dark we drove to Flagstaff.  With no moon, the country we drove through was a mystery.  There was no way to tell if it was mountainous or flat desert.  Finally, after a couple of wrong turns in Flagstaff we arrived at the hotel.  The boys showered and were asleep in an instant.  Oh, the sweet slumber of youth.  If I let them, they would sleep 12 hours.  But we have much to explore and I’ll roust them out early.

The Hilton Garden Inn in Flagstaff was the nicest hotel we’ve stayed in so far.  From snippets of conversation from guest I’ve overheard, there seems to be a great deal of business people staying here.  I awake early, eat, put in laundry and write.  I sat in a room right off the lobby where I could plug in my computer.  My battery is on its last leg.

As I finish up writing I notice Zach in the breakfast room.  I go back to the room and roust Luke out.  I think there is one like him in every family.  On our way out of town, thank God for Google Maps.  We get turn by turn directions that gets us on I-40 on the way to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  After a while we turn onto —–.  The entire route is through mountainous country. Road signs caution for elk and others for deer but we see neither.  As we approach the park we see the obligatory hotels and attractions.

You wonder why people would travel from all around the world to a place that is so chocked full of people.  But there are no words to describe the feeling you get when you walk to the rim of the Grand Canyon and see it for the first time.  Zion, Bryce, Grand Staircase Escalante, and the Grand Canyon are all similar.  You could live a full life having never having seen them, but when you do, you know you’re somehow much better for it.  It ranks right up there with boot camp, marriage, having kids, and losing a loved one.  Until you’ve done it, you just don’t know.

So like everyone else in the history of the universe, I was not prepared as my boys and I approached the rim and saw the Grand Canyon for the first time.  It was almost like realizing how much God loved me after the turmoil of losing Nancy and being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  God’s love is wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon.  Finally I realize that fact as I sit typing at my laptop.  That same power and wisdom that created the wonders of the Southwest that my boys and I have experienced the last few days is as equally involved in my life.  Oh, how he loves me, loves all of us.

And finally I know after all the turmoil I’ve experienced, God loves me and will see me through this short term chaos.  After all, look how long it took to create the wonders of the Southwest.

What we’re experiencing now is less than a blink on the time line of eternity.  Lord, let us love and love well, the way you love us.  I know you’ll heal all our broken hearts if we let you.  I wait in eager expectation to see what you’ll do in my life next and what you’ll do in my son’s lives.  Regardless of whether I live or die, I have an unbelievable future.  Lord, remind me of that tomorrow morning.

After several hours of driving, we stop at the Hampton Inn in Kingman, Arizona.  I’ve stayed in a couple of nice Hampton’s, this was not one of them.  The room was large but very sparse.  It got on my nerves that there was no ironing board or iron in the room.  I cracked open the bottle of Ecco Domani and had a paper cup of it as I wrote.  And then one more cup.  After 10:00 we decided to get a snack.  We settled on McDonalds.  I had my first Big Mac in several years.  It was surprisingly good. When we got back to the room I finished off most of the bottle of wine as I wrote.

We ate breakfast and took a back road on the way out of town to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

The Western Rim of the Grand Canyon is on the Hualapai Indian Reservation.  It is not part of a national park so we didn’t have to pay another $30 to enter it.  While the views of the canyon are still awe inspiring, it was not nearly as impressive as the southern rim.  It is lower in elevation, so unlike the Western Rim which is in the Ponderosa Pine Zone, it is in the desert Zone and has a different feel.  Getting there from Kingman was through the Desert Southwest.  The small towns and hamlets we passed through had the same feel as the small rural communities I grew up in and am familiar with in West Virginia.  A totally different environment, not closed in by the narrow hollows and totally greenery of the Appalachian Mountains, but the look of the gas stations, broken down cars in yards, debris that has accumulated over the years around some of the houses hinted at the mindset and attitudes of the people who lived there.  Good people without goals and no plan except the next government check to keep them going.  No better or no worse in the eyes of God than my sorry butt.  So light another Salem, pour a Pepsi or crack open a Bud.  Put on a pot of pintos and throw in the fatback and put the cornbread in the oven.  Just love and be loved.  Help others best you can.  In the long run, whatever else most of us do won’t matter much anyway.

The main draw of the Western Rim is the Skywalk.  I paid $82 each for the three of us for the shuttle bus service, a meal if you want to call it that, and tickets to walk out onto the Skywalk.  The Skywalk is a cantilevered clear glass, mile high overhang over the rim of the canyon.  I got as far as the door.  Even though I worked on high steel building coal preparation plants summers between semesters in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia when I was Zach and Luke’s age, standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon gave me a very uneasy feeling.  Since the Chemo I’ve become a bit dizzy form time to time.  Even though I don’t feel like I have much to look forward to presently, I have hope things will get better.  I prefer my ticket out to be my 45, not an accidental headlong pitch over a 1000’ cliff in the Grand Canyon.  Zach has no fear of heights, Luke has a reasonable respect for heights, but my stomach would sink as I took their pictures on the edge of the cliffs.  The Haulapi saw no need to put up guard rails.  I hope time eases the apprehension I experienced and those memories become happy ones.  The Western Rim of the Grand Canyon has a trailer park feel to it.  It’s the one place I would not care to come back to.

After the Western Rim it was only about an hour-and-a-half drive to Hoover Dam.  It was Monday early afternoon when we arrived.  I imagine it would be a low traffic day for that area and maybe it was but it was still very crowded.  I would hate to be there during a heavy traffic day.  Built during the height of the great depression, and like most, having seen several documentaries of its construction, it was still totally impressive.  The arch bridge that spans above and just downstream of the dam makes it even more so.

After a couple hours at the dam we headed on in to Las Vegas.  But before we left the parking lot, I made reservations at the Mandalay Resort and Casino.  We were following google maps and it took us right to the parking area of the Mandalay.  I was thinking we needed to go to valet parking and let a bellhop take our luggage up to our room. I kept my mouth shut as Zach pulled into self-parking.  We ended up dragging our luggage through the casino and past all the shops on the way to check in.  I said nothing and the boys said nothing.  I felt like the hillbilly that I am lugging my big piece of luggage past all those people who thought who knows what about us.  But being the hillbilly that I am, I didn’t much care.  The next morning we did the same thing in reverse as we left the hotel.  Luke has an uncanny sense of direction and took us through the maze of the casino and shops, to the floor where we were parked right to our vehicle.  Left on my own, I may have searched for hours.

At the Mandalay we had dinner at Ri Ra’s.  It is an Irish Pub the Concierge suggested.  Zach and Luke wanted to eat there in honor of their Irish heritage.  Both sets of great grandparents on their mother’s side immigrated to the States from County Cork in Ireland.  The service was excellent and the food very good.  Zach had fish and chips which came in an enormous portion, Luke had the Shepherd’s Pie, and I had a lamb burger.  After a short rest, I had initially wanted to come back out and experience the Las Vegas night life, but we were all exhausted and the entire family of Justices were soon asleep.  So much for a wild night in Las Vegas.  Turns out I was too tired to embarrass either of my sons.  Go figure.

I’m writing on the long flight back to Charlotte, NC.  My battery will soon die.  We will have to drive back to Valdosta tonight, I have a PET scan at 9:00 tomorrow.  Right now I don’t much care whether it shows the cancer is back or not.  I imagine I’ll feel differently if it is.  Maybe not.  Night before last, a little tipsy, thinking about all we had seen on our trip, I was sure God had a plan for me.  Not just a plan, but a good plan, to prosper me and not to harm me.  I still believe that in faith, but to be honest I’m not feeling it.  It won’t take much to improve my outlook on life.  After being in the desert, just a little water tastes mighty good.  The Lord is mighty good.  What does He have in store?  How long do I have to wait?

Isn’t a week doing exactly what I’ve done blessing enough?  Next week I leave with friends for Brazil.  What will the results of the PET scan I have tomorrow show?  With a good result will my frame of mind change or will I be disappointed I’ll survive a while longer?  My, my, I hope my frame of mind has changed by then.

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I developed a sinus infection on our trip.  By the time we arrived home at 2:30 Thursday morning, the pressure was so severe it felt like my right eye was about to explode.  After the PET scan I went to my family physician’s office.  I see one or the other of his nurse practitioners there.  Olivia and Lindsey are their names.  I saw Olivia.  She is young, blonde, and very cute but not so cute you can’t take her seriously.  She prescribed an antibiotic and suggested steroids to dry up my sinuses.  Steroids wire me, so even though the pain was severe I declined them.  Besides, they effect the immune system and could make the Opdivo less effective.

I told her about the funk I was in and asked if she thought an anti-depressant might help.  She went into a Bubba Gump like description of the different anti-depressants and how they work.  She hardly took a breath between sentences.  She had the spiel so down pat I got the feeling she had given it a hundred times.  Maybe a thousand.  Finally she concluded, “Let’s start you on Bupropion.  It starts at 150 mg but after a week we bump you up to 300 mg.  It won’t solve your problems but it will make you feel like at least you can face the day.”

Two of the potential side effects of Bupropion are sleeplessness and loss of appetite.  Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights I probably slept less than 3 hours per night.  I forced myself to eat, the first meal of the day coming in early afternoon.  I would eat again around 9:00 and try to be in bed by 10:00.  Then I would crawl out of bed after a couple of hours of restless tossing and go in and watch the Late Show and the Late, Late Show trying to keep my mind off the impending PET scan results.

Tim Kuck, my boss and friend, called early Monday to ask if I had made a decision about going back on long term disability.  I had confided in him what Dr. Ofori had said.  He encouraged me to take the time and enjoy life while I still could, that Regal would always have a place for me.  I told him I would make the final decision after I got the results from the PET scan.  I was in no an emotional condition to be making life decisions.  At least I had enough sanity to realize that even though I still occasionally found myself going through the motions of cocking my 45.

I sat in Dr. Ofori’s office alone wondering what news the next few minutes would bring.  It must be awkward for the lone nurse who takes the vitals of a patient waiting on such news.  A patient who gets either a death sentence or something akin to winning the lottery.  How’s that for a juxtaposition?

I won the lottery this time.  How many more times would I be this blessed?  After the funk I had been in I was surprised at the relief I felt.

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Our connecting flight was delayed in Atlanta due to mechanical problems we were told.  Delta brought in pizza and water.  No Coke?

I had vacillated on taking this trip. Clinton and Jeana Beeland’s daughter had married a Brazilian.  There was a story book engagement party, ceremony, and reception in Valdosta.  They were having a second ceremony and reception in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  Zach was a groomsman in the original ceremony and would be again in Brazil.  Clinton and Jeana had extended the invitation to Luke and me.  Luke waited too long to get a passport and wouldn’t be going.  I had originally declined due to the pickle we were in at work but since I was leaving Regal how could I pass up this opportunity?  Besides, after the conversation with my oncologist, I had dinner with Clinton and Jeana and Will Hanson, another family friend, who is the pathologist who confirmed my cancer diagnosis.  At dinner I shared the experience with Ofori in an attempt to make light of the situation and relieve some of the tension I was feeling.  Will told me to spend time with my boys, “now, don’t wait”, with that same deadpan gravitas Ofori had used.  We all have defining moments in our lives. That was one for me.

I did not want to make a big deal of retiring.  I had told the team I was taking time off for the trip out West and was also leaving 10 days for Brazil.  When I finally made the announcement on the morning we were flying to Brazil, it wasn’t a shock to anyone at the plant but they were surprised.  A few asked if there was something about my health I wasn’t sharing.  I assured them I am still in remission but wanted to take this time with good health while I could still enjoy time with my sons. I made the announcement to my leadership team and then to the rest of the employees in a plant meeting.  No tears but lots of hugs and well wishes.

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By the time we arrived in Atlanta they were already boarding the flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil.  It was a full flight on an Airbus wide body jet.  The lady on my right had a delightful demeanor, the gentleman on her right was a friendly Brazilian who spoke little English.  He talked nonstop for the first 4 hours of the trip.  The lady seemed to enjoy whatever stories he was telling, laughing often.  I’m a story teller by nature and can talk with the best of them, but this guy had me beat by a mile.  No doubt he is a world class talker because the lady seemed to be entertained the entire flight.  I thought perhaps I’d get to know my seat mates.  No chance with this guy.

The jet was a wide body model as was the guy who sat on my left.  His elbows had no choice but to dangle into my seat space.  He had a slightly unkempt look about him, probably in his late 60’s, with a halo of long, gray hair retreating from his bald pate and a scruffy grey beard. I was surprised when he spoke.  He had a direct tone but his words flowed like honey.  The kind of tone I think a mafia Don uses that sounds so loving and caring just before he gives the order to have you whacked.  He put a movie on and that’s the last we spoke.

A little history and a few words about my traveling companions for those who read this and aren’t familiar with them.  Zach and Mitch have been best friends since the 5th grade when we moved to Valdosta. Mitch is pretty and vivacious.  She married Andre Tatar who she met at Georgia Tech.  He had transferred there after blowing out his knee at the University of Miami where he had a basketball scholarship.  Andre is as laid back as Mitch is effervescent.  Zach, Andre, and Mitch had been in Sao Paulo for a week when we arrived.  Mitch and Zach had both just graduated from Georgia Tech.  Mitch, like her mom, graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering.  Zach had majored in Computer Science.

Nancy and I had become good friends over the years with Clinton and Jeana.  They had begun a successful contract chemical manufacturing company in the 90’s, mixing products that protect plants from bugs and fungus.

When Nancy was diagnosed with the brain tumor our families became closer.  Jeana is extremely competent and a planner.  She organized our meals and Nancy’s thrice weekly transportation to physical therapy with friends on an internet site called Meal Train.  Clinton is a pilot.  He flew us in his plane to Duke a couple of times for our bimonthly visits.  Clinton and Jeana flew up to be with us when Nancy passed and Jeana helped me with the long drive back to Valdosta.  They helped see me through chemo. Clinton flew me, the boys, and my best friend who still lives in Orlando to WV to spend a week at my hunting camp not long after the diagnosis.  Who could have better friends?  I am truly blessed.

Clinton’s and Jeana’s parents were traveling with us, also.  Jeana’s father, Curtis, is a CPA and partially retired according to him but not to Jean.  Curtis headed up some special projects for the Chamber of Commerce when I served on the board.  I gained a lot of respect for him as I watched how he handled his business with the Chamber and even more as I got to know the rest of his family.  Jean is a southern matriarch, poised and gracious but cross her at your own peril.

Robby and Jam are Clinton’s mom and dad.  He is an architect and she has run several side business through the years.  Now she heads up the Macon Arts Alliance, raising many hundreds of thousands to renovate an old neighborhood to house artist’s live/work space.  Jam comes from a long line of strong women.  She plans and then delegates the details to Robby.  Robby carries through flawlessly without too much complaint as only a self-assured, adept man could.  Robby and Jam are the most stylish of all of us.  He wears a sport coat most of the time and Jam usually wears a trendy scarf with the collar on her jacket turned up.  Jam planned most of our trip.

Robby junior, Clinton’s and Jeana’s son, is 19 and works as a rafting guide during the summer.  He took time off to travel with us.  He also rock climbs and took a trip to Mexico with friends earlier in the spring to climb in the canyons of the Sonora desert.

Andre was easy to pick out in the Airport.  He’s 6’4”, sandy haired, and good looking.  Mitch, a foot shorter, vibrant and pretty as ever was standing beside him.  I alone had enough clothes for 3 people for our 10 day trip.  We got carts for our mountain of luggage, exchanged dollars for reals, the Brazilian currency, loaded the Mercedes van, and headed for the Intercontinental where the ceremony and reception would be held and where we’d be staying.

The Intercontinental is as ritzy as the name sounds.  The cost of the room alone for 4 nights was over 2,000 reals, exactly how many dollars I don’t know.   I remember thinking several times as  we lived the high life,  that if I didn’t die soon and ran out of money, I’d be pissed.

Andre took us to an authentic, very upscale Brazilian steakhouse for lunch.  You know a place is expensive and the food more than likely extraordinary when the waiters carry themselves with an air of aristocracy and wear impeccable suits.  They put coins at each of our place settings.  Andre explained that as long as we kept the green side up the waiters would continue to bring us meat on skewers that they would slice off for us.  We each had our own tongs to take the meat as it rolled off.  They brought every cut off the cow and we choose only the cuts we preferred.  And a few select pork cuts to boot.  But the best, several of us agreed, was the lamb chops braised with a creamy, sweet garlic sauce.  The garlic in the sauce pronounced itself clearly but did not shout.  Somehow you knew this sweet garlic sauce was a lady and would not insinuate herself on you later.  The kind you can hold, caress, and roll around your tongue, a sophisticated lady that in no way would ever ruin your reputation.

We finished eating around 2:00 PM and went back to our rooms to freshen up and rest.  We needed it after the overnight, 4,500 mile, nine-and-a-half hour flight.

I couldn’t believe I was ready to eat again at 7:00 pm that evening.  We met Andre, his parents, his sister, her boyfriend, and his best man and his girlfriend at an Italian restaurant for pizza.  The crust on the pizza was about double cracker thin.  Just enough thickness to hold a little moisture so it didn’t crumble when you took a bite.  Brazilian pizza is about the topping and the crust is light and airy.  Like a comfortable, stylish sedan that gets you to your vacation destination in style instead of the thick American style crust that can carry a load, but who needs that much luggage?

We had been joined by Clinton’s and Jeana’s neighbors at the hotel, Tom and Stephanie Carroll and their two children.  Noah is a high school junior and their daughter Cecilia just finished up her sophomore year at Emory University.  Tom is as reticent as Stephanie is demonstrative.  Both children’s personality is closer to their father’s than their mother’s.  That’s a good thing even though Stephanie, while vociferous, is still very likeable.  Noah is built like his mom with a studious, intellectual air about him.  Cecelia is tall like her father with long brunet hair and borders on being a world class beauty.  No, to be honest, she is a world class beauty.  If I was Zach or Robbie, I would be in hot pursuit like a world class coon dog.  But they have much more class than I at their age.  They’re all friends, good friends.  Best it stays that way.

After a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio, something was said that led me to a conversation about my issues.  God Bless Jam and Stephanie for politely listening and at least feigning empathy as I droned on and on and on.

I have talked to friends and a therapist about my current situation and how after all the other gut wrenching turmoil I’ve been through and thrived, how now I’m almost going under.  But for some reason, sharing with Stephanie and Jam helped.

But then a day later, Duane Kuck, CEO and co-owner of Regal offered me a week in the Bahamas with a spectacular 33’ luxury performance boat and a house on the bay with a dock.   I needed to find friends who could take off with only 9 days notice.  That would be difficult.

Jam had booked us a tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral several months in advance. A large, like new, Mercedes van picked us up in front of the Intercontinental.  It seated all 13 of us comfortably.  We had a driver and a tour guide.

The tour guide was a little chubby in a Dom Delouise kind of way with some of the same feminine gestures.  His stylish pompadour was so moussed up that he could have stuck his head out the window as we zoomed down the Brazilian interstate at 80 mph when the traffic cleared and not a hair would have moved.  He spoke with a slight English accent even though he was a native Sao Pauloian and never been to England.  Evidently his tutors were English or the Brazilian who taught him English had an Englishman in his tutoring lineage.

He had a kind and caring manner about him and was a bit over apologetic which made him likable.  And was her ever knowledgeable.   Not only did he know the history of Sao Paulo, he even told us about the views from the interstate before it was built.

You got the feeling the cathedral was built in the distant past, maybe even the late 16 or 1700’s.  We were surprised to find out it was finished in 1913.   But the place was awe inspiring just the same with its towering stain glass windows and gothic architecture.

The area around the cathedral was the heart of where Sao Paulo was first settled.

The tour guide expounded on the founder, José de Anchieta y Díaz de Clavijo (had to look up the name on Wikipedia).  He said the first 300 years in the history of the city it had remained unremarkable, a small city used as a jumping off point for explorers into the interior.  Anchieta had no idea that Sao Paul would grow into the largest city in Latin America, in fact, the twelfth largest in the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It made me think about my life and all the things I’ve been through.  Will God use them to effect the lives of others?  Will I become aware of those effects in my lifetime?  We all need purpose.  After leaving Regal, my boys away from home, and no significant other in my life, I need purpose.  Lord give me the grace and the discipline not to get so far out of line that you can’t use me.  Lord help me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much More to Follow