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My Survivor’s Mission:

Giving Hope Voice

     Long I’ve been waiting for some signal or sign.  Finally, God has revealed my purpose. This is my mission. I’ve received my orders.

     I’ve now endured fifteen long years, battling my way through seemingly insurmountable life and death odds, fighting my way through cancer’s deathly swamps to survival, all the while seeking guidance, strength, and life mission orders from God.

     I have spent time in dark places no man wants to know. Been to Hell and back so many times I no longer need map or compass to chart my course.

     Through it all I’ve had many conversations with God.  Some of them seeking guidance and strength, others venting anger and bewildered frustration, all fueled by one driving life question:


“Why Lord? Why me? What have I done in my life to deserve all this suffering? What is your purpose for keeping me here? What is my mission? Please give me a sign.”

God’s answer to my questions and prayers has been always the same:

“Stay strong. Be ready. I’ll call you when I need you.”

     I reflect this life’s journey each time I make the drive up Route 3 from Watertown to my Saranac Lake heart’s home.  I select one song from life’s play list, most frequently Deep Purple’s “Smoke on The Water”, playing it over and over as I set my cruise control, flying nap of the earth up into the mountain framed lakeside hometown village I love.

     I reflect back on the day the docs broke the news:

“I’m sorry, it’s cancer.”

On the news after an excruciating yearlong chemo/radiation battle:

“I’m sorry. There’s nothing more we can do. It’s time to call hospice.”

On the plea from my 9 year old son:

“Dad, I don’t want to adjust. I just want it out.”

On the dire prognosis from my last-ditch life-saving effort salvage surgeon:

“If you even get off the table, there’s a fifty-fifty chance I can buy you two years.”

On his final words of warning of the post-surgery survivor’s life I could expect if I did:

“You’ll likely never eat food by mouth or speak again.”

     I contemplate all these things as I wind my way up through Star, Cranberry, and Tupper Lakes. I replay “Smoke On the Water” seventeen times, re-living a lifetime of memories as I pass South Creek, the Ampersand Walk-In, the boat launch, The Red Fox, the high school, track oval, glory days athletic playing fields, Petrova Middle School, and the dam churned Saranac River flowing out of Lake Flower as I make my way into town.

     This trip had a particular destination and purpose. But before I reached my objective, I took a little memory lane detour stroll down through town.

     I cruised past the Saranac Lake Free Library, who’s sidewalks I shoveled before school as a boy.

I slowed as I gazed my way up past the treacherously high river crossing train trestle tracks that traumatized my scared to death of heights childhood self every time I crossed them.

     I circled down by the Little Triangle Park that my mother built, and I mowed for cash as a kid.

I waved at the Stevenson Lane stone house I grew up in, then crossed over the Pine Street Bridge and the river that was our kingdom as kids.

     I drove passed Denny Park, where we once created our own private baseball park, and Johnson’s line drive smash back through the pitcher’s mound broke my nose.

     I turned left onto Bloomingdale Avenue, driving up past the Belvedere. I made a brief pitstop at Stewart’s for gas. There used to be a one-man little gas station kiosk on that corner where sometimes the attendant would let neighborhood boys thumb through his under the counter stash of Playboy Magazines if we helped him wash patron’s windshields while he pumped gas.

     After a fill-up at Stewart’s, I got back in my truck and made my way down past the bowling alley and the Chinese restaurant that used to be Dagwood’s Pizza & Subs, where I learned the fine arts of submarine sandwich making and slinging slice pies. I then turned left onto Broadway down past Bitters & Bones, which was also once Dagwood’s, before Dagwood’s was where the Chinse restaurant was, when Bitters & Bones was The Back Door.

     The Back Door was once one of our high school crew’s favorite underage fake ID accessible hangout bars.  My high school friends used to trapse a myriad assortment of mixed drinks across the street from that bar to Dagwood’s and barter them to me for free weekend late hour submarine sandwiches or extra cheese & pepperoni slices.  

     I eased past the Adirondack Daily Enterprise offices whose canvas newspaper bag I diligently carried and floors I swept for my first paychecks as an enterprising lad, before I learned the fine art of trading pizza slice pies for cocktails.  Needless to say, my weekend late hour shifts puzzlingly proved simultaneously unprofitable for Dagwood’s owners and quite patron popular.

     Finally, after crossing the river once more, past what was once the donut shop where we feasted on Boston cremes and jelly “day olds”, I eased my truck into a parking spot. I had reached my evening’s destination, The Adirondack Center for Writing.

     The evening’s scheduled event was “Barkreaders”.  The agenda featured readings by a local author, followed by an open mic.  This was my third venture forth to participate. My brother Ray, sister-in-law Patty and friends Mary & Joel were planning to join me to show their support.  As a three time cancer survivor missing half a jaw and my tongue, speaking in public is always a mountainous endeavor for me. The evening’s prospects made me both nervous and excited.

     Barkreaders was scheduled to start at 7pm. I arrived early. Upon entering the ACW office venue, I encountered ACW’s on-site Communications Director and the evening’s MC, Tyler. Tyler greeted me, as he always does, with a smile, but he seemed a bit flustered and tense.  Not his usual demeanor. I soon discovered why. Water was steadily dripping from the ceiling in the back of the room and creating a growing puddled mess on the floor. Tyler was  preoccupied scurrying around, trying to contain the mess, make a damage assessment, and send out a few SOS phone calls.

I looked up at the ceiling and commented:

“Looks to me like leaking water from an ice dam. This is the time of year we got those around here, especially after this last snowstorm. Freeze-melt, freeze melt, freeze-melt, ice forms on the roof, water gets backed up behind it and has nowhere to go. It finds a hole and comes down through the ceiling.”

Tyler looked at me a bit skeptically.

“We’ve had problems with busted water pipes here before.  I called the maintenance man.”

     A few minutes later ACW’s Director, Nathalie, showed up. She and Tyler continued their assessment, went to knock on upstairs tenant’s doors, and consulted on whether to move forward with the evening’s event while they awaited the maintenance man’s arrival.

     I went outside and around to the side of the building. Saranac Lake had just received nearly a foot of fresh, heavy, wet snow.  It had frozen overnight, then been bright, clear and sunny all day. I looked up and nodded to myself. Just as I suspected, there was a steady stream of melted snow dripping from the roof.  I went back inside and said to Nathalie,

“Looks to me like an ice dam. You’ve got melting snow on the roof.”

Nathalie glanced at me with a bit of the same skepticism I’d gotten from Tyler.

“It hasn’t really been warm enough for that.”

     I decided to just stay out of the way and mind my own business. About that time the maintenance man showed up, He and Tyler took down some ceiling planks so he could peer up inside and make an assessment. I went out to my truck to get some spare towels I keep on hand for “when stuff gets wet” hunting and camping emergencies.  

     I got back inside just in time to hear the maintenance man saying:

“Looks to me like the water is running down the pipe on the outside wall. Might be an ice dam. We get those around here this time of year…”

     I didn’t say a word. I simply handed one towel to Tyler and began mopping water from the floor with the other. We grey haired Adirondack Outlaws might not look like much, but every once in a while, we just know stuff.

     Be that as it may. “I told you so’s” don’t really in any constructive way help ACW solve their ceiling water leak problem. I hope someone who knows how helps them solve it.  Internal solution attempts to that problem may be mere cosmetic band-aides.  I suspect the long-term answer lies up on that building’s roof.

     Much to Tyler & Nathalie’s credit, they decided to persevere and go on with the show.  That made me happy. It’s a long drive from Watertown, and as I’m sure every survivor well knows, each endeavor is hard, involving careful planning and great effort.

     Shortly thereafter, other folks began to arrive. The featured author, Dorian Gossy arrived with her husband. I bought a signed copy of her new book, “The House On Figueroa”.  

    My brother Ray & sister-in-law Patty arrived with our friends. We took some photos to commemorate the event. 

At ACW’s Barkreaders, L-R: My Sister-In-Law Patty, Me, My Brother Ray
Friends Mary & Joel

Tyler was even gracious enough to take time from his water leak damage control efforts for a photo op with me.

Me with ACW Communications Coordinator Tyler Barton
Who managed a smile despite being up to his elbows in a leaky roof swamp full of alligators.

He also was kind enough to make copies of the poem I was reading that evening, “Ghost Lake”, for everyone, as he knows I struggle when speaking to make myself fully understood. After my last readings, Tyler thought that it might be easier for folks in the audience if they had a written copy of my poem in their hands to follow along with.  

     After an introduction, Dorian read excerpts from her book. I found it interesting and engaging, though I may not listen with the same ear other folks do. When I listen to other writers read, I’m not listening to the story, per se. I’m more focused on how that particular writer selects and uses words.

     About the time Dorian was finishing and open mic was to begin, I had a problem. I turned to my brother Ray,

“I have to go outside for a moment. I can’t breathe.”

     That happens to me quite frequently.  Breathing and swallowing are my primary day to day challenge. Two rather important things that other folks do quite naturally, without thought. Unfortunately, I do not. Speaking only makes matters worse. I had spoken already more than I’d planned, talking to Tyler & Nathalie, greeting my family and friends, meeting the evening’s featured author, getting my copy of her book signed.  All of those things combined to put my evening’s planned reading in jeopardy. I had no choice. As Tyler transitioned the evening to open mic, I stepped outside.

     I went around to the alley to do some excruciatingly and immediately necessary survivor’s self-maintenance.  I vomited in the process. That usually happens.  Thank the lord the local constabulary didn’t happen by while I was doing so. A lone guy in an alley at night, heaving into a snowbank…one of my worst nightmare scenarios is getting accosted by cops.

     It’s hard enough for me to make myself understood to someone who knows me. Things could go south for me pretty quickly trying to explain to some cop what I’m doing between two downtown buildings after dark, puking my guts out.  I’ve told my wife Robin more than once:

“If I ever got stopped or pulled over by the cops, I could very easily end up being one of those guys who gets shot while flailing around trying desperately to explain myself.”

     Thankfully though, no cops showed up. I finished what I had to do and looked up at the roof. I could see it had slowed to a drip but was still melting.

     I walked back around to the front of the building. The first open mic reader was at the podium. I did not want to interrupt her, so I stood outside on the sidewalk watching through the front window until she was finished before going inside.

     Shortly thereafter, Tyler called my name. I took my place at the podium and read my poem “Ghost Lake”.

  It’s a poem I wrote while working as the caretaker’s assistant out of the DEC’s Interior Headquarters at Lake Colden one summer. I was a much younger man back then, still healthy and whole.

     I think the reading went well. It’s always a bit hard to tell. I’m really focused on enunciating. People clapped when I finished, at least.

  I went back and sat down, the evening’s mission accomplished.

    Ray, Patty, Mary, Joel and I walked down to Bitters & Bones for a cocktail afterwards. Well, they had a cocktail.  I no longer dare. I had to forego my evening tube feeding to be able to drive up to Saranac Lake for the event and would not get dinner until I got home later. Dining out and sharing drinks in a bar. Just another pair on the long list of human social activities my tongueless tube fed survivor’s circumstance precludes me from safely enjoying.

     I sat and shared their company for a while before we called it a night and I walked back to my truck for the drive home.

  As I drove home, listening once again to “Smoke on the Water”, I asked myself:

”Why did you do this Dick? Why do you put yourself thorough all of this?”

Was the effort worth it?”

The simple answer to that question is “Yes”.

This is my mission.

I’m a tongueless Adirondack Outlaw writer survivor.

Hear Me Roar


Until Our Trails Cross Again: