Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Finally, a new post !!!

Greetings, everyone.  I know it has been over a year since I last posted an update, and there is no excuse for that, so I won’t even try.  Perhaps I have been too busy just trying to live my life; perhaps my condition changed so rapidly that every update seemed out of date before it was even written.
            I hope everyone has had a chance to enjoy the World Cup of Soccer, or Futbol, as it is properly called.  These are some seriously good athletes, and the USA had a good run.  In the sport of soccer, there is time added to the end of every half or overtime.  This
“extra time” is kept tracked of by the referee, and takes into account the time delayed by injuries, arguments, and celebrations of a goal.  The interesting thing about this is that nobody in the stadium (save the ref charged with keeping this tally) knows exactly how much time is left, so the teams just play on until the ref blows his whistle, indicating the end of the half or the game.  I really cannot think of another sport where this is the case.
It struck me the other day that the last couple of years have been like “extra time” for me, an unknown quantity of time tacked on to the end, for which I have no choice but to “play on.”
            I was feeling quite useless a while back, after I had divested myself of all my former public incarnations: no more officiating weddings, no more teaching yoga, and no public poetry events except for the very few and far between.  I felt like a specter, a gaunt version of Skeletor that haunts my house, where Bruce used to be. I must have let slip a comment or two about this when my daughter, in her infinite wisdom, reminded me that this time has in fact been a gift. If I had died suddenly, or even much sooner, as most PC patients do, I wouldn’t have had the time to delve deeply into connecting with my children and my wife.  I cannot say that now; I was given the gift of time.

            So it was over a year ago that I came to the realization that western medicine had pretty much played its hand and could now only offer palliative care. Yes, there were chemotherapy options, but no good ones.  Frank discussions with oncologist revealed that no one really thought the trade-off of quality of life versus added time worked to my benefit.  In other words, I’m gonna ride this one out without the vain hope of chemo, and its inherent damage.
            When one gets to this place, you start to think of Bucket List kind of stuff.  I had always wanted to see the giant Redwoods of the northern California coast.  Amy and I headed that way just about a year ago.  We had a great time and I will link some pics here. To hike with Amy through the groves of the giant Redwoods was a truly inspiring experience. It makes one feel for life on this earth untouched by the hand of man. This trip ended with a visit to my dear friend Philip Gutt and his family in Corvallis Oregon.

Even during this time, my health was starting to falter.  My digestion was problematic and I was losing weight.  The time to act is now, we decided, and put together, in just a few days, a two week getaway to Costa Rica for all four of us!  Come August of last summer, we decamped for Central America. What a time and adventure!  Although the travelling was rough, it was a watershed experience for my little family.  Amy found us a wonderful house in Playa Grande, and although the good waves Myles and I hoped for never materialized, by the end of the trip we had all grown much closer and deepened our understanding of and compassion for one another.  We saw so much, from howler monkeys to fireflies, raccoons to frigate birds, flora and fauna of all sorts.  Costa Rica has done well as a country to protect its natural habitats, and this is a very good thing.  While in country, we were able to visit an old friend Louise, who is now living there, and on our way through San Jose, we were able to connect with my cousin Tom and his partner Emily, (a native Tica) who have also decided to make Costa Rica their home. 
About this time, I was presented with a delightful opportunity. Friends of my son Myles, Patrice and Keali’i, were getting married. I had always loved this wonderful young couple and admired their devotion to each other. I offered a Wedding Ceremony Guide, my self-produced booklet with ideas and outlines for putting together a personalized wedding ceremony.  We met, talked and I wished them well. Their wedding was to take place on Oahu, where they both grew up and have family. But low and behold, a couple of days later they approached me and asked if I would be able to officiate for them in October on Oahu! “We want you to do our wedding, Uncle Bruce!”
Well, I knew opportunities like this would not come around too often.  The only question was my health, which varied wildly, day to day and week to week.  I was on the verge of cancelling the trip on my bad days, but I knew I was meant to be there.  So come October, Amy, Myles and I headed to the Hawaiian Islands for several days of relaxation and wedding festivities.  The wedding took place on the windward side of Oahu, away from the hustle and bustle of Honolulu and quite beautiful.  Amy and I were amazed by the graciousness and warmth of the Hawaiian families involved, with gift baskets and events nearly every day. The wedding was beautiful, and I’ll never forget the look of joy on Keali’i’s face when his lovely bride walked down the path to the ceremony site. It was a wonderful and fulfilling experience, and a chance to wear all my Hawaiian shirts (aka, “Aloha shirts”) that I had collected over the years.  Myles and his friends had a chance to surf the north shore, something every serious surfer should have in his repertoire. A good time was had by all.
After that, Thanksgiving was enhanced by a visit from Amy’s brother and sister-in-law from the outer banks of North Carolina.  Unfortunately, my digestive problems kept me from fully enjoying the feast experience, but it was good to see family together in one place.
Christmas was special, and our annual Christmas Eve party was sweet and loving and very fun. I managed to put together a few good days in a row, which made me and my family very happy.
Soon after the New Year, the pain in my abdomen was growing worse by the day, and coupled with the intestinal upset, was rapidly rendering me only semi-functional.  After finally getting in with new, better and less expensive insurance coverage (thanks to the ACA and our President) I had an appointment with a new oncologist in February.  Although there is little to do from a western medical standpoint at this stage of my illness, the doctor did prescribe some pain meds for me. I had avoided opiates for as long as I could, fearing the side effects; but the time had come. I started on low dose oxycodone, and it was like a new lease on life.  I could face the day without pain for the first time in a long time.  But the learning curve for round the clock pain management is a steep one, and I keep either forgetting to medicate or trying to lower the dosage, leading to some painful episodes.  But I have now settled into a regimen that keeps most of the pain at bay and although I am often a bit foggy headed, it sure beats the alternative.
By April, I knew that something was wrong, as my fatigue grew much worse. That’s when I noticed the symptoms of blood in my stool.  Around this time, I had a wedding scheduled, and I was so devoid of blood that I almost fainted during the ceremony.  By Monday morning, I was being admitted into the hospital, and quickly given 3 units of blood.  Because the bleeding seemed to have stopped, I came home.

But a couple of weeks later, the bleeding started up again in earnest.  Again I went to the hospital and ended up spending 3 hellish nights in Scripps Encinitas, being scoped from both ends (colonoscopy and endoscopy) special radio isotope blood scans, and other tests.  They could not find the source of my bleeding.  I was told by the attending physician at Scripps to go home and call hospice.  Fortunately, the gastroenterologist in charge of my care saw a spot on a scan in my small intestine that he thought he could get to with his longest scope.  So once again I was put under and the scope was sent down past my stomach and just at the end of his reach, good doctor Mansoor was able to cauterize and clip off a bleed.  Miraculously, it worked, and my bloodwork slowly started to trend in the right direction.  I came home much the worse for wear.  Those three nights spent in the hospital were the very worst of this whole ordeal.  The good doctor warned me that the bleeding could start up at any time, however, and I must be vigilant.
As if this wasn’t enough to handle already, once home from the hospital, I found that I had some kind of circulatory problem in my groin, and without getting too graphic, one of my cojones swelled up to, let’s say to plum or tangerine size, with the attendant pain.  So while I am trying to build my blood back up, I am now hobbled by a very painful yet private “situation.”  In addition, there was swelling and some numbness in my left leg.  After some false starts with a GP, I was able to make my way to a urologist who informed me that I had a varicose vein that had a “blown out valve” that was causing the problem.  There is an outpatient surgery for this, but the earliest availability was about 3 weeks down the road.  I had little choice but to wait, which I must say made for a very long 3 weeks. 
Finally, the day of the surgery arrives, 6:30 am we are due at the surgi-center, and I am put under. (at this point, I am getting kind of tired of the anesthesia doses.) Amazingly, I am back home before lunch time.  So here I am again, recovering from some “procedure” yet again.  The doc said the procedure went well, although the recovery was a bit of a bitch, as the antibiotics they routinely give you made my bowls somewhat haywire, which only made the recovery more challenging.  When we changed the dressing, Amy and I found out that what we were told was to be a ¾ inch incision was in fact nearly 3 inches.  The doctor confirmed that two veins were involved, not just one, and that necessitated the bigger incision. But, thank goodness, the surgery seemed to work, and the testicle started to shrink.  Unfortunately, the pain only subsided somewhat, and I still have some swelling in my left lower leg, but I’ll take it. 
So that is where I stand today, all 140 lbs of me. I have good days and bad ones.  The fatigue level is startling, and I sleep a lot.  Because of the opiate based pain meds, I am no longer “allowed” to drive, and Myles has been the lucky recipient of my old Subaru.  Although going car-less seems to be the wave of the future, we are not there yet, and having to be shuttled everywhere is a humbling experience.  But Carmen and Myles have stepped up with the tasks of getting their dad where he needs to go (which is nowhere, most days), and helping Amy out with getting me to appointments, etc.  Like I’ve said before, my kids are great.  They make me smile every day.

            One of the most advanced practices of Tibetan Buddhism is the concept of meditating upon the concept of your own corpse.  It sound morbid to most western ears, but the purpose is to realize the impermanence of this material world and our time in it. When one is diagnosed with a terminal illness, this practice is there for the taking.  The absolute impermanence of our material existence becomes ever so clear.  One day I would bemoan my frailty and loss of muscle, the next day I looked in the mirror and thought, well, it’s only a body; I’ll be done with it soon enough, so what’s the big deal? From dust we arose and to dust we return. Letting go of our deepest attachments is both scary and freeing.
            So here I sit, most days, in a sort of divine limbo. If it is a good day, I can putter around the yard, do basic chores, etc.  If it is not a good day, I sleep a lot and accomplish nothing, except for finishing a crossword puzzle or two.  Poor Amy doesn’t know what to expect day to day, which is stressful unto itself and makes it very difficult to make plans.  But what am I to do, but to play on in this extra time, giving it all I’ve got and waiting for the referee to blow his whistle.
Until then, I wish you peace, health and happiness.
With love,
Swami bruce


Friday, June 28, 2013

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Greetings, everyone.  Well, this week brought the calendar up to my oncology appointment, an impending date that has caused a lot of worry, stress and heartfelt discussion with those closest to me.  I am here to report that the news is not what I had hoped for. Not terrible news, but not great either.  It seems my pancreatic tumor marker has risen, and the spots in my lungs have grown measurably.  It would appear that there is active cancer in my body. On the upside, there appears to be nothing wrong with my liver and my other bloodwork came back just about perfect.  In other words, except for the small detail of cancer, I'm in pretty good health! I am currently asymptomatic, with no pain, shortness of breath, etc. I am for now deciding to forego treatment, which at this point is limited to chemotherapy.
I have been losing weight, however. This is problematic for a couple of reasons. One, weight loss is often a sign of active cancer; patients of this disease are told to monitor their weight. But in my case, the weight loss is more likely caused by the digestive problems due to the surgery I had (known as the Whipple procedure).
I will spare you the grisly details, but let's just say that diet and digestion have been a challenge for me ever since.  These last few months were particularly bad, and my weight has dropped to just below what it was in high school!  So if I were to try chemotherapy, with the attending nausea, I just don't see how I could get enough nutrition to keep from wasting away. This is very problematic.
It is an interesting dilemma, trying to put on weight instead of lose it, which I thought would be the issue at this time of my life. I cannot eat large meals; it makes me ill. Several small meals a day are what I can handle, and that is surprisingly inconvenient. I also get cold so much easier, being so lean. The warm summer weather is welcomed. And I am quite tired of buying new, smaller clothes, especially pants.  I am, in fact, the incredible shrinking man, a strange sensation indeed.  Amy has been a great source of help and insight on this.  She has tirelessly scoured the internet for information on post-Whipple diets and supplements, and has found me a potent hydrochloric acid supplement to replace what my partial stomach doesn't make, and some super pro-biotics that are used by the pros.  These two supplements, along with OTC digestive enzymes, have helped noticeably. I am being referred to a gastroenterologist, and I hope he/she can provide some more insight.

When one receives news such as this, it is like an invisible cudgel has whacked you upside the head. The stress of the tests and waiting for the results is quite intense. And as we all know, stress is not good for you! So there is a constant attempt at "staying in the moment" and not letting your mind get carried away. Being around my wife and kids seems to be very helpful with this.  In fact, every moment seems so very precious, when one is made aware of the finite nature of one's life. But of course, all our lives are finite; no one gets out of here alive, if you will.  So shouldn't every moment be precious? For all of us? It sure seems that way this week.

But also is the reality that life goes on, oblivious to your own personal drama. There are cars that won't start, rats to be trapped, runs to and from the airport, emails to return, meetings to keep, memorials to attend, basically all the minutiae of life that parades our way on a daily basis. Perhaps this is a good thing, keeping one from dwelling too much on the the ominous diagnosis. My son Myles' return to our home after graduating college has been a godsend, and buoyed my spirits. And another strong back around Rancho Pollo Gordo has been fantastic, and with his help, many delayed projects are getting completed. This, and the sweet and wonderful weddings I officiate keep me smiling.

Yet, like the tongue that cannot stay away from the rotten tooth, one's mind will find that "worst case scenario" whether you want to or not. I really cannot share all the intricate and even morbid thoughts that pass through me on occasion. This, I am sure, is part of the challenge and part of the process. If I can express on overriding idea I hold dear, it is that I choose quality of life over quantity. I do not really fear death, rather, I fear living with disease and debility. Like I said, quality over quantity.  Perhaps it is easier to say this whist I am still asymptomatic.  Time will tell.
What is obviously and painfully true is that my dance with this disease is not over, not by a longshot. I am still fighting for my health and healing.  Perhaps the new paradigm is "living with cancer" rather than "dying of cancer." I hope to wrestle this disease to a draw. Only time will tell.
I would like to thank all you that have been so supportive over this journey. The kindness that has come my way has often taken my breath away and moved me to tears. Strangely, it would seem we live in a Universe that is simultaneously utterly impersonal and full of love.  Go figure.
I send you this message with love and kind wishes.
Until next time,
Swami bruce

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Latest News

Greetings everyone....  

       As you can see, before the post about my dear Mother, the last blog post was in October.  That is quite a bit of time for an update.  At first, I regarded this as a good thing; sort of “no news is good news” kind of thinking.  I was looking forward, feeling pretty good, and generally just getting on with my life.  The holidays came and went, as they always do, and it was all good.  In fact, our traditional Christmas Eve open house gathering was epic! In its 26th year, we had a banjo player picking and singing to entertain us, and just an amazing fun and warm time, a reunion of friends and families that left us glowing for days.  The New Year dawned full of hope and promise.
In February, we shifted out health insurance and when getting on board with the new doctors, it was found, in a blood test, that although my “labs” were perfect, my cancer marker had risen significantly. The woman oncologist ordered an immediate CT scan, and the results showed some spots on my lower lungs. This, of course, was a very disconcerting development.  This young oncologist recommended immediate chemo, a 3 drug protocol of the particularly nasty variety.  I shared with her my “near death” experience with the previous chemo regimen nearly two years ago, and when I expressed my reticence to jump back into chemotherapy, she haughtily said, “Well, if my patients refuse chemo, then I usually recommend hospice.”  
I thought this was unbelievably inappropriate and even crass.  I knew at that moment that I was not going to insure my care to someone so insensitive and inexperienced.   I decided on the walk to the car that I would change doctors. 
I cannot express how this news affected me and my dear wife Amy.  My worst fear is the cancer returning, and that seemingly was the news.  The very act of entering a medical building brings anxiety, and I saw myself being sucked back into what I call the “medical-industrial establishment”.  Making any plans becomes problematic, and one exists in a sort of limbo. All this was happening during the week of my mother’s memorial.  I chose to keep the news from my sisters until after the memorial.   It was a rough week, needless to say.  
Through a connection with one of Amy’s home office management clients, we were able to get an appointment with a pancreatic cancer specialist at UCLA Medical Center.  Dr. Isacoff is the man when it comes to pancreatic cancer, and we were fortunate to get to see him.  West LA traffic is no place for the faint of heart, but with Amy driving the diamond lanes were available, and we made our appointment.  After reviewing my case, Dr. Isacoff recommended an altered chemo regimen, at a lower dose.  He offered to consult with the doctor in my network.  He dispelled some myths and added some clarity.  
I took this information back to a meeting with my new oncologist, Dr. Polikoff, with Kaiser  in San Marcos, hoping for the best.  Dr. Polikoff, a man of about my age, an athlete, seemed much more knowledgeable and involved.  He asked and answered a lot of questions. He showed me the latest CT scan on his computer screen and pointed out to me the actual spots on my lungs as they appeared in view.  Being able to actually visualize the situation in my lungs was a great help to me.  He seemed much more detailed and concerned with my health and quality of life.  He respected my commitment to exercise and health in general.  He made note that the spots were still small, and apparently not growing quickly, and that my general health was still good.  He also noted that my cancer marker, (known as the CA19-9 test) had apparently leveled off, at least for the time being.  Also my weight, which had been dropping, an ominous sign for cancer patients, had stabilized.
His assessment was that a much more cautious approach was called for.  He said, “If this is not behaving like an aggressive cancer, then we will not treat it like an aggressive cancer.”  He promised to consult with a radiologist to see if a biopsy was possible, and thought that chemo was not called for at this time.  After gearing myself up mentally and emotionally for the rigors of chemo, this was music to my ears!  I was fully prepared to start a rather nasty 3 drug course of chemo, but I had been granted a last minute reprieve, so to speak!  Amy and I walked out of the appointment with our heads spinning, having been whipsawed emotionally by the last two weeks of events. 

So I find myself once again in that strange limbo that cancer patients often find themselves; waiting for a very unknown future.  But in reality, this is true for all of us, is it not?  Anyway, I’ll take limbo over chemo-land any day, believe me.   I am counting my blessings and keeping my fingers crossed.  So much kindness and good will has come my way, I am grateful.  I have redoubled my anti-cancer regimen that I had become somewhat lax with.  I take my mushroom supplements, eat my cruciferous vegetables, avoid sugar, meditate, lift weights and practice yoga, drink green tea,  and the list goes on.  It is a surprisingly full time job!  I do see the toll this is taking on those around me, especially Amy, and I feel powerless to do much about that. 

I am very glad that I can keep the commitments I made to couples for their weddings; this brings me great joy.  I want to make the most of this time of focusing on my self and my health.  Amy and I are planning a trip to Carmel to reconnect with an old friend of mine and my 40th High School Reunion is coming up in June.  Perhaps more travel is in the works, if the winds be favorable.  Until then, may your homes be peaceful and your efforts fruitful.
Swami bruce

Rebecca Monroy Stephens
May 5th, 1924-February 15th, 2013

It has been an eventful time in my life of late, and I would like to share the news of the passing of my dear mother Becky.  I will share some words that were spoken at her memorial. 
This is the eulogy delivered by my sister Sarah Green:

Eulogy for Mom

     Our mother, Rebecca Monroy Stephens, was born, at home, on May 5, 1924 in downtown Los Angeles. She loved the fact that she was a true native Angeleno and would say that she was born in the “shadow of city hall.” Her parents, Herlinda Picos Monroy and Jose Maria Monroy had come here from Sonora, Mexico to start their married life. She was the second of five children and grew up close to her siblings. Her father left the family when my mom was very young and she never saw him again. Fortunately, my grandmother was a strong woman who worked hard and was able to keep her young family together. Though my mom was afraid of something happening to her mother because it would probably mean that she and her siblings would be separated, she had nothing to fear. My grandmother lived to the age of 90!
        Though times were tough it was a gentler era in many ways. My mom grew up in a supportive neighborhood of Jews, Italians, and Mexicans. An Italian lady down the street taught her to knit. More than once an older Jewish woman saw their poverty and would cook an elaborate dinner only to deliver it to my mom’s family when her sons “unexpectedly” arrived to take her out to dinner. Such was the kindness of the day.
     My mom spoke Spanish at home but learned English when she went to school. She and her siblings came home and taught their mother the new language. She received a solid education and proudly graduated from Belmont High in the early 40’s. She loved to read and did well in school. She was college material but times were different and that opportunity was not available to her. Even though she loved to read and she especially loved poetry, she said that if she had gone to college she would’ve been a science major.
     After high school she worked for a short time at Hollywood Wholesale – an electrical company. She commuted from her home via the Red Cars – LA’s early public transportation system. She often bemoaned their demise saying that they worked perfectly. They were clean, on time, inexpensive, and efficient. When she was young, my mom had a pet duck and, believe it or not, this duck would walk with her to the corner where she caught the Red Car in the morning and it would be waiting for her in the afternoon when she returned. She loved that duck! Unfortunately, the duck disappeared around Easter one year and my mom sadly realized that someone was enjoying duck for their holiday meal. She didn’t blame them. Those were just the times.

     My mother’s life changed dramatically when she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps. Though my grandmother was dismayed at her decision, my mother realized it would afford her an opportunity to advance herself. She went to Georgia for basic training and loved being a “WAC.” To her, the uniform, the three meals a day, and the specialized instruction she received were all a dream come true. She loved the camaraderie and even maintained contact with some of these friends  throughout her life. Though short in stature, she had fun being on a basketball team and was actually a pretty good shot. 
     Her affinity for science came in handy when she was trained as a medical stenographer, assigned to taking dictation in shorthand, during autopsies. Though none of us kids could imagine such an assignment she had the resolve to do this and do it well. 

      One of her other assignments was to write the letters home to wives, mothers, and sweethearts that were dictated to her by wounded soldiers recuperating in the hospital where she worked. Sometimes they would say, “you write it, you know what to say, you know what they want to hear.” I love the thought of her easing the heartache and pain of war times in this special, quiet way.
Now comes the good part! My mom was talked into attending a USO Dance while stationed in San Francisco. My father, Robert Stephens, nicknamed Steve in the Navy, attended as well. They were both shy but at one point he got her attention by nudging her foot under the table. Thus began a romance that included long distance letters and cross country trips, culminating in their marriage in his home state of Maine before a justice of the peace on November 10, 1949. 

     My parents were from two sides of this nation, two very different cultures, and it wasn’t easy for them but they forged a new life in post-war Los Angeles. It was an upbeat, optimistic time and they were part of the generation who had us baby boomers. They were close to my mother’s family and, as her siblings married and my dad’s family migrated west, our early years were full of family gatherings. We didn’t need a reason to get together – just that it was a sunny Sunday afternoon was enough to prompt a picnic in the park. My mom was in her element – at home, cooking, sewing, having babies. She didn’t even learn to drive until she was in her 30’s. And only one car – a station wagon, of course – met our needs.

     In 1966 my parents saw the neighborhood changing and knew it was time to move. Every weekend for months we drove all over the valley, Glendale, etc. looking for just the right place. My mother was never afraid to give her opinion so this process probably took a lot longer than my father anticipated. They finally settled in the Monterey Hills of South Pasadena. As was customary for my parents they began painting and weeding and sprucing up this new home. Though my mom knew this was a necessary move and a wise choice, she cried because she missed living across the street from her mother who was now a freeway drive away. But, the family reunions continued and the big yard and safe schools gave us a comfortable life in So. Pas. Before long my mom was asked to help supervise during the lunch hour at our elementary school, Monterey Hills, and so she became a “noon aide.” Later, our neighbors, the Swans, invited her to work for them at their family store – Swan Stationers. This is where her world opened up and many people remember her helping them at the store. It was the day where you could go and buy one pencil or one eraser or one report cover for 25 cents! With children at the elementary school, the jr. high, and the high school she became acquainted with many families. My mom quit this job in the mid seventies to have more time with her sister, Marti, as she was dying of cancer. Awhile later she was again “asked” to begin her next job. They needed more tellers at Bank of America, again right in So. Pasadena, and so she began yet another career. She loved counting money and she was proud of always balancing to the penny, even on busy Fridays! She eventually helped as a vault teller assisting local merchants with their business accounts and she also worked in new accounts – opening a bank account for my husband a few months before he and I met. She “retired” from this job when her grandson, Taylor, was born. She stayed home to care for him so my sister could return to work and the next year her day care center grew to include Sue’s twins, Camille and Nicole. Once again she was in her element! My dad marveled at how she acted like a young mother all over again – having plenty of energy for her young charges and so intuitively anticipating their needs.
     Next came the season where our children’s activities pretty much dictated my parents’ social life. They faithfully attended piano recitals, baseball games, school plays, church programs, basketball games, track meets, and jazz concerts. The involved parents became the devoted grandparents.
      About ten years ago my mother, who was never sick, became ill and spent nearly two months in the hospital. We almost lost her several times. I’m still amazed at how she battled back from that experience to live a whole decade more! In her later years dementia, memory loss, and aphasia limited her activities. She was so frustrated when we couldn’t understand her! She gradually settled into a more subdued routine but she never stopped enjoying the company of her family.


These are the words I spoke:

Rebecca Monroy Stephens
My dear sweet Mom.  She was an earth mother before the term was invented. My mother wasn’t what you would call a deep thinker; she operated more from an intuitive level. Yet, she knew what she knew. If it promoted love, health or happiness, it was good. She knew, for example, that one should avoid too much sugar in your diet. She didn’t need to read double blind scientific research.  She just knew.  When we were growing up, candy and soda was not stocked at our house, or at least doled out in rare and small quantities.  I used to envy other kids whose moms would let them indulge in all manners of sugary treats, but in retrospect, I am sure we are healthier for it.  She just knew.  Plus she always had some funny theories about why things were the way they were, based upon some Mexican folklore. I found it a little embarrassing when I was young, and absolutely endearing when I was older.

     When I look back, I am amazed with the unconditional love that she showed for nearly everyone she knew.  My friends were always welcomed and always fed, with some of her excellent cooking.

       She loved babies. Oh how she loved babies.  When Carmen came along, she was so happy, being her first grandchild. I recall her and my father arriving at our house, and I reached out to give her a hug, and she walked right by me and directly to Carmen.  I had become dispensable at that point, I guess….

        She was tough.  She was a fighter.  Her illness about 10 years ago would have done in most people, but she fought and survived.  As my father would say, “She’s got that Indian blood in her”, referring to her native American roots in Mexico.

        She came from such poor beginnings; she was naturally frugal, but not stingy.  There is a very important difference.  She gave of herself with such generosity. She was patient and kind.

       A great cook, shared her love through food. Our kitchen was always stocked with plenty of food and her home made dishes. She would always make our favorite dish on our birthdays.
       I emailed an old girlfriend from high school who I thought would like to know that Becky had passed, and she called me and regaled me for nearly ½ hour with memories about my mom, how they would laugh together and how they remained friends long after we had broken up! 
        It was hard watching her mind slowly slip away; almost agonizing at times.  But somehow her essence remained, and if you kissed her on the cheek, she would return the kiss, and if you told her you loved her, she would say the same, as best she could. 
      She was our queen, in a way. Her caregivers, Nuria, Mildred and Rosa, were her handmaidens, and certainly have earned themselves a special place in heaven for the excellent, loving and gentle care they gave.  We give you our heartfelt thanks. 
       My sisters who oversaw her care did a fantastic job, selflessly working together to see that our Mom had what was needed and that she was taken care of; shuttling her to doctor’s appointments, overseeing the caregivers, and just being present for her.  I am sure our father would be proud.  And I have to mention Sue’s husband Ray, (Ray-Ray) who has been a steady, kind and infinitely helpful presence this whole time.   Thank you Ray, son-in-laws don’t come much better than you.


My daughter Carmen and son Myles with their Grandmother Becky.

    More than anything, my Mother’s passing represents the end of an era.  The house on Via del Rey was a place of many happy memories.  Suddenly my mind is awash with so many memories of friends being fed, of barbeques in the back yard, of school projects getting done, thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, birthdays, and more.  We all knew this day would come, but that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier.  She died a proud Indian woman, in her own home, surrounded by loved ones.  We should all be so lucky.

      I wrote a silly poem for her 80th birthday a few years back, and I would like to share it with you now.


Long, long ago
In a galaxy far, far away
(Better known as the 1920’s in L.A.)
Was born a little girl, one of four
Nothing less, nothing more
Who knew what life had in store?
She went to school and confession
And survived the great depression
And then she wanted a little more
So she joined the Women’s Army Corps
And a little after World War II
She met a man who loved her true
And in the town of Lewiston, Maine
Mrs. Stephens she became
Soon baby Shelley sat on her knee
Then along came Stephanie
1955 – make some room
Along I came at the height of
    the post-war baby boom
And soon after my creation
We lived in a house above a gas station
While Dad pumped gas and changed the oil
In this house she would toil
Kids crawling all over the place
She kept us fed and a smile on our face
Soon more room we did want
So we moved to a street called Rosemont
The location just couldn’t be beat
Because our Nana lived across the street
With Nana in the kitchen her and Maria sat
Mixing the masa and chewing the fat
Around the holidays we were surrounded by cousins
While those three produced tamales by the dozen
Life was good, it was true,
But then along came Sarah and Sue

With all those daughters- inner city life can unnerve ya
So we made our escape out to suburbia
In a move out of harms way
We settled down on Via del Rey
At first this move brought lots of grief
Wailing and crying and gnashing of teeth
Dad hung in there like a good man
But sometimes he must have wondered:
Why did I marry this crazy Mexican?
But soon the tempest would all pass
And life was all right in old So. Pas
From that nest, the fledglings would flee
And so expanded our family tree.
One wedding, then another
(When I needed a best man, I couldn’t ask my brother!)
Grandchilden, both girls and boys
Seemed to be her greatest joy
Through this all she was a strong moral force
And with Dad kept this family on a pretty good course
She taught us things we know are true
From Shelley right on down to Sue
Like trust in guidance from above
And not to try to outsmart love
She’ll tell you what you need to know
Plus a little folk wisdom from Mexico
And now after 80 trips around the sun
You’re still here laughing and having fun
So it should be no surprise if now and then
We brag about our very own octogenarian
I’ve said enough, it’s time to rest
But I’ve just gotta say,
Mamacita, you’re the Best!

                                        -Bruce Stephens 

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


     The autumn is perhaps my favorite time of year.  The weather has been warm and clear, the water also, and the swells have been coming with some regularity, and I have been able to take advantage.  After a good surf session, all is right in the world. 
     This morning, via email, I was sent a pic snapped at Stone Steps in Leucadia. The taker thought it was my friend Jim Cravens.  When he saw that it was in fact me, he sent it along with a sweet little poem.  Not the most graceful of surfing moments, but a moment nonetheless.  I seem to be channeling a little of the Kook. I hope you don't mind me sharing...

                                     Swami Goes Left

Bruce has cancer.
It can kill you
sad and defeated
giving up giving in.
But Stone Steps beach is right down there
beside the Pacific Ocean.
It's not going anywhere.
Bruce is at Stone Steps
going left backhand.
You have to plush hard
on your back foot to turn.
You have to be alive
to do it, and Bruce can.                                               -James Cravens 10/2012