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STUMBLING on OPEN GROUNDLove, God, Cancer, and Rock 'n' Roll
By KEN MANSFIELD
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Ken Mansfield
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE BEGINNING OF THE EDGE
December 1996, Santa Rosa, California
He appeared calm as he scanned the results. "I have gone over your recent blood work, and I want to have a special lab run some additional tests." The look on his face was relaxed and matter-of-fact. I could tell it was nothing serious. He was just being thorough—he was a "specialist" in his field, after all.
The atmosphere and mood in the warmly appointed office was very laid-back that day. It was my first time visiting his practice, and though I did not know this doctor, I was comfortable there. I had been sent to see him by my family doctor because of his specialty, rheumatology. The medical form he held in his hand had to do with the results of the blood tests he requested for arthritis in my knees. In going over the paperwork, he noticed a small spike in one of the tests that had nothing to do with his area of expertise. The odd little indicator required an explanation, so one specialist was sending me to another.
He handed me a piece of paper with an address and a little map on the back showing how to get there. I never worry about those kinds of tests, in part because of an old friend and mentor at Capitol Records many years ago who displayed a plaque behind his desk with a quote from sixteenth-century essayist and statesman, Michel de Montaigne:
MY LIFE HAS BEEN FILLED WITH MANY MISFORTUNES, MOST OF WHICH HAVE NEVER HAPPENED.
I have forgotten many of the things this great man said, but the words on his office wall stayed with me. Driving away from the doctor's office I knew it was all good—nothing to worry about.
* * *
Connie and I lived in Bodega Bay at the time, and the address on the small slip of paper was in Santa Rosa, California, about forty-five minutes from our home by the ocean.
The appointment was scheduled for eleven thirty in the morning the following week. Because that location was on the north end of town, we decided that after the consultation and lab work we would head into the adjacent wine country, have a nice lunch, and maybe do some wine tasting in Healdsburg. We loved the little town square there, and the drive back through the vineyards and coastal ranges is very scenic. If we timed it just right, we would be driving home into the filtered sunset. The days were short, but the weather was nice that time of year. We would take the day off and have some fun.
The day of the appointment came, and things were already off to a bad start. At that time Connie was an associate director in television (Hee Haw, the Dove Awards) and currently working on The Statler Brothers Show on cable TV. Early that morning I put her on a plane in San Francisco and drove back north to Santa Rosa for my afternoon appointment. This was supposed to be a fun day in Sonoma County, but my appointment kept getting pushed back until it collided with Connie's career. Nashville called; the taping schedule was tight, and it would keep her for at least a week.
I went alone.
Following the directions on my slip of paper, I rounded the last corner on my way to my destination and was shocked when I saw the street number I was looking for etched on a sign that read, Oncology Center. What was I doing here?
Things went into slow motion. What did this have to do with itchy knee sockets? Maybe it simply had to do with the equipment, or maybe this was the only place that housed a particular medical feature in our area.
I parked a long way from the entrance, a sort of logistical denial of the sign on the street, and entered a world I had never seen before. I couldn't help looking away in the lobby waiting room as I saw pale and emaciated young people, many without hair, moving listlessly about the area among old women and older men with gaunt eyes and lifeless faces. Bandannas on women. Crutches leaning against the side of a chair where a sad old man sat. Bags with pumps and tubes going into different noses and up various sleeves. It was all so alien and distant. Scary.
When I got on the elevator to the second floor where I was instructed to go, I felt such pity for these people who had cancer. Oh, my God, how sad. Cancer!
I waited almost an hour in a waiting room with dull beige walls and those horrible plant sketches, meticulously laid out in rows, subscripted with their Latin names. The reading choices on the worn, mismatched end tables were slim: Fish and Game and Women's Wear Daily. Overhead, Muzak played while I waited—cheesy arrangements of songs like "Light My Fire" and "Good Vibrations." Talk about melodious oxymoronics. It did allow me to relive some of the excitement of my thirty years in the music business. I smiled—and winced a bit—to think that someone had the nerve to do that to such classic songs. After what felt like an eternity and four bars into a horn-heavy, full-orchestral version of "Stairway to Heaven," I really began to feel agitated. As a one-time record producer, I can just picture the looks on the faces of the bored musicians as they played on these recordings. It was funny for a while, but about thirty minutes into the evaporated milk arrangements I wanted to bolt. I felt alone, but was able to push off that feeling by reading about how to drill a proper hole for ice fishing in the barren reaches of Alaska.
Then the nurse finally showed up and ushered me into an even blander examination room with more fine art on the wall. The pink-and-red gallbladders had more detail and were much more colorful than the sepia-brown and faded-green stems and leaves in the waiting room. I read the words on the gutsy poster over and over. I was really trying to keep it together, but they were not even coming close to meeting me halfway. What should play next from the overhead speaker in the corner of the ceiling but a salsa rendition of "Feelings." Perfect. At this point, I was clinging to the edge.
But no deliverance just yet. I was given the privilege of spending another forty-five minutes under the exceptionally bright neon overheads. Having read the names of various organs and their interesting blood supplies about ten times, I finally stood up and was reading the small labels on the tape dispensers when the new specialist—call him Dr. Doornail—walked in.
I wondered how he kept from bumping into things, because all I could see was the top of his bald head. He kept his face buried in my medical chart in what was obviously a first-time read. I love it when someone gives you the cold-fish handshake without looking up at you—especially with that schmaltzy version of "Feelings" still bouncing around in my head.
I did not belong here. I did not like this little man. I did not like the way he looked, the way he checked me over. It was very clinical and by rote. We were ten minutes into the examination, and I still didn't know the color of his eyes. More than all that, I especially did not like what he had to say. "We have a preliminary diagnosis of multiple myeloma. Have you ever heard of it? It's a cancer of the plasma cells in your bone marrow and ... blah ... blah ... blah ... blah ... blah ..."
Either I drifted off or finally fell off the edge from the cold technical drone of his explanation. Trombones filled the air. If Paul McCartney had known that a brassy version of "Yesterday" would fill the tinny speakers of these halls, I think he would have rather died before writing a note. Even more horrifying, I imagined the nightmare scenario of Sir Paul being tied down while they played this rendition nonstop until he cracked! Too terrible to contemplate. Then, as twin accordions filled the air in place of violin accompaniment, I was jolted back to the immediate conversation.
"Before we make a final diagnosis, I do want to do another test while you are here. We should have a final fix on this little feller in about a week. Take off your clothes and put on this gown." Things were moving a little fast and off-course for me at this point, especially hearing I had something that didn't sound good from Dr. Doornail, who called it a "little feller." Of course being able to put on one of the hospital's designer, open-air, rear-view gowns did soften things a bit. Donovan's "Catch the Wind" played from the ceiling—nice clarinet ensemble.
What happened next was unexpected, unwanted, and unbelievably brutal. A robotic team with metal trays walked in and instructed me to lie down on my side on the exam table. (Whatever happened to hello?) They proceeded to take a bone marrow sample. Nothing to it, just another test! Just lookin' for that "little feller" by going through my left buttock to the center of my hip bone with a needle the diameter of a garden hose. The needle had a hole big enough to insert a pair of tiny tweezers that grabbed a bit of marrow from the center of the bone. I have a rule of only crying about sad songs or during baptisms, but this really hurt.
The medical technician performing the biopsy told me that some people have no problem with the procedure—"they don't even feel it." Maybe. But if you have a pulse, it's excruciating. This is not the start of something good, I thought to myself. They moved about nonchalantly after the procedure and walked away leaving me stunned and feeling bushwhacked. (Whatever happened to goodbye?) I was flabbergasted—and in pain.
When the nurse came in to put a small bandage over the tiny hole in my skin, she noticed that I was lying there with my eyes wide open as if I had just grabbed hold of an electric fence. She asked how it went. When I told her how I felt, she remarked that I must be one of those creative types. "You people do respond a little more delicately than normal people." She sighed and left the room. I lay there alone for what seemed an eternity.
Are we done or are there more tests? No tellin' where else that "little feller" could be lurking in my body. It's a little bit lonely here, even though my southern exposure is enjoying the breeze.
I looked over, and the gallbladders began to dance with the transverse colon on the wall. That's when I knew it was time to get out of there. I got dressed and practically ran down the hall with my untied shoelaces smacking the marble floor. The repetitive digital glitch on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" back in the hell room was the last straw.
I ran through the lobby without looking at anyone or anything, stumbled to my car, got in, started it up, and pulled out of the parking lot in a complete daze. I turned right on the road that brought me there and drifted to the stoplight at the bottom of the hill. It was a long light. With my hands on the steering wheel at ten and two, I dropped my forehead to the wheel and froze. I couldn't move, even with the horns honking behind me and distant voices suggesting I simultaneously get the car and my battered tail in gear and move on.
I eventually regrouped, took the back roads to Bodega Bay, and drove out to Doran Beach on the southern end of the bay, just as the sun was beginning to set. I parked the car at the edge of the dunes, took off my shoes, and walked to the water's edge. Those were edges I could understand. I like the fact that it is always different there. I looked down at my watch to calculate Nashville time. I needed to call Connie.
I turned to leave but stopped, turned back around, and stood facing the fading day across the water. It had been warm inland. I had no jacket, so I pulled myself around me. I closed my eyes and prayed. I felt God's peace wash over me.
I opened my eyes and stared at the edge of the horizon. I wished I could see farther, but it was okay.
I needed to call Connie.
Chapter TwoCANCERS AND CADILLACS
I try to remember what life was like before cancer invaded our lives in December 1996. At least that's when it reared its ugly head; it had been lurking a few years prior to diagnosis. It's that unwelcome houseguest I read about somewhere. It's a dark cloud that hangs overhead and never leaves. It's always in the back of my mind and tearing at my heart and soul. I try to put my trust in God, but I guess I don't, not really, because I'm still scared, and fear is not of him.
Ken has always been so strong in the midst of adversity (which is where I met him, so I really don't know him any other way). There have been a few reprieves over the years—sweet, brief moments. It's our way of life to live by the edge, that's the way Ken loves to live, even physically—like where we lived then, right at the edge of the ocean. It seems the trials he is given are always huge! The cancer diagnosis was no exception.
I can remember attending our little Fisherman's Chapel in Bodega Bay a couple of years before Ken's diagnosis. I was always asking for prayer and that "we find out what's wrong with my husband!" He had been misdiagnosed and in pain for so long.
Our faithful pastor, Art Wright, a gentle man, full of great compassion for the entire human race and all creatures great and small, prayed fervently for the answers. We finally got them. Sometimes I wish we hadn't.
I turned from the darkened waters and my time with God. I crossed the dunes and I was surprised to hear the idling motor of my waiting car. Not only had I left the motor running, I had also left the door open and the radio on, which was then blaring away—Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze."
A young couple, parked a few yards away in a shiny Cadillac convertible with the top down, stared at me as if I were daft. I acted as if I meant for the door to be ajar, the music blasting and the motor running. With flair and calm authority I drug myself and a pound of damp sand on my feet into the open driver's side, turned the music up even louder, revved the motor a couple of times, burned a short patch of rubber as I backed up, and headed up the hill toward home.
The house was cold and dark when I arrived. It was dinnertime, but I was not hungry. Time felt as if it had stopped, but I knew I needed to keep moving.
I lit one of those "fake," easy-burning logs in our fireplace and began wrapping Christmas presents, diving deep in thought as I wrapped my defenses around me in reluctant preparation of what was to come. When I finally ran out of things to keep my head, hands, and heart busy, I stood up. But once I was standing, I couldn't move. My head dropped to my chest, my arms fell to my side, and I became lost in the silence. I needed to call Connie.
I needed Connie.
I went to the refrigerator and checked the TV taping schedule she had placed there; it was a good time to call. I dialed the phone; it only rang once. She had been waiting.
When I heard that rich, soft voice, I was immediately comforted. Connie's voice was one of the things that knocked me out the first time I called her for a date. She listened quietly as I told her about the cancer diagnosis and the day's events. I could picture her alone in her hotel room: eyes closed, head bowed down. There were really no words to be exchanged, just tears and a deep understanding of how much we meant to each other. We held the phones in silence almost as if we were holding on to each other.
I hung up the phone and looked out the window into a silent dusk. We had taken longer than I thought, and the room I was standing in once again became real. It had lost its warmth, and I felt chilly. I wrapped one of her shawls around my shoulders—it smelled like her so I didn't feel so lonely. I pulled my favorite chair up to a window that looked out at the bay and watched the whitecaps roll in and out against the shore. There was just enough moonlight to highlight the edges of the waves. I settled there with my feet placed up on the windowsill, and then I fell apart in the secluded silence.
I began praying so hard for healing that Bill O'Reilly would have had a hard time getting a word in edgewise. These pleadings eventually evolved into one of my one-sided conversations with God. I had to talk to him about what was going on so he could understand my situation more clearly. I began running out my standard list of needs, counting on him to be a good listener. I rattled on for a while covering topics like unfairness, why he was doing this to me, and my usual list of worldly stuff. Then he suddenly interrupted me.
It was like someone turned off my mic. Did I die, or just run out of words? Either way, everything became calm. I experienced one of those rare moments when I stopped my ramblings and heard a sweet, soft voice that swept over my soul like a warm wind. There were no words or sounds—just impartations into that place inside that knows certain things. When this happened, everything came to a complete stop, and the only thing left stirring was my heart and his majesty.
Excerpted from STUMBLING on OPEN GROUND by KEN MANSFIELD Copyright © 2012 by Ken Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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