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Manhattan Tales: Changing Perceptions

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Published: Feb 27, 2014 4:04 pm

Much to my surprise, I’m finishing up this Manhattan Tale from a uniquely Manhattan Tale vantage point.

I’m sitting in the 11th floor of Mt. Sinai Hospital in the day room, with an IV in each arm, looking east over East Harlem. A week ago, I swam a mile without difficulty in a pool beneath Rockefeller Center. Two weeks ago, my wife and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary with family and friends at a lower Manhattan restaurant.

Life is full of unpredictable change.

This room is providing me with a stunning view of the above-ground infrastructure of Manhattan. In the distance, I can see the Triborough’s giant suspension bridge and a huge arched railroad bridge called the Hellgate that carries intercity trains from north of the city into Queens and on to the Pennsylvania Railroad station.

Just a block away, I can see commuter trains racing along railroad tracks along Park Avenue that bring hundreds of thousands of commuters each day into Grand Central Terminal. Adjacent to the hospital, across Madison Avenue, I can see a myriad of low-rise tenement buildings. I can also see dozens of New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) high-rise apartment buildings. NYCHA houses over 600,000 people in the city; probably 10 percent of the units are in my view.

In the far distance, I can see a few buildings in Queens and Long Island. In the morning, if I can get up early enough, I can watch the sun rise as a fiery orange-red ball behind the bridges.

On Sunday morning, I walked over to the west side of the floor where I could see hundreds of tiny figures running along the Park Drive in Central Park, participating in one of the many races sponsored in the park by the New York Road Runners Club.

These are wonderful distractions from my latest admission to the hospital.

I’ll be here at Mt. Sinai for five or six days. My last clinical trial wasn’t able to keep my myeloma under control. Consistent with Darwinian theory, the fittest myeloma cells are surviving my various treatments, and my myeloma is getting harder and harder to treat.

So now I’m receiving the sixth treatment modality since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma four years ago. My current treatment is a true cocktail of chemicals: “DCEP.” DCEP stands for dexamethasone (Decadron), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), etoposide (VP-16), and cisplatin. With any luck, this cocktail will rid my blood of myeloma cells for a few months.

Meanwhile my family, my medical team, and I will mull over my treatment options, which now include an allogeneic (donor) stem cell transplant. One of my sisters is a “perfect match,” which reduces the risk of graft-versus-host disease and other complications substantially. Her cells will be harvested in a few weeks, and then frozen in the event an allogeneic transplant is the way we opt to go.

All of us in the myeloma family know similar ups and downs of the disease.

For example, when I started this column last week, I was feeling terrific. I was swimming as much as a mile a few times a week. My wife, eldest son, and daughter-in-law had hiked over the snow in Fort Tryon Park in the northern tip of Manhattan, and I had started writing a column on an entirely different subject.

These latest episodes made me once again aware of one of the more unusual side effects of having multiple myeloma I’m experiencing: My response to art and natural beauty has intensified tremendously. During the last few months in particular, I have noticed any number of objects, both outdoors and in museums, that have left me gasping at their eerie beauty.

Although this intense and exciting response had also occurred a few times in the summer in Central Park and in art museums, it seems to be happening with growing frequency.

Two recent instances occurred in a museum while I was looking at two metalpoint drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. On one of the many dark, cold, and rainy days in Manhattan this past December, my wife and I visited The Morgan Library and Museum, one of the jewels in Manhattan’s treasure trove of small museums. The Museum was exhibiting, in a room darkened to protect the rare drawings from bright lights, da Vinci drawings from the Biblioteca Reale, a library in Turin.

One of the two drawings that left me breathless was the “Head of a Young Woman,” a study da Vinci prepared for two famous oil paintings – one in Paris, one in London – called “The Virgin of the Rocks.” The eyes of the young woman look out at the viewer some 500 years after the drawing was sketched with a clarity that uncannily simulates a real person. Her very soul seems to have been captured on paper.

Another even smaller da Vinci drawing in the exhibit that had a similar impact on me was what appeared to be a quick sketch of a dragonfly. Though I remember being fascinated by the rainbow shimmer of dragonfly wings as a child, da Vinci’s ability to capture their gossamer quality with what appeared to be quick ink drawing on paper astounded me.

When I described this drawing to a friend, he mentioned that perhaps an artist looks with a child’s eyes. The child sees with wonder what we as adults tend to filter out in order to get on our way to more important things.

That reminded me of an incident years ago. At the start of a hike up a mountain south of Seattle, I saw a father waiting as his two young children had stopped to stare at a colony of ants running back and forth at their disturbed lair. I observed the father, who was waiting very patiently, and finally said to him “It’s not how far you go, it’s how much you see.”

We learn as adults that if we want to get to the top of the mountain, we can’t stop and look at the ants. Or stop to look too closely at the flowers, the undergrowth, or very many of the views to the right and left or underfoot. We have to screen them out and focus on the steps ahead of us to get to the top.

This winter, however, I have not only slowed to look at the birds and shrubs that surround the lake I walked by each day I traveled to Mt. Sinai. I have also been almost mesmerized by the mini-visions that I have been encountering of the bare branches of trees in Central Park.

As I’ve trudged along the snowy paths in recent weeks to my treatments, I try to stop and look up from my feet and gaze out at the trees. On the days after a snowstorm, the silver branches are outlined, as if by an artist of da Vinci’s caliber, in different shades of silver, black, and white. The branches of the trees that are barren of leaves highlight the trees’ different shapes and the patterns of the limbs and branches.

Some trees have space to spread their vast thick arms over the snow in a symmetrical fashion; others that are set close to one another in a group are completely asymmetrical, fighting with one another for sunlight and room to grow. My favorite ones have vast, bushy branches, reaching up to the sky in an oval.

Perhaps on a warmer day in the spring I will bring a sketchpad and paper and see if I can capture any of this myself.

I don’t know if my enhanced aesthetic sense is a product of one of the many chemicals I’m ingesting these days. Perhaps it is because all of us who have taken chemotherapy know that it affects our minds as well as our plasma cells.

On the other hand, my enhanced state of consciousness may perhaps simply be a product of the general slowing down and looking more closely that accompanies my general unsteadiness these days.

I do remember a professor of English I had in college who told us that his goal was to get us to read books slowly. I think that is good advice for art and nature appreciation as well.

Urban retirement living, notwithstanding the traffic, bicyclists, joggers, and hurrying youth that one has to dodge on the streets and sidewalks, has its special delights.

My newfound aesthetic perspective is adding to my appreciation of it. I’ve told many friends that retirement in Manhattan for me is a bit like being a child in a candy store, as there are endless numbers of places of refuge for the tourist, the music lover, or the museum visitor in me.

However, I also recognize that some of those pleasures can also be found in looking at a tree, or the sky on a clear night as it darkens from a light velvet blue to a rich navy hue, and experiencing a glimmer of the wonder of it all.

And tonight it comes from looking out at Manhattan from the perspective of a high-rise hospital day room.

I’ll take these gifts where I find them. They seem to be all around me.

Stephen Kramer is a multiple myeloma patient and columnist at The Myeloma Beacon. You can view a list of the columns he has written here.

If you are interested in writing a regular column for The Myeloma Beacon, please contact the Beacon team at .

Photo of Stephen Kramer, monthly columnist at The Myeloma Beacon.
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13 Comments »

  • stann said:

    Wow. One of the nicest articles I’ve ever read! You are an excellent writer.

    It’s funny but, for me, exchanging pleasantries with others at the gas pump has become fulfilling. Even just a friendly nod as a random stranger and I share the same bucket of blue liquid for our squeegees. I feel so alive! (I went septic a few years ago and I’ll never forget seeing how tan and healthy my friends were. And I couldn’t wait to get out to be alive like they were).

    As you pointed out, is it the effects of the drugs? Or just an organic new appreciation of the little things?

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Christina said:

    Really beautiful. I agree some days like today I’m home alone, and I get to look out windows and see rain falling, trees swaying, and now the sun is breaking thru and everything is sparkly . Who knows where it comes from ? I appreciate these moments.

    I hope your hospital stay is over soon and you are on to the next thing.

    Best wishes from rainy/sunny Northern California .

  • Alex said:

    Dear Stephen,

    Best wishes in your treatment, and I hope to be reading many more of your columns in the coming years.

    Alex

  • Cindy Walsh said:

    Stephen,
    I always enjoy your articles but this is truly beautiful. Joy and living in the moment. Good luck with the treatment and allo transplant.
    Cindy

  • Scott Hansgen said:

    So sorry to read about your latest hurdle. It is a never ending battle we patients face. I completely understand your awareness being hypersensitive. I have experienced the same thing. Sure hope you get out of the hospital soon and get back in the game of life. None of us like standing on the side lines. Stay strong!

  • Nancy Shamanna said:

    Stephen, I echo all of the above postings in wishing you all the best with your treatments. It just occurred to me today, after reading your columns, that you may also be an artist, at least at heart. Have you taken up sketching or painting? I imagine that you would be good at that!

  • LibbyC said:

    Stephen, Beauty is all around us, sometimes we just have to open our eyes a little wider & walk a little slower. All the best for your current & future treatments.

  • LindaO said:

    I loved reading this beautifully written article. I sit at my computer with DaVinci’s Mona Lisa smiling at me (bought a framed print years ago at a yard sale and she’s been on my office/sewing room wall ever since.) You truly are an artist as Nancy has suggested. Noticing the beauty in all the simple things all around us is
    an art in itself, I think. May you have much success in your treatment and be out and about soon. Stay
    strong and positive!

  • April Nelson said:

    “I’ll take these gifts where I find them. They seem to be all around me.”

    Absolutely perfect. Thank you, Stephen.

  • Randy Strode said:

    What a beautiful and inspiring article. It reminds me of the old Max Davis song about stopping to smell the rose. I too have experienced the very thing that you describe in your article. I used to chase the corporate advancements, work a ton of hours each week, focused way too much on material things and that whole world of money and keeping up with the Jones’s. Later on in my journey of life I turned my attention more to faith, and job advancements and money we not as important in my life as before. I settled into a period of contentment with my life and what was important to me and my family.

    Then the bombshell diagnosis in December 2013 that I had multiple myeloma. My whole world changed overnight. The things that I treasured most became more clear. Family, friends, simple things in life, a slower lifestyle, less materialism and more about life experiences. At that same time I started really finding appreciation of nature, art, beautiful pictures and paintings, and these seem to be more about places that I had hoped to visit but probably now will never get to see in person. If I get into long term remission, then maybe get to a few of them. But the costs associated with this disease is just overwhelming, and finding time to set aside to travel is out of the questions right now with all the visits to the hospital and clinics each week.

    I used to belong to a photography club in high school and loved taking photos. I have always taken a lot of photos over the years of different things, but now I am getting back into doing it more than just special occasions. I am finding even more satisfaction in those things in life that really don’t cost anything, but are most important to me in the big picture.

    Thanks again for the great article

  • Mike Burns said:

    Stephen,

    Wow! You’ve literally brought tears to my eyes with this column. I don’t care whether you can draw or paint, you are an artist with words! Over the past few months as I’ve continued to be in remission (thankfully), I’ve gradually fallen back into my old “how far you go” approach. Your column smacked me upside the head and reminded me that “what you see” is much more important.

    I’m very sorry to hear about your relapse and wish you all the best in your current and future treatment.

  • june helme said:

    I do so agree. You are a wonderful writer. There is so much beauty in the world. It makes me catch my breath. I am amazed by the beauty in faces … the looks on the faces of my kids, my wonderful husband, my little grandson. Thank you for this lovely piece. Best to you now.

  • Ellen Goldstein-Harris said:

    What a beautifully written piece. I am a native New Yorker, so I know the views you speak about. Manhattan, especially at night, can be breathtaking. I have just begun treatment, and I am trying so hard to find the beauty that surrounds me to sustain myself daily. Every day is difficult, especially upon arising. The day yawning ahead seems overwhelming, at times, and I worry about if I will be able to get through the day without breaking down.

    I hope your current treatment is effective and I look forward to your next column.