I recently got the call from the largest Cancer Hospital in Houston. It's official, I have a form of Leukemia with no cure. Now what do I do?
I'd been a designer and builder most of my life. From hand carved stone sculptures to timber framed barns, I've completed a huge number of projects and most with little or no help. However, this past year had taken strength and stamina away. And, looking forward to the satisfaction of creativity also felt like history.
I've known my wife since the 2nd grade. My son was now married and moving forward in his career. My daughter was in college working on her 2nd degree. So, maybe my work here was done. Maybe I had already run my race.
I've worked with wood most of my life. Mainly just due to the availability of the material. But, I've never considered myself a "Woodworker." I'd obtain wood, new or used, alter it, then assemble the pieces and apply a finish. From barns, homes, bridges, exterior structures down to the smallest pieces of furniture. I had constructed items, but I had completed little to no wood turning up to this point.
Last Christmas, my son surprised me with a lathe. I'd never used a lathe or watched anyone use a lathe. In fact, I'd never been near a lathe. But, since I was little kid I have always thought how much fun a lathe could be.
My wife and I moved out into the country a couple years ago. One of the deciding factors on the property was a 24' x 24' detached building which would be perfect for a wood shop. I had the basics: table saw, chop saw, router table, lots of hand tools - and now a lathe.
It was mid January before I unboxed the lathe and it's necessary tools. It would operate on 110 and could turn up to 10" wide and 15" long. I set it up on my big work table, figured out how to mount a piece of scrap wood, put on my new face shield, turned it on, and stepped into a new world.
I'd become accustomed to mounting a tool, like a bit or blade, onto machinery and manipulating the material on or through the machine for the moving tool to do its work. But now, I mount the material on the machine, hold the tool steady, while the material moves and works against the tool. What!?
Everything was backwards. 60+ years of a thought process suddenly reversed. And, the real kicker was - I wasn't making ANYTHING! I was only removing material I didn't want and what was left was the finished piece! It was like sitting still in a car while the road quickly passed under you.
I looked around the shop for lathe material - a 2 x 2, a piece of firewood, but then I remembered...my neighbor! He has a Pecan orchard and had some big limbs down. In exchange for some other work, he brought me a truck load of Pecan limbs. I'd chip the bark off with a hatchet on an old stump, mount the material on the lathe, and dive right in.
Long, lighter than air ribbons would wave through the air and pile up on my forearm. It was like making feathers from a stone. The hum of the motor, the spinning blur, the cutting sound of the tool, all added to the dream like magic.
I began having headaches from concentrating so hard. Not only are you extremely focused just to avoid being impaled by a flying tool or hammered by a wooden canon ball spinning towards you, but the newly directed creativity was intense. A new procedure allows new thoughts. I felt as though I was seeing a new color, or experiencing a new taste. I was struggling to comprehend what was taking place between me and this new machine.
I was consumed. When I went in at night, I was more tired than if I had just reroofed a house. My son kept the goodies coming: a soft rubber mat to stand on, a chuck for the lathe, sandpapers, finishes, a branding iron, etc. Yes, I did realize how extremely fortunate I was. A new part of my brain had come to life and with it came unexpected amazing results.
I'd made 30, 40, maybe 50 pieces. I'd stack them on a display in the house and give some of the pieces away. I hated to see them go, but knowing someone else was enjoying the gift brought a much greater feeling. What great satisfaction you get when your friends and family not only like the fact you are doing something, but also like the results of your work. Everyone was winning at a game with no rules.
As I continued my new love of turning, I also started some new meds, which were helping me live without any transfusions. I had 11 transfusions last Summer, but it had been months since my last one. My Oncologist kept a very close eye on all of my numbers. Early this Summer he had a very serious meeting with me...He informed me that he, his staff, and some colleagues had been reviewing my case in detail. What I have is extremely rare, so every one of the Professionals are paying attention. But, that's to be expected. What wasn't expected is something surprising he had noticed...
He displayed a graph of all my lab results for over the past 12 months. He would point to key spots on the chart. "Here's where you had a transfusion. Here's when you started that medication. And, here's where you started working on the lathe..." I chuckled, but he was serious.
He said he was a man of Science. However, sometimes the unexpected can happen and it's so obvious you have to acknowledge it as fact. Although there is still no cure for my type of Cancer, every other number has shown improvement from the day I started using my lathe.
Apparently, the extreme concentration, the new flood of creativity, and perhaps even the giving of the items as gifts, has allowed my brain to produce its own life altering chemicals. The Doctor told me he'd put it in writing if I'd like. But, he definitely wanted me to continue with the lathe and just be creative. He told me not to accept orders or money for any of my turnings, because it would induce stress.
A gift to occupy my time has, in turn, given me the gift of more time. I never dreamed something like this would be possible and if it was, it would never happen to me. But, here it is and here I am - still. Woodturning may not save my life, but it has improved and prolonged it.
I'll never truly understand the miracles and mysteries of life, but I'm in the middle of a good one. I know I've been blessed with some creativity and natural talent, and for that I will be forever thankful. But, this blessing of family, friends, and a surprise ending is the greatest blessing of all.
Wonder what would happen if I got a bigger lathe?
Bob can be reached directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Return to the Wood News Online front page