It was the eve of Thanksgiving was still in the hospital. I was drugged still to stop the pain of the operation. In my bed I suddenly see my doctor in jeans and no lab coat. He looks at no charts which I thought was peculiar. He spoke to no staff but headed straight to my bedside. After the preliminaries he stopped and looked me straight in the eye he said the biopsy for the tonsils had come back negative but, he stopped something was stirring inside him, but I found a mass behind the adenoids and its biopsy was malignant.
He had struggled but the words had come. I sat up in my bed in my drugged stage and slowly let the awareness of what he said wash over me. He fretted out loud I do not think I could have caught it sooner. I have been over and over it in my mind. I started asking questions. At the moment his questioning of himself was not necessary. I needed understanding. But he had given me the information that was known more tests would reveal more. We sat there in brief silence he not knowing much else to say. Me I did not know what question to ask. Finally, he said he wanted to tell me before he left town for Thanksgiving. I thanked him for coming by. He left. His responsibility being completed. I sat up in the bed slowly pondering his words . I thought of my family and how I did not want to ruin their Thanksgiving.
When one hears information like this or bodies and minds do not know what to do next. What do you do when time may have been stolen from you. Every conversation and deed would now have to have an asterisk beside it. Yes, we will have to do that if I am here. If I am not here where will I be. I wanted to grow old with my family. I want and almost need to see who my children became, to hold my wife’s hand as we watched the final sunset pass over our lives, to have crochety old man lunches with my friends, to learn and live a little more on this planet.
Of course, all of this was a bit premature. After all we knew I had cancer but not the seriousness of it. This news would come later T-3 0 is what he said. The cancer was larger than four centimeters making it a stage 3 but it had not spread to other parts of the body making it a 0. The survival rate is well above fifty percent for five years.
Now how do you tell the various groups of people the news. You are reminded of how your life is interweaved through so many others. Book club friends, work friends, places you volunteer, family, personal friends, your wife’s friends, old friends you have not seen in a while, church friends, facebook friends, blog readers, making up your life. Who needs to know and who can find out through the grape vine. It seems immense and constant yet also small and fleeting. The thoughts will I be missed are interwoven with will my life have made a difference in the big scale of things.
You remember the teachings that life is impermanent. You have intellectually always accepted this but now that it is in your face you struggle with this. I do mind dying if that is the course I am to take but I am not necessarily afraid to die. Oh hell who am I kidding I am a little afraid to die. I mean not the peeing in your pants fear but that nagging what the hell comes after this. And hopefully not hell.
I have read hundreds of historical biographies and I have said they all start with a spoiler alert they all die in the end. No matter how great or good the person in the end they have died. And in a sense reading these biographies have impacted the way I view the flow of of life. I do not think it is my time but others who have died have thought this too. I still have projects, goals, dreams and hopes. I have plenty of living yet to do. But as everyone else who has drawn a breath on this sphere I am at the whim of the gods and always have been.
But I now more than ever need to live in each moment. The clock that is always running in the attic of our lives is now obvious to me. A Stoic once said ‘Life is Long if you Know How to use it.’ So my readers let us take a glass of wine and make a toast to living our lives usefully, passionately, and exuberantly.
Okay entrepreneurs, there is a fortune to be made in the medical field. Recently I had an MRI. The machine is much like a coffin only it is shaped in a cylindric style. They give you ear plugs and in my case a face mask to hold my head in place. You lie flat on your back and given a panic button to press and they will come running. At least they say they will come running. I did not know them so how reliable and truthful they are I do not know. Because once the machine slides you into the cylinder you have lost contact with the outside world. In my fertile imagination for the over thirty minutes I was in the machine they were having a toga party. The technician an older woman with a mask on was reassuring me all along the way how everything was going to be all right. It was like the masked bandit robbing the bank who assures you if you are good everything will be fine. Once in the machine you are to stay still and even if you wanted to roam there is no room to. And then the earplugs are found to be necessary. As the machine begins to make noises straight from Star Wars or some other science fiction B movie reality. But what would you expect from a machine called the Tesla MRI. I ask you to think Tesla with his electrical show only this one is with magnets. Maybe to make the machine less threatening they could add a laser show coordinated with the sounds.
I have recently been reading a book on Benjamin Rush, America’s first great physician. Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, reformer for good of mental health hospitals, abolitionist society leader, the promoter of healthy sewage and baths, and many other things. Yet, Rush, to the horror of the modern mind, used a primitive treatment called bloodletting. He swore by it and taught it at the University of Pennsylvania. It was believed that to cure disease you must replace the old blood. The process was to cut the patient so they would bleed to release the infected blood. Eventually when you had bled the patient enough the new good blood would overwhelm the leftover old bad blood. It is said during one of the yellow fever epidemics of Philadelphia Rush would exit the house covered with blood much as you might imagine the Demon Barber of Fleet Street would look after giving a close shave. We would think this tactic very primitive and in fact harmful to the patient. We of course would be right.
It was in this context I started laughing aloud at me in this machine making loud noises from another world. I also began to pick up a rhythm from one of the magnetic noises. It was a definite sound of a zip. So quite naturally I would sing to the zips: zip dee do dah zip dee day. I can only imagine this disturbed the MRI technician. The reason I can only imagine this is the older woman was not there when I exited the machine. Instead a strong young strapping man helped me out of the machine. The older woman was nowhere to be seen.
I am quite sure there is money in them thar hills for someone to make the machine a bit less claustrophobic and a little more appealing to the modern human. Of course someone has tried, there is what they call the open MRI machine. Which you still lie on your back but there is no cylinder to enter. The problem is the images are not as good because the machine is open and the magnetic resonance is not as strong. For now we are stuck with a Tesla MRI and Tesla electrical cars.
The radiation and chemotherapy used to treat cancer will one day seem as primitive as bloodletting. The whole concept is to poison the cancer with radiation and select chemicals. This is a slow poisoning of your body to kill the enemy cancer in your body. The idea is if you can withstand the poisoning of your body longer than the cancer cells you are declared the winner. The person who can find a way to kill cancer cells without poisoning the body will of course be lining their pockets with millions.
I could of course go on but my doctors may accidently read this and be left with a bad taste in their mouths. But the truth is we have come a long way from the Dr. Rush era but we are not quite as far away as we might think.
I was told all systems were go. My sleep apnea surgery was a go. The Monday before Thanksgiving I would be operated on. My favorite minister and good friend in town told me when he heard “Oh wow that is one of the most horrible surgeries to have.’ I now knew why he was such a respected minister; his bedside manner.
I awoke from surgery in a daze. My wife was present and I was told I was in a different wing from the one I was told I would be in. That night I began to choke or so I thought. I politely push the nurse button. No one came. I could see the nurses’ station from my room; I began to scream but I could not. I decided to bang on the mobile tray. I terrified the nurses. Finally, my nurse came. But I knew the nurses at the station would be of no help the rest of the night. Thank god my nurse was there after that incident.
The next day I was feeling a little better but as I laid in my bed I suddenly could hear over the intercom system the hospital staff having a party. You could hear about their dating lives and occasionally talk about patients. I hit the nurses’ button to inform them they were on the intercom. I could hear the nurses talking about me and the call button. It’s probably nothing more than a mistake, do not worry about it. I pushed the call button again. Finally, a nun came. Is there something you need she asked me? I explained that you could hear the staff’s conversations on the intercom. She said if you do not have anything wrong do not hit the call button. The staff were making fun of another patient on the intercom. I waited for the nun to respond but she would not abandon the thin white line. I thought is she the chaplain? My nurse came into the room. I told her what was happening. The nun said he will not quit hitting the call button. My nurse who realized suddenly they were on the intercom looking chagrined started trying to turn off the intercom. After a few minutes she succeeded. I was ready to be at home.
When I arrived home, I asked the girls if they could prepare the bedroom for my needs. Maya (who loves these kind of chores) and Dorothy went at the chore full force. They vacuumed, washed linens, dusted, set up humidifiers, bought Kleenex, scrubbed walls, rearranged furniture, and anything and everything else that could possibly be done. Including two glasses of ice water one by the bed and one by the chair. It was the most love I had felt in a while.
On Thanksgiving Day for the first time in the history of our family my two daughters decided they would do all the cooking. Setting aside their mother in another room and turning the music up they began. And before I knew it they had finished. They had dragged my pain ridden body to the dinner table for the Thanksgiving feast. The spread was glorious sweet potato casserole, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, broccoli casserole, rolls, and stuffed tempeh. It was all there for the taking except I was on a non-solid diet and my throat was in excruciating pain.
As I watched them load their plates with large helpings of a panoply of food I placed two spoonful’s of mashed potatoes, three spoonfuls of sweet potato (not casserole) they had set aside for me, and two microscopic broccoli spears which I mashed up with my fork. I ate slowly and with a baby spoon. Their mmms and how delicious were heard. They taunted me with their huge bites of food and the foods I could not eat. Thirty minutes later when we all had given our thanks for the gifts of last year and they had finished their food, I still ate slowly with my baby spoon.
I added another chapter to my legend as a card player. Drugged out and falling asleep mid-deal I played. They would have to wake me every hand saying Dad your turn to play. I became aware that I was even snoring and the occasionally drool was falling down my chin. About half way through the game in my sleep I became aware of a growing frustration among my fellow card players. They began to make faces and call me names. I was too sleepy to make them stop. I was only aware of my oldest and most competitive daughter throwing her cards down in disgust after each hand.
The problem for them was that although I was a drooling, snoring, mess I was wiping the floor with them, I was inexplicably winning. When this news reached into my semi-conscious state. I awoke enough between snores to ridicule them for letting someone asleep beat them. The tension grew in the room. They tried harder. My lead grew. Until at last I had won. I looked at them with a huge smile on my face rose up form the table and said, ”Pitiful!’. And with the youngest saying that is not nice, I crawled into bed and with a victor’s smile on my face fell asleep.
This Thanksgiving is now in the books. It is probably not the best I have ever had but it may be one of the most memorable.