The journey on which life takes us is always personal. None of us can predict the bits and pieces of challenge and opportunity that will be thrown into our path – the bits and pieces that ultimately form us. I suspect that we would not choose that same path if we had anything to say about it.
One of those adventures began for me in June 2007.
“There is a little cancer there…”
The words over the phone didn’t feel shocking or even unexpected. The doctor gave it to me straight. “It’s on the left side; can you come in to talk this week?”
I held the phone silently as questions swirled in my head, but none settled into a sentence that I could speak aloud… what’s the name of that score again? …how do I ask what stage it’s in? ...is there a likelihood that it’s spread yet? But I didn’t ask anything. “OK,” I responded instead.
“You can bring someone with you if you want,” he continued. “I think it’s treatable; it’s a good thing that we found it.”
“I’ll bring my wife – an extra set of ears;” I said, knowing that I’d miss half of whatever he said while trying to digest the other half. I smiled into the phone at my lousy attempt at a joke about extra ears; awkward. The doctor was silent for a moment.
“OK Daniel,” he said in his formal manner, “it’ll be alright, it’s treatable,” he repeated, “it would have been worse if we didn’t find it.”
The words sounded strange to me; I wanted to joke that it really would have been good if nothing was found, but his voice sounded too serious to risk another awkward exchange. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I said. My mind was racing... the doctor was saying goodbye.
An hour later the dog’s barking signaled that someone was home. I heard Laura’s keys on the kitchen counter. “Did the doctor call yet?” She asked as she stood in my office doorway. I nodded yes, feeling a sudden tightness in my throat. “Did he have the results?”
“Yeah.. it’s yes,..” I said, trying not to sound like I was worried, “…He said it’s treatable.”
“I kind of thought that would be it,” she said, “they usually call right away if there’s news.” I shrugged my shoulders.
“When do you want to tell the kids?” She asked. The question was sobering to me; I had no idea how to answer it.
“Not sure, maybe we should wait until after we talk to the doctor?” There was a brief silence. “It’s probably gonna mess up the summer vacation plans,” I added.
Our appointment with the doctor was on Friday afternoon. He did a good job of explaining things – “the Gleason score is not too bad…,” he explained, quickly adding “…but one point higher would be a problem.” His recommendation was surgery but said he could refer me to a Radiologist if I wanted to go with radiation treatment. He wanted a bone scan to check the stage of the cancer and we made an appointment for the first available slot.
When our kids got the news our youngest, in his typical direct style, asked me if I was going to die; I reassured him that I’d be fine. Laura’s sister sent an article from the local paper about a team of surgeons who had just started doing robotic surgeries at the nearby Medical Center using a new technique with the DaVinci robot. I researched their website and called for an appointment.
“It’s no big deal mom,” I assured our 82 year old mother at the time, “it was found really early and they expect a full cure.” Neither of us mentioned the memory of dad’s battle with a different form of the disease twenty years earlier.
Within a month’s time I was wheeled into an operating room to face the DaVinci robot; from its name I guess I’d expected to see some kind of elegant piece of art – not the five-armed knife-wielding robot that greeted me. It looked like a giant steel spider with scalpels for feet, and there I was with nothing but a flimsy hospital gown for protection. Thankfully, I was out cold in 30 seconds.
The next time my eyes opened it was seven hours later; Laura was sitting at the foot of my bed. She tried to bring me up to date on her long day in the waiting room, but I dozed off. I woke to find that some good friends from church had stopped in to visit – it was great to see them, but I only remember a few sentences of conversation before drifting off to sleep again.
All that sleeping left me wide awake for most of the night. After the most uncomfortable night of my life, I was awakened early by a nurse, who examined the surgical “drain” tube that the doctors had thoughtfully left inside my abdomen. “Take a deep breath,” she said, and then unceremoniously proceeded to yank it out. Apparently, the “deep breath” instruction was a trick to keep me from screaming and disturbing the other patients. When she finished, a quick band-aid was applied to plug the extra hole in me and I was declared good to go.
I suspect I’m like a lot of people who, when faced with the stark reality of their own mortality suddenly begin to think differently about life. In this case, it wasn’t because of a fear of dying – what I was feeling was more a fear of not living.
Dying, I realized, was just the cessation of some physical processes that we call being alive but being alive and living are completely different things. Living is about caring. Living, furthermore, is not about seeking a purpose for being alive; it’s about fulfilling life’s purpose. The first case is inwardly focused, while the latter has an outward focus on others. Personal goals and aspirations are not bad things, but they are focused on serving ourselves; while caring is focused on serving others at the expense of ourselves. Really living means really caring about others… and I hadn’t done nearly enough of that. Honestly, I still haven’t. I suspect I never will do enough of that.
A Profound Lesson in 1988
This realization had reminded me of one of my life’s most profound lessons, which involved my Dad. Compared to the view of ambition that I held at the time, I didn’t view my father as a particularly ambitious man. Aside from Niagra Falls, he never traveled outside the US in his whole life and barely roamed beyond our hometown. His goals in life were simple - to have a comfortable home, enjoy a few hobbies, and spend time with family and friends. He headed a small photo department for a now-defunct company and had his own photography business on the side that never made a profit as far as I know. That wasn't because he was not good at what he did - he was excellent, in fact - but he was always donating his work to some cause that he felt was needier than he was: the local Fire Co., First Aid Squad, Little League or Scout Troop. His pictures chronicled the life of our small town for over 40 years and many of his crisp black & white prints still hang on proud display in the town's buildings.
It could have been said that Dad lived slightly above his means; he was always borrowing ten dollars from a friend until payday – more often than not it was to cover some unforeseen school expense for one of his five kids. He drove used cars and sometimes wore cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes in their soles, but we never felt poor or lacked anything that we really needed - we honestly had much more than we needed.
In 1988, as a young manager in a promising career, I naively thought that I was the more successful of the two of us. I had the benefit of a better education and could claim more responsibility than he ever had in his career. However, that view was dealt a powerful reality adjustment in the week that he died when the large stone church we'd attended as kids was filled to overflowing for this unassuming man’s funeral. The procession to the cemetery included police cars from several towns and whole firetrucks covered with flowers. There were people from all over the area and some from other parts of the country who had dropped everything to honor a man who had touched their life in a meaningful way. Some were people who he had quietly helped when they were going through tough times, others were just friends he’d encouraged or whose lives he brightened with a well-timed joke. Even the town’s handicapped street vendor, to whom, we learned, Dad had quietly given a warm coat and a new three-wheeled bicycle.
I realized then that the true measure of a man’s success had far less to do with the size of his worldly accomplishments than with the spirit of his actions. Or, as a great hymn put it:
For not with swords loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes.
~ Lead On, O King Eternal, Shurtleff/Smart
The lessons of that experience had finally begun to seep through my thick cranium in 2007. I’m grateful to say that the surgery was a complete success, I’ve been cancer-free for years now, but the impact of that sobering lesson has remained.
It’s part of the journey that is still making me.
[Image from DailyVerses.net]