Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Blissful Ignorance

I deliberately remained ignorant of sickness and disease all my life. I thought if I was really quiet about it I could, in the course of (ample) time, slip up to and past the finish line without them. Knowing anything about illness scared me because by knowing it I might catch it. The slightest whiff could hurt me.

Not knowing almost killed me.

I missed all the signs. Blocked history and an earlier warning. Heeded the wrong advice. I listened to what I wanted to hear. If it let me off the hook, it was all I had to hear.

On the other hand, little to nothing shocks or surprises me. So when the bad news came, I took it in stride. Apparently too much stride: after the doctor told me I had a cancerous tumor in my throat, “a sizeable one,” he scrutinized me and said, “You’re taking this awfully well.” I‘ve since wondered how others take it. I explained to him that I’m not an alarmist, never have been. What is, is. In deference to him, I waited a respectful amount of silence, seconds, to ask, “So what’s next?”

For some of us, the further ahead of the pack we think we’ve inched in life, i.e., the healthier, happier, the better off we are… the easier we may have it, the more we privately angst about being unmerited—and getting our inevitable comeuppance, our just desserts, the divine leveler. Getting our due! We live on the edge of dreading-but-waiting for it. When it finally hits, we quiescently utter or imperceptibly exhale an “ah-ha”… “So here it is!”

What was next for me was that I was about to become a first-hand authority on one man’s cancer. Mine. Whoever said life changes on a dime shortchanged it. I found myself at that critical turning point in life when you see so much more of what you’ve left behind than what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I gave little, if any, thought to the life and death aspects of it. I concentrated on getting through it.

I’m not going to drown you in a litany of dreadful ill-, side-, or after-effects. But if you stop me on the street and ask about me, and I sense you’re sincerely interested, I’m going to give you an earful. Someone should go public with what having throat cancer really means, because so few have any clue.

There’s no reason you would think to ask me this, but I’ll confide in you. Sickness takes away your confidence. I watched mine diminish, as resultantly I diminished, quietly and distressingly. One of my closest friends, a man facing sudden, unaccustomed illness, told me he wasn’t worried, nor should I, his body had never failed him. And then it did. That immutable truth and loss haunts me.

What I learned and can share with you is that love—whom you love and who loves you—comes first and only. It starts with family, extends to friends, flows to and from well-wishers. Love, and loving support. I further learned that that loving support can (and in my case, blessedly did) come from the people whose hands your life is in everyday—the oncologists, nurses, radiologists and staff. On the grimmest of days, a receptionist’s warm smile goes right to your heart. When your doctor puts his arm around you and says, “I know how difficult it is for you,” you live for the next day.

No one should ever have go it alone, and I wonder, can someone? If my heart went out to anyone during any of my worst, this-is-about-me days, it was to the occasional patient who seemed to have no one at his or her side.

“The child is father of the man,” one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite poets, Wordsworth, became my reality. My two daughters opened doors and held them for me, gathered my belongings and shepherded me through corridors and crowds. I became my wife’s ward as well, the “little woman” becoming bigger in my eyes every day. In my second childhood I became gratefully dependent on three women, diligently taking instructions from them and earnestly asking them not only for advice, but what I was supposed to do “now.”

For “now,” I’m in the post radiation/chemo stage, “hell” weeks, as nurses accurately forewarned me. If, as another English poet, Thomas Grey had it, “ignorance is bliss,” is my newly-acquired knowledge that “hell”? At the medical offices, they commend me for being “ahead of the curve.” If you collar me on the street, I’d have to level with you by telling you that unable to see the curve, or any others on it, I derive little consolation from it. My hell weeks coincide with the season of joy.

One of the wisest of all the doctors I met ended our meeting by saying, “We’re all going to die. We’re here to see to it that you die from something else.” Looks like that’s the way it’s going to be. Grateful as I am, I just wish he’d added, “much later.”