This may not make much sense at first but ever since some good doctors first thought I had a type of cancer called Multiple Myeloma, I’ve haunted myself with a question that I hope you, the reader, never has to ask: “What are you gonna’ do about it? The choice is yours and yours alone; what is the wisest thing to do?”
The first day I heard the stunning news I hoped on my computer to find out the survival rates – I learned if you do nothing, expect to live around a year. To use the latest therapies and all that the scientific wizards among us have in their cabinet may give a 64-year-old guy who smokes his cigars and likes his beer maybe three-to-five, which sounds a little like a mean judge’s jail sentence. If you are really lucky, and the moon and the stars are aligned, who knows?
Then again, I’ve seen a lot of games go into overtime. I’ve always held the notion that if 75 percent of certain cancer patients die within three years, I’ll be one of the 25 percent who doesn’t. I have a dear friend who was given a year when cancer finally chewed up his pancreas several years ago and he’s still clicking. He’s also still on my prayer list in an absolutely amazing story of victory.
When I shared the good news – that all the tests were negative – I got such a flood of “best wishes” it was emotional for me because I also heard from those who are fighting the insidious disease – including a dear friend in Denver. My Colorado buddy just endured a month in a hospital having a stem cell transplant. He had no idea but when a slight stumble broke his back, he had to make a choice and I’ll be honest – I don’t know if the hassle and the expense and the pain and dread are worth it.
Don’t get me wrong. My first ‘go-to’ in signs of trouble is to “play it down and pray it up!” I’d also be bold about getting some good counsel from those who I know love me. Further, a quick suicide is out of the question; I could never hurt those who have made me into what I am. You don’t throw away a whole life because it’s banged up a little, that ain’t the answer. Anybody ought to choose to go out with class. Then there is the other thing, I got a whiff of my demise back in 2008 and you don’t forget stuff like that.
The hard truth is that we are all going to die. As Paul Newman famously said in an old movie, “It happens to everybody -- horses, dogs, men. Nobody gets out of life alive.” So there came that afternoon, five years ago when five different infections inside of my body were whipping the daylights out of Mayo Clinic’s strongest antibiotics, and I began to slip away.
Believe me, it was a very calm experience. Both my arms and legs began to get colder than any sensation I’ve ever felt – the circulatory system shutting down – and as the room dimmed to a blackness darker than I had ever known, I vividly remember asking a silly-worded question: “Lord, is this the day I am to die?”
What happened next, as I’ve told people and wrote about a time or two before, is that a movie screen appeared and in my coma, or whatever it was, a face shot of those who I still love the very dearest in my life – my family, my two former wives, and a couple of people who are unforgettable – began to appear one by one. It was in black-and-white and the photos were beautiful. There was no emotion on the faces and it was as though I was drawn to the look in their eyes. And, as each appeared, I remembered every bad or untoward thing I had done to each one of them.
It seemed like each picture stayed up there an hour and that I was reminded of every little thing, not to mention the big hurts. I tried to remember Bible verses and couldn’t even recall “Jesus wept.” I’d have done anything to make the slide show go away and then – even more strange – I started singing the old hymns I had learned as a child and still listen to on my iPod all the time. It was very real and, remember, I’m dead.
Finally the movie stopped and I felt as though I was being dragged slowly from the floor of a big river, carried by the current but drifting up. Regaining consciousness, I was terribly relieved it wasn’t real hot, like “down there” is said to be, but I also didn’t hear any harp music or smell a green pasture, either, so – very slowly – I opened one eye.
Around the bed were about five nurses, a doctor or two with others gathering fast, and somebody asked quietly, “Where have you been … you slipped away from us for a few minutes? My arms and legs weren’t freezing any longer and I watched a doctor take some sort of medicine from a nurse and slip it into my IV line. I remember the whole thing like it was yesterday. And finally I told the group, “I gotta’ get out of here in a hurry. I’ve got some very important people I must see.”
Well, I had a record recovery and in about a week was back home, going to Erlanger twice a day for the next six weeks for my IV drugs. But – one by one – I sought out every soul who starred in my life’s film and apologized for being so awful. I’m talking deep apology with crying and remorse and guilt. And every one of them loved me all the more. That’s what you want to take to your grave.
So, no, I’m not afraid of death at all. Because I believe in a risen Christ, the way I have it figured, the next go-round I’ve got a free pass through “purgatory” or wherever it was that I was a victim of the slide show. Whew, that was awful, but, since that day five years ago, my feelings about death completely changed and – when the end comes – I’m prepared for what I like to call “The Promised Land of Awe.”
So let’s cut to the chase – what would you choose to do if you suddenly got a verdict of Multiple Myeloma or another catastrophic calamity? I’ve thought long and hard about it for the past month. I feel I was “spared,” for lack of a better word, five years ago because God had something big He wanted me to do. Maybe it is writing columns and sharing thoughts. Maybe it is loving other people, whether sending a card or sharing a joke. Maybe it’s sharing with folks that they aren’t alone in their struggles.
Then again, maybe God hasn’t told me yet. Don’t forget, I just dodged the multiple myeloma bullet and feel like I played a high face card when every test came back negative. Truthfully, I’m still not over whatever it was that flattened me, but as I get better, inch-by-inch, I hope you’ll understand my stance when I share that I don’t believe I’d want to go through the chemotherapy, the stem cell transplants, or the horrors and roller-coaster ride that many wise and wonderful people choose to endure.
I’d ask the doctors to make me comfortable, that’s all. No pain. If somebody claimed eating radishes might help I’d probably try a few, but, honestly, I’d just as soon puff on my cigar, rely on my email pals to forward funny jokes, write some more stories and anticipate the awe.
I’m just glad I didn’t have to decide. I can’t think of many questions any tougher.