There comes a time we must confront our own mortality
“We all have two lives. The second one starts when we realize we have only one.” — Confucius
Four years ago a man spoke seven words that focused my mind like perhaps none have before or since: “Well, it’s what we thought — lung cancer.”
The man was an excellent pulmonologist who over time also became my friend and while what he said in no way surprised me, after all, I had smoked — first cigarettes, then a pipe for way too many years, there is nonetheless something about the word “cancer” that becomes even more sinister than it normally is when someone says it aloud in relation to you.
“That’s the bad news,” the medicine man said. “The good news is, it’s in a place where I think we can get it.”
I had known that I would receive the results of the needle biopsy that morning and had purposefully gone alone to the doc’s office in Canton because, well, because three years earlier I had watched my father, mother and wife all die in hospitals within a six-month period and thereafter made myself a promise that if I had any control over the situation I was not going to die in a hospital bed. After all, my trusty old Mustang will still run pretty good and there are lots of bridge abutments between here and Canton.
Obviously, and thankfully, no such drama was required.
Just about three weeks earlier, this town’s then longest serving doctor had ordered chest x-rays that showed something that bothered him. “I’ve got a good friend who’s a pulmo,” he told me, “he stays busy, but let me call him.” Turns out he wasn’t too busy to see me three days later.
A couple visits later came the diagnosis, my momentary encounter with my own mortality and the next words he spoke which were: “I’ve got a good friend who is a surgeon. He stays booked up but you just wait here while I give him a call.”
Turns out he was not so booked up as to be unable to see me the following Monday and after studying the x-rays and poking around on me a bit, that surgeon, who I was to learn is something of a legend at Baptist Hospital in Jackson, rather gruffly (he has the bedside manner of a drill sergeant) ordered me to be at that facility at 5 a.m. on Friday so that he could “cut what needs to be cut” on me.
I’ve decided it isn’t money and it isn’t love, but rather friends doing favors for friends that really makes the world go round.
In addition to a little prudent lining up of things, what they used to call “getting affairs in order,” I did an awful lot of thinking, pondering, quite a bit of introspection those next two days. I know what fear is and I can honestly say that I was not afraid, even if a bit apprehensive, because at some point in that process, it occurred to me that I had not been in a hospital as a patient other than getting a few stitches in the local emergency room following an unfortunate encounter with a possum one night, since 1978. That, I decided, likely made me a statistical rarity as well as a professional one — which I’d been considered for years.
But I will admit that as I lay there in that ridiculous hospital gown on that gurney without enough cover in the sub-arctic temperature of the pre-op ward, there was an empty feeling in the pit of my stomach that was not the product of the pre-surgical purging regimen. They had given me the first shot and I was drifting into that twilight state when the surgeon appeared, put his hand on my shoulder and as matter of factly as a store clerk making change, looked me dead in the eye and said, “I got up at this ungodly hour because I’m the man who is going to save your life today, so you just cooperate, you hear.”
“By all means,” I remember telling him. “You just have right at it.”
The next thing I remember was enduring what Jimmy Buffett once referred to as some “tremelous dreams” resultant from a bad reaction to morphine (my developing an addiction to that drug is less likely than the rapture) and when the surgeon made his rounds the next morning, I had my first installment of actual fear awaiting what was essentially my life and death verdict.
“What are you looking all nervous about,” he said, “didn’t I tell you I was going to save your life? I had to take the whole top half of your lung but I wanted to make sure I got it all and I did. Believe yours are the cleanest edges (surgical lingo) I’ve ever had.”
And then he added the truly magical words: “You won’t need any additional treatment — no chemo, no radiation, no nothing.” I muttered some sort of no doubt inane thank-you thing but he just smiled and waved it away.
“Stay here a few days and then get on with your life,” he said as he walked toward the door, and I guess he just couldn’t resist adding, “but I wouldn’t enter any marathons, though.”
Bottom line: From suspicion, to diagnosis to walking out of the hospital cancer free had taken only six weeks, which is just unheard of these days. And yes, I do know how lucky that makes me.
It’s been four years now, and I’m still getting on, but I must say, nary a time have I had the first thought about entering a marathon.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.