By Michael Miller
First, let me begin with a brief but some-what boring biography, I know I know, I can hear the collective sighs already, but bear with me just a moment, I promise there’s a method to my madness. I’m by all respects a rather normal and possibly just a bit cliché middle aged male. I’ve done most things expected of those in my particular demographic. Labored in the same field for the past 40 odd years, bought and sold more homes than I care to admit, raised my children to the best of, or rather lack of my ability. For the most part they seemed to have survived the process with-out to many scars. Admittedly I do wonder about a couple of them.
I’ve kept my head down and my nose to the proverbial grindstone. A baby boomer, though and through. Yep, I had it all figured out. Just above the horizon the golden rays of retirement were just starting to peek above the mountain tops, and then “It” happened. What was “it”, well that’s what my little tale is about.
I envisioned myself (as a great many of us guys do) a man’s man. Being a mechanic and self-professed daredevil for the greater portion of my life, I felt as if I laughed at the very existence of pain. Life had thrown no less than 17 broken bones in my direction (the result of countless auto accidents), some how managed to get shot once (I’ll fill ya in on that one later), I had even been afforded the opportunity to have been blown up on at least one occasion. Yep, within myself I knew beyond any shadow of doubt I could handle what-ever pitfall life might sling my way. But it only took the constant prodding from my wife to prove me wrong, not just a little wrong mind you, but life changing totally wrong.
In June of 2017 I relented to the wishes of my lady and succumb to the dreaded, embarrassing and (rightly so,) colonoscopy. That’s right, in my mid fifties I relented to an altogether grown-up version of peer pressure, don’ed the odd looking hospital socks and floral gown only to figure out what the split up the back was really for. “But I had this” I told myself, no big deal. Right?
We have grown up in a world of absolutes. Our researchers have found a pill for everything from common hives to erectile dysfunction. Spoiled we have become, our society has taken for granted not just the word, but the very definition of “chance.” Oh we love “chance” don’t we? There is a novelty in it’s definition. We buy lottery tickets and travel to far off locales in search of adrenaline, the rush, the uncertainty of it all. We do this because we can control it. Then at the end of the week, when we’ve satiated our minds with the thrill, (or ran out of money) we simply turn it off, returning to our structured lives, adjustable rate mortgages, 2.5 kids and illustrious career. After all we are in control, Right?
Then “it” hit me. I couldn’t just pack my bags and check out. I couldn’t simply throw the lottery tickets away and hope for better luck next week. I had been lied to; I had bought into the false sense of control that gives each and every one of us comfort. That as a society, we can count on a simple yet finite solution to any of life’s problems. Think I’m wrong? Just stop for a second and think about it, I mean “really” think. Look around you. What would you do?
It’s been nearly three years now, a small victory for my corner. I was given eighteen months in the beginning but I’m still here. For the first two years I did everything I was told. Radiation, twenty-five hits followed by another fourteen a year later. Twenty-five Chemotherapy Infusions once, then another twenty-five when it returned again only a few months later. First the removal of a large portion of colon, then laser surgery on the liver. Soon followed by the loss of two thirds of same said liver along with the gallbladder, once again, just a few months later.
The latest in this morbid game of whack-a-mole was the esophagus along with the accompanying lymph nodes, and of course came the dreaded “trials.” For quite some time it seemed every time I went into the hospital they took something out. Pain, and plenty of it had become as common place as breathing. At some point I had all together forgotten what it was like to be pain free. But wait a minute; where the hell was all of this control I had become so accustomed too?
Through all this, family gathered around doing their best to lift me up. “You can do this” they would say, “ There’s medicine for it” and “ Oh you’re gonna beat this.” Somewhere in the midst of all this tumult I noticed something. Fifty some odd years had conditioned me as to what I was to expect. Life had laid out a path before me and I had little choice but to follow. Like a train on rails, there was a beginning and an end. I was for lack of a better term, “along for the ride.” Oddly enough I began to find an almost indescribable peace in this new found “uncertainty.”
During my last visit my oncologist suggested an MRI in an effort to determine whether “it” had indeed found a way into my grey matter. After a lot of time sitting on the beach and no small amount of urging from my family, I made a painful decision. I simply didn’t want to know. Needless to say; my decision went over like the ever so popular “excrement in the punch bowl.” But somehow I found peace in the uncertainty.
As a man I’ve come to believe most guys find the same peace, that’s why it’s so difficult to get us into the physician’s office. We’ve heard it said, and honestly, most have even said it themselves, “I’m not goin’ cause they might find somethin’.” The hunter, provider, he man in us all, deeply ingrained in our psyche finds a bit of peace in the not knowing. A popular sitcom made common place the reference to Schrödinger’s cat, Google it, it’s interesting reading. In my case, that’s what lies at the core of my reasoning.
As long as the cat in my brain is both alive and dead, I find life just a bit easier to live. It’s taken me nearly three years, and a great deal of soul searching before I at last allowed peace to replace just a bit of the fear and even some of the anger. I am routinely asked the same question; Don’t you wanna know for sure? To be brutally honest, I’m not sure that I do. I refuse to assign myself an expiration date, I don’t live by a curfew (I never have), and no I don’t eat all the stuff the pundits tell me I should.
Life is not a set course laid out before us, there is no set track, no map or GPS. The best we can do is simply that, “The best we can do.” It’s more likely a carnival (if I’m allowed the cheesy metaphor). Yes the milk bottles are rigged, the ring toss is near impossible, and those darts are dull on purpose. But we still give it our all simply because our little girl just has to have that pink and yellow striped elephant. So by God the manly man is gonna get it for her, never mind the dozens of goldfish we take home only to flush to oblivion a few days later.
Uncertainty has forced me to appreciate the journey, enjoy the day, simply because I’m not sure of the ending. I’m not entirely certain, but I think maybe just a little bit of that may be rubbing off on the rest of my family and that’s a good thing. I have no idea how much time I have left, I have chosen to live the day. I try not to ruin those days by fermenting solely on what happens at the inevitable end. As we all do, I have my beliefs, so choose to believe or not, the choice is yours to make. I don’t believe there is a right one or wrong one.
So, guys listen, yes that means you. Stop looking down at the rails, stop chugging away like the engine that could without looking up at the destination. Postpone that business trip, just stop. Take a breath, look around, focus intently on those bottles in front of you. Shoot a wink at your little girl and win that damned elephant.