May 7, 2004 + Cleveland VA Hospital, Ohio
I was packed off the next day for the spinal cord unit of the Cleveland VA hospital. Old friends abounded, including patients and staff. I felt very much at home there. I trusted two of the doctors I saw regularly. Being at this unit felt like a homecoming. Almost everyone had a slightly different demeanor than at previous visits. The usual light-hearted, 'Hail fellow, well met' had given way to a more somber atmosphere. This was understandable, yet unnerving. I checked in as always and was assigned a bed, where I lay worried, my guts in an uproar.
Day followed day I lay in my room alone, waiting for something cancer related to be done. Nobody was telling me anything. That made it all the worse. Every qualm, spasm, or pain meant the end, I feared. I demanded some action. Various tests were done, including CAT and PET scans, an MRI, and bone marrow examinations. For two or three days, nothing more happened.
After a few days my spinal cord doctor came to see me. I had made a deep and lasting connection with her. She was in her sixties and very thin. Her hair was blond; she had a Scandinavian look. Although we were close, she was usually all business.
She walked directly to my bedside and very uncharacteristically took my hand. She looked like she was being crucified. 'Here it comes', I thought 'my death sentence'.
The news was very bad indeed. The Doctor whispered, "There isn't much we can do, I'm sorry."
Oh, my God. This is it. It's official I was facing death. My center caved in, my strength melted away, and my resolve vanished. I cried. Mike, my nurse, cried. I called Linda. She cried. It was awful.
I was left alone in my bed. I struggled in solitude, trying to make peace with this crazy notion I was going to die soon. Twice in a week I had heard the identical diagnoses from doctors I trusted. How much more proof would I get? How much did I need? Somehow, humor got through. Bypassing a number of stages of grief, I went straight to bargaining. I mused, "Let me live; take Bob, or Ed or Sally. I'll tell you their dirty little secrets." (That's a joke, you know).
I was desperate for relief, in any form. Preferably morphine. Relief did come. It surpassed morphine like water surpasses salt in the parching desert.
During the hour following my sentence to death row, I lay in my bed. My mood swung from misery, to depression, to despair. Then two cancer doctors walked in and came to my bedside. These guys were the real thing. I fully expected a confirmation of what I had already heard, this time with approximate date of departure.
"Mr. Gill, you have a particularly slow growing type of lymphoma. This type should respond favorably to an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy. We can begin immediately." I mumbled something about the two prior diagnoses and their dreadful conclusions. The elder doctor informed me he and his colleague were oncologists and had the goods, so to speak. To which he added, almost as an afterthought, "The average life expectancy with your cancer is twelve years."
TWELVE YEARS!! 12 years, I tell you! A dozen, 642 weeks, 4,368 days. My reprieve had come. I was elated, effusively ecstatic, and ebulliently energized. I would live on. I would see Sam grow up, Sarah and Jeff thrive, and new days, new, new, new. The doctors warned me, however, that there were other tests to take, bridges to cross, and hardships to endure. 'Yes, yes' I thought, 'but i would be alive!'
In the days and weeks that followed I pondered my death. How would it come, what would it be like, would I be ready? Would Death be like an old friend, or foe? Would it be like little Reepicheep going over the edge of the world in his tiny carrack, purposely seeking Aslan and the East, as in the narnia Chronicles? Would Death take me to Hamlet's Undiscovered Country or Krishnamurti's Unknown?
Will I step off to the stars like Thomas Merton visioned? Will I see the Divine? Will I pass into another form vis-a-vis the Tibetans? Will I be recycled back into the Universe so that future generations may breathe my atoms? Will I pass through Dante's Inferno? Will I discover something better, or worse? Will I cling tenaciously and fearfully to life like Tolstoy's Ivan Illych? Will I go easy and at peace like my Dad, for whom death was like a nap after dinner?
However it may come, I prefer the Woody Allen approach: "I don't mind dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens".