Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The precious insight of a near miss

"When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home."
 ~ Chief Tecumseh

"Tragedy is FOR us. It's the greatest gift; whether an illness or the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, it allows our perception to be shifted. It's of great, immeasurable value."
 ~ Deborah Westmoreland

It's been a tough time for the Adair family. I somehow dodged a bullet, while my brother hasn't been so lucky. He's in intensive care right now, recovering from his fourth brain tumor surgery. His operation was Monday in San Francisco at UCSF Medical Center (University of California at San Francisco), while my colon cancer surgery happened two weeks earlier, to the day, also in San Francisco, also at UCSF.

It's tempting to launch into details during situations like these: what happened, when, what's the prognosis, how much of this, how little of that. While those "details" are important and need to be managed, they can also obscure bigger truths: we are temporary, fragile beings, living this one sacred life, and regardless of how it might end and under what circumstances, it will certainly end, and almost certainly the end will be neither pleasing nor attractive. Don't miss the forest for the trees, people! And don't think it won't happen to you: no one gets out alive. Perhaps more than just osbscuring truths, the details obscure important questions: why am I here, and what am I doing. To paraphrase Thoreau, are you going confidently in the direction of your dreams, living the live you've imagined? If you're not - why not?

I caught every lucky break imaginable on this recent medical journey. It only started three and a half weeks ago, but it's already winding down. On Friday, July 3, the anniversary of my Mother's death, I was in Delhi and had my first-ever colonoscopy. They found a tumor that seemed highly likely to be cancerous. I had a CAT scan the same day and spent the weekend alone in my not-quite-squalid hotel, pondering the choices and possible outcomes, debating about having surgery in Delhi vs. coming home and taking my chances on my crummy health insurance. On Monday they confirmed that it was cancer, Tuesday afternoon I decided to come home, and Wednesday I flew home. The saintly and uber-efficient Whitney somehow managed to get me an appointment on Friday with one of the top surgeons in the U.S., apparently, for this type of surgery. By the end of the appointment the insurance had been authorized, and Monday morning I was under the knife, a mere 10 days from the colonoscopy. A week later I found out that I don't need chemo or any other treatment, just some additional monitoring and tests over the next few years. Voila.

My brother Mike faces a greater challenge. He just had brain tumor surgery on Monday and is in intensive care as I write this. He was very weak before the surgery, from a combination of the long-term effects of strong medications, prior surgeries, radioactive treatments, and a new fast-growing tumor that is pressing on his brain. When I first saw him after surgery he couldn't find simple words like yes or no, from swelling on the brain. That seems to have passed, but he doesn't have an easy path ahead of him. I looked at him in bed with a giant white bandage around his head, his face puffy and his eyes having a hard time focusing. It made me wonder about changing places with him if I could.

If you're able, let these experiences from the Adair boys sink in. There but for the grace of God, go you, dude.

All my love,

Rishikesh, India, March 2015