The Search Continues

silentnight

The moment almost always starts out awkward, no matter how good the intentions behind it.

Each night before dinner, my wife and I ask our kids which one of them would like to say grace. Our 3-year-old daughter usually volunteers and after some gentle prodding she will treat us to one of the sing-songy prayers they say before each meal at her daycare located inside a local church.

It’s between those walls that our kids have nominally been exposed to religion. The children learn about Jesus and all that, but the truth is for Ellie and I the religious education our kids have there (our son attended the same daycare for nearly three years before starting kindergarten) is almost beside the point. It’s a safe, nurturing environment. The fact the teachers talk about Jesus is practically incidental.

Maybe it shouldn’t be.

I grew up in a home that was gently agnostic. My father was a lapsed Catholic. My mother a Baptist who gave up on trying to get us to go to church regularly when we were still in elementary school. Life was so hectic Monday-Saturday, who wanted to spend Sunday mornings trying to convince minimally interested kids it was time to get dressed up and go out when the time might be better spent reading the paper, doing the crossword or prepping for the Redskins game?

Then, stunningly, an abrupt sea change occurred. My senior year of high school I dated the first real capital C “Christian” I’d ever met. My freshman year in college, I was “saved.” I spent the better part of three years doing a deep dive into nondenominational Christianity. I went to Bible Studies. I witnessed to students in dorms, led public prayers and joined Campus Crusade for Christ. I served as a youth group leader and basketball coach at one church, sang in the band at another and attended the occasional service at a third. I wasn’t a Bible thumper, exactly, but a Bible suggester. “Hey, this book might be pretty good, I think you should read it.” That kind of stuff.

I didn’t drink. I didn’t party much. Hell, I even quite cursing for awhile.

(We’ll pause a minute here for the folks that didn’t know me then to absorb that last part.)

Looking back, it’s obvious the decision to get so heavily involved was as much social as it was spiritual. There was a sense of inclusion in these groups that I couldn’t find in other places, mostly because my idea of a good time (then, at least) did not include drinking as much Milwaukee’s Best as I could stand.

I felt like I belonged even if I wasn’t sure I did. The nagging voice in the back of my head constantly questioned my motives, wondering if I truly believed in anything at all other than the need to find a place where I was accepted. And during those three years I saw the same kind of cliqueish behavior I would have found in any other group. I also had the pleasure of being treated with true kindness, generosity and wisdom by people whose faith and spiritual walk I respect even more when I look at it through the all-knowing prism 20 years of hindsight provides.

The relationship didn’t stick, though. My senior year in college I joined the student newspaper and found my calling. I knew I belonged with the ink-stained masses (back when ink on dead wood was a thing), churning out copy on deadline, sharing a beer afterward and plotting to save humanity one dazzling bit of prose at a time.

For the better part of two decades, my profession has been my religion. Hell, I’d argue it’s more of an obsession. I have spent far too much time worrying about the state of journalism _ and more importantly, my place in it _ than anything else in my life. My family. My health. My kids. My future. My grammar (apologies copy editors).

Yet this time of year, every year, I can feel something tugging at me. The time in my early 20s when I was idly driving through Annapolis and Handel’s “The Messiah” came on as I was scanning the radio and I spent the ensuing 40 minute trip to my parents’ house driving through tears. The Christmas Eve service at a downtown Louisville Catholic church eight years ago where all I could think about was that if “O Holy Night” sounded this beautiful then someone, some thing, must be behind it. The quiet moments the last few years when I get home late after a game and my family is asleep upstairs, those blissful minutes in the dim light of the Christmas tree when my brain finally gives me a break and lets me focus on the wonder of all the things I have _ instead of all the things I don’t.

My daughter’s daycare class had birthday cake on Monday. It was for Jesus. Said so in red icing right there on the top. When she came home she talked about it. Before dinner she sang the sweetest version of “Johnny Appleseed” that you have ever heard. Trust me.

Then it was one with the typical dinner stuff, the bartering to get them top finish their pork chops. My wife and I running down our day. The anxiety that comes with trying to get everything ready for Christmas, the loneliness of being separated from our families, all the usual stuff. Our 5-year-old reminded us to turn the fireplace off so Santa wouldn’t get burned when he visits on Christmas Eve.

We didn’t talk about going to church. We haven’t been with any sense of regularity since well before our son was born. And yet this year the pull feels stronger than ever. Maybe it’s the cancer (in remission, btw). Or the fact that four years out I’ve finally started to accept that my father is dead, or that our time is more precious than I ever imagined.

I don’t know what I believe. I am terrified that my kids will start asking in a few years who and what God is about and my answer will be to shrug my shoulders and check to see what Twitter says about it.

My wife and I will never be the kind of parents that foist religion on our children. It’s a personal choice, one each individual needs to figure out on their own. I am slowly growing worried that I am no closer to an answer now than I was on that September night in 1992 when I got on both knees in my dorm room and asked for salvation even though I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing.

But I do know this: it’s time to start talking about it, if only to make those awkward moments before dinnertime prayer a little more meaningful and little less random.

Merry Christmas folks. Harry Connick Jr. is here to play you out:

 

The trouble with Thanks

If you got the chance to jab me with needles on a regular basis, you'd be smiling too.

If you got the chance to jab me with needles on a regular basis, you’d be smiling too.

I promised them this post would come months ago, maybe it’s a tribute to the work of those two kind folks in that picture that it hasn’t. Sorry Mary Beth. My bad Dr. Mehta. A thousand apologies Sandy and Phil and Melissa and Michelle and Tani and Jen and Lori and everybody else who has jabbed my arm for blood, stuck a thermometer in my mouth, threaded an IV needle into my hand or laughed politely at the decidedly lame “hey, look at me, I’ve got cancer” jokes over the last nine months.

I’ve been too busy trying to reclaim the life you so carefully restored over the spring and summer that I haven’t had time to thank you properly.

Resiliency is a funny thing. I spent the first few months after my lymphoma diagnosis in March questioning everything: my health, my future, my relationship with my family, my commitment to my children and my  passion for my chosen profession. It wasn’t a midlife crisis exactly. It was more of a stop sign. Those thoughts had been building _ much like the disease in my bone marrow _ for years. My diagnosis simply crystallized them and my treatment gave me time (too much probably) to try and figure out who I am, where I’m going and who, exactly, I’m taking with me.

Then, sometime in July, things turned. I started producing healthy blood again. My energy level went up. I began regaining the 10-15 pounds I lost. All the stuff I tried to put in perspective suddenly became important again. How many twitter followers I had. My place in the cliqueish hierarchy of the press box (and my company for that matter).

The same old crap. The same old concerns. All the stuff I thought I was ready to ditch because there was a chance the rest of my life would be measured in years and not decades. The small stuff became big stuff despite my best efforts. The perspective I was searching for vanished. It was back to the grind, back to the next story, the next mortgage payment, the next chore on the to-do list that regenerates itself relentlessly day after day after day.

On the final day of my eighth and final cycle in September, I had this plan that I would do a victory lap around the doctor’s office, sprint to my car, give Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia the finger and put it in the rearview mirror for good.

It didn’t quite go like that.

Tani patched me up after a four-hour drip of Rituxan and my 32nd shot of chemo and I quietly slipped out. Nobody dropped what they’re doing. Nobody stood up and slow-clapped me out the door. When I turned to look back the half-dozen nurses who make a living keeping the living alive were going about the business of providing comfort and confidence to a never-ending stream of terrified, defiant and confused strangers.

Sorry ladies. I meant to say I owe you one for helping save my life.

If you’d seen me in my car afterward, sobbing uncontrollably in the front seat as the realization that “holy crap, I just spent 24 weeks getting treated for cancer and I think I’m going to be OK, how in the hell did that happen” washed over me, I hope you would have taken it as a compliment.

You made it bearable. On some days, you even made it enjoyable. (Well, that and the free crackers). You took one of the most intimidating processes of my life and made it seem routine.

It’s a pretty remarkable mind trick considering most us don’t want to be there. Not for a second. Not for a minute. To be honest, those of us who jot our names on the patient sign-in sheet are in some form of shock.

It’s surreal that it has come to this, trudging into a bland office building and wading through a crowded waiting room to a sea of tan leather chairs where we sit and wait for medicine that _ hopefully _ will work. We fixate on our blood counts, our symptoms and our prospects. It should feel like purgatory. It’s because of your mindfulness it does not.

You try to get us to talk about our kids, our jobs, our plans for the weekend. Anything to distract us from the battle going on inside our bodies. You study charts, consult with doctors and check our progress while trying to make sure we don’t feel like so much sickly cattle, no matter if we’re the first or the 40th patient you’ve seen that morning.

While we won’t tell you this because this just isn’t what we do, we are in awe. I am in awe. I cannot comprehend the responsibility that comes with your job.

No matter how much I try to convince myself that what I do is capital I Important, if I screw something up a fix is only a couple of mouse clicks and keystrokes away. In the end it’s just nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates, hanging clauses and occasional grammatical errors. My idea of pressure is looking at a blank screen with five minutes to go in whatever game I happen to be at. (NOTE TO BOSSES: that like almost never happens. Honest).

I cannot fathom a job where every decision has to be right, one where there are real, actual consequences for any tiny mistake.

A good friend of mine worked in newspapers into his early 30s, when he had a heart attack. He was so touched by the care he received he left the business, moved back home with his folks and spent a handful of years getting a nursing degree. I thought he was insane. (Colby, technically you might be). While there is zero chance of me trading my laptop for a pair of Crocs, I can see why he made such an abrupt sea change.

Look, the medical system in this country is screwed up. The fact it cost $21 grand for a doctor to look at my blood and figure out what type of lymphoma I have is insane, for starters. And the idea that health care is a privilege and not a basic human right is beyond me. But that is paper and policy. It’s not people. And it’s the people as much as the medicine that keeps us going.

I head back to those tan leather chairs on Monday, for the first of four “maintenance” treatment cycles over the next 12 months. I am (mostly) healthy. I am (usually) happy.

And before I forget and get too caught up in the frustrating business of being me, know that I am thankful.

See you in a bit ladies. I’m almost looking forward to it. Almost.

Just careful with the needles, OK?

Here’s Shawn, Nate, Wanya and Mike to play us out.