Survivor’s Remorse

Yep, that's about right.

Yep, that’s about right.

A year later, it turns out I’m going to live. At least for awhile (give or take the potential of getting smushed by a bus). Now what?

They say there are stages of grief. I probably experienced a portion of them all over the last 12 months following my cancer diagnosis. Denial and Isolation? Hell yeah. Anger? Absolutely. Bargaining? Kinda sorta. Depression? Sure, why not. Acceptance? Well, four out of five ain’t bad, right?

I named this navel gazing, insightful. narcissistic, self-absorbed site “A Blog Called Quest” because a: I didn’t have a better idea. Actually, there is no B. It’s just A. Well, A and the fact that these guys remain the greatest hip-hop group of all-time. So much for truth in advertising. It’s definitely a blog. A quest? Hmmm. Depends on your definition of the word. I could have called it “obvious midlife crisis hastened a bit by unlikely diagnosis of disease that sounds way scarier than it actually is” but the URL was just a little too long.

So what now? After 10 cycles of chemo (and two more to go by September) I’m as healthy as I’ve been since before my kids were born.I went back for a maintenance cycle last month. I’ve had oil changes that were more emotional. My disease isn’t the first thing I think about in the morning or the last thing I think about at night. Call it the upside of arrogance. I never worried that this thing would get me, even as I see others in the handful of Facebook groups I’ve joined struggle to repair their lives as the medicine that’s given me a second chance wreaks havoc with their own immune systems.

The default line here is I should be thankful, right?

A year ago I couldn’t climb the stairs in my house without thinking I was having a heart attack. Now if I do less than an hour on the treadmill or the sorority girl (note, that nickname came from a female cousin in law) errr elliptical machine I get cranky. I’m thinking about a 5K in a couple of weeks (my first race in a decade) and can’t wait until I become one of “those guys” who take their bike riding waaaaay too seriously sometime later this spring even if the truth is I typically get lapped by kids on tricycles.

I would love to sit here and tell you that I’ve figured it out, that I’ve figured me out. Yet I’m no closer now than I was the day my oncologist told me “Hey, you’ve got a rare form of incurable cancer but you’re going to be fine.” He was absolutely right of course, but reconciling two drastically different notions has been maddening.

Cancer got my father at 59. My brother-in-law at 35. Dad built houses. Bill was a teacher (and a good one). There is no explanation for what happened. How a non-smoker can be struck down in his prime by lung cancer is something I’m never going to figure out. How esophageal cancer turned a 6-foot-6, 230-pound titan into a graying, frail old man in six months is terrifying.

My experience has been far different. I’ve joked repeatedly that I have “JV” cancer. Most people think it’s me just being modest (important: as much as I try, modesty isn’t really my thing). I’ve sat in chairs next to folks nearing the end. I’ve watched the nurses come out wearing the blue scrubs with the chemo bags and tenderly administer it. I get four shots to the stomach and a four-hour drip of a drug that is basically little more than a reminder to my white blood cells to get to work and start kicking cancer’s ass.

It’s hard not to think about why I was spared. Why is my life more valuable than any those facing far more dire circumstances. It’s like watching a disaster movie where the entire planet is wiped out but hey, the protagonist is gonna live so really, everything is gonna be OK.

I wish I could tell you I’ve found my purpose. Lord knows I’ve been searching for one. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I have spent far too much of the first half of my life screwing around. And yet old habits die hard. I still play video games. I still obsess over what my professional contemporaries are doing (and just as importantly, what I’m NOT doing.) I still stare at my phone way too much, and while I’m becoming more of a grownup on Twitter, I’m still not exactly a paragon of responsible tweeting.

My smart friend Nancy (disclaimer, while this happens to be her name this is also a blatant ripoff of this guy’s work) says repeatedly “You had cancer, not a lobotomy.” Sometimes I’d almost prefer the latter (and my incredibly patient wife would agree). Far too often over the last year I’ve sounded like every politician who has ever promised “change” (no offense Mr. President) only to discover the mechanisms of democracy make progress a difficult and sometimes ugly slog (I’m looking at you Indiana).

I get told all the time that I’m being too hard on myself. That what I’m going through is completely natural, that I need to give myself a break. And I get it. Yet when I’m sitting there undergoing treatment and I see people who would likely switch places with me in an instant, it’s hard not to feel like every second when you waste not maximizing your life is a complete waste of everyone’s time.

There was a blissful stretch last summer where I really did unplug. I focused on my health and my family. I took time off work. I stayed out of the bubble I had lived in for far too long.

Then my numbers started ticking up. I felt my strength return. And the bubble returned, version 2.0. And I realized how incredibly fortunate I am. At my core though, it only made the issues I’ve struggled with for years seem only more urgent.

Every day I deal with intensified expectations. I want to be the best father. The best husband. The best writer. The best son. The best brother. The best (insert whatever I’m doing at a given moment). Every damn day. I can say unequivocally I am a better person than I was five years ago. At the same time that pursuit has made my awareness of my own shortcomings only more acute.

God didn’t spare me so I could win the Stanley Cup on my Playstation one more time. (At least, I’m figuring he didn’t). Trying to figure out what to do with the 40ish years I have left is perplexing. My greatest gift as a writer is my ability to get a handle on people. Whether it’s the best gymnast in the world or the kid at the end of the bench. I can ask the right questions, talk to the right people. And yet I’m no closer to getting the gears in my head straight than I was a year ago. Or five years ago. Or 20.

At least now, though, I’m trying. My family is in the process of joining a church, something my wife and kids have somehow taken faster to than I have. I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone by volunteering for a non-profit. I might not save the world. Not all of it anyway. But I will do my part if it freaking kills me.

Which, thankfully, blessedly it won’t. Not anytime soon at least.

Cancer might not be the best thing that ever happened to me, but it might be among the most important. To fully embrace my life, first I had to realize I might lose it. What a world. What a ride. The quest continues.

<iframe width=”575″ height=”324″ src=”http://cache.vevo.com/assets/html/embed.html?video=GB1101200340&autoplay=0&#8243; frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen>

–30–

Advertisements

The Invisible Man

Me and Dad

I didn’t call him enough. I can see that now. That’s on me.

Instead, I ran, just like I always did. I took the path of least resistance with my father because, well, that’s just the way Tom Graves wanted it. In the 59 years he walked the earth, in particular the 35 he spent with me in his life, you could count the number of times things didn’t go his way on two hands. Maybe one.

So when he diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer in the fall of 2009 I did what he wanted. I let it go. Treated it as just another thing on his plate, like the property flipping business he started in retirement. A chore he would take care of on his own terms, thanks for not asking.

So I didn’t. He began chemotherapy in September, 2009 and I made exactly zero change to our routine. I think during his first four months of treatment we might have talked twice.  And when we did, it wasn’t about cancer. What questions I did manage to squeak out (note: my father remains the toughest interview of my life) were met with a simple “Oh, dad’s fine” and the unmistakable subtext that trying to work on a followup was completely unnecessary.

Being 600 miles away in Kentucky and preoccupied with a job and an infant son, I was only too happy to go along. I could hear the frustration in my sister’s voice when she talked about her inability to communicate with him and I wanted no part of it. Better to pretend that everything is fine rather than deal with the messy emotions that come with true honesty.

It’ll be fine, I convinced myself. This will be just another one of those things that he handles alone, like the three heart attacks he suffered between his mid-40s and early 50s. The ones he basically walked off like a bad cold.

He was so fiercely private about his health I literally had to invent an excuse to come home when he underwent surgery in January, 2010 for what he kept referring to as a “blockage” in his intestine. When I surprised him in the hospital, I lied and told him I was in town because a high school friend was having a bachelor party. Seeing him laid up in bed, his body dulled yellow by chemo and nausea forcing him to spit up into a wastebasket every few minutes was jarring. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound in his prime monolith I remembered couldn’t have weighed 170 pounds.

And still, the charade continued. I hung out with him before he went into surgery. We talked about my upcoming Olympic assignment. We talked about Colin, his grandson. We talked about the Redskins (because we always talked about the Redskins). We kept it light.

The day I flew back to Kentucky, I stopped by the hospital to chat. He appeared exhausted but OK. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the last time I saw him alive, but it kind of felt like it was. It was pleasant but my most vivid memory was how I basically tried to get him to tell me he was proud of me. I needed to hear it. He obliged (kind of) but it wasn’t quite the heartwarming “movie” moment that I’d fantasized about. It felt forced (by me, not by him). I hugged him and left, already preoccupied with thoughts of the Vancouver Olympics.

Barely a month later, he was gone. It wasn’t the cancer technically. His heart, weary of the fight, gave out. I spoke to him a couple of days before that last heart attack. He was back in the hospital and high on pain medication. He thought I was his girlfriend when I initially called. I think the entire conversation lasted 97 seconds. Enough time for one last “I love you” from both of us. While I was able to get home and be in the room when they turned the life support machines off, there was little doubt he was already gone.

Four years later, I still don’t know what to make of his death and how it impacted my life. It’s funny. I miss him more now than I did two years ago. Maybe it took cancer (in some small way) to find the common ground that we failed to reach as adults.

My cancer is different (thank God). I’m not going to die. Not even close. While the first cycle of treatment was a little bumpy (I’ll blog about that later) I’m amazed at my body’s ability to handle constant bombardment of medicine, whether it’s Velcade or the Rituxin that is treating the cancer or the fistful of pills I take daily to ward off the side effects. The early numbers are encouraging. And while I may be in treatment longer than anticipated, my resolve _ thanks in large part to the support of my wife Ellie _ has only strengthened.

Yet sitting in a chair for hours on end (my Rituxin days are a good 7-8 hours long, as are the days when I receive blood transfusions) gives you time to think. I can’t shake the idea of what treatment must have been like for my father.

The thing that has frustrated me the most since this thing has started is the knowledge that I can’t predict on a given day how I’m going to feel. I’ve called out of assignments on my way to them because I’ve been hit with a sudden fever or weakness. I can’t imagine how difficult and painful ceding that power from his mind to his body must have been for dad, who never met a situation he couldn’t find a way to immediately take control of. I imagine it was infuriating and agonizing. I’ll never know, though. I never called to ask. I happily took ‘no’ for an answer.

I shouldn’t have.  I wasn’t a kid when he went through this. I was 35. I was a husband and a father. I was a professional with a career. Yet the balance of power in our relationship never evolved. In many ways I was still the 10-year-old who famously told him once that I didn’t have to do my homework anymore because I was  a big kid. He responded by grounding me.

I fully understand that some of this is on him. That he kept nearly everyone, from his parents to his brothers and sisters to his children, at arm’s length. And because he had a force of will unmatched by anyone perhaps on the planet, we didn’t fight it. We should have. I should have.

The guilt of failing to do that ebbs and flows. I don’t feel it quite as acutely as I did in the immediate aftermath of his passing. Instead, I just miss him. I would have liked to see him as grandfather. He saw his grandson Colin once. He never met my 2-year-old daughter Catherine. I bet she would have owned him. The thought of it makes me laugh.

One of the blessings (if you can call it that) of this illness is that it has forced me to empathize with him. The differences and distance that had us reach out from neutral corners most of the time has disappeared. I feel closer to him in a way. I was wide awake at 4 a.m. last week (thanks steroids!) when I envisioned him walking into the bedroom. He filled the frame (he always did). I didn’t hallucinate but the image was so clear that I started to cry. For years during young adulthood he was on the periphery of my life. Now that I finally have the courage to want him to be a part of the nucleus, he’s gone.

Colin asked Ellie this morning who my dad was. She politely responded “Grandpa Tom” and the name didn’t register in Colin’s ears. Part of that’s on me. I haven’t talked about my dad enough, perhaps because I never talked TO him enough.

Yet Colin needs to know about his grandfather, even if I’m still learning. He needs to know that the reason I do what I do for a living isn’t because it’s cool or because I think I’m good at it. I do this because sports was the one thing my father and I could talk about.

He took me to my first football game when I was 8, the 1982 NFC championship between the Redskins and the Cowboys. Three decades later I can still hear the crowd at RFK chant “We Want Dallas.” The Redskins won. My father was joyful. I was hooked.

I have no idea how my relationship with Colin will evolve over the next 30 years. I want us to be friends when he’s my age. (Hell, I want to be alive when he’s my age). I hope we’re close. I know one thing’s for certain. I won’t raise him to take no for an answer from me. I won’t let him be satisfied if I try to keep him at arm’s length. If that’s the lesson I take from my father’s death, so be it.

Thanks Pop. Sorry I didn’t call enough. For both of us. It won’t happen again.

Dad was a big Motown/R&B guy. I’ll let Marvin show you out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph0aELhsQoc

Will