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Life Behind the Earthen Dam


By Bill McFadyen

My primary care physician, who also served as best man at my late 20th century wedding, was engaging in retention of repeat business in that spring of 2012. “We see by our records that you have not had a physical in two years. We would like to schedule one.”

It was only four weeks until turkey season. My doctor and I always tried to swap intel of pre-season sightings and plans for early-morning ambushes. Thus, said I, “I accept the invitation for you to palpitate and prod where no other man has gone before.” (Except the doctor in those two colonoscopies.)

I had always suffered some conceit concerning my genetic blessings as it applied to my personal health. Beyond my 50th year, my blood pressure still never wavered much from 120 over 80. Cholesterol levels were so far from my purveyance that I did not know even where mine should fall, because they always had fallen right there, thus I paid it no mind.

So the trip to the doctor that Tuesday morning was for me more social than medicinal. During even that most compromised of postures, I was peppering the good doctor with inquiries as to the whereabouts of Brer Turkey along the riverbank. Fully clothed and back in his private suite, my 25-year-old file representing theretofore near perfect health took up a measurable percentage of the desktop but I had moved on to topics like the tangential pursuits of our children, the flowering spring, the welcome return of his pretty receptionist and the heirlooms strewn about the office shelves. Staying on task despite my ramblings, my friend glanced over his left shoulder at my chest x-ray. Then he swiveled fully to look more closely. Without looking away from the screen, he pushed the old-timey doorbell under the shelf, summoning Nurse Michelle.

Decades of medical conceit melted into the horror of certain death. The nickel-sized spot on my right lung shouted to me in a language that I knew intellectually I would one day have to decipher, but whose immediacy sent me from a bubbly boy to a man crying on his knees at the thought of three young children watching their dad waste and die. It was the low point of my life and it came like the crumbling of an earthen dam, flooding out everything that lay downstream. For the first time, I was in the Shadow of Death. Unlike the Psalmist, I was terrified.

Those following three weeks were unlike any others I had known. Twenty-one days after falling to my knees at the feet of my best man, I sat at my home computer with a drawstring suture closing the hole where the chest tube had been. Four nodules had become residents of Petri dishes in Durham, N.C. I prepared to re-enter the world of commercial real estate, apartment rentals and strip mall attentiveness with a renewed promise of much more life to live. That life, however, felt fundamentally different. Wisdom had come to me in a violent manner. Naïve no more, I learned much. I felt the love of friends that I only assumed was there before. I held my wife and my children knowing I was beyond fortunate to have each and giving back to them the assurance that I was here to stay for some time longer.

In no particular order, I also learned these things:

When you truly recognize the face of Death for the first time, your life’s mistakes are immediately obvious to you. You regret having allowed yourself to make and repeat those mistakes. You know at once what you must do to correct the errant way should Death pass you by this time.

You become a much better person after you see Death; you tend to drift back to the former person when you find Death has retreated.

Your children are far less impressed when you earn a tangible commission than they are when you watch them on the trampoline, coach their baseball team or sit with them on the front steps while waiting for carpool. My children never worried about which client might go unrepresented. While they went innocently about their lives in those weeks, they knew something had changed and they sensed that happy days were more precious. To a parent, the burden of an early exit was absolutely crushing.

The love of a friend is priceless. I told my son, sitting out there on that front stoop waiting on that carpool, that in those prior three weeks, I had learned to take great comfort in the path of my life. To have as many friends as did my wife and I who would have dropped whatever they were doing to help us through that time could never be ledgered accurately. I was inexpressibly moved by the love showered upon me by my peers, from their parents, even from their children. A 12-year-old girl texted me Bible verses, told me she loved me and wrote that she knew I would be alright. A calloused-handed 70-something businessman left me a voicemail saying that he loved me and that he would pray for me, even though he felt sure his prayer ranked low on the purity meter. A hunting buddy’s son met me in the imaging lab where he worked and allowed me to cry on his shoulder in the darkest time of the experience. Love is such a healer. Love is priceless in value and beyond purchase.

People suffer illnesses every day. My neighbors in the hospital rooms around me were either working to get home quickly or wondering if ever they would go home. I did not know the name of the woman in the room on the other side of the nurse’s station. I knew that if she went home, she would not stay there long. Her time here was nearly over. Still, she wanted to be a part of the laughter. She wanted to harass me as I lapped her in the racetrack that was our hallway. She wanted me to cast a sardonic quip when I did lap her over and over. She wanted to be a part of life and laughter, even as she gasped for a lung full of oxygen. On the Tuesday that my chest tube was extracted, my suture knotted off, my x-ray completed and my parting instructions delivered, my last act was to walk to her room in my real clothes to say goodbye. She was asleep in the chair. She was so frail – so bruised – and shivering. I took her hand and held it until she awakened with a start. I said, “I am leaving.” She said, “Wonderful.” I said, “You are cold.” She shivered again. I took the blanket off her bed and wrapped it around her chest and shoulders. I leaned in to kiss her cheek between her oxygen lines. “I will be thinking of you,” I said. From deep in her faded eyes, she whispered, “I will be thinking of you too.” I am thinking of her still this night. And it makes me weep.

I loved very much the guy who wheeled me to the car. Our skins looked different in hue. Our shapes were different. He was going bass fishing when he got off and I was his last duty of the day. I was going home to hold my children. We talked much about fishing. About fishing with children. About spending time doing simple things with people we loved. About how God is so much closer during times of simplicity. When my wife drove into the circle, I stood up from the chair in which he had wheeled me. We embraced and we assured each other that God was close and that God was good. He hugged my wife and told her to take care of me. He called me “a good man.” I knew him for about eight minutes of my life. His name escapes me but I will never forget him. I will see him again. He will have a spinning rod with a pumpkinseed worm rigged Carolina-style. I will have a cane pole and a tube of crickets.

I quivered under the weight of impending Death only to be returned to Life and to the love of my friends and family. I feel no unluckiness at having had my lung opened surgically. It was truly a blessing for me. Death chose someone else that day. Thank God, as I wanted to see my sons harvest their first turkeys, I wanted to hold my daughter’s arm as we walk down her aisle and I wanted to continue to waste money on term life insurance.

All this will end. What waits beyond? I believe Patrick Swayze when he tells Demi Moore that the love is what you take with you.

Love, and maybe a tube of crickets.