About 17 years ago, I was walking on the sidewalk with my father-in-law. My twin daughters were just learning to walk, and each of us was holding one of their hands. My father-in-law looked up at me and said it was a goal of his to live long enough to attend their high school graduation. I frowned, calculated the odds (he’d have to live to be at least 91!) and kept walking. Good luck with that, I thought. You’re being way, way too optimistic.
That’s just me. I’m a 100 percent, purebred died-in-the-wool Irishman. We’re a very pessimistic lot, and I personally obsess about death on a daily basis. I try to picture my funeral, I wonder about my obituary in the paper and mull over whether my wife would get remarried if I were to kick the bucket. I picked out my final resting place years ago and left instructions to scatter my ashes at my favorite fishing spot. Sometimes, just for fun, when I walk by the bathroom mirror, I stand up stiff, put my head back, fold my hands over my chest and close my eyes. Then I crack one eye open, just a tiny bit, just to picture what kind of a corpse I’d be if today turned out to be “the” day.
This past week, though, I got a pretty amazing gift. I got to picture my own demise in a pretty realistic way. I’ve spent years ignoring doctors, my wife, and, in particular, Katie Couric, and put off (well actually, actively, passionately, and sometimes deviously, avoided) getting a colonoscopy.
I have had intense gut pain since I was around 6 years old. At some point during that year, I fell off the swing set and in an epic maneuver, landed belly-first on one of the swings below, flipped over, and hit the ground in cloud of dust. It was a major incident, but nothing compared to the mileage I got out of it. For years, I’d be able to get out of school, church or any unwanted event by holding my stomach, groaning and saying my old “swing set injury” was acting up. It infuriated my older brother, who screamed that I was faking it, but that only made it better.
Thing is, I was not faking it. My whole life, I actually have had periodic stomach pain so severe I would sometimes see colors. Over the years, though, I got so used to it that I simply incorporated it into my daily life. I could be the first man to ever teach a natural child birthing class. It never occurred to me to get a colonoscopy because I’d being chugging along for decades with this same condition.
All this came to a head Monday when my gut started acting up so much that I sought medical help. An X-ray led to a colonscopy that led to bad news. I had a lot of weird stuff going on down there, and it was almost assuredly cancer.
Before the surgery, I sat in a hospital bed, thinking about things. I was actually in danger of meeting the one and only Grim Reaper and soon. It was like one of those things that seem so romantic and exciting in the abstract, like diving out of a plane or being chased by the bulls in Pamplona or eating the hottest pepper on Earth — things that if you actually tried to do them would turn out to just be stupid and pointless. For the first time in my life, my death was the one thing I didn’t want to think about.
As I woke up from the surgery the next day, I saw the smiling faces of my wife and daughters. That’s no indication. As a pessimist, I know people always smile when you come out of surgery. I scanned their faces for tears and saw none … could be good news or a sign that I wouldn’t be missed all that much. Then my wife spoke. It was incredible news, she said. That stuff that had to be removed from my undercarriage? Not cancer but scar tissue from the chronic condition I’d had my whole life. It might be slow and painful, but I was headed toward complete recovery and not toward being a dusty, chalky film drifting down the Clarion River.
Last Friday night my daughters graduated from high school. I couldn’t be there, as I was connected to tubes, still recovering from surgery. I got plenty of pictures over my phone, though. I could see in some of them that my father-in-law was there, as he always expected to be, sitting front and center.
I am not sure whether I have another two years to kick around or 40, but I think the past week has taught me that I might be better off chucking the pessimism and start planning my life rather than planning my death.
Peter McKay is a longtime Ben Avon resident and syndicated columnist. He can be reached at his website, www.peter-mckay.com.