To those who follow me: sorry I’ve been away for almost two months. I’ve been literally coughing since that time, and in mid-June, my doctor took a chest X-ray and decided I had pneumonia. The antibiotics didn’t work. I then saw a pulmonologist—a lung specialist. A few CT scans and a biopsy later, my pulmonologist discovered I had a rare condition called vasculitis, an autoimmune issue.
During this time, knowing I had a breathing problem—could it be lung cancer?—I read an emotionally powerful book, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. It’s nonfiction, Kalanithi’s journey through lung cancer. Spoiler alert: he dies. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started the book when I did, but then again, when you’re thinking dark thoughts, you can’t help but consider them. Kalanithi writes so honestly and even lyrically at times, he takes your breath away.
For instance, once he’s sat with his initial chest X-ray that proves to him how dire his situation is, he writes, “The tricky part of illness is that, as you go through it, your values are constantly changing. You try to figure out what matters to you, and then you keep figuring it out. It felt like someone had taken away my credit card, and I was having to learn how to budget.” Should he continue on as a neurosurgeon, saving lives, or should he take time off and do other significant things?
Before he started chemo, he and his wife focused on whether they could or should start a family. “Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?" his wife Lucy asks. "Don't you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?"
"Wouldn't it be great if it did?” he says, and adds, “Lucy and I both felt that life wasn't about avoiding suffering.”
They go to a fertility specialist, and she is able to get pregnant. They both cheer about it. When he goes through chemo and wonders if it will kill him, he thinks, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
I could empathize. When my first doctor said I had pneumonia, as drained and winded as I was, I felt great. At last I had a reason for why I felt so bad. Friends then told me of when they had pneumonia, warning me it was difficult, and still it was better than not having a diagnosis.
I finished my antibiotics on the Fourth of July and couldn’t make it to the nearby fireworks as I was coughing too much, too drained to go. I had a sinking feeling I didn’t have pneumonia. Was I headed where Kalanithi went? It took another six weeks for me to get to vasculitis.
As someone who had been healthy for decades—a cold being the worst—I found myself thinking differently when I was confined to bed. It opened my eyes, reminding me that people out there, including readers of this blog, have daily physical challenges. Emotional ones, too. At my darkest, I’d consider that maybe things would keep going downhill until it’d be all over.
Along the way, two of my lymph nodes became rock hard. I must have lymphoma, I decided. Or maybe I had what the neighbor across the way from us had. He’d gone to the dentist for teeth cleaning, then days later felt lousy. His doctor found the man had sepsis. That affected a heart valve. He needed heart surgery and a bovine heart valve quickly. I realized I’d had my teeth cleaned in early June.
You see what happens? When you don’t know what you have, you think of the worst and realize people get bad things. Who says you can’t? The end for most people comes sooner than expected.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger felt we should all contemplate our deaths, and once we truly feel it, we can live each day feeling alive and “present in the moment.” Once I did, however, I didn't feel present. I simply felt sad. Look at the things I'll miss. My wife and children. My students. My tomato plants.
On the positive side, my energy is back, and I’m writing again. I polished my latest novel, and now I’m deciding on the next book.
It’s good to again be the optimist. I also realize, hey, this life isn’t forever. Take advantage of the good days.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.