By Christopher Green
This was a proclamation of life from Dr. Sweets, a character on the TV Show Bones. He made this declaration to his girlfriend shortly after watching a young man die in his arms.
This boy had just received word via his cell that the latest tests showed he was cancer free for the first time in eight years. He was overcome with joy and started sobbing. Dr. Sweets, who was sitting next to the young man on the subway, tried to comfort him and asked him if he was all right.
The boy told him he was happy and related his whole story and that he anxious to get on with his life. He could finally get around to doing all the things he had postponed for half his life in order to deal with his illness.
A moment later, the subway they were on jumped the track and the young man was killed. No one else on the train was hurt but the cancer survivor.
I know, I know, it’s just a TV show; a dramatic moment cooked up in the mind of a scriptwriter.
But it sure made me think about my situation. Ironically, I was watching the show while I was sucking down the vapor from an inhalation therapy that I take twice a day, every other month.
This Tobi, an inhaled antibiotic that targets a specific form of bug that affects people with chronic lung conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis and Bronchiectasis (my affliction), gets at the stuff that is trapped down there in the goo.
It hit home because my life, for about the last ten years, has been on hold. It’s hard to look back at how much I have missed and how much I put off because I was too tired, too phlegmy or just plain mentally exhausted dealing with a serious medical condition hanging over my head; my very own sword of Damocles.
The past 6 years have been particularly harrowing. Since that 36-day stay in the hospital back in June of 2004, I have become fixated on beating back what I took to calling my “clock of doom.”
Every time I start to get a little congested, I reach for the thermometer to see if I had a fever. I check the thermometer and my pulse ox, which measures how much Oxygen is in my blood, obsessively; make spreadsheets to track the numbers because I know the next fever might just be a harbinger of yet another bout of pneumonia, which, of course, could very well end in my demise.
I find comfort in numbers.
My last episode of pneumonia ended up with an 18-day hospital stay and a re-evaluation from the lung transplant coordinator over at the Cleveland Clinic. That is why I am close to the list right now.
The only other time in my life that I felt like this, in such a state of disquieting flux, was when I was struggling with the very first days of my sobriety. But I knew then that there was a defined light at the end of that tunnel if I only stayed fast and true to myself.
This state of purgatory I am in now, this festering Lung Condition that has been eating at me for close to ten years now, is starting to take a toll on my emotional as well as mental well-being.
So I handle it, the same way I handled my parent’s divorce, my bouncing around from school to school and my battle with liquor.
I crack wise.
People are always talking about what a great attitude I have. I guess it’s easier for me to hide my inner turmoil with smart alec remarks and a cynical look at life.
This incessant need I have to make people laugh has almost taken me over completely. It has gotten, as of late, a tad more acerbic and far more pervasive and yet no one seems to takes me to task. Hell, I guess the generally feeling goes, “He has got a hose in his nose, let him have his fun.”
I get away with a lot. More than I should, probably.
Dealing with my state of suspended emancipation, I realize that I have spent the better part of my life looking down the road at some distant future. A future where I would be satisfied with my life, that yearning I had deep in my belly to do something, be someone, would finally be quelled. If only I could reach such a place.
This longing that I am cursed with all stems, I believe, from the fear that when I open one door, another one shuts. And shuts forever. For whatever the reason, I have always been loath to pick a path from the many I had before me. I am left to stare at a corridor lined with have half-closed doors.
When I was spiraling out of control, half a lifetime away now, from my binge and blackout time drinking, I think I was doing it to avoid getting on with my life. I was afraid I would make the wrong decision about what I wanted to do and so I was paralyzed by keeping all my imagined options open.
I had so much hope, as did many others over the years have had for me, but I lacked that crucial sense of direction. So I embraced with gusto, I guess, the great excuse of my life; alcohol abuse.
Before I gave up the bottle, at the very end of the line when my worst shakes and the morning sickness took over, when I could not make it to work without grabbing a few shots on the way in at one of those special early morning bars open just for guys like me. When it was all I could do to make it to my lunch bracer of a couple of shots of well whiskey and two short beers, I signed up to take the LSAT.
Yea, I was going to go to law school. I always wanted to be a lawyer and I thought if I had that goal, if I had something to strive toward, I would be able to stop drinking.
The day of the exam I got up early and left the house. I didn’t go to take the test, my only preparation being sending the form and the check to the company running the LSAT. What, me study? Instead I stopped off at the 7/11, grabbed a 12 pack of Rolling Rock and went down to Huntington Beach where I sat alone in my car drinking beer, listening to the radio, watching the breaking ice undulate on the moving waves beneath.
I didn’t want anyone to know I wasn’t really taking the test. I sat there, thinking and drinking. Every now and then, I would get out of the car and walk around the park, clenched in on myself. It was a cold, bleak, steel grey late winter day.
I started to think about my dad.
I had watched him try his damnedest to carve out a piece of the world for himself. He too drowned himself with drink. So much so that he alienated everyone in his life, even me, his biggest fan.
Then he finally just quit. Willed himself sober.
I don’t know the story behind his decision, he never did share that with me, but I know he was fiercely focused on what he surely felt was his one last shot.
Of course, the quest he picked was unimaginably hard. He somehow pulled himself together and got a deal to make the molds for aluminum castings on a new generation of X-Ray machines.
He was like John Henry, trying to outpace technology. He had an old boring mill, an overhead drill press, a twelve-foot lathe and a Bridgeport upright mill.
This would have been a great shop in the late 50’s and early 60’s, but by the early 80’s, all of this was phasing out. New computerized machines were making precision cuts almost by themselves. Now the technician Just sets the dials, sets the speed, feeds in the computer generated cut sequence and punches a button.
My dad was competing against those shops. He would come home every night and work out the math to map out the next day’s work. What took the technicians a minute or two he would work at for hours, figuring the angles he had to cut with the exact curve at the bottom of the mold so that the cast piece would slide out with little finishing work at the foundry.
He did it. He pulled it off. He got the first one of four molds done. But it took him so long that the company gave the other three sides of the X-ray box to one of those hi tech shops.
He was John Henry. He was using his outdated tools; a drafting pencil and his college slide rule. They were using computers. He won the match but lost the game. They had over a million dollars invested, these tech savvy shops, just to take the job away from guys like him.
He never recovered from that defeat. He started drinking heavy again. Picked up right where he left off.
After staying out for the appropriate time it would take to complete the test, I went home to get my dad and we went out to get something to eat and do what we did best, drink.
I kept on lying to him and he kept lying to me.
Funny, he was about the same age then that I am now.
Three weeks later, he had a stroke that left him disabled. I found him on the floor of his bedroom in the morning. He had been out drinking the night before, so I just left him there and went to work. Thought he had just passed out.
When I got home and saw him, still and where I left him, I called the ambulance feeling some deep, dark guilt that I had abandoned him to that cold floor all day.
I stopped drinking shortly after that awful day. I’ll get into it all a bit later. All you need to know now is that this all happened twenty-six years ago.
When he recovered about six months later, he started right in with the drinking again. All the stroke did was slow him down a bit.
It’s easier for me to reflect now that my time on the operating table inches ever closer. Each day, each test, every exam at the Cleveland Clinic or over at Fairview Hospital is one more obstacle to hurdle to get to that list.
Meanwhile, I am trying to record all of this so that I can have, at the very least, this chronicle as my legacy.
I really don’t know what prompted me to go all over the place like this, I just did. Perhaps I’m getting anxious. Maybe it’s because with every step, my decisions are made for me. I did agree to go through it. I could have said no.
All I really want is to come out on the other side somewhat intact.
I promise you this; I will make the best of the years I have left. It’s time I focused on my writing. I think that is what I am meant to do. Funny, now with the internet and all, I may be facing my own John Henry moment.
In case you never heard of John Henry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Henry_(folklore)