Malcolm McDowell Woods
Baloney on Wry

You call it a miracle, I call it tenacity

By - Mar 1st, 2010 04:00 am
Kathi Gardner

Kathi Gardner

At some point in life, most of us start at least thinking about taking better care of ourselves, and eventually we make some changes. We exercise more, make a sincere effort to stop smoking (far more difficult, from what I’ve observed, than giving up alcohol), take vitamin supplements, and modify our diets. My personal demon is food. I love to cook, love to try new foods, and although Jay disputes this, I believe firmly that I have a psychic connection to pizza. When there is one somewhere in the house, I swear I can hear it whispering to me like the voice of Dracula in those old black and white flicks.

If you are like me, you don’t like to spend a lot of time in contemplation of it, but you are aware that sooner or later you are scheduled for the Final Exit, and taking good care of yourself is, you hope, some insurance. The question is, what if your insurance runs out?

My brother-in-law, a cheerful soul who never met anyone he couldn’t find something good to say about, grew up in the time when cigarettes were considered a necessary indulgence. He started smoking young, and after a stint in the Army went to work in construction, where asbestos was just another component in the building trade. Now, at 74, he has lung cancer, and is faced with usual treatment decisions (surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy), which the doctors say may help … or a prognosis of six months.

At the same time, a dear friend who has battled cancer for more than ten years, far past her initial prognosis, is hospitalized once again with grim symptoms.

Once you have fought so long and hard to hang on to life, I can imagine that at some point one begins to long for the thought of respite from the rounds of treatment, to savor the prospect of rest. Still, I have seen and heard some awe-inspiring incidents over the years, things that make me believe strongly that no one, not even a well-seasoned “MDeity” with vast experience, should offer a patient a time frame for their mortality.

When I was young, my mother’s friend Ursula, who sold eggs at the neighboring farm, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the mid 1950s, and treatment was simple; lose the breast and hope for the best, or lose your life. Ursula and Alf had been grade-school sweethearts in Denmark. Childless and now in their sixties, Alf was in poor health, and Ursi fussed over him the same way she fussed over their large flock of chickens. The doctors told Ursi that even with a complete mastectomy, her chances were not great. She told the doctors that she needed to get home, so it was time to “get on with it.”

After a brief recovery period, during which the neighbor ladies cooked and cleaned for them, Ursi returned to fussing over Alf and her chickens. She lived another twelve years, long past her predicted exit, until Alf passed on in his sleep one fall evening. In the spring, she parceled out her flock of hens, said her goodbyes by gifting the neighbor ladies with pieces of her handiwork they had admired over the years, and slipped gently away herself after a mere two days in the hospital.

Another friend of my mother’s was left with a nine-year-old granddaughter whose parents had died in a car accident. Mom’s friend was diagnosed with lung cancer, and her doctor bluntly told her to “find a place” for her granddaughter as soon as possible. Her response was equally as terse: “She HAS a place, and it’s with me.” She found another doctor, followed his protocols (“within reason,” as she put it), and lived to see her granddaughter into her second year of college before deciding it was time to say goodbye.

Nicole, a warm and lovely woman I see often at work, has her own experiences to relate. Her mother was diagnosed with a large tumor in her stomach, and given grim prospects.
“We decided not to claim the cancer,” Nicole says firmly. It might be in her, but it was not in charge, and she refused to allow it to overwhelm her. She had some surgery, followed the protocol suggested, and at this writing, Nicole’s mother is cancer-free, healthy and strong.

Some people call these things miracles. I prefer to ascribe them to the tenacity of the human spirit, itself a miracle. I would not question my physician’s intentions in telling me what I might expect if I were diagnosed with a terminal condition — life, after all, is a “terminal condition.” But do not tell me how long you think I might have left. You do not know what I have yet to do, what moves me, how driven I am, or how much I love and am loved.

You can treat me, but in the meantime, I can choose to live.

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