2 years ago I received a possible death sentence. Story:
I was doing a show very near and dear to my heart - A Christmas Carol at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ. I'll admit it; I'm a SUCKER for this show - especially McCarter's production. Direction by Michael Unger, adaptation by David 'Tommy' Thompson, sets by Ming Cho Lee, choreography by Rob Ashford original music by Michael Starobin, the brilliance of this show is wide and deep. And every time Tiny Tim hugs Scrooge in the show's final moments, my heart fills, breaks, and fills again.
I've done this show for a few years now, and it's a wonderful journey every time. However, in 2012 I got an additional journey - one I wasn't counting on.
Halfway through our performance run in December, on the 19th in fact, the day began with a slowly evolving sour stomach that, after our evening show, had turned into a semi that somehow parked itself on my midsection. It felt like I was wearing a vice. A sleepless night ensued; and we had a student matinee the following morning. But I felt slightly better as the sun rose, so off to the gym to try and sweat out this bug, then on to the theatre. Somewhere during the second act, the diffused pain re-formed itself and landed squarely and sharply in my right lower quadrant - (can you tell I'm a doctor's kid?) - focused around a place that sounds more like a geographical location than a body part - "McBurney's Point".
Diagnosis, medical types? You guessed it. Appendicitis.
I finished the matinee and limped to the company van for a trip to the E.R. - after the usual preliminary tests, my white cell count being not that alarming, I sat on my butt while they scheduled a CT scan. For those of you who've not undergone this fabulous process, it includes swallowing what seems like a gallon of a mildly radioactive substance, a longish wait for it to work its way through your G.I. tract, and then a date with the scanner.
Dr. Elliot Sambol happened to be on call, lucky for me to have a badass thoracic surgeon handling my simple 'appy'. After the scan, he came into my room immediately.
"We're scheduling you for surgery." he said.
"Soon?" I asked. I really wasn't in that much discomfort.
"Now." he returned. "We found something besides the inflamed appendix. We won't be sure what it is until we can remove it and send it to pathology. But my preference is to take it out as soon as possible."
Something? There was little time to ask for details while I got a chest x-ray, signed many forms, and was dashed into a surgery suite that looked like something out of the 22nd century. No counting backwards for me; the anesthesiologist said something like, "You're going to feel a slight burning sensation in your arm-" and I was out.
I woke up briefly in recovery, then again in my hospital room, with my dearest wife (then girlfriend) KB, sleeping beside me on a piece of furniture that was pretending to be a fold-out couch. The next morning, as I struggled to walk and accomplish the suddenly monumental task of taking a pee, Dr. Sambol came in on rounds.
"We removed a growth just above your appendix," he said. "No idea what it is yet - it could be benign, just some kind of genetic malformation, or it could be... well, I have to give you every possibility because that's my job. It could be cancer. The chances are pretty low that that is the case, but there is still a percentage..."
His voice faded into a dull roar, like I had somehow dunked my head into an angry surf. His mouth continued to move, and I kept nodding, but inside my head, above the noise, I heard, "Cancer? Seriously?!?" My health was good. A month before I had run my fifth marathon. It was December 20th, Christmas was hours away...how could something like this happen...now? How was this possible?
I spent the next several days trying not to think about lab results. But over and over, echoing in my head:
"I could be dead in a year. I could be dead in 6 months."
Death is always a possibility. But I have noticed that in American culture, we mostly ignore it. Death is never a part of our daily conversation like it is in other cultures. Tibetan monks pray while fingering beads carved to resemble human skulls to remind them of their mortality. But when death inserts itself into our lives, we react with great surprise, even though on Planet Earth there are approximately 2 deaths every second (and, incidentally, 4 births).
With my surprise came the questions, constant, and on a loop: What if this was it? What if my countdown clock was much closer to zero than I had thought? What would I do differently with the time I had left? Would I tell it like it is? Would I take that trip I had always wanted to take? And as I flailed for answers, one question brought me a glimmer. A glimpse...of a mountain.
A couple years before, as I had stumbled through a transitional period (marriage breaking up, moving on from a big Broadway job & now sliding towards the poverty line) my friend Matt Fabiano had called me.
"Hey man, my family is organizing a big trip to Mount Shasta," (his family was from Northern California), "and we think you should come along. We're looking to climb to the top. Come summit with us."
"I can't, man," I answered. "I just - it's a bad time, I don't have the cash, my marriage is falling apart..."
Matt cut me off. "-Jim," he said. "Come on. When are you ever going to have a chance to climb Mount Shasta again? This is Life Stuff."
I flew to Cali and climbed the mountain with them. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life...and also one of the coolest. To this day it's one of my favorite trips I've ever taken.
So from there, cut back to Princeton, and the tense period as I waited for lab results. I vowed that if 'spared', I would remember that phrase, 'This is Life Stuff', on a daily basis. Tomorrow is not promised to us, ever, I said to myself. I'll live my life differently. Better. I'll smell the roses.
The results came in on Christmas Eve day. Kristen waited while I listened to the voicemail, the tension so thick you could make tires with it. Pathology's news: Benign. Nothing to worry about. It was one of the greatest Christmas presents I've ever received.
Now I realize that this may not seem like much of a "brush with mortality" in the great scheme of things - many other people have come much, much closer to the edge than I ever did. But I assure you, it was as shudderingly real as it could possibly be to me, especially in the dark moments when the whispers would echo thru my mind. But now they faded; I was clear. It was Christmas, I was healing, and all was once again right with my world. End of story, yes?
Cut to the days, weeks and months later, as I promptly fell back into a world of petty fears and worries; will the next check clear? How will I pay that bill this month? When will I get my next show? All the daily BS that we all say will not ever matter again, if we're given that second chance. And yet somehow, once again, that BS ruled my life.
And I felt like I had cheated the lesson - this blessing that was given to me. How could I toss such wisdom over my shoulder so easily? I felt like I had failed. A great big Life-Fail.
But then it dawned on me: At least I was still thinking about it. I wasn't just going through the motions, not entirely. Habit happens. That's human. We move forward, we drop back into our lives, we mostly ignore the rear-view. Habit gets us through our days, our tasks, puts food on our tables, keeps us going. We evolved Habit: It's a survival mechanism. But we have these fantastic, huge squishy brains on the top of our bodies; they do more than run our habits - and they can be changed.
So here's what I've learned: Without practice, any Life Lesson will be lost in the motions of habit - thus the lesson needs to be Minded, over and over. RE-Minded. Forgetting, or getting lost in the motions of the everyday, is to be expected. It's not failure. It's life.
The challenge then, is cutting through habit, even momentarily - and ReMINDing. As in, change out your mind: Remove that 'habit brain' and re-mind yourself with the 'smell the roses' brain. Will the habit brain return? Sure it will - we're wired that way. But you can always...
It takes practice. It takes looking past fear. It takes getting up and doing something a tiny bit different with your day, every day.
Find a reason. Ask the question:
Will I ever have the opportunity to do this again? Is this Life Stuff?
And then; do it.