By Rabbi Marc Howard Wilson | firstname.lastname@example.org
Eighty-eight. I’ll take it.
That was the prophecy proffered to me by a tell-your-fortune game on Facebook. I usually ignore that silliness, especially since one called me a “bloviator.” Nonetheless, according to cyberspace, I am to live to age 88. It is certainly better than I had expected. People say I look so healthy at 66, but I am a pretty sick guy.
In an idle moment, I did an anatomical review and realized the unvarnished truth. Every organ in my body has been smitten by some kind of malfunction: kidney stones, gout, ulcers, and the real baddies — atrial fibrillation, a pacemaker, a bum aortic valve, diabetes, TIA, pancreatitis and kidney sepsis that almost killed me. (“There’s nothing more we can do for him,” they said.)
Last year in Montana, I fell into the bathtub nekkid, and 911 was summoned to lift me out. I was strapped to a plywood board, still nekkid, with a huge hematoma and exquisite pain, back to Greenville, S.C., two days early.
Thank G-d, so far I have dodged the bullets. So far.
Which brings me back to the sepsis and spooky thoughts about my mortality. I was visited by a constant flow of specialists and a cavalcade of itinerant “hospitalists.”
Having my doom sealed by one of those pop-in hospitalists was especially disconcerting. I was a pretty sick boy. The doctor took a glance at my charts and announced, “Well, you’re not going to live beyond 70 anyway.”
You can imagine my terror and sinking heart. Later, my daughter the doctor poked her head in, and I related the unexpected anathema. She pronounced the whole thing “crazy.” My son the surgeon, inclined to greater candor, simply called it “bull****.”
But the damage was done. Dread hangs over me. “Seventy.” Four years from now. Not much time. Too much to miss. Linda. My kids. My grandbabies. My prayers and Psalms flow. But still I am haunted: “70.”
However specious Facebook might be, a prediction of 88 brings a glimmer of reassurance. I’ll take it.
Nope, that’s not the end of the story. My urologist has discovered a malignancy in my kidney, about the size of my thumb. Not really “that” dangerous, he says. “Rarely” metastasizes. But, holy smoke, I have a chunk of cancer in me.
Let’s take it out, I beg. Not so easy, he says. The growth is in a precarious place, within a network of veins. Complicated. No, the specialist says, let’s just do “watchful waiting” for a year and see what happens.
“Watchful waiting.” I’m sure he’s right, and my kids concur. Still, I am watchfully waiting with a tumor in my gut, and it is doing a terrifying number on my head and heart. Seventy or 88? We shall see.
An enlightening spot of redemption has emerged from this petrifying quagmire. I have relearned the childhood lessons that a loving mom and pop imparted. Be kind. Turn down the volume and static. Speak honorably and softly to each other. Even if the news is bad or anger overwhelms you. Choose words carefully. Bring comfort.
See what one thoughtless comment from an anonymous doctor did to me? Do not act indifferently to any person.
Med students and seminarians must be taught a more sensitive way to discuss a dire prognosis. Don’t just say “70 years” and disappear. Whatever the illness, physical or social, can we also say, “No matter how long, we will treat you with dignity, honor your humanity, assuage your pain”? How about “A time may come when we cannot cure you, but we can heal you”?
What a missed opportunity it has been for candidates who should be speaking peaceably, disagreeing respectfully, criticizing thoughtfully. No time for a shouting, mocking, cursing free-for-all. What enduring lessons might we and our kids learn, not merely from a candidate’s positions, but from the way she or he represents them?
Good Lord, so many jumbled veins. Maybe we can untangle them with compassion and by honoring each other’s humanity. Has our watchful waiting not gone on too long? Is it time to excise these dreadful tumors that bode so ill?
Guide us, Lord, and we promise to do our best to respond with love. Help us heal each other, before it is too late, at 70, 88, whenever.
Rabbi Marc Howard Wilson is a writer, community organizer, and founder of MeetingPoint, a united interfaith community in Greenville.