There is nothing like a serious health issue to make one grateful for life and blessings. If you know me, you could probably predict that my mind and heart would go to the darkest places. Would Heidi be OK? How about my boys – now young men? What about my students? My little school? My friends and acquaintances? Who would love up my dog? This was a wake up call. An accounting of sorts.
All kinds of questions kept bubbling up. Have I been a good enough father, husband, friend, teacher, brother, son? Have I done what I could to leave this world a better place? Have I affected others in a positive way?
But I'm putting the cart before the horse.
A few weeks ago I went to the dermatologist. I had some lesions removed that looked suspicious. It happens every time I go. No big deal. Days later I got a message at school to call the doctor’s office. Again, no big deal, I thought. It was just to tell me that everything checked out fine. I was in no rush to return the call.
Then Lyn, my principal and dear friend, came in to tell me to CALL THE DERMATOLOGIST! OK, serious. Maybe a big deal. I stood outside my classroom on the phone looking in as Lyn took over my lesson. I got the receptionist. “Wait just a moment to talk to the doctor, please’” she said. Talk to the doctor? When was the last time I talked to a doctor on the phone? Never. OK, probably a big deal.
“Mr. O’Keefe, I am really sorry to have to tell you this…” were her first words to me. The rest of the conversation remains a blur. But I heard the words invasive and malignant and melanoma in the same sentence. That could not be good. She said that I needed to make an appointment to see an oncologist and a surgeon. She recommended ones she preferred. The words as soon as possible were also in there. I took notes on a piece of scratch paper that was near the door. They were nearly unintelligible. I don’t really remember the last few hours of school that day. I must have been on autopilot. My apologies to my students.
Fast forward. The skin biopsy from your right anterior chest showed… Phone calls. Consultations. …invasive malignant melanoma… The love of my family. Trips to the surgeon and the oncologist. …Breslow thickness of 1.38 mm… Being surrounded by beautiful third graders. Prayers from family, new friends and old friends. …The lesion had no connection with the epidermis… Reading about this on line. Consulting Ruthie O'Keefe– my family doctor. …unusual for a primary melanoma skin cancer… My own prayers of thankfulness for these 53 years, my family, my students. Encouragement from friends and family. …I recommend that you see a general surgeon… Not knowing who to tell. Not wanting to be a whiner but needing to talk about it. …a general surgeon for a complete excision and a sentinel node biopsy… The hectic end of the school year. Saying goodbye to my children after two years together. …You may need MRI or PET CT scans… Insomnia, bad dreams. Music to fill me up. …This is important to take care of these things as soon as you are able…
And so it went. Office visits, scans, bolting right after school for doctor visits, insurance questions, the support of my family, my teacher friends, my church friends.
Yesterday was the surgery. Heidi hung out with me all day, chatting me up while I had radioactive injections around the site (ouch!), was scanned to find the lymph node, waited in the hospital bed for hours before surgery, loving on me. We talked to the doctors, the nurses, the anesthesiologists. After all of the meds were given, the IV put in place; when the nurse anesthetist gave me the final shot she said would make it so I “wouldn’t care” about what was going to happen, Heidi kissed me and said that she loved me. She flashed me that bright intense smile, her special reserve brilliant smile, the one that only I get, the one that says I’ll love you forever, no matter what happens. Just what I needed.
They wheeled me toward surgery. I was expecting to feel out of it, but I had this amazing moment of clarity. I said a prayer of thanks for all of these years, for my sons, my mom and dad and siblings, my students and friends, for music and my home in the woods, for all of the goodness in my life. It felt right. “Hey, I still care,” I said to the nurse anesthetist. She gave me another shot and then it was lights out.
We still have a few days to wait to be sure that the pathology report is good. It will be. I’m a little sore. Not bad, really.
I got up this morning FULLY AWAKE. My prayers are those of gratitude. I’ve got it made and I know it. I’ve got SO much to be thankful for.
I’ll end this post with a song I wrote about 10 years ago. It’s funny when you come back to something you’ve written long ago and find that it has new meaning. This one really does.
I am thankful for this golden day
And for all of the beauty that lies in my way
For music – for laughter and for all these friends of mine
For family and children and the precious gift of time
I am grateful for all that’s been and all that lies ahead
For patience and kindness and – yes – my daily bread
To live every day as if it were my last
To leave all my yesterdays far in the past
For the changing of leaves and the sky so blue
For the sparkling green eyes of my love so true
I am grateful for this golden day
And for all of the beauty that lies in my way
I am grateful.