Ten Years and Counting
What a Difference a Dance Makes

It has been precisely a decade since my last dance with death, which occurred on May 18, 2008. On that warm and sunny day, little did I know how much of a difference that dance would make in my life. To be honest with you, ordinary dancing isn’t something that I like, nor do I do it well. I can’t remember the last time I danced. I know that it was over a decade ago.

Nonetheless, when it comes to dancing with death a decade ago, I danced quite successfully, but it was a struggle for me. I can only remember the last week and a half in a rehab hospital. Falling off a ladder, going to the hospital, the surgery, four weeks in ICU, and a week and a half at a rehab hospital aren’t a part of my memory. Nearly a month and a half of events might be in my brain somewhere, but I can’t retrieve anything. The following photo is of me in ICU. Apparently, I’m acting like I’m reading, but I don’t remember anything in the hospital.

However, I do recall some things at the rehab hospital like the bed that I was in for most of my stay. This is a photo that is quite close to my bed that I had in the rehab hospital.

The dance with death

My family told me that one day, while still in ICU and still had IVs in me, a drainage tube in my brain that I wanted out. Since no one would help me, I decided to act. I pulled out all the tubes and IVs and tried to leave the hospital. Someone on the medical staff must have noticed me attempting to get out of my bed. They restrained me. Nonetheless, I managed to pull out the tubes and IVs. Had I managed to escape ICU, that could have been my last dance with death.

Interestingly, this dance with death was the result of a traumatic brain injury or more precisely a subdural hematoma. It was a serious injury. A Muslim neurosurgeon in a Catholic hospital saved a Protestant’s life. He removed a large bagel size part of my skill so that the brain could expand due to the internal bleeding. Several weeks after returning home, I returned to the hospital and had that part of my skill replaced. After that near-death experience, the recovery was rather quick. I was teaching again in August of that year, which was only three months after the fall.

However, I also danced with death earlier in 2008. That dance was due to metastatic prostate cancer. The surgery to remove my prostate was quick and was done robotically as an outpatient. The surgery was done on Friday, and I returned to teaching the following Monday. While the surgery was a quick dance, the cancer had gotten outside the prostate. Consequently, I had to have a PSA test every six months. Within a couple of years, the PSA number rose, and I returned to the hospital and prepared for radiation treatment. I took a hormone pill daily for two months, then had daily radiation for another two months while I continued with hormone pills. For the past nearly seven years, I have been cancer free.

This dance stretched out for a decade. Next month, I will have another PSA test. While I am outwardly optimistic that I am still cancer free, there is a slight fear that the cancer might return.

My two dances with death were done at differing tempos. My traumatic brain was quick and potentially a dance that death could have lead me quickly to my grave. My prostate cancer was a much longer dance but still possessed the potential that I could have wound up in a grave.

So, having done the dance, how am I different today than before the two dances a decade ago? Fortunately, I watched Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. While the two dances changed my life, I hadn’t put the pieces together to understand the complete picture. In fact, five years ago, I invited my family to my Humpty Dumpty Party. It just seemed the right thing to do. I wonder now how many people, who danced with death, later had a party to celebrate their successful dance.

However, once I watched Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture, all 1:16:27 of it, I finally put all the pieces of my puzzle together. Throughout that video, I must have said to myself a couple dozen times, “Now, I get it.” That Last Lecture was emotionally for me a eureka moment.

Now I get it….

So, what did I get and learn about my life. I became aware of many things, but here are a handful of learnings:

1. My clock is ticking. Yeah, I knew that before either of my dances. However, my knowledge base was an intellectual one. Unless you have done a dance, you also know that your clock is ticking. Nonetheless, there is a radical difference between knowing you’re going to die someday and having danced with death. Then you truly get it.

2. Another learning is to appreciate and enjoy life…every moment. I am sensitive to the reality that my tomorrows are extremely limited. Even if I have twenty and thirty more years, my life and clock are finite. Someday, my clock will stop ticking. Then life is all over. I can’t, and neither can you, finish up important things or relive some past adventure. Nevertheless, I am involved in life and attempting to do all that I can accomplish in my remaining time. Holbein’s woodcut from the early 16th century is how I often feel today.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, I am telling death, “I have miles to go before I sleep.”

3. Legacy is another acquisition that I gained from my dances. How will I be remembered by the world? How well did I use my time here on this pale blue dot, which we call Earth? Did I leave my part of the world a better place than I found it? I had benefitted from many people during my life; the question is whether I have also helped those that I have met. Additionally, I accept Pausch’s contention that we need to show our appreciation to those that have helped us in life.

4. Norman Cousins also warned us about two types of death. “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” Many people, who are alive physically, have died inside of themselves.

5. Pausch said, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” Much of my life and yours is essentially out of our control. What each of us is in control of is how we play the hand that is dealt to us. Make the best of the bad cards and, more importantly, really play the best hand with all the vigor that we possess.

6. Another interesting learning gleaned from my dancing with death on life’s ballroom, I learned something from Dylan Thomas’ poem….

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Life is all to short. I don’t waste the very precious moments remaining mourning and wishing things would or should have been different. I refuse to sit back in a corner of my world and pout. Rather, I will not go gentle into that good night. I will rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dancing with Death

Dancing with Death

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The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture

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Connecting The Dots

Connecting the Dots

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On Seeing the Light

On Seeing the Light

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