I'm Enjoying the Blessing
To be honest with you, I cannot explain why I am posting this article. Most of you will either not understand much of what you will read or you will think that you understand much of it. Either way, you won't. I also freely admit that if I had read this article 5-years ago, I would not have understood it.
Having said that, the article has two reasons. I wrote this article for the few that might understand it. In addition, it will force me to write it all out so that I fully comprehend what is churning within my mind. The process of committing thoughts to a computer's hard drive forces a writer to attempt absolute clarity and understanding. I am trying to get into words my heartfelt feelings so that I can understand whence I am coming and to where I am going.
Let me begin. Five-years ago, I danced with death twice. One time with prostate cancer and the other time with a fall from a ladder resulting in a brain injury. Neurosurgeons called it a subdural hematoma. The picture below is the scar due to the neurosurgeon having to remove a large part of my skull to allow my brain to expand as a result of the trauma from the fall.
Aside from some hearing loss, the recovery from the fall was uneventful. While the da Vinci prostatectomy was successful, the cancer had gotten outside the prostate and after a couple of years returned. That forced me into daily radiation treatment for two months and some experimental drug treatment for 4-mouths prior to and during the radiation. Therefore, I truly believe that I will not die from cancer nor from my fall. Something will get me, but it won't be because of the subdural hematoma or prostate cancer.
Nevertheless, dancing with death woke me up to life. Had it not been for those two issues, I would not have faced the reality that I am finite. Sure, we all know at some level the reality of our finiteness, but until death dances with you, you do not really know that your time is indeed limited.
Someone out there, having just read that last paragraph, will be begin doubting my assertion that we don't fully comprehend the limited time that we have. Allow me to share another truth with you all so that we will all be on the same page. Most of my life starting when I was 10 or 11, death was something my family faced. My mother had breast cancer in her early 30s, followed by an extremely crippling form of rheumatoid arthritis, and finally lupus erythematosus. She died in her early 50s. My father dealt with long hours at work, a wife with constant pain and suffering, and trying to deal with financial demands my mother's extended dying process and getting his children through college. As a result, he died in his late 60s after many hospitalizations including a heart bypass surgery.
My brothers and I watched the grim reaper lurking around our home while going through elementary school, high school, college, and the beginning of our lives in the workforce. In spite of that backdrop of death and dying, I did not fully understand that my life was terminal...certainly not at the gut and feeling level.
While dancing with death, I learned the truth about life...time is an extremely limited resource. Now "I get it" even though I spent all my life from 10-years of age watching and waiting for premature death of both parents. Well over 75% of my life was shrouded with morbid crêpe until my father's deaths in the mid-1980s. It was nearly another 2-decades before I fell and had prostate cancer and understood the limited time that I have.
However, that did not fully explain where I am and what I am sharing with you. Just over 3-years ago, I had a grandson, Jack, and two years after that he had a brother, Owen. That gave me two grandsons. Now, I have a granddaughter, Ayanna, who is in college, which means that she was born nearly 2-decades ago...prior to my dancing with death and my living life without the real knowledge of how limited my life was. When Ayanna came into the world and even lived with me for a while as an infant, I did not realize all that I have acquired in the last 5-years.
There is a strange dichotomy about the realization that I am terminal. On the one hand, the winter of my life means closure, finiteness, and ultimately the end. I get that better than nearly all my readers unless you are in your winter of your life and have danced with death like I have.
Here I stand in my winter. Hopefully, my early winter, knowing full well the ultimate reality. At one level, I really do not fear dying. I mean that. Kicking the bucket is not filled with worry for me. Now, I do not want a long and excruciatingly painful death. However, when my doctor informs me that the end is near...dying is not the issue.
What is the issue is that there are two little kids out there that I will leave. That is excruciatingly painful, not the dying part. I have wrestled with that reality for over 3-years. Why? Beyond the obvious issue that I will not be able to play with Jack and Owen, to talk with them and to laugh, there must be more. A part of the more issue is that I was born during WWII. I had two grandfathers who were still alive when I was born. They played with me. One of them took me to the seashore, and I went to the farm with the other. The farm and the shore are places that I loved. However, both of them died before I was 5-years old. I have some vague memories of one but none of the other.
I think that Jack and Owen made me address my grieving process...a process that did not occur until well over 60-years after their deaths. That surely has added to the process of awakening me to reality. I think that I relate to Jack and Owen in a vicarious way. In some way, I am attempting to imagine what my grandfathers did with me as I deal them. When I play with them, laugh with them, hold them, and talk with them, I am visiting what my grandfathers did with me...but I do not remember it.
I have been writing for over a quarter of a century. For half that time, I wrote a column for a newspaper. In addition, I use many of my articles in the college classes that I teach. I have on my website's index page a special section which contains 3-groupings of important issues to me: Burma, Scotland, and The Mentors and Me. I wrote a summary article about all my mentors. In addition, I wrote a longer article about one of my mentors, William Forrester.
During an online class discussion, I sent a link to one of my students concerning Forrester. After emailing the link, I spent a couple of minutes rereading the article and watching the video clip at the end of the essay. Forrester returned to his homeland of Scotland where he dies of cancer. However, he sends Jamal, a writing student of his, a letter along with the manuscript of a new book that Forrester had just completed. This is the letter:
Dear Jamal, Someone I once knew wrote that we walk away from our dreams afraid that we may fail or worse yet, afraid we may succeed. You need to know that while I knew so very early that you would realize your dreams; I never imagined I would once again realize my own. Seasons change young man, and while I may have waited until the winter of my life, to see the things I've seen this past year, there is no doubt I would have waited too long, had it not been for you.
Forrester is correct; seasons do change. Forrester and I are in our winters. Trust me; in a very short time, you will be in your winter also. In that article about Forrester, I give a long list of things to do in the time we have left in life. In addition, to be honest, that list is good, and you should follow all my suggestions.
However, I want to attempt the impossible. There is the jarring reality of the winter with its accompanying death. Nevertheless, during this period of closure, there is concurrently a period of true openness to life. I know that many of you are thinking that you already are open to life. Trust me. You cannot know. Prior to dancing with death and the births of my 2-grandsons, I could not have understood what I just wrote to you.
With the harbinger of death hanging around me, I have the joy of my new life. Every week, my wife and I drive to Indy to babysit for the two kids. I would pay to babysit for them...it is worth more to me than I could even attempt to pay their parents.
Last week, we took them to the zoo. We go there at least once a month to see all the animals. Jack loved watching the dolphins a couple of weeks ago. I have given Jack the nickname, Jack, the dolphin. Owen sat there pointing at every dolphin that came into his line of vision. Last week, the aviary fascinated both of them. There are several different large rooms where birds are caged. The one large aviary is for several hundred parakeets the kids love it and so do I. I had a pet parakeet when I was young; his name was Pete. Pete and the Indy zoo parakeets will jump on your finger to perch and look at you.
In another aviary, much larger birds would actually land on someone's shoulder. One landed on mine, and I got him to get onto my hand. Owen was fascinated watching him pick at my blue and white wristband about the Scottish independence vote next year. Apparently, he was some sort of an English bird who was not happy with the pending vote. Owen watched me laugh about the biting of my wristband and enjoyed it. However, the bird wanting to make is displeasure with my support of Scottish independence clear started to bit the area of my hand between the thumb and forefinger. There I was holding Owen in one arm and attempting to dislodge the bird in the other.
Finally, having made the point, the bird flew away. We then went off to the zoo's large shallow tank of water where visitors could actually pet small sharks swimming around. I made certain to use my left hand to pet a couple sharks, since my right hand had a couple red marks due to the bird. I did not want a Jaws sequel in Indy.
After having lunch at the zoo, we returned home, and the kids had their naps. When Jack woke up, he wanted to go a couple of blocks to a levee construction site, which we have done for several weeks. He loves watching the dump trucks unloading their dirt as the levee is slowly being built. I taught him to pump his arm up and down and the drivers will acknowledge his gesture with a couple loud toots of their horns.
Even though we have done this same activity for several weeks, this week was different, very different. We were standing at the entrance to the construction site and there is a side street to one side left of the entrance. It is a street that must have some houses at the other end, but you cannot see any homes or businesses on it. It was just a quiet, deserted street with one side a woods where the levee is being built. I happened to notice something down that street 50 of more feet from Jack and me. The moment startled me. There it was...a small fox.
I used to live in a subdivision and my home backed up into a large woods. I couldn't see any house from my home, but I saw many an animal or bird. You name an animal that lives in woods in NW Indiana, and they were my neighbors. However, with one exception, whenever you came out to the backyard for a closer look, they left immediately. This was especially true with larger animals like deer, coyotes, and fox. They like sharing our property, but they didn't like humans at all and left ASAP.
Jack and I were excited. However, this fox came within 50-feet of us, stopped in the middle of the road, and sat there. I couldn't believe my eyes. I did not want to make any noise fearing that the fox would take off. Nevertheless, the fox just stopped, sat, and watched. Finally, Jack and I decided to name him Freddy, the fox. We started calling out his name and Freddy just sat there...waiting.
A supervisor of the work on the levee came up as we were watching Freddie. I told him about the fox and coyote where I had lived years ago. However, I couldn't understand why the fox just sat there...waiting. The supervisor said that the workers will feed him each day. He is just waiting for you to throw some food for him. I said that that is quite a domesticated fox. It turns out that the fox had somehow hurt a front paw and apparently could not hunt on his own. Therefore, he depended upon the workers for some of his food.
After another couple of minutes, Jack and I started home while Freddie remained in the middle of the road...waiting. While Jack and I talked about Freddy, it dawned on me that I had a bag of bacon bit dog treats in my car's trunk. Jack's eyes lit up about the same time as mine. We hurried home, got the treats, and returned to the construction site.
However, Freddy was gone and the workers were also going home. The supervisor came up, and I told him what we were going to do. He said that we should just throw one of the strips toward the fox and then move back from where we are standing. We threw the first treat and did as we were instructed. Cautiously, Freddy approached the treat, grabbed it, and hurried into the edge of the woods. Freddy was saying that he appreciated the treat, but he wanted to be near the woods for his safety. Jack and I did this feeding technique for at least a dozen times...the same pattern was repeated: Jack and I would throw food toward Freddy sitting patiently in the middle of the street, we'd back further away, he retrieved it and ran to the edge of the woods. Then Freddy would return to the middle of the road and wait.
Finally, Jack and I ran out of food, said goodbye to Freddy, and returned home as I thought about that encounter with Freddy. I wondered what kind of thing that my grandfathers had done with me at the shore or farm. I wonder. What funny stories did they tell my parents about what happened when they were babysitting for Aldie, my nickname while growing up? I wonder, because I was too young to remember.
A part of the reason for writing this story about Freddy is because Jack won't remember as I haven't remembered. However, he and Owen will have this story about the birds, sharks, and Freddy. In that way, they will remember times that they had with Ya-Ya and Papa.
I have told Jason, Jack's dad, about the sheer joy that I experience with his kids. I have also mentioned about when they grow up and have kids making him a grandfather. If he loves Jack and Owen, wait until he is a papa. Jack and Owen have awoken me in my winter and it is truly a springtime in the midst of winter.
While I do not want to die, I would not trade the experience of coming alive in my wintertime of life. I would not trade what I have gained over the past 5-years for another 20-years of life.
Now, I do not know whether you all understood much of what you just read. However, I am glad that I had to write it down...for my benefit and also for Jack and Owen's. I hope two things. In time, you all will have the same experience as I have had. The other is that I hope that I am in my early winter...
Visit the Dancing with Death page to read more about this topic.