What good is God?

It takes about four hours to do the yard up right, and I don’t remember a time in my adult life—except once when I had the flu and twice when I had strep—that the job would have tired me out, yet I only lasted 45 minutes today before I had to slow down. After ninety minutes, I felt the need to take an extended break. This is how I am spending my break.

My fatigue made me remember my neighbor, John. Five years ago, he drove 120 miles over the Cascades, climbed a 10,358 foot peak, and drove home, all on the same day. Few people could do as much at any age, but John did it at 55. Instead of being pleased, he was upset that it drained all his energy. He went to the doctor the next week, and died of prostate cancer the next year. While I was working in the yard, I seriously entertained the thought that I really might be facing death.

It was this melancholy realization that made me think of Eugene Sledge, a World War II soldier who wrote about the battles on Pelieu and Guadalcanal. Sledge said that new soldiers typically think they’re too smart to get killed. When they observe that more experienced soldiers than themselves get killed all the time, they conclude that they could die, but that they probably won’t because they’re special to God, and God will protect them. Then they see their friends die—sometimes horribly—and they are forced to ask themselves what makes them more special than those people. When they can’t think of anything, they conclude that, not only might they die, they are almost certainly going to die.

Then I remembered Dana Reeve, the wife of Christopher Reeve, who died of lung cancer less than a year after his death. I saw her on a DVD about health care recently. She was well dressed and appropriately made-up, but her eyes were tired, and her pauses for air came too often and lasted too long. I admired the hell out of that woman because she radiated such incredible courage by trying to help other people live longer when she was so near death herself. I had the thought that a good death would go a long way toward making up for a life that, if not failed, is nothing to brag about either.

When I listen to Pachebel’s Canon in D, I often reflect that, if Johann Pachebel didn’t do another thing but to write that one piece of music, a piece that comes nearer to embodying the divine than anything else I’ve ever seen or heard, it would have justified his entire 53 years. What, then, have I done to justify my years?

The one thing that I just cannot see my way to bear is my knowledge that I will be leaving Peggy alone. If only I could have her hypnotized so that she would come home from the funeral wondering how she ever put up with me to begin with and glad that I was dead, I would prefer that a million times better than to think that she will experience a grief that is beyond anything I can imagine. I picture her here, in this house, crying alone in the wee hours. I picture her coming home at night without me to greet her and without her supper on the table. I picture her taking her bike out for a ride while my bike remains behind. I picture her sitting in this chair, at this computer, getting things all fouled up, and not knowing how to straighten them out, and not having me to call.

If I could imagine now everything she will feel then, she might feel less alone for knowing that I traveled the same road ahead of her, but I know I cannot. Writers from Job to Eugene Sledge were right; God’s favors are not bestowed according to merit. What then, is the good of God?

Fun with having my throat slit

I finally had my appointment with the neurosurgeon. She will be my first woman surgeon (no, my second, come to think of it—I must be having too many surgeries). She is probably in her thirties; probably a lesbian; wore corduroy jeans, cartoon socks, and funky tennis shoes; didn’t blanch when I called her by her first name; and seemed utterly confident of her skills but without any trace of arrogance. She gave me a prescription for ninety Percocets (Percocet being the best thing short of morphine), and I added them to my narcotic’s stash.

“Are you saving up to kill yourself?” Peggy asked. “No. I just remember what it’s like to be in the worse pain of my life, and have no way to control it.” Actually, I had about sixty Vicodins and Percocets on hand (from my last two surgeries) when I was hurting my worst, but I was afraid to take them for fear I might need them even more later. Now that I have six weeks worth of narcotics and a couple of doctors who actually give a rip when I’m in pain, I feel secure.

The CT scan showed a line of grayish vertebra in the midst of which was one glaringly white vertebra. A five year old could have pointed to the problem. I am scheduled for a “Biopsy C5 Vertebral Body—Possible C5 Corpectomy w/Interbody Graft C4-C6 w/Anterior Plate C4-C6” next Monday. What the big words mean is that I am a terribly smart patient for whom small words aren’t adequate. Besides that, they mean that the doctor is going to slit the front of my throat to examine the fifth vertebra at the back of my neck. If my fifth vertebra is malignant, she will cut it out, replace it with part of a dead man’s lower leg bone (either the tibia or the fibula—I didn’t ask), and attach a metal plate to the fourth and sixth vertebras to hold my neck together until the dead man’s bone has a chance to grow. Have you ever heard of anything more fun?! Don’t you wish you were me?! Peggy doesn’t. When I told her that I had rather it be me than her, she agreed.

I thought her answer lacked a certain romantic element, but what we both meant was that I can better deal with being a patient. What I also meant was that I had rather die than to see her die. If she too prefers that I be the one to go, I’m just glad that that’s the way things might play out. She will no doubt spend a lot of lonely nights wondering if hers was the easier path after all, but I think it likely she will at least survive (and eventually flourish), whereas I’m not confident I would.

I questioned that the surgery is a good idea since my fifth cervical vertebra is one of the few body parts that isn’t bothering me, but Peggy and the surgeon considered the operation a no-brainer. Their argument was that I need to know what’s going on in case it needs treatment. That made sense, but it seemed to me that there are also risks in having my throat slit and part of my backbone taken out, and that maybe the information gained won’t be worth those risks. They disagreed, and the surgeon added that she also disagreed with my last neurologist about the tingling in my right arm being unrelated to my spine (although she’ll need a second surgery to fix the problem). I signed on the dotted line—all ten of them—my thought being that Peggy is too freaked out to let things be, and that the orthopedist won’t operate on my shoulders until my back problem is out of the way. This means I’m facing at least four operations, which will bring my lifetime total to fifteen.

I asked the surgeon why, when I can put my hand behind my neck and feel my vertebra, she needed to approach it from the front. She (I’ll call her by a made-up name since I’m going to paraphrase her rather loosely, i.e. lie like a dog about some of the nonmedical stuff) said she can’t take a bone sample from the back because the vertebra is too thin there. “Well, uh, won’t all that stuff in my throat—trachea, esophagus, major arteries, and such—be a problem if you go in from the front?” “Nope, I use spreaders. Put those suckers in there and crank them to the sides, and everything just gets right out of lil’ ole Doc Judy’s way.”

I asked if there was any way she would let me stay awake during all this since I’ve stayed awake during lots of surgeries by now, and REALLY prefer it that way and REALLY do good that way, and REALLY, REALLY hate being knocked out.” “Nope, you’d be gagging like you’ve never gagged before. Altogether too stimulating,”

“Too stimulating? Is that a euphemism for ‘patient jumped from table and ran out door’?”

“Hell yeah, gagging all the way!”

While we spoke, the The Ballbusters and other fem groups were belting out their music in the background. The only song I recognized was a Castraette’s hit that was set to an old Beatles’ tune, “I wanna debone my maaaaaan…. I wanna debone my man.” I noticed a poster on the wall that depicted a big woman on a big Harley. She was heavily tattooed and dressed in black leather. Her bike was parked atop a bookish looking little man in thick spectacles who appeared to be pleading for his life as she snuffed out a cigarette on his throat. The caption read, “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” I looked back at my doctor and saw that she and Peggy were rubbing legs under the table. I pretended not to notice.

“Are there any serious risks to this surgery?” I asked.

“Hell, son, all of life is a risk. The only question is whether you’re man enough to face it.” Then the doctor laughed. Then Peggy laughed. Then they both pointed at me and kept on laughing. “Yes,” I said in a quiet voice that would have been reminiscent of Clint Eastwood if my pitch hadn’t kept changing. “I am man enough, darn it. I really am.”

“Oooooh,” they cooed, and laughed some more.

Peggy and I went from the doctor’s office to the anesthesiologist’s office to get my pre-op out of the way. I picked up a New Yorker magazine and looked at the cartoons. In one cartoon, two women were sitting on a couch talking. One of the women was holding a photo of her late husband. “No, he didn’t suffer,” she said. “And that is my only regret.” Peggy, predictably, didn’t get it.

This is a good time for having a morbid sense of humor. I just hope I can laugh all the way to the hospital at 5:15 Monday morning. Peggy doesn’t find humor in sickness and death, so things are harder for her. I’ve wondered if she might actually hold up better if I were falling apart. I tell her that I’m fine and that nothing she says will scare me, and this gives her permission to tell me some things she might not otherwise say. Whether sharing terror dissolves it or makes it grow, I can’t say.

I’ll try to get the house cleaned and the yard work done. I’ll also make out a will and a medical power of attorney. I don’t know that I need a will since everything is in both our names anyway; and the surgeon said I don’t need a medical power of attorney. But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture myself lying brain dead in a Catholic hospital, and Peggy having to go to court to get my feeding tube disconnected. I keep asking myself whether it’s still true that I don’t fear death. Yes, it is still true. I fear suffering, and I grieve in advance to think about Peggy being alone, but death holds no terrors for me.