I remember lying in a hospital bed telling my wife to make sure she could put her hands on the life insurance policy. I wasn’t sure I’d live to see another day outside those walls.
I remember a gaggle of doctors coming in and out of the room telling me they didn’t know what was wrong.
I remember taking a pill so powerful it made me see flashing blue lights that weren’t there.
I remember being wheeled out of my room and left on a bed under a white sheet in halls that were too cold only to be wheeled into room after room to be examined by machines large and small to probe every part of my body.
I remember undergoing two spinal taps because the first one was unsuccessful.
What I don’t remember is ever fighting for my life or being courageous. Because I was neither.
After Sen. John McCain was diagnosed with brain cancer, the well wishes began pouring in. It was a lone, bipartisan bright spot (with a few notable, ugly exceptions) in these crazy political times as members of both parties, leaders and voters, sent good vibes. Much of the good will centered on McCain’s ability to endure.
A tweet by former President Barack Obama summed up the response:
“John McCain is an American hero & one of the bravest fighters I’ve ever known. Cancer doesn’t know what it’s up against. Give it hell, John.”
The sentiment is a good one, and even appropriate to McCain in particular, given his military history and survival of years of torture. But at some point, we must find a better way to encourage those with potentially deadly diseases and disorders.
The person who “beat” cancer is no more “courageous” than the person killed by cancer. The person who lives to experience years of remission didn’t “fight” harder and longer and more effectively than those who never reach that stage, just as McCain didn’t survive torture while others were killed during that hell simply because he was braver or stronger. Each of those outcomes is contingent upon a complex set of factors even the best medical experts have a difficult time fully explaining.
A unique courage wasn’t the reason I walked out of that hospital in Massachusetts and have been able to live without treatment for more than a year even as the rare auto immune disease called CIDP (Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy) remains in my bloodstream. Maybe it was because I was extremely healthy before I got sick, maybe because I had more muscle than the average man going in, meaning even after CIDP stripped me down, I had enough to survive.
Or maybe the form or the disease in my body was the kind that could cause great, internal bodily harm but never become terminal.
I don’t know, and neither do the doctors who treated me at a Harvard University Medical Center hospital or at Duke University.
Neither did I survive because I had a “positive” attitude. I was angry and scared and felt lonely, even as my wife and kids and family members and friends and strangers tried to comfort me. I wanted to live but did not send up extra prayers for God to save me. I knew – I know – life is finite and was willing to accept that the end was near. And, yet, here I am, still alive without having committing to a “fight.”
Truth be told, having to put on a “brave face” – because that’s what everyone expected and wanted – was a bigger burden than having to accept that death could have called my name.