Dappled Things

Dear Will:

Well, I did it: Turned 50, just like I said I would. And once I got over the shock of the whole thing, I suppose it wasn’t that bad. I played golf with some good friends, and my wife threw me a party, and my daughter gave me this awesome picture of the Gossamer Albatross. (Google it. It’s super cool.)

Not bad at all, when you think of it. You might say it was a pretty great birthday, in fact. That is, until my doctor called and informed me that (are you ready for this?) I have prostate cancer.

Well, that’s pretty annoying, isn’t it?

I guess you could say that I’m upholding a family tradition. When my dad was in his 50s, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Last year, my brother (five years my senior) was diagnosed as well. So I pretty much assumed this day was coming. I just didn’t think it would come so soon.

I imagine that it isn’t that often that you hear the words mild and cancer in the same sentence, but that’s essentially how my doctor described my condition to me. As a matter of fact, my cancer is so mild that had it not been for my father and my brother it is unlikely that anyone would even know about my condition. However, thanks to our collective vigilance, we have caught it in the earliest possible stages. I don’t even have any symptoms, to be honest. I even pass the standard blood test that is supposed to give early warning of the disease.

Mild or not, I am going to have to deal with it, however. Next month I’ll go down to Mission Hospital and my doctor will use some fancy robotic device to remove the gland altogether, after which (he says) I’ll be “completely cured.” Just like that. I’ll have to take a few weeks off from work (and from teaching my early morning Seminary class for the high-schoolers), but otherwise I should be good to go, without any significant, long-term side effects. Which I suppose is why I feel more annoyed than threatened by the whole thing.

To sum up: It’s true, I have cancer. But I also have a good job, excellent insurance coverage, a highly-skilled doctor using the most sophisticated equipment in the world, and the earliest diagnosis possible. It leads me to repeat something I said to you last month: In that which matters most, I am one of the truly lucky ones.

So my otherwise pristine life is now dappled with this little blotch—an irregularity that forces into greater focus all of the good things which are also mine. And so, rather than curse God for “allowing this to happen,” I feel rather inclined to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins instead:

GLORY be to God for dappled things—
   For skies of couple-colour as brinded cow;
     For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
              Praise him.

PW

One of the Truly Lucky Ones

Dear Will:

My 50th birthday is fast approaching. Yuck. It’s not that 50 is old, per se, but the milestone has caused me to pause, consider, and recoil: What do I have to show for myself at this point?

My first thought is: Not much. I have a decent career in which I get paid more than most but not enough that anyone would consider me wealthy by any stretch. And I’ve bounced from job to job so much that anyone who really knows would likely smirk at the notion that such peregrinations could ever be considered a “career.” Even so, the kids are fed and clothed, the mortgage is current, and at least for now I’m still getting paid twice a month.

But still. . . .

I can’t exactly say that I’m as secure as I might have imagined when I set off on adulthood 30-some years ago. Isn’t this that point in life in which I’m supposed to be overpaid and playing a lot of golf? When the house is paid for and I’m taking annual trips to Bermuda or the British Isles? When the nest egg is building toward early retirement in just a few more years? Well, that isn’t exactly how it has worked out.

And this. . . .

My bald-headed body is starting to show significant wear-and-tear. I have the chronic lower back pain often associated with middle age. My eyesight isn’t what it once was. Last week I learned that I have a torn rotator cuff in my left shoulder. I’ll spare you the results of the mid-century physical, but let’s just say that the results were inconclusive. And I don’t even want to think about what’s going on in my right knee.

But still. . . .

My heart is strong and I weigh only slightly more than I’m supposed to. I have an amazing wife (my first and only) and three terrific kids. We live in a nice house in a free land with all of the modern conveniences you could hope for. My wife and children all are interesting, engaging people full of talent and potential. We have all been blessed with excellent health (the bald head and rotator cuff notwithstanding). And we live near the people we love the most, surrounded by good friends and neighbors.

And this. . . .

We have, at the center of our lives, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which provides for us an anchor when times are rough and a guide as we face an uncertain future. And it is through an understanding of that gospel that I know of a surety that in that which matters most I am one of the truly lucky ones.

There is certainly no glamor in turning 50. But I take great solace in knowing that the purpose of my existence is in part fulfilled by my earthly challenges and successes. And Christ has given this assurance: That if I seek His kingdom first and foremost, all other needful things will be added unto me (see, for example, Matthew 6:24-34, or Jacob 2:18-19). That is not a promise of worldly goods or riches so much as it is the promise of perspective and eternal happiness. In that sense, I aspire to be like Paul, who said: “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11).

Have I fallen short of the dreams of my youth? In several unimportant ways, perhaps. But have I been blessed far beyond measure or merit? No question. And I thank God for that.

PW

Silent Conversations

Dear Will:

My dad is dying.

He has congestive heart failure and a mild form of leukemia (can leukemia be mild?). A damaged rotator cuff in his right shoulder makes his right arm useless. He has had both knees replaced and is recovering from a recently cracked patella. In other words, he can barely use his arms and legs. (Think of all you that have to depend on others to do for you if you can’t raise and lower your arms or bend your legs.) And a week or so ago, pneumonia sent him to the hospital where he “celebrated” his 86th birthday. Whoopee.

His doctor expects him to “recover” and go home, but it won’t surprise you to learn that my father is about out of patience with being a patient. “I wish I could get some dread disease and just be done with it,” he told me. “This business of falling apart bit by bit is nuts” (which shows that his mind is still sharp). Who can blame him for being fed up with life when the life that is left is so difficult to live?

He has put his affairs in order for the most part to simplify things for my mother when he goes. In fact, when we finally got him into the hospital and settled into his room, he insisted that I immediately retrieve his papers to make sure that there is no ambiguity: He does not want life support or resuscitation. If his body finally gives out, that will be that.

The only real remaining question is how effectively the rest of us will be able to entice him to stick around a bit longer. There is time, but who knows how much? Considering his condition, even if he returns home from the hospital, there may be little more that we can do together—and so we are all left to ponder the final conversations of our remaining time together in mortality. What do you say to each other when words become so precious and time so short?

Sometimes nothing. Before he went into the hospital, I went to visit him in his home. He felt so awful (his pneumonia had not yet been officially diagnosed) that mostly he lay silently in bed. But when I offered to leave him alone to rest, he asked me to stay put. “It’s a comfort to have you there,” he said. And so I sat in silence as we shared a moment in which words were not required.

Selfishly, I hope that once his illness is under control his spirits will lift and he’ll begin to fight for more time. I’d like him to see my daughter’s next ballet recital, to listen to my 10-year-old describe his team’s come-from-behind Little League victory, to discuss with my oldest the implications of what he’s learning in his Evolutionary Biology class at UCLA. I want to sit and watch the ballgame with him from time to time, to call him for advice as I so often do, to listen to him argue politics with my wife and tease my children. These are all things that have always brought him joy and that bring me joy to this day. And I’m not ready to give up that joy just yet.

But if, indeed, his time his short, I can tell you this: He is a good man. He has given 86 good years and created a legacy of integrity and honor. Come what may, he has made this world a better place.

PW