14 October 2011
"When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us." These words by the inventor of one of life’s most troublesome inventions, Alexander Graham Bell, have rung in my ears for years. Is he right? Is he wrong? Who knows.
So, on August 12th at 9:48 a.m., I received a call from Dr. Sanford. The results of the biopsies were positive and I was assured that I had esophageal cancer. There was no surprise. I had already started to deal with the shock and grief that Mimi and I had received the day before when I had my endoscopy and I started to process this new information. I was now a cancer survivor. For the rest of my life, regardless of how long or short that may be, I would be a cancer survivor.
Anger. That was the first real emotion. I wanted to rage against the disease. I wanted to attack it like I attack a long steep mountain pass on my bicycle. I screamed. I cried. I pouted. I paced the floor and wanted to upend all the furniture in the room, throw a chair out the living room window just to hear the crash of glass. This all lasted for about 5 minutes. Then I got on my bicycle and rode to my doctor’s appointment and started working on a solution.
I read many years ago that if I focus on a problem, the problem will increase but if I will focus on a solution, the solution will increase. I set my mind to this task. I’ve done long endurance rides before. I am a Super Randonneur, after all. I’m a tough guy. I am Superman. I can do anything, surmount any odds, overcome any obstacle, bounce back from anything that knocks me down and kick the crap out of anything or anybody that gets in my way.
Yeah? Well, here’s a newsflash, Boothby. Cancer just doesn’t give a shit! It doesn’t care how tough you are. It doesn’t care how many miles you rode this year or how many pretty little medals you have hanging on the wall. It doesn’t care how much money you have, or how many friends you have or what religion you practice, what color you are, where you come from, how pretty your mama is or even how young or old you are. The only thing cancer gives a shit about is killing you and doing it as fast as possible, even though it is a suicide mission. The only way cancer can win is to kill you and kill itself in the process. Now, that there is one hell of a message to roll around in my brain for a weekend. And I did.
By Monday morning, I had myself pretty well worked up into a dither about it all, and after telling my co-workers what was going on, started to set a process into motion for a solution. Over the next week, I began a process that, at least so far, seems to be working for me pretty well. It is the simple application of some of the spiritual principles I have learned by working a 12-step process learned over the years by my involvement in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous. In the readings at any NA meeting, there is a statement that says,
“There is one thing more than anything else that will defeat us in our recovery; this is an attitude of indifference or intolerance toward spiritual principles. Three of these that are indispensable are honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. With these we are well on our way.”
Well, over the past 27 years, I have tried to apply these to my daily life as much as possible and have really broken my recovery process down to a simple, oftentimes very difficult process:
So here I was faced with my second terminal disease. If I truly accept that the disease of addiction is one for which there is no known cure and that I must remain vigilant on a daily basis to keep it in remission, then can I not apply this same principle to the disease of cancer? It’s worth a shot.
Surrender? Not me. Marines just don’t surrender. We march forward to take the hill. Giving up just isn’t a strategy that wins wars. Or is it? In recovery from the disease of addiction, I have learned that surrendering hasn’t meant giving in to the enemy; it has meant letting go of control and allowing my Higher Power to do for me what I was unable to do for myself. As long as I struggle for control, I cannot surrender into a process of finding a solution. This battle rages on inside of me every day, and I have become used to dealing with each of life’s challenges by first surrendering my control and then working within the bounds of my knowledge, experience and strength to find a solution. And it is almost never done alone.
Acceptance? Once I begin to surrender, it is far easier to become accepting of a solution. In the first step of AA or NA we learn that we are powerless over our addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable. If we stop there, it is a feeling not only of powerlessness, but one of hopelessness, so critical to develop new ways of thinking and reacting and feeling and doing so that we build hope. This is done by coming to rely on something or someone outside of our own self-centered being that can help us to make the necessary change in our life. Once we learn to do this with removing the obsession to drink or consume other drugs, it becomes possible to apply the principles to other aspects of our lives. If we develop a manner of living that keeps us doing this on a daily basis, we can have a pretty good life and achieve miraculous things.
Gratitude? Now here’s the biggie. It happens differently on different days; sometimes easy and sometimes not so easy. Here is where “THE GIFT” comes in. On a daily basis for many years now, I have maintained a ‘gratitude list’. It is different every day, but most days it starts out with the fact that I have a roof over my head, a refrigerator full of food, a warm jacket and a good pair of leather shoes to protect me from the cold winter. It includes the love of a good family. It includes the fact that I have all five of my senses, good health, a good job and am surrounded by a whole lot of people I can call my friends. It often includes the fact that I was born in the USA, a white male and grew up in an intact family, albeit one with many problems. I reflect on the incredible advantage I have had over so many other people and try to remember that if not for a lot of other people who have sacrificed much, I would not have the fantastic life I have today.
I try to start my day off thinking about the many, many blessings in my life and in that way, as the day’s stresses mount, I can keep them in perspective, remembering that no matter what happens today, I am still part of a very elite part of human life on planet earth.
And this is truly where the gift comes in.
About 2 weeks after I received my diagnosis, I was meeting for a consult with my dentist. I “owed him” a 1-1/2 hour appointment to do some corrective work I’d been putting off, and wanted to see him and figure out how to schedule this, as time was short before starting cancer treatments. We sat in his office for over a half hour. He very generously gave me his time to talk not just about my mouth, but he also probed a bit into the rest of my life. He, too, is a very active endurance cyclist and before we finished, he said to me, “Don, I’m really sorry you have to go through this.”
Without really thinking about what I was saying, I told him, “You know, Paul, I’m not. And here is why.”
I proceeded to tell him that nearly 27 years ago, I had begun a process of recovery from addiction and that I had learned that each day is a gift. The only thing I had asked for was an opportunity to live life on life’s terms and this is one of those “life’s terms moments” that I needed to be able to surrender into, accept as simply a new challenge, trusting the outcome to be what it is meant to be regardless of whether or not it is what I want or hope for and remain grateful for each and every moment of my life for the gift that they are.
Over the next week or so, I began to explore this gift thing. I’d been in recovery for about 2-1/2 years when my father died of lung cancer. I spent about 2 weeks in central California with my mother and 3 of my 4 siblings. A most interesting time, to say the least. While I was there, I attended several NA meetings and one night, there was a speaker who talked of being a “grateful, recovering addict,” a phrase I’d heard many times. But he spoke of this gratitude in a different way. He said he wasn’t just grateful for his recovery, but for the disease itself. I tried to wrap my head around that and it wasn’t easy. How can we be grateful for a disease that wants to kill us? He talked about his life in recovery and the gift of the spiritual principles that now allowed him a freedom not just from his drug use, but a freedom to make incredible changes in his own life and become a part of a solution in the lives of those about him. He had become a responsible and productive member of his society for the first time in his life and without the disease of addiction; he would never have learned these tools. And from that base, an inner peace is gained.
So with this in mind, here’s the deal we get in life.
Each and every moment is a gift. It is our choice whether we open the gift. Each person we meet provides us with a gift. It is up to us whether we accept or reject this gift, which is not always easy to even see, much less accept. Each and every encounter we have, every one of our experiences is a gift. What we do with that gift is entirely up to us.
I began to think about this after I left Paul’s office. I think what I had told him probably confused him just as much as it had me, though I am confident he went home and looked at his wife and children differently and told them he loved them with just a bit more understanding than he had when he left for work that morning, just as I did when I got home that night and greeted Mimi when she arrived home from work.
That chance encounter with a man I’ve seen for several years, always in a professional sense, got me to thinking more and more about the gifts of my life.
Granted, this gift of cancer came with some pretty dark wrapping, and I really didn’t want to accept it. I wanted to push it back under the Christmas tree for another 20 years or so. I wanted to pretend it wasn’t for me, but for somebody else. I wanted to do anything other than touch that black ribbon and untie the bow. I wanted to do anything else rather than remove the bright red foil wrapping of this gift, but I knew that I must, if I was going to be able to surrender into a solution, accept my life for what it has now become and somehow manage to become grateful for the disease of cancer, not just grateful for the cure.
This is no easy task. How does one become grateful for something that wants to kill them? It is really quite simple; just not very easy. It is done through faith. It is done through trust. It is done through a knowledge that just like every other challenge in life; the outcome will be exactly as it is supposed to be, regardless of what I WANT. It is done by exploring the gift of the moment. And when I was able to see this last bit that I started to get it. Explore the gift of the moment. Living a day at a time. Living an hour at a time. Living sometimes a minute at a time, and then learning to live a breath at a time. In something I read recently, the teacher is discussing “mindful breathing” and says that with every exhalation is a death. If this is true, then with every inhalation is a rebirth, right?
Without the recent diagnosis of esophageal cancer, I would not have the time to relieve myself from a lot of other daily stresses that prevent me from focusing on my spiritual lifestyle. I’ve learned much over the past 27 years, and tried to apply it to my daily life. Recently, I have had an incredible opportunity to apply these principles on a moment to moment basis, coming into a clearer and ordered loving relationship with the woman with whom I have lived for the past 33 years. I’ve been able to re-explore my own belief systems in a way I’ve never been able to before. I’ve gained a clarity of mind and purpose that I never knew was possible. I have watched as my oldest son has gone through some of his own transformation and we have developed a closeness I never dreamed we would get to have. I have learned that I am a man who is much loved and respected.
The gift is in the learning.
I have learned a lot of life lessons over the past 27 years that are being reinforced daily as I continue to recover from addiction and apply those same principles to my work in surviving cancer. I have learned to listen more (and maybe one day will learn to speak less). I am learning to say “I love you” more and “fuck you” less. I have learned to turn off the noise and truly hear the silence. I am learning new lessons every day about letting go and accepting the hand of a friend gently offered. I am learning that it is okay not to be superman some days. I am learning more each day about the importance of community and of giving back what has been so freely given to me.
I have spent hours and hours (far more than my family would have hoped, I’m sure) learning to be an endurance athlete. Those lessons I have learned about hydration, nutrition, determination, making my way to the finish line despite wanting to give up, learning to help others and allow them to help me become a finisher and a winner are carrying me along nicely on this newest and hardest brevet I’ve ever ridden. My friend Larry, with whom I trained for and rode my first STP and shared many hours talking about recovery and cycling, used to say to me that a lot of days, staying sober was just like riding a bike up a long, hard mountain pass. Some days one had to just keep their head down and keep spinning, not looking too far out up the road and becoming discouraged by what lay ahead. Wise words. Neither of us has ever found a need to return to drinking or using other drugs to become something other than who and what we are.
I have learned that there simply is no “I” in this life I live. There is only we. I have never had an original thought, and everything I talk about is something I have learned from one of you. By being willing to surrender into recovery, I gained insight into myself and others. By accepting who I am, what I am, where I am and the process of life as I walk through each moment, I have become a man who can be proud of his accomplishments, yet am daily humbled by how little I know and how much I have yet to learn. It seems that the more I learn, the more I know how little I truly know. This, then, is my gift, and I share it willingly with you.
By remaining grateful for the incredible bounty of my life, I am able to remain clearly centered and focused on what is in front of me, having faith that regardless of the outcome, I will be well cared for and lovingly supported.
I don’t know if Alexander Graham Bell was right when he talked about doors opening and closing, but I do know this one thing to be true in my life. The only constant is change, and it is unavoidable. If I fear change, I fear what is not, not what is. If, on the other hand, I remain open to change, whatever it may be, wherever it may lead, whatever the outcome, and embrace it with open-mindedness and willingness, miraculous new worlds can open for me. Those new worlds are not out there someplace; they are here, deep within. It is up to me to reach out, pick up the gift, carefully and lovingly open the wrapping and see what lies inside.