Thursday, March 08, 2007

Life is what happens.....

This has been a year of unexpected events, some happy, others difficult. I summed it up in the following column, which was published in Bay Windows, Boston's gay newspaper, on March 1. Here goes:

by Judah Leblang/2007
word count: 855

My father often said, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.” I’m reminded of him as I listen to the doctor’s message on my voicemail, informing me that I have a tumor behind my left kidney. I’d just been through a year of life happening, or as Lemony Snicket might say, “a series of unfortunate events.”

Within the span of twelve months, I’d lost two-thirds of the hearing in my left ear, birthed a kidney stone, and found a tiny spot on my chest, which turned out to be skin cancer. I knew what it felt like to get one of those phone calls—often depicted in Hallmark specials and films on the Lifetime channel—in which the doctor says, “You have a cancerous mole: it’s irregular, it’s malignant and it’s melanoma.” In that moment, I felt the reality of my life change, the ground shifting under my feet. Fortunately the cancer was caught early, and after a small excision, I was declared disease-free. Still, I felt drained, unready for another round of testing and waiting.

As I clutched the phone and told myself to breathe, I realized I had no choice but to follow the doctor’s orders. I scheduled an MRI, and soon found myself laid out in a long white tube, the machine snorting and crackling around me. In the space of a few days, I’d gone from person to patient, and been sucked up by the health care establishment.

It seemed like a good time to talk to my higher power, to use my faith to get me through trying times. At various periods in my life, I’ve had a feeling that there is a force for good in the world, and that maybe, possibly, that force could help me. Unfortunately, She and I hadn’t been on speaking terms for a while. I’d seen too many bad things happen to good people to believe in a conventional God, one who could and would intervene to protect/save me. Still, I thought of going back to synagogue, and lit several candles of hope at Arlington Street Church’s Sunday morning services. (I tend to cover my spiritual bases, especially when I’m in panic mode).

Like many gay men, I’ve been afraid of growing older, of becoming one of the invisible—those over forty, those who’ve fallen off the cliff of youth into the abyss of middle age. (In truth, I never matched the images of smooth, buff men featured in the gay media, even in my twenties, though I was closer then than I am now). As a child, my fears were fueled by my father’s struggle with heart disease. Dad had his first heart attack at forty-four, a quadruple bypass at sixty, and died of a second attack the following year. Today, at age forty-nine, my dread of falling apart seemed to be coming true, as if I were following in my father’s footsteps.

The only solution, the best answer I could find, was to keep busy. Six days felt like sixty as I occupied myself with work and chores, preparing myself for the biopsy results. One friend suggested that I “hope for the best but prepare myself for the worst.” Rather than dwelling on the worst, I fought to live in the moment, to distract myself from the ‘what if’ voices in my head.

Surprisingly, my senses seemed to sharpen during this time; life came into focus like high-definition TV. Meeting with my artist friend at the Diesel Café in Davis Square to people-watch, going to dinner with another friend at my favorite deli in Coolidge Corner, I was reminded of my safety net, a group of people who surround me with their support—my family of choice. At other times, I forced myself to slow down enough and used the meager tools I had—my sporadic yoga practice, the gym, spiritual reading, writing in my journal—to keep a sense of balance, and to appreciate my life.

Something about the danger made life feel sweeter. Maybe I was storing up memories of the time before what was to come, and trying to savor what might be lost.

Finally, after almost a week of waiting, obsessively checking my voicemail and email, I got my answer: the tumor was benign. Since I got the good news about two weeks ago, my perspective on other things has shifted. I’ve often heard people say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” but now I understand the phrase on a deeper, practical level.

When co-workers fume about work, I shrug. If I don’t catch the eye of a handsome man because I’m too old and he’s not interested, I just move on. In a few weeks, I’ll be celebrating my 50th birthday.

Instead of whining that my life is over, I feel like it’s just begun. Instead of dwelling on what I’ve lost over this past year, I’m focusing on what I’ve gained: a reminder of the richness of life and the value of time, more precious than gold.

I’m very happy to be facing fifty. As a wise friend once said, “It sure beats the alternative.”


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