man sitting in hospital waiting room
Perspective Shift

I Faced My Own Mortality Right Before Becoming A Dad

On Thursday, July 25, 2013, I woke up in a fancy hotel room in Beverly Hills. The dog was stretched out alongside me; she, too, is a whore for expensive sheets. My wife had already left for the television conference that brought us here. Though we lived just a few miles away in Venice Beach, the dog and I had joined as stowaways, sworn to make the most of my wife’s expense account over the long weekend.

It was sunny and warm outside — a nice break from the west side’s seasonally overcast mornings known locally as “June Gloom.” My only plan for the day was ordering a $25 burger by the pool and reading a book with no intellectual value. I stretched, scratched the dog’s belly, turned on KTLA. It was already a good day.

Then I checked my email, and everything changed. My brother’s only son — my 28-year-old nephew — had been struck by a car earlier that morning. He died from his injuries without making it to the hospital, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend and thunderstruck parents. I called my wife, called my brother, shed some tears, and started looking at flights to Salt Lake City.

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Then my phone rang, and everything changed again. It was my doctor. “That pain in your chest isn’t muscular,” he said. “You have nodules on your lungs, and nodules mean cancer. Come to my office right away.”

Pausing only to search “lung cancer survival rates” (no, Google, I am not feeling lucky), I raced downstairs, jumped in our Jeep and sped westward out of Beverly Hills. This time, I didn’t call my wife. She already had a lot on her mind — not least being a five-month-old fetus in her belly.

You’ll never feel your mortality as keenly as when you become a parent. That’s not to say those without children don’t sense the looming blackness at the end of this mortal timeline. But kids are a universally reliable ruler for measuring a lifetime on the back foot. Unless you’re the most spiritually secure sonofabitch on the planet, facing parenthood triggers existential thoughts.

On that Thursday morning, I had nothing but existential thoughts. Fewer than one in five lung cancer patients will reach the five-year mark, I had just learned. The odds are better with early detection, but was this “early”? I was 44-years-old, never really smoked; never worked in coal mine, no history of cancer in my family.

If I’m lucky, I have five years,” I thought, flying down Santa Monica Blvd., tears streaming down my cheeks. “If I’m lucky, my son will have faint memories of our time together.”

My own father died when he was 65. He wasn’t young, but he wasn’t exactly elderly, either. It was a sad but not tragic passing. A decade earlier, he’d suffered a heart attack and stroke; ten difficult years of mixed emotions followed. He lived long enough to see more grandkids born, but he was deteriorating. He was no longer the man I’d loved, admired, and sometimes feared growing up.

But still — I had half a lifetime with my father. When I met my future wife, Neena, I learned about proper tragedy. Her mother died unexpectedly when Neena was just 24, leaving behind a heart-rending chaos that, ultimately, left her without any parents in her life. Suddenly, having a loving father for 35 years (and a surviving mother) felt luxurious.

I spent the summer of 2013 juggling visits to our ob-gyn and a roster of specialists in the UCLA health system. They ordered half a dozen MRIs. They took biopsies with needles and biopsies with tubes. They took enough blood to fill a kiddie pool. Like running down the world’s most depressing shopping list, we systematically ruled out cancer, aspergillosis, asbestosis, cystic fibrosis, and tuberculosis.

Photo credit: pxlline via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

And then, sometime during Neena’s third trimester, like Keyser Söze slipping into the crowd, they were gone. When my final MRI showed smaller nodules, a bewildered pulmonary immunologist shook my hand, shrugged his shoulders and closed my file. As I left his office, he said, “I’d still get an MRI every year, just in case.”
It recently occurred to me that, the same year my dad turned 48, his fourth kid — me — was a teenager leaving for college. Four years after my cancer scare, I’m the 48-year-old father of a toddler. Keenly aware of the numbers, I’ve kept those annual MRI appointments (all clear), and I make a conscious effort to appreciate my situation.
Of course, I wish I had more years ahead as a family man; I wish my son had more than just my mother in the grandparent department. But I have perspective. My kid is just one month older than my brother’s grandson, who was born to a father he’ll never know. If my son and I get 35 years together — 35 wonderful, maddening and unpredictable years — I’ll die the most spiritually secure sonofabitch on the planet.

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