Kim, my wife, was shaking me out of a dead sleep. I was in the middle of a naked dream. You know, the one where you’re back in high school, naked in the hallway and can’t remember your locker combination?
“Whut, whut?” I opened my eyes into deep darkness.
“Someone’s in the front yard. Headlights are shining on the riding ring.”
“Stop shaking me.” I grabbed her hand and stilled it. “What time is it?”
She’d been thinking about those vows a lot lately. Lord knows they’d laughed, cried, slogged, and danced through the first six, and now here they were – toiling away on the seventh. It was a standard line of theirs at cocktail parties that they hoped to live long enough for a platinum anniversary.
You wake up on one fine September morning coughing up blood. You’re startled but not alarmed. Except that it happens the next day too. Third day, nothing. Fourth day bloody coughing again. It goes on like this for a month.
Being a prudent person, you go to your doctor. He says, “I
think you may have lung cancer, but go get a second opinion.”
You go to the specialist. He says, “Yep, it’s lung cancer
and you need treatment.”
Since no one likes being told they have lung cancer, you go
get a third opinion. Same diagnosis: lung cancer. This one adds, “Not only do
you need treatment, but you have to quit smoking cigarettes, too.”
You’re getting into the swing of this multiple opinion
thing, though, and you want to be thorough, so you keep going to specialists
and get the same diagnosis and advice.
Finally, doctor number 32 gives you the news you’ve been
hoping to hear. The blood soiling your hanky each morning is a natural
occurrence and if you ignore it you’ll be fine. Oh, and the cigarettes are ok.
No need to quit.
What are you going to do?
By the way, the cancer treatment has a monthly cost
equivalent to a couple bottles of decent champagne. The side effects are (1)
all of your grey hairs go back to their original color, (2) those wrinkles
around your eyes smooth over and (3) your kid’s SAT scores go up by 40 points.
There are no known negative side effects. But you do have to give up the cigs.
An eagle flew over the farm today while I was mowing the front
I grew up in the 60s and 70s after we had nearly poisoned them into extinction with DDT, so it’s still a thrill every time I see one.
Like it was yesterday, I can remember the first bald eagle I saw in the wild. It was at Ralph Stover State Park in Pennsylvania, near the Delaware River. A spring day. Late morning. Probably about 1978. My friend Chris Coffin was teaching me how to rock climb.
He always made fun of my caution on the rock, because he knew I was afraid of heights and only did this to practice confronting fear. He would tell me, “One of these days, you’re going to make one of those moves where you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you’ll have no choice except to peel off.”
Well, it wasn’t that day. But I was on belay, a hundred or so feet above a stony creek with one foot wedged into a narrow crack and the other nosing around for a chip of rock big enough to carry my weight, when he calls out, “Hey. There’s an eagle.”
‘Where?” I yelled back. Since I tended to hug the rock, I had a very tight range of vision.
“To your right. Heading towards the river.”
By the time I worked my head around far enough to see, there wasn’t much left of him as he flapped and coasted off. Just the impression of a large-bodied dark bird with a hint of white head and tail washed out against the bright sky. And just like that, a milestone passed. I had seen an eagle.
Chris was seven or eight years older than me. He’d been in the army. A Cold War tank commander in Germany who talked about watching and waiting for the Red Army to sweep across the Fulda Gap. Chris was like a big brother for a few years. Then I moved to Baltimore and we drifted apart.
Turns out he was one of the first hundred or so Americans killed in the Iraq war. When we think of soldiers killed in wartime, we’re inclined to think of young lives wasted too soon. Chris was an MP in the Army Reserve. He was in his early 50s. Seems like he was too old to die in a war.
I think of Chris Coffin pretty much every time I see an eagle.
April 19th is the anniversary of the “Shot Heard
‘Round the World” that launched the American Revolution. A group of local
militiamen fired on a column of British Redcoats on the village commons in
The most common cause of death in the American colonies that
year was smallpox. Today, it’s heart disease and the second is cancer. Cancer
runs in my family. My father died of cancer. It took 20 years to kill him, though.
He was one tough SOB.
It seems like so much cancer is caused by behavioral or
environmental conditions. Bad eating habits or smoking or chewing tobacco.
Asbestos and Agent Orange were human causes, and there’s someone to blame for that.
But what about when kids get cancer? Who do you blame for that?
I’m thinking about cancer because that’s my mission this
year. To raise money for cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer
Center in NYC. They saved Norm’s life the first time around. Norm was my dad.
Norm was first diagnosed in 1987. He was 61. He had esophageal cancer. He only went for a checkup because his older brother Gene had just been diagnosed, and Uncle Gene had no hope. He waited ‘til he couldn’t swallow anything but scrambled eggs, and the cancer was too far along.
So Dad went for an endoscopy. He’d had stomach problems all
of his life. Ulcers. Constant heartburn. He was always swigging Amphojel or
Maalox from a bottle. We called it gook. Rhymed with book. It was a liquid
antacid compound that separated in the bottle (shake well before opening). He
would shake the bottle really hard then unscrew the lid and take a guzzle.
He had bottles of it stashed all over the place. His
briefcase, his desk drawer, the glove compartments in both cars. The Amphojel
bottle was blue; Maalox was brown. Like a drunk stashes bottles of vodka, Norm
stashed bottles of gook.
When we were kids, it was a game. Sometimes he would let us
shake up the bottle. I remember one time my mother shook it up, unscrewed the lid
and handed it to him. He was driving. Norm didn’t notice the lid was already
off it. He gave it a sharp shake and the stuff flew all over the car. After
that, he would always check the lid first.
Anyway, Norm was a bit of a hypochondriac so when Uncle Gene
got his sentence, Norm figured he should go get checked. He called me the day
he got his results and asked me to come over. He lived in Green Brook, NJ then.
He was sitting in the living room in the dark when I walked into the house. He
lived there alone at the time. He told me they found some cells. No tumor, just
some cells. Said he was lucky; there was a good chance they could take care of
it. It was very scary and dramatic.
Just because you’re a hypochondriac, it doesn’t mean you
Norm had doctors the way a Lothario has girlfriends. He’d
fall in love with their credentials, enjoy their company and dote on their
every word. Eventually, familiarity breeding doubt, he’d start second-guessing
their diagnoses and advice. Finally, they’d argue, break up and move on.
Not this time though. He went straight to the top. Memorial
Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He knew about esophageal cancer. He’d read
enough about it, and he knew that few survived it. He also knew that if he
could be fixed, they were the ones who could do it.
He was right. They fixed him up. Cut off 20% of his
esophagus and 20% of his stomach, stretched the pieces together and sewed him
up. Said they got all the cancer cells. He had to eat and sleep differently
after that, and he said he felt like his insides were too short for the rest of
him, but we got to keep him.
Sometimes it pays to be a hypochondriac.
I’m running the NYC Marathon this year, and I’m running in honor of Norm Anderson, the toughest guy I ever knew. I hope you will support my efforts and donate to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Donate in honor of Norm or in honor of your friend or relative who survived cancer or who didn’t. Researchers like those at MSKCC will end this scourge one day.
It’s official! I’m running the 2019 New York City Marathon. The first weekend in November will be the pinnacle of my 60th birthday year. I’ve run NYC three times before, and I intend this to be the last.
I dedicate this effort to the memory of my father, Norm Anderson, and I’m running with purpose – to raise funds for cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The great folks at MSKCC treated Norm when he was first diagnosed with esophageal cancer and were instrumental in giving us over 15 more years with him.
Two good friends are joining me in this marathon effort. Alan “The Richmond Raptor” Hogan and Liz Ghezzi Steele, a renowned attorney here in Richmond, Virginia who was once known to the good people of Highland Park, New Jersey as “Lightswitch Liz.”
My objective is raise $7,500 for cancer research at MSKCC. It’s a lot of money, but with the your help, I am certain we can reach this goal. Here’s a link to my fundraising site at MSKCC — feel free to jump aboard right away. Stay tuned here for tales of our training adventures and join us on the journey to the NYC Marathon on November 3, 2019!