What do you say to the man who saved your life? Do you fall to your knees and kiss his hand? Do you write him a letter the length of a novel? Do you say anything at all?
In early June, I had a post-surgery follow-up at the hospital. I’d fantasized that, after treatment, my interactions with my doctors would be dramatic—in some way memorable. But when I was back in the examination room, seated in the same beige chairs as what feels like five years ago, I was once again reminded that things never play out quite as you imagine them. The doctors poked and prodded me a bit. They said I had a clean bill of health, but that I should come back each month for precautionary testing. They commented on the length of my hair. We made small talk. It was uneventful. For the first time in months, nothing to write home about.
On my way out, I paused for a moment and said, “Thank you.” That was it.
I haven’t written much here this past month, in part because I’ve been out a lot, enjoying my newfound mobility. I’ve been watching the World Cup, drinking the occasional beer, going to the movies. I’ve visited some museums, taken in a ballgame at Citi Field, and picnicked in Central Park. I went to Peter Luger for lunch the other day, making good on a date I’d set with my friend David back in February.
Two weeks ago, I put up a post about my experience with a roommate who was told he was dying. That post was more challenging than almost anything I’ve ever written. But this post I’m writing now is the most challenging. And that’s the main reason it’s been so long in the coming.
It’s one thing to thank a doctor for what is, in a sense, doing his job. It’s quite another thing to thank the people who held me up when I didn’t have the strength to stand on my own two feet.
You weren’t there for me because it was your job. You have your own lives, your own trials and tribulations.
You were there because you chose to be there. You certainly weren’t there to be thanked. But you must be thanked, because you were there.
Over the past six months, the tone and focus of this blog has varied. But what hasn’t varied is its subject matter. It’s been a blog of me writing about me.
This post is not about me. It’s about you. You who are reading it, you who wrote, who visited, who called. You who lent me a book or baked me cookies. You who stayed with me in the hospital, who walked with me when I was in pajamas and had no hair. Some of you I don’t even know or have never met. But even if you’re a stranger, you are a part of you.
I didn’t start this blog to elicit pity from the masses or to universally define what it means to be ill. I started it to tell the story of one loud, judgmental, kind of nerdy guy undergoing a very unpleasant experience.
At the time, “The Audacity of Pope” was an easy choice for a title. I was already using “Audacity of Pope” as my account name on Twitter, so it required no further creativity. It was short, clever, easy to remember. And I really did believe that my goal—to write honestly and plainly about being sick—would require a measure of audacity.
In a way, I was right. This blog did take audacity. Sometimes I wrote even though I felt awful; sometimes writing—or what I was writing—made me feel even worse. There was some boldness, some sort of fortitude in there. That was a kind of audacity. And at the beginning, I thought that audacity was itself the Audacity of Pope.
But the real audacity of the Audacity of Pope was not my audacity. It’s not what I’ve been through, what I’ve borne, what I’ve written. It’s you. It’s my parents and aunts and uncles. My grandparents and cousins. My brothers and my sister-in-law and my friends. Professors, old teachers, neighbors. Perfect strangers, friends of friends. Readers.
It was audacity when someone who only knew me well enough to nod hello in the elevator offered a kind word and an open ear. When a man more than twice my age e-mailed—as a grown-up, but also as a peer—to swap horror stories of chemo, that was audacity. When a friend of a friend told me he too had testicular cancer and that I shouldn’t feel so terribly alone out there, that was audacity.
I’ve always felt deeply uncomfortable reaching out to people who are sick or mourning. Terrified of saying the wrong thing or convinced it wouldn’t make a difference if I wrote or called, I’ve shied away from doing so. Time and again, I’ve found myself in bitter fights with my mother, who has always insisted that I reach out—no matter how much discomfort I might feel. Sometimes I’ve given in, sometimes I’ve ignored her. Either way, I’ve continued to struggle with the solipsistic desire to keep my head down and avoid the unpleasantness of confronting those things in life that are necessarily unpleasant.
It takes audacity to step up and step outside yourself. If I’ve learned one lesson from this whole ordeal, it’s that. In my life, I haven’t always had the audacity to reach out. But a million times these past few months, you’ve shown me that audacity.
When you pick up the phone to call, or start typing that e-mail, you take a leap. You might be ignored, or brushed off, maybe scorned.
When you share your stories, you take a leap.
When you see someone suffering and you don’t turn away—when you say anything at all or do anything at all—you take a leap.
That’s audacity. That’s intrepid and bold and arrogant—the Merriam-Webster definition of the word. You were all those things.
You were audacious to reach out to me. Audacious to commiserate with me. Audacious to share with me. You provided the audacity for this story, this blog.
But what of my friends and family? They stepped up, but you expect friends and family to step up. Were they audacious?
I don’t know much about watching someone you love get very sick. I haven’t experienced that. I’m lucky. It sounds a lot worse than getting very sick. At least when you’re sick you feel a modicum of control. As far as I can tell, when you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t.
What I do know is that just because something is expected—the love of a parent or the loyalty of a friend—doesn’t mean it comes easily. To do what my friends and family did for me took strength and sacrifice. You spent hours or days or weeks by my bedside, at home and in the hospital. You holed up in a cramped apartment to watch over me. You crawled out of bed in the middle of the night to drive with me to the emergency room. You had a hell of a lot of audacity.
The audacity of strangers. The audacity of acquaintances. The audacity of friends and family.
I called this blog the “Audacity of Pope.”
I should have called it the “Audacity of You.”
From time to time, people have written me to comment (or complain) that I’ve been dealt an unfair hand. I’ve never thought about it that way. Being sick is not fun. It’s not glamorous or heroic. It’s nothing I would wish upon my worst enemies. But it’s also not a question of fairness. It’s just a thing that happens.
So I haven’t dwelt on the fairness or unfairness of my situation. What I’ve often thought about, though, is how remarkably blessed I’ve been.
Since December, I’ve received kindnesses—in both quality and quantity—beyond what I’d previously imagined were possible. You have shared with me your stories of suffering, of personal illness, of loss. You’ve sent me cookies and books and DVDs and greeting cards and more e-mails than I can count. You’ve watched me vomit, read about me vomiting, cleaned up my vomit.
There would be no Audacity of Pope without you. Sure, I could have written periodic e-mails to friends or family. I could have written a blog to update my family and a few close friends on how I was feeling. Or I could have just scribbled my thoughts in a marble notebook (that would have been a pity, because I can rarely decipher my own handwriting).
But then all I’d have would be a record of what I’ve been through.
The Audacity of Pope is a record of my experiences. But more than that, it’s a record of what you’ve done for me. This blog is bigger than me and my story. For six months, it made an experience I often thought I could not bear bearable. Not because of what I said, but because it gave me the opportunity to connect with all of you.
I’m not glad I was sick. The old adage says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Maybe that’s true. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s not true. I tore my labrum, which didn’t kill me, but which also made me weaker. My shoulder still clicks. As my dad likes to remind me, even if that saying does have some truth, it doesn’t mean you should jump off the Brooklyn Bridge to see if you can survive and become a superhero. There’s no need to seek out suffering. Life has a way of periodically raining it upon you, regardless of what you do.
So I hope for a life with minimal misery. I hated being sick and I hate suffering in general. (If I ever run for office, “I hate suffering in general” would be my campaign slogan. You can’t argue with that one.) But I don’t wish I’d never been sick.
Why? In part because I’m not much for wishful thinking (though I may throw the odd penny into a fountain). But mostly because to wish away these months would be to wish away the time when I discovered you.
And when I say I discovered “you,” I’m don’t just mean you the individual or you the collective group of individuals. I also mean the very idea that there is a you out there. That to be sick or frightened or in pain is not to be alone. That people are capable of repeated, titanic feats of generosity and decency. That “the kindness of strangers” is not just an expression.
You taught me these lessons. You, whom I knew and whom I didn’t.
I still can’t wrap my head around the fact that you exist.
Testicular cancer is not that common; in young men it’s not that uncommon. I worked out (or found on Wikipedia) the odds of having it a while back, but the exact figure doesn’t really matter. Maybe it’s one in 5,000. Maybe one in 10,000. Maybe it’s as low as one in 20,000.
But what I’ve been given is something that’s one in a million, perhaps rarer.
I’ve been given you.
Now, for what I’ve been given, I give thanks.
I could have thanked you in a word, or in a post a dozen times as long as this one. Either way I would never do justice to all you’ve done for me. The 26 letters of our alphabet aren’t enough.
But I’d rather fall short in my thank you than say nothing at all.
So this is me thanking you.
Thank you for everything you’ve said or written or thought.
Thank you for everything you’ve done.
Thank you for existing.
This isn’t the end of the Audacity of Pope. It’s the end of a chapter. It is, as they say, the end of the beginning. It’s the end of a story I thought was about me, but which turned out to be more about you.
Thank you for that story. I can’t claim it was a fun story. In many ways it was a miserable story. It was also a blessed story.
Because of you.
And so, I leave you with my favorite quotation, from Yeats:
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends. And say my glory was I had such friends.
Thank you. That’s how this chapter ends. Thank you.