25 Years Later, a Lesson Learned
One day you might reach the age when the best compliment you can hope for is, "You look good!" Which you'll learn is not the same as , "You're good looking." You look good is a nice way of saying that, considering your age, the person complimenting you thinks you look better than they expected. You can reasonably translate that as , "you are so much more lifelike than I thought you would be." I'm now there but not quite to, ""You look great!" which means, of course, you're a goner.
Reaching that certain age means that I can now look back over four decades of my adult life. So yesterday morning I looked at the date and remembered exactly where I was a quarter century ago and I can see how that moment prepared me for this moment in which we all find ourselves right now.
In the year, 1995, I was a year into both a new career as a professional speaker and my wife, Suzanna, and I were celebrating our first year of being new parents to our son, Alex. I knew Suzanna would be a great mom and she was, but I really didn't know if I'd be any good at being a dad. You can ask Alex about that but I can say that I loved it. Even the things that I was sure I wouldn't like, I did. Yes, even changing diapers. You know why? Because I found I was actually good at it. I was the fastest diaper changer in the county. Someone would say, "I think he needs a change," and I'd jump up and say, "Let me!" It was like a rodeo event and I was working to get my times down. I'd scoop him up and whip a Pampers out of the box and then a blur of hands and powder and boom! Eight seconds! A personal best!
About two weeks after his first birthday I was off to a speech a two hour drive from home but as I got ready to head out, Suzanna came in with the news that Alex had a fever. I was concerned but thought it was just one of those kid ailments that all children go through and so it was really nothing to worry about. She said she would call the doctor and I should go on.
After my speech I called to see what the doctor had said and learned that the fever had worsened and she had taken him instead to Children's Hospital. I drove as fast I as I dared and when I got to the hospital, I was led to a room where Suzanna sat holding Alex and when I saw the tears streaming down her face, I froze. That's when she delivered the news that a CT scan had revealed tumors in the retinas of both of his eyes. The diagnosis was a rare childhood cancer called bilateral retinoblastoma and the progression in his left eye was such that it couldn't be saved. Soon the oncologist and the eye surgeon came to discuss the next step and it included emergency surgery to remove Alex's left eye and then assess what steps would be taken to save his life and, if possible, his remaining eye.
Life had taken a crazy and sudden detour heading off in a direction for which we never could have prepared. The next week was a haze of surgery, the placement of a port in his chest for the planned infusions, many scans and tests and lots of prayers and tears. He began a new protocol of chemo with a plan to follow up in two months with laser surgery to shrink and attack the tumor in his remaining eye.
Now, although this was a long and fascinating story, I won't tell it all here but I will say that it's also a good story because Alex not only survived it but grew up healthy and came out of the ordeal with good vision in his right eye, making it possible for him to do almost everything from sports to learning to drive without major restrictions. He also developed a hobby of film making that turned into his college major and now he works for the CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. But in the days following his diagnosis, none of that was known and the future for our 1 year-old seemed too full of terrible possibilities to try to think much beyond the moment we were in.
Before we took him home we were taught how to properly scrub our hands as if we were going into surgery and then change the dressing around the catheter in his chest and flush it with heparin, a procedure we would need to perform every other day. A huge three-ring binder was compiled detailing the bi-weekly, six-month course of chemo, the laser surgeries, and the schedule of weekly visits for blood counts, renal scans and MRIs. By the time we got home, we were physically, emotionally and spiritually drained. Neither of us slept much that night as we checked and rechecked Alex hour after hour. I couldn't help but feel angry that this had happened to our son. It was a rare cancer. He was our only child. There was no good explanation for the cause. It was simply unfair.
Wrestling with so much fear and anger made it even harder to find rest but about dawn, I drifted off to sleep and when I awoke, it was well after 9. I could hear the TV downstairs and Suzanna talking to her parents, who had come to help out. I shuffled down the stairs to start the first day at home in our new normal and when I got to the living room, I saw what they were watching on TV. There was a report of the explosion at a federal building in Oklahoma City that would turn out to be the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in US history. All day, the numbers of the dead were tallied and updated. When it was all done, 168 lives were lost including 19 children.
I remember within a day or two, pictures of those children had been collected from the grieving families and were put on screen for all of us to see. That those pictures were from happy moments like birthday parties we had had for our own child just a few weeks before made the loss those families had suffered even more palpable. It seemed too much.
And then it occurred to me that there were 19 sets of parents who, in that moment, would have gladly traded places with us. To swap the finality of their sudden loss for even a possibility of hope for their child as we had would have been the sweetest of gifts. And it was then that I realized how much we had to be grateful for. Every moment was a gift. Every task was a privilege. Because nothing was promised, everything mattered and each second would be lived with a new sense of gratitude. I looked at our little boy, the bandages still over the left side of his face from the surgery days before and it was undeniable that so much had been lost, but then I remembered the faces of those kids in Oklahoma City and I thought, so much is left.
As we struggle though these days of isolation and quarantine because of COVID19, you might be one of the now 40,000 and counting families in this country who have lost someone you love to this virus. Or you might be a family member or friend or yourself one of the almost 1 million who have been infected and don't know yet how it will turn out. We are all thinking about you and praying for better days ahead. For the rest of us, though, who have certainly lost income, time with loved ones, the simple pleasures of a night out at a restaurant, a graduation or a prom or a birthday party, I invite you to take a moment to think about what you have left and why--along with your yearning for a return to normal life--you should also offer a little prayer of thanks for what remains and how, when this is over, you'll be changed in a way that could help you cope with what comes next tomorrow, or even twenty-five years from now. Stay well. Stay safe. And stay grateful.