For those of you who have been connected for a long time, you are probably used to me reflecting on the summer of ‘99 in the months of August and September. I have always been a fan of reflection and remembering the past, though I was never much of a history buff in school. However my writings about the summer of ‘99 don’t originate from a desire to remember and reflect but much more from a desire to learn, to understand, from a desire to have a far greater appreciation for what it is that I and my loved ones actually experienced that summer when many expected I would die.
I write about ‘99’s summer from a place of curiosity. I have little or no memory of some of the major events of my life. The time when so many of my loved ones spent massive energy focusing on me is largely a mystery to me.
I had a bone marrow transplant from my dad in April of ‘99, hit the 100 day mark, which was somewhat of a magic mark, came home from Toronto, and began to focus on furthering my recovery. I got an infection in my Hickman catheter and got really, really sick. That first night in hospital in late July ‘99 was the last solid memory I have until late August. Life support, a drug-induced coma, disgusting levels of drugs, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a host of other infections, many times when I shouldn’t have made it, they were all part of that summer of ‘99.
Waking to a whole new world came with a mountain of challenges: learning to walk was just one of them. My whole mental state was shattered, I was terrified to sleep, had no real understanding of what I had just been through, and my body wouldn’t work. I had no strength and was 100 per cent dependent on healthcare professionals, family, and friends.
A fan of independence, I decided that getting back on my feet was the first milestone on this new road back to some level of health. I got back on my feet on September 20, 1999. Each year since I have climbed Signal Hill in St. John’s with a growing group of supporters in an event, the RealTime Cancer Climb, that has evolved to be about so much more than some guy taking a few steps after leaving ICU. The Climb is about hope and miracles. It’s about never giving up.
And it is that ‘’never giving up’’ thing that I need to address with you all today. As for some or many reasons I have chosen to address my challenges surrounding cancer with you all. I am protected at times but I am continuing to open myself and have always maintained a strict adherence to the truth, my truth.
Did you ever have a time when you wanted to quit? Many an email and question at a presentation have covered that topic and my response has been the same, “no, never, not once.” And that is what I believed as I have conscious memory of wondering if I would give up and laughing in the face of those thoughts. However, it is the experiences for which my memory has failed me that have caused conflict with my standard response and pushed me to write today’s message.
I spent an awesome Labour Day weekend with close family on the Gander River in NL. I didn’t do much fishing, none in fact as that’s not my thing. But relax and connect was more my desire, and I did that. While I was chopping wood for the fire, the conversation between my sister in-law, Shelley, and fiancée, Karen, turned to the summer of ‘99. Karen and Shelley had very different memories of that time as they were connected to me in very different ways. Shelley was very close to the situation each and every day as she and my brother, Slim, spent hours that I know little to nothing about at the hospital and in my room in ICU. Shelley has vivid memory of the whole experience.
I interrupted the conversation, or more integrated into it and sat and listened. That time remains a fascinating experience for me and I have such curiosity to know every detail.
The story turned to the Friday night when I was placed on life support, the night when I crossed a bridge to another part of the journey. The most noted words I remember about that night, through other’s stories, are that “transplant patients don’t do well on life support.”
The short version of what happened, as I understand, is that I was on a pressurized oxygen mask. It was uncomfortable and I was beat down and extremely tired. I was in pain and distressed and wanted out of the situation I was in. I was fighting the mask, which was trying to breathe for me, and things were deteriorating rapidly. The docs made the call that life support (putting a tube down my throat to more effectively help me breathe, and relax) was the best option. My family and friends were around, who and for how long I don’t know, but at one point my dad came in or was called in and we had an exchange that has changed my perspective on me.
Through my struggling and fighting I believe I started to motion as if I wanted to write something, as speaking was too difficult with the mask. My dad sourced paper and pencil and I scribbled down two words near the left margin: “no more.”
No more means only one thing in my mind. I wanted out, I had enough of the tests, the machines, the discomfort, the pain.
I remember seeing the piece of paper years ago, shortly after I left the ICU, and I figured that I must have written “not yet” and given the scribbles it could easily be interpreted into any number of phrases. But after hearing Shelley’s recounting of that night I know the words were “no more.”
And so as I move through my fifth anniversary of that summer, as I prepare to climb Signal Hill again and as I continue to work on my perspective of today, understand yesterday, and prepare for tomorrow, it is important for me to say that the new truth to the question above is yes there was a time when I wanted to quit, but with the love of my family and friends it didn’t happen.
I have always said I’m just a regular guy and I am. After hearing Shelley’s story I felt this relief inside as if by me knowing that there was a time when life became too much for me to handle, a time when I wanted to quit, that I was as regular a guy as I always thought.
So, surprise! I’m not this major tough guy, who knows no fear and laughs in the face of adversity. Well, some of that is true, but the reality is, I’m glad to know there was a time in all that madness of ‘99 when things got to me, when I felt that it was finally too much. And when things become too much pretty exceptional things often happen, especially when you experience the love and support that I have.
I’ll sum by saying don’t stop looking for the truth, and when you find it, speak it.
The Climb, which happens on the 20 of September on Signal Hill and stairs, hills, and mountains all over the world, is an event that brings me back to that crazy time in my life. It continues to lead me through the learning of that time in my life and the growth to understand who I am and why I’m here. I know some of the answers and one of them is definitely to get my ass up Signal Hill on Monday evening.
I hope you’ll climb on Monday, wherever you are. And count on me sharing more of my evolving perspective of myself and the world around me.
Live life. Love life.