Two years ago this week, I wrote “Pals,” a piece that explained how it was that a buddy of mine named Scott basically turned around my views on what my life had become. Monday, I found out he has a fatal heart ailment and that only a transplant will save his life.
In the past five days, I’ve thought of little else, regardless of what I’m doing, which makes it hard to see the forest for the trees. I have also discovered that the ways in which I am used to seeking help, solace and strength don’t apply here.
I have always told my writing students that when they write for an audience, it’s not about you. It’s about the audience. However, in this one rare sliver of space, I’m hoping for special dispensation on that matter because writing this might be my only way to come to grips with it.
Monday morning, I settled into the recliner in the basement to “get stuff done,” as I like to say. I had three sets of grading to do, an accreditation report to file and a few odds-and-ends emails to send. An email from Scott was among those in the inbox with a subject line of “RE: Update.” Our annual journalism convention had just finished and I had bailed on it this year, due to book deadlines and a sense that budget cuts were going to kill travel reimbursements. I figured Scott had a project he wanted to work on, a student he wanted to chat about or even a “saw your new book at AEJ” kind of thing. Instead, it told me he might never leave the hospital.
About three weeks ago, he said, he was diagnosed with a virus that attacked his heart. It was a rare condition, one that only afflicted about six people in the U.S. in the past 10 years. His heart was becoming a useless organ, a slab of meat that would soon cease to function. He was moved to the top of the donor list and had high hopes, but was told he’d never leave the cardiac ICU without a transplant. He asked that if we cared about him, we would become organ donors, something I had decided to do back when we returned to Wisconsin. That little orange dot on my license now took on even more meaning.
He finished his email with “Don’t worry about me. I got this.”
The things that happen to a person in a movie to show the character is completely stunned happened to me. My jaw went slack, my eyes became teary and I doubled over like I had been kicked in the stomach. I had to hold it together while I wrote back an email. I had to suppress my reporter instinct to ask a million questions. I managed to limit the questions to only two: “Are you in pain?” And “Do you need anything from me?”
I then Googled the illness, finding a story about a guy who survived it about five years ago. One of the things the guy said in the story was that he told his family members not to Google the illness, as it would scare the shit out of them.
Too late, buddy.
It was chilling beyond anything I had ever heard of.
It attacks without warning. How one picks up the virus has never been determined.
It is fatal. There is a 70 percent mortality rate within three months.
Nothing is certain. Transplant patients have a 50/50 shot of being re-infected or having the heart rejected.
I told my wife I was driving out there or flying out there. She and I plotted ways for me to get there. Finally, we talked it out and tried to figure out if this was a good idea. I emailed Scott’s wife and found out that visitors, even those with the best of intentions, were not a good idea right now. He needed solitude to fight off potential infections and be ready if a heart became available.
I went outside and drove around in Betsy for a while. I hit an estate sale. I tried to clear the mechanism in my brain.
I met with my boss sometime this week and told him that I would likely be a screwed up mess for a while, so please give me some absolution on that front. He asked the questions I was asking myself: How did this happen? How bad is this? What can be done? The answers sounded as weak and hopeless coming out of my head as they did rattling around inside of it.
“Honestly, man,” I told him. “This thing is like the Finger of God. It just selects and smites.”
That was my first problem and the one I couldn’t get past: Why him?
Scott was in great shape, played sports and took care of himself.
Also, it wasn’t an environmental thing. When my grandmother died of cancer, I was sad, but the woman smoked like a factory chimney. It was coming down the road and we all knew it.
Our family has a history of all sorts of stuff like high blood pressure and more. When those things hit subsequent generations, it at least makes sense. You hand it down, like family heirlooms no one wants.
This? It came from left field.
Sure, any one of us can get killed if a car hits us or a house collapses or whatever. Finger of God? Maybe, but life itself is a risk. You walk around long enough and everything can become something that can get you. But an illness like this? So rare, so unexpected, so “hey I’m coming to fuck with you and you didn’t even know I existed until now” was just inconceivable.
Like most weaker Catholics, I find myself resorting to prayer at the times of crisis. Good Catholics pray all the time. The weaker of us still attend mass and do the basic rituals of faith, but we really “pray pray” the same way most of us go to the dentist: Only when it hurts and we’re hoping for easy resolution.
This was when things started really falling apart on me.
I’m a “work the problem” guy. If something is broke, you fix it. If it’s in the way, you move it. You don’t piss and moan. You don’t wait around. You hustle.
If Scott needed bone marrow, I’d get tested and start a testing drive.
If he needed a kidney or a liver or any of those other things along those lines, I’d pray I was a match and get my ass over there ASAFP.
But a heart? How?
Truth be told, I wanted to reach into my chest and tear mine out. It would hurt less and it would help him and I’d feel like I did something.
In a case like this, prayer was my last vestige of hope and it only served to make it worse because I imagined the dialogue with God:
“God, Scott is sick please help him. He’s a good man, Lord. I want him to be OK, please…”
“Do you know what you are asking for, my child? Your friend needs a heart.”
“Yes, Lord. Please help him. Please save him. Please… He’s a good man. He is hurting, his family is hurting, we all are… We can’t stand it. Please…”
“So you are asking that another should die so that your friend can live? That another family, other friends, other people should hurt so that your pain can stop? That other people should face the end of a life because you are too scared or too fragile to face this situation? Is that really what you are asking of me?”
“No… I don’t…”
And then the praying stops. I don’t know what to ask for, what to pray or how to pray in a way that this conversation doesn’t repeat itself.
I can’t pray. And that makes it harder.
Scott wrote back a few days ago, saying he’s not in pain and that this came out of the blue. I asked that I not come out, saying he had family all around and all he was doing was waiting. Typical Scott. He’s in a goddamned hospital bed on a transplant list and he’s talking about it like he’s just standing on a corner, waiting for a bus.
I did what I could do and that wasn’t much. In the times of crisis, I revert to my college days and call on my two patron saints: St. Jude and Roger Staubach.
St. Jude is the Catholic saint of lost causes and impossible situations. When something is so far gone, it might never be solved, we call on St. Jude and beseech his intercession with God for a solution that is beyond our capability to understand.
Roger Staubach became my hero when I learned of his “Captain Comeback” status. He would be down 20 points with two minutes to go and he’d be on the sidelines thinking, “How can we win this thing?” I remember seeing a video about him in which the legendary Bob Lilly remarked, “The biggest thing about Roger was the fact he never quit.” In his perfect drawl, Lilly emphasized the “nehhhver” in that sentence. It stays in my head, for some reason.
So I went to the local sports card store and bought a Staubach card and I found the local religious store and bought a St. Jude medal. I packaged them up, wrote a letter of explanation and sent them off to his home, in hopes that it could help keep him going in some tiny way.
I also included a printout of “Pals.”
Just like St. Jude and Roger Staubach, this blog has always been a lifesaver.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back next week.