On December 20th, 2002, I arrived back in Los Angeles from a 6 week work trip in central Europe. That next morning I woke up with a pulsing pain that reached from my right kidney down to my groin. There was something about it, this pain, something about how deep it felt in my body and the resonance of it, the way it carried through my system. This was something new, something untold. It didn’t have a beginning or an end, it had a pulsing quality to it and felt ‘eroding’. The pain persisted throughout the holidays, then soon after the new year I had a first visit to the doctor.
Over the next 4 weeks the news went from ‘nothing’ to ‘maybe something but not major’ to ‘something there but no worries’ to ‘you need to see an oncologist’. I was introduced to oncologist Carol Nishikubo at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, CA, a kind and caring woman who took her time with me, answered my questions, ordered more tests and when she realized how my condition was beyond the scope of her abilities to diagnosis and treat, referred me to the next and higher level of the medical gods.
Around the end of the first week in February, 2003, I found myself at UCLA Medical, in the office of Fred Eilber, chief surgeon of the oncology department. What I remember most about meeting Fred for the first time was his handshake, it was firm and solid, and I liked the way he looked me in the eye – there was a moment of recognition between us, something that said, ‘I know you and you know me’. Fred took the envelope of x-rays I had brought with me and left the room. He returned five minutes later, brought the lights down a bit and gave me the news, flat out and straight up. He said it was serious, a leiomyosarcoma in my inferior vena cava, that I had 6 months max to live and how was Tuesday of next week to operate?
Right then a lot of things hit me at once, but most of all I knew how Fred’s frank delivery was reserved for someone like me, someone who he knew could take the news in this way. I was a tough guy and he knew it. I was smart and I was a fighter and he knew that also. When I said to Fred, “Ok, I understand…let me think about”, Fred reached out and placed his hand squarely on my shoulder, gave a firm squeeze and said, “Doug, you don’t have time to think about it. If I could I’d operate tomorrow, that’s how serious this is.”
From somewhere in the small cubicle of Fred’s office, there in the bowels of UCLA oncology, the wind begin to howl in my ears and over my skin, it ran through me, hot like a fire in my veins and forced me to recognize the size and scope of the moment and in an odd and determined kind of way it reminded me how I’d been here before, at this door swinging between two worlds, sitting square in the face of something larger than myself. Life is big and wide and deep. You either do or you don’t, you will or you won’t, you either make it or break it. At once I saw the depth of it all, how far I would be falling, how steep I would have to climb, how long the road of return would be.
Turns out, when you’re a father, there is no choice but to be a hero; you set your sights high, aimed squarely on the mountain top of recovery and return, and make your way there through the fog and the pain and the cold and the night. You may lose sight but that’s ok, you keep going, one step forward, then another. You fall and get dusted, then you crawl until you pick yourself up and wheel a turn against every grain of pain to get there, back where you began to begin again, back to a place of breath and love and light and air. This is how life is.
A year later, having found myself teetering on the edge of recovery’s road, my daughter Bailey came home from school and gave me a printout of this essay she wrote for a class at school. Her words lifted me like hot air in a big balloon and I wept, realizing how great this gift of life is and how magical it is we even breathe at all, and how God IS Love, and Grace and Beauty, all at once.
By Bailey Rye:
Like most children, I have been influenced by both my parents, and I admire them both tremendously, but in this case I want to talk about my father and how he overcame his difficulties.
Last year, my father was told he had maybe six months to live. They said he had terminal cancer, and even after they had removed his kidney, he would still die. It was a really rare cancer, and not many people have had it, but the ones that had, have not survived. It was a really awful surgery, and he went through a lot of pain, but through all of this, my father seemed really confident, and that everything would be all right. Instead of us telling him it was going to be okay, he was the one who was telling us. He told my sister and I that he knew he was going to get through it no matter what the doctors said, and something about the way he said it, made me believe him. And not just because I wanted to, it was because there was something in him that made me feel confident and safe. And he made me feel as though he might know more than the doctors did.
It turned out he did know more than they did, at least in terms of himself. Luckily for us, my father isn’t dead. Far from it. He is now completely free of cancer, and has a free bill of heath. Even when everything was against him, my father stayed positive and determined. He remained certain of his own recovery. I am sure my father was frightened sometimes, but that didn’t did not stop him from doing everything he could to get well, and looking into as many ways as he could to get rid of the cancer. He never gave up, he never lost hope, and he believed things would turn out right in the end, and they did. These are the qualities I admire in my father. I hope he has influenced me. I hope by being around him through this terrible illness, that his heroic spirit has rubbed off on me, because that is what my dad is, he is a hero to me.
Thanks for tuning in…
April 20, 2012
Malia Luna, Doug Lewis, Bailey Rye
Image by Cara Tompkins