Change is Inevitable

Although I was unwilling to change to fit my ex-students’ way of seeing and dealing with the world, like it or not, I have begun to change the way I see the world because of my recent throat cancer surgery. Although some of these changes are relatively minor, others seem far-reaching.

Unable to eat for over a month and being forced to rely on cases of Hershey’s ProBalance, fondly referred to as "yellow sludge," I may never again eat a Hershey’s candy bar. I did, however, gain a new respect for Round Table pizza, for me the ultimate measure of recovery. I will celebrate my victory in the hard-fought battle to re-learn to eat with a feast at my local pizza parlor.

Constantly fighting for breath and trying to clear my tracheotomy gave me a new appreciation of the problems my brother, and others, went through fighting asthma. It is truly terrifying when you can’t breathe, even if you know that you will be able to breathe in a few moments if you do what you need to do.

Not sleeping a whole night through for over two months gave me more empathy for a friend who suffers from intermittent sleep problems. It’s hard to take much of anything seriously when you’re always tired.

Being unable to speak for over a month and only being able to communicate through writing, I realized how frustrating and alienating such a disability can be. Unless people really reach out to you, it just seems easier to withdraw into yourself and forget about trying to communicate with others. The longer you go without communicating with others, the greater the temptation to withdraw further into yourself. Such alienation can be confusing and frightening, even when you know, as I did, that it is only temporary.

On a more positive note, such a withdrawal is almost like entering a monastic retreat where you can look deeper into yourself, because there are no outside distractions. That’s what I chose to do. When you spend a month doing little besides examining yourself, you’re bound to gain new insights, for better or for worse.

The greatest realization is one that should have always been obvious, but wasn’t. Life is finite. While recovering from this surgery, for the first time in my life I wasn’t sure I was going to make it, wasn’t sure I wanted to endure this kind of pain. I never once had that feeling in all my fire-fights in Vietnam. I never had that feeling with my first encounter with cancer twenty-three years ago.

The only time I have ever vaguely felt that way was when my father died after several ravaging heart attacks and when my mother died after suffering from Alzheimer’s. My time, like there’s, is limited. And I have never lived my life as if that was true.

Some people live their life in the past like “Richard Cory” or “Glory Days,” but that’s never appealed to me. Figuring there’s little I can do about the past, I have few regrets in my life. Why regret what you can’t change? My daughter once accused me of being the “least sentimental” person she ever knew. In a sense, she may be right. I love where I am now; so, why should I spend time looking back?

I have, unfortunately, lived much of my life in the future. “When I retire, I’m going to:” Read all the books I started buying when I was in college. Learn electronics. Take advantage of all those neat woodworking tools I haven’t had time to use. Finish the yard. Change my life. Attain enlightenment

Now, however, it seems that trying to live in the future is just as destructive as trying to live in the past. Both deny the moment its due.

Perhaps I’ve sensed this for a while now. Maybe my increasing interest in Zen was the result of realizing that I’ve tended to live beyond the moment rather than in the moment, and that in doing so I wasn’t really living at all.

Be that as it may, I have resolved to change my ways: to start reading the books I’ve stored up for the future (I hope I still find them interesting) instead of buying new ones, to use the tools I have now rather than looking for new ones to buy (unless, of course, I absolutely need it to finish an old project), to master and apply old skills rather than trying to learn new ones, and to finish old projects rather than planning new ones.

I’m going to try to live my life as if there is no tomorrow, not in the hedonistic sense of “eat, drink and be merry,” though there’s certainly nothing too bad about that, but in the sense of trying to make the most of every day and finishing what I’ve started rather than leaving loose ends around for someone else to have to pick up.