Finally Real

A birthday thank-you note.

This article originally appeared in Culture Making, 9 February 2010.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was getting pneumonia when I was 22 years old. It was the last in a series of minor calamities that hit me that first year out of college, alone and adrift in a Boston winter. I found myself flat on my back for the better part of two weeks, slowly recovering.

Sometime during those two weeks, something I had known for a long time became palpably, personally true: I was going to die. Not of pneumonia at age 22—there was never any real fear of that. But someday, I suddenly understood, I would lie down for the last time and never again get up. I understood it—which is to say, I stood under that reality, was grasped by it, accepted it. And without a lot else to do in my small apartment, I pondered it.

Death, whenever it came, would come too soon. Between now and that moment, what did I want my life to be?

I pondered the question of memory. It struck me that just a few decades after my death, the only people likely to remember me with any clarity at all would be a handful of family members. It was, and still is, exceedingly improbable that my life would be memorable enough for anyone else to take lasting notice. And then I strained to remember the names of my grandparents’ parents—and realized that very soon indeed, even to my own descendants, I would be a hazy and ultimately forgotten ghost from a past as distant to them as the nineteenth century was to me.

There was only one thing I was really sure would last after even those closest to me had forgotten me and passed into their own forgottenness. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus had said. I was, and still am, as sure as I could be (which is to say, just barely sure enough) that the kingdom of God had come and would never pass away, would indeed hold everything else in reality. But what did it mean, concretely, to seek the kingdom? What could I do differently with whatever life I was granted once the pneumonia was gone?

I came to one basic conclusion in those two weeks. The best thing I could do was learn to love. Learn to love my friends, my neighbors, and my enemies. Learn to love my family. And if God allowed it, learn to love my own children. If love really were the ultimate and only lasting reality, the essence of the one kingdom that would not pass away, it seemed the best possible place to invest love would be into small lives that might carry that love into the world, into others’ lives, long after I was gone.

Children were a completely theoretical idea at that moment, fresh from breaking up with my college girlfriend and no obvious prospects anywhere on the horizon. Yet I arose from that winter pneumonia with a new sense of composure about my life. The best thing I could do, I was quite sure, was to have children (the possibility that I might also one day have grandchildren never even distantly occurred to me). And so I was somewhat prepared for the rush of surprise and recognition one winter afternoon a few years later, when I found myself in Café Algiers sipping hot chocolate with a new friend named Catherine Hirshfeld and discovered that she, too, considered raising children her greatest goal in life. I walked out of that coffeeshop and just, simply, knew.

Today is my birthday. Last fall I got pneumonia again, the last stage of a stubborn cold that began the first day of our summer vacation in Maine. “You’re coming in every few days until this is cleared up,” my doctor said—pneumonia at 42 seems to prompt more medical concern than pneumonia at 22.

When I finally seemed fully free of wheezes and coughs, he ordered an X-ray to confirm that the last trace of pneumonia was gone. It was, but several parts of the film were strangely cloudy. A CT scan was ordered in response. Several regions looked unusual. (The mixed blessing of diagnostic technology—we know more, and we worry more.) Having married into a medical family, I found it both gratifying and unsettling when my case was quickly escalated to the chief of the pulmonary clinical service of the Penn Lung Center. He and his staff spent well over an hour taking my history and pondering those ghostly images of my lungs, my own body, revealed to them and me in astonishing detail. “This is probably nothing,” he said. “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. But this finding can sometimes indicate cancer. Let’s try another CT scan in three months and see if anything has changed.”

He looked at me intently. “Don’t lose sleep over this,” he repeated.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I have a high tolerance for risk.”

And I do. I didn’t lose any sleep in the intervening three months, didn’t lose sleep this past Friday night after I had once again lain in the core of the CT machine and watched the apparatus whirling about, didn’t lose sleep last night knowing that this morning, my birthday, I would pick up the radiologist’s report and find out if those blurry opacities were still there.

I didn’t lose sleep. But I woke up many mornings this past week thinking about it. What if this were, against all the odds (my generally robust health, my lack of risk factors, my still young age), the first scene of the last act of my life? What if that moment in the lung clinic—“Don’t lose sleep over this”—became not just one more in a stream of fading memories, but became seared into my memory as the moment when we first named what would become the final awful truth?

I concluded three things in those early mornings.

First, I love the world. E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web: “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Yes.

The Apostle John: “Do not love the world or the things in the world . . . for the the world and its desire are passing away.” Also, yes. But John also wrote that Another loved the world enough to give his life for its healing and restoration. I hope I love the world in that way, love its beauty and brokenness enough to give myself for it, enough to live and die well in it.

Second, my life has been blessed beyond my greatest hopes. What if the scan, and all the tests and procedures that would surely follow, showed the worst possible result? I could not believe I would be angry. “Why me?” many people ask upon a diagnosis of serious illness. It’s an understandable question, but I honestly believe I would ask along with many others, “Why not me?” I will surely die. People die every day, with far less blessing and hope than I have known. They die young—much younger than me. They die alone. They die without reason. Why should I not die with them? I do not want to die, but I am not angry that I will die—what truly perplexes and angers me are many other deaths, not my own. All I can say for my life is, “Thank you.” I will never be able to say it enough, and I hope I will say it upon the edge of death.

Third, love is the only thing that is finally real. This morning there was a birthday cake on the counter—an apple cake, the recipe handed down from my grandmother Mimama, baked by my mother countless times in my childhood, a recipe laden with butter and eggs and nuts that I make every Christmas and Easter for my family, damn the cholesterol, full speed ahead. This apple cake was baked by Amy, my nine-year-old daughter, lover of paintings and poetry and food, and wild unreasoning joyful lover of her daddy. Forget the round numbers like 30 or 40: the birthday when your own child first bakes you a birthday cake is surely one of the greatest milestones of all.

It all could have been otherwise. Many of my friends struggle to love the world. They have known great grief. More than one person I know shakes their fists everlastingly at heaven, thanksgiving drowned out by rage. Friends have sought children and year after year had none—friends have sought marriage and been disappointed or betrayed or simply “missed connections,” as they say on Craigslist, again and again until they have half stopped looking and hoping. And I have visited these dark places too. I will visit them again. I may betray or be betrayed; I may lose or be lost. One day I may bury my wife. One day I may bury my child. Surely one day there will be a searing moment of recognition—perhaps in a doctor’s office; perhaps in a misjudged moment on a tight turn, on a slippery road, late at night; perhaps late in life, like both my grandfathers, with hearing and sight gone and the world a memory just out of reach.

For those times, for those friends who live even now in those very times and places, all I can offer is this: my little hope, faith, and love. We are in this for one another—your life at the moment of my death, your faith at the moment of my doubt, your hope at the moment of my despair. And mine at yours. And ultimately, Another’s life, faith, hope for us, stretched out on the hard wood of the cross so that all of this, all our birth days and death days, might be somehow comprehended in his embrace.

Today is not the day that will be seared in my memory. The scan was clear. The findings of the radiologist were perfunctory, routine to the point of boredom. “Mediastinum: Unremarkable. Pleura: Unremarkable. Upper Abdomen: Unremarkable. Bone: Unremarkable.” A strange but welcome birthday present: to be unremarkable—to bring a little boredom into the day of a radiologist.

So, another year begins.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.