I didn’t know how good I had it

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By Bill Heavey

And the Whiner of the Year award goes to… By Bill Heavey

BE­TWEEN THE AGES of 40 and 60, men age steadily but slowly, like the wine stain from a glass you didn’t re­al­ize you’d knocked over. True, you lose a step, but you are—for the most part—still in the game. You cease to reg­is­ter on the radar of young women you pass on the street, ex­cept when they hold doors open for you. And, no longer im­mor­tal, you count the life pre­servers on the boat be­fore you leave the dock and check your tree­stand har­ness twice be­fore as­cend­ing. But if you work out, you can still man­age most of what you’ve al­ways done. Just not as much of it.

I’ll be 62 next month. Those AARP in­vi­ta­tions—death’s way of ask­ing if we can be pen pals—keep ar­riv­ing but have no more im­pact than the fly­ers for Gut­ter Hel­met or for as­phalt seal­ing our gravel drive­way. Not long ago, my foot clocked out early af­ter a walk. It went numb. The as­so­ci­ated calf mus­cle stiff­ened up. I de­vel­oped a fairly de­bil­i­tat­ing limp. The doc­tor, sus­pect­ing a pinched nerve, said half of such in­juries heal them­selves in two months. Mine was not in this half. There fol­lowed X-rays, an MRI, con­sul­ta­tions. It was my old phys­i­cal trainer, Terry, who set me straight. She had me walk on my toes, and my right leg folded like a soda straw. Perus­ing the MRI, she shook her head.

“I’m not even gonna work on you, honey. When you lose mus­cle con­trol like that, it means surgery. Don’t put it off.” I stood there in my shorts, star­ing at the gray wall of the ex­am­i­na­tion room. I’d just crossed into In­jun coun­try. I’d al­ways as­sumed that my body and I were in this thing to­gether. My body had just said that it wanted to see other peo­ple.

Ever the op­ti­mist, I went straight to worst-case out­comes. What if the surgery didn’t work? What if I’d al­ready waded my last river, climbed up to my last tree­stand, shoul­dered my last ca­noe?

Michelle tried to re­as­sure me by quot­ing her grand­mother: “If you and ev­ery­one you know sat around a ta­ble and put their prob­lems in the cen­ter, you couldn’t grab yours back fast enough.” I pointed out that her grand­mother was dead. This was not well re­ceived.

I did tell one old friend, Mar­cos, who has al­ways met life’s chal­lenges with ad­mirable grace. An in­de­pen­dent IT con­sul­tant, he has en­dured the stints be­tween con­tracts con­fi­dent that an­other will come along. He has had bone can­cer for so long that most of his friends take it no more se­ri­ously than he seems to. Mar­cos said he un­der­stood my anx­i­ety about surgery. It was nor­mal. Then he told me that he was hav­ing a stem cell trans­plant. They’d al­ready har­vested the cells. They’d in­stalled the catheter in his chest. He was about to head into the hos­pi­tal for chemo to kill ev­ery­thing in his body. Then they’d in­tro­duce the har­vested stem cells and—since the least in­fec­tion could be lethal in his weak­ened state - keep him for an­other cou­ple of weeks. Then he'd be dis­charged ei­ther get bet­ter or get worse. I’ve since looked up the sur­vival stats for this pro­ce­dure. If you last seven years, you’re beat­ing the odds.

I was dumb­struck at his com­po­sure. Some­where, I knew, my name was al­ready be­ing etched onto a Whiner of the Year tro­phy. Some­where Michelle’s grand­mother cack­led. Wor­ry­ing about whether I could carry a ca­noe, I re­al­ized, was a lux­ury.

“Dude, I can’t even imag­ine what you’re go­ing through,” I said. I asked how he dealt with fear. He smiled. “Like you, man. I strug­gled. A lot. And re­al­ized I had to face it. So I let my­self feel it. It’s weird. When you let the fear in, let it pass over you, it also passes through you. Not like it’s gone. Just…dif­fer­ent. Like, ‘I see you, fear.’ But you’re not stuck on it any­more. I’m fo­cused on the fu­ture now. I see it as a jour­ney. I know you, Billy. You think that’s New Age b.s. But that’s what I’m do­ing.”

I sat at the res­tau­rant ta­ble, star­ing at my hands. I knew if I looked up, I’d cry. Maybe at the sheer brav­ery of my friend, at my fear of los­ing him, or out of shame at my own self-in­dul­gence. Maybe all three.

“You’re a real jerk, you know that?” I fi­nally said. “Here I am en­joy­ing feel­ing sorry for my­self and now I feel like a pussy.”

“Ah, no, man,” Mar­cos said. “You’re not a pussy. You’re just the same dum­b­ass I’ve known for, what, 30 years?”

“More like 35. You re­mem­ber? I was liv­ing in that group house on 19th Street. Your dog was tak­ing a dump on the lawn. I was giv­ing you the evil eye, mak­ing sure you picked up its crap. I think we were about 25 at the time.”

“That’s right!” he said, slap­ping the ta­ble. “How could I for­get? See, you’re still that same dum­b­ass.”

It’s true. I was. But I was see­ing more courage in my friend than I’d ever imag­ined. I had no idea where it came from. But if I could show half as much, I knew I’d be all right.

I got the tab, drove him to his apart­ment, and told him I’d piss on his grave if he died. He got out, shut the door, and leaned in through the win­dow. “I love you, too, bro,” he said. And as I drove away, it oc­curred to me that how­ever long I do have, there’ll come a day when I’ll look back and wish I was a boy of 62 again.

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