The past six weeks have been rather grueling for me – and not just due to Boston’s epic winter. A nagging abdominal pain turned out to be a “complicated and serious” situation that put me on IV meds in the hospital. Having faced nothing more than workout injuries up to now, I was stunned. A week later at a follow-up with the surgeon, he scheduled a test for late March to check things out and “make sure it’s not cancer.” That floored me.
Nobody ever wants to hear the C word. I put on a brave, stoic face — but inside all sorts of hidden trapdoor mindfucks were opening. I was both shocked and fascinated by how one’s body can just up and betray you. I railed against fate’s cruel hand when I’d come into this year so full of uncharacteristic confidence and optimism. I cursed myself for drunken, drug-addled, 20-something boasts that I’d probably die in my 50s – an age which at the time seemed so far away as to feel like an abstract concept that would take a century to reach. In this brutal winter there was nothing to do but sit inside with a thick stew of thoughts and emotions: fear, denial, bitterness.
But more than anything I felt deep worry over how Mtuseni would fare if I died – and a profound sadness that I wouldn’t see all the wonderful things that will happen for him, to see him finally rise out of poverty and live a happy and fulfilling life.
My concerns for him took precedence over any other responses to this health challenge, and I was completely taken aback by that. I’ve always been pretty independent in life, and figured that when I died it would suck – but then I’d be dead and oblivious. But now I’m responsible for someone else. Mtuseni depends on me – whether it’s for some extra cash or for real, trusted understanding of the doubts and dreams that he only shares with me. Faced with my own mortality, I thought not of myself but of my long-distance son. That adds a whole new layer to the meaning of parenthood for me.
This week was my follow-up test and thankfully there’s no cancer, though I’m still facing surgery. Coming out of this dark tunnel, I’m finally able to breathe again. I feel lucky – not only to not be facing cancer but to have gained such existential clarity without having to fight a life-threatening illness. There are things I’ve needed to change in my life for a very long time – and they were all shelved when a South African kid came into the picture. Now it’s time to act on those things, and more. Because I understand now that the clock can stop much sooner than expected. It sounds trite and cliché in a way … everyone knows to live for today and blah blah blah – but an experience like this makes you sit up and really get it.
In December I adopted a mantra for this year, which seems even more fitting now. It’s a quote from the genius Lily Tomlin: “May I have the envelope please, so I can push it.”
Watch out. The pushing begins.
Help support Mtuseni’s expenses during his tenure as a service leader at City Year. His stipend only covers commute costs from his remote settlement shack to a township school where he will tutor young children. Help me give him a robust allowance so he can buy breakfast and lunch — and maybe treat himself to a movie now and then — as this young man with so little already begins to pay it forward. Click the GoFundMe campaign icon to learn more, donate, and share. Thanks!