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Friday, March 13, 2009

Are You There God? It's Me, Mongo

It could be anything, really. It could be the gum you just stepped in on your way out of the store, the car in front of you that just stopped at a newly formed yellow light causing you to be late to an appointment, or even your job giving you grief. Any of these among a host of others could be the reason why you're so pissed off at the world that you want to climb up a bell tower with a high powered rifle. When you get like this, that is when the universe knocks on you door, pokes its head into your self centered, self absorbed life and reminds how unimportant your problems are in the scheme of things. The universe is sure to remind you that it's not about you and it's nothing personal.

Now, I was born in a Byzantine Catholic family. I went to catechism classes as a child and learned all the principals of religion, the Nicene Creed, the rosary, and at the age of five I made my first Holy Communion. For seven more years I still held all those principals of faith as truths. God exists, he loves us, and everything is his will. When I reached the age of 12 or maybe 13, I had a drastic change in my faith structure. My uncle, who I hadn't seen since in probably six years or so had come to visit my Mother. At first, I thought he had fallen on hard times. He looked rather bad like he'd been on a three day bender with Mel Gibson in Malibu. He was very skinny and had trouble talking and stumbled a bit. It wasn't until after he had died that I found out he had Multiple Sclerosis.

MS is a wonderful little disease. You don't just suddenly up and die one day. It takes its time with you, slowing paring away everything you are, one piece at a time. It eats away at the protective covering to your nervous system, damaging the connections to the point where you have trouble walking and numbness. Imagine MS as a bull fight. It comes into the ring and acts as the picador and banderilleros, stabbing at you and weakening you, but it doesn't kill you. There you are, weakened with your head down in a charging stance and in comes the matador which is most likely pneumonia or some other illness. It toys with you for awhile before finally killing you. It was this experience that caused me to look up into the sky and ask, "Why?" Why would a being, all powerful and knowing allow someone to go through this kind of internal torture?

As I moved through adolescence and into adulthood, I held my discourse close to the vest. I didn't talk about it with people because they had their beliefs and I wasn't about to infringe on their rights. I went through college and graduated and my little world was fine. I began dating my wife after graduation. She held a special place for God and I didn't want to express my disbelief because of it.

At that same time, I began working at a hotel near my home. One of my supervisors had a granddaughter named Samantha, who was 12 years old, and had bone cancer. She was a spirited and cheerful girl who had already beaten it once and now it had come back. Regardless of her station in life, she acted like any other 12 year old who had the entire world ahead of her. Most of us were embittered by life, especially after college, but she still believed in all the things children believed in and showed us jaded assholes what life should be like. As she went back through treatment, she showed more courage and strength as a child than most stalwart of manly men around. Her positive outlook was enough to sway me back towards the flock and I secretly spoke to God one night and tried to mend fences. You know those moments at night between awake and sleep, when you lie in bed, staring up at the ceiling, the wind and that one tree branch banging against the house your only company. You make those little bets. You ask those little favors because that's the time when you believe that God has your undivided attention.

So, I asked. "God. Look, I could be talking to that little bug on the ceiling or I could be talking to you. At this point, it's all the same. I want you to give this one a pass. This isn't about me wanting you to help me pass finals or get out of that speeding ticket. This is a little girl that deserves the chance to grow up and spread that infectious spirit, saving the rest of our sorry asses." I spoke to the big guy two more nights in row. She died a couple days later. I felt like a battered person going back to their spouse, giving them another chance, only to be beaten within an inch of their life.

You can never measure the impact of your life until you're not there with the yard stick. In a medium sized funeral home nearby, people stood in line to get inside for Samantha's viewings. People, religious and not, will spin this experience so many ways you'd think it was politics. On one side you get "There is no God. This happened because it happened." The other side will say that "She was meant for better things in heaven and that her struggle and death serves as a lesson for us all to appreciate life and we've come together to celebrate how she touched us." I say that this is a little girl that didn't get the chance to grow up, fall in love or fall out of love, for the first time. She didn't get the joy of driving her first car or living in her first place on her own. If there is a higher power and he has that power to do some miraculous things, he dropped the ball. There are perfectly normal and healthy people in this world ripping off others' life savings, shaking babies, and killing innocent families before turning the gun on themselves. Out of all those physically fit adults, you have to give a 12 year old with a 10,000 watt smile bone cancer.

I now put more faith into extra terrestrial life. I find it easier to believe that we are just the product of a perfect set of variables than the design and execution of some otherworldly being. Somewhere in that vast universe, another planet at a perfect distance from a star has the ability to sustain life and perhaps they are advanced enough to be able to travel across the universe to ask for a cup of sugar. It makes more sense to me that we are nothing more than a really good flan. The right ingredients at the right temperature producing a tasty treat. Cook it too long, you get Mercury. Open the oven too soon, you get Mars. I find more comfort in that than one being was responsible for everything and did in less time than it takes me to get over a head cold.

After my whole Carl Sagan fueled rant, I went on with my life. My girlfriend asked me why I had so much trouble believing and I told her. Then she told me why she had such an easy time believing. Just before I met her, her mother had been diagnosed with renal cell cancer. Her parents had kept it from her while she finished up her first semester of college. They didn't want her failing out because this type is very dangerous. Not to say that any other cancer is a walk in the park but renal cell has a better green thumb than I do and shoots seeds all over the place. You can have cancer anywhere in your body that is renal cell in nature. Her mom had it in her lungs and on her kidney. In fact the doctors didn't know any of this until they had already opened her up on the table and pulled a football sized tumor out of her gut. Had they known prior to surgery that she was in stage IV, they wouldn't have operated. Instead they would have given her a pat on the head and a "good luck." But they didn't. She was put into a study and given experimental treatments. She shed her skin twice and her body temperature went between hot to cold faster than my shower if I nudge the dial ever so slightly to the right. After an intense battle she was a kidney short, but cancer free. That was her miracle. Her mother survived Stage IV cancer and went on to live her life. My wife told me that she had to believe in God, he saved her Mother. In my own little damaged mind I told her that if he was so great, then why did she have it in the first place.

Further proof of my disdain for the almighty would occur less than three years later. Still three years from getting married or engaged my wife started to experience problems with her eye. She felt as if someone had smeared Crisco in it, blurring her vision. She went to an optometrist which then referred her to a neurologist. She had optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve which caused loss of vision. There were two primary reasons why this would be happening. She either had a brain tumor, or MS. She hoped for brain tumor. She got MS. She's been treating it with a daily shot of Copaxone and has only had one relapse with the optic neuritis. At one point she wanted me to break up with her. She didn't want me to throw my life away on someone who was going to end up in wheelchair. I ended up proposing to her.

Three years later we were planning our nuptials and, if there is a God, you have to believe that he has a sense of humor, if not irony. He wanted to make sure that I knew what it was like to have a parent with renal cell cancer. Again, another set of parents decided to keep their child in the dark about things while he went off and had a good time at his wedding and honeymoon. It wasn't until after the holidays that we found out my Father had been diagnosed with it. It was an odd thing because the doctors weren't even looking for cancer. He was tired and jaundiced and it just happened to show up on one of his many scans performed to determine the problem. So, on my birthday in March, he went into the hospital and had his kidney removed. He came through perfectly and was fine. Unfortunately, his doctor must have been the kind of child that didn't finish his vegetables because he left a little bit of cancer in my Dad. A year later, he had to go back in for more surgery.

Remember I said God has a sense of humor? Down the road at another hospital, my Mother in Law was also having surgery at the same time. It turns out her cancer had come back and got into her pancreas. My wife was convinced her mom was about to die and I was just oblivious because here I was wondering why my Father was flat on his back again. To know the man you would understand why him on his back in pain is an odd sight. At 65 he was still active with a full time job and spent his extra time with his brother taking care of a farm which includes replacing the roof of the barn and other laborious tasks that puts me to shame when I breathe heavy from mowing the lawn.

After dueling bed pans was done, both our parents became cancer free for second time. Unfortunately, my Mother in Law's lack of organs had begun to catch up with her. Without part of her pancreas, she now has Type II diabetes. She lost her spleen previously and takes longer to bounce back from illness, and Sleep Apnea forces her to wear a CPAP mask at night in order to breathe while sleeping. In all, she has no complaints. According to her, she's been playing with the house money for the last ten years and regrets nothing. She's seen her daughters be married and have children. She has her quirks like her love of a good gadget or toy and she's not afraid to tell it like it is. She's sharp. As a benefits analyst she knows her stuff. That is why we were so concerned when she became unfocused and foggy in the last month. She began repeating questions that she had already been given answers to minutes ago. She seemed meek and unable to even type properly at work. We implored her to get an MRI and find out what is going on up there. She had recently been given a different blood pressure medication and put on singular, both of which can cause headaches but this was different. On her way to the MRI, she stopped at two mailboxes and ran a red light.

Back at work, she got the call. "How are you feeling?" the doctor asked, "Fine, just fine." She replied. "No, you're not. There is something going on up there. You need to get to the hospital now, call your oncologist and get a recommendation for a neurosurgeon." Our collective stomachs fell out our collective asses. In the past ten years she hasn't had a brain scan because they've been so worried about the rest of her body. I immediately spoke in a Sallah accent saying, "They're digging in the wrong place." She is at the hospital and their is some kind of mass on her brain. Swelling has been causing her mental lapses and right now she is being treated for that until they can come up with a course of treatment. And me, I'm calling up friends I haven't spoken to in years.

I don't want this for me. I want this for my wife. I want this for my daughter. I want this for my Father in Law. This woman has been able to hold a family together much better than I could ever hold anything together, and I pray in the church of duct tape. The people around me that I love have gone through cancer, MS, Graeves Disease, diabetes, OSA, and a slew of other health issues. Some have made it, some have not. Whether you're out there rolling your 20 sided die, deciding our fate, we're here and about out of saving throws. I know this lady has beaten cancer twice. But in football, beating someone twice usually can mean anything come the playoffs. We aren't ready and I'm not willing to call this one, yet. You're not doing anything to help sway anyone like me back to flock. She's already lost a kidney, her pancreas, and some of her bounce. What more do you want? She has a family that loves her and a little granddaughter that adores her. The company she's worked at for over 15 years has decided to sell to a bigger company, forcing her out of her job that she's been so loyal to. Prove me wrong and we'll talk.

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