Thomas Lynch was the first writer able both to tease and to dash my dreams of becoming one, all in the space of five pages.
In what would seem a writerly conceit, he’s also the nation’s most famous undertaker. In the little town of Milford, just north of Detroit, Thomas Lynch buries his friends and neighbors for a living.
He writes in his spare time.
I invited ‘Tom’ (if I couldn’t match him at least I could befriend him) to speak at my church many months ago.
I should’ve realized back then that soliciting an undertaker’s presence into your midst- albeit one who has a sideline in poetry- seldom portends happy news.
Now, Tom’s two weeks out, his flight and his room are booked, his agenda is set and I’ve just had a tumor the size of a trade paperback excised from my insides- oh, and I’m waylaid in an oncology ward with a rare and incurable cancer, ingesting a cocktail of poisons to help the grim news go down.
So both my dashed dreams and my dire diagnosis I blame on the undertaker.
But, as Tom himself points out, my luck isn’t all that exceptional. The numbers- as in, THE NUMBER- are against me.
In his book, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, Lynch writes:
The most satisfied of my customers say: I hope to never see you again. I wear black most of the time, to keep folks in mind of the fact I’m not selling Buicks.
I’m the only undertaker in this town. I have a corner on the market. The market, such as it is, is figured on what is called the crude death rate- the number of deaths every year out of every thousand persons.
Here is how it works.
Imagine a large room into which you coax one thousand people. You slam the doors in January, leaving them plenty of food and drink, color TVs and magazines. Your sample should have an age distribution heavy on baby boomers and their children- 1.2 children per boomer. Every seventh adult is an old-timer. You get the idea.
The group will include fifteen lawyers, one faith healer, three dozen real estate agents, a video technician, several licensed counselors and a Tupperware distributor. The rest will be between jobs, middle managers, ne’er-do-wells or retired. Now for the magic part- come late December when you throw open the doors, only 991.6, give or take, will shuffle out upright. Two hundred and sixty will now be selling Tupperware.
The other 8.4 will have become the crude death rate.
Here’s another stat.
Of the 8.4 corpses, two-thirds will have been old-timers, five percent will be children, and the rest (slightly less than 2.5 corpses) will be boomers- realtors and attorneys likely.
What’s more, three will have died of cerebral, vascular or coronary difficulties, two of cancer, one each of vehicular mayhem, diabetes and domestic violence. The spare change will be by act of God or suicide- most likely the faith healer.
The figure most often and most conspicuously missing from the insurance charts and the demographics is the figure I call:
The Big One.
The Big One refers to the number of people out of every hundred born who will die.
Over the long haul, The Big One hovers right around…well, dead nuts on 100%.
If this figure were on the charts they’d call it death expectancy and no one would buy futures of any kind. But The Big One is a useful number and it has its lessons. Maybe it will make you want to figure out what to do with your life. Maybe it will make you hysterical with fear.
As a clergyman with a sizeable chunk of my workaday year given over to beholding mysteries with a benediction and a fistful of dirt, I recognize the attention-getting power of a horizontal body.
Indeed, I daresay, one horizontal body that’s no longer moving is more compelling than two bodies that are moving horizontally together.
Like Thomas Lynch, I know firsthand many times over that there’s nothing quite like the presence of a dead guy to fix one’s mind on figuring out lowest common denominators; namely, between you and the universe. Or God.
My trade as much as Tom’s depends upon that number: the Big One, and for as long as I’ve been a pastor I’ve operated on the assumption that the Big One, 100% Death Expectancy, 0% Survival, is the only number that really matters in the grand scheme.
The Big One, I’ve always thought, is the only number that matters for taking accounts, auditing actual value and putting life in its proper perspective.
But I’m not a pastor anymore.
At least, not right now I’m not. Nor will I be for some time to come. I’m a patient, and after one surprise surgery, followed by a scary pant-pissing diagnosis and now facing a long chemo protocol that makes me blanch and odds I’d rather not weigh…
Lately, I’m convinced that the Big One is not the only number that matters.
Not by a long shot.
In fact, the last couple of days numbers seem to be the only thing I can wrap my head around.
Maybe it’s because I’m staring at Day #4 of something like 150 (if all goes well, says the doc) to come.
Or maybe it’s because I’m feeling flat-lined fatigued, tapped-out tired from my third 24 hour drip of yet another ‘medicine’ that ends with the suffix -toxin.
It could be because I’m strapped to this IV pole, tethered by the port and tubes in my chest, and plugged into the wall like a plastic, beeping prisoner.
And I’ve worked in a prison- I know of what I speak; prison is freaking boring.
The truth is it’s just been a couple of days and I’m already exhausted, a scorecard that makes me swallow hard at the road ahead. I’m fed up with waiting to throw up. I’m tired of waiting for when the meds will give me the runs and I’m tired of wondering whether I’ll be able to unplug all my shit and make it to the toilet in time when they do. And I’m seriously done with the way the brown bagged potion on my pole makes my piss the color of blood.
Not to be too graphic.
My point is- I’m weary and, wearied, words are starting to prove elusive for me, making it easier for me to mark the time and transcribe the moments not in words but in numbers.
43- the number of cancer-related television commercials I counted yesterday during dinner.
38 – the number of those commercials which aired on CNN
24 – the approximate number of hours per day that the Crocodile Hunter: Steve Irwin is on television.
2006 – the year the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, died.
7- the number of times the charge nurse has balled me out for refusing to wear the hospital-issue, rubberized, geriatric socks.
3 – the number of times the cancer-themed, Joseph Gordon Levitt/Seth Rogen bromance, 50/50, has aired during my hospitalization.
6 – the number of times my nurse, Joyce, has walked in and caught me watching #19 Children on TLC this week.
Too Many to Count – the number of tumors in my chest and abdomen regions according to my CAT Scans
5 – the number of IV bags being routed through the 2 tubes ported in my chest cavity.
180 – the number of seconds it takes me to unplug all those bags before I can begin to drag myself to the bathroom.
14 – the number of times I need to get up to go to the bathroom every night.
48 – the number of minutes I spent crying, full-on tears, during lunch today while watching Charlie Rose interview a panel of New York oncologists.
26- the number of minutes I made it into Episode 1 of Season 1 of Breaking Bad before realizing the premise hinged on a father and husband with terminal cancer, balling like a strung-out meth-head and turning it off.
4 – the number of times during our ‘walk’ today that the soft-spoken Licensed Clinical Social Worker observed that I seemed ‘cynical.’
3 – the number of patients I could overhear weeping last night long past midnight.
2 – the number I overheard the night before crying out in what sounded like agony while they threw up from their chemo.
14 – the number of times my doctor has asked if I have diarrhea.
8 – the number of times I’ve had it.
2- the number of times my mom surreptitiously washed my sharted on shorts to spare me shame.
23.6 – the amount my White Blood Count has dropped since Friday.
2 – the number of panic attacks that have awakened me in the middle of the night this week.
19 – the number of cans of Ensure, sent by the dietician, sitting unopened in my room.
14 – the number of years Ali and I will have been married this coming August.
40 – the percentage of my total years (37) that I’ve been in love with her and she (fingers-crossed) with me.
75 – the percentage of time I’ve not lived up to her expectations.
100 – the percentage of time she’s exceeded my own.
52 – the rough estimate of years, based on average life expectancy, I anticipated to have left with her.
12 – the age my oldest son is now, the age I was when my parents split, an age I know can make a lifetime’s difference.
41 – the percentage of my boys’ lives I’ll ‘miss’ this year while in treatment.
Forever – the amount of future time I assumed I had with them.
35 – the best guess number of times this week I’ve prayed a desperate, lame ‘Please, make it go away, God’ prayer.
0 – the number of times God has replied thus far.
With my brain cobwebbed on chemo and fitful sleep, I’ve found it easier to mark the time with numbers.
And, sitting here in my bed, sifting through all these numbers and searching out lowest common denominators, I’ve discovered:
Tom’s Big One isn’t the number that matters most to me in the grand scheme.
I don’t really give a damn about my 100% Death Expectancy anymore because there’s a few other numbers that have gripped my attention, especially this one:
7: the median number of years for Mantle Cell Lymphoma until a relapse occurs.
But that’s hardly the only number. There’s:
44: the age my wife and I’ll be then.
16: the age my youngest, Gabriel, will be when I cross that number.
4: the number of years Ali and I will be just shy of our 25th Anniversary
60: the decade to which my life expectancy is shortened if my MCL requires bone marrow transplants.
Yesterday afternoon a pious-eyed chaplaincy student from the seminary just down the road wandered into my room. Having designated my religion as ‘Christian’ at patient registration last Friday, she had arrived to offer me pastoral care. I’ve been in her shoes before so I tried to be on my best behavior; I didn’t even mention that I
was, had been a pastor. When it came time for her to take her leave, she extended the invitation for the obligatory prayer.
And thankfully she spared me any ‘Fatherweejus’ tripe but dammit if her prayer wasn’t all about me and the Big One, about FREAKING ETERNAL SALVATION and me trusting myself to it.
She said ‘Amen’ and I said ‘Thank You’ even though I was thinking ‘I’d like to punch you in the teeth.’ Because I don’t care about eternity right now.
I’m not afraid to die.
I don’t need a miracle or a cure, the latest elixir or a magic potion or the Jesus Prayer.
I don’t need forever.
I just want more time. That’s all.
Eternity is not a number I care about because I’ve got numbers like 7 and 60 that are now my Big Ones.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this nearly a month long nightmare (and if that sounds too stoic and brave, just go back to the top and reread)
It’s how quickly you can make peace with the likelihood you’ll die far sooner than you expected
It’s how quickly you can make peace with the fact that it’s likely this (and not peaceful old age or angina) that will kill you
It’s how quickly you can make peace with it, IF (a big fucking IF) you can just see your kids grow up, that’s all.
You can make peace with it if you can just enjoy your wife’s company for another factor (or two) of seven.
Eternity is the wrong damn number because it’s not so hard to make peace with death if you can just have a little bit more time.
So that’s what I’ve started to pray for, more time.
Hopefully it’s not too much to ask for; after all, when you think about it, time- literally, all the time in the world- is the exact gift God gives us at Easter.