For awhile after my return from Florida life with Mister Rose was much the same as it had always beenóan unpredictable existence marked by extreme highs and lows. There were times I would leave the kitchen in a near-exulted state and literally fall to my knees in my room, thanking God for the incredible opportunity of living and working with Rose. And there were periods I endured almost unbearable frustration and anger as he picked and prodded and criticized and tore into me for character flaws I felt powerless to change.
But then, almost overnight it seemed, there was neither. Rose did not appear interested in my legal cases, or in my efforts to convince him of the depth and sincerity of my inner life. I found it difficult to engage him in serious philosophic conversation--or conversation of any kind, for that matter. If I told him about a book I was reading, or a dream I had, or some insight that crossed my mind during meditation, he would offer only a half-hearted comment, then either change the subject or turn away from me altogether and busy himself with something else.
I tried to figure out if it was something I had done, or left undone. I endlessly observed and analyzed the situation, trying to correlate Roseís moods to my actions. But there seemed to be no direct connection. In the end I concluded that the most likely explanation was the one most difficult to face--that Rose had simply lost interest in me, and in my spiritual aspirations. It was a conclusion I desperately did not want to confront. I buried myself in my legal work and came home later and later, hoping to avoid Rose and any conversation or gesture that might confirm my suspicion that Rose had written me off. I ruminated and agonized and made elaborate plans to do somethingóanythingóthat would re-kindle Roseís interest in me. Then, in the midst of this extreme spiritual dis-ease, the physical suddenly jumped to center stage. I was diagnosed with a fast-growing tumor in my head.
My first indication was not a symptom but an observation. One day in the office bathroom I looked in the mirror and was startled by what I saw.
"Jesus," I said out loud to myself. "Iím cross-eyed!"
I looked again, wondering if the light or angle had played some sort of funhouse-mirror trick on my perception. But as I scrutinized the reflection in front of me there seemed to be no doubt. My left eye was obviously different. At first glance it appeared to be higher than my right eye, but as I studied it with growing concern I realized it was actually bulging out of my skull.
I turned away from the mirror, assuring myself that Iíd slept on it wrong or been bitten by a spider or something, and tried to turn my thoughts back to work. But fear repeatedly brought me back to the mirror and the comical, almost grotesque, face that awaited me there.
Finally I walked into the adjoining office where Jeanne, a long-time assistant, was working on the books. I sat on the edge of her desk and tried to be casual.
"Look at my face," I said. "What do you see?"
She looked up from her ledgers. "Holy cow! Youíre bug-eyed!"
So much for the slept-on-it-wrong theory. After that, things started happening fast. As it happened Jeanne was seeing an eye doctor herself for early signs of glaucoma. She gave me his name and an hour later I was ushered into his examination room. He poked and prodded and tested, then announced there was nothing wrong with my eyes.
"But something is causing this bulging, thatís for sure. Whoís your family doctor?"
"My brother, actually.
"Good. Call him today."
I went back to the office thinking I would catch up on some work first, then call my brother, Gordon, later. But even sitting behind my desk with case files stacked three deep, work seemed a million miles away. I picked up the phone and called.
"Dave," he said. "Whatís up?"
"Itís crazy. I hate to bother you, but the local eye doctor made me promise to call."
"What about?" His voice took on an immediate professionalism. I relayed the events of the morning and as I finished I glanced up at the clock. It wasnít even noon yet.
"So what do you think it is, Doc?" I said.
"Weíll need to run some tests. I can get you into the hospital here today andÖ"
"Today? Whoa, Iíve got a big trial coming up. How about next week?"
"Well, IÖI donít think so, Dave. You should probably come on in today. With any luck youíll be out by morning."
There was something in his tone of voice, or the way he used my name in the middle of a conversation, that convinced me to take his advice. So an hour and a half later I parked the car where he had instructed and walked through the main door of Passavant Hospital with my hastily packed gym bag. Surprisingly, Gordonís wife, Suzi, was waiting for me there. She almost ran over to greet me and gave me an unusually long, tight hug.
"Hey, good to see you, too," I said with a laugh.
The woman at the patient intake desk smiled when she saw me. "You look just like your brother," she said.
An orderly came for me with a wheelchair and insisted I sit in it.
"Itís my eye, not my legs," I said.
Suzi squeezed my hand. "Go ahead. They make everybody do it. Iíll wait for you out here."
I was quickly passed from person to person, then wheeled down for x-rays and three or four other diagnostics before being taken to my room. In a few moments my brother walked in accompanied by a portly young doctor with a serious, almost stern expression. Gordon introduced us and the young doctor put me through another examination. Both he and my brother were all business. When he was through the young doctor explained that my vision was fine, which led him to believe that the difficulty was not in the eye, but in something connected to the eye. Then he announced that I would be turned over to a neurologist. We shook hands briefly and he walked out.
Gordon remained standing by my bed. "Youíll have a CAT scan this afternoon at four oíclock. After that it will be too late for any more tests. Youíll definitely be here for the night."
"Yeah, I figured."
Gordon continued to stand silently by my bed, probably waiting for questions that, inexplicably, I had no idea to ask.
Later, after the CAT scan, the neurologist and my brother stood together in front of a wall of light, looking at my x-rays. I waited for awhile, then walked over to join them. The neurologist glanced at me and pointed to an area of the x-ray.
"You see this?" His finger circled a light spot the size of a golf ball near one of my eye sockets. "Thatís whatís pushing against your eye."
"So what happens now?" I asked.
"Well, this is just a community hospital. We donít have the facilities to take care of you. Luckily, Allegheny General has an expert in this field, and weíve lined you up an appointment with him tomorrow morning."
The expert was a man named Kennerdale, a world famous eye surgeon who was continually addressing some august medical body or another. Apparently the only reason he was able to see me on such short notice was that he had been scheduled to appear on a panel at the AMA convention in Seattle that week, but his plane had been fogged in at the Pittsburgh airport the night before.
He was in his early forties, tall, broad but not really overweight, with a full head of dark hair. Though personable enough, he had the detached, confident air of the professional that Mister Rose was always railing against. We briefly reviewed my symptoms, then he said he was going to perform an ultra-sound test. He explained that he would be running a sensor over my eye, which would be a little uncomfortable until I got used to it, and that he would be viewing an image transmitted to the screen in front of him.
I flinched the first time the sensor touched my eye, but Kennerdale held my head with a firm but gentle strength that had a curiously calming effect. I began counting my breaths as a simple meditation technique to help me relax, and gradually I was able to tolerate the procedure.
After about twenty minutes Kennerdale said, "Thereís the tumor."
My mind jerked suddenly to attention. My body must have jerked too, because I felt Kennerdaleís grip forcefully squeeze the back of my head.
Jesus Christ. Tumor! Of course, what else would it be? Gordon and Suzi and everyone must have thought I was an idiot for not catching on, or at least asking questions before now.
"The tumor is a little bigger than I thought," Kennerdale said. There was that word again. I realized he was repeating it on purpose to be sure I got the message.
I have no idea how much longer he fooled with me. When he was done he told me the drops he put in my eyes to dilate my pupils for the ultra-sound would wear off in a half hour or so, and that I should wait out in the lobby until then.
Suzi put down her book and stood up when she saw me.
"How did it go?"
"He said something about a tumor," I said weakly.
She reached for my hand and sighed deeply, all pretense slipping away.
"I know. Gordon knew what it was right away," she said. "It was hard for us not to say something to you, but you never asked any questions. You really didnít suspect, even after you saw the CAT scan?"
I thought for a moment and tried to decide if maybe a part of me had known all along but perhaps just didnít want to face it.
"I donít think so," I mumbled. "I donít know."
I sat down heavily. "What kind of tumor is it?"
"They donít know yet," she said quietly.
It occurred to me then with sudden and devastating impact that I was a mortal being who was going to dieóand possibly very soon. Rose had been trying to impress that fact on meóon all his students--since day one, but I never got the message until that moment. Nothing like a gun barrel between the eyes to focus the attention.
The nurse came back and told me the doctor would see me now. I followed her to a small room, and she closed the door behind me, leaving me alone with Dr. Kennerdale. Perhaps in deference to my dilated pupils the room was completely dark, except for a small antique table lamp with a rounded, stained glass shade. Kennerdale loomed large in the shadows behind the desk, almost too large for the simple chair in which he sat.
I found myself gazing directly into his eyes. I had often stared into the eyes of witnesses, opposing counsels, even judges, hoping to see some hint of deeper meaning behind the words they were speaking. Now I desperately searched Kennerdaleís eyes for the truth behind the professional words I knew were coming.
"Youíve got a mass in your left occipital orbit," he said. "Thatís whatís pushing against your eye. Itís not common, but its not all that unusual either. I see maybe eighty to a hundred of these a year."
"Is it malignant?" I blurted out, almost before he stopped speaking.
"We donít know. We wonít know for sure until we take it out."
I looked away from him for a moment. The office was new and clean. There werenít even any pictures or framed degrees on the wall.
"What do you think, though?" I said.
He paused, as if deciding how much to tell me. "The fact that it seemed to appear out of nowhere indicates that itís fast growing, which is consistent with a malignant tumor. Like I said, though, we wonít know for sure until after the surgery."
Today was Wednesday, he said, and his usual surgical team worked Tuesdays and Thursdays, so he could either do emergency surgery tomorrow morning, or wait until the following Tuesday. He would make the final decision on which day after my medical tests were completed.
"Iíve scheduled a CAT scan for noon. I know you had one at Passavant, but that one was without dye."
"You seem pretty certain already. Why do I need more tests?"
"Because weíve got to be absolutely sure before going ahead. Absolutely sure. This is a serious procedure, David, but we have made great strides recently."
"What do you mean?"
"The surgery used to quite disfiguring," he said. "They had to remove the entire side of the face, leaving the patient looking like a stroke victim. Iíve developed an entirely different approach, though. It will leave only a small scar that will follow the lines of your glasses. Barely noticeable."
"I guess thereís no natural opening--eye socket, or whatever--to go through?"
"No. We remove the section of the skull adjoining the orbit. What happens next depends on what we find. If its malignant, we cut out what we can, then leave the skull section out and just sew up the skin--because weíll probably be going back in. Youíll have six weeks of radiation, and depending upon how things look, weíll decide how to proceed from there.
"Whatís the prognosis."
His face was grim. "The ten-year survival rate for this form of cancer is less than ten percent."
"And if I donít get the surgery."
"Thatís not an option, Iím afraid." He sat forward in his chair and looked directly at me. "This is a particularly virulent type of tumor. Left untreated, itís fast-growing and painful. If itís malignant, youíll be dead in three months without surgery.
"And if itís benign?"
"If we see that itís benign, we just remove the tumor, replace the skull section and you go on your way like nothing ever happened."
"I like that scenario a whole lot better," I said, managing a weak smile.
Kennerdale smiled back. "Yeah," he said. "Me too."
I left his office in a daze. Reality had changed. I was now a dying man, and no matter what kind of tumor I had, or how long I lived, that would not change. The person who was going to live forever was now forever dead and I knew it. His sense of permanence, of lasting importance had vanished into the past. Even the concept of "past" seemed dead.
The change had taken place so fast that my defenses had no time to react or adjust, to prepare me with hopes, explanations, or spiritual platitudes. I was merely and only a dying man, and for the moment at least, the truth of that seemed to be enough. People die at all stages of life, some in their mid-thirties. There was absolutely no reason that one of them should not be me.
Suzi stood again when I entered the lobby and waited for me to speak.
"If itís malignant, the survival rate isnít good," I said. "Ten percent."
"Youíll be in that ten percent," she said firmly, then linked her arm through mine and began walking.
We walked with no particular destination in mind, but soon saw a sign for the hospital chapel. Inside, we found an oasis of simple beauty no bigger than a living room, insulated from the noise and bustle of the adjoining hallway. There were three rows of chairs facing three long, rectangular stained glass windows. We sat in the front row and I immediately felt a powerful connection with all the prayers and fear and grief that had been offered into that tiny chapel. Next to me I heard Suzi crying softly. I began to pray but was soon distracted and overcome by a vision of what my immediate future heldóoperations, recovery, treatments, debilitation, weakness, pain. I thought of my mother and what she would have to go through, watching helplessly as her son slowly died. I didnít realize I was crying until the tears fell onto my folded hands.
"I donít mind the dying so much," I said out loud to Suzi. "I just donít want to go through all the bullshit."
"I know," she said quietly. "I know."
When it was time for the CAT scan, we left the chapel and returned to the lobby. After a few minutes my name was called and I was led to a small examination room where I was injected with radioactive dye. Then I was led into a narrow room with an examination table attached to a large apparatus that I now recognized as a CAT scan machine.
A technician helped me get situated on the table, and as he walked away a female voice came through a speaker near my ear, introducing herself as the conductor of the test. She explained a few things about the test and asked me if I was claustrophobic. As soon as I said "No" I heard the hum of machinery, and the beige metal cowl began approaching from the bottom of the table. I found the noise and movement oddly disquieting, and immediately began breathing deeply and counting my breaths. Soon the metal cowl was fully extended and covering me, so close that I felt a rising sense of panic.
Yesterday I had practically slept through the CAT scan at Passavant, but today was definitely different. I donít know if was the shock of the morningís events or the technicianís suggestion of claustrophobia or the comparison to a coffin that I couldnít get out of my head, but I suddenly became uncomfortable in the extreme. Once aware of the sensation, I expected the secondary panic also--the panic about being panicked--but blessedly this did not come.
Fighting the fear I closed my eyes and, as Rose had so often counseled, went within. After a few moments I was able to observe my state, and was calmed by this identification with the Observer: that impartial, objective and separate sense of self that sees everything--including thoughts and panic--as external, observable events. Rose often said that this Observer was a facet of, and a gateway to, the True Self.
The True Self. How often I had proclaimed that I was in search of it, and yet how little I had actually done. My God, this could be it! My life may be over and Iíve blown it. Iíd been given the incredible gift of meeting Rose, and though I worked with him for fifteen years I never truly made the simple commitment he insisted was the key to the kingdom:
"Make up your mind youíre going to find the Truth regardless of what it takes. Then youíll get somewhere. You make a commitment that youíre going to see this thing through, thatís all, even if it drives you insane or costs you your life."
With a sudden, wrenching sadness I realized that something was indeed about to cost me my life, but it most certainly was not my hunger for the Truth. I had never done what Rose said must be done in order to have any hope. I could almost hear his voice in my ear:
"Itís simple. Make a vow to yourself and whatever God might be listening that you want nothing out of this life except the Truth."
It seems I have wanted everything but the Truth. God, how could I have been so blind, so greedy, so selfish. Rose tried everything he knew to get through to me, but he never actually interfered with my ignorance, with the direction I took in life. He didnít believe in it.
"People have to find out for themselves what has value in their lives and what doesnít. Whatís worth living for. Whatís worth doing."
He even incorporated that attitude into his philosophy, insisting that formal spiritual practices were secondary to just "keeping your head on it" and working with what was in front of you.
"Your everyday life will give you all the koans you need to get Enlightened. Youíve got to face adversity in this realm, and conquer it."
I almost smiled. Life had just given me the mother-of-all-koans and I felt helpless to use it for anything other than self-pity and remorse. Remorse. I scanned my life and memories, looking for unfinished business and unrealized dreams.
"Success is the ability to look back without regrets."
What had I missed? I was going to die childless and alone, the greatest fear my mother held for me, and yet I felt no real pangs of regret at that thought. There was really only one thing: The Path, and my failure to walk it. In the beginning it was easy and fun, but as the years went by I took longer and longer side trips, until finally I wasnít really walking the path at all, only criss-crossing it now and then.
"When you start out, itís a wide path. Thereís all sorts of garbage you can get rid of. As you go on, the path gets narrower and narrower and the things you have to let go of are very precious to you. Finally, thereís no escape. You go through the funnel and thatís all there is to it."
There it was. My fear of the funnel. On the other side was Truth, God, the Absolute, Infinite Awarenessóthe Reality I claimed to be seeking. But I knew it would not be Dave Gold that survived the funnel, and Dave Gold was all that I knew. Of course I was a half-hearted seeker of Truthóthe Truth scared the shit out of me! How the hell could I go balls-to-the-wall after something that terrified me?
"No matter how enormous that which you become a part of is, itís still a very lonely place. The Absolute is a very lonely place. Youíre the only one there. Of course, everybody is the only one there."
With a sudden almost physical pain I realized that it was never the Truth that I sought. All I really wanted was the approval and respect of peopleóespecially Roseówho really did love the Truth! It had all been an elaborate subterfuge. I had spent years trying to convince a man who could see through me like water that black was white, that Dave Gold was a serious seeker of Truth. My whole life was a sham, and now, perhaps, it was over. I was gripped by an intense emotional pain unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Then, suddenly, the world became completely silent. In the void I heard a drop of sweat as it fell from my face and hit the table, and for a moment, my mind stopped. Like a switch had been thrown and everything had instantly shut down. All the noise that was Dave Gold just went away. I was totally empty and alone. I donít know how long it lasted and I have no memory of anything, but I think some part of me made a solemn promise in that moment.
"Okay, David. Weíre done."
The cowl slowly retracted. I continued to lay still for a minute, staring at the ceiling.
"Weíre done, David. You can go now."
I sat up slowly and got off the table.
I spent the weekend with Gordon and Suzi. On the day of my scheduled operation I awoke in the dark of early morning and looked out the window. The night was cloudless. Frosted grass glistened in the light of the full moon. As I did my usual yoga routine, I was struck by the sense of calm and timelessness I felt. For the first time in my life I was in no hurry.
When I went downstairs, Suzi was already waiting for me in the kitchen, car keys in hand.
"We better get going," she said.
At the hospital I was put into a room with a frail man in his eighties who had to struggle for every rattling breath. When they finally came for me I was placed on a gurney and rolled down ever-narrowing hallways, through a series of glass doors marked "RESTRICTED ACCESS," and finally into a small, dimly lit room with people in green gowns and serious faces talking in hushed tones. Suddenly I had to go to the bathroom worse than I could ever remember. Reluctantly, they allowed me to get off the gurney, but it was clear from their attitude that I had moved onto the production line, and that there would be no more delays. I stood over the toilet for what seemed like several minutes as all the water in my body deserted me. Then I took one last look at myself in the mirror and hurried back.
As soon as I lay back down on the gurney a nurse leaned over me and said she was going to start an IV. A few minutes later a soft-spoken doctor introduced himself as the anesthesiologist, and explained what he would be doing. First, heíd give me a sedative, then the knock-out drops. He said I might wake up with a sore throat.
"A sore throat I can live with." We both smiled through tight lips, and then he was gone. A new face appeared and said he was taking me to final pre-op. I was rolled into a harshly lit room and helped off the gurney onto the operating table. A half dozen people in surgical masks told me their names as they fiddled with me and various pieces of equipment. I repeated each of their names out loud as they told them to me: Frank, Harold, LindaÖ I counted my breaths. I commanded myself to Observe. One of the doctors nodded to the anesthesiologist to begin. I could hear my heart. From out of nowhere the Jesus prayer flew across my mind: Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a poor sinner. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a poor sinner. Lord Jesus Christ have mercyÖ And then there was nothing.
I emerged from oblivion more gradually than I had entered it. I was conscious of bright light on the other side of my closed eyelids, but I knew I was not ready to confront it yet. First, I needed to remember who I was. Nothing. I was at a loss. All I knew was that whoever I was had a pounding headache unlike anything heíd ever felt. Anyone with this much pain must be in a hospital.
"Nurse?" I called out.
A feminine voice came back, sweet and gentle.
"David. How are you feeling?"
With the mention of my name, my memory and life came flooding back.
"My head hurts."
"Here. I can give you some morphine."
I heard movement off to my right, and within a few seconds I was overwhelmed with a rush of well-being.
After a few minutes she asked, "How do you feel now?" God, what a beautiful voice. It pierced the fog in my head like a clear, crystal bell. I wondered what she looked like.
"My head still hurts pretty bad."
"If you think you need another shot, I can give you one."
I nodded, and moments later, the pain was gone. With its absence, a new imperative took overóthe need for an answer to the big question. Malignant or benign. The answer, I knew, was an armís length away. All I needed to do was touch my head. If they had replaced the skull fragment, the tumor was benign. If they had sewn back only skin, it was malignant.
I sent the message to my left hand, but it barely budged. I was so tired, and so weak, and then there was the morphineÖ "Cut the shit," some disgusted internal voice said. "Youíre stalling." I felt my left hand slowly rise until there was contact with my head. But the bandages were so thick I couldnít tell one way or the other. In a strange way I was relieved. Maybe I wasnít ready to know.
I could sense that the nurse with the musical voice was still nearby. Surely she knew. I had only to ask and the single most important question of my life would be answered immediately.
But something stopped me. I could not bring myself to ask the question. Perhaps I feared the answer. Perhaps I feared I already knew the answer. All I knew for sure was that for some unknown reason the question was, for the moment at least, not appropriate.
So I said something else instead and the nurse came to sit beside me. We talked for a long time about other things. At one point I opened my eyes and looked at her for a moment. She was even more beautiful than her voice.
Some time later an orderly came to take me from the recovery area back to my room. The beautiful nurse walked beside me and continued talking as the orderly wheeled my gurney down the hall and into the elevator. Her presence was a great comfort. When we reached our floor I was rolled down the hallway and into my room. Suddenly the world burst into noise as a crowd of people all started talking at once. I opened my eyes and propped myself up on my elbows. They were all there, crowding around meóSuzi, Gordon, my mother, sister, nieceÖ
"Did they tell you? Did they tell you?" Suzi almost shouted. "Itís BENIGN!"
My arms gave way like trap doors. I fell back onto the gurney and began crying in great noisy sobs of joy and relief. My sister stroked my hair. My mother kissed my fingers. The beautiful nurse put her hands to her mouth and began apologizing over an over. "Iím so sorry," she kept saying. "Iím so sorry. I thought you already knew."
I wanted to tell her that it didnít matter, but I couldnít stop crying. I wanted to tell her that nothing that had happened to me in my entire life up to that very moment mattered in the least.