My Dress Rehearsal for Death

are_you_there_god_268x268In the year 2000 I found a golf ball-sized lump in my neck. Not having swallowed any golf balls recently, I decided I’d better see a doctor.

Dr. Yamagata was the opposite of the cold-but-efficient Asian doctor stereotype. He was friendly, laid-back to the point of “dude, what are you on?” and had a hopelessly disheveled office. He felt my neck and said “nothing to worry about,” then scheduled an MRI.

When I returned three cuticle-chewing days later, he said he wanted to do a biopsy (extract the golf ball from its hole). I asked to see the MRI Report. He said, “I tell you what you need to know,” then left the room to schedule surgery. The Report was still on the counter. I scanned it. The word “lymphoma” jumped off the page and floated around in front of me.

I spent the rest of the day reading up on my new roommate. The facts were disturbing: non-Hodgkin lymphoma, one of the deadliest forms of cancer (in 31 flavors) has an alarmingly efficient kill rate. My wife and I prayed hard. That evening, the sheer preciousness of time with my clueless daughters (“Why is Daddy so happy?”) made my face glow. We played like there was no tomorrow.  Because there might not be.

The days leading up to surgery were among the most transformative of my life. I was already a God guy, but the possibility of imminent death pushed Him from always-in-the-picture to dead center, obliterating former “concerns” (the need to fix that drippy kitchen faucet). My prayers evolved from “Please don’t let it be cancer!” to “I trust you, Lord, but…” to “Your will be done.” By the night before surgery, I was oddly excited. I might survive, I might not. But if I didn’t I’d have a year (give-or-take) to love the hell out of everyone!

The next morning they rolled me into a waiting room with several other pre-opers. A skinny young minister approached: “Excuse me…would you like me to, uh, you know, pray with you?”

I told him I’d been doing nothing but praying, but would be happy to have him join me. He said it was his first time as a chaplain and admitted he was terrified. So I asked him if he cared, and he answered, “Oh, yes!”

“Good. God’s got everything else covered,” I said. Then I asked him about his ministry and his family. He gratefully gushed. I was grateful, too—for having something else to focus on. Then I prayed for him.

When the orderly wheeled my gurney away, the chaplain shouted, “Thank you. You really helped me!”

I awoke with my wife’s hands around mine. Minutes later, Dr. Y came in looking unusually alert and said, “The tumor is benign.”

Turns out I had Rosai-Dorfman Disease, a dead ringer for lymphoma that is far rarer—only about 650 people on the planet have ever gotten it. It’s sole product: cancer-free golf balls.  I was relieved, of course.

But also disappointed.

I hadn’t needed to make peace with God—we were already friends—but I’d spent a lot of time preparing to die for Him—to fully accept His will. After all, I had cancer.

But then I didn’t.

rjsphoto-act-081009-035I’m grateful for my dress rehearsal for death. It showed me what was in me: what (and who) I really valued, what (and who) I really believed. It allowed me to prepare to die for God (not as hard as I’d thought), and it prompted me to work on something much harder:

To live for Him.

About mitchteemley

Writer, Filmmaker, Humorist, Thinker-about-stuffer
This entry was posted in Culture, For Pastors and Teachers, Memoir, Religion/Faith and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

108 Responses to My Dress Rehearsal for Death

  1. Such a touching post and so real. Many of us have those moments (a lump in a breast, etc.) when we must wrestle with our own mortality. It is transformative when we realize our time is limited. The funny thing is that our time is always limited here on earth…we just don’t realize it or live like it is. Thank you for being so transparent!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mitch, What a wall to climb. What preparation. Sorry you had to live through that. Glad it brought you closer to our dear Lord, for whom we are most thankful today and every day. At least when I prayed through being held at gunpoint 32 years ago as of 12/7, it was a ten minute, non-violent event one night, not several days of SWEAT. We have a lot to be thankful for. Bob

    Liked by 1 person

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