My laptop screen blinks at me faster than the human eye can detect. My eyesight, failing me for the first time in my hawk-like existence, can’t pick it up. My brain does. Too much time in front of a computer screen and I get screaming headaches. Just maybe one of the myriad of reasons that I don’t fit in this weird world we now live in.
I’m trying to decipher what my doctors have written me in response to my question. Two years ago, I was given somewhere between three and six months to live. That was if I stopped drinking. I stopped. In spite of what everyone thought of what I could or couldn’t do, I stopped. Three days after I walked out of the rehab center, where I was expected to last a day or so, if that long, I walked into a restaurant and went to work for the best damn chef on the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. It was plain dumb luck.
Now, I’m still alive. Despite everything, I’m still here. I’ve been in and out of hospitals for most of the time since the diagnosis. I nearly slid into a coma and only some last minute decision making by my wife and therapist landed me in the emergency room and saved my life. A few months later, I was operated on without consultation from my liver transplant team. I walked out of the hospital, to everyone’s amazement, about an hour after I woke up. Three days later, I was bleeding internally, out of my head from the side effects of millions of unfiltered toxins hitting my brain stem at the same time. Only some quick thinking by my Mom and our Nanny saved my life that time around.
All in all, I’m doing pretty damn good. Sobriety is just as I remembered it: Awesome. I had forgotten how good life is. The joys of a good nights sleep, for example, is heaven. Carrying my little boy around on my shoulders, something I never thought I could do is better than any drug, any bottle of the finest whiskey. I didn’t think I could write if I were sober. That was a mistake. I can write better than I ever dreamed, which still isn’t very well, but who cares? I can cook. Damn, I can cook. I can cook like nobody’s business. What I lack in skills I make up for in passion. My taste buds work. My sense of smell is amazing. So what if my eyes aren’t 20/10 anymore? At least I can see.
My question was simple: Can I run with cirrhosis? Will it hurt me? Specifically, can I run if I’m having fluid buildup in my abdomen due to ascites? I didn’t get an answer. For three months, my doctors dodged around the subject.
Their message, finally, was this: If it doesn’t hurt, and seems to help, then yes. They can think of no reason why I shouldn’t engage in sustained physical exercise. Their reply included that they had never, not ever, been asked that question before.
That has stumped me all day. I ran three miles this afternoon, slowly, of course. I’m not out to break any records. I don’t even record or think of how long it takes. All I know is, I’m travelling through the winter shadows under my own power, and of my own volition. I enjoy the cold on my face. I listen to the birds prepare for the upcoming “Polar Vortex,” whatever the hell that means. It’s been getting cold for millions of years. I don’t know why that is suddenly newsworthy.
The stars deepened in spite of the sunset. I was in the twilight zone. My brain was off. All I could hear were my footsteps, which were more or less in rhythm with my heart. My blood pressure is not on par with an Olympic Athlete. But it’s pretty damn good for a dead guy.
I help my neighbor carry groceries in from her car, and we discuss stuff, I don’t remember what, exactly. Human stuff. I run on through our neighborhood, my brain still on autopilot. I don’t think of my illness, any discomfort or anything. Instead, my brain triggers images, memories. I remember my grandmother, arriving at our little house with a car loaded with groceries. I think of her, of her strength, her gift to her children and their descendants. A smell, faint but unmistakable on the breeze, reminds me of a perfume an old girlfriend, mostly forgotten.
Squirrels chase one another around a pin oak and I remember hunting with a recurve bow when I was a little kid. I disappointed my Dad. I didn’t bring any of them home that day. They were just too, alive. I hear the unmistakable blast of a shotgun and the honking of geese and I wonder if the hunters were successful in bringing food home to their families. I know it’s mostly just a show of masculinity, but it still carries evolutionary nostalgia.
So, what is keeping me alive? How am I healing? How am I running, just this afternoon? I don’t know. I do know that I listen to my body. For the first time, I listen to what it is telling me. If I’m hungry, I eat carefully. For the most part. Sure, I still take my chances. I like sushi, shellfish, raw meat, hot dogs from unknown sources and questionable fried chicken. I’ll eat it. I am a cook, after all.
I may succumb tomorrow. But I will go out the way I want: With my families respect and my honor more or less intact. In the meantime, I will live as if I will never die.