Posted January 26, 2015 by jimhigley
(This is the fourth week of a six-month journey of self-discovery. Thanks for joining me. Today we begin with Chapter 3 from my book, “Bobblehead Dad: 25 Lessons I Forgot I Knew.” I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for some background on this chapter as well a few thought questions for you to think about. On Wednesday, I’ll share a new story focusing on this week’s lesson.
I never understood exactly what my dad did for a living. He ran something we referred to as “the plant.” What I did know was that the plant was an odd configuration of large warehouse-type buildings on the edge of town. The farthest buildings held expansive storage racks with different types and sizes of lumber. In the remaining buildings a group of men worked five days a week—from 7:15 in the morning until 3:15 in the afternoon—building a variety of wooden store fixtures that were used to display merchandise for retailers. The biggest one was named Montgomery Ward. I had a pretty good understanding of what the “men” did at the plant. But I never fully grasped my dad’s role.
He wore a suit to work, which differentiated him from everyone else. I knew he was important because he not only had an office, he had an office with gold letters on his door that spelled out his name: Robert L. Higley. He also had a lock on his door, a clear signal to me he was a man with clout. Beyond that, my dad’s business world was a dark hole.
I did know one thing about my dad’s job, however. I knew what he did at the plant every Saturday morning.
He sorted mail.
I knew this because I was allowed to witness this task weekly.
My Saturday journey to my dad’s office was always the same. It was the only time of the week I was allowed to sit in the front seat of his car. There were very few words spoken between us because my dad was more focused on the radio—listening to the melodic words of someone named Paul Harvey. That always seemed to put him in a good mood. Halfway to the plant, we’d stop at the local post office, where my dad would leave me in the running car while he ran into the simple, brick, one-story building. I was never allowed into the post office. My job was to wait patiently for three or four minutes until my dad reemerged with his mail.
The stack of envelopes my dad carried under his arm each week was always bundled together with very large rubber bands and was usually about six or seven inches thick. After placing the bundle between us on the bench seat, my dad would put the car into “drive” and ask me if I was ready to go to work.
I was always ready to go to work with my dad!
Getting from the post office to the plant was only about a two-minute drive, but for me it was the longest two minutes ever because I spent all of it trying to assess the possibilities that might await us in each Saturday morning’s mail. Most of the envelopes looked routine—and likely held the usual letters and other boring stuff. Sometimes, however, there were packages that clearly contained something far more interesting, such as a calendar or a pen with the name of his company printed impressively on the side: Watson Industries. Those were the packages I wanted to get my hands on!
We always parked in the exact same space—the one closest to the front door. I always carried the mail from the car into my dad’s office. My dad always hung his coat and my coat on the two hooks behind his door. I always sat in my dad’s one wooden guest chair while he, of course, sat in the leather chair with wheels.
Sorting mail was a ritual for my dad. My job was to learn from the master.
With the rubber-banded pile placed before him on his desk, the lesson would begin.
Step one was opening. In this step, my dad swiftly cut open each piece of mail. He started with the top envelope, opened it, and turned it upside-down onto a new pile. This task was completed—without words—with each successive envelope. At the end of this step, there was a new pile of “opened” envelopes, all turned upside-down.
In step two the master would take the entire pile of envelopes, flip them back to the original order, and set them on the desk. He was now prepared to remove the contents of each envelope in the same order he had opened them. As best as I could tell, this step was more art than science because I could never quite figure out a pattern to his actions.
The specifics of this step included (1) extraction of the contents of each envelope; (2) a brief scan of the contents (sometimes requiring a quick “flip-over” to look at the back side); (3) discarding of the envelope (or sometimes stapling it to the papers inside); and (4) placing the contents of the envelope into one of several new piles being created in the middle of the desk. In the end, there were four new piles; the one on the far right was held together with a large paperclip.
The four piles quickly turned into three as the contents of the far left pile were swiftly discarded into a green metal garbage can located on the floor next to the desk.
The following step involved the pile that was next to the discarded pile. This pile also had a very short life; my dad picked it up, walked to the rear of his office to a wall of multicolored metal file cabinets, and—within minutes—filed all of the contents of the pile into various drawers.
Two piles remained on the desk.
Then came the moment—as it did every week—when my dad would open the thin center drawer of his desk and pull out a dime from a plastic box.
After placing the dime on the pile clasped by the large paper clip, he’d slide the stack over to me. The master was almost done with the day’s work—at least the part I was allowed to witness.
“I’ll see you in a little bit,” he’d say with a wink.
That was my cue to take the clipped pile and carry it to Mr. Johnson’s office and put it in a blue tray that had two big letters—“AP”—on it. After that, I was free to take the dime to the lunchroom and treat myself to a soda pop.
Then, I waited. Wondering what the master was doing with that last remaining pile.
You’d think it would be simple to get an official cancer diagnosis if, in fact, you had the big “C.” It wasn’t simple for me, however. It was a six-month journey during which blood tests “looked suspicious” and biopsy after biopsy revealed nothing. Details of a prostate biopsy aren’t something you want to hear about, so let’s just say it feels like you have electrical probes shoved up your bottom hatch only to be followed by a doctor setting off a colossal Fourth of July fireworks show in there. I have never sweated—or shed tears of pain—so much.
The first three biopsies didn’t find any cancer cells. By the time they did the fourth biopsy, I honestly just wanted some resolution. Good or bad. Unfortunately, I got my wish one Sunday afternoon when my doctor called me out of the blue to go over my results.
When I heard his voice, I knew what the news would be.
He gave me a bunch of medical information. Numbers. Doctor talk. I had him repeat everything a couple of times so I could write it down. In an instant, a disease I had been reading a fair amount about suddenly moved from the remote “third person” perspective to the intimate “first person” one. And I was that person.
He told me to call his office the following morning to set up an appointment for Tuesday so we could discuss our action plan in person.
“Try to enjoy the rest of your weekend,” he said before we hung up. What else could he say?
I couldn’t move after finishing that call. Moving meant leaving the past behind. Moving meant facing the reality of the future. But standing still—frozen in the moment with the phone still in my hand—also made me aware of how alone I felt at that moment. Who do I turn to? I thought. The only people at home were Kevin and Drew, fifteen- and nine-years-old at the time. Wallis, thirteen-years-old, was on her way home from a volleyball tournament in Minnesota.
Months and months of emotions began to percolate up from my secret hiding place deep inside. I feared I was about to explode emotionally—something I didn’t want my two boys to witness—so I got myself outside, to the porch on the back of our home. It was an insignificant place I had walked through hundreds of times en route to someplace else. But that day it became the venue for the meltdown of my life. Curled up on the floor, with my knees pulled up to my face, I pressed up against the railing and sobbed.
I found myself wondering how my dad and brother reacted when they found out they had cancer. I was sure they didn’t end up on the back porch in a fetal position wailing like me. They were strong. And as much as I wanted to be strong, right then I also just wanted to cry. I wanted them to call out to me and tell me what to do.
“Dad!” I heard faintly through the back door. It was my son Kevin shouting for me.
I didn’t want to be busted on the porch so I cracked open the door and yelled back into the house, “I’m outside. I’m on the telephone!”
“Baseball, Dad! We have to go!”
I had forgotten that Kevin and Drew had their weekly batting practice at an indoor baseball clinic about thirty minutes away. And we were going to be late.
Batting practice, as it turned out, was a good distraction for me. Sitting and watching them play ball gave me the time I needed to sort things out in my head. It was my first experience in living my life with cancer. I was surprised at how settling it felt simply to be there.
I decided I couldn’t panic. I needed to tell people in a thoughtful manner. I needed to get organized for my doctor’s visit in a couple of days. And I needed to try to reclaim a little bit of normalcy by making dinner for my family.
I’m not a cook, but that night I cooked. I pulled out a dusty recipe book and followed directions to the letter for making lemon chicken and rice. During dinner, I learned all about Wallis’s tournament in Minnesota. I learned that Drew hates capers. And I learned that Kevin suddenly looked more like a young man than a little boy. In retrospect, it was during our lemon chicken dinner—with my secret still safe—that I finally allowed the spring under my bobbling head to snap.
Unable to bobble, I could now relearn to live.
Later that night, I went up to Kevin’s room to tell him about my doctor’s call. Kevin was always a mature kid, and I know what I had to say added ten years to his 120-pound frame.
Unfortunately, it was Wallis who I caught off guard. I took her into the living room, the Granny Smith green living room, and sat her on the couch. I ignorantly wasn’t prepared for her reaction. In retrospect, I see that she was a child who had lost her grandfather and uncle to cancer in the previous few years and now, here was her dad, dropping another bomb in her life. She came undone. And the only thing I knew to do was to hold her in my arms, allowing her to cry until there were no more tears.
My emotional well was empty. It was late. Talking to Drew would have to wait until the next day.
After everyone was asleep, when I finally crawled into bed, I not only wanted to turn off the lights in my room; I wanted to turn off the nightmare I had just walked my family into.
My alarm went off Monday morning at 5:00 am—as usual. What was not usual was that I just stayed in bed, flat on my back, for about fifteen minutes after I shut off my beeping wrist alarm. I remember thinking one thing: my life would never be the same again. It was the first day I woke up with cancer. At least officially.
I hated that thought.
That morning, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I lingered around the house for a couple of hours enjoying the morning routine of my family. There was absolutely nothing eventful that morning—although the big kids, Kevin and Wallis, looked at me differently. Tentatively. Drew was still the only one who was able to go through his morning motions unscathed. But there came a time when I had to take some of his innocence away to let him know Daddy needed an operation.
By eight o’clock, I was at Caribou Coffee, ready and equipped to spend the entire day. I had brought along all of the articles on prostate cancer I had been collecting over the last few months. I had two books on prostate cancer I hadn’t yet looked at. I had a dozen new folder files. I had my cell phone and laptop. I had a couple of highlighters, some pens, and a desire to be productive.
The first thing I had to do was sort through everything. One by one, I scanned every article, trying to ascertain whether or not it was applicable to me at the time.
I made three piles. One was to throw away. The second consisted of articles I thought might be important in the future. The last pile was the one I wanted to focus on and understand that day.
Around ten o’clock, I had finished my sorting project. The “throw away” pile—which was the largest of the three—was gone. Banished. Not important anymore. The articles in the “hold-onto-but-file-for-later” pile were now separated into about half a dozen file folders, each appropriately labeled with a title, such as “Diet Information,” “Clinical Trials,” and “Support Groups.” They might be of interest to me someday—but not today.
Today’s business was to get my arms around things so I could have a productive meeting the following day with my doctor. Distractions weren’t on the agenda.
I needed to be prepared.
I also needed to give things away. For me, that meant my business obligations in the coming days. With a few phone calls, my work distractions were gone, handed over to trusted colleagues who—not to my surprise—eagerly jumped into my life and took responsibility for handling my workload for as long as necessary.
I felt organized. Now I was ready for the primary task of focusing only on what was important. And I still had more than twenty-four hours before I was scheduled to see my doctor. Things were coming together.
With a fresh cup of coffee in front of me, I pulled out a pen, a highlighter, a notepad, and my two books. I knew I would never be able to read each book in full. So I did the best I could. I started with the more technical one. Chapter by chapter I worked my way through it. Some parts I read in detail; some parts I scanned. I took notes and wrote questions down as needed. As I moved through the book, I was actually amazed at how much I already knew. What had felt overwhelming to me just twenty-four hours prior was, page by page, becoming something that was understandable which made the cancer a little less threatening. It was like confiscating the opposing team’s playbook ahead of time. Knowledge is a good—and comforting—thing.
By mid-afternoon I had finished book one, Surviving Prostate Cancer, and had amassed a dozen or so pages of handwritten notes and questions. With the heavy reading behind me, I moved on to the next book, titled Prostate Cancer for Dummies. I kid you not. It was actually a terrific check against the first book, which read more like a medical textbook. Five o’clock that evening was quitting time, and I was ready to put my research down and go home.
That evening, I gave myself the gift of watching television with the kids.
My meeting the next day with my doctor lasted a couple of hours. We sat in his office and talked about a variety of options. Unfortunately, almost all of his “options” weren’t for me. For me he reserved the granddaddy treatment—a radical prostatectomy. He then proceeded to show me diagrams of the surgical procedure, detailing step-by-step how he was going to slice my belly open and skydive in for the kill. I felt like I was being sold a set of Ginsu knives as he shared his assortment of propaganda and pamphlets
“I’ve done this hundreds of times,” he said, trying to reassure me.
What I wanted to ask him was, when he said “hundreds” did he mean 102 or 998? As if that even mattered. He knew I was on board and he knew I trusted him. With or without the complimentary steak knives. Surgery was scheduled for the following month.
As we were wrapping up, my doctor said he tells his patients that getting to the point we had reached in our consultation is much like putting a whole bunch of information through a funnel. With cancer, there are so many issues to work through, but the objective is simply to sift it through the funnel and to focus on the important things that emerge.
Interesting, I thought to myself.
He sees it as a funnel.
I see it as sorting mail.