I had bold plans for 2019. I am self-employed and can work from anywhere, so I decided to embark on a Year of Living Nomadically. I invited friends and family to suggest places I should visit and songs I should listen to while on the road. Not a soul suggested I spend a week in a Northern Virginia hospital owing to the discovery of a brain tumor. No one thought to recommend the Patty Griffin song, “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.” The discovery of the large meningioma and emergency surgery four days later forced me to come up with another plan.
Before I knew I had a tumor pushing the right side of my brain across the midline of my face, I made plans to visit family and friends in Colorado, California, and North Carolina. I spent time with clients in Maritime Canada and started working on a merger integration for a client in Florida. I was going where I wanted to go, doing what I wanted to do, spending time with people I loved, and working on interesting projects, but I felt an encroaching sense of malaise, a free-floating discontent that I didn’t understand.
On a flight from Denver to D.C., I typed out instructions for my son, Sean, on where to find my financial information in the event of my death. I created a screen saver on my mobile phone that identified my daughter-in-law, Christina, as my contact in case of emergency. Once home, I hired an organizer to help me clear out the rooms in my house. Never much of a pack rat, I wanted to get rid of as much stuff as I could and neatly arrange the rest. Without realizing it, I was putting my affairs in order.
By mid-December, I had gone through three rounds of antibiotics for debilitating headaches that I assumed were caused by a persistent sinus infection. As the headaches intensified, my mood darkened, and I withdrew deeper into myself. Meanwhile, my son and siblings had been calling one another to discuss what to do about the problem that was me. My personality had gone flatline. I had less to say and took longer to say it. I listed to one side; I was unsteady on my feet. Over the Christmas holidays, I played a board game with my granddaughters, ages five and three. After they went upstairs to bed, my son and daughter-in-law observed me alone in the room, still pushing the playing pieces around the board.
“You were fading away,” said Sean. “We thought we were losing you.”
On New Year’s Eve, I flew to Florida for what was to be a two-week visit to my client’s site. I felt overwhelmed and fatigued, oppressed by constant headaches, unable to focus or think clearly. The morning after I arrived, when I emerged from my hotel for the half-mile walk to the client’s office, I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I pulled up a map on my phone but couldn’t follow the directions. Finally understanding that something was very wrong, I took a cab to the office and told my client I needed to get home. I flew out later that day.
The next morning, my sister Monica drove me to the hospital. I don’t remember arriving, or going through registration, or being taken for a CT scan. I do remember hearing a doctor say, “You have a large tumor on your brain.” I didn’t notice how my sister turned away so I couldn’t see the look on her face.
I do remember thinking, “Well that’s unexpected.”
I was admitted to the critical care unit on a Thursday. The surgeon scheduled a craniotomy for Monday. Meanwhile, I was pumped full of intravenous steroids to shrink the tumor. Within hours, I felt flooded with energy and optimism.
“You’re back!” said Sean.
A few years earlier, in graduate school, I studied positive organizational change, which has some powerful neuroscience behind it, and I used what I learned to face the diagnosis and surgery with optimism. My family and friends made it easy, rallying around me and arranging for someone to be with me at critical moments around the clock. Sean took charge of my care, stepping away from his practice as a trial lawyer to support me and confer with my medical team. My brother Al, sister-in-law/BFF Karen, and nieces Rachel and Kelly flew in from Colorado. Famous for her comfy beds, Karen replaced the horrid itchy hospital sheets and blankets with soft bedding.
The neurosurgeon warned my family that the operation could take several hours, and I might need rehabilitation or physical therapy as part of my recovery. In fact he finished in less than four hours, and I came through with no impairment and no pain—just the sensation of a mild toothache. Two days later, the bandage was removed from around my head, revealing a shiny set of staples that ran from above my right temple to behind my right ear, and I was released from the hospital.
I am one of the lucky ones.