Please forgive my starting this by invoking an old crude saying, but I beg your indulgence:
“Opinions are like a**holes - everybody’s got one.”
Likewise with 2020 stories - everybody’s got one - and mine involves almost not having an a**hole.
That’ll take a bit of sometimes-icky explaining, but if you’re game, so am I...
First, though, let’s set the Wayback Machine to where most folks’ 2020 stories begin - around March, when all of our lives seemed to start morphing into something strange and unpleasant. I was just getting immersed in my usual spring sports photography, along with some other freelance gigs, when that stream suddenly dried up. Our family experience from there rings similar to many others. My wife’s downtown government office was shuttered and she began working from home - an arrangement that took some technological adjustment and furniture re-arranging. Our son’s freshman year of college in Virginia came to a screeching halt and so we retrieved him in two university-regulated trips - one for him, the second for his dorm stuff. He’s made the best of it, although the reality is that while online studies aren’t ideal for any student, some majors are more disrupted by that format than others. Music majors spend much time in crucial small- and large-ensemble rehearsals and performances, plus nuanced private lessons. Theirs is a pursuit majorly up against it in the new COVID campus reality.
In an ironic footnote - a painful one for our son - he was scheduled to be part of a spring music department trip to…China. The itinerary included Wuhan, which, until 2020, was perhaps better known (at least in percussion circles) as the namesake home of cymbal production. Wuhan will now be forever known for producing something else entirely. At first, organizers postponed the trip, but as you’d expect, they eventually had to give up. Disappointing, but infinitely better than whatever might’ve transpired if they’d gotten over there and then the pandemic had broken out. Scary thought there.
Our daughter’s grad school situation in Syracuse was, thankfully, not quite as complicated, since she was able to ride it out and finish her semester from her off-campus apartment. It did scrap her plans for some summer project work, but in the grand scheme of COVID casualties, that’s admittedly small potatoes.
So once the initial adjustments were made, school years ended, summer came and we - like most of America - did our best to settle into the bizarre new routine of living the reclusive American COVID life. Even managed to escape to the Adirondacks for our annual camping trip, though we spent more of it than usual staying at our campsite.
To this point, we were - also like most of America - mostly just thankful to be free of the invisible killer.
OK - time for the a**hole part.
During all of this I had, for some months, been struggling with an intestinal issue. Sadly, this is not new for me, as I have often struggled with such things through my adult life. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (UC) in early adulthood. Although doctors, drugs and diets were eventually able to give me some decent control over it, it did, especially in the early going, cost me jobs, relationships, self-confidence and more. My first personal ’thorn in the flesh,’ if you will.
However, this newer issue I’d been unable to corral just felt and acted differently than my familiar foe. It turned out to be a newer, sharper thorn known as clostridium difficile. “C-diff” is an aptly-named bacterial infection that is harder to get rid of than a well-bankrolled incumbent. In my case, it was caused by an antibiotic I’d been prescribed for an ear infection by an urgent care doctor who was apparently unaware of the risk that particular antibiotic presented to an intestinally-challenged patient such as myself. (Cautionary tale there...)
Ironically, the treatment for this antibiotic-induced issue is…more antibiotics. They tried all three of the recognized possibilities - one of which costs $2,000...per pill. That’s enough to tighten anyone’s sphincter. (Thankfully, it was covered by a small co-pay, but I did briefly plot to trade them on the black market for camera gear…) Unfortunately, the pricey pills and the less-pricey pills were equally ineffective. Doctors finally tried a last-ditch procedure known as an FMT - a fecal matter transplant. (I know I’ve ventured deep into TMI territory here, but heck, you’ve come this far…) Well, the FMT did the trick almost overnight. Unfortunately, months had lapsed leading up to that point, and the havoc the C-diff had wrought on my already Swiss-cheese colon was considerable.
With my lengthy UC history, I was already on a scheduled annual or biennial colonoscopy schedule since my 30s. I’ve tried every prep, every anesthesia, and have outlasted the retirements of two gastroenterologists.
So…on the last day of July, my current GI decided to have a look-see to make sure things were healing up from the C-diff episode.
That’s when he found what turned out to be the biggest thorn of all: A tumor.
Thankfully, it appeared to be relatively small and not far along, but still, quite a jolt when he clued me in after the procedure. My paternal grandmother died of colon cancer.
Well, from there came a surgical consult with a doctor based out of Strong Memorial in Rochester and the discussion of different options - none of them particularly pleasant. My least favorite involved losing the entire colon and a permanent ostomy - a hole in your side where a bag goes to collect waste in lieu of the normal exit strategy. In that one, they sew your now non-functional a**hole shut.
So there ya’ have it: I would’ve been effectively sans a**hole.
There was a second option involving a temporary ostomy while they surgically turn part of your small intestine into a faux colon, let it heal and then close up the ostomy.
Solid choice for some, but can’t say I was enthused due to several potential complications.
Thankfully, there emerged a third possibility in my case - a no-ostomy option where they remove most - but not all - of the colon and just connect it to the small intestine. Surgeons and plumbers have more in common than steep hourly rates.
Two months to the date after my jolt of reality - and a couple of weeks after I’’d begun a decent new work-from-home job - came the first major surgery I’d ever undergone. Took over seven hours (so they tell me) and took me another eight days to finally make it home, due to some rather unpleasant post-surgical complications which I’ll spare you.
That slow recovery continued on at home for weeks. Major abdominal surgery is that much more major when you’re older (I “celebrated” my 60th birthday a couple of weeks after the surgery. ’Twas a memorable birthday, anyway…)
The other big thing with cancer surgery is what does/doesn’t transpire afterwards. Thankfully, the pathology showed a Stage 2 situation which, in my case, made any follow-up chemotherapy optional and of the variety that you can do in pill form at home. Debated that decision quite a bit, and ultimately tried to give it a go, even though the statistical impact on any possible recurrence only dropped a handful of percentage points with a six-month course.
However, it ultimately didn’t work out due to some suspected side-effects encountered a few days after I’d started.
Now I wish I could just wrap up the story neatly right there and say “All is well again!” - but how often does real life actually work out that way?
Not so much.
As I was finally recovering from all of that, a new thorn sprang up - this one a different, but not unfamiliar pain:
I’d had a couple of gallstone attacks over the years, although none recently. Not quite as unpleasant as a kidney stone attack (I’ve had those, too - still the worst pain I’ve ever experienced), but miserable enough on their own. Those prior attacks went away of their own accord, as is often the case.
Not this one.
Eventually, I had to concede that the only reasonable option was the one I absolutely loathed the thought of: Going back into a hospital. And so came to be my second major abdominal surgery in the space of 11 weeks. One more significant internal organ bites the dust. Getting rather roomy in there.
On the bright side, my stay there was only three days, allowing me to sneak back home in time for Christmas. Recovery has been a bit slow, particularly for my poor abdominal wall, which has been more pierced lately than a tattoo parlor addict. Also got a taste of just how sharp the CO2-induced shoulder pain of laparoscopic surgery can be.
So now, here I sit writing this as 2021 approaches the station, and COVID and all of its issues couldn’t be further from my mind.
No, for me, the significant challenges of 2020 have been highly personal. That dynamic will likely stay in place for me as well. Cancer surgery is the gift that keeps on giving, with periodic monitoring for the rest of your days - each test being a potential ticket to more and greater misery.
However, I can honestly say that I’ll endeavor to enter this new year not bitter, nor scared, but rather in a very thankful frame of mind.
As a Christian man who has experienced a few things in my 60+ years, one firm principal I’ve experienced repeatedly is that God teaches us the most important and indelible lessons during the depths of our greatest miseries.
He definitely grabbed me by the lapels the last few months, and shook hard.
That’s not the sort of treatment we usually appreciate - at least not at the time it’s happening.
Yet as I (hopefully) begin to emerge from the ashes of my personal version of 2020, I do so with a thankful heart.
I know one popular - and well-intentioned - take would be that I’m some sort of ‘overcomer’…that I toughed it out and somehow prevailed over challenging circumstances on my own inner strength. The ‘You Got This’ concept.
Another would be that I simply benefited from the triumphs of modern medicine and that neither I or any deity had anything whatsoever to do with it. The ‘Because...Science!” crowd.
Apologies to both camps, but I know better.
I’m sitting here writing this solely because of the grace of God…a grace which provided the medical marvels involved...which provided me - day-by-day and sometimes minute-by-minute - with the strength needed to just make it through another day, another procedure, another thorn.
Of course, I’m not privy to what future thorns may await. None of us are. However, I am secure in the belief - strengthened considerably over the past few months - that my God will be right there to walk me through it, safely to the other side.
That’s a fact, not just opinion...because, after all, everybody’s got one of those.