Expressway: My refuge when cancer showed up

Open space on the 210-acre campus of the Open space on the 210-acre campus of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood. (Sept. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Lawrence Striegel

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The beach, some park, a sailboat out on the Sound -- we all have that one special place. For me, it's the grounds surrounding the Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Brentwood. Those 210 acres are a pastoral paradise, and it is there that I go when the noise of life gets too loud.

Two summers ago, the din was deafening. A late-night call from my doctor brought news that I had cancer of the liver. Cancer! That terrible word, always for others, was suddenly mine. Until that moment I could never imagine the world without me. Now that possibility loomed. Disbelief, anger, fear -- I felt each over the next few days. Then sadness set in, sucking my spirit dry.

Friends and family spoke to me. A psychologist, too. "Be strong," he said.

I'd given my mother the same advice when she was diagnosed with cancer. Now that it was me, though, those words had a hard, cruel ring. Such strength simply wasn't in me. That awareness eventually led to a depression so deep that just getting out of bed in the morning became a struggle. And when I did, it was only to endure the anguish of another day.

Mired in despair, I shrank from the world. Except for doctor appointments, I rarely left the house. This continued through July and August. Then, in mid-September, I awoke from a bad dream to find myself alone. Usually my preferred state, solitude now gave rise to panic. Within seconds, I was out the door and in my car. Twenty minutes later, I reached St. Joe's in Brentwood. Taking a walk there had calmed mind storms before. I hoped that would happen again.

From the parking lot, a path snakes left and right. On each side, trees rise high to block out the sun. Their shade, dappled in spots, leads to a field of grass spread out in three directions like a smooth green blanket. Here the road forks. To the left stands a giant spruce with long droopy branches. It seems like a creature from some fantasy novel, the kind that helps a lost hero find his way. Next are the dogwoods and maples and oaks. These grow in spaced-out isolation, as if planted by an impetuous gardener or a sudden gust of wind. Farther on, under a weeping willow, is a worn wooden bench.

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Those old planks have seen me through some tough situations -- a divorce, my mom's death, the suicide of a close friend. In each case, hours of reflection always led to this: Life is what it is and bad things sometimes happen. A commonsense code. Stoically sound. This time, though, my back-pocket philosophy seemed incredibly naive and short-sighted. It had allowed surrender to a mere word -- cancer.

 

Sitting there now, I felt like a coward, a traitor to myself. The trees and flowers agreed. So did the bushes and a billion blades of grass. I rose and continued on. With me suddenly was a voice -- my own -- saying over and over: "Be strong! Be strong! Be strong!"

And from then on, I was . . . pretty much.

Three months later, I received another late-night call. This one from the transplant office at the New York University Langone Medical Center. A liver had been found. An organ donor from Buffalo would save my life. But so, too, did the trip to St. Joe's. That resurrection just took place a little earlier.

Reader Joseph Governale lives in Holbrook.

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