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

advertisement | advertise on newsday

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.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

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.

Sign up for The Point and go inside New York politics.

Reader Joseph Governale lives in Holbrook.

Comments now uses Facebook for our comment boards. Please read our guidelines and connect your Facebook account to comment.

You also may be interested in: