poison, bottle, medicine

Musical Theater Program

Now this was a challenging project! The composer of LIFE IS GOOD requested an extended synopsis of the story, which would become a featured article in the program. He wanted the piece to be “narrated” by the main character, Tom. No problem, except for one tiny detail: the show hadn’t yet been staged. My source materials were the show’s musical numbers and a video of the cast recorded during a table reading of the script. I dove headfirst into the world of Tom and Amy, cancer and chemo, IVF and newborns. It was quite a ride, but I had to agree with Tom: LIFE IS GOOD.

…there’s one thing that I got and that one thing means a lot
…I got life and life is good

At the tender age of thirty, I was sure I had it all: a beautiful wife, a great job with interesting work, a well-rounded social life. I wasn’t quite ready to start a family, but Amy and I were contemplating, and it was definitely on the horizon.

I was happy, content. I was even thankful – hey, I have the spirit of an artist, and we creative types are predisposed to acknowledging emotions. What I didn’t realize was that I was taking it for granted. I just expected that my efforts would result in a comfortable life.

After all, I was a nice person, a good husband, a conscientious employee. I played by the rules (most of the time) and I went out of my way to be kind. I have music in my soul, and I spent a lot of time creating it and playing it, both for my own enjoyment and to make others smile. But in 1999, a cancer diagnosis taught me the true meaning of gratitude.

Although it seems that cancer has become commonplace – everyone knows someone touched by the disease – it still seems like something that happens to other people. That is, until it takes up residence in your own personal cells and turns your life upside down. The tiny little lump I discovered turned out to be the biggest turning point of my life. Within days of detection, I was in the hospital, enduring my first-ever surgery: an orchiectomy, to be exact; the removal of a testicle and its offending lump. I spent the next six days in emotional agony awaiting the pathology report. When the verdict came in, it was crushing: nonseminoma testicular cancer, a particularly aggressive form that had already invaded the vascular regions. A second, far more radical surgery was recommended, to determine if the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. The Retroperitoneal Lymph Node Dissection (RPLND) would involve opening me from chest to pelvis and lifting out my internal organs to get to the lymph nodes in the back. Gruesome, painful, and with horrendous side effects (including the chance that I would not be able to conceive children naturally) I nevertheless decided to go for it, as my chances of survival ranked at 90% with the procedure, and only 70% without. I made several desperate (but necessary) deposits at the fertility bank, praying to preserve the continuation of my gene pool, and then I underwent the surgery. The following week was just as unpleasant as I had anticipated, even with the considerable relief provided by morphine. The only upside was the confirmation that there was no evidence that the cancer had spread.

Shortly after I was released from the hospital I got the idea for this musical. Songs began pouring out. I knew from the beginning that “Life is Good” would be the key song, because it expressed so much of what I was feeling. I had a lot of time to think while lying in various hospital beds, and I realized one day that “life is good” is a terrific catchphrase, but when you break it down, it means so much more. Life – the very act of existing, breathing, participating on this planet – is good. Because the alternative – not existing – isn’t so good! I realized that every single living, breathing moment is one to be savored, no matter whether it is easy or difficult, good or bad, right or wrong.

About the same time that I decided to write this musical, we discovered that Amy was pregnant. I began to keep a journal, and I grew a full beard for the first time. I was recovering, Amy was gestating, and we started to plan once again for the bright future we’d envisioned when we said, “I do.” And just as unexpectedly as the first time, it all fell apart. Amy suffered a miscarriage. Angry, confused, and mourning, I set about exploring my inner self. The outward expression of this inner journey involved cutting off my long hair and donating it to an organization that created wigs for kids who were going through chemotherapy. I bleached my short locks, which amused Amy to no end. She teased that she was sleeping with a new guy, but didn’t have to feel guilty about cheating. By that time we were both firmly committed to having children, so we visited the fertility clinic, and Amy began the torturous process of in vitro fertilization. The daily shots were enough to make a strong man cry, but Amy endured it with grace and dignity, because she was laser-focused on her goal: to produce a beautiful, healthy baby. It wasn’t long before the ultrasound showed us a tiny heartbeat, quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. With joy in our hearts, we booked a vacation with close friends to celebrate.

I wish I could end the tale there with, and they all lived happily ever after, but that’s not the way this story goes. Shortly before our vacation I went in for a routine follow up, only to be informed that I had a mass on my lung. I was given permission to go on vacation before the next inevitable surgery, so I scheduled the procedure, and in a complete state of shock we winged our way to Greece and Turkey. Somehow we put aside the horror of what we were facing, and we lived every moment of that week to the fullest. We were blessed to have the support of great friends and beautiful surroundings to encourage us and bring us hope.

The lung thoracotomy put me in intensive care for a week, with no less than thirty tubes in my body. I learned that an epidural is a miraculous form of pain control. I was informed that the mass on my lung was indeed a metastasis of my testicular cancer. The next step in my battle was chemotherapy.

I endured four rounds of chemo; each one worse than the one before. With every round I lost a little bit of each sense –sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch – in addition to the nausea and pain. Undergoing chemotherapy was by far the worst time in my life. However, I did develop an intense appreciation for some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met – the infusion center nurses. They choose to work with people enduring ghastly medical procedures, and they do it with tenderness and concern. I will remain eternally grateful for their loving care.

As I penned this song, I realized that truly, deeply, ALL of life is good. That’s not to say that some parts don’t suck, because they most certainly do. Like chemo, for example. But I learned from those experiences. I gained the knowledge that nothing will ever be more physically challenging, so I don’t have to sweat it, because I’ve already conquered the worst. I also witnessed a superhero at work, the kind of everyday unsung hero that everyone should have the privilege of knowing. I knew Amy was special; that’s why I married her. But I had no idea that hiding behind that lovely façade was a woman of amazing inner strength; a woman who could endure IVF, give birth to three children, and continue to be my rock while I endured the worst medical procedures imaginable. She is my partner, my friend, my soulmate. She shows me daily what love looks like.

I have been down a crooked path that has forever changed my life. No longer do I look at things the same way. I now have a healthy respect for every follow-up visit to the doctor. The frustrating moments in my life today seem to pale in comparison to the time when I was fighting to stay alive, using knives and poison. I don’t know the end of this story; I just hope it comes many, many years from now.

I have finished the musical. Amy and I now have three beautiful children and we are happy. And indeed, Life is Good.