It has taken me over 50 years to become comfortable telling this story. It was just too personal, exposing feelings I could not easily share.
But after everything I experienced during my walk across America—the extreme heat and cold, the constant pain, the endless challenges and the ever-present risks—I began to look at life differently. I also look at death differently. And I don’t I worry as much about what people might think of me. I find myself caring less and less about it. (On good days, I hardly give a damn. It’s quite liberating. You should try it.)
When I was 18 years old and had finished my freshman year at Boston University, I worked an extremely difficult summer job in New York City, commuting on the Long Island Railroad over an hour each day, six days a week. My normal eating and sleeping routines were disturbed, I spent little time outdoors, and the combination of these factors impacted my otherwise healthy body. I became severely ill with ulcerative colitis, a condition that I’d experienced (and recovered from) several years earlier. It’s a disease no one knows too much about. The cause is mysterious, and there’s no effective cure. Treatments, yes, but cure, no. Since I’d recovered from my earlier episode, I expected to recover again. But I didn’t.
So instead of going back to college in the fall, I instead went to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. I spent nine weeks there, getting blood transfusions, taking all manner of corticosteroids, pills, injections, and “experimental” medications. I was in a lot of pain and most likely addicted to the Demerol they were giving me.
In spite of the brilliance of the medical team caring for me, no one thought to weigh me. One day as I slowly wandered down a depressing hospital hallway pushing my IV pole on wheels, I saw a scale and stepped on it. I was shocked to discover I’d dropped from 125 to 95 pounds in the space of six weeks.
I was sick. Really sick. When I saw my doctor’s reaction to my reported weight loss, I became more aware of just how sick I was.
And more than that, I came to realize, I was dying.
I learned from the doctors’ hushed conversations and the concerned looks of my parents that nothing but major colon surgery was going to save me. Maybe.
If you’re looking for some comic relief in this narrative, here it is:
Around this time, in 1965, I received a letter from the Draft Board informing me that because I was no longer enrolled in college, I’d lost my student deferment. I was now reclassified 1A and needed to report for a physical. I panicked—in my teenage mind I was off to Vietnam. My mother was distraught, and my father, a World War 2 veteran, was stoic. I thought to myself, “Would it be worse bleeding out on the battlefield or bleeding out on my hospital bed?”
My gastroenterologist merely scoffed. (He wrote a “doctor’s letter,” sent it off to the Draft Board, and I was soon reclassified 4F, thus joining a number of celebrities (Frank Sinatra) and a former president of the United States (you-know-who).
But I was still in the hospital, and like many patients (I later learned), I’d flipped day and night. I slept most of the day, waking only for visitors, meals, blood tests, and occasional sigmoidoscopies and barium X-rays. And then I was awake much of the night in my dimly lit private room, with the soft sounds of my radio tuned to an easy-listening station in the background, looking out the window, just drifting. I remember hearing Tony Bennett sing “The Good Life.” (As I listen to it now, I understand how Ralph Sharon’s lovely piano riffs between Tony’s lyrical lines were an early influence in my own development as an accompanist to vocalists.)
It was at such a moment in the earliest hours of the morning that I heard a quiet voice asking me a simple question.
“Are you ready?”
I had no doubt what that meant. I was being asked to make a choice. I distinctly remember not being afraid. It was all very peaceful and calm. The greatest calm and peace, in fact, that I’d ever experienced.
I don’t know how long I waited before responding, but I finally responded.
I then heard the voice ask, simply, “Why?”
It was a minute or two before I could respond. Then I did.
“Because I’m too young.”
And I did believe I was too young to die. I had my reasons. I had not yet had a satisfactory sex life. I hadn’t finished college. I’d never been to Europe. Those were my reasons as I chose life over death.
And the voice answered me. Simply and directly.
And that was that. It was all very peaceful, serene, quiet, and calm.
When my doctor came to see me the next morning, instead of complaining about my condition or deferring to his wisdom, I asked him a direct question.
“What will it take to get me out of this hospital?” I knew I had to leave soon or I would die here. He laughed an uncomfortable laugh. He probably believed I’d never leave while still alive.
“You need to put on weight,” was what he finally replied.
“How much?” I think he was surprised I was negotiating with him.
“Fifteen pounds,” he finally said.
I agreed to the deal, and became obsessed with gaining weight. I ate all day and night. I met with the hospital dietician, who approved anything I ordered for meals. At my request, my parents brought me boxes of chocolate donuts and gallons of whole milk (not necessarily the recommended diet for a person with UC, but who knew? Who cared?).
I started to gain weight. I checked the scales constantly. When I’d put on 15 pounds, I demanded to be released. After a final blood transfusion and a skeptical goodbye from my doctor, my parents drove me home. I could tell that the doctor was sure I’d die at home. I was determined I wouldn’t. Perhaps sex, college, and Europe could be strong enough drivers of motivation.
Ironically, my road to recovery was a personal one. I had no physical therapy, no nutritional counselors, no “rehab” guru. Just me. And my personal motivation.
It took over a year to regain my physical strength. At first I couldn’t climb stairs. Walking a few hundred feet was a challenge. I looked like hell because of the side-effects of prednisone. I started my personal rehab by walking around the block.
Later I borrowed a neighbor’s bike and rode it for five, then 10 minutes. I weaned myself off my meds. It was a long, slow, painful, frustrating rehab period filled with more failures than successes. My first attempt to go back to college was a pitiful failure, and I spent another semester at home.
But in the end I did go back to Boston University. I changed my major from Business to Communication, went to summer sessions, and eventually graduated just one year late. I got married at 22 before my senior year, and after graduation I moved with my then-wife first to San Francisco, then to Oakland.
Many people call an experience such as I had in the hospital a “visitation.” For me, it was more a confirmation that God not only exists, but cared enough about me to ask, “Are you ready?”
Fifty years later I do not worry about death. In fact, I’ve never worried about death since that night. Let me state flatly and for the record that not having a fear of death puts you in a unique category.
But more than this, having experienced the moment of truth where I could have gone either way, I am not convinced that the alternative would have been either a mistake or wrong. It just would have been different. I’ve caused friends to laugh when I’ve occasionally said, “Life is overrated.”
Regardless, I can tell you this: I take life very seriously.
Some people feel that we’re on borrowed time. But I do not. I view life as not only a gift and a blessing but as an obligation as well—an obligation to use the time we have to the best of our ability.
Having been given this gift, I don’t abuse it, and I don’t take unnecessary risks.
I’ve pursued much of what life has to offer, including years of sex, too many years of college, and trips to Europe and much of the rest of the world. I’ve even walked across America, something few others have done.
And when people along that journey would say to me, as they often did, “God bless you,” I would smile, thank them, and know in my heart that God has, indeed, blessed me.