I can't recall what Woody Allen movie this scene was in, but the image has stuck in my mind.
Allen's neurotic character is worried about some health problem that his over-anxious mind has convinced him is deadly serious.
After a visit to his doctor, where he gets good news about his condition, Allen skips down the sidewalk happily saying "I'm not going to die! I'm not going to die!" Then he stops, get a worried expression on his face, and intones...
This closely mirrors my psychological state after I went in for a yearly dermatological exam last Monday. The physician's assistant asked me if there were any areas I was concerned about.
"Some skin discolorations on my chest," I told her. She took a look. "Hmmmm. This one is scaly," she said. "I'm going to take a biopsy."
Oh, great, I thought. My first skin biopsy. The removal of some skin wasn't very bothersome, compared to what I heard from the PA at the end of my visit.
"It could take up to two weeks to get the results. Sometimes we want a second opinion. We'll schedule your next appointment for three months from now to check on the other spots that were frozen off. Unless, of course, we need to..."
Her voice trailed off.
But I got the message. If the biopsy was positive, I'd need to get treated for... something or other. I didn't ask the physician's assistant any questions about what that might be. At the time my feeling was ignorance is bliss.
However, over the next few days my inner Woody Allen started to emerge. Even though I didn't feel super-anxious, the unknown biopsy results hanging over my head started to rain increasingly dire thoughts about my perhaps-not-so-long future.
In my darker moments I contemplated the likelihood of untreatable malignant melanoma. I found myself visualizing my funeral.
I made a Note to Self: after you get the diagnosis, make up a detailed screenplay-like outline of how you want the funeral to go, complete with video clips you want played, to make sure your mourners are exposed to all the Good Stuff about your life that should be emphasized.
I also found myself doing a few to-dos that I'd been putting off for a long time. I wasn't planning to spend my last days on procrastinated chores -- far from it -- but there were some things I didn't want my wife bringing up at gatherings after my demise.
"Brian was a great husband, but I can't believe he never got around to _______."
There were moments, though, when I actually felt grateful for the biopsy.
It felt like a wake-up call. Doesn't seem like I'd need a Death Reminder at the age of 64, but as I went on dog walks, mowed the lawn, and did my usual daily stuff, I was struck by how special each and every experience would be if I knew that I wasn't going to be able to do these things for much longer.
Then, in about the closest my unenlightened mind will ever get to a Zen'ish satori, I'd suddenly realize: Hey, you idiot! Every fucking day of your life you should realize that one day you're not going to be able to live much longer!
Meaning, a biopsy with its "you could die soon" potential message is obvious. It grabbed my attention. Yet all around me are other warning signs of a possible impending demise.
Like driving in my car, because serious accidents happen. Like walking along the sidewalk beside a brick building, because strong earthquakes happen (especially here in the Pacific Northwest). I just don't pay much attention to the ever-present risks of dying until something stark like a biopsy comes along.
As the days went by, I began to imagine what the phone call from the dermatology clinic would be like. Though I'd been told not to expect one for several weeks, I thought "it could be sooner." Which it was.
Yesterday afternoon. I glanced at the caller ID before I answered the phone. Yup, it's the clinic. I was pleased with how calm, cool, and collected I felt as I said "hello." Solid reality usually turns out to be easier to deal with than my free-floating anxieties.
"The biopsy was benign," I heard. "Nothing to worry about." Yeah, right. If you only knew...
Which I'm sure they do at the dermatology clinic. Skin cancer is scary. Biopsies are scary. But heck, life is scary. We just don't clearly realize that we're always living on a knife edge, unknowns on either side, until something jars us into feeling the sharpness of everyday living.
Like Woody Allen, I felt really happy after I got the good news. At first I saw my life stretching out before me for a long time to come, per usual.
But then that Woody Allen yet... hit me. Yes, this time I apparently avoided the loudly ringing wake up call that screams No More Time!
Death has a way of making repeat appearances, though. The bastard teases you with peeks from behind the curtain, then retreats and leaves you alone, until Death marches out on stage and says "Time for your final bow."
Oh, that's another thing. During my four days of biopsy anxiety I started to think about what my last words should be. Either spoken aloud or silently within my head. Guess I need two versions, depending on whether they're meant for public or private hearing.
Another item for my to-do list. Better attend to this pronto. If there's anything I learned this week, it's to live FREAKING NOW.