What would you do if you met the grim reaper face-to-face? If you’re Jackie Summers, you decide to pay very very close attention.
In the spring of 2010, I had a cancer scare.
After months of suffering crippling sciatic pain, my doctor sent me for an MRI. “I think you should come in” he dead-panned over the phone.
It’s never a good thing when your doctor wants to speak in person.
“We think you have an Ependymoma” he said, as I sat uncomfortably on the edge of the (uncomfortable-by-design) medical table. “Mmm…that can’t be right. That sounds like cancer” I replied. “It’s only cancer 95% of the time” he reassured me.
Somehow I failed to find his ill-timed sarcasm either reassuring or amusing.
When I asked why he phrased his statement “we think,” he confessed: because of the tumor’s location—inside my spine—biopsy wasn’t an option. All the MRI did was confirm that 85% of my nerve sheath was blocked—thus the searing sciatic pain. “If you can’t do a biopsy, how do you remove it?” I asked. “Simple” he said. “We’re going to drill a hole in your spine. We’re going to slip your nerve sheath out through the hole, slice it open, and expose your spinal cord. Then we’re going to perform neurosurgery on your spinal cord—that’s what your tumor is tangled up in.”
“This sounds pretty… invasive. What are my odds?” I asked, bracing myself for the worst.
“You’ve got a 50% chance of partial paralysis” he said bluntly. “If it turns out you’ve got a malignant tumor in your lymphatic system… you’re looking at six months, tops. You should probably get your ‘paperwork’ in order.”
“You are going to die.”
In the movie Fight Club, these are the words protagonist Tyler Durden tells Raymond K. Hessel, as he kneels on the ground in the back of an alleyway, with a gun pointed to his back of his head. After threatening to kill him unless he pursues his dreams, Tyler Durden spares his life, saying “the breakfast Raymond K. Hessel eats tomorrow will be the most delicious of his entire life.” While this movie had always resonated with me, in the wake of my conversation with my doctor, this particular scene took on special significance.
I was going to die.
Faced with this scenario, I took the only steps that made any sense at the time. I consented to surgery, and then immediately made plans to go on vacation: nine friends, a beach house in Cancun, and shopping carts full of alcohol. One morning, before the sun had made its ascent over the Gulf of Mexico, and before any of my companions had risen from the booze-induced stupor of the night before, I grabbed a bottle of tequila, and treated myself to a sunrise walk along the beach, and a leisurely talk with Death.
I don’t recall much of what The Reaper had to say that morning. Maybe I was too terrified, maybe I was too deep in denial, maybe it was the tequila; or some unholy combination thereof. I do clearly remember looking into the lifeless hood of The Reaper, scythe in hand, and hearing him say the following:
“Truthfully Jack, I don’t understand why this has you so shaken up. This is not the first time I’ve come for you. It’s just the first time you’re paying attention.”
As I stood in the operating room making small talk with the anesthesiologist, wearing that ridiculous gown where your ass hangs out, I recall being completely at peace. My time was done. My life had run its course, and whatever happened next was completely out of my control. As I prepared for my very talented team of doctors to splay me like a fish—expose my spinal cord and all of my nerves, like strings from the bow of a violin come undone—I recall feeling an uncanny sense of calm.
Six hours later, they wheeled my gurney into the recovery room, as I sang “Material Girl” at the top of my lungs. In an attempt to determine my level of cognizance, the recovery room nurse asked me if I knew my own name. “Lady GaGa” I shouted, without hesitation. When she patiently repeated the question, I corrected myself and calmly told her “I realize I’m not really Lady GaGa; I’m Madonna.” She asked me how I felt, and I burst out into a rousting chorus of “Like a Virgin.” With all the professionalism she could muster, she asked me if I had any weaknesses—a reasonable query to someone just coming out of spinal surgery. As I’d just had a bone removed from my spine, I actually had no feeling below my rib cage. Without pause I responded “Chocolate, whiskey, and raven haired women.”
And then I realized she was cute. I composed myself, and put my hand on her arm. With tubes still up my nose and needles stuck into both arms, I made the dreamiest bedroom eyes a man still mostly under the influence of general anesthesia can make. “Just because I came out of surgery claiming to be Madonna and singing ‘Material Girl’” I declared with a wink “doesn’t mean I’m gay.”
The operation was a complete success. And the tumor (schwannoma) was benign.
In my current occupation, I’m frequently asked what motivated me to become an entrepreneur. To that end I end up retelling parts of all of this story several times a week, followed by an ignoble truth. Given a second (or fourth or fifth but who’s counting) chance, what was the one thing I wanted to do with the rest of my life? What did I not want to have to wait for nights and weekends to do? What was it time to get serious about?
For me, the answer was unequivocally: alcohol. I wanted to spend quality time in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, sharing great conversation with interesting people, over delicious food and scrumptious libations. This led me to take a concoction I’d been brewing in my kitchen for almost two decades, perfect a shelf stable version, write a business plan, raise capitalization, and launch a distillery.
Several thousand some-odd cases and an inordinate amount of awards and accolades later, someone from a visiting tour of my distillery asked me if I ever tire of telling the above story.
The answer is: Absolutely not. Because I am still going to die.
Possibly not today. Hopefully no time soon, but once you’ve made peace with your own mortality, you don’t unmake it. I’ve no illusions about the nature of impermanence: I’ve slipped by The Reaper twice or thrice now, and I’ve no idea just how many lives I’ve got left. Every day I’m Raymond K. Hessel, trying to embrace the beauty of each moment, leaving nothing on the table, putting it all out there every day.
Does this mean I’m unaffected by daily concerns? Of course not. There are still bills to pay, aches and pains that weren’t there yesterday, and the constant challenge of navigating interpersonal relationships. I still live in the world, and my actions—or inactions—still have real consequences. You have to say the things and do the things that really matter to you today without hesitation, because you don’t know if you’re going to get another chance. Sometimes, tomorrow never comes. At the same time, you have to live with the awareness that every stone thrown into a pond sends ripples across the surface, and every choice you make today reverberates into your future. If you don’t want to deal with the repercussions of your actions tomorrow, you should consider the consequences of your decisions today carefully, just in case the world doesn’t end.
There is something liberating in accepting mortality. You’re free to do whatever. It’s only when you have nothing left to give, you will truly discover yourself. You find out what you are capable of, and you leave nothing on the table. When I see The Reaper next—whether it’s tomorrow or in 40 years—I know I can embrace Death, for I will have spent every waking moment fully embracing Life. Today, I woke to the gentle patter of rain and distant thunder. I felt the warmth of the sun on my skin, the fluff of my kitten’s fur as she purred on my chest, enjoyed the softness of my lover’s lips, listened to the stern and always wise counsel of my mom, and shared a drink with friends. My life’s far from perfect, but I’m still guessing the worst day of my life beats the best day of my death.
If it all ends today, I’m still at peace. If it doesn’t, the beauty of not having died awaits me tomorrow.