Despite a terminal cancer diagnosis, he feels blessed.
- Posted on Jul 16, 2019
I was diagnosed with terminal kidney cancer two years ago. I felt all the emotions you’d expect. Shock. Dread. Grief. Self-pity. One emotion surprised me. Even more surprising, it turned out to be the emotion that outlasted all the others, growing stronger as the reality of the diagnosis took hold.
That emotion is gratitude.
I’m not grateful that the cancer might take my life before I even reach my sixty-fifth birthday. The gratitude I’m talking about is my astonished thanks for the happy, stable and emotionally abundant life I will leave behind. A life I certainly did not deserve and never could have expected during the decade I squandered as an active alcoholic.
Back then, I burned through two marriages and came close to wrecking a promising law career. I manipulated people, abandoned friendships, treated women like emotional props and scorned help. It was another form of terminal illness.
Today I am married to a woman, Alice, who is more sensible, generous and spiritually mature than I could ever hope to be. We celebrated our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary this year. We have three children. I recently retired as partner of a New York City law firm.
None of this was foreordained. Especially not my marriage to Alice, which I consider foundational—after my relationship with God—to so much of my unexpected good fortune.
I am grateful for Alice. And I am grateful for what I learned in Alcoholics Anonymous that enabled me to have my relationship with Alice. AA taught me how to find and rely on God, live with integrity and think of others before myself. It taught me how to love unselfishly.
Those gifts helped keep me sober. They also made me a better husband and father. Now that I am dying, I can approach the end of my life in peace because of who I have become in sobriety.
I share my story in hopes that others struggling with addiction can find the connection and purpose that saved my life and filled me with such gratitude.
I started drinking heavily in high school. I can’t pinpoint why. There was nothing traumatic in my childhood. I’d grown up in a small town in north central Pennsylvania. Alcohol provided a respite from an undercurrent of insecurity I’d felt from the time I was little. I sought that respite often enough to get arrested for drinking at school in tenth grade. By the time I graduated high school, I couldn’t have fun—couldn’t get by, really—without alcohol.
I managed to graduate college and did well enough on an entrance exam to start law school. I paced my drinking, staying more or less sober during the semester, then cutting loose the minute school ended.
I got a job as an attorney representing a motorcycle company facing multiple safety lawsuits. The best part of the job? Some of the clients were heavy drinkers, and my expense accounts paid for our booze. Eventually I could no longer pace the drinking. My life spiraled into alcoholism’s inevitable chaos and self-destruction. I drank to overcome insecurity, but of course alcohol doesn’t solve problems. It just distracts from them while making them worse. I got so anxious and stressed at work, I seriously contemplated quitting the firm and moving back home. There was no legal work there. It would have been professional suicide.
My insecurities showed even more in my romantic relationships. I was terrified of rejection and gravitated to emotionally needy women, many of them fellow drinkers. I’d get infatuated, then recoil and move on—or she would.
My first wife, fed up with my drinking, walked out on me, leaving her wedding ring on the bathroom sink. My second wife, a fellow alcoholic, lost interest in me before the wedding.
The events that led me to Alcoholics Anonymous—the collapse of that second marriage, my denial that I had a problem, the night I gave in, got on my knees and begged a God I did not yet believe in to free me from the desire to drink—are variations on a theme known to many who have struggled with addiction.
The hopeful part is what happened after I entered recovery. Alcoholism, I learned, is a disease of isolation. I thought alcohol made me more sociable by compensating for my debilitating insecurity.
What it really did was interpose a veil between me and other people. Alcohol numbed my fears and insulated me from the hard work of building real relationships.
As I began to work the 12 steps of AA, I was surprised to discover how many of them directed me toward relationships with a higher power and with other people.
Steps two and three required me to surrender to a relationship with God. Steps four and five required a searching moral inventory and then admitting my character defects to God and to another person. The following steps went deeper. I had to make amends to people I had hurt, ask God to remove my shortcomings, pray often and share with other alcoholics what I had learned in recovery.
On top of that, I had to attend meetings and be honest with the people I met there. It felt so daunting after years of avoiding exactly this kind of connection and transparency.
I had no idea whether I could do it, much less progress from sobriety to forging authentic relationships with friends and coworkers—or maybe, one day, a spouse.
Here’s what happened. AA doesn’t just teach people how to forge relationships. In AA, you become a person who connects with others by doing it. The steps aren’t just suggestions. Following them forces you to act. The meetings throw you together with people from all walks of life with one thing in common—addiction. What’s left to hide?
Day by day, step by step, I opened myself to other people, admitted my most shameful acts and offered support to other alcoholics. After all those years of posturing and deflecting, I discovered a world I hadn’t known existed. A world in which people didn’t reject me when they learned the truth about me. A world in which love meant more than my need for affirmation.
I met Alice two years after my first AA meeting. We were both on vacation in the Caribbean. Alice was pretty, like other women I had been attracted to. But Alice was also strong, independent, smart and practical—and a woman of deep Christian faith. Even as we began dating back in New York, where she also lived, I found myself assuming she’d quickly see through me and dump me.
That’s where my AA experience kicked in. In my drinking days, I would have avoided someone like Alice or tried to manipulate her into falling for me. Now I simply acted like myself and hoped for the best.
I was driving Alice home one evening. Her face was unhappy, and the chorus of old insecurities started up: Here we go. She’s made up her mind. She’s about to dump me.
I caught myself. Through experience in AA, I’d learned it wasn’t healthy to try to read other people’s minds. “Everything okay?” I said. “What are you thinking?”
“Oh,” said Alice, “I was thinking about my younger brother. He’s not happy in his job.” Surprise! She wasn’t thinking negatively about me. She wasn’t thinking about me at all!
She gave me a sweet good-night kiss when I dropped her off, and we made plans for another date.
My foundation in recovery kept supporting me as things with Alice got more serious. In AA I already had friends and an outlet for my hang-ups. I loved Alice, but I didn’t need her like I’d needed women before.
After we got engaged, she moved temporarily to Hong Kong to work as a foreign correspondent. Before recovery, I would have been devastated. This time, I prayed things would work out, relied on my AA friends for companionship and support, and made plans to visit. Alice came home, we married, and my initial decision to trust her turned into a habit that has sustained our marriage.
Early in recovery, a speaker told me that if I truly wanted a happy marriage, I should focus not on finding the perfect mate but on becoming the sort of person who would be attractive to a good partner.
I’ve since learned the underlying lesson: Make room for God to act.
In addiction—and maybe this is true for all unhealthy lifestyles—I assumed I was the center of my own universe. Recovery requires a different assumption: that we are not alone and that we are not in charge.
It’s a great foundation for marriage. The more I trust God and focus on following his direction, the easier it becomes to love Alice without stifling her and to be loved without fearing the love will get yanked away. None of the usual stresses that can break a marriage—work, children, finances, big decisions and the daily interactions that build up or grind down a relationship—have managed to shake that strong foundation in God.
Not even my cancer diagnosis has shaken it. Alice and I have cried together. We have prayed together. We have done our best to be realistic with the kids and prepare them for when I am gone.
We have experienced the deepest grief. Our marriage has survived. And I am still sober.
I keep thinking I am lucky to have been blessed with and loved by this woman and by the family we have raised together.
It’s not luck.
I was a self-destructive drunk, driving my life into a ditch. I let go of the wheel, reached out to God and gave in to recovery. I did the hard, halting work of learning to live in a new way.
I made room for God to act. He’s not done with me. I am grateful. And together with Alice, I am ready for what comes next.
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