by Toni McGee Causey
There was a time when I was terrified of the blank page. It had so much potential for mistakes, for making the wrong choices, for derailing into something derivative, and I’d freeze up. Second guess myself. Wonder. And lose time.
There was a time when I’d let what someone said affect how I chose to proceed. How I chose to live. I’d let an insult fester inside and I’d tell myself that they were right, maybe they were right, and I shouldn’t be a writer at all. I tried to do other things, tried to find another passion, because I thought there was nothing worse than wanting something so badly as to write something that would impact people, only to fail at it. Failing was humiliating. The potential of that humiliation, constantly thrumming in the back of my head, stole the joy from me when I did succeed. I’d always think, “Well, for now I’ve done this thing. These people think so. But they could be wrong. What if they’re wrong? And when all is said and done, I’m nothing? I’m insignificant? I should have spent my life doing something else?”
I’d have longer moments when I’d push on in spite of the fear, but it never really left me. I’d just battle it back, write in spite of the terror, and send it out to be read by my friends, or my agent, or, God help me, an editor, with something akin to an anxiety attack. What if I’m not good enough? What if this thing I labored over, loved, birthed… was a joke to everyone else?
As writers, we learn (eventually) to be thick-skinned, if you’re anything like me. We get hammered and beaten up and stomped on, and we know it’s a part of the natural selection process of throwing things out there in the world. There is no one book or movie that is going to capture absolutely everyone’s love. Nor should there be. There is no explanation why some things catch fire and others don’t. Try to figure that out, and that way lies madness. You may figure out what’s marketable, you may figure out one thing that’s a part of the Zeitgeist, but odds are, it’s something just beyond explanation. You may be a bestselling author, and your books snapped up, but will they be remembered? And really… does that matter?
All these things would swim around my head, slowing me down. I thought the blank page was hard. I’d let people who meant well derail me from my own self-confidence. I’d let an agent, who meant well, steer me the wrong direction because she thought she knew what would sell, fast. I’d let a lot of things slip in and make me doubt what was important. I was afraid of the blank page.
I misunderstood what was important.
I should have been more afraid of lost time.
We take time for granted. We all do it, it’s just human nature. We can’t live each and every moment like it’s our last—the world would be chaos if we did. We rely on the normal, the mundane being the mundane, in order to function.
But December 18th, 2012 changed that for me.
I held my brother’s hand while he was dying. Mike McGee is… was… my only sibling. We’d spent the last year-and-a-half together, almost every day, fighting his cancer. He had a rare gamma-delta T-Cell lymphoma. The survival rate was abysmal, and that was with a bone marrow transplant. But… in spite of the odds, he kept getting better. Faster than they had ever seen. He kept fighting off the impossible, and the doctors and nurses were constantly astounded. There was not a soul in that hospital that he came into contact with who didn’t leave him more encouraged in their own life.
They called him Coach. He was a fifth degree black belt, a Master, and had won an international championship in sparring, and a large number of other medals, many first place, and trophies, in international competitions. He had his own school, and had taught over twenty-thousand students, and was stubborn as hell. He was the kind of patient who was like a Pied Piper, going to every other patient’s room and encouraging them and, if they could stand up at all, getting them to walk a few laps with him because the nurses told them that walking helped them handle the chemo better and gave them all a greater chance of winning.
He kept beating the odds. He had a rare allele cell that made matching him almost impossible… and yet, they found a match. He came out of remission but they found the match just-in-time, and so he could have the transplant. He survived that, only to battle graft-vs-host disease, which is horrific. He was winning that, when he was diagnosed with a virus. He beat that, too, and they discovered the cancer was gone.
Gone. 100% gone.
He was going to go home in a couple of days. He walked around the floor, making trips to the exercise bike, where he rode forty miles in five mile increments. I can’t ride forty miles on a damned exercise bike in a day, and I was annoyed with him. Get that. Annoyed.
He woke up the next day with double vision. They were thinking a mild stroke, maybe as a result of the meds, maybe something else. Potentially, it could have been the lymphoma coming back, but it could also have been a fungal infection. They were saying, at this point, that he would go home, still, and would have to have some mild rehabilitation to help strengthen that left side, but he would likely be okay. He might not do spinning jump kicks anymore, but he’d still be able to teach.
They just weren’t quite sure what had caused it.
The next ten days were a blur. He got significantly worse each day. He started losing more of his balance, more of his eyesight, more of his hold on what was going on. He couldn’t stand on his own and I was lifting him out of the bed to get him to the bathroom, and holding him there so he wouldn’t fall. My six-foot-two-inch brother, one of the toughest human beings I have ever known, and I was having to lift him.
And he would say, “This is not going to get me. I am not going out this way.”
I want you to know there are worse things than a blank page. There are things so much worse than what a critic thinks of you, or what a reviewer says. There are things so far beyond that minor pain that when you live through them, if you live through them, you will look back and think, “Why in the hell did I let that matter? What the hell am I waiting for?”
Those last few days, he was in the ICU. He’d fallen, bloodied his head, and there was significant swelling in his brain. They had to do a procedure where they put a shunt in there to continuously drain off the fluid, and even that wasn’t working. They’d done a biopsy of the area of the brain where the lesions were—the things they had thought, at first, were just pools of blood from a burst blood vessel—and we were waiting to see if they were lymphoma or fungal infection. With lymphoma, there was zero hope. With fungal infection, the doctors thought there was a slice of a chance. What I didn’t understand then, but came to understand when one of the specialists took me aside and showed me his MRI, was that a fungal infection isn’t like what we think of when we say “infection”… something that can be cured and made to go away. It is something that’s actually killing the brain cells where it’s living, and as it grows, it kills more of the brain. Getting medicine in the brain in enough quantities without killing other organs from the high dosages is a Russian Roulette, and they had already tripled the dose of anti-fungal meds when he had had the first signs of a “stroke.”
Picture a hurricane, like you see it on the weather channel. Now imagine two interlocking hurricanes, barreling into the brain stem where autonomic reflexes—breathing, swallowing, heart—are controlled. That’s where these two infections were, and they were growing exponentially. They were fungal, and they were far outstripping the speed of the medicine.
The last day, he was on a respirator, blind, unable to move except his fingertips. The day before, he’d been able to move his hands a little, and when one of the doctors talked obliquely about how bad he was doing, and wondered what his wishes were, he grabbed my sweatshirt and tugged, and then waved. I didn’t understand he was waving goodbye, until he pulled his hands together… and it was very difficult for him to do… and clasping his hands in the traditional fist-in-cupped-palm formation, bowed his head.
I asked him if he was bowing out, and he nodded.
He had two more strokes that night.
I talked at length the next day with five different teams of doctors. Every one of them wanted to do just one more thing, but when I asked, “Will this save him, will he have a chance to recover?” they each and every one of them had to admit that no… there was nothing they could do. He was now blind, almost unable to hear, unable to speak, unable to move, and was on a respirator. He’d made me promise that I wouldn’t let him live that way. He’d cried in my arms when the cancer came back. I had held him, remembering all the times we fought as kids, all the good times we shared, the two of us against the world, and he’d made me promise that I wouldn’t let him live like that.
Hardest promise I’ve ever made.
I held his hand when they pulled him off the respirator, and pulled the shunt out of his brain. I made sure they gave him enough morphine so he wouldn’t feel pain, wouldn’t panic, wouldn’t be afraid. I held one hand while my mom, and then my husband, when my mom could no longer watch, held his other hand, and I talked to him. He squeezed my hand three times… I love you… and I asked if he understood what was happening, and he squeezed once for yes. I told him so many things, watching the monitors as they showed him breathing slower and slower, as they showed the oxygen rate dropping. I knew that once it was below 88%, brain damage—permanent—would start, and it was the point of no return. Inside my own head, I was screaming for him to not have to go. I think that part of me will always be screaming. It doesn’t really shut off; you just get used to it.
I talked to him of how much we loved him, and how he’d been a hero to so many people. I told him how proud I was of him—how we all were, mom and dad and his nephews. I told him how much I was going to miss him, and that there was a karate school in heaven with a bunch of new kids for him to teach. He squeezed my hand at that one, but it was a weak squeeze. I told him it was okay for him to come visit me now and then (we both believe in ghost), but not when I was in the shower, because that would just be gross, and he smiled. There were a thousand things I wanted to tell him, and I had so little time, and I knew it, as he slowly changed color and his breathing slowed and slowed and slowed, and I felt the grip of his hand go lax, but I talked to him and talked to him, running out of time, until the doctor pulled me away and told me that he was gone.
5:55. December 18th. I learned that there was nothing else that mattered, other than living the way you want, living boldly, pursuing your dream. That’s what Mike always did. We didn’t always understand it, and he wasn’t always a success. He’d had failures and frustrations, but he had not quit. Not even when everyone told him there was no hope. Every single doctor there cried. The nurses cried.
And I left him there, knowing, strangely, that he’d lived his life fully and boldly and out loud, and he’d died knowing that he’d achieved most of his dream—to teach little kids karate. To teach them how to handle bullies simply by being more self-confident. To prepare them for the real world by encouraging them to get as much education as they could. He had students who’d gone on to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, military, firefighters, etc. Whatever failures he might have had, he gloried in the successes.
I’m telling you now, live boldly. If your dream is to write, then write. Send it out. If it doesn’t work? Learn from it and try again. And again. And again. And however many times you need to try. Quit waiting for life to come along and give you permission. Quit caring what your peers say. Quit listening to reviews or bullies or people with opinions that you don’t respect. Learn from those you do, ignore the rest, and keep trying.
If you don’t love the writing? Do something else you love. Period. Don’t waste your life because you think you ought to be doing something because you told a few people that’s what you were going to do and now you dread it and hate it and it’s like pulling teeth to make the time to write. There’s nothing more glorious about writing than there is teaching or creating art in some other way or science or math or firefighting or being a police officer or being the best damned secretary you can be. Find your place, wherever that is, a place you love and LIVE IT, BOLDLY.
Time is the thing to be afraid of. Time is short. Mike didn’t know, that day that they told him he was going to go home in a couple of days that, in reality, he would die about ten days later. People in car wrecks each day think they’re going to have tomorrow, and then they don’t. People have heart attacks in their shower, or they’re standing and watching a race finish, and a bomb goes off.
You matter. Who you are, how you are in the world—matters. And don’t you forget it. You never know who you’ve helped. Someone like me.
Now go. Live boldly. Don’t squander this time you have. You matter. Remember that.