Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I’ll Take the Fifth!

I got out of a long meeting today at work, returned to my office, and flipped on my radio. Set on NPR, the familiar strains of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony coming from its speakers instantly made me smile and forget about stressful meetings. And it reminded me of a chapter in my battle with Hodgkin Lymphoma seven years ago.

When I was a kid, I didn’t listen to a lot of music. Given how much I love music of so many kinds now, this is actually amazing even to me. But when I was fairly young, my sister gave me her old beat up record player and a few records that she no longer wanted, one of which was this incredible symphony by Beethoven, the 5th. Even if you do not listen to classical music, you will probably recognize at least the opening part of the first movement:

Da-da-da-daaaaaaaaah! Da-da-da-daaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh! I have loved this music since the time of hearing it as a boy. It is heroic and beautiful, triumphant and moving, passionate and serene all at once.

Long before I had cancer, Mary and I had bought tickets to hear the Richmond Symphony for a late May, 2002 concert, the program including Beethoven’s 5th. As it turned out, two days before the concert, I had my biopsy, which involved cutting deep into my chest to snag a chunk of this large tumor that rested silently and ominously near my aorta. I asked the surgeon the morning of surgery whether I would be in pain when I woke up. He looked at me and said with a chuckle, “Oh, you’ll know that I paid you a visit!” Was he ever right about that!

When I woke up from the surgery just before noon Thursday, it felt like a dozen very mean little guys were hacking away at my chest with saws, axes, and knives. It remained fairly painful that day and all night, and also Friday, and I remember telling Mary that there was no way I’d be going to the concert. But by Saturday, because the surgeon had done such a skillful job, I felt well enough to go. Most of the little guys had reluctantly packed up their saws and knives and gone home. The few remaining ones half-heartedly sawed and stabbed away, but it was nowhere near as painful. So I knew that I would be fine for the concert.

It was a great performance, even though the man sitting in front of us was clearly not moved by the music. He would often lean in and say something angrily to his wife – at least I assumed it was his wife. At the end, when everyone else began rising and applauding, enraptured by the magnificent music, he stood, said something to her, and stormed out, leaving her there. I remember so clearly thinking “What the hell is wrong with this guy? I have cancer and I could not feel happier at this instant. And he just seems pissed at the whole world!”

By that time, I knew I had lymphoma for sure from the surgeon’s report, and knew that I would be facing months of chemotherapy. I really felt as if it were fate that this piece of music, one of my all time favorites, was on the program at a time when I was learning about my illness. I decided that night that this composition would be my “theme song” during my treatment.

During my long period on chemotherapy, I would listen to this symphony at least once every week, never failing to be inspired and encouraged by it. The fact that Beethoven was almost totally deaf when he wrote it makes it all the more incredible and inspirational. Legend has it that the composer described the opening notes as “Thus destiny knocks at the door.” Whether that is so or not, apparently my destiny was to have lymphoma, survive it, and end up being motivated and determined to train for marathons while raising money for cancer research and outreach.

And so, whenever I hear this music, I gratefully think of the time when its heroic and triumphant nature helped me to take heart, fill my soul with courage, leave the misery of sickness behind for a little while, and ultimately triumph over a deadly and remorseless foe.


SusieQ said...


I'm really enjoying your blog. You may not remember, but I did the Alaska marathon with you (I was with the Blacksburg team). Now, I'm training for the Seagull century with the Richmond crew. You are an inspiration!


Elsbeth said...

Awesome. Simply put, awesome.
What an inspiration you are.


Racn4acure said...

Thanks Elsbeth, for your kind words. I am glad that you enjoyed what I wrote.

Susie - I do remember now that you mention it. That was such a fun (and wet) day, eh? A century is so cool, but you have done Iron Mans now, which is incredibly impressive. TNT Triple Crown, here you come! I hope to meet your cycle team this summer, and when I do, come say hi. Thanks for the comment. Art