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On Knee Surgery, Mammograms, and Turning Into My Father

So here I am, waiting for the arthroscopy that will cut away the torn meniscus of my other knee and advance me toward premature arthritis. I should have seen that beyond the end of the long jump sand pit, but I didn't. I am using this week of waiting to reflect upon my changed condition.
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And then my knee popped.

It was Christmas dinner at my sister-in-law's. Although I told a pharmacist soon after that I was fighting off a gang of white supremacists, I merely stood up from the couch, spritely as ever, only to feel my weight shift along with a clicking sensation that together sounded the opening notes of a familiar song: two days of ER and doctor visits to confirm that I had torn the meniscus of my right knee. I must submit to the same surgery I had on the left some years ago, the same weeks of rehab, and the same endless waiting (until the Jan. 4 surgery), while my fantastic wife does everything and more for me and our two young daughters.

Did I mention she's wonderful (despite her Misery jokes at my expense)?

I recall with uncanny intensity the smashing of my knees during years of repetitive stress I once called doing the "long jump" and "triple jump" in high school. I practiced these events with almost fanatical determination for someone whose natural size limitations -- 5 feet 6 inches on tiptoes -- limited my ability to jump beyond the end of my natural range. By the time I was a junior in high school I could reach what for my body was the farthest possible mark in the sand pit, yet it would be less than 20 years before my first knee would ask me -- in a haze of Vicodin -- if all those cheap track meet ribbons were worth it, and hey... put the Grateful Dead on again, dude!

So here I am, where I've been before, waiting for the arthroscopy that will cut away the torn meniscus of my other knee and advance me toward premature arthritis. I should have seen that beyond the end of the long jump sand pit, but I didn't. Still, I am using this week of waiting, as 2013 begins, to reflect upon my changed condition.

I've had two revelations:

1) My knee is covered; my wife's breasts are not: At her yearly checkup, my wife's doctor discovered a small mass in her breast. Chances are, the doc said, it's nothing, but checking required an ultrasound and mammogram. The cost of the mammogram was somewhere in the $900 range, and our portion after insurance -- for this diagnostic, rather than preventive mammogram -- was an unexpected $504. Yes, that's right. A preventive mammogram that she will receive regularly after turning 40 will be covered at 100 percent of costs. Yet this year, when a mass in her breast triggered the procedure, the patient pays for the privilege. The mass turned out to be nothing of concern -- for which we are thankful -- yet the experience contrasts with the recent MRI of my knee.

As I expected, the osteopath said I needed an MRI and that his office would kindly check my coverage so that I could schedule with their conveniently-located and conveniently-affiliated MRI company just across the hall. Yes, the receptionist confirmed, your MRI would be fully covered -- 100 percent -- because this is your body and it's important. Clearly. And even though the kindly MRI specialist asked me what music I'd like to hear, because they have Pandora (!), and even though I chose classical instead of reggae because I figured the former might be more relaxing amid the drone of the machine, and even though instead -- and this is truly horrible -- the headphones went over my ears and I was inserted into the machine before I could scream, "It's Matchbox 20! Please, god, turn it off! I cannot keep still for 45 minutes of Rob Thomas singing about absolutely nothing," at least, I thought, just moments before the classical music finally started, this won't cost me $500.

2) I am turning into my father: On Dec. 5, my father achieved his seven-year anniversary as a brain cancer patient. He has glioblastoma multiforme, the same disease that killed Ted Kennedy after only 15 months, and my father's long-term survival is simply astounding. It's not completely unexplainable, as he has benefited from an amazing medical team at Duke University (with support teams in St. Louis and now the Chicago area), but as I wrote a year ago, Dec. 5 was also the survival anniversary of a completely different person.

Brain cancer has transformed my father as much as a caterpillar cocoon -- here woven in late mid-life -- might transform its inhabitant. My father is perpetually humbled by his constant aphasia and physical deterioration, yet demonstrably more affectionate for the change. Gone is the always-on-the-go business executive who would seal a business deal as easily as he would explode in a string of Brooklyn-bred curses when wronged by, oh, say, a driver beating him to a parking space.

While I have never been a serial cusser, I move -- like my pre-cancer father -- in two speeds: fast and faster. I walk fast, I talk fast, and I multitask so naturally that I don't know how not to. Even now. When my wife -- did I mention how awesome she is? -- leaves the room, I try to pick up kids' toys or do the dishes or whatever else I can sneak in, on crutches, before she returns to chide me.

Today, we took the girls to the library. My wife situated me with her usual thoughtfulness on a series of cushions by the bay window while she went to supervise the girls in the craft area. I was sitting with our assembled winter coats and a pile of book and movies to be checked out. I opened a book only to notice the two other families in this space. I can't be sure which children paired with which parents, but the grouping boasted two haggard mothers, four wound-up boys circling 5 years, and a girl who appeared to be 3 years old.

Now, my children have acted feral in social spaces before, but I found my patience waning as one of the screaming boys began hammering his sister in the head with a beanbag -- with force, speed, and purpose -- until the poor girl was screaming like a caffeinated banshee.

Yes, I wanted to move.

Then I remembered my knee. Then I saw the winter coats and movies and books that I would be unable to carry while using my crutches. Then I saw two of the boys blocking my path, brandishing Legos like switchblades, snarling at me while one of the mothers called hopelessly for calm the way the sand might call out to the water: Stop splashing!

This is the way life is, in some sense, for my father: unable to go where he wants when he wants, tied to the schedule of other people, and unable in the sea of aphasia to speak his mind or relate, as I am doing here, these reflections on the state of his injury and how it has changed him. For me, the change is temporary, while he is changed forever.

When I go under the knife -- or under the "scope" -- next week, I'll see with perfect hindsight how I got here, stretching back to my days as a high school jumper, but I'll also know something else.

My dad remembers many things, but cannot always say them; therefore, he lives in the moment... even when the moment is not of his choosing. He has no other choice. He must continually observe his surroundings, encircled by things he cannot control. More often than not, he smiles.

This is good practice for us all, patients or parents, on crutches or in the long jump pit.

I watch as the older brother apologizes. He has been prompted by his parent, yes, but the apology seems to me -- frozen as I am, and smiling -- to show a glimmer of real remorse.

The two children look at each other and suddenly hug. I continue to watch, while my crutches, a temporary device allowing me to witness this moment of reconciliation, point sharply toward the ground.

For more by Davis Schneiderman, click here.

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