The Story Hall
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The Story Hall

Back to the Garden

I returned to the scene of the crime, yesterday. The “crime” was the abduction of my brain tumor. The last summer that I had it (2016), I spent a good deal of time at a certain garden on Georgetown University’s campus. The garden is 133 yards long, with a walkway down the middle of it, so you are surrounded by garden for the entire 133 yards, as you walk from one end to the other. It is one of the most peaceful places I know, maybe next to Arlington Cemetery, which I also find incredibly peaceful.

The garden was dedicated in 1998 to my Aunt Jeanne Bridgeman, known to most, when she was alive, as Sister Jeanne. She was a catholic nun, and chaplain at Georgetown University Medical Center. She ministered to, among others, the parents of children in the Neo-Natal ward there, many of whom went through very difficult times. I got to talk to a number of them at her memorial service in the little chapel on campus, back in 1995. (She’d died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 62). I’d never realized my sweet, kind aunt had such a profound impact on so many prior to meeting so many of them at her viewing, there.

I stood by the altar of that chapel, next to my Dad, who was by then suffering the effects of metastisized prostate cancer, and routinely had great difficulty standing for any periods of time. He stood there for what felt like hours, graciously receiving the hundreds who poured into that little chapel to pay their final respects to a remarkable woman who’d been there for them in some of their darkest hours.

She was Dad’s baby sister, and he was proud and honored to be there to hear their stories about her, how she’d touched them. That evening had a profound impact on me, as did the drive across the state of Pennsylvania and back with my Dad, to attend her other service at her home convent in Baden, Pa. That was also where many of Dad’s family paid their final respects. It was during those few days that I fully realized how very close I’d grown to my Dad, closer than best friends, a most unexpected development in both of our lives.

Koi Pond in the middle of the garden

That summer (2016), I spent many a Friday evening at Sister Jeanne’s garden at Georgetown — it was a very dark time for me. I was involved with a 12 Step group that met a couple miles down the street from there on Fridays — whenever it was a slow night at the group, I would make my way to the campus, and that garden, where I would simply enjoy the tremendous peace, and absorb the healing presence that I felt there. I often thought of Dad and his sister, Jeanne, and just spent that time with them. Sometimes it almost felt like they were walking with me as I slowly strolled along that walkway through her garden. Those nights were the brighter spots of a mostly dark summer, for me.

Early that fall, on one of my follow-up visits to the V.A. to find out what the latest MRI showed, in terms of the status of my brain tumor — my facial nerve schwannoma (FNS) as it was technically known — my third such visit in a year and a half, a strange thing happened. Dr. Hoa put that MRI image up on the screen of his computer, and sat there looking at it for a little while, with a puzzled expression on his face. A very thoughtful doctor, one not given to long conversations, very direct and to the point, he looked over at me, and simply said, “There is no tumor.” I was taken aback, as that was the last thing I expected him to say at that moment.

“What exactly are you saying, Doc? Had you read the previous scans wrong? Was there never actually a tumor?”

“Oh, no, here’s the previous scans, and there’s the tumor, right there — you definitely had a facial nerve schwannoma. Only now… you don’t.”

“I see….have you ever seen something like this before, Doc?” He was a world-class expert on this rarest of rare tumors. At some point, in my research on it after I was diagnosed with it, I learned that I was one of maybe 20 people in the world to be diagnosed with a facial nerve schwannoma in that year. Dr. Hoa had done his medical thesis on the 30-year history of treatment of facial nerve schwannomas. He’d shared that paper with me when I first got my diagnosis confirmed, with the first of three MRI’s, which had been tremendously helpful. He clearly knew his business, when it came to FNS.

In answer to my question, he looked thoughtful for a minute, then said, “No…no, I haven’t. But I have heard of this happening once or twice.” His face looked more puzzled than ever, but with the hint of a smile. He must have felt good about his decision, early on, to do nothing but wait and watch with this one. His extensive research and experience told him that was the wisest approach. He’d even had to talk me down from the ledge, once or twice, when I was nearly insisting that he operate, to get that sucker out of there. It really bothered me, when it was in there. I just wanted it gone. Now, thankfully, it was — as a result of doing nothing.

Sometimes, doing nothing is the best thing you can do. Of course, while we were doing nothing, medically, about that tumor, I was doing something on a different level. I was paying regular visits to Dad and Sister Jeanne at her garden. Those peaceful evenings, and those walks, had been so helpful to me, a calm oasis amidst my mental and spiritual turmoil that summer.

I’d gone into work after my session with Dr. Hoa, then later, on my drive home, as I made my way up the long climb that is the George Washington Parkway, I had found myself glancing to my right, where you could see the spires and roofs of the old iconic buildings of the Georgetown campus across the Potomac River, and the thought of Sister Jeanne had come into my mind. I immediately burst into a cleansing cry, bawling my eyes out all the way up that parkway, just uncontrollably wailing, tears of joy and gratitude. I laughed and said, “Okay, okay, I get it. Thank you!”

Our back yard
Dad — about the age he was in the dream

That night, when I went to bed, I dreamed of Dad. He and I were standing in my back yard, chatting, and he casually said, “Is there anything else I can do for you, Pete?” In the dream, I didn’t get it. I mumbled something about needing a little help cleaning out the clutter in the basement, and then I woke up. The dream was still lingering as I came out of my slumber, and I immediately got it. “You idiot!” I thought to myself. “Don’t you realize what he was saying?” I didn’t in the dream, but I did, now. These events confirmed, for me, that Dad and Sister Jeanne had both had a hand in the healing me of my tumor. I surmised that I must have lost it as a result of all those visits to her garden at Georgetown.

Yesterday, I was driving into town to meet with a fellow I’ve been working with for a little over a year. It was such a nice day, I decided to take him to see the garden, where we could conduct some 12 Step work.

His case is a little different than most. When he first asked me for help with the 12 Steps, he was living in a D.C. shelter. He’d been referred to me by a guy who was living on the streets, then, who had used to be a part of our little group, there. I’ve learned that when someone reaches out for help, if I can be there, I should do what I can. It’s just what we do.

What made his case a little unusual, besides the fact that he was living in the shelter at the time, was he wanted to go through the 12 Steps, but didn’t consider himself an alcoholic. He still wanted to drink. He had previously had a lot of problems with drugs in his younger years, and had gotten off drugs through N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous) in the 90’s. He’d been exposed to the steps there, and was now trying to live a more spiritual life. He was certain that the 12 Steps would help him, in this regard.

I figured, what is there to lose, here? Maybe in the process, he will come to realize, either (1) he’s not an alcoholic or addict, just someone who used heavily at a younger age, then grew out of it, or (2) that he is actually an alcoholic and shouldn’t be drinking, either. I left that call up to him, and the process.

What I did get him to agree to was, as long as we were working our way through the 12 Steps, he would not drink. I told him that could have an adverse affect on his ability to go through the steps, successfully, and that if he wanted me to work with him, that was my one prerequisite. He had one slip-up, early on, which he promptly called and told me about, but other than that, he’s managed to not drink all this time.

Of course, he’s been holding out the hope that he could return to drinking once we get through the process of the 12 Steps. As we went through the process, and I got to know him better, some of the things I learned certainly sounded like he qualifies as an alcoholic. I did not want to judge, but he definitely seemed like someone who probably should not be drinking — he’d left some considerable wreakage in his wake as a result of drinking.

As we sat together on a big stone in Sister Jeanne’s garden yesterday, I asked him if he still planned to go through the rest of the steps with me? He had originally wanted help through the 8th and 9th Steps, after which he hoped to go back to his regular drinking. I told him that my sponsor had explained to me that the steps were a package deal. “There’s 12 of them — you gotta go through all 12 to have any real effect.”

He said he did want to go through the rest of them, but expressed concern with the 12th step, which states, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

“How will I be able to carry a message to another alcoholic if I return to drinking?” How, indeed. I detected a possible crack in the armor of his denial. I just said, “I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

I’m hoping that his denial will go the same way that my tumor went — disappeared into thin air. Even if not, I don’t think what he’s learned through the steps can harm him. Plus, as they say, it’s helped me just as much, helping him, as it has helped him. That’s how the whole deal works.

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Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

Connecting the dots. Storytelling helps me to make sense of this world, and of my life. I love writing and reading. Writing is like breathing, for me.

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