Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


The Big Uh-Oh

Last night at the roller rink, a grown man about 15 years younger than me took a tumble and broke his wrist. They stopped the music, but even before that, you could hear his screams all through the hall. 

Uh oh. 

Last week I was thinking about a friend — actually, I got to thinking about him because I saw a writeup on a blog about a commercial he’d once done, with the recently departed Tommy Smothers — and so I messaged my friend and when days later I heard back from him I learned that he’s in the hospital. A fit man several years older than me, he was in the shower one morning when he found he couldn’t stand any more. Doctors are unsure, but believe he’s got Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Uh oh.

And then the other day I discovered that a former colleague, someone I saw a lot of from the mid-90s to the mid-aughts, had died from ALS. He died from it only a year or two after he retired.

Big uh oh.

Early last year, ALS also took the novelist Cai Emmons, whom I used to correspond with. 

(ALS, by the way, tops my list of Don’t Get This. Parkinson’s is in the top five, and now I’m adding Guillain-Barré syndrome. I don’t know how to Not Get These (no one does), but I certainly hope to find out and to pass it along.)

Oh, I’ve got my own little thing too, and it’s not going away, and it troubles me occasionally in bigger ways and chronically in smaller ways, but it in no way compares with, oh, multiple sclerosis. Or Crohn’s disease, which a longtime female friend of mine suffers from. 

About six months ago, a friend I’d drifted apart from in recent years let me know that he had cancer. Specifically, a large cancerous tumor, in an unimaginably bad place:  his anus. (If you just cringed, you’re in good company.) I think I can imagine how he found out; it seems like the sort of thing you’d notice when sitting down or, um, cleaning oneself.

I couldn’t understand why my girlfriend’s friends didn’t want to join us for an evening of roller skating to the music of David Bowie: Clearly, this was going to be brilliant unusual fun. We could relive our teen years, including skating to the dimmed lights and high-school-romance music of the “couples skate” while we coursed around the rink holding hands and waving to a camera. I also couldn’t understand why, when I posted a video of my lovely woman and me skating together, a friend commented, “You’re so brave!” My girlfriend told me her friends had concerns about broken bones, but to me fractures seemed unlikely — what could be the odds of that? No, I couldn’t reckon any of that until I saw the poor fellow with the broken wrist and listened to his shrieks.

Uh oh.

Because at some point the big uh-oh awaits all of us. The uh-oh that isn’t fixed with a splint or a treatment or even surgery. The uh-ohs before that are just practice. They’re just an early warning system — except they can leave you wondering, “is this the fire drill, or is this an actual fire?”

By the way, my friend with the anal tumor? It looks like it’s all cleared up, and he’s back to work. Another medical miracle, and I’m serious about that.

And, not to sound hopelessly optimistic and naïve here, but I did share with my hospitalized friend a recollection I had of reading an article 37 years ago about novelist Joseph Heller, who’d had Guillain-Barré — and made an enormous recovery, going on to marry the nurse who helped him to recover. And that was almost 40 years ago: Imagine how much better the medical science on this is now!

And the guy who broke his wrist? He texted me. (Yes, I know him.) He texted me to say he needs surgery, but “It’ll be okay. Don’t worry about it.”

And, finally, I should add that I know many people who’ve gotten some hideous unexpected diagnosis, some with the clichéd advisory that they have “six months to live” — and years later, they’re still here, healthy and plugging along.

When you get the big uh-oh, take heart. Maybe it’s not actually the big one. Maybe it’s the one you get to beat, until the real one arrives.

And in the meantime, just stuff every day full with joy. I had an incredible time at the roller rink, skating nonstop for three hours to some of the best music ever recorded and, yes, doing the couples skate with my beautiful lady. I’m sure sorry for the fellow with the broken wrist, and for my friends with serious conditions; I know for now I’m lucky all around.

Again: for now.

2 Responses to “The Big Uh-Oh”

  1. Uncle Rich Says:

    I’ve had some childhood friends and former co-workers who have passed away. None of them were so close personally that it gave me ‘The Big Chill’. Also, I’m very good at going into denial. On the other hand, I’m aware of how my odds are gradually shifting into the ‘Uh-oh!’ zone. I don’t try to stuff every day full of joy. For me, it’s more like gently including small pleasures in each 24 hours. Yesterday I shoved snow and didn’t have a heart attack. Today I began reading a new novel. It’s all good.

  2. Dan Says:

    At 74, I have reached the age where I could fall over dead tomorrow, and folks would say,
    “Well, he had a long, full life.”
    “Long, anyway.”

    In its own way, it’s a comforting thought.

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