Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Cancer in My Rear View Mirror…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Bonnie stories,Depression and Hope,Friendship & Compassion,Life & Death,Love and Romance,Marriage and Family — Bob at 2:46 pm on Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Robert M. Katzman’s Amazing Story:  http://www.differentslants.com/?p=355

© December 4, 2013

A person I met at neighborhood gathering in early December this year asked me how my store was doing, in Skokie, Illinois. The actual answer would be: “Terrible!” like so many thousands of small businesses across America. But I didn’t say that. I said something else, that it really didn’t matter to me how successful my store was in the larger picture of my life.  She looked quizzical.

I briefly explained.  She seemed surprised by my response, but then told me to write about it, that it might mean something to people who need hope. I hadn’t planned on doing that.  But since I have respect for Frances Roehm, who is an Online Librarian for the Skokie Library, and I consider her a friend, I told her I would do that, because she asked me.  My story has nothing to do with Christmas, despite the date of it. The meaning of it is within me, all year, every year.

December 20th is the 45th anniversary of when I had major cancer surgery in 1968, during my freshman year at the University of Illinois.  A doctor at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, Danely Slaughter, removed most of my left jaw.  In the ICU, he came in to check on teenaged me to see how I was doing.  He was a famous surgeon, though I didn’t know that at the time.  He told me he felt 95% sure he had removed all of the malignancy.  I responded, slowly, unhappily, in the cool room full of blinking lights and beeping noises with tubes coming out of me and lumpy bandages covering most of my face, “Why not 100%?”

He replied, a bit impatiently, that he felt 95% was close enough.  Also, he probably didn’t want some young whippersnapper questioning his competence.  Evidently, he was correct.  The surgeon died two years later in 1970 from a heart attack, but at least not from cancer. Though I suspect that difference didn’t give him much satisfaction at the time.  I discovered his obituary by chance while reading the Chicago Sun-Times.  I think about that.  I am 63 today, maybe the same general age he was at his death.  I am 95% sure of that.  Dr. Slaughter might say that my calculated guess was “close enough”.

While many surgeries followed, that is not what this reflection is about.  Having cancer at eighteen changes a person’s perspective on everything.  What else is on an equal plane of catastrophic possibilities in a person’s life?

Nothing.

I left college—couldn’t see the point of it any more—and opened a series of businesses (Bob’s Newsstands (5 stores, 55 employees at its 1983 peak), a literary bookstore, a kosher delicatessen, a periodical distribution trucking company, a foreign language bookstore, a collectible magazine store and now I’m the author of five self-published non-fiction books about my strange life) none of which I knew anything about, because the risk of failure couldn’t measure up to a much worse thing that had already happened.  Some of them were quite successful.

Perhaps having no fear of failure unleashes a person’s determination and creativity.  Helps them see the big picture more clearly.   But how can I know that?  I have nothing to compare it to, do I?

I was drafted exactly one year to the day from the surgery, December 20th, 1969, and then immediately rejected because of what the surgery took away.  The United States Army wants their soldiers complete, at least to start out with, I guess.  But they didn’t let me go completely.  Over a four-year period I had four different classifications, not receiving a 4-F until 1972.  But they never saw me again and no one called me.  They have their mysterious ways.  During that same period I had an unsuccessful transplant operation, but they never knew about that. I…assume.

Time went by.  I tried to rationalize the meaning of things over and over.  Why am I here? Is survival arbitrary? If there was no Divine Intervention–and why would there be?–what does a person do with the rest of their life that will motivate them?  Would I be able to sustain a long-term relationship?  Why have kids if the possibility of death from a resurgent cancer was always there, lurking in the shadows, ready to grab me whenever, wherever?  If I fell in love, would it be fair to marry someone?

To give this a perspective that may be easier for a stranger reading this story to be able to understand how I felt, my father was working for The Equitable Life Insurance Company on Michigan Avenue across the street from the Wrigley Building.  New insurance agents, and he was one at the age of fifty-six, were supposed to go out and sell insurance to anyone they met, especially relatives.  He asked me and I said ok.  I was happy to help him.

But then I was rejected, at 18, as a bad risk and was informed that I was “rated” for five years.  Rated?  My father explained to me, in tears, that it meant that I was not expected to survive five years after the cancer surgery and the insurance company didn’t want to sign up a guy that they felt was going to be an immediate payout.  What would such a grimly matter-of-fact explanation do to you if you heard it like that?  Plan a career?

But I did fall in love.  I married an eighteen-year-old girl when I was twenty-one and we had a child, a daughter.  Maybe I was too young, though.  Perhaps I was concerned about wasting time.  A “do it while you can” mentality.  Not so wise, in retrospect.  The marriage wasn’t successful and I met another person, a woman this time.  We were both twenty-four, married at twenty-seven and had three children, two of them parents themselves now, as is my first daughter.  Four grandchildren.  Imagine that?  I suggested to all of them to wait until they were twenty-eight to marry.  They did.

We are still together and still married thirty-eight years later.  Still, the woman took a risk, didn’t she?  Lucky for me.  I do hope lucky for her, too.

My fourth child is seventeen now.  We adopted her when we were both forty-six.  Completely crazy, if a person thinks about it, under the circumstances.  This was 14 years after a second transplant operation, more or less successful.  Less, really.  I get to see the results every day.

While all this was happening, people were dying all around me.  My grandparents, parents, my aunts and uncles, a younger cousin and my older sister. Many had cancer, including my sister, Bonnie. Now I’m the older brother because for me, time kept going.

Adopt a child?  A child actually born on 9/11?  Maybe not such a good omen. Why do that?

Because my good wife wanted another child and who was I to say no?  Mister Bad-Risk-Husband now on the brink of social security?  Will I live to meet my last child’s children, too, especially if she also decides to marry at twenty-eight– eleven years from now–when I’d be seventy-four?  Fifty-six years after my traumatic teenaged surgery?

Cancer in my rear-view mirror.  Is it gaining on me, or am I leaving it behind?

How can I possibly know?

But after more than 20,000 unexpected tomorrows, I still believe there will be more.

Maybe.

There’s always hope.

 

Afterword

A smart person in the Skokie Library reference department, Gary Gustin, tracked down the information on Dr. Danely Phillip Slaughter which I was unable to unearth for 43 years.

Turns out, Dr Slaughter was born in 1911 and died April 11th, 1970, at 59.  So young.  He did my surgery when he was 57 and amazingly, I have managed to live longer than man who saved my life, too.  I do hope I have somehow helped or inspired the many people who have helped me, all along my way.  That would help me make sense of this very odd life.  Objectively, I’m a very lucky man.

Dear Dr. Slaughter, forty-five years later, and wherever you may be… I still remember you.

Thank you.

(Added October 8, 2017: As many already know, my beloved Joy died on Mother’s Day, May 14th this year, at 66. We had 42 years together. Not enough. I am now 67. Amazing.

My 38th operation on my left shoulder will be on December 8th. I am left-handed, so maybe no writing for a while. And yes, I did assume it would be coming eventually, because one side of your body mirror’s the other.)


Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: https://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $24.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.

 Twitter handle: bob_katzman

14 Comments »

Comment by Bill Skeens

December 4, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

Bob:

With all your health challenges perhaps it wasn’t survival of the fittest, but survival of the finest.
You always have had things to do and have been a man of action, drive, discovery and wonder that keeps you going strong. All my best, Bill Skeens

Comment by Helene

December 4, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

A few years ago I tried for life insurance for the last time. The guy said have your hip replacement and if you live we will consider giving you insurance. Dad was a life insurance salesman and now I couldn’t get any.

Great story. You are an inspiration. Your life is an inspiration and I am proud to call you my friend.

Btw my parents were in their mid 40’s when they adopted me and my brother. They gave me a great life. I was in my mid 40’s when I got Alex.
Crazy? Na. A blessing. When God calls, we all report for duty.

Comment by Brian Novak

December 5, 2013 @ 12:17 pm

Another great post.

Your fearlessness inspires.

B

Comment by Paul Eisenbacher

December 5, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

Bob
I think the word tenacious can be used to describe your verve for life. I wish you continuous good health and thank you for your friendship. “L’Chaim” I hope I got that right. Paul Eisenbacher

Comment by Patricia

December 13, 2013 @ 12:30 pm

thank you as always, for your words, your warmth and your hugs.

Comment by Herb Berman

December 19, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

No one who hasn’t lived through the harrowing events of your life can say, “I understand,” so I won’t. It’s enough to have some inkling of the courage it must have taken just to keep on living, to make plans, to marry, to have children.

Dr. Slaughter’s bedside manners might have been a bit kinder.

Thanks, Bob.

Comment by Jim DiMaria

December 19, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

I am 95% sure this is a great piece. And that should be good enough.

Keep it up.

Comment by Bob

March 2, 2014 @ 10:47 pm

It is a wonderful thing when nice people like the ones above take the time to read something I’ve wriiten, think about it and then respond. Makes me feel like part of a community. Not a soul lingering thru time among strangers. Not everyone has people in their life who give a damn. I do. Another reason I’m lucky, however one defines that.

It is near Midnight, three months later. I’ll keep on writing. Good night, all seven of you, above.

Comment by Helene

July 3, 2016 @ 11:33 am

2 1/2 years later your life is still an inspiration.
Thanks to your Dr. His legacy was helping you to be around for those of us who came later to know you. Smart man.

Comment by Glenn Gordon

July 3, 2016 @ 11:47 am

But for all your suffering, you wouldn’t have had your rich life. Truly, the joy of cancer.

Comment by Ruth Heymann Baker

July 3, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

Bob – I always enjoy your stories. Hope all is well with you and your wife so you can live out your years together.

Comment by Brad Dechter

July 5, 2016 @ 5:47 am

Definitely this is about hope Bob. I read all your stuff and know you have lived a life always having hope and optimism- it’s good that you know that you can beat cancer!
Keep the faith Bob!

Comment by Don Larson

July 5, 2016 @ 10:58 am

Hi Bob,

The story remains a testament of your endurance through much hardship.

Dr. Danely Phillip Slaughter was there when you (and probably many others) needed him. He can’t be written off even at this dat in 2016.

Keep up the good work you do, my friend.

Warmest regards,

Don

Comment by Jm Payne

July 5, 2016 @ 6:27 pm

Bob,
I have never known the fears you faced from your youth and admire how you faced so much, but it was just a life. That is why your story is inspiring to me: It’s about an ordinary life lived in spite of being like many others and yet heroic in its own way. You make the ordinary heroic and heroism like everyday.
Jim Payne

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