In 1952, at a family gathering at my grandparents’ house in Arlington, South Dakota, my Aunt Letty teased me about a button I was wearing.
“I Like Ike,” the button proclaimed. Letty asked me, “Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”
Watch the four-year-old mind at work: I heard two words, one easy, one hard. I thought I could say the hard word, but I was sure I could say the easy one.
“Democrat,” I said.
Letty laughed, and my ears turned red.
Eight years later, when I was 12, John F. Kennedy was elected President. I remember being scared. I had never really known any President except Dwight Eisenhower.
I have a picture of myself in 1952. I’m sitting in a scow-shaped little rowboat on Lake Poinsett (PON-sit), the biggest (just about the only) lake in South Dakota, holding a fishing rod.
I wear a straw hat and a smile.
ONE OF MY grandmother’s (and my mother’s) stories: My great grandfather, John Abbott, my maternal grandmother’s father, died of kidney failure.
It’s an awful way to go. In the days before dialysis and transplant, doctors simply counseled patients to try not to drink too much. The end came either in overwhelming nausea, or when potassium buildup caused heart failure.
Grampa Abbott had asked my mother, then a girl, for a drink. As she had been instructed, she brought him a small cup, half full. Grampa Abbott had a terrible temper. He knocked the cup out of her hand.
“I want a whole dipper full!” he bellowed.
That could have been my fate, too. My kidneys failed in 1975.
“If your kidneys had failed just a couple of years earlier,” my friend Dr. Leslie Dornfeld told me, “we would have just let you go. There wasn’t enough dialysis to go around, so we had to ration it.”
It did not work out that way. I dialyzed for nearly six years, then had a transplant that lasted 20, another that lasted two, and now here I am, trying for another but looking at very long odds.
LET ME ADD UP the pluses and minuses. Truly, there are very few minuses. I had my blessings. I had two marvelous decades. Most important, I come to what may be life’s end without any guilt or regret.
Maybe I’m wrong about this, but, judging from the testimony of literature, I don’t think so. I think most people come to the end of their lives thinking, “If only I had done this” or “If only I had not done that.”
That doesn’t mean I have not done bad things. I have. But I have come to terms with having done them, and I have been forgiven.
I have had a job I loved. With every new assignment, my first thought was, “Oh, boy, I get to write.” I am crazy about my wife, and I have two wonderful sons.
It would be nice to have another decade. I may get it if a transplant by Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles works out; I have a donor. The docs better be willing to get to it fast.
These days, my default prayer is, “Lord, deliver me or take me.” Followed by, “Lord, forgive me for telling You Your business. Thy will, not mine, be done.”
SUPPOSE I HAD died in 1975. Looking back, I regard that old world as much superior to this one. I am scared again at the prospect of a new President — with much better reason this time.
But this is better. If I had died in 1975, without faith, without family, without love, I would have gone with a bitter curse on my lips.
Now, my heart raises a blessing with every remaining breath.