“I was telling people that you were going to die, Willy.”
It wasn’t exactly your normal breakfast talk. A physician fraternity brother offered this up during a trip to the ol’ alma mater earlier this month. The hustle and bustle of the diner, omelettes and orange juice, and his four kids stuffed into a booth with four adults offered quite a contrast to the weighty message.
Willy, my “little brother” from our fraternity days two decades past, is two years removed from a brutal bout with something called necrotizing pancreatitis. “This is a disease where your pancreas ‘eats’ itself which, in turn, affects the kidney, liver and various digestive processes,” he wrote shortly after his release from the hospital in November 2014. “The [South Dakota] hospital decided to fly me to Asheville to be closer to my mom because they were not sure that I would live through the summer. I went through 13 surgeries, dialysis and had a bout of psychosis where I saw things. I am now a Type 1 diabetic, I can’t walk well, and I have five tubes coming out of my lung, abdomen, and stomach. However, I am dealing with it all.”
Dealing with it all, he wrote so simply. Willy’s gentle, understated tone ran through my head and ran up against the horrifying reality of a struggle most of us can’t even begin to imagine…
Struggle was nowhere near my thoughts the rest of that gorgeous fall Saturday as he and I strolled around the sun-splashed Wake Forest campus, stopping at the chapel, the bookstore and the statue of Arnold Palmer, our fellow Demon Deacon and global golfing legend who passed away just weeks before.
Later that afternoon, before the football game between two of Willy’s alma maters — he’d gotten a degree from visiting Virginia as well — we checked out Wake’s Sports Hall of Fame, got some greasy grub from a favorite college dive and soaked up the tailgating energy.
When I drew blood handling a beer with a faulty bottle opener, Willy was giving himself an insulin shot. When the football contest was too close for comfort, I was stressed. Willy was less.
There I was thinking in my routine, short-term way: successful work week, enjoyable weekend, good trip… good game.
And there was Willy: “Relearning what it means to have a life is such a blessing.”