(I don't know if I should post this. But I had to write it. I promise content to come that is more in line with the Jamie Mac you have come to know and love, but humor me on this one......)
I don't remember anything about last year's Maryland game. I only remember leaving.
A few times this offseason, the game's details were brought up in conversation, but every play-by-play morsel was news to me. I do recall the substitute public address announcer for Carl Grapentine being 10 times more excited for every first down than anybody else in the crowd, but nothing else. It was the final home game of one of the most miserable Michigan seasons most of us can remember, and given some of our more recent times, that's actually saying something. Despite Michigan's losing season, we trekked up to Ann Arbor from Toledo for one more tailgate. Part out of duty, part out of respect for the players, and part out of the fact that that's just what fans do. Only half of us actually attended the game. I was part of that group. We spent most of the first half wondering around the sparse crowd and sitting in different seats throughout the stadium just to stay warm and entertained. How many times can you so openly seat jump at the Big House? Wait, let's not talk about that.
As halftime approached, we had had enough. The weather was cold. The football was miserable. Most of the rest of our crew was at a bar. It was time to join them. I was fine with that until we were actually about to leave the stadium grounds. While my friends hustled out to flag a cab on Stadium Boulevard, I froze, not wanting to pass through the exit gates the way Archie Moonlight Graham didn't want to cross over the first baseline in the movie Field Of Dreams. Moonlight knew he would not be able to play ball on the Field of Dreams anymore once he crossed over that baseline. And I was afraid that once I left Michigan Stadium, I would never return.
I've always had on again, off again migraine issues throughout my life, but in 2012, the headaches began to get bigger and more frequent. Blood pressure medication soothed the issue for awhile, but by the spring of 2013 the migraines were not only back, but they had found another gear and often came accompanied by violent nausea. Here is how a typical day would play out. I'd have a slight headache. I would get on the phone with a customer, and the headache would mushroom to the point where I couldn't talk anymore. When the call ended, I'd rush to the bathroom to puke. This is not normal behavior. Of course, I'm seeing a doctor through all of this, but the medications just weren't working and causing frustrating side effects (gout, puffed up extremities, even more severe headaches). Eventually the problem was identified. My kidneys were failing, partly through high blood pressure and partly through the fact that that is sometimes what happens to the body as we age. Shit happens and you just have to deal with it. I got myself a kidney specialist and rather quickly she was able to administer a proper medicinal routine that stopped the headaches and, while it didn't fix the kidney functions, it kept them from getting worse. As 2013 ended, I had dodged the dialysis bullet.
But the good health did not last. By spring, I was getting constant stomach aches that felt like somebody was always kicking me in the belly. At first, I thought it was just a changing-of-the-seasons sort of virus and did not think anything of it. But I couldn't shake it. And it was getting worse. I could not eat anything. Most days, a single bite of food disgusted me. At the same time, I was somehow always in the bathroom with differing degrees of diarrhea. The foods I could stomach were going straight through me. It was weird, scary and confusing. It was like I had a little bit of every possible eating disorder known. By August, I was not much of a functioning human being. Since I could not nourish my body, it was tough to get very far into the day without significant rest. I was regularly going to bed before sundown because I lacked the energy to do anything else. Of course, I was also up in the middle of night for endless hours in the bathroom. Months were spent going through rounds of specialists, tests, and proddings until finally they figured out all I had was Crohn's Disease. Very treatable stuff. By the middle of September, I had new medicinal regimen to take care of this and instantly began feeling better. So much better, that I might have partied a wee bit too hard during the Miami tailgate.
But those good times lasted shorter than the good health at the beginning of the year did. By the end of September, my body began inexplicably falling apart. This was not a slow devolution either. It happened overnight. And I don't know how to fully explain the conditions I felt without doubling the size of this post. Nobody wants that. I'll try to be brief. Major breathing issues, chest pains, sweats. I struggled walking to and from our tailgate to the stadium during the Minnesota game. I couldn't walk more than a couple of blocks without having to stop. As the next week went on basic household chores and walking up the stairs in my house proved too much. Is this what dying feels like? Unbeknownst to Brian and Ace, I almost didn't make it through our podcast the morning after the Rutgers game. I was scared. I spent the rest of the day with my phone in my hands, expecting to call 911 any second.
By Monday, I could not wait any longer. I checked myself into the emergency room, assuming I was having some sort of cardiac arrest. So did all the doctors, given my condition. As it turns out, that wasn't the case. We were back to that unfamiliar place of having something major wrong with me, but having no clue what it was. I stayed in the hospital that whole week, unable to walk down their hallways without passing out, complete basic breathing tests and baffling another new team of doctors. As it turns out, my body had rejected the medication they had put me on for the Crohn's. And by rejecting it, I mean the medications gave me a serious of strokes that were increasing in number and strength. I mean, come on universe. Really? So off that medication I went, new medications were prescribed and I was released the day before the Penn State game, which I obviously did not attend.
During all that, we also did a routine kidney ultrasound that uncovered a small spots on the left kidney. To find out more, we did MRIs and a very invasive procedure (for men) to find out more. And when that procedure struggled to identify it, we did it again. Eventually, the verdict was a tumor, albeit a tiny one, at least for the time being. The decision was to monitor it over the winter and see how it progresses, but phrases like renal cancer and organ removal all of sudden were on the table. Maybe it wouldn't grow and this was a false alarm? But I knew better based on the last couple of years that whatever the worst case situation was, that we were going to at least flirt with it.
So as we left the Maryland game last year, I had doubts about everything. Health issues had been piling up and the specter of something even worse loomed. I knew if things truly did go south over the next few months, I might not make it back here. While my friends hailed a cab, I just could not leave. I needed a moment. I gathered myself by the Victors Colonnade monument and took a deep breath just to level myself. I said a prayer and a thanks to my grandparents, who have long since passed, but who first brought me to the Stadium during Anthony Carter's freshman year. And I took another deep breath and let the memories of all the good times at this place and in this town wash over me. If I were to do a top-10 personal moments of every year type of retrospective, most years it would be hard to push at least one memory from the UM home schedule off the list. I just always have such a good time at tailgates and games. It was like that as a child. It was like that as a teen. It was like that in my 20s. It was like that in my 30s. And it is like that now in my 40s. But was this this final chapter? Eventually I noticed my friends piling into the cab and I hustled to join them. As we disappeared into the Ann Arbor night, I looked back a few times until the stadium lights could no longer be seen. While I wondered if I would ever return, I tried not to let my friends see how much I had been crying.
Obviously since I am writing this, there is a happy ending. But not before clearing more hurdles. The symptoms I was told to look out for began showing themselves by the end of March. We quickly moved up follow up appointments that weren't scheduled for another six weeks. The tumor had almost tripled in size and it was clear it wasn't benign. Life moved pretty quickly at that point. After coming up to Ann Arbor for a second opinion, I decided to have the surgery in mid-June at the University of Michigan Health System's Oncology Center. Before I knew it, the day of the surgery arrived. We removed the tumor and about half my kidney in the process. I am cancer free. But I still have stomach issues. And I'm now trying to fight suboptimal kidney performance with less than 2 kidneys. Its unclear what the long-term future holds on that front, but so far everything is holding up great.
It was a hard summer of post-op recovery. Truthfully, it's been a long, hard, lonely three years. Often, the depression encountered with these ups and downs have been as difficult as anything else to overcome. And I have plenty of days where I'm still fighting that off. What pushes me forward most days is realizing that life is a ride and that there are millions of people out there whose health struggles are much worse and more challenging to overcome than mine. I honestly don't know how people with more aggressive cancers manage it. In every waiting and recovery room that I've been in these recent years, I have found people with harder struggles, higher hurdles and scarier diagnoses. Inspirations, all of them. You all know or will know somebody who has to go through these kinds of struggles. Be there for them. Rework your schedule and make them a priority. They need your support and companionship, even if it looks like they're doing alright.
As I write this today, I feel as healthy, athletic and optimistic as I have in three years. Maybe there is another shoe out there ready to drop, but I don't care. All I want now is solid run of good health so I can reconnect with old friends, make new friends and just have some fun. I've been slowly making the social rounds and even gone on a couple dates. I've dusted off an old manuscript that I going to finally figure out how to publish and I'm going to start writing again. I actually went to a concert a few weeks back, an activity that seemed unheard of for most of the last several years. I feel like I am back. And tomorrow, I'm going back to Michigan Stadium.
It's not the return that's making the headlines this week. But it's been the only return I've cared about since last November.
Go Blue. Beat Oregon State.