I was still in bed Monday morning, June 7, when I got the call that I let go to voicemail. When I finally got up and listened to the message, it was from my old friend Julia in Ohio whom I’d lost touch with over the last five years telling me that our mutual friend Jason Pryor was in a coma at the Columbus hospital.
I immediately called her back and asked what happened.
Pryor (that was his name to us) had been diagnosed with a rare, extremely aggressive cancer over Memorial Day weekend. The doctors gave him three months to live. Only his new wife, immediate family and closest friends knew. He asked them to keep it a secret. Just one week later, he was back in the hospital, as more than 60 percent of his body was overrun with tumors. By the end of the weekend, he slipped into the coma. Now the doctors estimated he wouldn’t make it more than one week.
Julia had only just found out yesterday.
My response was lackluster at best. I expressed my sorrow, but I couldn’t come home. After all, we were enrolled in this debt management program, and our savings had already taken a hit when we flew back for my brother’s funeral, and I’d already used all my bereavement time at work, and I didn’t have any vacation time left, and I was in this super-intensive eight-week business calculus class.
I was sorry, but there was no way I could come back, I explained.
Oh, she said. She understood.
We did a surreal, “So what have you been up to?” conversation and tried to cram the last five years of our lives into 30 minutes.
Julia asked if I could call a couple of our other friends to spread the word about Pryor. Sure, I said.
I asked her if she could keep me updated on his condition. Sure, she said.
We hung up and I called another friend, Dawn. Her response was rather dull and dazed as well. We didn’t talk more than 10 minutes.
I moved on to the next call, Kristen. I left a voicemail saying I had some bad news about Pryor and to call me back right away.
I was at work by the time she called back. She was crying – a lot. She’d just heard the news from someone else.
Well, when are you leaving to come home? Kristen asked.
And that was when it really hit me. My good friend was dying in the hospital. How could I not go home?
I said I didn’t know and would have to look into it that night.
Somehow I made it through the day at work. I even went to class and made it through class. But as soon as I got home, I collapsed.
I knew I couldn’t do my homework that night. I knew I wouldn’t be going back to class tomorrow or the rest of the week, which meant I would have to drop the class. Dropping the class meant putting the MBA program on hold.
I searched for flights home.
I would be there Thursday evening in time for visiting hours at the hospital. I would be there in time to hold his hand, tell him how amazing he was, say goodbye and wish him well on his new journey.
Tuesday morning, I found out he wasn’t doing well. His vitals were leveling off, which was a sign he wasn’t expected to make past a few days.
I went into autopilot mode at work.
When I got home I curled up against Mr. Man and cried for Pryor. He was one of the sweetest, funniest guys I knew. It wasn’t fair. He hadn’t even celebrated his one-year anniversary yet with his wife.
More calls and texts came in about his condition. Now it would be a miracle if he made it another 24 hours.
When I woke up Wednesday morning, my friend left a message saying he passed at about 2:30 a.m.
So much for getting back in time to say goodbye.
Wednesday, I wavered between numbness and outbursts of sobbing. I left work a little early, came home, snuggled against Mr. Man for a bit and then decided it was time to get to work on a memorial album I wanted to share with our friends when back in Ohio.
I was surprised I didn’t have more pictures of us, but the few I did have were classic. They were all from the summer of 2002, which was the height of my friendship with Pryor though we’d been friends since I was 17. I filled the album with other memorable photos from 2002 and reflected on what a fun time that was and how lucky I was to have the friends I did. I stopped crying and slept soundly that night for the first time since Sunday.
Thursday, I felt fine. I knew Pryor was off to bigger and better things. I imagined him having beers with Kurt Cobain, one of his favorite musicians.
Up in the Air
At the airports and in the airplanes were the first times I was able to just relax and let my mind wander. I’d been on such a tight, rigid schedule with my mind racing from obligation to assignment to checklist that I hadn’t had stopped to examine how I was doing.
I thought about how after my brother died, I started to have doubts about school. The MBA classes were very stressful for me when heaped upon my roles as full-time employee, writer, spouse and friend. If I learned nothing from Jep’s death, wasn’t it that stress (in combination with a long smoking habit and a family history of heart disease) can kill?
I let my mind go to the plea I cast out into the universe the weekend I had between when my first semester ended and my business calculus class began. I knew the schedule was going to be an utter nightmare, so I remember specifically saying not once, but twice (and maybe even three times), something along the lines of:
“OK, so here’s the deal. I just need the next eight weeks to be as boring and uneventful as possible if I’m going to get through this business school program. No deaths, no accidents, no natural disasters or other catastrophes. If any of the aforementioned occurs, I get it. I completely get the message – I am not supposed to be doing this.”
One of my favorite Oprah-isms is that “the universe talks to you first in a whisper, and then gets louder and louder until you get the message.”
In this instance, the universe didn’t just shout at me; it smacked me.
I started asking the difficult questions I hadn’t let myself give time to process before: Why was I really in the MBA program? Was I happy? Was I healthy? How were my relationships holding up under the pressure?
One of the main reasons I went into the MBA program was because my company offers an excellent tuition reimbursement deal ($5,000 a year). It would be stupid to walk away from free money like that, right? Plus, an MBA is an impressive addition to a resume, no?
Up in the air, I remembered that I am a writer, a creator. I love to daydream, nap, drink good wine with great friends, cook, exercise, snuggle with Mr. Man for movie nights, and volunteer.
Rarely had I enjoyed any of my favorite pastimes in six months.
Instead, since I’d been in school, I’d gained about 10 pounds, was irritable, stressed, frustrated and generally unhappy. At the end of the first semester, all I had to show for it was my C in accounting and A in business law and the satisfaction of knowing I could handle the program if I chose to do so. But was this really how I wanted to spend the next three-and-a-half years of my life?
I asked myself if I had been given only a few months to live, would I still want to be in the MBA program? The honest – and now very clear – answer was no.
Close One Door, Open Another
That was it: I would not be returning to California State University, Fullerton’s MBA program in the fall. At the very least, I needed a break to determine what I really wanted to do.
I noticed that the more I relaxed and released the notion of going back to school, the more creative, exciting ideas came to my mind. It felt so wonderful to let my mind play again, and I was delighted to discover I hadn’t snuffed out all my creative sparks.
I’m still testing and experimenting with my ideas — throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. If anything starts to look promising, I’ll share. And of course, I’m thrilled to finally get back to Tenacious Lee. Hopefully, this lapse will be the last.
So, I’d like to use this opportunity to thank my muses, Pryor and Jep. I promise I won’t let you guys down.
And to everyone else, please don’t wait for the universe to smack you. You can listen to your gut and make bold decisions without waiting for a mysterious tragedy to befall. Any day is the right time to turn the corner and forge a different path that will lead to a happier, better life. All it takes is a little courage and tenacity.
In memory of Jason Pryor, 1980 to 2010.