The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

“I’ll see you when you get out,” I said, shaking Frank’s hand.

Part of me knew I was lying. I’m no doctor, but I had a strong hunch that I was shaking the hand of a dead man. I had lost a lot of weight following my bone marrow transplant. But Frank? Frank was positively skeletal.

It was a far cry from how he looked when I first met him a few months earlier. Our chemo schedules lined up, which meant we spent many, many, many hours in waiting rooms together. We didn’t chat much — I kept mostly to myself during treatment. But I became an expert people watcher, which helped me get to know Frank and his wife.

Given how loud Frank was, eavesdropping proved fairly simple. Not loud in a bad way. He was charismatic and quick with a joke, whether it was about his chest IV falling out in the shower or how his big belly made his subcutaneous injections a cinch. His brand of dark humour was right up my alley and helped the long days go faster.

I also learned that Frank would be receiving his bone marrow transplant a week before mine. I took selfish comfort in knowing that I’d have an ally in the trenches with me. Of course, between the strict rules around post-transplant isolation and the fact that most of the time I simply didn’t have the energy to get out of bed meant that we didn’t see much of each other.

The few times we did cross paths on the transplant ward, we’d be wheeling our IV pumps up and down the corridors for exercise. And each time I saw Frank, he looked worse. I’m sure I looked pretty beat up myself, but this was different: it was clear things were not going well.

A few weeks after my transplant, my new stem cells had engrafted and began producing healthy blood on their own. It was a tough go, but bit-by-bit my counts crept up. My transplant had been successful. Down the hall, Frank’s had not.

Shaking Frank’s hand before I left, I did my best to keep my face from betraying the concern I felt.

During a follow-up appointment not long after, I overheard a couple talking in the waiting room about a patient who had died on the 14th floor — the transplant ward. A quick Google search when I returned home yielded an online obituary that confirmed my suspicions.

Frank had died.

Living with Lady Luck

Although it takes more than luck to overcome life’s obstacles, it nonetheless plays a huge role in our lives. Two men walked into the hospital for bone marrow transplants. Both had leukemia. Both had the same doctors. One survived. One didn’t. Of course, there were a million-and-one other factors at play — Frank’s age, the complexity of his case, other underlying conditions. Still, it was a sobering reminder of how things could have easily ended up differently for me.

The idea of luck can be an unnerving one, especially for people like me who put a lot of stock in planning, budgeting and having control over situations. But the fact is, as much as we like to think we’re masters of our destinies, we’re often at the mercy of chance.

A rainy day can foil the weeks you put into organizing the company golf tournament. Unexpected traffic can make you late for a meeting, even if you gave yourself loads of time. Your hopes for a super productive week may be dashed when a flu bug hits.

The secret, I think, is accepting that luck and life are inseparable and finding ways to be ready for when misfortune strikes. That could mean having an emergency savings account, a backup wedding venue in case it pours or a roadside assistance membership in the off chance you get a flat on the way home.

And then there’s the bad luck you never see coming, like a sudden death in the family or a flash flood destroying your house. That’s where adaptability comes in. If you step on one of Lady Luck’s landmines, surround yourself with supportive people, remind yourself of the good things you still have in your life and start planning a new way forward.

Finally, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of all the good luck in our lives. After all, right now you’re sitting on a rock capable of supporting intelligent life, flying 109,000 km/hour through space. You’re the culmination of millions of years of evolution, and the sperm that helped make you had to outswim 500 million others.

On top of that, take a look at your family tree. If just one of your ancestors failed to meet their mate, you wouldn’t exist. One missed encounter, one decision not to have a second date, one bout of sniffles keeping your great-great-grandmother from going to the town dance, and POOF. No you. The fact that you are here is staggering in its unlikeliness. Take a step back from time to time to marvel at that.

I’m grateful every day for how fortunate I am to be here. I wish Frank had the same luck I did. I think of him often and hope his family is doing OK. I don’t know why I got to live and he didn’t, but I hope I never forget the lessons he taught me about how precarious life can be, to accept that some things are out of my control and to not take what I’ve got for granted.

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Lessons learned from leukemia

More life lessons

Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.