A story of being pushed to the edge and coming back with a new purpose and a new life.
Sometimes life throws a monkey wrench into our plans, jolting us onto a new path we never would have taken before. This isn’t often easy, but it can open the door to a life of greater purpose and fulfillment than would ever have been the case otherwise.
My name is Rob Meadows and this is the story of my monkey wrench, and something new I’ve started to build with it, a new direction in my own life.
I grew up in Kentucky, the third of four boys. When I was young my family moved around a great deal as my mother searched for meaning, even living in New Zealand for a time. My father Maynard was quiet, but very proud as I got my PhD and embarked on a career in science and drug discovery. When I received his PhD, my father bragged to strangers back in Kentucky at the local Cracker Barrel about his son “the doctor”.
Then, in 2008, the unthinkable happened. My brother Mark was in a near-fatal car crash and was in a vegetative coma, not expected to live. My father went to the hospital every day, week after week, month after month, but Mark did not improve and the eventual outcome became obvious. My father faced the inevitable and went to the local funeral parlor to make arrangements.
And then he went home.
And then he told his wife, Ruth, that he wasn’t hungry and just wanted to go to bed.
And then he died.
The next morning, I got a tearful phone call from Ruth. My father had died in his sleep, of a broken heart.
I was devastated. There were so many things I wanted to share with him. So many things I still needed to say. I wanted to thank him for being who he was and thank him for teaching me how to be who I am.
At the time I swore to make every day count. But traffic, bills, grocery shopping, work and all of the other mundane activities of daily life crowded back in and soon things were back to normal.
The years passed and I met Vicki, another scientific researcher in the San Diego drug discovery community. We married and settled into a comfortable life, working, dreaming of the future, and raising her two wonderful children. When we found that Vicki was pregnant, we were amazed and elated. All of the tests showed that our baby girl was healthy and due to arrive on December 1 of 2009.
As the year progressed, I started running a low grade fever with a small but constant sniffle and constantly felt tired. These nagging little symptoms persisted so I went to the doctor who prescribed antibiotics. A few weeks later it was clear that the antibiotics weren’t working, so they tried two or three rounds of more aggressive therapies. They kept at this until September, when the doctor finally did some blood work. The results came back in a week and they looked awful. When I went back to the doctor again he then recommended a GI specialist and an oncologist. I wondered why I needed an oncologist for a sniffle.
In late November, I finally got in to see the two specialists. The GI doctor found nothing, but the oncologist looked me in the eye and said “Get on the table. I’m going to do a bone marrow biopsy.”
Reluctantly, knowing a bone marrow biopsy is not fun, I sighed, turned white, and got on the table.
On December 1st, just as predicted, Abigail was born, a 6lbs 4oz beautiful baby girl. I was on top of the world.
And then the phone rang. It was my doctor. He asked three questions:
“Are you at home?
Are you with family?
Are you sitting down?”
The rest of the conversation was him telling me that I had an advanced case of Acute Myelogenous Leukemia and that I had maybe two months to live. That was 3:30, and by 6 PM I was in a hospital bed being prepped for chemotherapy.
This was the first of four rounds of chemotherapy. Along the way tests showed that my cancer was aggressive and would likely come back despite the chemotherapy. The only hope for a real cure was a bone marrow transplant. My brothers were not a good match, but a donor in Europe showed up as a perfect match,10 out of 10. This, along with Abigail’s arrival, was yet another miracle.
When the cells from the donor arrived, the nurses hung the little bag of red cells and told me that this was my second birthday. I was starting a new life.
The transplant was a life saver, but my new immune system set out to attack my body, what’s called graft versus host disease. Two weeks after the transplant I developed a fever, rising first to 100 F, then 102, 104, and finally 105-106. The fever went on for days, unrelenting even when I was packed in ice and given cold showers, shivering uncontrollably.
On the third day of the fever I started feeling very comfortable, very relaxed, and felt as if I was melting into the bed and fading from this life, letting go. I was so tired of fighting and putting on a strong face for my family. I didn’t even know if it was worth it. What if I struggled and struggled and it was all for nothing? I let go and released myself from the responsibility of fighting.
I started seeing a white light, not coming from somewhere outside of me, but coming from within me. It felt as if my spirit was leaving my body, that the lord was taking me. I opened my eyes and I could see only the light. Everything else started to fade. I closed my eyes and the light filled everything and warmed and comforted me. It was unavoidable, brilliant and inviting.
Soon I realized that I was at a steamy train station, with a train sitting and breathing white mist, waiting for passengers. And out from the train came my father, Maynard, the man that I had missed so much, and whose passing had left such a void in my life and soul. He had a concerned look on his face. I have seen that look many times when he wanted to tell me something that I didn’t want to hear, or get me to do something that he knew I wouldn’t like. He came up to me and said, ‘Hey Buddy. We have your room ready. It’s time to go. It’s time to get on the train.’ He held out his arm to bring me in.
I so wanted to go. I miss him every day. I never got to say goodbye or any of the things a grown man should say to his father. God could not have picked a better emissary to guide me to my next destination.
I looked down. I was on the passenger side of the station and the train was on the track side. I saw the little gap in the concrete that separated us and I couldn’t cross it. I couldn’t lift my foot and step over that crack, I couldn’t cross that threshold. I had a baby girl that needed me. I have a wife that needed me. I have work to do. I need to find decent drugs for childhood cancers and diseases of the elderly. I need to give to the needy and teach and support. There was still so much to do. I have so much unfinished business both with my life’s work and with the people I love.
So, I gave my dad a sad smile, and shook my head. I turned away. It was the hardest thing I have ever done.
When the light faded again, I could see my wife and she was screaming at me “Don’t go. Don’t leave us. We need you.”
I was back then, and I am still back, continuing to recover from the illness and the transplant. I have watched Abby grow and take her first steps, and I have returned to work as my health has improved. But things are not the same. The experiences I went through have not gone away or even faded. When I close my eyes, I can still feel the train there in front of me in the mist, and I can see my father reaching out. It gives me chills.
The last couple of years have been hard in many ways, and hard for my family. I’m pretty sure I would not be volunteering for this experience or anything like it. But having lived it, and survived it, I can look forward knowing there’s a new life ahead for me, a life different than the one I was headed for before. I did not truly appreciate before all that God has given me in life. I really did have a new birthday in the hospital that day, and on every day since then.
On that day I realized many things.
Every day from here on in is a gift. God let me come back. He truly is merciful. I’m still recovering from the transplant, and dealing with immunosuppressant drugs and graft versus host disease and some days are hard, but I wake each day grateful to be here, and ready to make the most of it.
I have realized that I am not afraid to die. I have been to the edge of life and glimpsed what lays beyond, and it is warm and comforting. There is nothing to fear anymore. I don’t know what is beyond the station, but it doesn’t matter anymore. The important thing is that I am here for now, and that is more than enough.
And I also learned that it is so true that you leave this world with nothing. Things, money, status are all completely meaningless at our next destination.
I have realized that what we leave behind, for most of us anyway, are not the results of our work, the records of our accomplishments, or our little trophies and medals. What most of us leave behind that will live on after us, are simply memories, the memories that we leave with other people. Vicki will remember our last kiss for the rest of her life. And Abby will remember that her Daddy called a glass of water, “glug glug.”
I have realized that giving is not an option – it is an imperative. If there is anything I can do to make the lives of people and families easier, then I need to do it. It has to be done here and it has to be done now.
I have realized that everyone has a story. You might not like someone and you may even hate them, but they are still a creation of God and they have known joy and heartache, and they have dreams and hopes, and they have suffered failures and hardships. They have a life story and it is just as important as yours.
I have realized that family is as important as food. Abigail saved my life. Vicki saved my life. Ruth, Pat and Patti, Peggy and Greg, and the rest of the Glenns, who are my extended family, helped save my life.
Going forward, I know the train station is there. When I get there again and it’s finally time to go, I will be okay, knowing I did the most with the time I had here. For now, I’m glad to be alive and doing the most with the time I have been given in whatever way I can.
While I’m here, to make a difference, I’m talking to people about my experience and their own stories, reaching out to let them know that everything will be okay, and maybe even greater than we ever thought possible. I’m giving talks, and working on a book about my experiences, and those of others who have been through their own life changing traumas that have challenged them to take a new path. If you have your own story about a trauma you’ve experienced that has challenged you, and how you’ve gotten back up, dusted yourself off, and changed your life for the better, let me know. I want to hear your story and if we can I’d like to include it in the book I’m working on or on my new website, Gifts From the Train Station. There’s more about the book, events, and other projects there if you’d like to check it out, and contact information. You can also contact my friend Glenn Croston who’s working on the book with me at [email protected]
Thank you for reading.