There was that time at X-Cross Country camp where we got sent home early for tossing water balloons out the third floor window of the room we were assigned for the week. We made it to Wednesday. Admittedly, we were told at the beginning of the week that no horseplay would be tolerated this year, due primarily to our actions last year, when we threw water balloons out the window of our third floor room onto the other campers leaving the building, unfortunately for them, on the sidewalk that ran below our rooms. We broke the rules, because it was fun. And we felt the risk of getting in trouble was worth the moments that had us doubled over in laughter, trying to catch our breath as groups of other runners squealed and screamed as the liquid bombs smacked in front of them, or unluckily, on them. We gambled the second year, and lost. But I won’t say it still wasn’t fun. And hey, we were in high school…it could have been worse, I suppose. We did, however, understand that rules were set and we were breaking them.
There was also that time we cut the fences that bordered the darkened sheds, housing, to use the term loosely, thousands of sentient creatures living out abbreviated lives in pain, misery and madness. There were rules in place then too, and we openly broke them, the same as we broke the locks that kept these creatures confined to a mere foot of travel space on top of wires that cut into the tender flesh on their feet. We broke the locks and let them run free, because the rules in place protected injustice. We broke the rules, consciously, and the natural world is all the better for it.
These incidents, of many, were conscious rule breaking, but sometimes it seems like I was destined to break rules, for better or worse. Whether laws with physical consequences or just social contracts of expected human behavior that exist as more abstract guidelines than actual laws, I’ve found great value in breaking them, not mindlessly, but with understanding and intent. The attempts to restrain the animal within us, for the benefit of the “refined human” ideal, just never appealed to me, and so that sort of rule breaking, against these laws and guidelines came to be almost a default of my existence. The rule breaking became so normative to me, that sometimes it almost seemed to leave the boundaries of conscious rule breaking into the unconscious, almost pre-destined forms. I have trouble following the herd even when I’m not even trying.
The pattern continued this past New Year’s Eve.
I had my follow up appointment with my surgical oncologist, two weeks after my first post-surgery CT scan, where I would learn what may or may not be going on in my body and how we would proceed with this information. This was the first 4 month scan of our plan, and although I would like to say I’m past the emotional weight of these follow-ups, that would be a lie. That would especially be a lie with this follow-up, because the potential that my “window of opportunity” to keep running and training towards a definitive competitive goal might abruptly close should I have to go back on chemo was a very real possibility. I didn’t care of the tumors remained. And I didn’t expect them to have disappeared. I just didn’t want them to have grown and the oncologist advise me to go back on chemo. I REALLY didn’t want that. So there was some apprehension, for sure, while waiting for this follow up.
Sitting on the exam table and it’s crinkly paper, I fought back the emotional regression into a scared little boy fearing a potential, painful shot, as I waited for the oncologist to enter. After a significantly long wait, he pushed through the door and beamed a smile at me in greeting. He was in good spirits and quickly started in on the summary of my situation after a bit of small talk related to the Runner’s World cover contest.
I could quickly deduce from his demeanor and brief explanations that my cancer was not concerning. He hadn’t yet said it, but the tumors hadn’t grown, nor was there any great unforeseen concern. We were probably moving ahead as planned. But first. He talked about breaking rules.
In past exams, when his surprise at my circumstance gave him great enthusiasm, he let spill a few details about my cancer situation that I had not understood to that point. I distinctly remember him saying that he didn’t think it would be worth it to “go back in” (a second surgery) after the first, because there was so many tumors and he was convinced everything would continue to spiral out of control, but I was doing so well and everything remained stable, giving him great hope for the future. The enthusiasm continued at the next followup when we scheduled the second surgery. I won’t lie, that news was a little shocking, but more just fascinating. I had been doing well for quite some time, so any sense of dread for my future had never materialized. This information was just another unexpected twist in my story and another hurdle of adversity I had unwittingly overcome. I had, in that sense, unconsciously broke a rule he had established for me. I had kept living.
This time though, he delivered a new bit of information about my narrative I had never understood, that not only gave me pause, but caused my stomach to drop for a moment. Not only did he let on in the past that he was surprised I was still alive for the second surgery, he this time he informed me that HE broke the rules before the first…in that he actually conducted the surgery at all.
“You know, most surgeons would not have operated on you. Your cancer index was too high. You had too many tumors…but I took a chance. I broke the rules. I had luck in the past and I figured your youth and health was on your side, so I broke the rules and operated on you. Most surgeons would not have.”
Yes, my stomach dropped. If he hadn’t broken the rules, I would be dead right now. He went on..
“I broke the rules. And now you’re breaking the rules. You’re defying the odds.”
This time, admittedly, breaking the rules is an unconscious act. I’m not doing anything to break the rules, I’m just doing it by existing, by remaining an outlier, a stray dot on a graph of life expectancy and cancer statistics. HE’s the one that consciously, deliberately broke the rules, and operated on me despite the “rules” and protocols that would have suggested that I wasn’t worth it, that I was too far gone. I can’t begin to describe the sense of gratitude that consumed me in the moment he told me this new information, that he saved my life only because he broke the rules.
And if there has ever been a greater validation in my life that breaking the rules often reaps the most rewards, creates the greatest life and affords one the most unexpected, deeply valued experiences…I have yet to know it. I could dwell on the what if’s of his decision, if he wavered, if for whatever reason he made a choice to follow the rules and stick to protocol, but really, there isn’t much to dwell upon. There is only the obvious, that I wouldn’t be here to dwell.
But for now, I am here, and it’s due, in part, to a breaking of rules, of following a trajectory that is brave, unknown, and risky. I’ve always felt kinship with the daredevils, the revolutionaries, the outcasts, and everyone that embraced their youthful energy and skepticism to create life on their terms, but didn’t let it all go when sensibility and adulthood crept in. It is those rule breakers that shape our world, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but shape it no less. It is those rule breakers that find a reward for themselves if no one else. And it is those rule breakers to whom I feel the greatest connection, but even if breaking rules consistently is not the normative path, I’m grateful for those that, in the face of certain moments, opt to break rules for even a momentary risk, an attempt at a distant reward.
I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that one broken rule.