So, it looks as though I'm going to live--at least for another 50 years or more. But whenever I need to reassure myself of this, as I sometimes do, I go out to a place called Dead Man's Hole, and I stare down into it, and then, with firm intent, I strip off my shirt and I leap straight out into what you might call the great sublime.
Let's say it's my own personal way of checking for vital signs. Dead Man's Hole is a large green mineral pool gouged out of a circular limestone cliff, so deep into the hill country of Texas that it's hardly got an address. According to conflicting legends, it's either where Confederates tossed Union sympathizers to drown, or where Apaches lured unsuspecting cowboys who didn't see the fall coming. In any event, I'm drawn to it, so much so that I bought 200 acres of brush and pasture surrounding it, and I've worn a road into the dirt by driving out there. It seems only right that a place called Dead Man's Hole should belong to a guy who nearly died--and who, by the way, has no intention of just barely living.
I stand there next to a 45-foot waterfall and examine the drop--and myself, while I'm at it. It's a long drop, so long that it makes the roof of my mouth go dry just looking at it. It's long enough for a guy to actually think on the way down, and to think more than one thought, too. Long enough to think first one thing, A little fear is good for you, and then another, It's good for you if you can swim, and then one more thing as I hit the water: Oh fuck, it's cold. As I jump, there are certain unmistakable signs that I'm alive: the press of my pulse, the insistent sound of my own breathing, and the whanging in my chest that's my heart, which by then sounds like an insubordinate prisoner beating on the bars of my ribcage.
I come up whooping through the foam and swim for the rocks. Then I climb back up and towel off, and I drive home to my three kids. I burst through the door, and I shout at my son, Luke, and my twin daughters, Grace and Isabelle, and I kiss them on the necks, and I grab a Shiner Bock beer with one hand and an armful of babies with the other.
The first time I ever did it, my wife, Kik, just looked at me and rolled her eyes. She knew where I'd been.
"Was that clarifying for you?" she said.
At what point do you let go of not dying? Maybe I haven't entirely and maybe I don't want to.
I know they're out there, lying in their hospital beds, with those damn drip poles, watching the damn chemo slide into their veins, and thinking, This guy had the same thing I do. If he can do it, I can, too. I think of them all the time.
My friend Lee Walker says I got "pitched back." What he means is, I almost died, and possibly even did die a little, but then I got pitched back into the world of the living. It's as good a description as any of what happened. I was 25 when cancer nearly killed me: advanced choriocarcinoma spread to my abdomen, lungs, and brain and required two surgeries and four cycles of chemotherapy to get rid of. I wrote an entire book about death, called It's Not About the Bike, about confronting the possibility of it, and narrowly escaping it.
"Are you sure?" I asked the doctor.
"I'm very sure."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I'm so sure that I've scheduled you for surgery at 7 a.m. tomorrow."
Mounted on a light table, the X-ray showed my chest. Black meant clear; white meant cancer. My chest looked like a snowstorm.
What I didn't and couldn't address at the time was the prospect of life. Once you figure out you're going to live, you have to decide how to, and that's not an uncomplicated matter. You ask yourself: now that I know I'm not going to die, what will I do? What's the highest and best use of my self? These things aren't linear, they're a mysterious calculus. For me, the best use of myself has been to race in the Tour de France, the most grueling sporting event in the world.
Excerpted from Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins Copyright © 2003 by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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