During Retirement, You Eat
Dessert First

By

Leonard Zwelling

Moonstruck (1987)

Rose: I just want you to know no matter what you
do, you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.

Cosmo Castorini: Thank you, Rose.

      This is one of my
favorite quotes from the film that I believe has the best screenplay ever
written. It’s by John Patrick Shanley (Robert Bolt’s Lawrence of Arabia is a
close second). These lines came after Rose Castorini (Olympia Dukakis) wants to
know why her husband Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia) is chasing a younger woman. Her
soon-to-be future son-in-law informs her that married men pursue younger
women because of the man’s fear of death.

      Lately, this is on my
mind a great deal. No not chasing younger women. Dying.

      Given average life
spans in the US and my past medical history, I am surely in the autumn of my
life and may well feel the snow approaching. As long as I was working, I could
convince myself that Halloween was far away and Thanksgiving eons in the future.
Now I know this is not so. My costume and candy bag are at the ready and that
costume may well be that of a turkey. God will make no exception for me. Len,
you’re gonna die, just like everybody else.

      So the first benefit
of retirement has been the gain of better reality testing.

      Obviously, for you
readers of the blog, I have more time to write and am more than willing to have
you vote with your mice as to how well my pieces meet your intellectual or
funny bone needs. So retirement has given me time to do more writing and
hopefully more entertaining.

      But more than
anything, when you arise in the morning (even if it is 1:30 AM) and have
nowhere you must be, you realize that your life is, and was always, a series of
choices and really that’s all it is. A job is a substitute for a choice unless
you happen to love your job and for those of you out there who do, you are
very, very fortunate.

      I actually have had
jobs that I’ve loved.

I loved being a junior resident on Strudwick
Ward at Duke. The interns did all the awful scut work and I got to manage
patients having acquired sufficient knowledge and skills to do so very well. It
was fun. Fun is defined as pleasure, engagement, and meaning. I actually
changed people’s lives with the skill I had acquired in my medical training. That
was the idea when I started on this career path when I was 10, so it was very
gratifying to finally get there.

      When the laboratory
work I was doing at the NIH was clicking and papers were pouring out of my
notebooks, that was fun, too.  You have
not lived as a basic investigator until you can wake up in the morning, plan
any experiment you wish and not have to write a grant to get the money to do
it. Only at the NIH. I actually believe this was the most productive part of my
research career as it was a time of unencumbered focus on the biochemistry at
hand. From 1977 to 1982 I did nothing but laboratory experiments and write the
papers coming from the bench work. Now, THAT was fun!

      Finally, once I had
become a Vice President, had hired all my support staff, especially Dr.
Brunelli, and convinced sufficient numbers of faculty that I was not making up
the federal regulations on human subject research, but that the rules they
despised had been forced upon me as well as on them, this was the best job of
all. I had built an office servicing the work of people I liked and respected
who were doing the most difficult and critical type of research, clinical
investigation. I was BASF. I wasn’t making the surfboard, but I was making it
better. That was really fun. Then, it wasn’t. Entanglements with faculty
members who would not follow these regulations and a lack of support from my
superiors destined me for the trash heap of MD Anderson administration. The Dan
Fontaine “perp walk” accompanying me to my car on July 2, 2007 after having
been fired was really not fun at all.

      But then came Capitol
Hill and all that excitement that too cooled once I realized the game was
money, not policy, and that I had no role to play at all unless I wanted to
generate money for someone else. There is no place for a doctor on Capitol Hill
or the White House unless that doctor will play the political game. Notice who
the new Ebola Czar is. (Wasn’t Ebo Lazar the shortstop for the Orioles when I was in high school?) Not a doc. What could Mr. Klain possibly know about any disease beyond Potomac Fever? In
fact, what Ebola has made very clear is that the government public health
experts are really idiots (see new case in NYC, a doc who was wandering in the
subways only 10 days out of Africa) and I believe that is because they are not
real doctors or nurses. (But let’s give the real nurses some props for making the most sense
right now.)

      So now I am retired
and I decide everyday what I do.

      Yesterday, during a
round of golf, I looked up at the blue sky, took a really deep breath of good
old Texas air and hit the crap out of a little white ball to break 80, a truly
rare occurrence for me.

      I live with someone
who loves her job a lot of the time. Am I jealous? You bet, but my time for
that kind of work is over. For now. Instead, I choose different paths each
morning and never know the evening before what that path is to be. I can only
say that I appreciate whatever time I have left more now and try to take
advantage of it. If life is a meal, I eat dessert first. I am taking no chances.

      I learned the other
day that a woman with whom I have occasionally shared a swimming lane at the
JCC died suddenly at age 55 of a heart attack. Even though I can no longer die
young, I am in no hurry to do so at any age, but I also know that to a large
extent I am also not in control of that clock at all. You would have to have
been truly oblivious to have been a medical oncologist and not realized that.

      I eat dessert first
now because I can. It may seem like a small reward for 40 years of work. It’s not.
It may seem like just dessert. But it is very “just desserts” and I am grateful
for it.

Leonard Zwelling