Barry Mahler finds himself incredibly lucky to be "fine" after surgery for a brain tumor. | Credit: Courtesy

According to a highly credible source — Facebook, or maybe TikTok — our ability to process and manipulate information starts deteriorating around age 20. Which is why if someone asked you right now where your reading glasses were, you couldn’t tell them. (Hint: You’re wearing them.) If it’s any consolation, in the race to drool city, I’m the guy with the patchy haircut running up ahead of you.

A while back, I was speaking on an Asian cruise when I realized I could no longer figure out what the hands of the clock meant. The next day, during a session, I introduced the ship’s captain. Twenty minutes later, I picked him out of the audience and asked him what he did for a living. (The uniform did look a tad familiar.) That same day, I gave up trying to understand foreign currency. Even American money was getting tricky. In Vietnam, I handed a vendor two hundreds and a five for a $7 baseball cap. It was a very nice cap.

Back home, the first thing my doctor did was have me draw a clock face at 10 to three. The second thing he did was take away my driver’s license. Then he sent me for an immediate MRI. The nurse there wouldn’t comment on the results, but when I asked to use the restroom, she said, “I can’t let you go in there alone.”

I pointed out that bathroom visitation was a particular expertise of mine.

“Like telling time?” she asked. “You need to talk to your neurosurgeon.”

“I have a neurosurgeon?” Just what I always wanted.

I also had a brain tumor — the size of a basketball. Or maybe the neurosurgeon said “softball.” I wasn’t tracking too well at that point. Still, I quickly grasped he was planning on carving open my skull with a power saw.

“I don’t really need to tell time,” I said. “Or I can just buy a digital watch.”

My problem was that I’ve always believed intelligence was overrated. On a scale of everything-there is to know, for example, the main difference between Einstein and Koko the Wonder Gorilla was that Einstein couldn’t pick up bananas with his feet. (As far as I know.) My father graduated from Harvard Law. One brother breezed through MIT in three years. My own IQ had tested embarrassingly high. (Fortunately, it never showed.) But just then, all that was terrifying.

Chainsaw Charlie, my neurosurgeon, gave me that reassuring doctor smile, the one I’ve seen my sister use on her patients. He glanced meaningfully at his Harvard diploma. Meanwhile, my squished-up brain was digging through all the dumb-ass things I’d seen theoretically brilliant people do. Not to mention, the even dumber things I’d done myself. The “Surgeons Do It Deeper” bumper sticker tacked to Charlie’s bulletin board wasn’t reassuring.

I came out of the surgery with Lady Gaga singing nonstop in my head and an unforgettably vivid story I’d dreamed while Charlie was hacking away at my brain. Most of the tumor was gone along with an indeterminate number of IQ points.

Twenty-seven days of radiation targeted the remaining cancer along with my remaining hair. “Expect some cognitive decline,” the radiologist said. “It’s like a little aging.” No problem. Intelligence is overrated. And worthless if you’re dead.

I was and I remain incredibly lucky. The tumor didn’t encroach upon my brain. The cancer didn’t spread, and it’s in remission. I’ve never had any significant pain. By the time Lady Gaga finally shut up, I could tell time like a pro. Turns out, I had a first-rate medical team — plus my sister — and the constant support of the woman I was lucky enough to marry. During treatment, I witnessed enough real suffering to understand that what I went through was nothing.

If you want to see how caring humans can be, get yourself a brain tumor. People are so solicitous, I’m tempted to mention it to everyone I meet. Only I’d feel like an imposter. Because I’m fine.

I’m not as smart as I once was. But maybe I’m wiser. I’m certainly more empathetic, though I don’t always show it. I’m slower and I have to focus more. That makes me better about individual details, though don’t ask me to remember a list. I know what’s important to me, what I like, what I dislike. I’ve always thought genuine intelligence was the ability to integrate information, and I’m actually better at that. Though it may take a while to access some of it.

I don’t know if any of that’s made me a better person. Which is really the only measurement that matters. It’s certainly made me a better, more cautious, more considerate driver. And a far better writer. I’ve recently finished turning that vivid story that came to me during surgery into the first novel I’ve written in years. I may list Chainsaw Charlie as co-author. Now I’m looking forward to as much additional aging as I can squeeze out of life. I’ll take the brain damage as it comes. It’s not like I’m shooting to be the smartest person in the cemetery.

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