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Near-Tragedy Makes Holidays Sweeter

Arnie Friedman and his wife Carol now cherish every moment spent with family.

Arnie and Carol Friedman of Potomac had not been the type to dance in the street, hug strangers, expound on spirituality, or look forward to hectic Thanksgiving dinners with extended family.

“We were private people,” recalled Carol.

That changed when Arnie, at the age of 56, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in spring 2004. His wife took him to the emergency room after he awoke with a headache so bad he could barely get out of bed. Since Arnie is a retired surgeon himself, the emergency room doctors were painfully blunt. He had two months to live.

Sensing that she needed to get organized, Carol pulled out a pen and paper and asked the doctor three times how to spell his name but discovered that she couldn’t remember how to write a “D.” She fainted.

BACK AT HOME, husband and wife spent “a lot of time crying and holding onto each other. … We never thought we’d ever laugh again or smile again,” said Carol.

They had to break the news to friends and family.

“It’s a horrible thing because you’re burdening other people” with the news, said Carol. “Some people you thought were going to really be there for you, they distanced themselves. Others you wouldn’t expect would do anything to brighten your spirit. … At Potomac Village I’d be at the counter and suddenly start crying, and [the cashier] would come and give me a hug.”

The Friedmans tried to rally their adult children. Their daughter Melissa was in her final year of undergraduate school in Indiana and wanted to drop out to be with her father, but Arnie insisted that she finish her studies. Their son Dennis was living at home and encouraged his father to stay positive.

“It was hard. It was emotional,” recalled Dennis. “When my father would get upset, I’d say, ‘You’re alive right now, you’re still breathing. We’re gonna do one day at a time — wake up and enjoy that day.”

At the time of Arnie’s diagnosis, the couple was in the middle of a lengthy renovation of the living room in the Potomac home that they had lived in for nearly 20 years. Carol begged the workers to speed up their schedule so that her husband would be able to enjoy it with the time he had left. The workers finished the room in two weeks, but Arnie remembers sitting down in the newly completed space and feeling terrified.

“I thought I’d never spend a winter in this room,” he said. “I’m glad to say that I have.”

TWO-AND-A-HALF years later, Arnie and Carol sit in the same room, which has since been adorned with paddle ball trophies, an award from the local swim club, a medieval crossbow from Italy, a doll from Russia, an ornate Pinocchio statuette from Venice and a Native American figurine from Sedona. During Arnie’s chemotherapy, the couple spent three weeks in Italy, and their passion for travel has continued.

A talented neurologist from Duke University was able to remove Arnie’s tumor completely without leaving him with the mental and physical handicaps that often accompany brain surgery.

The majority of patients with a malignant brain tumor like Arnie’s do not make it.

“The oncologist said, ‘You are very unique and very blessed,’” recalled Carol. “‘For you, all the stars lined up perfectly.’”

ARNIE WANTS TO serve as a beacon of hope for other families who are facing the grim odds associated with brain tumors. He encouraged his neurologists to give his phone number to other patients, and now Carol and Arnie field calls from across the country.

Battling cancer has made him more attuned to suffering in others. Carol said that when her husband goes in for checkups he hugs the patients who are waiting in line for radiation therapy and encourages them not to give up hope. At their synagogue, the couple started a support group for people living with illness.

Even after living cancer-free for two-and-a-half years, Arnie himself is sometimes in need of emotional support, and he was recently energized after meeting with a 10-year brain tumor survivor.

The Friedmans say that three important things have contributed to Arnie’s success: excellent doctors, his physical fitness (he works out every day), and spirituality.

“We were not into religion before this happened,” said Carol. “We’d just go to services occasionally.”

“Since then, I’ve been to every church in Italy,” added Arnie with a laugh.

THE FRIEDMANS are now strong advocates of living in the moment and appreciating life’s simple pleasures.

“When you’re rushing through life, you don’t always see the little miracles,” said Carol. “Then when you go through something like this, and you see the miracles — you let them into your life.”

The couple stressed that life is “not a dress rehearsal.” Arnie said that he had assumed he would slow down and enjoy life after retirement, only to be struck with illness in his mid-50s.

“What you’re doing right now is the real thing,” he said. “You can’t keep putting things on the backburner until retirement because you may not have that opportunity.”

Their son Dennis, now 27, is impressed with his parents’ newfound sense of adventure.

“They’re like two teenagers enjoying life,” he said. “They’re dancing, bungee jumping — it’s hard for me to keep up with them.”

Living in the moment does not always mean living free of fear. The bimonthly MRIs continue to induce anxiety for the family, but thankfully, each one has been clear. (Arnie, himself a former surgeon, checks behind them carefully.)

“That [fear] doesn’t go away, that never leaves you,” he said. “I’m not naïve enough to think this can’t come back and bite me at some point.”

BEFORE, THE FRIEDMANS sometimes viewed upcoming holiday celebrations as a chore.

“So many times it was, ‘Thanksgiving’s coming, oh God,’” said Arnie.

But facing the specter of his own mortality has made holiday gatherings precious — though sometimes bittersweet — events for Arnie and his wife.

“Now you say, ‘Oh good.’ I enjoy gathering as many living family members as possible and remembering,” he said. “You look around the table and notice how many vacancies are popping up as we age.”

Dennis agreed that Arnie’s close call with cancer has changed their outlook.

“You hug people a little tighter and a little longer, and it carries through to the holidays,” he said. “Life’s a little more precious.”

Arnie will help his son celebrate the opening of Bezu this Thanksgiving. Dennis is chef and co-owner of the new Potomac restaurant, which opened two weeks ago.

“I couldn’t have done it without my father, that’s for sure,” said Dennis.

The near-tragedy has also made Arnie and Carol closer than ever — and more romantic.

“This is not my husband, it’s my best friend,” said Carol. “Together we make one.”

At Potomac Day in October, a band played for the large crowd in the Potomac Promenade Shopping Center. Few brave souls stepped forward to dance, but Arnie and Carol Friedman could not resist.

“Years ago we would have stood in the sidelines,” she said. “We would never have gotten up to dance in front of other people.”