This is one of several essays from my private cancer journal. It is not intended as anything than a record of my states of mind as I struggled with the disease and the effects of the treatment.
Mortality and Life
January 28, 2000
There is no denying the psychological effect on a person when they are diagnosed with a terminal disease, or one that could be terminal, such as cancer. But what is it? I don't know but as one who has been such a diagnosis and is going through the reality of my situation, I might as well offer a view.
Intellectually (and that might be part of the problem) we all know that we are mortal. We could be dead at any moment whether by a car accident, heart attack or some act of God. Yet when we are told we told we have a terminal disease, suddenly we are faced with our mortality. Suddenly we know we will die.
Is it that we never knew we were going to die and now we do?
Or is it that we feel our future is taken from us?
What brings this realization of our mortality?
I was reading parts of one of Bernie Siegel's books today at a Barnes & Nobel. He was talking about the intense spiritual insights that some with cancer experience. Some even call it a blessing.
I understand that. I've felt the same. The intense - and sometimes devastating - realization of our mortality can produce such insights. In my case, probably because I'm so analytical and philosophical, I have to work on them. It is as if I'm forced into the subject. But that is what the cancer does.
There are certainly other circumstances where men and women face death and come to grips with their own mortality, such as in war. But with a disease like cancer or AIDS, it is quiet. It is silent. We don't get to move physically away from the conflict. There I no "R and R" [rest and relaxation] where we can step away. We carry the "battlefield" within our bodies. It goes everywhere we go. Our only hope is a distraction, such as a movie, but ultimately, we return to it because it never leaves us nor can we leave it.
But we try.
I see it on the prostate help mailing list [PHML]. Some men immerse themselves in the technology of the disease. They embrace it emotionally and intellectually. That is how they control it. Me, I analyze my emotions and reactions. Some might even say I over-analyze. But it is how I keep it away. It is my way of embracing it. By embracing it, we keep it at bay, however that is accomplished. I guess it is one of those Zen-like paradoxes.
Maybe that is the only way we can know Life, by seeing it from the edge of or awareness of Death. But how is this possible since we don't know what Death is? And if facing Death helps us to know Life, why can't we turn it around and know Death from where we are?
Back in 1961 when I transferred to San Francisco State College to start my major in philosophy, I became interested in the subject of Death. I don't recall what prompted my interest but I looked for texts on the subject, not what one might call "popular" approaches but academic texts. After all, I was a philosophy major. (smile) What intrigued me was that by definition, we couldn't know about Death. If we defined Death as the end of experience (for the sake of discussion), then it couldn't be experienced and therefore couldn't be known.
But I soon learned that was merely a Western "scientific" definition and there were other perspectives on the subject of Death, from the Eastern to Christian.
I gave up the subject for the rest of my studies and now I return. And looking back on it now, I think our view of Death is determined by our view of Life when perhaps it should be the other way around.
There was a TV program recently that made an excellent observation about Death in America. A hundred years ago, people died at home. But in the latter half of the 1900s, old people were moved into nursing homes and hospitals and death moved away from the home. So death was no longer part of everyday living. It became isolated with people dying in foreign places, with strangers rather than family and friends. That has probably influenced our views of Death. It is "over there."
And with that, maybe our lives became "over there" too.
Maybe with the presence of Death, we rediscover our lives.
I wonder how we would view Life if we lived with Death more intimately.
We no longer respect Death and so we no longer respect Life. They go hand-in-glove.
Back on Vashon Island when we ran the cat sanctuary, there were times when a cat had to be put down, when it was facing an intolerable death, such as with FIP. One of us was always with the cat. We never gave the cat to a vet and walked away. We stayed there and talked to the cat and apologized and held them and we cried our hearts out.
I had forgotten these experiences until just now. They weren't "just cats." They were living and breathing friends and I held them with tears streaming down my face as I felt the life slip from their frail bodies. When it was over, I buried my face in their soft fur and bawled like a kid while the vet, who had been through this with us before, quietly left us alone. Then I would talk to them, stroking their now lifeless fur, apologizing and wishing them well on their journey. Finally, I covered them and left. We always had them cremated and took their ashes back to Vashon to be with their friends.
They taught me so much.
How could that be, some might say. They were "just cats."
Such is our view and understanding of Life.
I had forgotten them until now.
Such was my view and understanding.
This essay didn't end up where I thought it would.
So what else is new?