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.
Approaching the summit
In June of last year, I read Anatole Broyard's Intoxicated By My Illness and for the first time, I met a true kindred spirit in this journey with prostate cancer.
Broyard was a literary critic for the New York Times who contracted prostate cancer and embraced it, hence the title of the book, compiled by his widow, Alexandra. It was in her prologue that I found the phrase that gave me inspiration. It was from a talk Broyard had given six months before his death in 1970:
"Dying is the end of illness. It is the further shore of illness. There's a wonderful book called 'The Wilder Shores of Love.' Well, dying is the wilder shore of illness."
Then Alexandra closed her essay with these words: "This is a book from that 'wilder shore.'"
The book so inspired me that I tried to capture it in an essay of June 6, 2001, "That Wilder Shore: Intoxicated with Anatole Broyard." I even used the phrase for that section where I stored my cancer journal and related essays: That Wilder Shore or Notes from That Wilder Shore. All I really knew was that Anatole and Alexandra Broyard had given me a phrase that captured, focused and gave vision to my attitude towards my situation and I tried to explain it in that essay of June 6.
My problem -- and I was well aware of this -- was that very few men were able to be "intoxicated" by their illness or accept the notion of a "wilder shore." For them, cancer did not offer one shred or moment of (dare I say?) adventure, exploration and learning that I often found. It is a struggle, a nemesis that sends fear through most men, and their companions.
This is not to say the disease has not done the same to me. Quite to the contrary. Anyone who prowls the first 10 months of my journal will see the bouts of depression as I slid in and out of one black hole after another. Even after a major turn-around ("Van Gogh & Attitude" 10/16/01), there were rough spots. So no one should think that I blithely toss off what this disease can do to one's state of mind and sense of mortality.
In fact, the latest occurred a matter of days ago, when sudden, growing pains in my legs sent me to the emergency room ("An unscheduled trip to Image-Land" 11/5/02). A matter of days before, I had learned my PSA had climbed from 199 to 830 ("One sick pumpkin" 10/31/02) so the disease and my mortality was definitely in my mind. I was wondering if this is how it ends, with pain so crippling that I could barely walk and I would be forced into a bed to wait out my time.
During those five days (between Halloween and the trip to the ER), I struggled to draw from what I had learned and expressed. As the saying goes, I could talk the talk but could I walk the walk, which I found to be an ironic turn of phrase since I had trouble walking across the room. But I also had my Caren. By whatever dint of fate, she felt good enough to avoid any hand-wringing that would have contributed to my worry, which gave me more strength and the ability to talk to her about it.
After the trip to the ER (now three days ago), I was in exceptional spirits. Not only was the pain dissipating quickly but I had (as I said) made what I felt was another step in my own personal development by being able to accept a walker. (My metaphors are devouring me.) I even took it to a meeting yesterday because I knew the distance from car to room would be long, but I didn't need it.
Yes, perhaps had the shot failed and I was destined for spot radiation, I might feel different than I do now, but I can't accept nay-saying. To the contrary, after that Wednesday meeting, I was sitting on my Bodhi porch (as I like to call it now) and realized what my life was really like now. It was no longer the "wilder shore."
I was climbing Mt. Everest.
Think on it. Everest is no simple jaunt. It is brutal, highly dangerous climb into an oxygen-deprived, sub-zero environment, even with modern equipment. It requires planning, training and a huge team to get just a few people to the summit. I can't imagine what the final "assault" must be like.
And while on my quiet, secure porch, I wondered about a man who might refuse to undertake the climb not because of danger -- for danger is a macho thing -- but because he won't wear an oxygen mask or walk with those "canes," ice axes that keep the climber stable as he traverses the slope. We might wonder at the stupidity or arrogance of such an attitude but that was the type of view that I held two days ago. I didn't view the walker as a tool that would help me but as some anti-macho symbol.
That was when I realized that climbing Everest was the perfect metaphor for my journey as well as that of others. Like a good ship, Broyard's wilder shore gave a name to my state of mind then but it no longer fit. I still admire him greatly. He gave me focus and helped me more than I can express. And I didn't feel alone. I still recommend his book.
But now it is time for a new metaphor and this one is mine. It reflects not only my own journey but I think it will communicate to more men who struggle with this disease, especially when it is advanced and each step is like being on the face of that great mountain.
When I came back in from the porch, I put "climbing everest" into Google and found a book by that very title. I ordered it and several others today and I think something from them will be at Phoenix5. Meanwhile, my next task is to create a section about Everest.
Everest is tough. It is a physical and technological challenge because it is dangerous. I am sure there are times on those slopes when your feet weigh a ton and your lungs are being shredded or you are starving, aching and freezing in a sleeping bag at night while the wind rips at your tent that you want to give up. I am sure that some do, that some men turn and go back down the mountain, rather than continue. But there are some of us who realize the challenge and use it as a measure of ourselves.
Can we reach the summit? What does that even mean, in this metaphor? Frankly, I don't know yet. But I know that I'm not going back.
It is all uphill from here.