It’s school holidays here in New Zealand. So this seems like a suitable juncture to pause and review what we have studied so far this semester. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and considered some pretty weighty issues. Here then, is a brief recap of the lessons learned so far. Pay attention. I will be asking questions later.
You can get used to almost anything if you have to
This has come as something of a revelation. It’s fair to say I’ve always been a raging hypochondriac. Every mild ache and vague pain a portent of some potentially life threatening affliction. I would limp around in my own private hell, convinced that a gruesome and lingering death was just around the corner, but too afraid to go to the doctor for the grim confirmation I knew was awaiting me there. The very act of walking into a dentist or doctor’s surgery would set me palpitating and hyperventilating. I avoided sick people like umm… well the plague. Even visiting a friend in hospital would leave me sweating and dry-mouthed.
Maybe all these years of neurotic rehearsal haven’t been entirely wasted. Now I have been confronted with my own mortality finally and unequivocally, I’m surprised to find myself on well-trodden territory. I’ve been to this lonely place many times in my imagination. It feels almost comfortable and familiar.
By accepting the incontrovertible evidence, that this time I really am gravely sick and not just fantasising, I also have to accept that to a large extent, my fate is out of my hands. Yes, I can think positive, try and keep fit, eat well, hug a crystal* etc. but mostly I have to put my faith in the very medical professionals I have always mistrusted and eschewed. Once I have accepted this paradox, there is a certain peace that comes with acquiescence. There is little point in worrying or trying to second-guess these jokers. I can either choose to accept their help, and trust that they have my best interests at heart, or not.
It’s a no-brainer really. I’ve always prided myself on being a pragmatic humanist and a man of science. To turn my back on all that now and go barking up some tie-died, new-age, metaphysical tree in terrified desperation would be to betray everything I have ever believed.
And so I take the medicine. I submit to the “procedures.” I swallow their video cameras, I swallow my pride. And fill their test-tubes with my precious blood. I bow down to their mighty machines, and I even eat their terrible food. If I want to continue living, I have no choice. So why worry?
Here endeth the first lesson.
Dying is just the same as living
Having cancer isn’t like being hit by a truck. It might feel a bit like that when you first get the phone call. But when you get home from the “I’ve got a spot of bad news for you” meeting, you’re still the same person. You don’t look or feel any different. The dog still wags when you walk up the path. The trash still needs taking out. Once the shock wears off, and the tears dry, it’s all business as usual.
There’s no special dispensations. No concessions. Nobody gives up their seat for me on the bus, or helps me across the road. The bills don’t suddenly stop arriving. Everything carries on as normal. This is an important lesson here. The world flatly refuses to revolve around me as it should. There’s a temptation to blurt out “Don’t you realise I’ve got cancer!” when some hapless telephone marketeer rings to ask my position on double-glazing. I remember shortly after my diagnosis, meeting a cheerful elderly couple walking along holding hands and feeling the bitter sting of resentment. How come they get to be old and happy? For a while I try and fill every minute of every day, determined to relish every moment and squander nothing. But even this compulsion passes after a while.
For most people, cancer is a slow, plodding process. It’s a gently outgoing tide, not a raging bush-fire. Incremental. As is the treatment. So far there have been few noticeable changes from one day to the next. Whether I get better or worse, it will be the result of a slow aggregation of tiny and imperceptible physical changes. I won’t just wake up one morning looking like something out of a Breugel painting. I spend a lot of time listening to my body. Carefully studying myself in the mirror. Seeking out any early signs of the beginning of a slow but inexorable decline.
It’s the same process that everyone goes through. We are all in decline. We are all aging from the day we are born. We are all of us dying. Imperceptibly slowly, one day at a time We all gaze into the same egotistical mirror, searching out the same gray hairs, the same yellowing teeth and creeping wrinkles. Entropy in action. Living, dying, it’s just two words for the same process.
And when all is said and done, that makes me just like you.
Make sure your telescope is the right way around
When yo look down the wrong end of a telescope, your field of view becomes very narrow. Restricted to a small, dim, focused area which falls off to darkness in every direction like a failing torch-beam in the night. And everything seems very, very distant. This is pretty much the story of my life. There has always been me, and then the rest of the world. And an unnavigable void in-between. It hasn’t been a ego thing. I don’t think I’m special in any way. I just seem to have had trouble jumping that gap. Making the necessary connections.
The nature of my chosen profession, in concert with an introverted, obsessive and perfectionist personality has resulted in me carelessly mislaying vast swathes of my life to whatever project was currently demanding my complete and unswerving attention. Days, nights, weekends, even holidays were recklessly abandoned. Sacrificed would be the wrong word, there was no element of hardship, for me at least. I have mostly loved my work, It’s just that I have found it all but imposable to ring-fence my vocation from the rest of my life. The important part. My family and friends.
For the best past of twenty-five years I have been like an absentee landlord. Just showing up from time to time to touch up the paintwork, check the inventory, and collect the emotional rent. I was A.W.L. for most of my marriage and my daughters childhood. In retrospect it was an untenable way of life. And selfish. But as I say, It’s amazing what you can get used to. Come to accept as normal.
And I’m not alone. I look around me and see so many of my friends and peers living the same mad, bad existence. Fourteen hour days. Mind-numbing commutes. Hurried desk-lunches. Home too late to put the kids to bed. Just time for a swift bottle of wine the dull the senses and take away the fear for a couple of hours, and a bolted dinner followed by a bout of late-night indigestion and insomnia. And that’s a good day. A normal day. Absolute fucking insanity. The only surprise is that it took me fifty years to cultivate a tumor. It’s a miracle any of us survive.
If I hadn’t been forced to stop this lunacy by my own bodies intervention, it probably would never have occurred to me to turn the telescope around. To finally see the world how it really is. Suddenly my field of view is so much brighter and wider. I can take in the entire broad vista, and suddenly the distance has closed up. I’m no longer just an outside observer, I’m finally part of the big picture. I feel part of something much greater. Grander. The connections have finally been made and the circuits completed. And I know for sure I never want to be separate and “other” again. I don’t know if that’s what is meant by enlightenment, but it’s good. Very good.
Almost worth getting cancer for.
*I’m saving my observations on the various “alternative” cancer cures that some lovely and well-meaning but misguided acquaintances have suggested for another occasion. These range from the merely unlikely, through the downright dangerous, to the completely barking-mad.