Thursday, August 17, 2006

Living, Really Living, Despite a Terminal Diagnosis

In my third blog entry, I began to write about the challenge of living with a terminal diagnosis. Some of the responses to that entry focused on concern for dying, and the experience of dying. I appreciated the experiences shared there, and the responses also helped me see that I wasn't completely clear about my difficulty in living the question. While I do not want to die, I do not fear death, and I trust that modern medicine has the capacity to relieve most/all of the pain that may accompany the end stages of this cancer.

So, what I am most concerned about is the living, living with a terminal diagnosis. What I wish I had asked my friends who were dying and knew that they were was what they thought about as they anticipated death, and what they had learned about living in the process of dying. What were the ways they had found to talk with loved ones about their impending death? What were the ways they had found to live more fully knowing that the end was approaching? What wisdom came newly to them as death approached? What new ways of thinking about living came to them as they lived in the face of death?

With all of these questions in mind, I am thrilled to find a book or an essay written by someone who has engaged these questions, whose thinking has gotten big enough to encompass big questions, big enough because they see their end. I found such book in Learning to Fall: Blessings of an Imperfect Life by Philip Simmons. Diagnosed in 1992 with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), he survived longer than many, and had the opportunity to write the essays in this wonderful, engaging book. He writes about dying, and he writes about living, and he writes about the natural world and what he can teach us about both.

About death, Simmons writes that acceptance of death provides a freedom to live differently, living in the present moment, living without attachment to thing in the same way as before. This is one of the things I have learned in the two and a half months since my diagnosis: live in the moment, appreciate the moment, be here now. The idea is not a new one, not to me, not a new thought from him, yet my experience of appreciation of the present moment has changed in these last months.

Yes, more often than I would like, I fall down the deep well of despair that a cancer diagnosis can bring.

And I also have discovered a new joy in sitting quietly in awe at the beauty of the moment before me. The sparkle of the ocean as the sun begins its descent. The beauty in my daughter's eyes. The poignancy of a moment sharing vulnerability with a friend. The mischievous sparkle in my son's face. The smell of cinnamon on a doughnut. The cold sweetness of Cherry Garcia ice cream on a hot summer night.

So, in the face of the terminal diagnosis, I am committed to living as fully as I can.

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