Monday, September 25, 2006

All in the Same Boat

I mentioned in my last post that cancer affects far more than the person diagnosed. Over the past four months (yesterday was the four month "anniversary" of my diagnosis), I have witnessed and heard about the impact on friends and family. I could see from the faces of friends who came to the hospital how worried they were about me, and I have felt supported and well loved by the reaching out in cards, letters, emails and phone calls of so many in my various communities of friends. Those who have been diagnosed with cancer, or had a close friend, family member or partner experience a cancer diagnosis and treatment have responded with a special empathy. Many of their responses are found in the "comment" section of this blog.

Sometimes, those who are friends but not otherwise or previously touched by a cancer diagnosis personally respond powerfully to the urgency of my diagnosis. One of those is a co-worker, colleague and friend, Julie Baker, who wrote movingly of her response to my diagnosis.

About our common mortality, Julie wrote: "When I think about life and death, I always think about how in reality, there's no secure or definite future for anyone. Any of us could drop dead at any moment for any reason, or for no reason at all. There are no promises or guarantees that we are going to wake up tomorrow, or next week or next year." Like me, Julie is a mother of a small child, her daughter. She shared with me how being a parent had brought her a powerful sense of her mortality. " . . . my greatest fear is that I will not be here for my daughter - selfishly, because I want to be here for every moment of her life, and unselfishly, because I always want her to have the enormous, unconditional love that I believe only I can give her."

About living in the present, Julie writes that "I have decided that even though intellectually, we all know that nothing is certain or guaranteed from one moment to the next, we suppress that thought because we have to in order to go about our day-to-day lives. Most of us would be immobilized - or think we would be - if we confronted the reality of the situation. But maybe that's exactly wrong. Maybe we should all acknowledge it, and not wait for an illness or an accident or a diagnosis to remind us. Because it's true for all of us, whether we've been brought to the consciousness of it (as you have) or not."

"Why am I telling you this? " Julie writes. "Because your blog got me thinking, for one thing. But also, because maybe I hope it will make you feel a little less separate or different. You're not. We really are all in the same boat. In one sense, bizarre as it sounds, you are ahead of the game - you have confronted the reality squarely (like it or not), and you can use that information to make better choices about how you live all the moments of your life. I try to do that, but I constantly fall victim to the crisis du jour, and suddenly it's a week later, or a month later, or a year later. I don't want to look back at some point and have to ask myself why I have wasted all this time. You know?"

Julie's thoughts reflect to me some of what I might have thought a year ago, before cancer. And I appreciate the empathy, the reaching out, the connecting her different experience with mine.

Also, with last week's good news and another two months of breathing space, I find myself losing some of my "edge" about my mortality. Maybe I'll beat this. Maybe I'll live not just one year or two, but twenty. Maybe my cancer took twenty years to get to the place that required surgery last May, and maybe additional surgery really can remove the rest. Since I've already confounded my doctor with my response in the last four months, why not go for more? But can I hope for more and still hold the lessons learned from these past months?

For many years, I attended annual workshops with W. Brugh Joy, whose perspective about life events is often radically different from the norm. He often said "The deep psyche loves contrast." My psyche has been blown away from the events of past months, contrasting powerfully with what preceded this time. Can I keep living in the moment and savoring each bit? Can I truly remember that we really all are in the same boat, living a life that could end at any moment, without notice? When we were traveling to the southwest this past June, to national parks full of ancient rocks (Zion National Park, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Grand Canyon, and others), I felt that I was in geologic time. A rock could fall and take my life at any time. I could live with that then. Now I just want to live.

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