I sit in front of the desk, Emily’s hand grasping firmly onto mine. “Nervous?” I ask her? She says nothing, but nods. Unthinkingly, I nod in return. She tightens her grip on my hand. I can feel her grasp is cold and clammy. Anxiously, I drum the fingers of my other hand on the plastic arm of the chair. The unrhythmic cacophony of my inattentive jam session disguises the loud audible tick, tick, tick, coming from the clock facing us on the wall ahead.
Emily briefly glances at the clock and then at my restless fingers. From the corner of my eye, I see her chew her bottom lip tensely. Automatically, she takes a deep breath in, filling her lungs with the stale hospital air. She holds her breath momentarily before unconsciously, but audibly, letting it go again. She sinks a little lower in the chair as if the oxygen hitting her muscles has carried away some of the built-up tensions within. I’m jealous.
I can’t remember the last deep satisfying breath I took. Life for me now consists of a large elephant who has taken up permanent residency directly on top of my chest. There is no breath in that is enough to counterbalance the pachydermian sized weight sitting on my ribs. My cancer has spread. It keeps progressing and the last of the time-buying drugs I have been taking are now rendered useless with the latest scan results, or at least that’s what we expect to hear from the doctor this afternoon. In addition, my whole system is waging war against me. It’s been a couple of months since I found out that I also have a recurrence of leukemia. Between the two cancers, there is hardly a cell in my body untouched by the effects of disease or the subsequent treatments. In short, I’m a really sick man and I am quickly running out of options.
Cancer, coupled with the pressures of life; financial, emotional, and otherwise, including a horrendous illness faced by my daughter, the recent death of a friend to the same disease I am fighting, and the entry and exit of what I thought to be a pair of well-meaning, but ended up being misguided people in my life, on top of the constant struggle to understand who I really am in this world, leave a constant oppressive strain on my ability to take a deep indispensable swell of air.
The summer is over now and the darkness of the fall creeps back into a rotation again. This summer, a fool’s summer perhaps, had me thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could beat this thing. I, like all scared men, dropped my shield of readiness that had me prepared to die, and instead, took up cloak and dagger and like a thief in the night, I went about trying to steal more time for my own personal coffers.
I allowed myself to believe that miracles only mattered if it meant healing. I lost sight of the miracle of finding contentment and peace in final days. I allowed myself to think that dying wasn’t good enough. I convinced myself that if I died, it would be my own fault for not fighting hard enough or not doing something right. I was galvanized by the rallies to keep fighting from family, friends, colleagues, and virtual strangers. I didn’t want to let anybody down. I still don’t. In this assembled call to action, I made decisions that took me through the winding road of further aggressive medical intervention, neuropathic cures, and spiritual healings. I gained more precious time on earth, but somewhere along the line, I lost my contentment with the dying process. I got scared of what it meant to die. I forgot what the meaning of life was, or at least, my interpretation of it.
I forgot in the strongest of my beliefs which is, that to live meaningfully is to love life with every fiber of your being. It is to want to live as long as you can so that you get to keep on experiencing the beauty of this world. But, it’s also in embracing, understanding and accepting that when it’s your time, it’s your time.
My meaning of life has always been in finding the beauty between the duality of birth versus death and awareness of the graceful perfection of everything in between. It is understanding that every moment of life is worth holding on to and cherishing, but that everything good must come to an end. The strangest part of my belief is that to let go of life is not to fail, but rather to complete. To let go is merely a part of the process and the only way in which one can experience the revelation of pure beauty. In dying, we can appreciate the exquisiteness of life because to truly perceive beauty is to understand that it is something only fleetingly available to us. And life truly is fleeting. To understand this implicitly is a gift given to those who teeter on the brink of life and death. In the sway between worlds, we, the dying, are taught of how much worth there is in living.
The dichotomy is that in setting aside the complacency I had achieved for dying, I attained a stronger understanding of a new dynamism previously unknown to me, which is that there is power in striving for the impossible. I learned that to die, is actually to lead from the front. To push and fight for more when I felt that there was nothing left to fight with is to show the world that dying isn’t always about going gracefully down with the ship, but that dying can also be about fighting all the way down.
There is an achievement of grace and beauty in each death method. I have experienced what it feels like to win impossible battles. I have also experienced what it feels like to know you will ultimately lose the hard-fought war. While in the end, I didn’t end up with the miracle I desired, I regret nothing. What I learned in all of this, is that sometimes the braver thing to do is to fight for those who want you to fight than to give up and ride into the sunset alone.
With as far as I’ve come and through all the times I swallowed the life-extending pills, smeared the healing oils and ointments on my body, ate the new and natural foods, and swilled down the gallons of shakes and alkalized water, I never stopped hearing the echo of the doctor’s words from those many months ago. The exchange still beat me around from the inside out and the haunting reverberation keeps the memory of that day on the forefront of my mind. I hear my hollow questioning to him in nauseous repetition and the words pervade each thought as they swim through my head, “Tell me, how long are we talking here Doc?” His reply is always the same, “three months, maybe a little longer, six, possibly nine if you’re really lucky.” It’s always the same, his answer never changes but I look at the calendar regularly now. I see three months long gone, six months, too, has passed, and I sit on the precipice of reaching an unforeseen milestone. It’s clear now, I will reach ten months. I am still here. I fought for this, and I won it. The doctor’s haunting words, they don’t seem so scary anymore because I overcame them. What he gave me was a suggestion, not a prophecy. What I know now is that I have time. I don’t know how much time, but, when presented with the initial option, I’ve surpassed that and I’m now walking in uncharted territory. My brain can put away the tired echo of the doctor’s words. They don’t matter anymore because they exist in my past. I’m walking into the future, and it’s a future I never thought I would have. I’m excited to see where it goes.
I look over to Emily again, she smiles and says, “The doctor is running late.”
I nod, smile back and say, “Yep, but that’s okay, we’ve got time.”
I sit back in the chair, lift my drumming fingers to my mouth and cover the spread of a cancer-wracked cough. I slip back into my thoughts, but this time, they aren’t about how much time I have left. This time, they are about how lucky I am to have this extra time to move forward in.
You get no guarantees of success or failure in life. Instead, you make the best of whatever time you’re given. This summer has taught me that I am truly one of the lucky ones. I have it all. Good family, friends, who care enough to want me to keep fighting. Enough great opportunities to keep life interesting, and just enough energy to see this battle through to a good end – whenever that may be.
*Note to family and friends reading the above. This article is a reflection of a few weeks ago. It is not new news and my current treatments have not yet failed. Please read below to see the continuation of the results from the doctor.
The doctor opens the door to the room, comes in and sits down in front of Emily and I. We both sit up straighter in our respective chairs and focus on the man before us. He starts to speak and as I suspected, the latest drugs I have been put on have ceased to work. The heartbreak in the room can be felt as thick as fog. Emily and I grasp each other’s hand tighter so as not to get pulled apart in the thickening blindness of bad news. The doctor continues to talk. The reality is, my mind has ceased to fully absorb what he is saying. I hear only my own thoughts ripping through my mind, until… “… but there is one more thing I want to try,” I hear him say. My mind is snapped back to full attention. “It’s going to be rough and it’s risky and there is a good possibility it won’t do anything but maybe buy you a little bit more time, but if you’re willing, then so am I,” he stops talking, waiting for my response. From beside me, I feel Emily’s fingernails digging into my palm. I can tell this news has shocked her as much as me, who had fully believed we’d reached the end of the road. We are afraid to believe it might be true. Emily looks at me, prodding me with her eyes, willing me to say what she wants me to say, but, remaining silent, in support of whatever answer it is that I give the doctor.
I connect my eyes with her. Locked into position, I can read her thoughts through her blueberry blue eyes. “Do what you want, Darling,” she says to me through her lips. Her eyes tell me to ‘fight, fight, fight’.
I look back at the doctor, he starts talking again, “You’re going to be sick, there is a high risk, especially for someone in your position. We’ve never seen someone with your unique combination of genetics…” his voice trails off as he continues to expel upon me the expected risks versus rewards. Eventually, he stops talking. Both he and Emily are looking at me, with eager eyes.
“More time?” I ask him. “That’s what the ultimate hope would be?”
He nods in affirmative.
I pause, take as deep of a breath in as I can. “Okay,” I say. “I’ll fight for more time.” Both he and Emily smile in relief. “I want you to know though that I’m ok with dying, if and whenever that happens,” I continue. “Whatever happens, I’m good.” I think to myself that for the first time since the summer began, I am in fact good. I’m good with the idea of having a little fight left in me. I’m also good with the idea that if I die, there is no shame in that either. Life is what it is, now, and until the day that my time runs out, I’ll be content with choosing whatever path my heart tells me I should choose. And I am truly good with whatever that looks like.