How would you react to such news? Fact is, most of us have little practice making choices like that. So please be aware, what follows is my response. Chances are it is different than yours would be.
The medical diagnosis had been rendered. I have begun the prescribed, once-a-week treatments. As advertised, they were wearing me down---a little bit at first, more than that by now. Unfortunately, their overall effectiveness will not be known for weeks, perhaps even months. It is an act of informed faith, dealing with the irritating side effects in hopes the treatments will help.
Actually, by the time the initial shock had worn off I was not too concerned about what the cancer was doing to my body. For the most part I felt fine. But at the same time I was learning a different, altogether new lesson. You can call it Cancer 2.0.
You see, in the early stages, when the disease itself is producing little or no discomfort, the most profound impact is bound to be emotional. That’s right. Whether or not it hurts, simply knowing that cancer is present, and perhaps spreading, is enough to produce very real emotional distress.
That was certainly true for me, and I needed to deal with that. True, in the end my means of coping was perhaps a bit unorthodox. After all, I had spent years creating stories of Tanner seniors dealing with late-life trials. Dealing with my own circumstances as a new story seemed the most natural way to approach what I was facing.
The idea I outlined to Roma was simple enough. I wanted to consider, then write about the turmoil that had captured my thoughts and our lives---and hopefully make sense of what was waiting ahead. I wanted to explore the course of a life, my own life, as it faced the prospect of death.”
“Can you do that?” she had asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered.”But I plan to try.”
So why was this happening to me---this blatant threat to my very being? Was a vengeful God extracting the price of my existential failings? Or was a lifetime of Karma being called to account?
At best, the challenge I faced was likely to be a long, drawn-out ordeal, taking on the form of a new lifestyle, requiring the living of one’s life in new and different ways. What then would be an appropriate response when the November clouds, the ones I had not been able to chase away, continued to gather, turning darker by the day? What would it look like---a mature, eighty-year old answer to such a threat?
As I said earlier, beyond the remnants of my exploratory surgery, I had no distressing physical symptoms. Truth be told, if not for a fortuitous combination of alert doctoring and my wife’s divinely-guided intuition (I called it ‘nagging’ at the time) the cancer might have continued its stealthy invasion for months, even years.
But now, instead of physical distress I was dealing with an even more upsetting awareness---in the form of churning mind-dramas I could not turn off---emotional products of an active imagination. I was being reminded in a rather dramatic manner that my earthly incarnation was subject to well-defined limits. More to the point, I was coming face to face with the unsubtle reality that cancer, or death, or anything else that threatens to end my being, comes with a mental and emotional impact---along with the physical implications it represents.
Of course, in one way or another all of us must face the fact of it---the unsettling understanding that there is only one way out of our present circumstance. As sure as we are born, the mortal, physical part of our being will in time pass away. We will die. No matter how we chose to portray that existential fact, there was no escaping the reality of it.
Scholars attribute the human impulse to seek religious answers to that unyielding truth. Yet until that moment in the doctor’s office, listening to his blunt prognosis, I had traveled eighty years without being seriously sidetracked by the humbling end-of-life possibilities I was suddenly facing.
Meanwhile, even as those terminal realities played out in my over-active mind, I was aware of moments when a surprising calm seemed to push my dire thoughts aside. During those brief interludes I sensed that my concerns did not have to be framed in such depressing terms. Instead, I felt a composed curiosity steering me in a new direction, seeking a more fruitful way to face what awaited me, now and the future---however long that might be.
I have long considered myself one of the lucky ones. I connected with my soul-mate early on. Together we had spent sixty-some years learning what that meant---creating a family that anyone would be proud of, living well, and seeing more of the world than anyone had a right to expect.
Why then, so late in the game, after all those miles and all the good times we had shared, was I only now beginning to understand that the last, and in some ways most important, part of my life-journey stretched out before me? If that was true I wanted my responses to be the right ones.
By then I realized that my primary challenge, the threat over which I actually have some control, was not the cancer cells I could not see or direct. Instead I needed to create the life-affirming means to move past the debilitating uncertainty that never seemed to go away. Hopefully that was something I could do.
More to the point, I was beginning to realize that the final chapters of my story, and the drama they were sure to involve, might not take place in the material setting that surrounded me, the physical world in which I assumed most of my life had been lived.
Instead, the most important bits of my ‘new’ life are apt to be played out in a different, but very-real internal universe---the space between my ears---where heart, soul, and mind combine to create the spiritual dimension that resides in each of us. There consciousness and awareness combine to have us thinking our thoughts and acting our actions. And there unbridled fear and worry are able to short circuit even the best of intentions. That is where my battle for a more productive future will be waged.
There are, or course, a multitude of ways to reach out for that internal connection---the emotional, mental, and spiritual elements I must rely on. It will be, in fact, my attempt to contact the divine. You may not be surprised to learn that my understanding of that process is a bit different than most.
From the beginning I have vowed to keep things as simple as possible. This is not the time to retreat into elaborate philosophical theories or dramatic religious interventions---neither of which appealed to me in less stressful times. Rather, I was leaning toward what I accepted as the experienced, soul-deep truth I had come to trust. That seemed to me the best path to my personal ‘Becoming.’
In our next installment I will try to explain.