Tuesday, May 30, 2017

LIVING WITH DYING - Installment 2

     A cancer diagnosis! What did it mean for the two of us and the life we were living? After sixty years together, where would it take us?
     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.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

LIVING WITH DYING - Installment 1

  I have made the point before---this is a writer’s blog. In this case I am the writer. Whether or not you read or like what I write, I claim that title for myself.
    So it is, with this post I am beginning a new story--for me and about me. I can't get more selfish than that. There will be more installments to follow. How many I can’t say for sure. It is, after all, a story in progress. At some point in the future I hope to compile these posts into a single volume ---a project I am tentatively calling LIVING WITH DYING--to be included on my Amazon Author’s page.
    A disclaimer is in order here. This will not be light reading. Though I am sure some of you will check out before you have finished this first post, I sincerely hope that most of you will stick with me, if only to see where this adventure takes us. Truth is, I want to know that myself.
     Finally, if all this strikes you as a bit morbid, I hope I can help you move beyond that. True, it will be real, very real. But the intent is simple enough. I want to understand my new reality in ways I haven’t sorted out yet. That process need not be sad and gloomy. With that, I hope you will join me as I learn more about LIVING WITH DYING.


YOU REMEMBER THAT TIME, DON’T YOU? Those good old days---when you lived life on auto-pilot, trusting that what had always worked before would continue to work in the future.
If your life played out like mine, by middle-age---say fifty or so---you had grown comfortable with your lifestyle, and the routines and responses that made it possible. Chances are those comfortable, normally-predictable times were rarely interrupted by distressing thoughts of “what if”? I for one went sailing through those years with scarcely a worry---until, as I moved into the November of my life, I learned something new about “what if.”
I suppose everyone understands---each in their own way---how those “what ifs,” especially the health-related ones, have a way of casting their shadow over late-life. The impact of those murky clouds can range from a thin, hazy veil that dims an otherwise sunny day, to a dark and menacing storm front that threatens to blot out even the slightest hint of our personal silver lining.
Yet in whatever form and on whatever scale they arrive, those disturbing “gotcha” moments----when “what if” becomes “what is,” are bound to create significant change in one's life, some of it minor, some of it not-so-minor. To be sure, I have been there---those awkward moments when my forty-year old mind was inexplicably sabotaged by my eighty-year old body. And I will admit, that was occasionally embarrassing. After all, if I grumbled too loudly the wife was apt to conclude that I was no longer the macho young fellow she had married. Do you suppose she knew that already?
Perhaps you can guess by now that my life-path has taken an unplanned detour, veering off on a dimly lit, sometimes intimidating side road. Fortunately my “Gotcha” was discovered at a relatively early stage. Best of all, I am fortunate enough to have an experienced, highly-skilled care team on my side. 
Of course none of us, not even those “best available care” folks, can see around the next corner. They have, however, explained that the prognosis is “apparently manageable.” I’ll admit, at the time that was only a bit encouraging. Yet when compared to the trials many of my peers are facing, I was able to wring a few drops of relief from my situation.
Still, large or small, those October and November “gotchas” are bound to produce fundamental changes in our lifestyle, life view, and expectations. Long-held, tried and true “autopilot” answers are apt to be tested by new challenges---especially when they imply the likelihood of painful procedures, or in the extreme, threaten our continued existence.
So it was, as I faced that new trial, I was left with time on my hands---time to think, to dwell on matters I had rarely visited before, at least not in depth. There was time for my imagination to create its own mind-dramas and worrisome outcomes. I suppose it is possible to have too much time on our hands.


Despite the doctor’s earlier efforts to prepare us for what he might find, Roma and I were predictably anxious as we sat side by side in his office, awaiting his report. True, I had weathered the exploratory surgery with minimal problems, but was I ready for what came next?
It must have been the normally-casual physician’s professional face we saw when he entered the room. I seem to remember his introduction as business-like, straight to the point. A minute later the sobering impact of the ‘C’ word, along with its “fairly aggressive” qualifier, had brought us up short. I don’t recall much of what came next. There were surely questions we should have asked at that point, but the weight of his dire words had overwhelmed the need to know more.
Thankfully I was not facing that intimidating trial alone. A good thing too. About then I needed her support big time, though I suppose both of us stopped breathing for a second or two. 
As you might expect, our drive home that morning was a quiet time---a strained silence neither of us wanted to disturb. Our troubled minds were brimming with feelings we wanted to express, but were not sure how to put into words. So many questions and so few answers. 
Not until that afternoon, after an awkwardly silent lunch, were we prepared to speak our concerns out loud. There I was, mired in dark thoughts, dwelling on the prospect of a seriously ugly future. It was sinking in, the realization that I might have to learn how to live with the shadow of dying lurking just beyond the horizon.
A couple times I paused to give myself a pep talk, focusing on the need to be strong. But in truth I did not feel strong. Not at all. I did not sense even a hint of strength until the two of us could take a deep breath, look each other in the eye, and begin to discuss what we would rather not be talking about.
Hopefully, you too know what a blessing it is to have a caring 'someone' to share the hard times. Though we struggled to put our thoughts into words, we understood that we would be facing whatever lay ahead together. Knowing she was there with me certainly made things easier. Best of all, we were learning that sharing our concerns out loud helped soften the hurtful possibilities. Though we were not likely to find any quick answers, by then there were hints of a more productive path.
Of course our conversation necessarily focused on more than just the two of us. The rest of the family was waiting to hear what we had been told. Something like that affects a lot of people. 
  At that point I felt perfectly fine, with no physical symptoms beyond the rapidly healing surgery. Yet, as the rest of the family was informed of the upsetting possibilities they were naturally concerned. As much as I tried to calm their fears, I was asking myself over and over if they would believe the old man.
The days immediately following the doctor’s revelation were a moody time. More than once I found myself dwelling on brother Roger and uncle Jim. Both of them had recently passed away---both of them leaving the scene far too soon to my way of thinking. Yet invariably, as sad as those recollections were, they soon morphed into my own recurring wonder at how a lifetime of days and years had passed so quickly.
And then, just as I mustered a modest hint of comfort, the truth of it would again capture my thoughts. The threat I was facing was not hypothetical. It was very real, and growing inside of me every day. That could not be wished away. But to acknowledge its presence, and be able to speak about it, seemed to rob much of its intimidating power.
It was after one of those dark spells when I finally found the nerve to discuss my altogether unorthodox idea with Roma. I had spent my retirement years creating novel-length stories about the trials of growing old. That had become an important way for me to relate to late-life circumstances, including disability and death. Now I was considering the notion of exploring in depth the course of a life, my own life, as it faced the prospect of death---not in some nebulous, fictional future, but up-close and personal, on my blog, perhaps even in a book-length story.
When Roma finally caught her breath she asked, “Do you know how to do that”
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “But I plan to try. There is a lot to sort out. I think writing about it might help.”
With that, our grand experiment, the one you are reading now, was set in motion. Where will it lead? I know the general direction, but not the details. In any case I hope you will join me and if you are so inclined, will 'Share' our adventure with anyone you think might be interested. 
  I expect to have the next installment ready to post in 10 days/2 weeks.