Reflections on Life and Death or Living with Prostate Cancer
I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.
I agree with Mark Twain’s assessment with one exception, that he was dead before he was born, but I understand the inference quite well. One cannot be ‘dead’ prior to birth; one can merely be said to not exist. The transition to death is only a function of having been alive in the first place. But this is a minor quibble and doesn’t take anything away from the idea that life itself is a transitory journey that exists between the bookends of infinity. If I could only remember the infinity prior to birth, the non-existence of nothingness, I could accurately predict what the transition to death might be. In truth, however, as an existing sentient being, imagining that transition is impossible albeit many have tried to do just that. From reincarnation to heaven and hell, and all things in between, images of the ‘afterlife’ abound both culturally and in religious dogma. I choose to deny all of these mythological answers to the question of “What is next,” and concentrate on this very moment of existence.
There is no reason to believe that there is something other than the material world in which I reside at this very moment. In the past several months I have been placed in a situation in which I had to contemplate my own mortality, a fragile and precious thing. Given the choice between life and death I choose life. But that is not unlike the choice between good and evil, to chose anything but good is outrageous. What I came to realize was that, in the final analysis, at some time in the future, later than sooner I hope, I will be presented with no choice at all; that the only choice is the intimacy of the transition from life to death, a journey only I can take, there are no substitutes, no proxies from which to choose. Just as there are no substitutes, there are no coaches, no guides; the transition from life to death, from finite existence to infinity, is mine and mine alone.
Yet, my personal mark on this material world does not die when I die. Throughout my life I have listened to the platitude voiced at services of mourning that, “The good men do lives after them,” a stunning sentiment indeed since it fails to mention evil in the same sentence. Designed to placate that profound sadness attached to the loss of a friend or loved one, it is, I suppose, a compromise for the sake of those in mourning. That platitude, however, never rang true until I was forced to contemplate my own death. Then I began to assess my contributions to this world, the only world I know. To my surprise, those contributions were many. As a teacher I touched lives, and through my students that became teachers themselves, my influence continues to be felt a hundred fold every single day. I raised two interesting children, so different from each other it is surprising that they were products of the same parents, and they now have children of their own, and that is a continuing presence on this earth that cannot be denied by death.
The fact of the matter is simply this; I am very much alive and doing well. My cancer is in remission with a 15% probability of recurrence. The side effect of incontinence shows signs of being under control most of the time. Life is adjusting back to a sense of normalcy that I have not known for the past six or seven months. Clearly, however, cancer is a life altering experience; one that forces one to assess the quality of one’s lived-experience while adjusting one’s approach to future events not yet anticipated. Cancer forded me to face my own mortality, lifted the threat with early detection and radical treatment, yet, even with the threat lifted I have come to understand that life itself is a terminal disease so I should make the most of the only one I will ever know.