Surviving In This Very Moment…

My Personal Battle with Prostate Cancer … And Life!

Archive for the tag “Thanksgiving”

Here is not an Indifferent Place

Here, for example, is not an indifferent place.
Jacques Derrida

Reflection

Reflection (Photo credit: martinak15)

Happy Thanksgiving to anyone reading this piece. Yes, it is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. For some it is a day without work unless, of course, you count the interaction with relatives work. For others, Thanksgiving is a day for reflection set aside to contemplate all of the things for which one is grateful; it matters little whether one is grateful to a deity, a gaggle of deities, or that one eschews religious or theistic connections to find a place for gratitude. It is not necessary to be grateful to something rather one is grateful for something. As a modifier, grateful stands on its own two feet without the necessity for an object to which one is grateful. I am grateful for something is as clever a use of the modifier as being grateful to something or another is. The distinction between “for” and “to” is one worth exploring; it is not indifferent nor is it neutral, rather it is a distinction that marks the boundary between ethical responsibility and social compliance.

Let me announce two things for which I am grateful: First, I am grateful for my wife (tomorrow we celebrate 26 years of marriage) without whom I would not be the man I have become. Secondly, I am grateful for my diagnosis of cancer without which I would not have had to explore theoretical ethical obligations with the object of discovering practical applications for otherwise theoretical platitudes. I suspect these two items on my list of gratitude are deeply connected. Without Susan, I might have continued to live a life of wandering from pillar to post “with no direction home, a complete unknown” and no focus. I became a teacher because she opened the door to teaching as a real possibility and that, in turn, opened the door to an examined life in which thinking about things and discovering ideas, both old and new, was engaging and, even more importantly, fun. But all that exploration was just that, exploration, until I heard the words “You have cancer.”

There is little else that focuses one on one’s own mortality than facing a life-threatening disease. In my case, that focus turned to that which I know, that which I learned from Emmanuel Levinas, that which Hillary Putnam calls the fundamental ethical obligation in order to find a practical application, one that would allow for the deeper practice of an ethical life. The fundamental ethical obligation is the obligation to be available for the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Substantially different from Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship primarily because the I-Thou requires reciprocation, Levinas’s ethical obligation proposes that one announce one’s presence to the other, thereby creating a proximity, a nearness without the barrier of space or time, while, simultaneously, waiting for a response that may never come. This is a responsibility for and is, therefore, quite unlike Buber’s responsibility to, the other.

On this Thanksgiving Day, it occurred to me that writing this blog is not an indifferent act, rather it is one of announcement, of “Here I Am!” made without reservation and without any expectation of reciprocation. I invite others to join in this conversation through comments but I cannot expect people to accept that invitation. It is quite enough to make the announcement, create a proximate place, and then wait, to sit quietly and listen to the absolute silence of the almost infinite universe.

So Happy Thanksgiving…Take some time to reflect on what you are grateful for! You may find unexpected surprises buried underneath the rubble of the lived-experience. I certainly did!

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To the Pain

Thanksgiving oven

Thanksgiving oven (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The day before Thanksgiving and seven days before surgery. This is the day I am instructed to eliminate blood thinners and all NSAIDs from my daily regimen. Substituting Tylenol for Naproxin is like replacing wine with water; it just isn’t the same no matter how you slice it. I ache all over and I am not through the first day.

I don’t think that I would feel as badly if it weren’t for the fact that I am preparing food for 22 people. Sure they will all bring a dish or two but I prepare the soup, traditionally a squash/apple or squash/pear soup, this year it is squash/apple with honey and it tastes divine. But the backbreaking work of preparing soup for 22 is not made any easier with a pain reliever that is simply not up to the task.

I also cooked two turkeys (one is still in the oven), a pumpkin pie, a braised brussel sprout and cheese dish and chopped liver. I am simply exhausted.

What interests me, however, is not that I am in pain or that I worked hard today. What interest me is the fact that while cooking I felt connected, in the zone, focused on the performance of the task at hand. This is living in this very moment, a practice I am continuing to perfect.

I still have some apprehension about the surgical procedure that I am facing a week from today but I think that is perfectly normal. I don’t think of it often but I would be outright lying if I said it didn’t pop up every once in a while. What I am focusing on: reading, learning something new, a new way of thinking about something is a powerful block. Of course, as the day of surgery comes closer there are any number of things that serve as a constant reminder that the robot is just around the corner. More about that later but for now just think of it as the anticipation of emptying the vessel.

When all is said and done, I remain quite positive at this time. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

Approaching Thanksgiving

Updated scene of Anakin Skywalker, Yoda and Ob...

May the Force Be With You (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My father’s diagnosis of squamish cell carcinoma of the lung in 1977 coincided with the release of Episode IV of the Star Wars movies, the original Lucas film. On the night before his scheduled lung surgery my mother and father went out for BBQ ribs and a movie. They went to see Star Wars. Both my mother and father found the whole idea of “the force” compelling. The film was released in late May of 1977. When the surgeon came to talk to the family after the operation he was not too very encouraging. “Go home and put your affairs in order,” he cautioned.

We did not expect my father to be alive for the Thanksgiving of 1977 yet when the fourth Thursday in November rolled around, there he was, quite alive and not ready to give up. Apparently the Force was with him! I learned a powerful lesson 35 Thanksgivings ago; never give up and be thankful for this very moment of life.

As the first Thanksgiving after my own diagnosis of adenocarcinoma of the prostate, I have been reflecting on those many years ago when, as a son, I experienced my first real experience with cancer. Much earlier, around my 14th or 15th year my grandmother died of colon cancer, but, while we knew grandma was ill the whole thing was hush-hush. Not until my father developed lung cancer was there anything like a recognition of the effects of this disease.

At the Thanksgiving table in 1977, my mother, in tears, expressed the simple idea that until this very moment, Thanksgiving was just a time to eat turkey and be stuffed. At that very moment, her deeply felt thanks was clear and unequivocal.

Flash forward 34 years to last Thanksgiving. My wife and I have hosted the family for the past 20 years. At the table, before we began to eat, my oldest grand-niece, my sisters grand-daughter, Ellie, all of 5-1/2 years old, decided it would be a good idea that everyone at the table tell everyone else exactly what they were thankful for. We all did. I thought at the time that this would be a grand tradition to continue for many years to come.

This Thanksgiving, we have expanded from a small family group of around 10 people to a host of folks (24 at last count). I will ask Ellie to ask people to talk a little about what they are thankful for and then go around the several tables, each in turn. When my turn comes…well I don’t think I’ll tell here because then people at the table won’t need to listen to me. Suffice it to say that as this Thanksgiving approaches I am thankful for early detection, for the diligence of my internist, and for the thoughts of so many people offering their support as I face the coming ordeal. This year Thanksgiving takes on an entirely different meaning.

It Will Have Been Enough

Generally speaking I am not a big fan of cold weather.  I suppose the only time I truly enjoyed blistering cold was when I was a kid; snow was something to play in and not shovel.  This morning I felt the cruel bite of Winter as I opened the patio door to let the dogs out.  A dusting of snow covered the paving bricks of the patio as I experienced the bite of below freezing temperatures across my face.

Often Winter is used as a metaphor for hard times, even for death itself.  Trees lose their leaves, grasses turn brown, frost fills the air, the sky is often cast in gray tones and the bone crushing cold that never seems to end becomes the norm.  Even worse, for the next six weeks or so the airwaves are filled with holiday music, tv and radio commercials for holiday stuff (I swear if I see that eBay commercial for the freaking pony one more time…) that we didn’t even know we might need and it is not yet Thanksgiving.  Is American greed so great that we cannot celebrate one holiday at a time?

The most peaceful holiday I can remember was spent about 8 years ago in Rome.  Much to my surprise, because, I suppose, I am used to the way Americans celebrate Christmas, there were hardly any overt signs that it was Christmas time.  There were no lavish decorations in the streets, no overt signs of the holiday season in stores, no constant berating Italians to buy stuff they didn’t want or need.  Life just went on at a normal pace.  Oh, I do recall in the hotel lobby a table with a wreath and candle but absolutely nothing more than that.

I cannot walk into a Starbucks without being assaulted by signs of the holiday season.  Christmas blend coffee served in bright red holiday cups began on November 1st.  All I ask is that we learn to celebrate one holiday at a time.  Thanksgiving, that unique American holiday, is celebrated on the 4th Thursday of November and should not be diminished by a garish, highly commercialized push toward spending more money than necessary.

In high school, a long time ago, I remember reading the short story, The Gift of the Maji, by O’Henry.  The story told of the selfless choices made by a young married couple with no money as they made choices to sacrifice for each other at Christmastime.  The husband sold his pocket watch so he could buy his wife a comb to hold her long hair in place while the wife cut her hair to buy a fob for his pocket watch.  Gifts are not things that are purchased without forethought, are not things bought but, quite the contrary, gifts are given without the need for reciprocation.  In Jewish tradition, the greatest gift is given anonymously, with absolutely no expectation for a return.  Once reciprocity is expected the gift is no longer one that can properly be called a gift.  This is also the essence of the fundamental ethical obligation; an asymmetrical presentation of the self to the other without reservation and without expectation.  The other needn’t even know of the presentation itself, rather, the presentation is made simply by being present in the world.

Unlike the 68 prior Novembers I have experienced, I am particularly aware of the fact that November is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month this year.  Small wonder.  I find a bit of irony in the fact that my prostate will be removed in November.  But I also find myself reflecting on things that are most important to me: family and friends.  I will put up with the intrusions that come from the greedy motives of commercial monopolies as they work to extract their pound of flesh.  This year I promise to spend not a single unnecessary dime during the holiday season, rather, I plan on providing the intangible gift of life, of being present for those I love; DYANU, it will have been enough!

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