Someone asked me this question and now that I thought about, I put my thoughts here. This is not the type of list that you would see in a bookstore, certainly not a Christian bookstore. I simply wanted to make honest observations of what—I guess you would call lessons—I’ve learned so far. This is not what I should have learned or “wonderful things” as some of them aren’t so wonderful. But these are honest observations, some expected and some unforeseen.
- “Living in the Moment” is a Default Reality.
I’m not a fan of fads. I’m not a fan of fad diets, or fad alternative health “cures,” like gluten-free living. Most of all, I’m not a fan of fads in social behavior. In the last decade I have heard so much about “living in the moment” or “mindfulness” and I see it as, yet, another social fad. It too will pass. But that is not to say there isn’t something to learn from it.
In the case of suddenly being diagnosed with cancer and having a close-call with the Grim Reaper, it is a natural consequence to be forced into living in the moment. Before, I think most of my moment by moment thoughts were about the future. I would think about what I need to do tomorrow. I would think about projects for next week. I would think about my career. I would think and plan about my life in retirement, which I saw coming around the corner in a few years.
When cancer intrudes into your life, it is like these huge bulldozers come barreling in from nowhere and excavate your future right before your eyes. They leave, in their wake, nothing but a huge, empty crater. None of the future matters anymore. While I know a lot of very good people work in Financial Planning, and there is a great need for that, when I now see commercials for such services on TV, it makes me feel disquieted. It is the same for anything about the future, like finishing my PhD, people talking about their dream trips. It is hard to explain, but it is like fingernails on a caulk board. I think it is from all the one on one meetings I’ve had about financial planning and no scenario ever came up where I was going to get an incurable cancer at age 63. Now, all my financial planning is meaningless.
On the positive side of this, I have never felt my senses appreciate what is before me on a given moment. The sky seems bluer. The earth feels harder, like C. S. Lewis describes Heaven in The Great Divorce. The first time I walked outside, after being very sick an in the hospital at Peace Health, Bellingham, I cried when I picked up a plain rock and held it. Smells are now intense, and I find them everywhere. Music sounds more beautiful.
I wish I could say that things taste better, but due to the damage of renal failure and now chemotherapy, every food or drink taste like sucking on a burnt cat turd. But beyond that, I savor the sound of the birds, the bullfrogs, and my dog. Isn’t just about nature, as even when I hear a Navy Jet, or private plane, overhead, I want to soak up that sound as the noise of fantastic engineering. When I’m in conversation I feel it much deeper. I see the faces of friends in a new way, where I can read the interface with their souls. It is a bit creepy.
- I’m Expendable to Most of the World
This is a peculiar one. Of course, I don’t feel expendable to my family and close friends. But it is an odd feeling to see how others start to pull away from you when, as one person in my Multiple Myeloma support group said, when you have an expiration date stamped on you. This is most pronounced in my professional world. For example, I was constantly getting e-mails and phone calls from people in the Headache Medicine world, asking me to speak, write and do things for them. I was well-known, nationally, for my work. Suddenly, those have disappeared. They know that they can find someone else who will probably live longer and be of better health to help them reach their goals. I was just an object to them from the beginning. I shouldn’t have expected more. They saw me as a means to some gain and now they don’t. I’m expendable to them. Some friends saw me the same way and have now moved on for the same reason.
While I do see a pathway for me to return to work full-time and in good health (if a stem cell transplant is offered and works) I think those who were counting on my career have began to cut their losses now and are un-investing me as a future. It is a very strange feeling to no longer be needed. I never anticipated my career ending in such an anticlimactic way.
While the demand for my professional services has always been high (patients waiting in line to see me), suddenly those patients, too, have disappeared. It must be the same reasoning, them not wanting to invest their care with someone who may or may not be here in a few months. The other possibility is that they feel awkward seeing someone who has cancer, as if they are afraid, that they might say the wrong thing.
The strangest feeling of all is in that distant circle of “friends.” Those people, whom you call “friends,” but are just this side of “acquaintances.” So many of them have disappeared. Sometimes, when I bump into them, they seem shocked that I’m still alive. They either pretend they don’t see me (and I know they do) or they stumble for words. I think this is natural, but it still feels strange. It is like they don’t want to invest their energy in someone with the expiration date, or they just feel like they don’t know what to say. Like I have said before, there is nothing that anyone can say that is wrong. There are no dumb questions. The only exception is blaming me for my cancer, which would really piss me off. I know that some will do this. I’ve seen it before. They will assume that I didn’t “take care of myself” or that I didn’t “pray correctly” to be delivered from renal failure and cancer. I hope those “friends” do go away and never look back.
- I Don’t Have the Patience for Pretentiousness.
I have always been an honest person and I don’t mean just trying to tell the truth. What I mean, is that I don’t say or do things just to follow social norms or mores. I can’t count how many times that people have pulled me aside to tell me that what I was saying or doing was not appropriate, not because it wasn’t true or honest, but because it is not what I was “suppose” to say or do in that situation.
I have mentioned that for 20 years I was an Evangelical (in the 1970-80s). Those people are experts in pretentious living (and they don’t have insight into the façade). When you become an Evangelical, it is like one of those huge mega-dump trucks back up to you and pours on you rules of what you suppose to say and do in every moment of your life. It is paramount that you look spiritual, so every word out of your mouth becomes about a “blessing” or “Jesus did this or that.” I was always a square peg in a round hole in that world. I’m not talking about historical Christianity as religion or belief system. But I’m talking about the American-Evangelical sub-culture, which has very little to do with the original intent of Christianity. I eventually left American Evangelicalism when I could not lie (or stomach it) anymore.
Cancer has exacerbated my distaste for pretentiousness. I just don’t have the time for it anymore. I don’t have the energy to say the things people expect me to say and I’m starting not to give a rat’s ass if that offends them.
- Speaking of “Rat’s ass” I Swear More.
No, I’m not standing on a hill shaking my fist and swearing at God for giving me cancer. I’m not mad at God. God didn’t give me cancer. I’m not even mad at the world.
I was never a big swearer, growing up, because my family didn’t swear. I grew up in the Bible belt and most families didn’t swear there. The only people who swore a lot were those, few, who didn’t go to church, or the Methodists, who we believe were “loose.”
Then, as I discussed above, when you become an Evangelical, who don’t even say “shoot” or “darn.” One of my Evangelical friends pointed out to me in the 1980s that when I said “shoot” it offended him because he knew that it was a simple substitute for “the s word.” But “swear words” have absolutely nothing to do with genuine Christianity. I think the early Christians (those who had not been contaminated by secular culture disguised as Christian values) would have no problem with today’s strongest swear words, but would have a hell of a time with Christians saying a pledge to a secular government or saying that something is true when it is not. In the last few years, Americans have lost the hope for truth and Evangelicals have become very comfortable with lies. But they don’t swear.
I’ve caught myself saying stronger swear words and saying them more often. Again, it is not directly linked to the cancer. It isn’t like I’m angrier, but is tied to the things I’ve already mentioned, being more honest . . . and also tired.
The tiredness is a factor, for example, when I save up my limited energy to drive into town to buy something from the hardware store, then I get home and take it out of the box to find that it was broken from the factory (and now I have to make, yet another, energy-draining, trip into town). I will say things like “Son of a bitch!” I’m doing this more and more often. Denise has said I’m more irritable, but I don’t think so. I would never swear at her. But I’m just venting, more honestly, the emotions that’s always been there.
These kinds of swear words are just tools for emotional venting of frustration and sometimes pain. I swear a lot when I’m in pain, like “Dammit! Or shit!” I’m tired of hurting and hurting is normal now.
I do try to refrain from saying these things when I’m around other people, especially those who (wrongly) see such language as a surface marker for my true character and judge me in that way. I have cancer. I’m suffering a lot. I’m sorry but I have the license now to say a mouthful of “bad words,” if I feel like it.
So, this odd collection of “lessons” is what I have observed so far from having cancer.
Michael, from a dialysis chair in Oak Harbor without time to proof-read.