Saturday, March 30, 2013

Our Mortal Frames

On Thursday, February 21, 2013, I sat across from two hematologists, who in turn, told me the really great news that I had leukemia. The first one was inclined to treat it over a few months, the second was adamant that I didn’t have those months and that I would be dead before I got through the outpatient tests. That’s a helluva horse pill to swallow. The rest of the story involves an extended stay at the other Club Med (not to be confused with the one that has the beautiful white beaches and the tropical backdrop). For the price of admission, I do get a private room and more pharmaceutical samples than the evening news advertises over the course of a week!

My sleep schedule has been realigned so that I have a lot of time for naps and when I’m not napping, say at 3:00 am, I think about all manner of profound things that you only think about in passing, in theory, or when you want to sound pretentious. But being handed a cancer diagnosis, you’re backed into that metaphysical corner and you face in real terms things like pain and suffering, why bad things happen to good people, and your own mortality. It didn’t take any time at all to figure out that none of this is my fault, but I’m going through it nonetheless.  I’m not unlike so many other people that just happen to get dealt a really bad hand in life’s game of Texas Hold ‘Em…and I don’t even have a good poker face!

Certainly, the most significant thing that I’ve mulled over is my mortality. When a doctor delivers the good news that your number is up should you elect to ignore the lab reports, it’s something you have to face with authentic seriousness.  It’s no longer something you can just toss about academically. The fact of my demise was something I had to face in real terms even though I didn’t have a single physical symptom that I knew of that fateful February afternoon.

My thoughts on faith and religion have evolved over time and while I won’t use this platform as a way to either proselytize or discredit someone else’s spiritual views, I will say that I am comfortable and at peace that I have lived a full and rewarding life. If I were to die tonight, it wouldn’t be a fearful departure from this earthly plane. That said, I have no reason to believe my time is up. My prognosis is very good based on my current physical condition and a number of other factors that my doctors and I have discussed.  I’m looking at a 70-80% cure rate and while that does leave a 20-30% possibility of not making it, I’m obviously focused on getting through this and moving on with a life full of a lot of happiness, friends, and accomplishments yet unknown. I got things to do, folks (and I have a lot of perfect moments to share with my OMT Sweepstakes winners – keep those cards and letters coming!).

I came across this quote attributed to Mark Twain today.  Some people indicate he didn’t say it, but knowing what I've read of him, it wouldn’t surprise me:

I do not fear death in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

In a way, I feel a bit of an irreverent kindred spirit with Mark Twain and poked my own religious past in the eye yesterday in posting a Monty Python video from The Life of Brian featuring a chorus of whistling men being crucified and singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life…on Good Friday no less. The only thing I emphasize there is my own feeling of absurdity in my situation. I mean, seriously, there’s just no way to reconcile cancer. A friend of mine (my daughter's father in-law actually) has used his own cancer to strengthen his faith and from everything I’ve read of his own journey, it has done exactly that. You can read through his ordeal here. I’ve discussed with others how they have coped and almost universally, each of us turns to that part of us that validates who we are. For some, obviously, we turn to God or a faith system; for others, we turn to that which has strengthened us throughout our lives – family, friends, and so on; and then there are others who just face it with good humor. Me? I’m probably some odd combination of all of them. We either trust that the medical science will bring us through or we don’t. We accept the well wishes, prayers, positive thoughts, and energy from others or we don’t. But at the end of it all, we are still but mortal beings and at some point, our lives have a finite end.

It’s not morbid to go there in your mind because you have to face the fact that whether it’s at the end of an illness, a traumatic injury, or advanced age, our bodies have a limited warranty…and precious few of us have the extended 100-year drive train deal! In talking with my hem/onc doctor, she pointed out that a century ago, my ripe old age of 50 was considered a rather full life. After all, Social Security didn’t arrive at the age of 62 as a retirement age because it was considered a comfortable point to leave the work force. It was the age the majority of people checked out when the system was implemented. Thankfully, medical science has advanced considerably and we’re all living a lot longer and she’s brilliant (even if she has the tendency to be a bit blunt), so I might get the extended warranty after all once I’m officially ‘cured,’ but even if I don’t, I’m grateful for the many good years I’ve lived.

Some of us men experience the official mid-life crisis where we buy something expensive that we think will make us feel young again or we feel the need to shack up with some pretty young thing to prove our virility. A cancer diagnosis has the amazing effect of trumping all that and forcing me to look not at proving anything now, but looking forward to validating the years now granted as a gift. As my grandfather used to always say before he died last June at 99,"Every day is a bonus!" Looking back with nostalgia is great and I am so glad to have the many happy memories and life lessons, but the greatest challenge and motivator is what lies ahead and it involves a much grander picture.

My music selection for the day comes from a classical piece by Johan Sibelius that has been adapted both as Finland’s unofficial national anthem Finlandia as well as a Unitarian hymn. Both the lyrics for the anthem as well as the hymn speak to me on different levels and like so many pieces of music, evoke tears.  This music video is exceptional in my eyes. The melody for the lyrics below starts at 5:33 in the video, but the whole piece is, in my eyes at least, exceptional.

A literal translation of the anthem's lyrics would be:

O, Finland, behold, your day is dawning,The threat of night has been banished away,And the lark of morning in the brightness sings,As though the very firmament would sing.The powers of the night are vanquished by the morning light,Your day is dawning, O land of birth.

O, rise, Finland, raise up highYour head, wreathed with great memories.O, rise, Finland, you showed to the worldThat you drove away the slavery,
And that you did not bend under oppression,Your day has come, O land of birth.

The Unitarian Universalist hymn lyrics

This is my song, oh God of all the nations,A song of peace for lands afar and mine.This is my home, the country where my heart is;Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;But other hearts in other lands are beatingWith hopes and dreams as true and high as mine
My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine.But other lands have sunlight too and clover,And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.This is my song, thou God of all the nations;A song of peace for their land and for mine.

 As always, be well, stay strong, and much love to you all :)