I HAVE DIED.

I have died. I no longer walk the earth like you. In a body, that is a blessing when it works, and, when it stops working, I assure you the dropping of it is an equal blessing.

That’s all I can tell you about where I’m not. As I write this, I know what everyone knows, but most don’t believe for themselves: mortality is real for us all.

So many people who die, specifically of cancer it seems, write viral letters about embracing life. Eat an avocado every day. Tell your mean neighbor his lawn looks nice. Don’t hesitate, quit your job, go to Bora Bora. And then they go on to tell you about the last few months of their lives under palm trees, with a once scabies-infected dog. Often accompanied by an impossibly healthy looking person and partner.

I don’t have those kinds of life lessons to share. I know what I did at the end of my life. I know what brought me joy. But my list would surely not affect you.

When I first announced I had metastatic breast cancer, after being private about my illness for almost 7 years, I got a mass of support. People flying in to see me, lunch dates lined up until 2020. The sense of connection was overwhelming, in a nice way.

There were those people that did come through but 98% of my frantic callers dropped away. I reached out to a few people to see if they wanted to get together and got that “we’ll figure it out” hand gesture. Although we never did.

The point of this is not to call anyone out or be hurt, because my last days were great. I was with the people who were meant to be there. I understand the urgency of wanting to go out of your way to see a dying friend and then somehow it’s not so urgent. Or the mortality piece doesn’t seem real or even like a space you want to stand in.

I never wanted to deal with this disease and blame no one for even remotely not wanting to be around it. Even unconsciously.

Through the drop ins and outs, I realized that people are going to do whatever they’re going to do regardless of what they want to want. Even me.

Wasn’t that freeing? I didn’t have to buy tickets to Bora Bora, I could spend days in bed, even though I wanted to want to be productive. Even though it was the first time since a chemo treatment I had energy.

As I die, I still put pressure on myself. I get angry when I can’t sit up to type. There are projects I am hoping to finish before I go. But I have no control over any of that. The only thing I can work on is being without the guilt of not doing. Accepting that my days are what they were.

As a side note, if you are angry at me for not reaching out, totally understandable. My death process had to be a small and contained one. I likened it to a death dinghy. As I floated farther from the shore, I knew one more body would throw off the beautiful balance and safety I worked hard to create.

That’s not to say that the love and connections we shared weren’t real. They all were. But if you need to get pissed at me, go for it. I think I might if I read this note from a good friend who was suddenly not there.

All my love – m

Advertisements

Why my life goal list doesn’t include beating cancer

This week at the dermatologist’s office, the young woman behind the desk asked why I had come in, after I requested some skincare samples to make my visit more pleasurable. I pulled up my shirt to reveal heavy white bandages down my side, where I had had a few skin biopsies. “I’m a cancer patient,” I said. She then did that thing that most people do when I reveal my health status: she looked into the air around her as if searching for the perfect relative she could pick out from the oxygen surrounding her head. “My great uncle had cancer,” she found someone and proceeded to tell me about a bone marrow thing, not sure what, but I think it saved his life.

“Oh well, then, you know,” I said, being polite, because she certainly had no idea, as evidenced by her next comment.

“You’ll beat this,” she fisted the air with an imaginary pom pom.

“No,” I said, “I probably won’t.”

“Oh stay positive,” she cooed.

I replied, “You know I’m not really that sentimental about life,” which is true. “I mean when my number is up, that’s it.”

And then she kind of did get it. She got something at least, “Oh, so you’re just going to enjoy the time you have while you have it.” Yes!

Don’t get me wrong, I love life, but I don’t feel this grand attachment to mortality. In some ways, I believe we are all immortal and mortal at the same time. Our bodies are mortal. The rest of us…I have my beliefs but I’ll find out at some point. As will you.

This interaction got me thinking about the idea of “beating” cancer and just how silly it is. None of use will “beat” anything. We will live with it, whatever that “it” is for us, struggle through it, embrace it or not, until we die. No one cheats death. Nobody lives in this form forever.

As I come to accept my own death and as my attachment to this life gets less intense, the bonds I have with my body, my moments and paradoxically even to this life get stronger. I feel more plugged into it but less concerned with outcomes. The grand outcome is the same no matter what path I travel.

There are still things I desire before I drop this body. I’m not above vanity or wanting to feel liked and successful. I have moments driven by Facebook or Instagram likes. That’s all part of being a person today. There are a handful of experiences I hope to have before I die. But when I think of what those experiences are, beating cancer is not on that list.

I would love nothing more than to no longer have evidence of this disease in my body. I would give anything to have an easier path to the end and to be able to meter any future loss. But those things seem like empty focuses and nothing more than wishes or prayers. Because they are totally out of my control.

What is in my control is how I put one foot in front of the other towards the goals I have, how I take in each footstep, how I acknowledge the people around me at any given time. And, of course, keeping my medical appointments and continuing to make the best health decisions with the information I have. The rest of it – whether I reach my desired goals or “beat” this disease – well that’s that stuff of surrender.

For crying out loud, don’t call me a warrior

Cancer and war language are so often linked. Someone battles this disease. They are a warrior in combat day in and day out. Many people feel empowered by painting themselves as fighters. But I am not one of those people. Here are some of the reasons I steer clear of conflict-based language when it comes to my existence.

  1. This warrior will lose. War language seems to be more embraced in the “survivor” community. Perhaps because there is a sense of having fought and won. But, with stage iv, that’s not generally how this works. Most of us will die of cancer. We will be the failed warriors that perished during our valiant efforts. On some level, we have already lost. No thanks. My mortality knocks at my head on a daily basis. I don’t need words to remind me that my time is most likely limited and oh so hard. And that all of this will wind up in defeat. I’m here until I’m not.
  2. Why reinforce the challenge? There is already so much conflict navigating cancer. So why would I want to reinforce the brutality and decimation this journey brings? Someone once told me that what you choose to focus on will grow. It seems by setting myself up as a fighter, I will always be fighting. But I’d rather focus on the pockets in between. That’s where I get to find life. I am living with cancer.
  3. Personifying gives this thing more power than it deserves. Cancer is one of the only diseases that is highly personified. It’s treated like an outside entity, an opponent or a serial killer, you have to evade or spar with on a daily basis. Granted, that’s what it feels like most of the time but, the truth is, cancer is just wonky biology. There’s no face to it, no body, no one to punch or push or yell at. It’s a big sack of “they don’t know why you have it and other people don’t” along with the bag of unknown as to whether the treatment will work for any period of time. Because what they do know is whatever treatment you are on when you are metastatic, will ultimately fail. But back to the personification aspect – I’d rather not give cancer more power than it deserves. Having a body is a privilege. Being a person is a gift. Cancer doesn’t get to be that. Cancer gets to be the shitty cells not doing the gift of my body any favors.
  4. Just being a person is hard work. Following this logic, we are all warriors. Life is a challenge for anyone. Getting out of bed, no matter your circumstances, makes you a fighter. I am not looking to over-identify with this disease or trump any else’s experiences. We are in the human trenches together as one. I’d rather not extricate myself from that or set myself apart. Doing that would be a good way for me to foster entitlement, cut myself off from being of service and let depletion take over even in times of rebuilding. Let’s be human together and support each other during this weird, beautiful and often difficult ride we’re on. 
  5. Facing life. During this journey, I try as much as I can to stay life facing. Words matter. If I am going to plug into vitality, vibrance and being, when I have the energy, this needs to be reflected in the words I use and accept. I know that my future reality will include hospitalizations, tears on the bathroom floor, challenges with mobility, the list goes on…all of that scares me. But if I can move through the good moments consciously and with a modicum of healthy denial, without giving too much verbal form to future gloom and doom, the current ride is way more pleasant. I find ease with easy language. I feel life with life facing terminology.

My delicious lack of life perspective

All of the perspective I’ve gained due to cancer is gone and I couldn’t be happier…

These past two weeks I have taken things personally, gotten attached to the wrong people,  focused on what I don’t have in life and what I have not yet achieved with the anxiety of maybe never achieving those things. And I am loving every moment of it. Every pang of unfulfilled desire, of insecurity and inadequacy. Every feeling directed towards the fleeting and inconsequential.

This means that not only am I still alive but I have physically plateaued enough to mentally accommodate the mundane. I get the luxury of the human experience outside of just rebuilding and surviving day to day.

Of course ordinary human feelings don’t always feel good. Especially when they are born out of this delicious lack of life perspective most of us carry around. When we focus on the exact wrong things to fill voids. Chase those things instead of seeing and fully accepting what’s in front of us.

But the ability to go down that type of rabbit hole is a gift.

It’s also quite humbling. It levels us all, connects us in a way. It also has let me know that I have not completely evolved out of the problems I had when I pulled onto the cancer highway. There is a weird comfort in that.

Sometimes it can be exhausting to have more perspective than the average person so it is really nice to have the opportunity to know that I may not have as much as I thought.