Living While Dying

What I have always liked are the surprises in life, the unexpected events that seem to occur to remind me that I don't control everything, and this surely is the biggest ever for me.

There has always been a lot of loose activity going on in the ether that impinges on my plans. Some of it is pleasurable, but a large amount gums up the works.

Knowing perfectly well that some people die hard deaths didn't stop me from assuming I would be as disgustingly healthy up to the end as I had always been – that is, until I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 76.

Ruminating on my own demise now and then in those many pre-cancer years, I never got further than something like, “I lived and then I died”, anticipating no remarkable lead-up to death.

To repeat myself from a week ago, “Man plans and god laughs.” You can't say in the case of this particular unexpected event, cancer, that it doesn't gum up my personal works.

The joint and body pains from a medication that didn't work out is one of those. Three weeks or so since ending that medication, the pains are receding in small, daily increments, but it is so slow I wonder if it will entirely go away.

As interesting as life has been these past two years, and continues to be, this is not one of the better surprises of my life nor is the COPD that the medication was meant to help control.

Backing up a couple of years, after the Whipple surgery from which it took months to recover, I watched myself create a smaller life, shrinking it down closer to essentials without many frills.

I wanted more time alone, too, and tried to arrange my social life to accommodate that. I was winding down my earthly existence, concentrating on only what was most important to me in the time left.

Then, early this year, my oncologist told me that the chemotherapy had shrunk my tumors by half or so and that he expected me to be around “for quite a while yet,” he said.

Soon after, I noticed that I was gradually expanding my life again. A few more social engagements, purchasing some books I had thought I wouldn't have time for and I even bought a sweater I liked – the first new clothing since the cancer diagnosis.

Before the latest diagnosis of COPD and the body/joint pains, I liked to tell myself (and others who would listen) that I was so free of symptoms that if I didn't know better, I would think I don't have cancer.

I suspect now that will never be so again. Even though, if you don't count the body pains and shortness of breath, I feel reasonably good, from now on I will be living while dying.

That was true before but I was not so out in the open and honest with myself about it as now, and maybe that's why I have been searching out smart thinkers, philosophers and others who have written well about growing old and getting closer to death.

Last week, that brought me back to 20th century, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and his essay written when he was about 80 titled, “How to Grow Old.”

It is very short – just three pages – and here are his points that are salient to me. Well, this week. We'll see how that changes or not.

”Psychologically there are two dangers to be guarded against in old age. One of these is undue absorption in the past. It does not do to live in memories, in regrets for the good old days...

“The other thing to be avoided is clinging to youth in the hope of sucking up vigour from its vitality.”

These have not been issues for me but it is still good to be reminded. More interesting is this, about facing the fear of death:

”The best way to overcome it – so at least it seems to me – is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.

“An individual human existence should be like a river – small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls.

“Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged with the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being.”

Although this cancer/COPD event was a surprise to me, I think if given a choice, I would prefer the situation I'm in, knowing death is coming relatively soon but with time to appreciate and make good use of the new and different perspective it gives me.

* * *

[EDITORIAL NOTE: This is the first of what will probably be more such ruminations on my predicament. Like today, they might be triggered by something I've read or what someone tells me. Other times it might be random thoughts without any conclusions. Perhaps we can call it, simply, thinking out loud.]


After reading your wonderful post, containing excellent insights for us all to use and to ponder, I then, as I often do, study your banner with all of the pictures of you sequentially documenting your stages of life. I believe we must see our friends and loved ones in their entirety of life, not just a point in time. Yes, you definitely on the old age side of life now, but I add those other pictures into my minds eye to fully appreciate you because they are also you. I practice this philosophy, perhaps it is a technique, to fully appreciate my wife seeing her as old and young at the same time--it seem to work.

I've found that chronic illness often robs me of motivation so that I don't do even the things I'm physically capable of doing. I would like to make the most of the chances still left to me, but I find it hard and too often I realise I've lost a morning flipping through Instagram and Facebook or slightly better buried in my Kindle.

It's irrational to feel guilty about this I know - there is no law that says as you age you must continue at full tilt until the end, but still I feel it.

I like the 'thinking out loud' title for these very valuable musings, discoveries, irritants, plans, hopes, determinants, etc. that you excel at describing for us.

And John made an important point of seeing others in their entirety, not only "just a point in time," and his use of that with his wife was moving. Actually, immensely loving, and I'm envious of her. It's easier to do with your children whose life from its beginning one witnesses, but usually we deny or ignore the entirety of a person, assigning an adjective or more to describe our impressions.

Not sure where your second reference of life as a river came from, but it's in line with how I strive to live and learn, becoming more expansive and inclusive as time moves on. To find and remove separations and differences with others has become almost a pleasure (particularly those that find harbor in my own mind), and surely gives challenge to previous inclinations and judgements.

I'm sorry if I was not clear that I was quoting from the Bertrand Russell essay noted above the quotations.

You never fail to give me something to think about, Ronnie.
Tomorrow, I'll be 74 years old. And, while I have no idea how much time I have left, I'm beginning to live my life in increments of six months rather than years. I know that even if I have no life-threatening maladies now, anything can happen. With that said, I am looking forward to hearing the results of the 2020 presidential election just to see if we came to our senses and relieved ourselves of this national nightmare.

Thank you. That Bertrand Russell essay reads like a beacon to me. To merge one's concerns and visions with the universal, in advance.

Bertrand Russell is someone whom I've appreciated for decades. Since first reading his words I was immediately struck by how wise, intelligent, articulate and very sane he seemed on a number of topics.

I remember, in a deep and quiet moment a few years ago, being struck by an awareness of the connectedness of everything, whether waterways, root and mycorrhizal systems beneath the ground, air currents and weather patterns -- the vast networking of it all overwhelmed me for a while. The source and origin of this connectedness remains a nystery to me, and I suspect it's one of those will-'o-the-wisp sorts of things that the more you pursue, the more elusive it is. Still, that moment became an integral part of my being, and though I don't always feel the same comfort I did that day, it comes deeply back to me now and then.

Thinking of myself as just one infinitesimal bit in a point in time of a huge and timeless system was sometimes frightening in my childhood, but it's brought me much more comfort as I've aged and I've tried to live more respectfully of everything as a result, an d with gratitude. I have yet to learn whether this will make the process of my own active dying any easier, but it has made facing the impending deaths of others more manageable, and, at least in the contemplation and imagining of my own passing, I think it's helped.

A simply wonderful blog. So much honesty and openness.

Hey Ronni, I'll leave the philosophy to others and just comment - the sweater is not the only new item of clothing you bought since your cancer diagnosis -- don't you remember the white silk pants!!!

This is wide and deep and true for me. Maybe we don't "painlessly" lose our bodies, the physical can be a difficult and long transition, but our hearts and minds can be more at ease, even filled with wonder and joy. It's all energy, we are all one, and all one with the universe.
Delightful to read Ronni's and other's words on this topic. Like many, I budget my energy, needing and wanting time for information like this, my spiritual practice, largely meditation and reading, and a few other beloved endeavors. We're on the frontier of death coming out of the closet! The latest issue of YES! magazine is titled "The Death Issue," with articles about death doulas, etc. I hope there's a death doula around my way before I die! THIS, however, is a give and take among those of us on the frontlines, so thank you Ronnie, thank you every reader/writer!

Thank you for your helpful and thoughtful posts. I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago, went through chemo, and then had the extended Whipple procedure. The tumor and half of my pancreas along with some other organs were removed. I thought, well, that's that and now I get on with my life. Not exactly. At my 3-month post-surgery checkup I was told that the type of pancreatic cancer I had/have is extremely aggressive and will return. And it is immune to both chemo and radiation. Like others who have responded, I now measure my life in 3 month chunks and am trying to come to terms. I've started reading a book that, so far, feels helpful to me: Advice for Future Corpses - A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying.

Ronnie: I wish you all the best and look forward to reading your honest, wise and thoughtful posts.

Oh, you're right, Ann. And I was just wondering to myself what I should wear to lunch with my son today. You've solved my problem. Thank you.

I've noticed a difference in the assignments I give myself. Not so urgent.

I appreciate your insights greatly...thank you for sharing.

Thank you for sharing so intimately. I also love the above comment on giving herself non urgent "assignments". I hope if I face my own expiration date, I have a fraction of your courage, honest self reflection and eloquence. I also consider my own personal belief of something bigger than this existence makes me long-term long to see what's next.

Very meaningful and useful Bertrand Russell quotes, thank you!

A beautiful and deeply moving post, Ronni. Thanks for allowing us to live in this place with you.

Physical pain is an ongoing condition, and in today's health "care" climate, I doubt that much, if any, medical help will be forthcoming. Unfortunately for me, I do not tolerate marijuana well. As others have noted, pain saps one's joy and energy; things that need to get done may not, and living sometimes tilts more towards existing. I renew subscriptions in minimum increments and rarely purchase durable items, except necessities--they will just add to the pile of stuff to be hauled off.

My husband's 90th b'day is in November and, ideally, I'd like to be around long enough so that our 2 senior cats (18 and 14) can die in familiar surroundings. I'm no fan of old age--it is what it is. I do hope to see tRump booted out of office in 2020, though.

Great insights in those quotes and also in your thinking out loud.
Made a lot of sense,
This post is one to keep and reread.
Much appreciated.

I have never written here before, but I treasure your posts, Ronni. They are so wise and so human, so philosophical and also so immediate. I have always been very aware of death, its inevitability and unthinkability, even as a child. Along the way, I sort of accepted that I couldn't really talk about it with anyone because others always found it too morbid or scary and/or otherwise unacceptable. Now that I am entering senior-citizenhood, I too am searching out smart thinkers who have written well about death -- and that's what led me to your blog. I appreciate you (as well as those of you who have commented) so much.

Thanks for the wisdom Ronni, the Bertrand Russell reading, and the promise of more reflective writings to come.

Off to find the essay. If we’re honest with ourselves these things all reflect our aging journey, with the challenges of illness as you’ve experienced, or simply in the aging journey itself.


The essay referenced in today's post is from the Bertrand Russell book, "Portraits From Memory and Other Essays." My copy, bought second-hand was first published in 1956 in Great Britain.

You show us the way, Ronni, you show us the way.

At 72 with no currently obvious disabilities, I have of late often been thinking of myself as flotsam observing the river of life in which I float along, for better or worse. I wonder if my body knows something my mind has not yet noticed. Oh well, whatever ...

Bertrand Russell was an amazing guy -- sent to jail for encouraging conscientious objection during WWI. Still calling out atrocities during the Vietnam war.

Thank you for your powerful words and thoughts. I am 74 and like the idea of the river growing wider and merging with the sea. I am glad I found your blog.

Loved what you posted from Bertrand Russell. At first, I didn't understand his meaning of universal life until I read the last quote comparing life to water which was beautifully apt & succinct. Still unsure of how to manifest growing wider and stiller and merging with the larger sea. BTW, it's such a pleasure to read good writing, yours and Bertrand's.

Please continue to think out loud as long as you can. We are all following your story and can feel ourselves in you or perhaps the other way around, for someday it will be us.

I like the idea of broadening your interests and merging your ego with the whole. Like a sponge soaking up the most water near the end rather than just a few drops as it is, in the beginning. It gets wetter as time flows on...fuller.

Loved this post, Ronni, and the comments.

There are always golden moments in life.

Two deer ran across the Granby- Waterloo bike path yesterday. They glanced at us like they were expecting friendly company.


Two sweetheart neighbours saw me bush whacking an overgrown cedar hedge. Minutes later they brought their chain saws over and boom took that hedge down.

Unexpected and appreciated.


I bought them each a gift certificate from a local Swiss bakery that's been in business since I was in high school.

Have a great birthday, Bruce, from B in Montreal.

Beautifully expressed.

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