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.]