Cancer, in a word, cuts to the chase. Procrastination feels obscene, an entitlement no longer allowed. After all, how long will I have the luxury of babbling my inner or outer most thoughts—some inane, others that may on a good day approach profound—into the abyss of the virtual void of the blogosphere?
Cancer is something almost no one wants to discuss, not even doctors. They dance around the diagnosis with detailed explanations of medical procedures buffered by words linked in phrases of encouragement, for example, prognosis and cure, stages (of which I am “early”) and positive outcome, etc. They did not tell me, for example, that the “prognosis” for early stage lung cancer survival rates beyond five years is 49%. That was left to the blogs and various medical research websites to do.
In all fairness, I shouldn’t only paint doctors into this awkward corner. Most people, beyond the “I’m so sorry to hear that” don’t really want to know how I feel or what array of thoughts (sad, purposeful, hopeless, hopeful, anger, disbelief, incredulous, bizarre, stoic and so on) I have, sometimes in the course of one day. I understand this at one level. Humans are hardwired for survival and engaging with the world as part of the living. It is difficult to engage with someone who may be joining the world of the dying. It is a rare gift to be present for those that may not or will not be physically present in the near rather than the far future. This may also be due to the bothersome fact that most of us are hardwired to fix things, even the cycle of life experienced in the birth and death of all living matter.
Playing the why game, a morbid game of 20 questions, is one I quickly learned not do as a chaplain. And, I no longer desire to entertain myself further by running the 20 odd questions through my head regarding the probable diagnosis of cancer, although I’m open to vile diseases spread by aliens invading from other universes. Aliens seem as plausible as “non-smokers cancer”. Is this some perverse payback for staring down smokers who lit up at inappropriate times and places? Perhaps they should call it, “just breathing during the normal course of life and tough luck” cancer. Is the environment really that bad? I even dove into the musty recesses of my mind to figure out if I used chemical paint strippers one too many times on furniture I was refinishing decades ago. Alas, I have asked these questions to no avail.
Shakespeare comes closest for me in the futility of posing questions on being and not being. Prince Hamlet’s soliloquy of contemplation on death (his own death by his own hand, by the way) is a masterpiece of painful vacillation in death’s juxtaposition to life. The first stanzas are my favorite.
To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
I’ve never considered that cancer may be a magnification of the heart-ache of the flesh. It certainly can cause enough heartache, especially if I think too much about the being and not being part of it, neither of which is pleasant. Yes, life is unfair, but the alternative just might be worse. So I will focus on the “being” (my being, not the cancer’s being) and I am exceedingly grateful that” being” in my imagination has been such a rich and joyful part of my life.
Being with my muse (the creative moment when time stands still and I can simply be, although at time she can be persistently loud) is the only time I am fully present for myself. These moments are my waking dreams that give me so much vitality and purpose. What dreams may come in the sleep of death is far too uncertain and unknown, so I would rather stay with the muse in the here and now for as long as possible.
Therefore, blogging also cuts to the chase. On the one hand, blogs can lay it out there no holds barred. However, unlike static websites, a discourse (hopefully without the gloss of medical denial) can occur, among strangers that one would never just walk up to in person to begin this discussion. People (except close family and a few friends) ask what I’m up to these days and I weigh whether or not I should tell them about the cancer. (I don’t use the words “my cancer”, because I don’t want to own what may not be the case or make my life only revolve around something that may have a real potential to kill me or not.) On the other hand, in the blogosphere I can connect with people by not having to explain what’s happening in my personal life without feeling evasive or putting a cheery face of denial on the prospects of future medical procedures and surgery that may be daunting and painful.
I chastise myself sometimes for not having more courage to talk about cancer openly as a matter of course in my conversations with people, but (a) it’s too much work, and (b) it stops the conversation in its tracks, and (c) usually precludes any further conversation of interest as people search for a way to gracefully exit. With blogging, one doesn’t need to worry about graceful exits; you can just move on to the next comment or discussion or circle back at a later time. But more than just blogging about cancer, I want to blog about what interests me in life. The threat of cancer hanging over my head has given me the impetus to blog more authentically and, by the way, write with more clarity and purpose.
I have recently published the first book in a series (to which this website is devoted) and working on the next one. Interestingly my characters in the second book possess a more comical and pointed awareness of much of the frivolousness of life. They have also, I admit, been my refuge in times of despair and uncertainty. I recently sat in one of my favorite coffee shops (I do a great deal of first drafts in coffee shops) unable to put anything on paper due to the emptiness I was feeling. In silent desperation, I asked one of my characters to speak to me. “Come on, tell me something about what’s going on in the story, anything and I can take it from there.” And he did! I dutifully wrote down what he imparted (feeling very pleased with himself as the requested authority) and left the coffee shop feeling a pleasant sense of peace I always get when the muse is with me and I am back in the contentment of the creative writing process.
This is why I continue to blog and write. Writing is the only thing that remains unchanged in my life to date and has been the mainstay of my existence in this world from the time I was eight. To deal with the intrusion of cancer, I was required to give up much of what I called my life; a winnowing down of my identity that I believed to be me. I gave up my lovely apartment to move back up north to be with family; I gave up my doctorate program as I no longer had the energy to do the teaching and research; I gave up living in close proximity to good friends; and the very worse, I gave up my cats since my son is extremely allergic. They were such devoted and affectionate companions and I miss them more than I can say.
So writing remains, not as an outside pursuit or I might possibly have to part with that in the future as well. No, writing is not something I do separate from myself. My imagination and using wordplay to bring my stories to life are akin to breathing. Not until I can no longer breathe will I part with words and the challenge of attaining perfection in expressing my thoughts.
Of course perfection rarely happens and when it does, feels like taking dictation from God. Not to be overly dramatic, but I confess I don’t know how some of my descriptions and dialog in my writings land in my lap so readily and …perfectly. Ah, my little elixir of life. Sigh. You’ve noticed how I’ve conveniently forgotten how frustrating the writing process can be, but to date it has not overshadowed the good bits.
Fortunately, after my operation to remove the mass from my lung, the initial results were encouraging indicating the mass was benign. Final analysis has not yet been completed. Meanwhile, the threat of cancer has been a tool for clarity, not a setback to my writing. I am a better blogger, but also a better writer, as I no longer feel the restraints of second guessing myself when the muse is with me or later when I am editing the drafts. I attempt to put it out there, so to speak, as eloquently as I can and with the clarity that comes from experienced knowledge and the stark understanding of what the hell am I waiting for?