Thursday, August 12, 2010

The marrow of life

What would you do if you only had six months to live? What would you do and where would you go?

And if, after six months, you didn’t die after all—what would you do then?

My medical circumstances last winter prompted me to consider the first of these questions. When I was told by my oncologist that average survival for people with stage four melanoma is 20 months, I proceeded with the assumption that I might have less time than that. The metastases were coming fast and furious then, and I had two clinical trials recommended to me. I opted to wait to see what might happen next, rather than immediately launch into a debilitating drug treatment regimen.

I could not have guessed in February that six months of excellent health would follow. Nothing my doctors said suggested I’d enjoy such a long remission.

So what I did, in answer to that proverbial question, was to plan a spring and summer filled with activity and travel. Since Ellen and I traveled to Kauai for two weeks in March, I’ve snowshoed at Crater Lake, spelunked at Lava Caves, explored trails around Mt. St. Helens, camped at Smith Rock, visited Olympic National Park, hiked the Timberline Trail, and made a half-dozen trips to our beach house at Waldport. I finished teaching my journalism class at OSU, attended Allie’s graduation, observed a somber Lent and a joyous Easter, served as a deacon at my church, gone running alone and with friends countless times, brewed beer, worked and partied at Acorn, organized a small reunion of high school friends, carved a wooden bowl with my brother, and been to the theater with Ellen.

I’ve also mowed the lawn, pulled weeds, planted veggies, and pruned trees. I’ve taken a ton of photos, written scores of emails, blogged and Facebooked aplenty, and imbibed good wine and even better coffee with many dear friends and family. In recent weeks, I’ve trained for my triathlon and planned the two-week trip to England on which I depart later this month. Two weeks ago, Ellen and I celebrated our 25th anniversary with a long weekend in southern Oregon and our 15th year of living in Oregon. I turn 57 tomorrow. We will, of course, be throwing a party.

I’ll be putting in a new front yard this fall, and hope to make a road trip to visit friends in California.

Make what you will of these earthly pleasures. My schedule has not been quite as manic as it appears. I’ve also had time to read, pray and rest. Because I haven’t been working, I’m able to spend my days as I wish. Few people I know (including my wife and children) have such liberty. For six months I’ve spent time with the people I care most about, and gone places I love or simply wanted to see for the first time. This is, in effect, my bucket list. I’ve indulged myself, and I have no regrets for the joy it’s brought me.

Had my cancer not progressed earlier this year and had I not set out to make these last six months so memorable, my time would have been spent differently. I’m not sure how that would have looked, but it likely wouldn’t have been so rich. My circumstances are, to say the least, exceptional. I believe that to live less vigorously or—with apologies to Thoreau—to not suck the marrow out of life, is to die before you die. I don’t want to leave this world wishing I had lived or loved more than I did, knowing that I missed my chance. No one is likely to accuse me of not slowing down and smelling the roses--at 60 mph.

As for my second great question above—what do I do now?—I haven’t yet fashioned an answer. My six months aren’t up yet. I will likely teach again this school year, assuming good health. Long-delayed tasks at Acorn beckon, as do other volunteer opportunities. As the weather deteriorates, I will be more inclined to write again. I expect that God will point me in a certain direction. He is my guide in all that I do.

The thing about exceeding expectations for how long you live is that it makes the doctors look bad and you smarter than you really are. I don’t see any problem there. That’s exactly how I hope this all plays out.


grsmouse said...

Well, Peter,
Best wishes for this birthday and all the rest that God gives you. I'm sure you'll find his direction for all your years. I hope your party isn't too wild!
I'm trying to remember what it was like to turn 57. I can't and find no records back that far to help (11/09/81). I do know that I began hospital chaplaincy that year and opened a new door of service. No regrets!



Nancy said...


Happy belated birthday! Lovely post and congratulations on outfoxing the the docs in this round. Living healthy and taking care of self is surely the greatest gift you can give yourself. Keep living and loving full speed ahead. I wish you many more happy years.

Anonymous said...

You've been busy and are going to continue to be busy. Good luck in the coming years of activities.