Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Adding up the number of my days

Have you ever added up the number of your days? If you’re at all like me, you probably have. I can remember doing the math when I was a kid, as someone with an overdeveloped fear of death, and not being happy with the answer. Long before I became a Christian I was an existentialist: someone free to make choices in a big world that I sensed to be largely hostile and unexplainable. I wanted “my number” to be as big as possible. If my life here on earth could not be explained, then how much less that which came after it. The idea of death literally scared the hell out of me.

I can look back now and thank God for that great gift. My idea of hell was not so much a place I might end up as a fear of annihilation—the final and complete cessation of all consciousness. An end to “me.” By God’s grace, I was eventually released from this prison of panic, with a vision of spending eternity with God in his new creation supplanting it: a conviction that life continues after death in greater richness and joy than we can imagine on earth. Some call it heaven. My fears thus relieved, my hope secured, I was set free and life transformed into something much bigger and better. To emphasize my point musically, click here to hear a stunning version of Amazing Grace sung by Judy Collins and the Harlem Boys Choir.

I did the math to calculate “my number” again this afternoon. Now that the end of my days appears to be within sight, I figured it would help to have a hard figure in mind—at least for planning purposes. At the time of my birth, presuming a life expectancy of 75 years, my days could be expected to reach more than 27,000—a large number by any measure. As a kid I saw them stretching out ahead of me, seemingly a luxury of time, but ultimately a finite number. I figured I could safely dismiss the passing of the first 10,000 or 20,000 days before needing to figure out what came next. There was always another day to reckon with destiny. Time was cheap.

No more. As of my last visit with Dr. Curti two weeks ago, I was told I could expect to live another 100 days or so based on his medical prognosis. The exact number is not important, as predictions of my survival have been wrong before and I’m ready for whatever comes anyway. But it’s pretty sobering to hold that number “100” in my mind, knowing that today it’s more like 80, will be 79 tomorrow, 78 on Thursday, ad finem. I hope I’m wrong about this, and that I’ll be embarrassed to discover months from now that things turned out differently. It would be just like melanoma to pull such a stunt, given its wildly unpredictable biology.

I had hoped to be on a road trip out Route 66 this week with a friend, but am instead at home continuing my radiation treatment for the tumor in my spine and spending time with my N&D (nearest and dearest).  Lord willing, I’ll be able to see more of the world beyond the walls of our home later. 80 days might stretch to 180. The therapy seems to be helping. I have minimal pain at night in my lower back, as I did before. I’m holding out hope that if the cancer shrinks enough, I’ll regain strength in my legs and resume normal walking. If you pray, that’s something you might speak to God about on my behalf. Using a walker, I’m lucky to get to the end of the street and back.

In recent days I’ve had the privilege and challenge of saying good-by to people I love. I will continue to do so in what time I have. When all pretense and artifice is stripped away, when every encounter brings with it a sense of finality, some real communication begins. It helps that we don’t have mostly cancer “warfare” to talk about; the artillery is spent. I believe the interpretative constructs we use reveal the narrowness of our minds. In serious illness, our experiences are bounded by verbal armories and the assumption of perpetual conflict. We don’t grow. Rather than permitting the interruptions of our familiar lives (like cancer) to enrich these lives, we impose timeworn patterns of thought upon the experience, reducing it and closing it against insight and discovery.

As author and cancer-survivor Walter Wangerin has written, we fall into patterns that crush into powder our adventures into the unknown. And so “a battle with cancer” is shaped to conform to a schoolyard brawl or the daily news. Nothing new. Nothing to call us into an ever newer light.

Having surrendered in that battle, I am more than ever experiencing the alternative blessing of hearing the collective wisdom of many who have suffered, lived long lives, or who simply have something important to tell me. I welcome their counsel. I will give them mine, such as they wish to receive it. This is Thoreau’s marrow. This is where real life can be found.

Ellen, my family and I are so grateful that you’ve accompanied us all this way. As Wangerin has written in Letters from the Land of Cancer, you’ve carried us when our legs were too weak to walk, our tribe who bears with us the wayward choices of our cells as you have born the sometimes wayward choices of our individual lives.

Were I to write these blog posts without others to receive them, they would lose dimension and resonance. But to write, as it were, "before a chorus of ears and under a choir of minds—this grants me the sense of a surrounding congregation singing glory-hymns, yes, even now, right now, as I sit typing to you.”

And as new news comes, and the brain’s synapses continue to fire, I’ll write again.


Anonymous said...

The Route 66 trip is going to be great. And so are the trips after that. I’m already planning ours and sure your family is planning their trip too.
See you again soon.

Allison said...

I just met the most wonderful lady,didn't get her name, but that doesn't bother me because I know I will see her again (Hines,OR is such a small town.) She left me with your blogger. I lost an 18 year old daughter to an accident in 2009 and it changed our lives forever. You sir inspire, your blog left me at piece with a few questions that have always lingered. Thank you for giving...Hilda

Anonymous said...

Peter: Please continue to write. Your words are incredibly moving and offer strength to those suffering as well as those of us hoping that your days extend much, much further.

I learned a lot from you during all those years of working together. Most of it was about what real integrity looked like.

In my thoughts and prayers,

Anonymous said...

Peter, thank you going through the effort to write this blog. Your chronicle about the ups and downs and joys and sorrows and though choices and peaceful acceptance during your melanoma journey is real and honest and touches my heart. I particularly appreciate your posts during the last month or so. From the beginning, my brother's brain tumors (located near the speech center of his brain) caused aphasia, so he had difficulty speaking. In the last few months, especially, his verbal ability was limited to "yes" or "no". So I never got to hear what he might be thinking or feeling. I do know that he was shocked and depressed when told that there were no more treatments for him. And I know he gradually became calm and accepting and more trusting in God.

Reading about the evolution of your thoughts during your journey and knowing how much you have come to value interacting with your N&D makes me feel better. I like to think that my brother, likewise, came to appreciate the small pleasures available to him and to value his time with us. Thank you for saying what is very likely to be exactly what my brother would have said if he had been able to communicate. You give me peace.