I don’t think anyone warned me that at a certain age, everywhere I turned, people would be getting divorced or getting cancer.
Or maybe I was warned and I just didn’t listen. Or I listened politely, but immediately dismissed the warnings. Which might speak to a certain hubris and youthful arrogance, but in my own defense, didn’t most aging-related things people said feel not-quite-true? Were we supposed to believe that after forty years of being a certain circumference, suddenly one day, counter to all laws of physics we’d ever learned, every stray cookie or handful of walnuts would affix itself to our middles and never again leave?
Were we supposed to believe people with creaky hips whose face fat had migrated to their necks when they said such things had happened overnight, with no advance warning—like in a horror movie or a Star Trek episode? Even now these claims seems implausible. They seem highly suss.
Which is probably why, even if someone had told me, I would have doubted other predictions: Like that our couple-friends— whose couches I’ve crashed on and whose kids I’ve played with, and who I’ve only ever known as each others’ lobsters— would decide to uncouple and unfriend.
Or like that in the space of less than a month, I would hear that my mother-in-law, my brother, the best-man at my wedding and and another friend as well — have all been diagnosed with cancer.
On this last point I understand that, given my history, I don’t get to complain about being on the receiving end of this kind of news, but I’m realizing there was part of me that believed the people I love (and thus, *I*) would get a pass, whether because I assumed I’d already paid enough dues, or because I was holding on to the willful hope of my younger self.
But it seems there are no free passes, so here we each are, with whatever burdens have been assigned to us, reluctantly suiting up for the next leg of the race.
I’m not a fan of the course, but I like the people I’m running alongside. And I’m happy it’s not the kind of race where we have to kill each other like in The Hunger Games. Instead we can cheer each other on all the way to the end
A few years ago, for a scripted project, I read several books about research on reincarnation and near death experiences. There are a number of reports that make it seem likely that there is life beyond our own lives – that our consciousnesses don’t just end.
From there, it’s not a far jump to think that sometimes those other planes might touch our own at time.
Despite this, when I talk to people who tell me about conversing with their “angels” and “guides,” my reflexive thought is, really? Intellectually I am open and curious. At my emotional core, I’m a skeptic.
I was called out on this by S__, a therapist I booked a session with to help me process my latest health crisis. She brings alternative methods into her practice so over the course of our session she “pulled some cards” for me, and consulted her guides. She concluded I was living with uncertainty. Who isn’t? I asked. But she said that I was haunted, more than others, by uncertainty and thoughts around death. Again I pushed back (at least internally) because I don’t think of myself as someone who dwells on death (after all, there are so many more immediate things to worry about!). But, then I considered more, and accepting we are shaped by our childhoods, and given that my childhood was repeatedly marked by periods of intense uncertainty that accompanied my father’s illnesses with possibility of death looming over each one, I had to admit she probably wasn’t wrong.
S__ said to me, “Life will be different for you when you believe in something after death. When you know there is.”
I agreed, though I wasn’t sure how the observation was helpful. Of course it would be more pleasant to believe in something like that, but if I’ve lived half my life without knowing, I couldn’t imagine what would need to happen to change that. Still, I dutifully recited the meditation script she gave me for the next week and ordered her book recommendation* from the library.
A week or so later my two friends D__ and C__ came to our apartment. They are taking an energy healing class where they need to accrue some practice hours, and they generously offered to do three of their sessions with me. The session itself was similar to a reiki treatment, although there was more movement. At times it felt like a pulling and moving of energies, though it’s subtle, and I never forget that I might be imagining it.
When the treatment was over and we were sitting afterward, C__ said, “You had a visitor during your session.”
She described this visitor as “a tall, stern lady who stood very straight”* who stood at the head of the massage table during the treatment.
“She looked a little like you. I thought maybe was an older version of you, because she said her name was “B.” But then I got that it wasn’t B, for Barrington, but spelled B E A, short for Beatrice. She didn’t say much, just that she was there and that you’re strong, you’ll get through this.”
I gasped. I’ve only known one Beatrice. She was the mother of a serious boyfriend in my 20s, someone I’d considered to be almost a mother-in-law. Everyone had called her Bea. She had died almost exactly two years previous to the day of our session Though I’d never thought of her as “stern,”she was tall, with good posture. People had observed we were similar. In this moment, I was struck, less by certainty than by emotion. Tears welled up when I thought of her coming to give me encouragement for my situation, and also evidence of some continued existence after life just when I had been asking for it! I’m here, she’d said.
I think this would make a good ending for the story, but it is not the end.
C_ and D_ returned a few weeks later to do a second healing session, This time, C__ again saw Bea, and this time Bea was holding hands with a younger man, whose name Caron intuited also started with the letter B. Bea said this man was known to me, although she (Bea) knew him better. That he had struggled earlier in life, but now was doing better. And that I would remember who she was referring to. I wracked my brain, but I didn’t remember. Icouldn’t think of a single mutual acquaintance whose name began with a “B,” much less a dead one…
“Wait…” C_ consulted her pendulum, then said, surprised, that she didn’t think the man-whose-name-began-with-B had passed over. He was still alive. That was interesting! But not that helpful, since I still couldn’t think of anyone. I let it go. Not everything needs explaining, and ,of course, a skeptic doesn’t need to go chasing belief.
Some time after this, I got a call from a sort-of cousin. His stepmother was the sister of my mother’s father. He and my mom spent time together as children, then lost touch for decades before re-discovering each other in their 70s. His name is Bob.
I’ve met Cousin Bob in person only twice, but he will occasionally call. Whenever we talk, there’s usually a point where Cousin Bob brings up childhood memories involving relatives who died before I was born and haven’t really heard of. My mother almost never talks about her father’s side of the family. Which I guess is how it’s possible that I was caught by surprise when I heard Cousin Bob say “something, something, your great-grandmother, Beatrice.”
I asked my mother, and she confirmed that, yes, I had a great-grandmother named Beatrice, and recollected that yes, people had called her Bea. And, yes, she was a stern woman, “We were all scared of her when we were kids.” I recounted Bea’s words, You’re strong, you’ll get through it. My mom said, “Yep, that sounds like her.”
So, to recap: My great-grandmother was named Beatrice, and the person most closely connected to her that I also know is a man who’s name begins with “B.” He is, without deep-diving into his life, someone who had struggles earlier in life, but is doing better now…
I had wondered, what would need to happen to make me believe? And then this happened.
And S_ was right, it has changed things. The transition has been more subtle more than dramatic, but it’s there. My immediate circumstances are the same — none of my visitors (there have been others now) have hinted at what decisions I should make about my health or career. Confusion still abounds— but I’m considering a different sense of proportion. There is a new question I am contemplating:
What does it mean if one’s singular life on this planet is not the entire measure of one’s existence, just a segment of something larger?
* Book recommendation: Journey of Souls by Michael Newton, in which the author interviews people under hypnosis about their existence between reincarnated lives.
“When you have your health, you have everything. When you do not have your health, nothing else matters at all.” (Augusten Burroughs, writer)
I don’t believe this entirely (in particular, you have to wonder if the writer had children), but I certainly understand the sentiment. The first time I had cancer, there were so many things I was trying to organize before going to the hospital, things I assumed I was coming back to as soon as the surgery was over.
Once the diagnosis came back, and turned out to be bigger and scarier than expected, I remember being amazed at how quickly all those things felt completely unimportant. Faced with the proposition of losing your health, so many things that feel important fall away with an ease you could never have imagined. Getting a hard health diagnosis is like being confronted by a big guy with a knife. When he starts chasing you at high speed, and you start running, you aren’t thinking about some report you have to turn in at work the next day.
At the same time, living with a hard health diagnosis is like running from a guy with a knife who is moving in slow motion. You have time to eat something, take a shower, and even turn in a report or two — but you can’t really forget that the guy with the knife is coming for you, that at some point you’re going to need to dodge and weave, and keep moving. It’s a different existence from people who don’t have any slow motion knife guys in their lives.
All of this is just the way my mind tries to intellectualize and metaphorize my circumstances.
Like the fact that the doctor came in after my colonoscopy last week to say she’d found a polyp that she thought looked cancerous, and that, due to some scar tissue, she’d been unable to remove it. Her proposal, even in those first moments coming out from sedation, was daunting: Remove the rest of my colon. As in all of it.
It didn’t seem much less daunting a few days later, when we had a video consult. The polyp—the cancerous polyp— is very small, but because of my genetic mutation (Lynch Syndrome), the larger surgery is recommended —I guess it’s the doctors’ way of avoiding the knife-guy — or at least slowing him almost to a stop. But it would entail some big lifestyle changes that I’m not sure I’m ready to embrace. My instinct to opt for something a little less life-changing, even if that means I need to spend more time in the future looking around corners for the knife guy. Because my mutation affects multiple organs, I feel like, knife-guy’s never going to go away completely no matter what, so maybe concentrate on quality of life over quantity.
Working through all this — organizing more scans and conversations, and making some immediate changes to my diet and meditation — has quickly become a preoccupation. Maybe because it isn’t immediately dire (I’ve managed to push any surgery to late December or January), things in my life haven’t dropped completely off my radar in terms of importance in the way that I’ve had happen in the past, but certainly they’ve become smaller blips.
One blip that is still pretty large is this: Paul is having his gall-bladder removed today. It’s supposed to be an outpatient surgery. I’ll be taking him to the hospital in about an hour. In another timeline, where my results last week were clear,this would have been the big headline news, perhaps the only topic of this blog. Indeed, we both have lots of thoughts and feelings around it —what it means in terms of lifestyle, identity, overall health — but for the moment, we’d appreciate all good thoughts just to get through the procedure with no complications.
Would you rather be famous / remembered / rich / accomplished / loved / fill-in-the-blank-with a dream — and die young? Or struggle in obscurity / not accomplish said dream and live longer? Would you rather feel healthy for a shorter period of time, or feel sickly but live longer?
“Would you rather” games are the worst, because for the most part we don’t get to choose anyway, we just have to learn to take what comes. Love, kids, success, health… you don’t always get what you want. But then sometimes we do get to choose, and the choosing is at best bittersweet because the opportunity to get things we want tends to involve sacrifice. The dream job is going to take hours or years away from people you love, children may cost or delay a career goal,
I’ve been thinking of Chadwick Boseman since his death was announced a little over a week ago. We didn’t have much in common in terms of race or gender, specific profession or level of success… but we shared an industry built around storytelling, and aspirations to succeed in that industry, and were part of a much smaller subset: He was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when he was still fairly young, just as I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Colon Cancer when I was young.
I’ve never specifically asked other cancer experiencers, but I think many of us feel a special kinship with people whose diagnoses most closely match ours, type and stage and special characteristics. There is a sense of having someone who is about to undertake the same challenging journey we are. The kinship is based on prognosis as well… having similar goals and obstacles and hopes. It’s like when two friends bond over wanting kids or money or success… and, like in those circumstances, sometimes one gets one thing and one gets another, and a chasm opens up. But because at one time you were in the same place, you watch that person, even if from a distance, because in another universe, maybe their fate is yours, or vice versa.
I’ve always been grateful that when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the middle of the Outback. In a way that, looking back, feels almost magical, everyone in the community was supportive of me devoting the better part of a year to flailing, figuring things out and exploring healing methods — physical, nutritional, psychological, spiritual. I remember I’d just finished some kind of grant application before I left for the hospital, planning to turn it in after my surgery — but when what I’d assumed would be a small, Stage 1 tumor, ended up being Stage 3, with lymph nodes involved, that project vanished from my mind. I don’t think I ever turned in the application, and today I can’t even say what the project was. It was something that seemed important, and then it didn’t. It clearly must not have felt like something pivotal to my life or career?
But what if it had felt that way? Would I have walked away from a BIG opportunity in the same way, or would I have grabbed for the brass ring? And would that choice have made a difference in my outcome? Did — and this feels like a tremendously unfair question to even ask — did Chadwick’s Boseman’s decision to keep working through his illness affect its outcome? The answer is there’s no knowing. He might have stepped away from work and had it change nothing in terms of his health. He still would have died, but died without having been the King of Wakanda. Or, maybe the long hours and stress shifted something — or prevented something from shifting — such that if he had sacrifice the role that would make him famous he might have lived… but he might have always regretted the lost opportunity, and would never have known if that choice made a difference.
The second time I was diagnosed, with uterine cancer, was nine years after the first time. I was living in Los Angeles, a year out of grad school. And it did feel like a pivotal moment in my career. I’d won a screenwriting prize and been hired to do my first rewrite. But — I was still working full time, so was swimming in the long hours and stress of trying to do both well. I was doing things I knew, given my history, could be detrimental to my health, but I didn’t think about it, I thought if I can just get through this I would come out on the other side and everything would be worth it.
Los Angeles was a very different place to be diagnosed — and, looking back, I see how much I was again swayed by my environment. Inclusive of a fairly major surgery and recovery time, I missed only two weeks at my day job. Though people said I should take the time I needed, I couldn’t let go of my reluctance to inconvenience people, and I feared falling behind. Despite everyone’s admonitions to take care of myself, I believed that whenever I did return, everything I missed would have piled up, and I felt responsible for that. And, on the screenwriting front, I made sure to turn in my rewrite draft before telling the producer I was working with about my upcoming surgery. It was awkward timing, as they were about to fire me anyway– and did. Looking back, I’ve concluded that was “lucky” I got fired (or not re-hired) when I did, since if I hadn’t, I might have spent my recovery time continuing to try to fix something that no writer would have the power to fix (as evidenced by the two writers who followed me on the project and the fact the company did not make an original feature film until a decade later). So with hindsight I can feel secure it wouldn’t have been “worth it.”
But is there a scenario that would have made it worth it? What if I’d gotten the screenplay I loved made? If it had become something that other people loved as well? What would have been a fair price to trade?
I’m going to stop writing, because I have more thoughts and feelings than I can address in a blog post of reasonable length, and there’s too much dangerous speculation I could wander into. I will close with the observation that we, as a society, engage a lot of conflicting views about illness, and that I as an individual, do as well.
(As an addendum — Something I didn’t know about Chadwick Boseman is that he was a writer too. He is someone cared deeply about his art. I’m so sorry he didn’t have time to do more work, and so sorry that he and his family didn’t have more time for love and life and all that entails.)
A couple years back, I conceived of a series which involved a fair amount of research about clones. I still perk up my ears when I see articles about clone advancements. People have been cloning their pet dogs for several years, but now the the first cat has been cloned.
Of particular interest:
For their pet cloning services, Mi says Sinogene hopes to someday transfer the memories of the original animals to their clones using artificial intelligence or man-machine interface technology, according to the Global Times