[cancer] The hour and manner of my death

I’ve been thinking a lot since the surgery, as I’ve emerged from the post-operative fog and am working my way along the paths of pain. The new metastatic tumor sites uncovered during the surgery make things a lot more serious than they already were. And that is saying something. I have not given up seeking a cure — hence the genomic testing of my tumor — but it seems highly likely to me I will go terminal within the year, or at best, sometime in 2014. Even then, it will take time for me to die, possibly up to another year.

Just lately, I’ve been seeking some meaning in all this. Given that I’m a low church atheist1 and a strong rationalist, I’m perfectly aware that the universe doesn’t carry meaning, per se. It just is. Meaning comes from the interactions we as thinking, ensouled2 human beings experience with one another and with the universe at large. Meaning is what we make of it, to be found where we assign it.

Death is the least surprising part of life, after all. The only certainty you can assign to the prospective life experience of a newborn child is that they will someday pass away. Everything else is a combination of luck, circumstance, training and experience. Yet we live largely in the pretense that death will not come to us personally. Many religious narratives are framed around mitigating the impact of death through reincarnation, an afterlife, or some other form of immortality of the essential self. Comfort for both the future decedent and the bereaved. We seek to reverse death in so many ways, to transform that most unsurprising of events into a surprise which can be safely deferred or ignored.

Obviously I do not know the precise hour and manner of my death. But I know it will likely come in the next year or so, and it will come due to organ failure and the related system breakdowns as my cancer advances. The bullet with my name on it has been inching towards me for almost five years. I can watch it spiral in the air as it lazes ever onward toward my as yet still beating heart.

This is the most frightening experience of my life.

But I don’t want to die in pain and fear. I don’t want those around me to live in pain and fear. Sorrow is inevitable at the passing of someone beloved, but I want my passing to mean more than months of dread and a final death watch.

I don’t know how I will make that meaning take form, or even if I am wise and patient enough to do so. This isn’t about glamorous soap opera diseases or Special Dying Person wisdom. I just want my love and friendship to be more powerful than the disease which continues to erode my body and perforate my soul.

If there is any joy or sense to be found in knowing the hour and manner of my death, I hope to find it.

1. When I say “low church atheist”, I mean I’m not of that mindset that seeks to deconvert others or discredit religion. This in contrast to the “high church atheist”, who advocates strongly against religion in all its forms. (Yes, I will have my little jokes.) My quarrels with persons of faith begin and end in the public square, where I firmly believe based on ample evidence that a rational secular humanism best protects the rights and freedoms of everyone, regardless of their faith. In the place of worship and in the home, believe what you will. As I’ve said before, I will defend to the death your right to your religion, and I will equally defend to the death my right to be free of the strictures of your religion.

2. Yes, I know I’m an atheist. When I say “ensouled”, I mean that part of the human mind and experience sometimes described as mythos — the part of our minds that partakes of spiritual experiences and perceives the world through filters other than rational empiricism. This in contrast to logos, the rational mind. I’d be a fool to deny that the spiritual dimension exists, especially as given that I’m a writer, I see how strongly story telling taps into those deep, deep wells. What I don’t see is any reason to believe that the soul is anything but an emergent characteristic of the architecture of the human mind.

79 thoughts on “[cancer] The hour and manner of my death

  1. Mark Watson says:

    This high church atheist fears an unexpected, sudden death with the consequent inability to sort matters out, and with things unsaid and undone. As you said recently, live, love and laugh every day, and do more in one week than many do in a year. Cancer may affect many organs, but you can stop it affecting your heart. Go out in a fucking huge blaze of glory dude.

  2. Thank you for being honest.

  3. Rick York says:

    It’s difficult to adequately express my admiration for your willingness to describe your plight and how you are dealing with it. You are obviously blessed with a fabulous community of supporters, both those who know you well and those of us who do not.
    Your unflinching courage in the face of your illness has been as moving and powerful as anything I’ve experienced in my 68 years. Your concern for the people around you and how they are being affected by your plight demonstrates a very large soul.
    I think it may be the curse of mankind to seek understanding and meaning where none is possible.
    Each of us has experienced the horrific injustice of people dying too soon or too hard. The only thing which can give meaning to our deaths is our lives. Your life has been far more meaningful than most.

  4. Kevin Atherton says:

    Your blog on cancer is quite important. Tomorrow I take my wife for a follow up visit after a colon resection. They place her at stage 2 (no lymph node involvement) and we will discuss a plan of care. I will get an oncology referral even if they tell me it’s not necessary. Your post on mortality hits home with this reader–thanks for your help,

    1. Jay says:

      You are most welcome. Good luck and good health to your wife.

  5. Laurie Mann says:

    As always, appreciate your openness.

  6. Maureen McHugh says:

    The thing I remember most is the desperate desire to have some time off, some furlough from planet cancer. As you know, I got my departure ticket and got to forget, mostly. What I want more than anything for you, Jay, is days without dread, days without fear, days when you and the people you love do not feel so bounded by this. What a long strange trip it has been. You are ever in my thoughts, my fellow expatriate from the world of the healthy, my strange twin.

    I haven’t given up either. I hope you can come home. But the biggest luxury is really the absence of dread. If I could wrap that up in a box with a big bow and give it to you today, I would.

  7. Jeffrey ford says:

    Thanks for this post, Jay. My hope and thoughts, as they have been, continue to be with you.

  8. Gene Stewart says:

    Your body is dying, Jay, not you. The disease can never be even a fraction of what you are.

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