What I didn’t confess to anyone, and for good reasons, is that, while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I obsessively read books on death. Not because I thought my demise was imminent – I knew full well this brush with disease wasn’t going to fall me – but because it comes the time when we have to start thinking about the business of dying in more practical and less abstract terms than just knowing it will happen. I forget who said that we go through life thinking we will be the ones touched by immortality – and it’s rather true: we know we will eventually die but the concept is wholly abstract when applied to us.
I didn’t tell anyone because I knew what the (well-meaning) response would have been: you are being morbid; nothing is going to happen to you; you need to stay cheerful. All good advice I didn’t quite need nor did I want to be in a position to justify what I needed – that would have dragged me down.
The misconception is that having cancer, a potential deadly disease, will change you. Mostly for the better. Has it changed me? No, it hasn’t changed who I am, what I do. There wasn’t a major life overhaul because I didn’t need one. A psychologist I met in various social settings was sitting next to me recently, at a lecture, and, no doubt well-intentioned, started the conversation with “You look really well. I bet you are looking at life through rose-tinted glasses now!” If there is such a feeling as irk-ness, it crept up my spine in a nano-second. I could have chosen to shut up and nod vaguely, politely, but the assumption that cancer was akin to reading some self-help book, that I drew some cosmic lesson from it is the kind of cliché I cannot take shutting up. Let’s just say the conversation didn’t flow naturally after my retort.
Yes, there are things I learnt, mostly about myself, in the last six months, and they can be summed up thus:
- Accepting and asking for help is not defeatist;
- Looking for lightness, especially for someone so duty bound, like me, is an excellent pursuit;
- Eliminating flotsam – emotional or practical – can be liberating (I don’t return phone calls or emails from people I don’t really want in my life anymore. This has freed up a considerable amount of time);
- Time must be found for nourishing my days with people and things that interest me;
- Good books and good friends are still the best investments.
- I also learnt that people say the stupidest things. The degree of stupidity must be considered: sometimes it is just benevolent ignorance that can be politely rectified and sometimes it is just crass insensitivity one must walk away from. For good.
I learnt that inspiration can be found in humble souls: the patient who, knowing nothing of my troubles, held my hand and told me she wanted to die only to laugh a moment later at the list of reasons I gave her to keep on fighting; Ottie, my ancient dog, who has the same zest for life and need for adventure he did as a puppy, and keeps on going for it, despite his physical limitations. He will not be stopped, there is fauna to be chased – and he still chases it, only with longer naps in between – and that is what I did when I felt less than peachy. Kept on chasing. Took longer naps.
I learnt that asking too many questions, being a pest and trusting my instincts are the best ways to navigate illness.
I learnt that if the whole point of life is to balance gracefully between preparing for death and finding meaning, a sense of equanimity and a sense of humor are both required. If we never stray too far from either, we will mostly be ok.
In a conversation with Iggy Pop, in the pages of The Guardian, Josh Homme, said:
“That notion of talismans, to have a touchstone of your own mortality…so much of today’s world is about not focusing on what’s beyond. Stay focused on buying something! Or something to that effect. To live while knowing it’s close, and you can be young or old, it doesn’t matter. Being able to keep it there, even at arm’s length…I think you live better because of that awareness. Awareness is worth a lot.”
That is probably why I read on death compulsively. I knew it wasn’t my time but I was given a taste of things to come and it was better to deal rather than pretend this would never happen again.
Mostly, I learnt I am even stronger than I knew. And a lot more mortal. Both realizations will serve me well.
Best book on death and dying, that should be required reading for everyone, including doctors, was Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air.
Top image courtesy of Giovanni Tarsia
Middle image courtesy of Aleksander Kats