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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My life, my death, and other existential musings

[Health Update: I'm beginning to feel neuropathy (tingling/loss of sensation) in my fingers, which makes me feel arthritic, and I have a fair amount of pain/discomfort in my joints and muscles, but for the most part alleve and percoette take care of those Taxol side effects--which shouldn't last longer than another day or so. I'm definitely anemic and if my platelet count drops lower will probably need a transfusion and will need to postpone chemo, which also means I'm very fatigued lately. But other than all that, I'm doing OK--my brain is less fuzzy on Taxol than on AC, and I'm really *hopeful* that chemo brain is temporary!]

I've been thinking a lot about my death lately. I don't mean to be morbid and you shouldn't worry. It's not that I think that my cancer will spread and I'll be dead in the next five years. I mean, sure it could happen. But at this point, that scenario feels only slightly more likely than the one in which I am killed in a car crash. In other words, generally speaking I feel hopeful and positive about my cancer treatment (both drug and surgical related) and my chances of survival (remember, it's 84% survival rate for folks with stage 2 breast cancer), but lets face it, a cancer diagnosis and going through the rigors of chemo does leave one -- or rather leaves me -- thinking about my own future demise.

Because the reality is, whether it's cancer in the near or far future, another fatal disease, a fatal accident, or the rigors of aging, I will die. We will all die.

And I say this not to throw a dark pall over everyone--and I hope this doesn't freak anyone out, those of you who have a natural fear of death and dying, a natural denial reaction to our human state--but I've just been thinking about my mortality lately--and about what the end may look like, feel like, and more importantly, what I want to have done--how I want to have lived--before that day comes.

I've been watching films with certain death bed scenes--and both interestingly enough are films of stage plays that feature the luminous Emma Thompson: Wit by Margaret Edson and Angels in America by Tony Kushner. I don't want to give too much away for anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of seeing either/both plays, but lets just say that there are characters who die in hospitals in both--and whose deaths are portrayed rather starkly. And it didn't freak me out at all to witness this, perhaps because I assume (hopefully correctly) that my end will not look like that. I do not anticipate dying alone and lonely in a hospital room, in pain or in a coma. I don't anticipate living a life in which I would have no loved ones at my bedside--and I would hope that I still have the option of either hospice/palliative care so that my end will not be as grim.

But as I said above, it's not so much what my end will look like, who will be with me, how I will feel, or what my last words will be (by the way, there's an interesting This American Life piece on "Last Words" if anyone is interested in listening to it), so much as what do I think my life will be like before I die--what will I have accomplished and how will I have lived?

And one thing that I feel blessed is that I think I've lived well. What I mean by this is that I really don't have any complaints or huge regrets. I've been very lucky--to have a profession I love, I have loving family and friends, and I live in a developed nation and have resources, economic and otherwise, that enable me to lead a very comfortable life.

Of course, this doesn't mean that I'm ready to go. And I'm not going to give you a list of things I hope to do before I die. I don't really have such a list--a bucket list if you will. I mean, yes, it'd be nice to walk on the Great Wall of China or to see Angor Wat. I'd like to raise a child and to finish my book. But I think what I'm trying to get at more is a spiritual or existential sense of what I'm doing here and what I want my life to mean, to count for.

And what I wonder is, what should my life be for? Clearly I'm not all that interested in increased wealth--being a university professor is not going to put me in the millionaire club anytime soon. And I hold no delusions of academic fame, which has to be taken with a grain of salt because being famous in your field of study really has little cache outside, well, your field of study. Do I hold delusions of philanthropic or pedagogical grandeur? Do I secretly wish for my Mr. Holland Opus moment? To be that inspiring professor who changes people's lives? Again, it seems fleeting and ephemeral and perhaps not the point of being a good teacher if you are hoping to get accolades like that.

So is it enough that I just try to be a good human being? Is that, perhaps, the thing that I should be focused on? Not worrying so much about career advancement or "making a difference" in the world, but simply to follow the medical oath of doing no harm. But is that really all that I should be thinking of? Shouldn't my life be more than just doing no harm--shouldn't I have goals and ambitions, dreams and desires, that I work towards? Isn't that also part of being human--to have want, to want things.

I don't really have any other words of wisdom (and who am I kidding, these musings are more random than wise) other than I do know, to return to the deathbed scenario, what I don't want.

I don't want to have regret. I don't want to have lived my life not doing things out of fear. I don't want to live a life without compassion and empathy. I don't want to live a life without passion and engagement. I don't want to live a life without intellectual curiosity and the pleasures of savoring meals in the company of people I love. And I don't want to live a life where I didn't try my best.

And maybe it would be nice to go to Tuscany too...

1 comment:

  1. I love you, Jen. For being who you are and writing what you do, for living mindfully and sharing your journey with me and other friends.

    I'm curious, have you always tried your best? When's it OK to be a slacker? Santa Barbara? (I'm kidding)...

    It's late and I should go to bed, but this is one of my favorite entries. I've been thinking about some of the same things...not because I have cancer, but because, like you, I'm alive, people I love are alive and we will all die. So what are we going to do while we are here? You remind me that it is no small thing to eat in a loving way with your friends and family. It is a gift.