Note: BWIWD = Back When I Was Dying. See previous posts December 9-11.
THE SOCIAL CONTEXT OF MY DISCOVERY, Part 1
I had just discovered that I didn’t want to “save my life.” And this surprised me. Not intrinsically: I was fine with it. But sociologically, I knew better. And frankly, given our cultural milieu, I was amazed that I wasn’t at least tempted to “battle” my disease. Moreover — and this felt quite daunting — I knew that if I really didn’t want to “fight for my life,” if I really did find myself suddenly, but even so, naturally bending towards death, then this unusual existential state would entail serious social consequences.
I had three alternatives, all of them uncomfortable. I could ignore my family and friends, I could lie to them, or I could help them accept my decision.
I chose the third alternative; or, I should say, it chose me. This was not a rational process. Just like the “decision” not to save my life, telling others about my decision felt like a another current in the river that I had just stepped into.
Now, obviously, I’m still here. I didn’t die. Those three April days distilled into a little jewel of heightened awareness that I attempt, in this account, to fathom. Had I gone through that experience alone, I imagine it would have held a very different flavor.
The third alternative, though it felt natural at the time, meant that once the experience ended I had to call back all those whom I had informed of my impending death! As one of my close friends — she had recently undergone a biopsy for a “little spot” of cancer in one breast and kept her condition very private, telling only a few close friends — said to me: “If only you hadn’t jumped the gun and told people about it before you got a definitive diagnosis.”
Yes, had I not told people one could say that I would have spared myself the trouble of having to explain that I wasn’t dying after all — not to mention the embarrassment and chagrin of having caused them unnecessary suffering! Moreover, I would have spared them from confronting their own mortality while grieving mine, and — here’s the kicker— we would have bypassed the sudden, fierce love that surged through us as though funneled in from outer space.
Why would I want to spare us this exceptional experience? Especially when I consider the alternatives.
To me, ignoring family and close friends when faced with an apparently terminal situation feels cruel. I would have robbed them of what they needed to know in order to begin to process their own loss. Plus, I would have stopped them from giving and stopped myself from learning how to receive. In short, I would have steered us all away from the transformative intimacy of shared vulnerability.
Lying to family and close friends feels even worse. Lying also would have created separation during a time when I most needed others’ support — and of course, just the act of knowingly speaking falsely to another generates bad faith. Lying about serious matters, especially had I continued to lie, would have forced me to remember, sustain, and even embellish the lie over time. Prolonged dissembling would have created a false mask that felt terrible to me and promoted conscious or unconscious doubt and insecurity in those to whom I told the lie.
And yet, given our common cultural conditioning that renders us unusually fearful of death, I can understand why a person who might be dying would ignore others or lie to them — at least for awhile. For example, my dear friend George told me that his wife, dying of cancer, refused to admit him into her room when she knew she had, at most, only a few weeks to live. While at the time he felt hurt, and abandoned, he now realizes that she needed to prepare herself without interference. His need for her to try just one more experimental medical solution — a mask for his own unprocessed fear of losing her — both demanded too much of her precious energy and interrupted her internal process at a time when it was crucial for her to come into full alignment with the sacred drama of her dying process.
(A few days before she died, she re-opened her door to him. On the morning of her final day, she lost consciousness, stopped breathing, and appeared to have died. At some point George left the room; when he walked back in, she opened her eyes, reached for his hand and placed it on her heart at the exact moment that her heart stopped beating.)
Another example, this one with a different ending: I recently heard about a woman whose breast lump tested malignant. She told her sister about the diagnosis and of course the sister freaked out. The doctors wanted to remove the breast and do radiation and chemotherapy. She refused all allopathic treatments — and, in order to keep peace and reduce stress, lied to her sister, telling her that the lab had made a mistake: the lump was not malignant. For several years, the lump waxed and waned and finally dissolved. Seven years later, the woman still hasn’t told her sister.
I don’t tell this last story to try to claim that if we just don’t treat a disease, it will disappear — though that does sometimes happen. As one of my healers remarked, if the mind and spirit are still aligned with embodied life then the body, as a part of nature, given enough support, does tend to heal itself over time. Nor do I tell this story to say that if we’d just conceal our disease from others, “everything will be all right.” It might, and it might not. But what is undeniably true is that when faced with a difficult, indeed possibly terminal situation, the added stress of others’ fear can feel overwhelming.
In my own family, one of my five sisters has survived various forms of cancer for over thirty years. Though the rest of us are aware of the outlines of her recurrent disease, and its history, she doesn’t like to talk about it. “I don’t want to be defined by my cancer,” she has told me, in private. When the family gets together, Mary wants us to see her as fully engaged in life — and she is, having morphed from piano teacher (until she lost the use of her right arm due to nerve damage from radiation in her twenties) into high school drama teacher. Then, several years ago she decided to go for her M.A. in spiritual counseling; now she begins yet another new engagement with life. How many people without the sword of Damocles perpetually hanging over their heads can say the same? How many of us keep growing, changing, evolving, no matter what our circumstances?
In the past two years, Mary has undergone an experimental outpatient treatment that required her to have someone assist her at her appointments. This time, rather than relying on her husband or closest friends, for the first time she invited two of our female siblings to accompany her. They felt honored to realize that Mary trusted them to share in the deepest, most profound aspect of her life.
Mary has nearly died and resurrected numerous times in these last thirty years. I sense that her insistence that others treat her as normal, rather than as a sick person, has had a great deal to do with her continuing vitality and the deepening into her essential nature over time. How many people remain alive for so long with recurrent cancer? How many people are — fated to? lucky enough? unlucky enough? — to consciously introject the alchemical mystery of Death into their psyches over and over and over again?