A friend recently asked my about the status of my cancer. I have a type of incurable blood cancer (multiple myeloma). I have been in “remission” (although the doctor prefers to say the cancer has been subdued) for several months after more than three years of weekly and then bi-weekly chemotherapy injections. When I was first diagnosed, the prognosis for Stage 2 multiple myeloma was 44 months. I realized recently that I have passed that magic number.
As my friend and I talked how it feels to have a diagnosis of incurable cancer, I said, “I thought I would be dead by now.” She studied me seriously for a minute and said, “You need to write a blog about that.”
So here it is . . .
One of the many things a person with a diagnosis of an incurable disease and a relatively short prognosis faces is how to deal with approaching death. Of course, we all face approaching death as soon as we are born, but most of us push that reality aside until we can’t anymore. When the reality appears, we have several options: ignore and deny, panic, fall into depression, or start learning to “let go.” My statement, “I thought I would be dead by now” was a clear reflection of the process I have been going through as I wrestle with the concept of my death. In December, 2014, I began living in the anticipation that I would die soon.
When I was first diagnosed, I processed the news by writing a booklet, Who Am I When My Body Fails Me? In the first chapter, I wrote the following:
A psychologist who works in an Alzheimer unit tells the story of a woman who visited her husband Joe daily. Every time she came, she asked him, “Do you know who I am? And he would shake his head and answer, “No.” Observing the ritual the doctor pulled the wife aside and suggested that she no longer ask that question. Being queried, he said, was causing anxiety for her husband. When she visited next, the wife came in, sat by the bed, and undaunted asked, “Do you know who I am?” Joe looked at her for a long moment and replied, “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you.”
The wife thought that everything Joe had been was melting away, but the essence of Joe was unquenched. He could still offer and receive love, intimacy, and connection. So it seems we are still who we were even when we can’t understand how.
Life is, I think, all about honing down to our essence. When we distill water, the pure is discovered and the contaminants are left behind. So it is with our lives. To use another metaphor, the refiner’s fire does its work; only the core of our being remains. That core or flame is the breath of God in us. The work of the dying, then, is to practice letting go, relinquishing the contaminants so that we carry only our essence into the presence of God.
Letting go of stuff is a great symbol – and great practice – for letting go. If we can’t let go of stuff, how can be begin to let go of life? I am preparing to move again to an apartment with no stairs. This will probably be our last move unless one of us needs care that can’t be provided at home. So even though I “purged”a lot of stuff when we moved three years ago, I now realize that more can be relinquished. So this summer, I gave away a comforter to a granddaughter, a Christmas music box to another granddaughter, a storage unit to my son, miscellaneous garden tools to my daughter-in-law – and our Christmas tree and ornaments and miscellaneous items to the Rescue Mission.
And then I began on the hard stuff: files and files and files of the fruits of my labors as a writer, teacher and a spiritual formation director. When I came across a forgotten or cherished gem, I would remark to my husband, “This is too hard!” – and then add it to the pile of discards. But once it was all recycled, I felt lighter. I understood that those files were the products of the essence of who I am. The essence remains and is even more distilled now that I have unloaded much of the stuff. (My books still remain, a story for another time.) That’s a valuable lesson for anytime in life.
When the cancer returns, which it will, and my life on earth does end, I will carry only that essence into the presence of God – the flame of the image of God personified as Karen. Whatever the presence of God is like after death, I will be joyful.