This past week, in a conversation about my ongoing journey with Multiple Myeloma, a friend said, “If you hadn’t gotten this diagnosis . . . . ” I didn’t hear the rest of her question, because I was so startled by my immediate internal response: “I wouldn’t want to be without this diagnosis.”
It’s not that I want to be sick, to wrestle with intermittent severe pain, or to live with unreliable energy. It would be a relief not to be almost constantly aware that, in the Apostle Paul’s words, “death is at work in me.”
I’m in Huntington WV for the Moore Lectures at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. On this beautiful fall afternoon, I walked alongside the Ohio River, as I nearly always do when I am here. The bright sunshine shimmered on the water. The cool air and a gentle breeze were invigorating. Children were squealing and playing on the riverside playground. A delighted puppy was walking his master. The moment was almost pure joy.
With the joy came a gnawingly visceral apprehension: “What if this is my last time to take this walk?” It’s not that I feel particularly bad and certainly not that I have any kind of premonitions. It’s simply that, with an incurable illness, no matter how good I feel at the moment, I never know when things might suddenly change.
I don’t dwell on this anxiety, but it dwells in me. It’s silent most of the time. Occasionally, though, as it did today, it whispers its uncertainty to me. I wouldn’t miss that anxiety if it moved out.
So, I didn’t think “I wouldn’t want to be without this diagnosis,” because I would prefer to have cancer than to be cured.
As I continue to ponder my initial response to my friend’s words, I’m realizing that what I wouldn’t want to be without are the lessons I am learning from keener awareness of my mortality. My experience convinces me that Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom was right to claim: “Full awareness of death ripens our wisdom and enriches our life . . . Though the fact, the physicality, of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.”
Having cancer is, in some ways, like going to an Ash Wednesday service every week. Because it regularly rubs my face in death, I have more urgency about things that truly matter and less patience for triviality. I see more grandeur in ordinary things, because they all appear to be extraordinary against the background of sunset’s approach. How many more fall seasons to enjoy the bursting into color of leaves? How many more silly games of chase with the dog? When is the last racquetball match?
I hope I don’t sound morbid, because I don’t feel that way. Instead, I feel lighter, gladder, and more able to be present in the present. Soren Kierkegaard once suggested: “And so earnestness comes to consist in living each day as if it were the last, and at the same time the first in a long life.” Something like that kind of earnestness is what cancer is giving to me.
Psalm 90 invites us to pray: “Teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Knowing we do not have countless days helps us to make the days we do have count.
Amen! Well said.
What a powerful message of positive change and awareness.
Thank you, Lois!
Thank you, Guy. I’m sharing with med students.
Thank you, Kathy. I hope it will be helpful to them.
Thank you for sharing your heart so completely. Though I have learned to be thankful for each day through a different set of circumstances I do understand what you are saying. You have written these lessons so beautifully and eloquently. Would it not be wonderful if we could each and everyone grasp this lesson of living life to the fullest without the pain of tragedy and illness? God Bless you on your journey and thank you for sharing your invaluable lessons…
Thank you so much, Teresa. Like you, I wish more of us could learn these lessons without the challenges of limitation. Looking back, I can see that it was possible, but the illness became an unavoidable wake-up call.
Great message.. good having you in the pulpit at FAB this am! Hope you had a safe trip home and enjoyed the sights of autumn along the way.
Dean, It was great to be at FAB this past weekend. It truly is a "home" for me. All the best to you and yours, Guy
guy, i’ve shared the link to this short video with you before, but perhaps a good time to share it again since it reinforces your thought.
life goes on
Thanks so much, Jim. Hope all is well with you.
Once again, Guy has been able to provoke me out of my sameness. He has placed words to the inner thoughts my soul that I would rather remain buried beneath my busyness. Now, I must contend with the roots of life revealed in me now since the eroding soil of my bland life has been washed away… At least a little.
Joe, thank you for this gracious and generous affirmation. We all face off with the busyness and distraction, don’t we? All the best to you.
I have been asking myself these same questions almost daily. Thanks for posting this!
Bob and I were so disappointed when we realized we were heading to Wilmington for our grandson birthday when you would be at FAB again. Sorry we missed being with you. I cannot thank you enough for your leadership at FAB. This article was perfect. Bob and I have read it several times and he said, you nailed it!!!! Blessings and prayers for you my friend.
I am sorry that our paths didn’t cross, too, but I am so delighted you got to be with your grandson on his birthday! I am also glad that you found the article helpful. All my best to both of you. Grace and peace.