The Shadow in the Room
When I asked for suggestions a while back, two readers asked me to write about facing death. Not long after, a member of a Facebook group for leukemia survivors addressed the same topic in words with the fragile beauty of a leafless branch: “Does anybody else think about the possibility of dying and cry?”
More than five years after a successful transplant, my eyes brim just reading her words, so I suppose the answer is yes. But in truth I never faced the question that is death squarely. Cancer didn’t push me to the point that I had to, and I don’t know that you can truly do it unless you have no choice.
Still, I became alert to death’s presence in a way I wasn’t before. It was the shadow that never left my room, always in the corner of my eye, darkening my field of vision. While researching my leukemia online, if I saw a reference to the odds of survival, I would click to another page as quickly as I could.
Brenda and I talked about it most often by talking around it, and there was no better example of that than the old Mustang behind our garage. It was a first-year Mustang convertible, and it was in a sad state. No headlights, no hood, no engine. I bought it in 2007, less than a month after turning 50 -- not that I was having a midlife crisis or anything. Why Brenda permitted the purchase I can’t say; I rely on her to discourage the worst of my impulses, and normally she delivers.
Three years later, cancer. And there sat the Mustang under a blue plastic tarp, tied tight with clothesline, the garage cluttered with its greasy, rusted parts.
Home and reeling after my first three-week hospitalization, I said something along the lines of, “It wouldn’t be right to leave you with that mess to deal with. Maybe we should sell it.”
“That’d be good,” said Brenda.
We did, a month or so later, and took a bath on the deal. When the buyer finished loading the Mustang and the last of its parts on his trailer and pulled from our driveway with my dream, I felt nothing but relief.
I remember one night, back in the hospital, when the shadow leapt from the corner to the center of my consciousness. I had opened an email from my best friend bearing news that a former colleague had died of his cancer. My friend is a journalist; his instinct is to share information. “I thought you’d want to know,” he said.
I most definitely did not want to know, not alone in my bed in the night. The surge of fear expressed itself as a flash of unpleasant light. I felt my pulse and breathing quicken, and was suddenly aware of numbness in my fingertips and toes.
Soon an EKG technician stood above me, sticking leads to my chest as he checked my heart. The moment passed. My breathing settled. The tingling persisted, and for the rest of that night, I found positive thoughts much harder to summon.
I’ve written about the importance of summoning those positive thoughts to counterbalance the bad. They were mantras, really, phrases of my own making, and I’d repeat them to myself over and over while the chemo drugs dripped from the bag overhead: Long road, bumpy road, stay strong. I thought of it as talking to my own body. Kill, kill the bad cells, bless and release. Grow, grow the good cells.
That I used the word “bless” interests me, looking back on it. I am a church-goer, but my faith is as much about doubt as belief, and I did not often consciously turn to God in reaching for strength or comfort. But when I described my mantras to our minister, how helpful they were, he just smiled at me. “Those sound a lot like prayers,” he said.
In my mind, God takes form not as an otherworldly being, but as the best expression of what we can be for each other. When I spoke to the congregation during my recovery, I brought the wicker basket filled with cards that church members, family and friends had mailed us over the months. I held one up, opened it flat in my fingers and flapped the front and back in the air. “If you ever wondered what the wings of an angel look like,” I said, “I think I know.”
Before I fell sick I rarely thought about death, and when I did, I hoped to die suddenly, unaware, without suffering. I don’t feel that way anymore.
I’d wish suffering on no one, of course. But I live now with greater awareness that someday, the shadow will step from the corner of the room and confront me. What I hope for now is not to be snatched painlessly by surprise, but for a final allowance, a last gift of time to spend with the ones I love so we can tell old stories and say our goodbyes. It will take wisdom to recognize that inescapable confrontation for what it is, and courage to look the shadow in its eyes. I hope I can find both within me. I’ve had a good life, and that would be a good death.
My hope in recounting these experiences is that they’ll be of interest to others coping with cancer: patients, caregivers, loved ones and practitioners. You’re welcome to respond by commenting below or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.