May 11th, 2009: It has been a difficult past few days. On Friday, perhaps urged on by the full moon, I became aware that I am not getting better. The cancer is not going away. On a good day—meaning a day when I don’t have a lot of discomfort—I’m aware that I can co-exist with the cancer. I’m here and it’s here, and we’re here together. On a bad day, when the pain interrupts me a lot, then I don’t feel so good about sharing my body. When I start to extrapolate the cancer growing and more pain, it’s a quick trip to overwhelm.
I woke up on Friday morning with the overriding thought that I needed to reconsider owning my property in Sonoma. I haven’t been up there much since I’ve been ill, and in the last month, I’ve rented out the house. But the underlying urgency was that I need to decide what to do about the place because I am not getting any better. That thought was a shock to me: “I am not getting any better.” In many ways, it had the force of a new idea. New, because the last time I talked with Dr. Jahan, he said that I was not getting worse. The tumor had not grown. Nor had it shrunk. So where did this idea come from that I am not getting better? It was my own experience of living in my body, feeling the coming and going of pain, becoming convinced that the tumor was growing.
This has been a problem for me throughout my illness: I go through periods where I become convinced that the tumor is growing. For one thing, I can touch it and estimate its change in size. Also, I have a history of being wrong about this growth. The last time I was scanned, I was certain that the tumor had become much larger whereas it had not budged.
So, off to work on Friday including a cup of coffee with my friends Sheila and Maureen who I know from working at Wells Fargo. We were having a fine visit, when I brought up my conclusion that I am not getting better; that it’s just a matter of time before the tumor really takes over. All of us were shocked, followed by tears and fervent wishes that it weren’t so. From that point on through most of the weekend, I returned to that thought over and over. I am not getting better; my tumor is growing and I will die from this.
Saturday, I had tickets to the Met broadcast of La Cenerentola in Santa Rosa and I had been looking forward to the performance for almost a year. There were two newer singers—Lawrence Brownlee the tenor and Elina Garanca the mezzo—who I really wanted to hear. As I drove North to Sonoma, I was shocked at my dual awareness. It was as if I was both alive and about to depart life. I looked at the rich countryside in the early morning sun as if I would never see it again. I wondered if I would ever drive to Sonoma again. Really, it felt delusional except I didn’t seem to be forcing this awareness, it simply appeared unbidden and disturbing. As I started driving into wine country, I began to seriously plan a goodbye party that I would get to attend. I've avoided having parties for a lot of people even though I know a lot of people. For once, it would be a treat to get everyone together and thank them while I still had mobility and coherence. Yes, a party and it had better happen soon.
A shock of driving to Sonoma was that it really hurt to be sitting in the car. The area around the tumor felt sore from the minute I sat down. But, I am a determined opera goer, so I completed the trip. Then, for three and a half hours, I had the joyous experience of watching a well known opera performed by two dazzling new singers who hopefully would have long, exciting careers. I felt totally engaged inside the theatre. Afterward, I reflected on all this fresh talent that had so generously entertained me, grateful to know that life would go on. I knew that. The poignancy was that I could barely imagine going along with it.
Then, off to the house in Glen Ellen, where I talked with Ann about my concerns. She listened, and said that this was something she had certainly thought of, although it was no pleasure to hear this confirmed. It was a beautiful day, but I became increasingly agitated and jittery. I didn’t want to garden. I looked at how the person living in my house had arranged the place to suit her. I could scarcely remember that I used to live there. I felt cranky, disoriented, unable to connect with being on the property. Finally, I took a short nap and drove back to San Francisco.
Once home, I felt both safe enough to become even more distraught. I had no idea I would die this soon. With a regular cadence, I kept hearing, “You’re going to die. You’re going to die.” It felt like I had never had this thought before and truthfully, I had never been able to hold onto this thought for such a sustained time. I spent the evening weeping, blowing my nose, unable to concentrate. Then, I slept for about twelve hours. Sunday was more of same: “You’re going to die. You’re going to die.”
I'm not anxious about what happens after death because I have a lot of faith that life continues with a great deal of purpose and clarity. For me, the shock of confronting my death involves having to change gears and wrap up my worldly business rather than keep going in my usual patterns and habits. Of course I can do all the necessary arranging; I’m an organized guy. Property can be turned over, furniture can be given away. I am well rehearsed in saying goodbye to people. Should I have a farewell party? Would I be in a wheelchair by then? Many of my new decisions would be about not buying into the future. No more opera tickets. By mid-Sunday, I had renounced my trip to China since there probably wasn’t time to buy a ticket and go.
Sunday evening, my friend Ellen called and then Lorenzo, and by the time I had finished talking with both of them, I had come in for a landing. I could remember what I went through, but the constant reminder of my mortality was quiet. I remembered the stillness I used to experience after completing a psychedelic trip; this quietness was similar although I wasn’t as exhausted yesterday. LSD and mushrooms were more physically taxing.
What to say about all this? Today, I went to work and remembered what I had experienced and endured. I could remember it well, although I didn’t emotionally connect with the painful urgency of facing my death. It was as if it had happened a while ago rather than yesterday.
As I said to people over the course of the weekend, “I’d love to be wrong about this.” Today, I realize as a person with an unhealed cancer that it’s expected to have these feelings now and again. I can’t say that I regret the experience because it woke me up to possibilities that I haven’t spent much time considering. And I wouldn’t want to live in this awareness all the time.