18 Looking in the Mirror.

[This is a reprint of a post I wrote in January of 2020. I reproduce it here in honour of Elizabeth (Bunny) Shannon who was especially drawn to it. Bunny died of cancer last month. She was a friend and an extraordinary person. I am privileged to have known her]

When I look in the mirror I see an old man. I don’t see an old man with cancer. I just see an old man with a white beard, not much hair, and wrinkly skin. Melanoma (skin cancer) often leaves visible, sometimes unsightly and disfiguring lesions. I don’t have melanoma, although my father did. No, I have myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and its damage is all done on the inside, invisibly. So, I guess I can keep expecting people who see me say: “Wow, you’re looking good!” I guess I DO look good! Now, the last thing I want is to discourage people from telling me how good I look, so keep it up! However, the invisibility of my condition is deceiving. I remember when I was a kid my friends and I used to work on our cars. That was still possible when I was a kid. Often we’d stand around looking into the engine compartment (often of my 1956 Pontiac four-door hardtop) wondering what could possibly be wrong as if just staring at the engine would give us some kind of clue. The engine was always sparkly clean and there was nothing obviously gone awry. If I had money by some quirk of circumstance I might take the car to a mechanic. If not, we might borrow my dad’s tools and start taking things apart. That usually ended up badly. Yes, the most undesirable conditions in life are often on the inside, impossible to see or diagnose by just looking at the person or car in question. I find it best to consult mechanics when our car shows signs of disfunction. I find it best to consult medical specialists for treatment related to my body. I guess I could try to treat myself using any number of the ‘cures’ available on Dr. Google, but I would like to live a while longer, thanks. Besides, I’m not that desperate.

Speaking of medical specialists, we saw my local oncologist today. I see him every five weeks. The result of our visit is that I will carry on with a second course of chemotherapy. We’ll evaluate how well it went in five weeks. My first course of treatment seems to have gone as well as could be expected. The little excavator in my bone marrow is slowly running out of gas and my red blood cell garden is growing again. I’m still exhausted and that won’t change for some time yet, but things are certainly going in the right direction for now. I think I just might be a model patient. So, where does this all leave me?

Well, I may be on my way towards remission. If and when I do go into remission, and that’s by no means guaranteed at this point, that would buy me some time. By that I mean that I may have a few years more to live, though inevitably, either the myeloma will kill me or some other condition will. I won’t be walking away from this situation, brush the dust from my sleeves and carry on. No, I’m on a one way street. So are you, of course, but I can see that damned barrier at the end of the street. I’m hoping that you’re still far enough away from it that you can live in blissful denial for a while longer. I don’t have that luxury. So now what do I do with my life?

That question came up in a recent Facebook thread, albeit expressed in a different way, but with the same effect, I believe. The question comes down to this: If you knew that you had a given amount of time left to live (six months, two years, whatever), what would you do with your time? Would you to be seized by an overwhelming sense of urgency? Would you be determined to cram as much activity and experience into your remaining time as possible? Or would you curl up in a fetal position in a corner of your bedroom quivering and whimpering while you await your inevitable demise? If you have the money and the energy you might want to get out there and travel the world. If you have a spouse, that might complicate things more or less because they may not want the same things you do and may not want to get caught up in your sense of urgency. The last thing you need when facing terminal cancer is marital discord. I think there’s a lot to be said for just carrying on with life as before.

If you have the energy and the money then good on ya. If you travelled a lot before your diagnosis then travel after. Your eventual energy deficits will tell you when to stop. If you were fairly sedentary, more into being at home and puttering around the yard, then that would be something you might want to continue doing. The stress of travel may not be that good for you. Looking around the Cancer Centre at the North Island Hospital this morning I didn’t see a lot of people with obvious enough vigour to engage in a lot of physical activity. In any case, back to my situation.

My exhaustion prevents me from doing much in the way of physical activity. If I do go for a walk I pay for it later. Travelling is impossible. At one point I thought it might be possible, say, to take a direct flight to Puerto Vallarta back and forth from Comox, but there are a number of contingencies that make that next to impossible that have more to do with arthritis and disk degeneration than cancer. Besides, I take chemo drugs once a week orally but also by injection at the hospital. For three or four days after I take my meds I feel crappy, really crappy so the chances of enjoying myself on a beach somewhere are slim to none.

So what do I want to do, and what do I actually do? Well, I want to work on our canoe, finish some paintings, do odd jobs around the property and visit family and friends in Vancouver and further afield. What I actually do is sit and lie down a lot. As I sit and lie down, I read, and sometimes I even write. At the moment I’m reading social history around the Middle Ages and doing a bit of research on my family roots in Normandy. That’s something I would have done anyway, but I do miss working in my shop and studio and going for long walks with Carolyn and our imaginary dog. My oncologist thinks I will regain my energy, at least as much as an old man can expect. If so, that would be great. I’d love to get back to canoeing, camping and puttering.

When I get closer to dying I will know it, and I expect I will have time to think about it, but there really isn’t much thinking that is productive about dying, at least not for me. I’ll know when it’s time for palliative care. I don’t want to live as long as the oncologists might want to keep me alive. I’ll make the decision when the time comes. I don’t think it will be a really hard decision. I know that beginnings are impossible without endings. My ending is a lot closer now than my beginning! That’s fine. Frankly, I’m much more concerned with my family than I am with myself. They are the ones left behind to mourn. But both of my parents are dead and we got on with life after their deaths. My family will do the same when I’m gone. That’s what we do as humans. Like it or not, accept it or not, rage against it or cower in a dark corner, the end result is the same. Don’t sweat it.

7 thoughts on “18 Looking in the Mirror.

  1. Hello again Roger. I was also a long ago friend of Bunny Shannon and her passing sparked me to connect with many people I had not spoken to in decades. Even with my good health, I find it hard to keep in touch with people that I used to visit regularly, and never go out to “bump into anyone’ for a spontaneous coffee date anymore. I do enjoy reading your blog and hope that you come through this to paddle that canoe. Until then please keep writing for us all. Your fan, Kat


    1. I was convinced that I had responded to this comment some time ago. It appears not. In any case, Bunny was one of a kind, that’s for sure. I ‘bumped into her’ maybe a year or so ago at the Airpark Walkway. She was with Clark and looked fine. Of course, people tell me all the time that I look fine. I have to tell them that looks can be deceiving! In any case, I’ll keep writing. What else have I got to do, except go to the hospital for infusions, sleep, and hug our dog. I have been doing some work on one of my canoes so who knows. I may get it out on some water next year. I may put out the call for some help with it.


  2. I can see why Bunny liked it. I do too. Especially if she knew she knew she had skin cancer. Well written with just a touch of irony. Being a duck and cover kid from the early ’60’s I spent a lot of years being surprised that I was still alive. Well into the mid 80’s when I finally decided that perhaps indeterminate immolation may not be on my books. Although, with the way Canadian politics are going these days I’m not so sure anymore 😦 .

    A long way around to say that your scholarly take on life and death is refreshing. It somehow dovetails with my outlook on life and death. Take care Rog, I know you put a pretty brave face on a situation that troubles you a lot, most of the time. You are a person of emergent qualities. Have you ever considered becoming a writer?

    Love you Rog. Hugs to Carolyn. You too.



    1. Aw, Grant. Love you too. I didn’t know what flavour of cancer killed Bunny. Was it melanoma? There’s no doubt that she spent way too many hours in the searing sun unprotected, loving a good tan. I really didn’t know her socially, only through the Social Planning Society. I never saw the inside of her home. She wanted me to take over as president of the Society, but I had no interest in that although I agreed to be VP.
      As far as my writing is concerned, I haven’t dug as deeply into the themes of death and dying as I could, but I’m working myself up to it. Some of what I want to say is so raw and unsavoury that I don’t think it would be suitable for a general readership. So I skirt the issues. I do put together posts like ‘It seems we die from the feet up’, about my experience overseeing my mother’s death along with a dozen family members in a room at my mother’s care home. The nurses there were quite prepared to discuss the things that happen to a body in the last moments of life using my mother as an example. I thought that was courageous, but my family was willing and the nurses saw death regularly; they didn’t see what they did as particularly courageous, just what happened in a day’s work. Within two hours of my mother’s death any trace of her was removed from that facility. They had to make room for another dying old person.
      I may start another blog, a grittier, more in-your-face blog. I’m still thinking that one over. I have limited energy most days for doing anything, including writing. Still, I have an itch in my frontal cortex that needs scratching so we’ll see. Maybe I will become a writer.
      I’m somewhat reluctant to bring it up, but I have some questions for you around electricity (especially lighting and heat) in our auxiliary building, but they can wait. Are you officially retired? What does retirement look like for you?
      Anyway, take care of yourself. Love and kindness are the order of the day.


      1. As for Bunny, it was a big “If”. Rest her soul. If she knew and If she had skin cancer. I don’t know. Just that she was a lovely, sun-shining, smiiey person who at one time was a neighbour of ours.

        As for your writing I don’t think you need to go examine the entrails of the dying genera to write a good column about your unique condition, unless you want expend the limited amounts of energy you do have going there. You are pretty illuminating and entertaining/sobering as it is. As for a second, darker blog it might be cathartic for you to get it ‘all out’, as it were, but I would imagine that your readership would be limited. Just a guess. Perhaps when you are famous in a century from now it might make revealing reading for your biographers ;). I don’t know. It could go either way.

        As for your electrical issues you can email me at hotmail and I will answer your questions. Normal prefix, just use hotmail instead of the usual. The other address is borken. If you don’t have the energy to type your questions up call me. I still work for people I have worked for before especially when I have an open permit on their job. I’ve rounded up a couple of more light fixtures and lamps that were basically new when they were replaced that I am donating to your cause. Well, yours and Carolyn’s.



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