Dying Well – A Reprinted Article by Dorion Rolston.

I don’t often do this, but I find this article I’ve just read from Aeon quite compelling so I decided to reprint it here for you. You should check out Aeon. It’s a great source for thoughtful reading.

https://aeon.co/ideas/dont-take-life-so-seriously-montaignes-lessons-on-the-inner-life

My dad was an unhappy man. He used to complain about the slightest thing being out of place – a pen, the honeypot, his special knife with the fattened grip. By the time his health really started failing, his arthritis so bad he could no longer get out of bed, his condition became all he complained about. ‘Dorian,’ he said, one morning over breakfast, the grapefruit cut up indeed with his special knife, ‘I hate myself.’ He was 86 years old and, I felt, nearing the end of life, so I took it upon myself to help him die as well as he could, a kind of Ars moriendi for the old man. ‘But Dad,’ I said, for the first time in our 32-year relationship. ‘I love you.’ When that didn’t help, I sent him some Montaigne.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533-92) lived a good, long life for a man in early modern France. By all accounts, it was a happy one, at least if his Essais (1570-92) – rangy discourses on varied subjects from thumbs to cannibals to the nature of ‘experience’ itself – are anything to go by. His writings, autobiographical in nature but highly argumentative, have survived him as somewhat radical (for the time) self-experiments. ‘Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book,’ he opens, with a letter of warning about the 1,000-plus pages that follow: ‘you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject.’ Since I took my dad to be also involved in so vain and frivolous a subject – namely, himself (right down to the urinary tract diagrams he drew for me on paper napkins at the dinner table) – I figured they’d have a lot in common.

The passage I chose to hand him, from the essay ‘Of Solitude’, concerned Montaigne’s secret to happiness. It says, simply: these are the things we normally think will bring happiness; they’re wrong, here’s mine. ‘We should have wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can,’ he writes; ‘but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them.’ In what’s become something of a trademark for his life philosophy he adds: ‘We must reserve a back shop all our own.’ A back shop – or in the original French, arriere-boutique. Of course, this is metaphor. Of course, my dad took it literally.

What is there left for us to learn from Montaigne on the subject of happiness? For one, that ‘back shop’ doesn’t mean the room behind your place of work. Increasingly confined to his bed, in the crummy 17th-floor apartment that doubled as his home office, my dad read these lines with an eyebrow raised. Granted, Montaigne himself penned them from a castle-tower eyrie, overlooking the vast estate of his château. He didn’t mean for us to take refuge there – this privileged perch was just where he did his writing (as I do mine now in the storage unit behind my house, a heavy wooden partition setting me off from the boxes and mess). No, the physical ‘back shop’ is just a writer’s den, and this misunderstanding has caused critics to huff about Montaigne’s solipsism, as if what he really said was: Go be alone and make great art. This does not lead to happiness, I assure you.

When my dad emailed back, misreading Montaigne in just this way, he nonetheless conceded that the passage I’d sent him was ‘thoughtful’. But not, he added ‘surprising’, as ‘Many writers nowadays speak of personal space, meditation, being alone at times, and so on.’ He went on to say how there was a difference between voluntary and involuntary solitude. ‘Many of us, as we age, become too much involved in that space.’ It’s not just the confinement but the loss of all able-bodied experience that they’re missing out on, and my dad (as ever) listed them: going to the market, dancing, seeing family and friends – precisely the things that Montaigne cautioned his readers not to count on for happiness.

In her book How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010), Sarah Bakewell acknowledges the temptation to read Montaigne as an advocate for a type of isolation (chosen or not), but she qualifies this, saying: ‘He is not writing about a selfish, introverted withdrawal from family life, so much as about the need to protect yourself from the pain that would come if you lost that family.’ It was after the death of his closest friend and confidante, Étienne de La Boétie, and then later of his father, that Montaigne retired to his private library. In Donald Frame’s translation, this period is marked by Montaigne’s fall ‘into a melancholic depression, to combat which he begins to write the first of his Essays’. The contemporary US writer and essayist Phillip Lopate ventures that, for Montaigne, ‘the reader took the place of La Boétie’. But how, exactly, did Montaigne’s attempts (the literal translation of essai) assuage grief?

Certainly, an unnamed interlocutor haunts the text, the kind we usually chalk up to self-talk. Talking to people who won’t talk back (or who can’t because they’re no longer with us) is a form of conversational intimacy we might read as an extension of Montaigne’s general affability. In life, Montaigne was known about town as a raconteur with an open-door policy for guests. Even Bakewell, who sums up his back shop as a form of ‘Stoic detachment’, notes that in another lasting dictum Montaigne cried: ‘Be convivial: live with others.’ If Montaigne’s back shop is meant to mend a broken heart, then it is not by avoiding future pain, but by coming into a different relation with it.

Montaigne was well aware that the promise of getting away from it all was a fool’s errand since, wherever you go, you take yourself with you: ‘It is not enough to have gotten away from the crowd,’ he writes, since ‘we must get away from the gregarious instincts that are inside us.’ Instead, to quote Albius Tibullus, one of the Latin poets he grew up with, ‘be to thyself a throng’. This is where I hoped my dad might take note: shut in with no one but himself for company, there might still be a chance for great companionship. ‘We have a soul that can be turned upon itself,’ writes Montaigne, ‘it has the means to attack and the means to defend, the means to receive and the means to give.’ Sadly, my dad didn’t see his own soul this way and, after falling into a depression of his own, he took his own life.

I wonder now if Montaigne’s back shop was less the writer’s saving grace, lifting him from the depths of despair, but not the act of writing from within it? ‘Here our ordinary conversation must be between us and ourselves,’ he writes – and I take it he means that the quality of the inner dialogue will determine the quality of the life.

Montaigne’s mental chatter had a buoyancy to it, as he bounced from one subject to the next, going with the current. What I couldn’t convey to my dad, evidently, was this lightness of attention, distilled in that most famous of Montaignisms: ‘Que sais-je?’ (What do I know?) In his celebratory portrait of Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1837 comments that: ‘His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting, and keeping the middle of the road.’ Not taking life quite so seriously – the pursuit of happiness notwithstanding – might then be Montaigne’s key to dying well. After all, there might be no surer inner peace in one’s final days than not needing it so badly.

Dorian Rolston

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Two Days in my Diary: Saturday morning addendum.

6:15 AM Saturday March 21st.

I probably should have included Saturday in my original post from yesterday, because it’s also a down day due to my chemotherapy treatments. I had another dex night last night. I got my usual acid reflux but it came much later than usual, around midnight, and lasted until around 5 AM. My tinnitus is about as bad as it gets right now. I slept, I really did, for a couple of hours between 10:30 and 12:30, then I got up to pee. I sort of slept again until 2 PM but that was it. I woke up startled by a very odd dream. So I listened to some music and read some Fernand Braudel about Medieval Europe while I tried to process this weird dream I had just had.

I woke up at 2 AM in a sweat. That’s not unusual either in the first three days after taking my meds, but this time, like I just said, I woke up from a very strange dream. I wouldn’t say it was a nightmare; it was much more matter of fact than that and it was very vivid.

So, in my dream I invented a portable guillotine. It was portable with a blade a metre long and 30 centimetres thick and sprung like a chop saw. It looked more like the cutting end of a pair of garden sheers than a traditional guillotine but it worked like a guillotine. I invented it to cut up yard waste like sword fern fronds and twigs, that sort of thing. I think it’s because yesterday Carolyn worked in the yard doing clean up and she cut up a lot of sword ferns to the ground. I guess I invented this ‘machine’ to chop up these fronds to make them more compostable rather than take them to the dump in the trailer. In any case, it worked well, but then someone stole it from in front of my workshop one night. I was pissed off but resigned to just building another one. Then the neighbours started reporting that dogs and cats in the area were turning up decapitated. I figured whoever had stolen my guillotine could easily be doing this. I was mortified. Then I wondered if we’d start finding people decapitated, maybe up the logging road. Now I felt really shitty. All of that mayhem was my fault for inventing such a dangerous tool. Then I woke up.

I’ve been wracking my brain to try to wring some significance out of this dream but I can’t seem to figure it out. I invented a dangerous tool for a good cause but then found it used for very destructive purposes by person or persons unknown. What can I make of that?

In any case, today will be strange. I’ll probably have to sleep much of the afternoon after I completely come down from my dex high and am left to deal with the fallout from the cyclophosphamide and bortezomib. For my headache I’ll take a couple of Tylenol. Strange, but my peripheral neuropathy is attenuated at the moment. I wonder how long that will last. The burping is driving me nuts!

By the way, I came up with my epitaph. It goes like this:

Here lies a man who did a lot of bad things in his life.

Here lies a man who did a lot of good things in his life.

At the end he hoped it all balanced out and he would

Neither go to heaven nor to hell. He, he, he.


Have a nice day.

Me, my Body and I: Part 1

I’m quite attached to my body. Frankly, it is a long way from perfect, but I’ve grown fond of it over the years and have become increasingly tolerant of its idyosyncracies and foibles. It’s served me well in lots of ways. One special way it’s done so is by helping to create my two daughters thus ensuring genetic continuity for me and Carolyn. It can’t take a lot of credit for that, Carolyn having done most of the heavy lifting, but still, there were moments of joyful participation in the magical process by which my daughters were conceived and born.

Now, however, my body has decided that it’s getting time to move on. It seems to be quite relentless in this idea. My body has an intelligence of its own, as does all life on the planet. It’s not going to sit still. Life is about change. I’ve pretty much come to grips with dying. I understand it intellectually and am now in the throes of living it. Death is an ultimate form of disengagement from the world for me (I), but in another sense it’s just another form of re-engagement for all the atoms and molecules that make up the complexity of the structures in my body.

For me, as I’ve noted before, we are the stuff of stars. Translating that into language closer to home, it means that the material that makes up my body and all life on the planet has always existed and will always exist as long as the universe is around to sustain it. According to Brian Cox, the universe itself is finite so all bets are off as to what happens to matter and energy in billions of years when the universe itself is worn out and darkly still. For the moment, however, we can say that the universe is the ultimate driver of life on earth and anywhere else it might exist in the cosmos. “Life” here needs to be conceived in very broad terms and not just related to biological organisms. Galaxies can be said to have a life span, mountain ranges and continents too. Nothing is forever. Nothing.

There are two aspects of myself that are of interest to me for this discussion: what happens to my body after death and what happens to my consciousness. These are no longer arid philosophical considerations, they have never been closer to home in a real visceral sense for me, and are mobilizing all of my intelligence and emotional energy.

Without sounding too arrogant, I think I have both of those pretty much figured out after fifty years of study, thought and introspection. As far as my body goes, it’s quite simple, really. I’m a big proponent of simplicity in the search for solutions to life’s problems. That means that I adhere to the philosophical principle called Occam’s razor, or the idea (without being too simplistic) that the simplest solution to a problem is probably the best.

“Antoine Lavoisier described the law of conservation of mass (or the principle of mass/matter conservation) as a fundamental principle of physics in 1789.” That formulation was followed later by the law of the conservation of energy and later still, after Einstein, by the law of the equivalence of mass and energy or the idea that mass can be transformed into energy and vice-versa, but neither can be lost in the process. Bringing this idea down to my level, it is my sense that what makes up my body has always existed and always will, giving me a real sense of connection with all life on the planet and a very real sense of continuity with all life, past and present, including with my ancestors. Put simply, when I die, my body and all of its constituent elements return to the pool of raw materials available for the construction of new forms of life, as I’ve noted before. I can’t emphasize enough the notion of continuity here. In the face of my immanent annihilation, I take solace in the notion of my intimate connection with life in the cosmos and as part of an ongoing process of life. That still leaves me with a problem. What about my consciousness?

I think that my consciousness, when my heart stops beating, will no longer exist in any way, shape or form. Why should it? My consciousness is organically tied to my body and cannot exist without that living connection. Break that connection and the light goes out. So, in anticipation of my death, I may mourn the loss of consciousness above all. That doesn’t mean that I think it has any means or justification for existence beyond the demise of my body. Remember Occam’s Razor. I see no need at all for any supernatural intervention in all of this, something I think is unnecessary given the perfectly plausible and simple scientific explanations available to explain life and its continuity. It seems I’m probably in a minority on this one.

Now, if I were to write a play based on what I’m going through at the moment, I would surely incorporate as a basic plot line the plethora of imaginative constructions (ideologies) that argue that consciousness does not die with the body, but has a life of its own and goes on ‘living’ after the heart stops and all brain activity ceases. I’d have to put my own ideas of continuity up against the age old ideas of the perpetuation of consciousness beyond bodily death. I can envision a Waiting for Godot or My Dinner with Andre type of play. Frankly, I’m perfectly content with the idea that my consciousness will not outlive my body. It’s the simplest and most elegant solution in my mind although it has some serious social implications that I need to explore next. However, in the play I envision, proponents of the immortality of consciousness and/or the soul would need to have their say.

It’s not a huge stretch to go from the perpetuation of consciousness after death to the idea of the soul and its existence independent yet connected to the body and its survival post-death. The ethnographic literature is full of descriptions from ancient cultures about the role of the soul in human life and its immortality. Sociology addresses modern versions of this idea. It seems that for millennia, humans have been loathe to entertain the possibility of total and absolute death and have been, across the board, wedded to the idea of the immortality of the soul even more than they have espoused the existence of God or any other supernatural force. Thousands of religions and their associated churches or societies have come up with often contradictory ideas related to the makeup and activities of the soul and its place in the universe. These contradictions have often been the source of violent confrontations and pogroms, because if my idea of how to get to heaven is the right one, yours has to be wrong and I’ll kill you to show how much more powerful my conception is to yours. These are ideas I need to explore in part 2 of this post.

Stay tuned for part 2 which I’ll release on Sunday, March 8th.

When Death Comes Calling

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone completely morbid or so focussed on death I’m forgetting how to live. However, I’ve been fascinated my whole career on the overwhelming but often covert death denial we have built into so many of our institutions and which is at the core of much of our morality.

That’s one reason I was amused, yes, amused, when I came across this YouTube video of a long retired philosopher who in his 97th year of life, after a career writing about death and dying in an abstract sense often poo-pooing our personal fear of dying, come around and admit that he was scared. He was scared of dying. He’s dead now, but in this video we get a pretty good sense of what he was going through in the last few weeks of his life. It’s not about cancer. I figured I’d give you a bit of a break from that for one blog post.

So, Herbert Fingarette, author, teacher, husband of 70 years to the same woman (who died seven years earlier), devoted rationalist and philosopher (Stoic I expect), writes about death and dying in an almost flippant manner, virtually sniggering at the weakness of being fearful of death. Then, he’s ninety-seven years old and on his way out. He knows that, and now he’s scared. He still has time to be scared. His question is: “What is the meaning of all of this?” Well, that’s a legitimate question, one that Tolstoy asked himself about his life and work as he lay dying. Truth is, there is no meaning. No cosmic meaning that’s for sure.

I also wrote some (no books, mind you) about death and death denial from sociological, psychosocial, and anthropological points of view mainly through the work of Ernest Becker, the author of several books, the last one being entitled Escape from Evil. I do a detailed review of Escape from Evil in the early days of this blog. You can do a search for several posts on Becker by using the ‘search’ function on the right scrolling menu of this blog. Here’s an example:https://rogerjgalbert.com/2017/11/

One of my favourite BBC documentary presenters is Brian Cox who is an astrophysicist and has a beautifully produced series of documentaries on the cosmos, entropy, life and death. For him, everything, every structure comes into being using materials in the environment, grows, matures, then decays into its constituent parts and dies. Ocean floors are pushed up into mountains, sharp at first then eroded finally into plains and flatlands. Galaxies come and go. The whole universe is destined to die. For us, following Ernest Becker, death and disease are the twin evils of our world. Of course, we need death because we usually eat dead things. We need death to live. It’s when our own lives are at stake that things go messy in our heads. We don’t mind death at all and we’re quite willing to inflict it on anything we wish to shove down our gullets or we think might be a threat to our continued existence. The movies these days are full of death and destruction, but it’s always of the good kind, when threats to our existence are defeated. It’s a lot more complicated than I’m portraying it here. There’s a lot more explanation in the archives of this blog.

We don’t mind killing things, other animals, including humans. Some of us glory in the idea. As Becker points out, war is a venue for the creation of heroes. Some people trophy hunt to show how tough they are. So, it’s not death that bothers us so much, it’s death with insignificance.

I have no evidence of this, but it strikes me that most of us don’t think about death and dying on a regular basis, we have way too many other things to think about, like where the next rent payment is coming from or how can I confront my cheating husband or wife, or whether to get a latté or mocha on the way to work. Decisions, decisions. Way too many to be meditating on death. It’s true, the closer we get to dying the more immediate the threat, the more we sit up and take notice. Some of us deny the terminality of our own lives until our kidneys stop working in the last few hours of life. Some of us, if not most of us, push the thought of death and dying so deeply into our subconsciousness that it barely has time to surface even at the moment of death. “What, I’m dying? Nah, must be a mistake! Check my numbers again.”

Right now, I’m trying to conjure up my last moments on earth. It’s not coming easily. Sometimes I get scared, but mostly I’m curious about the process. I’ve been thinking of talking to a death doula to see how they approach coaching someone who’s dying. See, I can still intellectualize dying, but before I know it, I’ll be face to face with it and no denial will be possible anymore. Will I be like Herbert? I don’t think anyone of us knows for sure how it’s all going to do down. I certainly don’t, and it’s the uncertainty that is probably the most frightening thing of all.

Looking in the Mirror.

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.

Today is not a good day.

Yesterday was okay. The day before was fine, but it’s hard to predict from day to day what my day will be like when I wake up in the morning. When I woke up this morning I knew that I wouldn’t be having a good day and contemplated just staying in bed. I try to maintain a modicum of a schedule so I like to get up around the same time every day although over the past couple of weeks my rising time has shifted a bit to the 8 AM side and is less inclined to stick to my former rigid 7:30 AM time.

I know my day won’t be a good one if I wake up from an unsound sleep with my body in full tingle mode, especially if it’s accompanied by the sensation of spiders crawling all over my legs. My reaction to my first cursory assessment of the state of my body is to hunker down, pull the covers over my head, and forget about it. But I don’t do that, do I. No, I get up, stagger into the bathroom clutching my cane in the hope that it will help me maintain my balance, and get myself into the living room where I usually plunk myself down into my recliner. I know I will spend the day in utter exhaustion reluctant to even get up to pee.

This pattern of not knowing until I wake up what my day will be like has been going on for years. That’s nothing new. I have no idea what differences in my daily routines will be wrought by the new chemical soup I will be ingesting in various ways as the oncologists stir up a new chemotherapy routine for me next week. The chemotherapy is bound to throw things out of whack in lots of ways some I can prepare for, some I can’t do anything about. Over the years, I’ve almost gotten used to being restricted in my mobility, but in fairly predictable ways. If I wanted to do something, like attend a meeting or go to a concert, I would know that if I did that I’d pay for two or three days after with exhaustion and pain. It was unthinkable to contemplate attending an event two days in a row or doing simple jobs around the property after a previous day of activity. My life has become less and less social over the years.

Truth be told, I’m a little depressed. The time between chemotherapy treatments has given me time to think, and thinking often gets me into trouble. So, I did an evaluation of my life to date going over high and low points, achievements and regrets. Probably a mistake, but one I’ve frequently made so I’m familiar with it. I even looked at pictures of myself over the years, from the time I was around two years old to quite recently. I thought about the different stages of my life, my time at home with my family, my time away to boarding school in Edmonton, my crazy teen years, working with my father, college, university, marriage, teaching, volunteer work, art, woodwork, etcetera. Then on top of that I overlaid health issues that I’ve experienced. I don’t need to go over all of my health problems here, but I had a few broken bones along with the discovery in the early 90s that I was vitamin B12 deficient and that I would need to inject B12 into my leg every month or so for the rest of my life. The discovery of my B12 deficiency was made when I complained to my doctor about fatigue, brain fog, dizziness, and that sort of thing. In 2002 I had my left kidney removed because I had renal cell cancer. Later I had an appendectomy. Still, I complained of fatigue, brain fog, dizziness and vertigo. There is a high incidence of Multiple sclerosis in my family so we chased that for a while but found nothing. Recently I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma which makes sense of all the other symptoms I’ve been having. I’ve probably had ‘smouldering’ multiple myeloma for years. So, now, I come to this:

I’m 73 years old (very close to it). I have bone marrow cancer, one kidney, B12 deficiency, degenerative disk disease (in my neck), arthritis, and who knows what else ails me. I’m old enough to die as Barbara Eirenreich argues and I’m okay with that, but the suspense is killing me. I’m being told that I could live quite a few more years with a few good ones thrown in there too. Still, I have incurable cancer and old age is coming after me. I’m beginning to envy people who die of sudden heart attacks or massive strokes. They have no time to think about all the things there is to think about.

I’ve discussed this with a friend of mine who also has multiple myeloma and his idea is that he doesn’t focus on his disease at all, or on his age, or any other potential killer. No, he focusses on what needs to be done: the shed needs a new roof, the canoe needs a new skin, baseboards need to be installed, grandkids need hugs. Dying will take care of itself when there is no other option, when it goes to the top of the priority list and refuses to be ignored any longer. I find myself thinking the same way. Yes, I get a little depressed when the extent of the threats to my life are displayed in front of me, but I get over it pretty quickly.

And I think about life and death. They aren’t opposites as we generally think of them. They cannot exist without each other. My life, like the lives of the nine generations of my ancestors who have lived in Canada are blips or interludes in the continuity of time and space. Mushrooms are a good analogue for us, I think. They push up through the ground cover from the mycelium below, flowering for a bit then melting back into the biomass to contribute again to the mass of life on this planet. Of course, for most of us in the course of history, thinking of ourselves and our species primarily as biological phenomena hasn’t been enough. The fact that we are temporary agglomerations of matter is not terribly satisfying for us and our big brains. We’ve loathed death and we deny it in every way we can, individually and socially. I try to face death as I face life. I try to put my life, my history, the phases of my body’s growth and decay in the broadest context I can. I don’t care to give them more importance than they are entitled to in the context of life on this planet.

My post on the social inequality in Emergency Departments is coming but my next one is about our immune system, the traitor that it is.

I Have Cancer. Damn!

I was recently diagnosed (late September) with multiple myeloma or bone marrow cancer. My bone marrow has gone buck wild and is producing way too much of a particular substance the pathologist euphemistically calls ‘muck’. I’ve probably had it for some years, but the symptoms are very similar to those of other diseases and conditions making it difficult to diagnose. I’ve not been well for years. The past two years have been especially difficult and the last four months almost unbearable. I’m still functioning, but at a much-reduced level than I’m used to. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve had cancer. I had kidney cell cancer in 2002 and had my left kidney removed in an operation that left me with one (fully functioning) kidney. Now my remaining kidney is compromised because of the multiple myeloma so things aren’t looking particularly good for me. There are still tests to be performed and a prognosis to be arrived at, but as soon as the test results are in the BC Cancer Agency in Victoria will give me a call and arrange an interview and set a course of chemotherapy. A lot will depend on the stage of my myeloma. Some people do very well with chemotherapy and new drugs are being developed every day to target the specific pathogen that’s attacking my blood. I still may squeeze a few more years out of this old body of mine yet, but the next few weeks will tell the tale. Multiple myeloma is not curable, but it is treatable. 

I’m not afraid of death. I’ve often written about death and the cultural systems we’ve created to deny death, which actually build on our natural, biological aversions to disease and death. As you can easily ascertain by reading my blog this has been my main focus over the past few years. Dying is another matter altogether. I’m not particularly afraid of that either, but it is full of unknowns. I’m going through the various stages people do when faced with this kind of diagnosis: grief, anger, sadness, self-pity although these feelings are fleeting, and I soon get on to more positive emotions. I feel some guilt too. Yes, guilt. Guilt that’s impossible to escape in this culture. Guilt for succumbing to disease and death, the twin evils that we’ve identified as the greatest threats to us. In moral terms, and culturally, we abhor weakness, physical or social. Sick or poor people are to be feared in our culture. We tend to marginalize both if we can, but that’s not always possible because the world is not as simple as that.  

I know I’m on my last legs. I’m almost 73 after all and have had a great life. Nobody gets through life avoiding death except in novels and movies. I have no idea how long I have to live, but whatever time I have I just hope that my quality of life improves enough so that I can finish some paintings I’ve been working on, maybe re-canvas our canoe and continue writing this blog. In fact, I’ll use this blog as a kind of journal chronicling the process of being ill, then diagnosed, then treated. Stay tuned. 

Please don’t suggest any treatments or diets or whatever. I won’t be going to Mexico for any heroic treatments. (If and when I feel better we may go to lie on a beach though.) I’m not desperate. I won’t be buying a juicer either and I’ll continue to eat the great, wholesome mostly unprocessed food that I currently eat but my body will follow, as it must, the second law of thermodynamics. I’m okay with that.