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.

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.

Grinding It Out

My oncologist called this past Wednesday to discuss changing my chemo cocktail. The one I had been on for less than a week caused a very bad rash around my whole midsection along with a mild fever. So, I stopped taking that set of meds and am now waiting for word from the pharmacy here at the hospital telling me that my new meds have arrived. I’ve got appointments lined up for the first week of December, but I may be called to come in earlier. It’s all par for the course. Hurry up and wait.

Thing is, this new set of meds has caused some pretty significant side effects for a couple of people I know with myeloma. We’ll have to keep a close watch on symptoms, especially those related to peripheral neuropathy. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the new meds but then again, I’m not too sure what the alternatives would be. I’ve sometimes thought about what would happen if I turned down any and all chemo. I know that there are drugs that are more palliative than chemo and I seriously wonder how many more years of good quality life I could get out of benign neglect rather than with aggressive intervention. These are just things I think about late at night when I’m falling asleep along with visualizing my death bed.

I’ve been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Natural Causes. She’s a couple of years older than me and had a malignant tumour removed from a breast some time ago. She’s fit, she’s healthy but she also writes that: “I gradually came to realize that I was old enough to die.” She means that she’s had a good life, a fulfilling life, which is much more than is afforded many of us. She notes that the military considers eighteen year olds old enough to die and that there is no ‘best before date’ stamped on our asses. Some political leaders lead well into their eighties and nineties. That said, there is a time, when we reach seventy or so years of age when our obituary is likely to read “died of natural causes” than anything else. At a certain age, she argues, there is no need for an explanation for dying. It’s okay to die. Of course we should expect to die. Dying is as natural as being born although we generally consider it a travesty and a high order insult to life. I visualize myself dying, but I’m not convinced that the visualization can ever be very accurate. The closest I can come to visualizing the end of my life is when I’ve had a general anesthetic. Under a general anesthetic, the first drug they administer puts one under, makes one unconscious. If that’s the way I’m going to go, I can live with that. I watched as they put our last dog Wilco down a year ago August. First the sedative, then the lethal dose of whatever it is that kills. That kind of end would be fine with me. If I have to do it, and I don’t see any way out, this is what works for me.

Pain is an entirely other matter. I’ve had too much of that in my life and I don’t want to die under a heavy blanket of pain. Some pain would be alright, but nothing overwhelming. No pain would be the best, but that’s asking a lot of this aging, crumbling body to deliver. So, I’m willing to compromise and accept some pain when my dying time comes. I watched my mother as she lay dying in her nursing home bed almost two years ago now. She had Alzheimer’s and was unable to communicate at all verbally. She did communicate her pain, however. She was under high doses of morphine but we could tell when the morphine would wear off because she would get more and more agitated. I have no idea what she was experiencing, but I have the strong sense that it wasn’t at all pleasant. I was not there in her room when she actually took her last breath but as my sister recalls it, it was all fairly anti-climactic. Chances are very good that I won’t follow my mother’s example in death. For one thing, with myeloma I’m not likely to live long enough, and for another thing, I’ll probably still be sentient and able to make some decisions myself about my own death, unlike what happened to my mother. My mother was a very fine mother, cheeky as all get out sometimes and able to maintain a sense of humour before some pretty daunting odds at times. Dementia robbed her of end of life quality of life. That’s a shame. One of my sisters died a few years ago. She was four years older then me and had lung cancer. She was sentient for most of the time or her dying, but I wasn’t there when she finally gave up her last breath. I was a ferry ride away and unable to make it. She died a half hour before I got to the hospice centre where she ‘lived’. I know one thing for sure. She was pumped full of morphine for some time before she died and that effectively shut down her ability to decide anything.

Lately I’ve been experimenting a little with my pain meds. I’m on a large dose of hydromorphone (not related to morphine- a lot stronger, actually) taking two 1mg pills every four hours. I tried to back off some and take a lower dose every four hours for a day. I felt I could probably manage that because my pain was pretty much under control. Mistake! My pain is under control because I’m taking shitloads of hydromorphone. When I tried to back off, pain started to come back in my neck, ribs, right pelvic area, legs and shoulders. I knew that if I didn’t resume my twelve mg pill load a day that I would soon be completely incapacitated and bedridden. The decision was a no-brainer, but I was hoping for a better outcome.

One of the issues, of course, is that I haven’t really started treatments yet for multiple myeloma. I’ve been diagnosed and all that, but I haven’t had any chemotherapy to mitigate the effects of the disease, so it may be that in a few weeks or months and I go into remission that I’ll be able to back off my pain meds successfully. Wow, that would be cool. For now, I’ll continue ingesting lots of hydromorphone and maybe indulge in a beer or two, maybe even a tiny bit of scotch. It’s okay, all my specialists say a couple of beer are ok. I didn’t ask them about the scotch.

One (or more) of my readers here have suggested that I don’t swear anywhere near enough in my narrative. Well, fuck that! I’ll swear if I want to, swear if I want to, swear if I want to. You’d swear too, if it happened to you! (Figure out the song this is based on). Fuck!