Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dark side of the moon

Sunrise shower over Joshua Tree foothills
Cancer has this way of calling for clarity (black and white, if possible) about subjects you’ve been content with keeping in a mental muddle. Before that, the last decades of life (and one likes to think of them in the plural) have you concerned with hoping your retirement savings hold out, that politicians don’t axe Social Security and Medicare, and that years of regular habits, a healthy diet, and exercise will pay off. Look at a copy of the AARP Bulletin and the main issues appear right there on the cover.

On another level, if you’re me, you hope when the end comes, your life will add up to something, despite all the wrong turns, setbacks, and false starts along the way. Which is another way of expecting to look back and find some meaning in it all. With cancer, however, the issues become life and death ones. Both the quality and quantity of the time remaining jump in importance. So do more ultimate questions that are hard to put into words because you’re not used to asking them—avoiding them if possible.

The difference now is that you’re like a combat veteran whose experience on the battlefield makes you a stranger to anyone who hasn’t been there, too. While you welcome the prayers and good wishes of others, knowing it would be churlish and ungrateful not to, you grant credibility to anyone whose life journey has routed them through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Meanwhile, the consolations of standard brand religion and moral philosophy pretty much fail to gain purchase in the bedrock of you.

For that, you have to look elsewhere, and you find yourself with books in your hand by people who aren’t satisfied or reassured by processed and prepackaged answers either. And because there isn’t a clear-cut language for speaking with honesty about such matters, you let them use words like “God” (there are many), knowing they stand for something beyond fathoming. Also the word “human,” which stands for something less certain as cancer enters the picture. What is/was it to be human anyway? You may find yourself wondering whether the meanings of “God” and “human” are to be found embedded deep in the core of each other.

Mackerel sky in the morning
And with a possibility like that, you realize there is not time and world enough to finally know. Days and nights can pass while you turn a single question like that over in your thoughts. Then something unexpected happens. Keeping company with such a question, you can begin to feel less urgency in the need for an answer. Pointing as they do to mystery and paradox, you may sense that ultimate questions are not so scary after all. They can even have the capacity to be more reassuring and consoling than answers. That’s where I am with all this today anyway.

Current health update.  When I first saw an MRI of the tumor in my brain, it was a slightly misshapen moon, seen from the dark side against a starlit sky. We looked at the new pictures with the oncologist this week, and it looks misshapen now and less eerie, but surrounded by a milky cloud that shows the swelling caused by the radiation, which accounts in part for the continued numbness and weakness in my left hand and arm, a condition that may go on for months. It helps to have a picture, but with each new MRI, I have to overcome the dread of seeing something I do not want to see.

We determine that the occasional throbbing I feel in my arm and the tickling sensation in my face are a “mini seizure,” and the doctor prescribes a small uptake in my anti-seizure meds. The steroids, to reduce swelling, continue, as well as the meds to counter their side effects. As the oncologist looks ahead to more weekly blood draws and another MRI in a month before deciding how to proceed with treatment, my wife observes that it’s an art as much as a science. And I am vaguely unsettled by the new uncertainty, feeling more temporary than before.

Evening sky
From my journal. Mostly a thinker, I have long accepted that I retreat into my head instead of being physically present in the world. Give me something to mull over, and I don’t need the challenge or excitement of sky diving and similar pastimes. It’s always been like that. When the prospect of becoming elderly became more real, I saw the risk of cognitive loss and wondered how I would deal with it. I so did not anticipate the feeling of bewilderment and betrayal that comes with brain cancer, which erodes both one’s physical and mental well-being. It has so abruptly made tenuous my grasp on being present and engaged with life.

I have found myself turning for strength in ways I am not accustomed to. Always independent, the proverbial only child, going public like this in a blog is about as unlike an introvert of my nature as could be imagined. The happy result is that friends, family, blog followers, people on FB, the men of a monthly prayer breakfast who meet at a local Denny’s, so many have given support that beats what would have been my natural impulse—to suffer in silence.

Questioning now what I have long believed and trusted, I have faith that when the Truth, or simply truths, show themselves, I will recognize them for what they are, though they may originate as radio signals from the dark side of the moon. And I suspect that they will appear more likely in the form of stories than rational argument—stories that can pop out of anywhere, where they may have been long hidden in plain sight, in poetry, parables, a song, or in the memories of those who have had extraordinary experiences and unexplainable encounters with whatever qualifies as Eternal. To the extent that I am able, I will share what I learn from them here.

Previously: Time marches on


  1. There certainly comes a time when the prepackaged answers just don't do it. Even though they have been packaged a long time.

  2. Pre-packaged answers are just fine should one accept them, but going forward with what you have always done, making necessary adjustments for current reality, is the way to go. Don't waste a moment struggling with the unknowable. You are who and what you are -- that is all that matters.

  3. Many deep and heavy thoughts in your post today. Having had prostate cancer I know of what you speak and know that my time is limited due to another chronic ailment. But we take each day as it comes and try not to be preoccupied with morbid thoughts. I intend to enjoy this part of my life, too and may you do the same.

  4. I suppose the point of having a philosophy or a religion or a belief is so we will avoid as best we can that primal fear of death. That's why religion was originally created, I think - though the old gods were pretty bloodthirsty. So, whatever it takes to give yourself some serenity, I say grab it and incorporate it. From fellow only child.

  5. Ron, the mystics whose teachings I have been reading (though not necessarily following) proclaim that “God” and “human” are one, that to think of one is to think of the other, and vice versa, and that God created man in his own image. While I get a sense of this sage wisdom, it flies in the face of human suffering, in spite of which one continues to think of Him as the bedrock under one's feet. As one mystic has said, He is like a coat hanger on which we can "hang" all our problems provided we have unshakeable faith and the capacity for abject surrender and, as most of us know, that doesn't come easily. I think they call it "spiritual healing." This reminds me of the beautiful hymn "Footprints in the Sand" that I read often. My thoughts and prayers are with you, Ron.

  6. There are events that irrevocably change your life. And there is no returning to the person you once were. Mine was 25 years ago now and there was another one ten years before that. I have never been a carefree person since and I mourn for the light-hearted woman I left behind. But with the change comes more insight, more empathy. I hope that is true anyway.