Today is Day 3 of the current five-day round of chemo. Yesterday I hardly got out of bed, mostly read, finishing an old public domain novel, Francis Lynde’s Empire Builders (1907), and starting into Edward Grainger’s new collection of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles stories. My appetite iffy, I “feasted” on saltines, dried fruit, and herb tea during the day. Come evening, there was my very own homemade chicken soup. With cancer, you tend to dwell on these quotidian details.
With the shift in perspective that comes with cancer, I have begun getting more than the usual degree of otherworldly notions. I say this without any wish to be maudlin, but I am reminded with more frequency of the difference between mortality as I’ve known it and what it insists on meaning now. An abstraction before cancer, it has become much more personal. An uncertainty has become a certainty.
I can’t think of an apt analogy beyond that existential feeling that comes with the onset of winter, when you wake to find the house cold and the sky outside a blanket of gray clouds. There’s a contraction somewhere at the center of me and a fending off of fear as I reach for some gallows humor and mutter to myself, “Okay, so I’m going to die. But not today.”
The antidepressant may be beginning to take effect. If it’s supposed to be reducing anxiety, I am not feeling anxious. No panic attacks, no passing out at the barbecue grill like Tony Soprano. But then I never had that problem. My denial mechanism has been in perfect working order for the past year, ever since I got the bad news. I don’t even have trouble sleeping. Do I feel that I’d like to do cartwheels? Hardly. Anyway, I’d break something (bones or furniture) if I did.
But back to otherworldly notions. For years I have not been a firm believer in what people call God. But over the past months, I have been stirred by the reflections of several writers who challenge the established doctrines of mainstream religion and offer other viewpoints, some with origins in mysticism. They permit questions instead of insisting on answers, and the questions open up possibilities that invite experience of reality in new ways, a reality that has room for something one can call God—if you want to.
One way of understanding meditation, I’m learning, is to experience it as making oneself present in the here and now in an attitude of vigilant waiting (all allusions to Waiting for Godot aside). It acknowledges the here and now as the only dimension in which encounters with whatever God is can occur.
This elevates meditation above what I have called watching paint dry, and enlivens it with possibility, like waiting for the curtain to rise for a play or the lights to come up on stage for a musical performance. Whatever it is, it may not be Tony Bennett or Willie Nelson, but it will be unexpected and surprising and you won’t want it to end.
Brain cancer has also given me an awareness of our neurons at work. The numbness in my left arm and hand reminds me of how a tumor in my right hemisphere has disturbed the functioning of the neurons connecting them. It also makes me aware as I observe others of the neurons at play in their own brains as they go about doing something I enjoy—like playing musical instruments (which pretty universally require the use of the left hand, I’ve noticed) or writing stories, (which doesn’t).
I see us all, in fact, as connected by our neurons, like strands of colorful fiber intertwining, whether we are face-to-face or separated by time and distance. Reading Francis Lynde (long dead) or Edward Grainger (very much alive but far away), I am aware of those two sets of neurons reaching out to mine and honoring E.M. Forster’s call to “only connect.”
|Clouds at sunset|
It also makes one see more clearly how in our materialistic culture we regard each other and ourselves as separate objects lacking interdependent relationships to each other. How can I not peel an orange without thinking of the grower who planted the orchard, the fieldworker who picked it from a tree, the truck driver who took it to market, the workers who boxed it up for delivery to Costco and so on. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, we inter-are, and our lives are diminished by our failure to experience that every day, every hour.
And so I venture yet farther into the summer darkness that surrounds the cosmic carnival of this life, making funhouse discoveries as I go. Meanwhile, my oncologists, in a reality of their own, make encouraging noises about the progress I’m making. One grins broadly as she compares my MRI scans and points out how much the swelling has diminished in my brain since May. The other continues to believe I can regain use of my left hand and says she is proud of me.
I’m closing again with a jazz video. This one is my own choice, the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, playing “Tuesday Wonderland.” I’m saddened to have to add here that Svensson, a brilliant composer and pianist, died in a scuba diving accident a few years ago. Another loss I take personally.
Any other readers with jazz favorites of their own, links to them are welcome.