Cancer, you’re not invited

tom-brokaw-cancer

For most of my adult life I have answered the question “Occupation?” with one word: journalist. I still do, but now I am tempted to add a phrase.

Cancer patient…

Even in remission, cancer alters a patient’s perception of what’s normal. Morning, noon and night, asleep and awake, malignant cells are determined to alter or end your life…

Age alone puts me in my twilight years; and cancer only heightens that objective reality. Yet I am not consumed by the prospect of death. When it intermittently enters my consciousness it has an abstract quality. I can’t quite get a grip on how this life might end…

Whenever I engage in this kind of reflection I fault myself for not shifting into a lower gear. What happened to the sailing lessons, the calligraphy course, that short story I had hoped to publish? […]

Cancer fund-raising events? Yes, if the distance and demands are not onerous. But is it possible that NBC News coverage of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, two very long plane rides away, would not be at all affected by my absence? I think it is.

Maybe it would be better if I just gathered our five grandchildren and we watched the occasion on television as I answered their questions. Then we would all go for Chinese food and plan our next get together.

Cancer, you’re not invited.

Don’t miss full essay by Tom Brokaw @ Tom Brokaw: Learning to Live With Cancer

 

Everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments.

kate-bowler

[…] Cancer has kicked down the walls of my life. I cannot be certain I will walk my son to his elementary school someday or subject his love interests to cheerful scrutiny. I struggle to buy books for academic projects I fear I can’t finish for a perfect job I may be unable to keep. I have surrendered my favorite manifestoes about having it all, managing work-life balance and maximizing my potential. I cannot help but remind my best friend that if my husband remarries everyone will need to simmer down on talking about how special I was in front of her. (And then I go on and on about how this is an impossible task given my many delightful qualities. Let’s list them. …) Cancer requires that I stumble around in the debris of dreams I thought I was entitled to and plans I didn’t realize I had made.

But cancer has also ushered in new ways of being alive. Even when I am this distant from Canadian family and friends, everything feels as if it is painted in bright colors. In my vulnerability, I am seeing my world without the Instagrammed filter of breezy certainties and perfectible moments. I can’t help noticing the brittleness of the walls that keep most people fed, sheltered and whole. I find myself returning to the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard. […]

…I find the daily lives of its believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. They face the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to accept crippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospital beds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works.

This is surely an American God, and as I am so far from home, I cannot escape him.

~ Kate Bowler, 35, was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer. She is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity in North America at Duke Divinity School and the author of “Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.”

Don’t miss Bowler’s full essay here: Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me


Source: Thank you Susan.

Sun on skin, smell, particular light, that sort of stuff

marion-coutts

The template of self-image I adhere to is that of a happy person. Is this different from being happy? I have no idea. Before the crisis, the bad sank down somewhere I couldn’t reach or was too lazy to get to, and the good floated up as flotsam near the surface. I was usually near the surface too, sometimes impressively active and sometimes just bobbing and lolling, lolling and rolling, the one a front for the other. Bad and Good are weakened words now, blanched of force. Language is failing me too.

Optimism is an under-researched attribute. Where’s the science? Where’s the research? What do our brother creatures – the owls, crabs, bonobos – think about the bright side? What do optimists do under pressure? Do they continue to seek out slivers of silver the size of fingernails in the crushed, smashed and folded lining of the earth? Optimism doesn’t seem to be something you can just adopt. Equally, I can’t be rid of it, even in mid-fall. […]

I am a blessings counter. I am and always was. My family gifted me balance and ballast. By upbringing and temperament it was just one of those things that came with me. I link it to the most rudimentary physical sense of being-in-the-world: sun on skin, smell, particular light, that sort of stuff, and that in turn connects to the articulation of the stretch between being an individual – myself – and non-individuated matter. I have always been able to think of myself as matter: one and many, all-solipsist and nothing at all. Not anything.

~ Marion Coutts, The Iceberg: A Memoir


Notes:

 

 

When Breath Becomes Air

paul-kalanithi-book-cover-when-breath-becomes-air

In his foreword, Dr. Abraham Verghese closes with: “Be ready. Be seated. See what courage sounds like. See how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way… But above all, see what it is to still live, to profoundly influence the lives of others after you are gone, by your words. In a world of asynchronous communication, where we are so often buried in our screens, our gaze rooted to the rectangular objects buzzing in our hands, our attention consumed by ephemera, stop and experience this dialogue with my young departed colleague, now ageless and extant in memory. Listen to Paul. In the silences between his words, listen to what you have to say back. Therein lies his message. I got it. I hope you experience it, too. It is a gift. Let me not stand between you and Paul.”

And here’s Janet Maslin in her NY Times Book Review where she quotes Verghese and continues: “Dr. Verghese suggests not only reading “When Breath Becomes Air” but also listening to the overwhelming response it prompts in you. I guarantee that finishing this book and then forgetting about it is simply not an option.”

I completed Paul Kalanithi’s memoir this weekend and agree with Verghese and Maslin – waves of Kalanithi’s words are still lapping my shoreline. And they won’t let me go.

The book is a selection of Amazon’s Best Book of January 2016“At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.  Kalanithi died in March 2015, while working on this book.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“The morning commuters began to animate the distant South Lake Tahoe roads. But craning your head back, you could see the day’s blue darken halfway across the sky, and to the west, the night remained yet unconquered— pitch-black, stars in full glimmer, the full moon still pinned in the sky. To the east, the full light of day beamed toward you; to the west, night reigned with no hint of surrender. No philosopher can explain the sublime better than this, standing between day and night. It was as if this were the moment God said, “Let there be light!” You could not help but feel your specklike existence against the immensity of the mountain, the earth, the universe, and yet still feel your own two feet on the talus, reaffirming your presence amid the grandeur.”

And another: [Read more…]

Then you attain those things and realize you still couldn’t be more empty. I didn’t know where to put myself.

tk

The most notice thing about Angelina Jolie Pitt —apart from her almost preternatural physical presence—is that nearly everywhere she goes she turns up more or less unattended (unless, of course, you count husband Brad Pitt and their brood of six). Arriving for an interview at a West Hollywood hotel suite to promote By the Seaher upcoming movie with Pitt, she’s trailed only by a lone bodyguard—she doesn’t employ a manager or even a publicist. […]

According to King, Jolie Pitt’s attention to detail extends well beyond wardrobe. When she first approached him about In the Land of Blood and Honey, she was “extraordinarily well prepared,” he says. “She turned up in my office with the location, photos, storyboards, casting information…He also came to admire her “hands-on” approach. “Whether it’s interviews, photo shoots or directing films, she gets involved herself,” he says. “Angie does not send people into meetings. There’s no manager or agent, no PR. When I first met her I couldn’t believe how accessible she was.” […]

In her teens, Jolie Pitt suffered from depression, which she attributes in part to her “unhealthy” hometown. “I grew up in L.A., where focus is very inward. I didn’t know why I was so destructive and miserable. I didn’t appreciate or understand my life.” Her unhappiness was further compounded by guilt. “I was raised in a place where if you have fame and money and you’re decent-looking and have the ability to work in this industry, you have everything in the world. Then you attain those things and realize you still couldn’t be more empty. I didn’t know where to put myself.” […]

Pitt says he doubts his wife would call her choice to go public with her decisions brave, noting that “she’s never been a person who hides. She’s utterly forthcoming and sincere about who she is.” He adds that once she’s made up her mind, she’s always been unwavering about her choices. “I’ll tell you this about her surgeries: Once the decision was made, she was on the operating table two weeks later.”

If she was confident in her decision, she had painful reasons to be. “You have to understand that this is a woman who never knew she’d make it to 40,” Pitt says. “This is a woman who had watched her mother, aunt and grandmother become sick and eventually succumb, all at an early age. Her drive, her absolute value in herself, is defined by the impact she can have during her time here—for her kids and for the underprivileged and those suffering injustices.” […]

~ Julia Reed, The Examined Life of Angelina Jolie Pitt


Related Angelina Jolie Post: It is polarizing, and it is peaceful.

I wonder what she prays for, and if you hear her.

feet-souls

[…]

When I got to the waiting room I saw your mother perched there with her incurable stare. She was in that place where the high probability of failure intersects with a two percent chance of success. Hope at its most corrosive. […]

How is your boy

She didn’t move or look at me, but there was graciousness in her tone when she said

He’s just not so good

When I returned the next day I peeked in to see my dad and then I darted over to look for those feet of yours. When I didn’t see them I stopped a nurse and said, the boy, the tall one, where is he? It was a nurse I didn’t recognize and she clearly didn’t know that you were supposed to be a big basketball star and live to be eighty, she clearly knew none of that because she did not look up and said flatly that they had taken your body away.

That day was over twenty years ago. I’ve been witness to great tragedy since but I’ve never forgotten you. I created different details to your narrative to go along with what I knew and it never seems like what I assume is inaccurate. I feel like by having some understanding of your latitude I can deduce your center, like quantum gravity, which I can comprehend about as much as I can a mother burying her son, but if certain scientists are correct and it becomes possible to bend time, then I’ll be able to ask you if any of my assumptions were correct. I don’t need answers until then, unless the idea of God becomes willing to explain itself, in which case I am up for that Q& A. Where your story intersects mine is at my refusal to accept things too sad for me to process; my reimagining endings that haunt me. It’s hard to reconcile that God is either entirely too secretive or has a totally deficient ability to prioritize. I hear people say, “It happened for a reason,” or “It’s part of God’s plan,” and I wish that made sense to me but it doesn’t. I carry you around still and who knows why. Perhaps there are no answers for us poor humans, but we know a handful of things. We know there exists a planet with four thousand versions of songbirds. Because that is possible and because on that same planet can exist sentient beings made up almost entirely of stardust, and because bonafide poetry erupts mightily from some of those beings, and there is music, sex, and babies that laugh in their sleep; because we are roaming a universe that may be a hologram, with another dimension consecutively projecting itself outside this construct of relativity and gravity; because of all that, there is no reason why my prayers shouldn’t be able to reach your mother whose name I didn’t even know. There is no reason why not, when nothing is completely harmonious with its description, not really, and there is a flaw in every theory of time and space.

From time to time I picture it. I see her watching while you go flying down that court. I see her shoulders moving almost imperceptibly to mimic your bobs and weaves around the other players. She is going where you go without thinking about it, tied to you, following and winning when you win, until you turn to wave and that puts her on her feet and beaming. I do know that if your mother is alive today she is thinking of you right this minute. I wonder what she prays for, and if you hear her.

~ Mary-Louise Parker, “Dear Mr. Big Feet” from Dear You 


Photo: derrosenkavalier titled Feet part ten

Which year was the best?

poet

Jane Kenyon and I were married for twenty-three years. For two decades we inhabited the double solitude of my family farmhouse in New Hampshire, writing poems, loving the countryside. She was forty-seven when she died. If anyone had asked us, “Which year was the best, of your lives together?” we could have agreed on an answer: “the one we remember least.”  […] The best moment of our lives was one quiet repeated day of work in our house. Not everyone understood. Visitors, especially from New York, would spend a weekend with us and say as they left: “It’s really pretty here” (“in Vermont,” many added) “with your house, the pond, the hills, but … but … but … what do you do?”

What we did: we got up early in the morning. I brought Jane coffee in bed. She walked the dog as I started writing, then climbed the stairs to work at her own desk on her own poems. We had lunch. We lay down together. We rose and worked at secondary things. I read aloud to Jane; we played scoreless ping-pong; we read the mail; we worked again. We ate supper, talked, read books sitting across from each other in the living room, and went to sleep. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day… Three hundred and thirty days a year we inhabited this old house and the same day’s adventurous routine.

~ Donald Hall, The Third Thing from The Poetry Magazine. [Read more…]

Sunday Morning: The Sabbath, the day of rest

Oliver-Sacks

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

~ Oliver Sacks: Sabbath. The Seventh Day of the Week. The Seventh Day of Life

Postscript:

Oliver Sacks died this morning. He was 82 years old. His work here is done and may he now rest in peace.

The story in NY Times: Oliver Sacks Dies at 82; Neurologist and Author Explored the Brain’s Quirks


Notes:

It is polarizing, and it is peaceful

Britain G8 Foreign Ministers

I went through what I imagine thousands of other women have felt. I told myself to stay calm, to be strong, and that I had no reason to think I wouldn’t live to see my children grow up and to meet my grandchildren.

I called my husband in France, who was on a plane within hours. The beautiful thing about such moments in life is that there is so much clarity. You know what you live for and what matters. It is polarizing, and it is peaceful.

~ Angelina Jolie Pitt, in The Diary of A Surgery upon learning of the threat of ovarian cancer


Image: huffington post

A chasing after wind, indeed.

Paul-kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi, MD, was a Stanford neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-30s. Here’s an excerpt:

[…] Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described, hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed. […]

That message is simple: When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

~ Paul Kalanithi, Stanford University neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, died on March 9, 2015 at the age of 37

Don’t miss the entire article in the Washington Post: Before I Go: A Stanford neurosurgeon’s parting wisdom about life and time


Thank you Elizabeth.

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