Monday, May 9, 2016

The Hole in My Whole

You can't judge an internal injury by the size of the hole.

—Salman Rushdie, Satanic Verses

This is the kind of insight that I would ordinarily have passed right by, but when I came across it last month, I lingered. Checking on Wikipedia I was pleased to see that others have found this a noteworthy sentence before me.

As someone suffering from grievous injury (life threatening cancer), I wonder how the metaphoric hole in my health impacts me.

How I Relate to Death
Overwhelmingly, my 66 years (so far) have been characterized by good health. I've rarely been sick, have never broken a bone, and went 27 years as a process consultant before postponing a job due to ill health. Now, perhaps, that good fortune is catching up with me. In late January I discovered I have multiple myeloma, and it represents a major league health challenge. It may kill me.

While I'm working hard with my oncologists to contain the cancer and secure several additional years of high quality living, it's too early to tell who will prevail in the next roll of the dice. I will be undergoing a stem-cell transplant in July (which entails six weeks of treatment at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN) and my life expectancy will be profoundly influenced by the outcome of that procedure.

Because expectations have a direct bearing on results, I have learned to be an optimist. Thus, I look ahead to July with hope and a positive attitude. My will and my constitution are strong and I think my time at Mayo will go well.

That said, rosy glasses are not the same as a sure thing, and the several months between diagnosis and transplant have given me ample opportunity to sit with the very real possibility that my life may soon end. Here's what I've noticed so far.

The Dying Die has Many Facets
—There is the practical side, not wanting to leave loose ends for others to clean up and making conscious choices about how possessions should be distributed. (In fact, if you're diligent enough a will is not needed because everything of value has already been assigned.) Because I have not led an acquisitive life, this aspect of the looking was not that difficult to handle.

In the arena of possessions the trickiest part falls under the category of "intellectual property." Over the years I have invested a great deal of thought and time into the field of cooperative group dynamics, and most of that is captured (in one form or another) in my considerable body of writing. Who should own that? What would I like its disposition to be?

While there may be some monetary value in my writing, I believe that's a long shot and I'm mostly concerned with how my ideas are treated after I'm gone. Will they be lost, or will they continue to be alive in cooperative conversations? 

While this is of compelling interest to me, it's more about leaving something of value for others than about ownership or credit. Thus, if you could offer an assurance that my ideas would continue to be worked with I would happily exchange that for attribution (people knowing that the ideas came from me). I want my contributions to last, but have no attachment to people knowing where the ideas came from. Attribution helps when one is alive, because it leads to additional invitations, but it isn't of much value after I'm dead.

—On the social side, I have been amazed at the outpouring of support that has been extended to me in my illness. In addition to well wishes, this has yielded hours of heartfelt emails and a plethora of visits to Duluth, celebrating connections at my time of need.

By setting aside my work obligations there was suddenly plenty of time for relationships (in addition to therapy) and this felt solid as the thing to place in the center of my attention. There is a tendency to let relationships slide in the pursuit of one's work life, and I was grateful for the mid-course correction—reminding me in no uncertain terms that people matter more than things.

Though the adjustment was not monumental, it was noteworthy and I was glad to make it. I figure it's never too late to get your priorities right.

—Emotionally, this marked the first time I've faced my own mortality other than as an exercise. What if I only have a matter of months to live? Am I afraid? 

Though I am not counting on there being a life after this one (and am therefore plenty motivated to make the most of the one I have), I've always known that eventually the sun would set. Unexpectedly getting information that the sun may be going down more quickly than I was anticipating did not change my fate—it just moved it up on my radar screen.

So here I am watching myself for signs of denial or avoidance. I've gone through some stretches of physical pain, and I expect that there will be more ahead. Maybe the pain will become too much and I'll freak out. Though it hasn't occurred so far, who can say it won't down the road? While I don't believe in heroic medical procedures where there is no reasonable prospect of improving one's quality of life, how can I be sure I won't grasp at straws at the end? I think the most honest answer is that I don't know.

—Spiritually I don't know if I'm any closer to knowing God, or her will. I'm convinced that I would not have lasted much longer if my cancer went undiscovered beyond my hospitalization Jan 31. But even being close to the edge did not lead to any epiphany about the meaning of life, or right relationship to Spirit. I have not regretted any major life choices; I have not pined for replays.

Mostly I'm happy with my life. While I'd prefer having more time (to push my thinking and my contributions a little further), I'll be at peace if that doesn't happen. I've had a good run.

My sense is that I've sustained enough damage that I'll never return to the health I once had. Mind you, I may have a number of productive years remaining—which I'm hoping for—but it's hard to imagine that I'll ever portage a canoe again, or hike segments of the Pacific Coast Trail. For that matter, I'll never build another cistern or fell a tree.

That's OK. There are unlimited books to read, conversations to have, and articles to author. There is plenty of wonder left in the world. While there is a hole in my life that will never close, there is still plenty of the whole left to explore, to taste, and to savor. Susan and I prefer to focus on the amazing opportunities that yet remain, rather than lamenting those that got away. 

We think of it as a style choice. If the brave leaves can emerge from the trees of Duluth, as they are now, than surely I can green up again as well.

1 comment:

Rosemary Wyman said...

Laird, I loved reading this. We are alive and (mostly) ourselves until we our bodies stop. Since you have lead the self-examined life with an eye for understanding your true human nature and working on your capacity to contribute, you are fully alive no matter how large the hole in your health. Articulating those Reflections is helpful to others. Here's to our seasons and growing.