An Honest Life. An Honest Death.

Hey friend. Come here, have a seat. Let’s have a discussion. We’ll talk about some things and use words like “Die, “Dying”, and “Death”. It’s ok. We can say them casually and we can say them matter of factly, in a way no different then when we utter “Life”, “Living” and “Live.” They are, after all, one and the same really. You don’t have one without the other, or if you do, the effect of either is lessened to an insulting degree, wouldn’t you say?

Well, I do anyways. So bare with me, but I’m an honest person and I’m going to speak honestly.

I am out of the hospital and in the beginning stages of self-initiated, post-surgery recovery. I’m taking my pills, getting lots of sleep, protecting myself emotionally, and have now begun a physical therapy of sorts – getting on the treadmill to put in walking miles at at pace that demands a bit of effort. I do this because the next step in my cancer process is chemotherapy, and the goal is to be as strong as possible, as quickly as possible, so that I can both take on chemo successfully (or as successfully as possible) and get to it as soon as I can. The quicker we get strong, the quicker we get to chemo, the quicker we get to surgery, the quicker we get back to life. That’s the trajectory. So for now, to be blunt, I’m training for poisoning. Really, chemo is poison and I’m training not for some usual goal of accomplishment, but rather to combat the effects of poisoning the best I can. It’s kind of absurd.

Regardless, that is the next step, which brings me to the subject of this post. Death. Say it casually, it’s ok. It’s the reality.

When in the hospital, after being delivered the news that my cancer was no longer an annoying 6 month bump in the road, but now a potential life-stopping cliff to drive off of, I didn’t..or at least couldn’t…think about death. There was no point. Not only would it not do me any good, but I had too much to worry about as it stood. I had compacted bowels, intense abdominal pain, endless nights of interrupted sleep. The ONLY thing I could focus on at that point was getting out of there and to the next step.

And here we are. At the next step, a 4 to 6 week building of the body to face chemo. And when facing that chemo, we will also be facing the make or break scenario to this whole interruption in my life. Sure, I will start chemotherapy, but it’s what happens during that process that will determine whether we achieve a best case scenario and go BACK into the HIPEC surgery to kill the cancer once and for all, doing the hospital experience all over again, or….well….we don’t. And I find myself staring down the inevitable trajectory of a quickened death. Either the chemo shrinks the tumors and we can take them out or it doesn’t and I figure out how to rage my life to the end.

Just a quick reminder. It’s ok. We can talk about this. Actually I wish we would.

I know internet communication is so fleeting and reactionary, but frankly, sometimes all the positivity and encouragement falls a little flat. The “Hang in there’s”, the “You’ll beat this thing”, the “Cancer doesn’t stand a chance”….those are all great and understandable, but every once in awhile I want that refreshing breath of honesty exhaled into the conversation. Sometimes I want to hear, “Dude, this sucks. You may not make it out alive, but surely you’ll find a way to make the most of it along the way.”

And maybe that’s asking to much. Maybe that’s just something I’M supposed to say, as I just did, and maybe that’s my role, but I’ve never been one for contrived and trite rituals and phrases delivered with no deeper consideration of what is actually being said. “America is the greatest country in the world!!!” Yeah? Prove it. “Everything happens for a reason.” Ok…under what premise?

But forgive me, I don’t mean to insult anyone’s well wishes. Not at all. I appreciate them all. I appreciate and USE every positive gesture sent my way, but I’ve also been feeling a need for a good dose of honesty, a meaningful conversation, a recognition of our absurdly fragile existence and the value that comes with it. I want to talk about death and dying…to not sweep it under the rug of hope and delusion. I want to look at the process of life and not appease ourselves with ancient stories, not deny the reality of our existence for feel-good purposes, not shy away from the inevitable because we deem it unpleasant.

And let’s not ignore the irony of facing death in our lives every day by the decision we make at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Without a second thought we joke about and dismiss a sentient animal’s life, stabbing into it’s physical flesh with a fork and knife, even acknowledging our part in it’s shortened existence, and although we are shockingly comfortable with this sort of discussion and awareness, we can’t face it when it comes to our own mortality, or even draw any meaningful connection between the two.

Instead we hold desperately to one of so many concocted stories that explain away our ultimate impermanence. We keep trust in stories fabricated in times of great ignorance and even greater fear, dragging them into the enlightened modern age and trying to adapt them to our ever growing sense of knowledge of both ourselves and our existence. In effect, we deny both the reality of our deaths and the reality of our existence, in a way, insulting the incredible value and inexpressible amazement that is the chance and circumstance of our lives.

But that’s not me. I want to embrace the awareness of my death just as I embrace the awareness of my life, and I want others to do it with me.

This isn’t to say we can’t be scared or saddened by our impermanence. Not at all. When I woke up in the ICU after getting the news from my doctor, I instantly thought of my son and had the awareness that my “annoying cancer” was now a “life-threatening cancer” and my time with him might be cut tragically short…and I was briefly scared, but that fear quickly turned into a great sadness more than anything else. And now…well…I can’t tell you what it is now.

Right now there is no need to take sides. I don’t PLAN on dying, but I never did really. I also know that I have little control over the outcome in this matter and that science and medicine and poison are really the ones doing all the work….I’m just here for the ride and hoping for the best. I can tell you this though. If the best case scenario becomes my fate, I’m going to continue living my life as I did in the past, raging through it and forcibly drawing out every epic experience I can create. And if the chemo DOESN’T work and my only option is accepting my quickened death….I’m going to do EXACTLY the same. Because if you ask me, a long life or a quickened death, I don’t know the point in existence if you aren’t raging through to either outcome.

And part of that experience, that existence, is honesty. It’s ok for us to talk bluntly about life and death, to not hide our desires behind delusions, and to simply accept everything for what it truly is. It’s plenty enough for me anyways. I hope your existence is, all the same, enough for you too. The life, the death, the chance, the circumstance, and everything else in between.

8 responses to “An Honest Life. An Honest Death.

  1. runnergirlemily

    I am a new reader and am hesitant to comment on something so poignant and personal.

    But this reminds me of something:

    “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

  2. The defining experience of my life so far has been my mother’s 18 month journey with, and death from, a rare adrenal cancer. Her death is why I am now a vegan runner/scuba diver/SUPer/soon-to-be surfer. Not for health, or because I think it will ‘protect’ me, but because that’s the way I want to live, every day to the best of my ability, regardless of circumstances.
    I think death can be a teacher, much like life. I admire you for being able to articulate and share this wide range of your experiences so cogently. Your marathon PR is inspiring and so is this post.

    • Thank you Kat. You know, the outcome of our lives is important, of course, but with no guarantees on a timeline, the only legitimate option is to live each day to its fullest, whether that is through running, surfing, etc. That is always the ultimate goal in my opinion. I only hope most people come to this realization in life sooner rather than later. There are so many distractions to discovering and accepting this awareness, and I’m just fortunate I cut through it all at an early age. Sounds like you did too. Onward!

  3. Although I do not know you, I must express the awe I have for your gift of the written word! It is evident in your expression of thoughts and raw emotion, even at this time when you may be surrounded by clinicians, physicians and the like whose expertise is most valuable; YOU are the true EXPERT on YOU! What a gift you have…of knowing yourself.

    • Thank you for the good words. Often we rightfully concede to the experts on our bodies, but sometimes the patient knows best. As an athlete, running has certainly put me more in tune with my body than I think the experts give me credit for. Then there is also having the self-confidence to talk about all this too.

  4. It is remarkable how beautifully you express yourself and these things, Scott, even after the pain of surgery and the drugs, etc. You have a gift for writing.

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