I debated getting the word “Unkillable” tattooed across my back, shoulder to shoulder, in vista blocking black letters. To be honest, the debate continues back and forth at the moment. The attempts to visually draw a line between myself and the rest of normative culture suddenly seemed tame when, in high school, I fell in with a group of friends, most college-aged, who not only drew lines between themselves and the rest of the world, upon their bodies, but also drew lines that connected each other together. The ethics of our underground culture brought above sea level with ethical proclamations etched across lower backs screaming out STRAIGHT EDGE, from shoulder to shoulder DRUG FREE, the sides of heads UNBROKEN, choking necks VEGAN. Not just incredibly bold and seemingly dangerous statements to the world, I found my bare skinned self, embodying an untested extremist personality, painfully attracted to the aesthetics alone. I had shit to say just as desperately as their bodies advertised all the same and I found saying it in bold black letters most appropriate. Of course, my attempts to do so as I got older waned in severity, though RESISTANCE cascading down my forearm is a suitable concession. Now almost 42, it’s more prideful than childishly amusing that I am still drawn to such drastic exclamations. My fire doesn’t die down.
“Unkillable” being the word I chose to define my experience, perspective even, for the Runner’s World cover contest that I somehow won. To stand out you have to shout louder, I guess, or just pose more Xtreme (TM).
Today being the 5th anniversary of my first cancer surgery, the abstract line I draw in the abstract creation of linear time to mark the beginning of my life as a cancer patient, I thought it demanded some demarcation of celebration, or if not celebration, then powerful acknowledgement. I would run, of course, because that’s what I do anyways, and maybe something deeper and meaningful would come of that, but I don’t know, 5 years seemed like it was worth something more, hence the tattoo consideration that I haven’t yet fully embraced or dismissed. But there it is. The consideration anyways. Because 5 years IS a thing, and although it’s not unheard of in regards to my specific cancer, the success rates and corresponding timelines aren’t necessarily so promising either. I’ll never forget how dead I was…on paper. So if living is so awesome and unpredictable and so UNGUARANTEED, then what is it if not for absurd gestures and delusional proclamations of being UNKILLABLE, though all history and biology and evidence is to the contrary. Who fuckin cares, we’re all worm food in the end, so just go for it.
5 years later and I’m undeniably a different person, in ways more tempered and humbled, while also the same raging 20 something looking to change the world by first setting it all on fire to start again. This is all for me though, of course, this consideration of etching a proclamation into my body, this acknowledgment of my continued mortality, which is interesting because over the past 5 years many people from all over found themselves drawn into my story by varying degrees, some fleeting and others more lasting. I’ve never tried to fully dismiss their interest, though remaining aware that this is my story, for me.
With half a glance over my shoulder for accountability, I’ll say this. I didn’t often dwell on dying, because living well has always been my intent, before and during cancer. It is and always will be a guiding premise for me, which has garnered me tremendous personal rewards that are hard to convey to those without the fortune to actually experience them. It’s one thing to say how great life is without smoking, but no one buys it, even though all of us who don’t smoke don’t just KNOW it, we FEEL it. We LIVE it. My intent to not just live, but to live well is no different. If others watching with interest get anything from my experience, I would hope it would be some manner of perspective that adversity isn’t the obstacle, but rather how one lives through it. We all exist with experiences that can erode our quality of life one way or another, but how we meet these experiences, how we filter them through our narratives, and how we move forward is what defines the severity of each obstacle. Cancer, and the potential of abbreviated mortality, was/is my primary obstacle, but it really just exists as another opportunity to test my narratives, to test my resolve to not just live, but live well. Cancer gave me the opportunity, the excuse, to lie down and die. It gave me the excuse to crawl into a hole and just let existence drift away…but that’s fucking boring.
Without going into all the specifics and what’s and who’s, I continued on with cancer in the same ways I had with all the obstacles that came prior, with a careful mix of hopeful potential and pointed revenge. I don’t claim that I have a formula for anyone else to follow into adversity, but rather just the evidence that continuing on is a reality, that living well is always an option.
Each year I watch various friends and loved ones succumb to the weight of modern life, either devoid of a narrative that lifts them above the drowning, or blatantly letting the fog of perspective cloud their vision for other open vistas. They accept some pathetic baseline of health through the most destructive vices, resting in the comfort of everyone else’s apathy. They allow the sedentary pulls of modern convenience drag them into physical and psychic paralysis. And worst of all, they allow the mechanisms of civilized life build a wall between them and the rest of existence, forcing their hand to pull the guillotine down upon it’s victims. Lives held as respectable are just dressed up versions of dying.
If my experience with not only facing my mortality but absorbing the sufferings of treatment and the edges of dying are to mean anything, it will be to point to all the victories of joy experienced along the way, the miles run towards greater strength and speed, the continued drive to find optimal ways to cooperate on behalf of the less fortunate, and to just prove the possibility of a life well lived in the face of what could have been the end of that possibility.
That end, of course, will come. It may be through this cancer or something else after this cancer has been killed within me. The proclamation of being UNKILLABLE will fade with the ink, death laughing at the hubris, but along the way, if it wasn’t the body that couldn’t be killed, then at least it can’t be denied that it was the spirit that continued unrestricted, expansive, and alive. It’s all we can hope for as individuals finding ourselves thrown into this consciousness through the most improbable chance. Throughout this improbability, death is not to be feared. It is letting the dying take over while you still have the opportunity to be alive.
5 years as a testament to a unique sort of living. “Unkillable” I like to put it.