Living and Dying

If I had said two years and a few months ago, in early 2013, that I had never been sick a day in my life, it would be true—never really sick other than colds and one bout with flu over 70+ years; never spent a day in the hospital; never a major injury; never a broken bone. But even the healthiest of us, unless we die of unnatural causes—killed in an automobile accident, say—will eventually become sick with something. As we age, there will likely be several somethings that lay us low, before one of them takes us all the way, and we shuffle off to whatever awaits us when the light goes out in our heads. After that, it might be nothing, the void, and how does one comprehend the void? Or it could be reincarnation to a more enlightened life, if we had accumulated more good karma than bad; or to a life less enlightened, if our karma scale were reversed. Or it might be like those movies or books or anecdotal stories where we’ll see a light, and loved ones who went before us will be waiting to greet us, everyone in their prime again and not deathly sick the way we remember them. Or it could be something else entirely. Harp-strumming angels among the clouds, perhaps. Not likely, but who knows? The point is, no one does.

So, never sick a day. Until. An ordinary day, getting ready to go somewhere, when I felt a large lump on the right side of my neck that had seemingly appeared overnight. What the hell was this?

Its appearance was so sudden that I thought it was a swollen lymph node caused by an infection I was unaware of. Next day, when I saw my doctor, he disagreed with my self-diagnosis, first with an ominous “Hmm,” as he was feeling around on my neck, and then saying, “This is not a swollen lymph node. I’m ordering a CT scan.”

That scan took place, and what came next were more tests. First was a PET CT, involving an injection of a radioactive solution followed by a full-body scan, which will “light up,” or, in medical jargon, show increased uptake wherever cancer exists. Mine lit up in the area of my right tonsil. A needle biopsy was then performed, and the live cancer cells, called squamous cell carcinoma, were extracted and analyzed. So I had cancer of the throat, more specifically my right tonsil.

The odd thing about all of this was the ordinary feeling I had throughout. No hand wringing, no staring in dread into the maw of the void, as I thought would happen if I were ever to come face-to-face with the big “C.” I just went on with my life, interrupted to varying degrees by the treatment of chemotherapy and radiation directed at the right side of my neck and surrounding areas. There were the side effects, of course, though not nearly as bad as the horror stories one hears. I got over them and kept on going in my everyday life. I worried very little about the eventual outcome, which I would learn down the road through regular visits to my cancer doctors, who would tell me if the cancer was no longer detectable, or had spread. During all this, it was my daughter and my brother and sister who did all the worrying for me.

As time went on, though, my attitude did change. My mortality, after all, had come up and smacked me in the face. Instead of being something I could ignore for the time being while getting on with life, it was right there staring at me. This was life, the end game or the exit, as much a part of it as our entry into it when we were born. I wrote a memoir, which turned out to be more an autobiography, primarily as a record of my life for my daughter and grandchildren, but also for other relatives and a few friends who expressed an interest. I mused over how much time I had left and sometimes slipped into depressions as the infirmities of aging took hold of me—loss of energy, stiffness of limbs, neuropathy—perhaps made worse by the long-term effects of chemotherapy, perhaps not, and I thought of how little time I might have—a year, five years, ten, it didn’t matter, the end was out there and I could see it.

Live life to the fullest, people will tell you. Or as the actor, James Dean, supposedly said, “Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today.” That sounds nice in a Hollywood sort of way. But none of those platitudes give much comfort. Yet there they are. They’re what we have


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