observations and opinion
The call came, she says, on a Saturday, and her cell phone rang and on the other end of the call, was a doctor. A specialist.
“A phone call from a doctor on Saturday is probably not good news” she told me later. Hello doctor, she said, with one long heartbeat before she spoke.
“Don’t worry that I’m calling on Saturday” the doctor reassured her. “The test results just came in and I didn’t want you to wait any longer to find out. Things are fine.”
A Canadian specialist calling a patient on the weekend with good news about a biopsy? Does this doctor want to move to Ottawa? Do any of her med school classmates want to?
My friend ignored me and continued with the story of her good news over the phone. The specialist went on to explain that, as predicted, my friend had what the doctor calls “the very best kind of cancer.” The kind that doesn’t kill you, that you just have to get burned off with a laser beam. That was the good news. The less good news was that she also had “the second best kind of cancer” which almost never kills you, so long as you get rid of it and keep an eye out for more. So she had two kinds of cancer. The two “best” kinds.
She had gone to get tested at lunch time on August 1st. I knew about it and despite reassurances, it worried me a little. This has been a summer of death in our lives (the only novel I managed to finish was “The Fault in Our Stars”, appropriately enough). In the weeks since the biopsies were done, the tests had not crossed her mind too often, she said. I was somewhat skeptical. She has plenty going on in life to keep her occupied but words like “biopsy” “cancer” and “surgery” have a tendency to sink to the bottom of the mental aquarium like bricks. The fish may swim around prettily like they usually do, but you can’t help noticing….bricks.
I’ve lost friends to cancer, two close ones in the last few years. They had the very worst forms of it – multiple myeloma for one, pancreatic for the other. The first fought it off for years; the latter for months – months longer than average, but still, just months. They left spouses and children and siblings and friends and colleagues and admirers behind, who cling to their memories now and marvel at how lucky they were, to have once had such miraculous souls in their lives. Now gone. I, for one, am not prepared to lose any more of them if at all possible.
Not that we have any say in it. We are, surprisingly, spectators in our own stories. As I look out my window at the lake below my hill, I see the red tips of the early turning trees, swaying slightly in a cool breeze. The wind, the bending branches, the burnt scarlet leaves – all are as within my powers as is the sudden burst of cancer cells inside my friends’ bodies or my own.
Hearing that she had “the best kind of cancer” isn’t the greatest news, but it sounds pretty damned good compared to the alternatives. Of course, it is easy to be philosophical from inside my window, looking down. I had to wonder how it felt, to be biopsied and to wait weeks for results and to wonder, what will I do when the news comes in?
So I asked her. She had not worried about the news or been afraid at all. But she been impatient, she said. Impatient not just to find out the results (which she felt would most likely be okay) but impatient also to learn something. To feel something. To have an epiphany.
“For three weeks, I knew I would be the guy who dodged the bullet, or the guy who didn’t dodge the bullet” she told me. I smiled at this. It sounded like her. She puts on a good show of bravado most of the time, this one. One of those people who is much sunnier on the outside than on the in.
And so it came to pass, she went on, to learn that she was “the guy who dodged the bullet.” What of it? Relief, she admits, reasonably. And did she learn anything at all?
“I know now what is not going to kill me tomorrow” she said. “Not much else.”
But what hit her afterwards, she says, is a strange sense of regret. Regret? “We don’t really believe we’re going to die, do we?” she said, posing a statement as a question. “And then all of a sudden you’re the guy waiting to find if you dodged the bullet or not. And then it’s too late.”
Too late for what?
“Do you remember Olivia Newton-John?” she asked. Um, yes. “Remember “I Honestly Love You”? Sure. “Well I never understood that. I never understood how she could throw herself under the bus like that, just blurt that out to someone who doesn’t want to hear it.”
I understood that. Those three little words can buy you a lot of grief, if the other person doesn’t say them back.
“But I wanted to be like that” she said, emphatically. “I wanted to be that brave, brave enough to humiliate myself pointlessly. But I couldn’t. And now it’s too late”
Why is it too late?
“Because whatever I do now, I will wonder – am I doing this because I know the clock will, truly, stop some day? Not because I am a brave person. Now I can never be a brave person. ” she said.
“I don’t want to be someone who suddenly quits her job, or sky dives, because of this.” There was a pause. “And I don’t want to be the person who finally gets the courage to say “I’m in love with you” just because I know I’m going to die.”
But you’re not going to die, I said. That’s the whole goddamned point!
Wrong, she said. Now she knows that she IS going to die. She just doesn’t know of what, or when. I could practically see her sneering as she acted out the dreaded conversation: “Hi there, I was too scared of the future before to do what I loved or to speak the truth, but now that I know that there may not be all that much future to be afraid of, I thought I would just stop by to do what I should have done a long time ago.” Yuck, she said.
I liked that phrase “there may not be all that much future to be afraid of.” I hadn’t heard it said before, but it felt familiar – this idea that we have forever so better not make mistakes we will have to live with a long time. That’s why we don’t get tattoos (some of us) – because there’s so much future ahead to be unhappy with the tattoo. And that’s why some people don’t become artists – so much future to be poor in. And so on.
She was unhappy with herself for having been too afraid to do or say some important things. Because she was afraid of all that future. And now, with the faint whiff of mortality in her nostrils and the sound of a bullet whizzing past her ear, she understood maybe there wasn’t all that much future.
And that was the second problem, she said. What if she started making stupid decisions now that she knew Death was waiting around the corner? How could she trust her judgment?
I have a lot of respect for this person. She is smarter than most everyone I know. So I had to wonder, how had she managed to squeeze such profoundly dumb lessons out of such a basically positive life experience? This situation called for a wise rabbi. Unfortunately, neither of us is Jewish, so there was no rabbi. I took on the job.
I edged into it gently. “Did it ever occur to you” I began “that maybe you’ll make better decisions now?” Silence. Clearly it had not occurred to her.
“How so?” came a frosty, if faintly curious reply.
“Time was always short” I said, considering my next words carefully. “You just didn’t seem to see it, or believe it could be true.” Silence on the other end. She was still listening. Promising, or dangerous for me, I wasn’t sure which.
“But it is true. Time was always going to run out.” If she had made mistakes (not obvious from the outside, mind you) I said, maybe it was because she just assumed there would always be enough time to get things right.
“But there isn’t” I said, with some finality. There isn’t enough time to wait to get things right. Time runs out. “And now you know it. You know your most precious asset, time, is finite. And that is important information to have.” (Those may not have been my exact words, but I like how eloquent it makes me sound).
She stayed silent – an unusual condition – for some length of time.
“Oh my God, that’s worse!” she finally said.
“I’m worried that the next decisions I make will be based on the fear of death” she said, “and you’re telling me no, it’s all the decisions I’ve made so far that might be screwed-up, because I’ve been under the delusion of immortality!?” She sounded incredulous.
That is not exactly what I meant, although it kind of sounded like what I had said. I re-grouped. Obviously most of your life decisions were not screwed-up, I said impatiently. She had made a million great decisions, had great people in her life, had succeeded in all aspects of life. What I was trying to say, I stuttered, was that if she wanted to do something differently or just do something she had put off, maybe now, with the benefit of “new information” (that she was going to die some day) she might get motivated to think differently, or act differently.
“You can’t live every day like it’s your last” I told her, “and you know that you won’t.” However, I repeated, maybe it’s a good thing to be reminded that one day, some day – far off in the future, of course – your last day will come. And if you think on your last day, there is something you will regret not having done, maybe you ought to get around to it.”
Because there isn’t necessarily all that much future to be afraid of, or to waste, basically.
I understood what she meant in saying that it is disappointing to realize, in the past, you made a mistake or maybe been afraid when you might have been brave. The question is, which deserves your attention now: disappointment over what you can’t change, or disappointment over what you still can get right?
“You’re going to live another fifty years at least” I said, tapping my wooden desk with my knuckle (softly so she couldn’t hear it over the phone). If she was going to worry about regrets, maybe it ought to be the ones she could still avoid, I said. “So what is it that you don’t want to regret some day?”
“I don’t know” she said, pausing for a moment. “Maybe I finally will just say “I’m in love with you.”
“Um, what?” I stuttered, “you’re in…”
“Not with you, idiot!”
Even more good news over the phone.