Is it true that we don’t really believe we’re going to die? We know in our heads that we will, but do we entirely believe it? I think we don’t. I think there’s a part of us that somehow believes that we won’t ever die, if only because contemplating that reality is so unpleasant and counterproductive that it’s easier to put it out of your mind altogether. It’s that thing that will happen (presumably), but it’s best to create a life based on the presumption that it won’t. And then once in a while you have a brush with death, a reminder: a car nearly swerves into you, you stare down from the 44th floor at the street from a balcony, the turbulence on the plane gets a little too turbulent, and you think, I could die right now. It’s terrifying and disturbing.
I had cancer and recovered (so far). The kind of cancer I had is entirely curable 98% of the time, and deaths from it are extremely rare and involve decades without proper medical care or the detonation of nuclear bombs nearby. I was never in the position where my life was in serious danger. Of course the moment the words “cancer” or “carcinoma” get bandied about during your doctor visit, the fear kicks in and it’s like your life goes into constant turbulence on descent. You are convinced that you will die, and you are right. You will. Not of this, but you will. How is it such a surprise? A rude surprise. Extraordinarily unwelcome.
There’s an element of trust that’s part of it; when your computer crashes or makes a sick sound for the first time, you start to trust it less. Personally, I start to mourn it a little bit. I thought it was perfect, but now it’s demonstrated that its not, it’s on its way down. I’ve started on the path to replacing it. Every time it restarts you have a question in the back of your head about whether it will or won’t. It’s proven itself to be unsound (sometimes). I will start to see it that way.
This is the same process that happens with your body. It’s one thing if you don’t like to run, your feet get sore when you stand around for hours on end, you get tired after a couple pints of beer. But when something serious goes wrong, when your body proves to you that it’s capable of aiding and abetting carcinoma, you trust it less. It’s on the path to the grave, and you can see it now. Can I take a breath and get to the end of this sentence? Or will I run out of air? No longer able to know for sure the limits of your own body, there’s the mourning of that youthful exuberance, that certainty that you know precisely what you can do. As if that means you can do nothing at all.
As with a piece of technology, you get over these fears as your body demonstrates that its recovered. You learn to forgive it for allowing something deadly to grow. You put it in context, blame the environment, extraordinary stresses, consider the ways your body protected itself, closed off the deadliest stuff. You come to terms. If you’re like me, and you had a cancer no one ever took seriously as a threat to your life or lifestyle, you don’t even get an oncologist. You’re on the lowest rung of the cancer ladder, so low it’s a wonder they even use the same word. You don’t warrant special treatment ever after. You’re back in with the regular public for everything; care, percentage chance of getting (another) cancer, potential lifespan. With time, you even see yourself that way. Average. Ordinary. Invincible, just like everyone else.
But that’s not how others see me, I understand now. Tarred with the cancer brush, I see that for others I’m a person who’s going to die, unlike them. I’m in the category of people who will die. Not today, but one day. I’ve demonstrated my ability to foster and support death, like a computer with a history of kernel failures. We know that one is going to need to go to the e-waste trash pile, it will one day crash and not come back.
I suppose it’s evidence of a) the crucial place of optimism in our daily lives. I understand that we need to hope for the best, I guess it hadn’t occurred to me until I got sick just how critical that hope is. If you know you’re going to die in 5, 10, 40 years precisely, would you live your life differently? Would you throw caution to the wind, feel freed from the shackles of not knowing, or would you mourn the reality of it? I think mostly we fall into the second camp, mourning the bare fact. But the reality is, your computer is going to collapse eventually, and you’ll have to replace it. You will die someday. It might be this afternoon while walking across the street, next week on an international flight, in two months from now of a spontaneous aneurysm, or flesh-eating bacteria, or new strain of flu. The only difference in this regard between us (the currently healthy) and those in hospice is the knowledge of what is going to kill us. Not when, and certainly not if.