Monday, March 14, 2016

Two Cancer Patients by Ronald Wendling

            Chapter 10 of my memoir, Unsuitable Treasure: An Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past, is about the four months prior to my father’s death of esophageal cancer at age forty-six. Except for two hospitalizations, dad spent those months at home. I was nineteen at the time and some 400 miles away, struggling through my second year of training to become a Jesuit priest. I was allowed to visit my father twice, and by the time I had been rushed onto a train home for my third visit, he had already died.
            I have often wondered what it would have been like had I been home to help see my dad through his last illness. On my first visit he had been well enough to have me drive him to the hospital for one of his quick therapy treatments (“just to have some company,” he said) and when the subject of his cancer came up briefly, he downplayed its seriousness. But I knew it would have helped each of us if we had been able to talk through what he was thinking about a disease we both already understood was terminal.
           Tom Lubbock was a British writer, art critic and illustrator whose short memoir, Until Further Notice, I Am Still Alive, I have just finished reading. Tom was a Cambridge graduate, my dad a heating salesman who barely made it out of the eighth grade. But like my dad, Tom was “youngish,” as he puts it, when struck with his fatal cancer—just over fifty. He died of glioblastoma multiforme, a malignant tumor about the size of a grape in the area of the brain that affects our uses of language: conversing, which Tom loved to do, spelling, reading, and of course writing, his life’s work. For me, reading Tom’s story about his roughly two year struggle with his cancer was like listening to him talk before he couldn’t do that anymore. That made up somewhat for missing the chance to hear my father talk about his own speedier movement toward death.
          When the idea of writing his story first came up, Tom Lubbock understood the professional difficulty it raised. Readers generally like their stories to end definitively: the lead character triumphs (in this case the cancer loses) or goes down to defeat (the cancer wins). But since Tom could hardly be expected to write an ending that had not happened yet, his story had to be one of “prolongation.” The ending could never be more than just around the corner, a possibility confronted or evaded during the story’s various twists and turns: each phone call or visit with his doctors, each scan, each chemo session, each reaction to his plight from his wife and three-year-old son.
            Potential readers may expect a memoir like this to be depressing, but the opposite is the case. Tom had no pain aside from his gradual loss of language. The reason he had always loved being in the world was that everyone and everything in it is bodily and so necessarily subject to time, the accidental, the uncontrollable. We can determine our futures, he believed, but only to an extent, not absolutely. It did not make sense to him then that he should view the first abrupt sign of his tumor as catastrophic. He never undertook any dramatic search for cures exceeding the recommendations of
his doctors, whose judgments he trusted. He did not feel afflicted by an otherworldly power and pray to be delivered from his illness. Of course he was often sad, but he was never despairing. In fact, he found himself blessedly relieved of future mindedness—the making of long-range plans. Since the entire world is in transit from birth to death, Tom experienced some calm in now being more thoroughly aware of this fact than most. He even called his condition “a new life,” a state of ever firmer attachment to this transitory world even as the strings of that attachment were breaking one by one.
            I doubt that my father was anywhere near as accepting of his approaching death as Tom Lubbock was, and I doubt that I will be either whenever my time comes. But Tom’s memoir did bring me closer to understanding the mindset that makes such acceptance possible.


Carolyn Niethammer said...

Very thoughtful post. As we all age, and "old age" always seems to apply to people 10 years older than we are, the issue of how we will face our own death looms large. I guess the advice to live so we will have no regrets is the best advice.

Nancy Jacoby said...

I lost my father at the age of 28. He was just 58, the victim of the rare cancer multiple myeloma. He left us suddenly, leaving no time for that final goodbye or even a winding down to the inevitable, which might have given us chances to talk intimately and preserve the many memories and experiences that he'd had in his life. Losing a parent at a young age certainly changes your outlook on how to live life, and each year that brings me closer to the age at which he died, I am reminded more and more to live in the moment and stay focused on the things I want to accomplish before my own life ends.

So interesting, Ron, that you find hope in a memoir about a cancer journey. Thank you for taking the time to relay the author's angle and your take on it. It is interesting to ponder time's limit as an advantage in a sense rather than a desperate race. Even for those of us who are healthy, the clock can "strike midnight" at any time. As with many things, living well and dying content require a certain perspective. How refreshing to learn about a new approach to thinking about both through your insightful and eloquent post.

Ronald Wendling said...

Thank you both for your valuable observations on my post. Ron