The following excerpt is from my still unpublished journal on You Know You Are Going to Die, New What? Three Questions You Must Face Head On
Sometimes is it easier to write down your thoughts before you attempt to express them with others. As a cancer survivor of Leukemia, CLL type, that is what I did and I thought you might like this non-intrusive way of organizing your thinking about the fact that you may or may not die as a resut of cancer, some other like-threatening illness. or AIDS.
Whether you have some faith system or no faith system at all, you have a value system, know it or not. That is your default system of what you hold as your center. Only you can choose what you place at your center, be it money, fame, fortune and glory (as Indiana Jones said in The Temple of Doom) or nothing at all. Before you accuse me of flying under false colors, I will tell you that I am a Lay Cistercian (Trappist) member of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. Although it has influenced my view of reality, I am not trying to make you this or that. I don’t care. I do care about contemplative practices of silence and solitude and conversion of my life to the purpose I have selected. I do care to share with you some reflections on how contemplation helped me secure a North on my compass when I learned I had cancer. I hope that you can apply at least one or two ideas to your situation, given that you know you are going to die soon. I do care that you have an opportunity to write down YOUR thoughts and feelings as you confront yourself and the situation in which you find yourself.
There are three questions that I asked myself, upon learning that I had cancer. I used contemplation (going into the rich interior of my inner self) to seek peace, purpose and forgiveness all within the silence of my own heart. While it is true that you are diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening illness as an individual, you can be sure you don’t have it alone, as soon as you allow your friends to share in your diagnosis and how you assimilate it into your way of thinking. Cancer is always a family disease.
The first part of this workbook, I will give you my take on the three questions that I faced. No apologies. It is what I did, not what you did or will do. In the second part of this book is a journal so that you can write down your answer to these three questions. No one needs to see what you write, unless you share it with them. I encourage you to do so. I will read it, if you want me to do so.
This is the big, elephant-in-the-room question, the so called question everone knows but no one wants to talk about. It is classic avoidance and we all do it. After all, who wants to die? Who wants to be told they are going to die? It affects both patients and physicians. Physicians are petrified because they don’t know how their patients will accept it; patients are stunned when they hear the “C” word and begin playing an endless loop of doomsday scenarios in their minds.
The question is not, nor will it ever be, “Am I going to die?” Name one person you know who will not die? I can’t, except for two persons, but that is the subject of another set of assumptions for another workbook. I received a phone call from my primary physician, Dr. Judith Lewis, M.D., Internal Medicine, one day in September of 2014, stating she had reviewed my WBC count (> 20) and wanted to make an appointment for me with an Oncologist, Dr. Robert Tetreault, M.D., in Tallahassee, FL. She said to me, “Y ou know what we are talking about, don’t you?” I said, “Yes. You are telling me I probably have cancer but you want to make sure with a bone-marrow biopsy.” I thought is was nice that she called me. I hung up and had no thoughts in my mind, which some say is normal, but I did fall back on my center, the set of values and meaning that give worth to my life.
Each of us has a center, one which we alone can choose, based on what we value as meaningful in our lives to that point. When there is trauma and urgency, such as when you are told you are going to die, prisoners get religion all of a sudden, those about to die, want to confess to a Priest, if they are Catholic, people think of their value system, as their life moves before their eyes. You may have experienced this. If what we have selected as our center is substantial and meaningful, we stand on the solid grounds of our humanity, if our center is like Jell-O, we don’t do so well with the news that we are going to die.
Here are three lessons that I learned, when confronted with my mortality.
Lesson One: Keep life simple. Your center is the one ground of your being. The default emotions and feelings, when someone says you are going to die, can be like Kubler-Ross’ five steps of grief:
1 – Denial.
2 – Anger.
3 – Bargaining.
4 – Depression. Also referred to as preparatory grieving. …
5 – Acceptance.
See Google for “Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages”
Not all centers are capable of sustaining you as you work your way through these five stages of grief, let alone provide you with what you need to move to the next stage of your life. When I was told I had cancer, it was like saying, “The world will end in ten minutes.” I don’t remember being depressed or angry, when I actually found out that I had a football-size mass of CLL cells in my liver. Not good. The worst part for me was not the chemo-therapy, the liver biopsy, twelve sessions of at least five hours apiece, but the MRI and PET scans. I am severely clostrophobic.
2. Lesson Two: You die yourself, but you don’t die alone. The family goes through the stages of grief with you. If your family sees you as a defenseless victim they will never raise the one question I need to hear about my dying and what that would mean. Unless someone from the outside (a friend, minister, rabbi or priest) brings this up, it probably won’t be addressed. Every time you meet together, there is the great unspoken taboo that needs to be addressed. What I learned is, it is my death they are talking about, so I must bring up the subject and address it head on. I could not do that unless my ground for walking was concrete and I was in control of my dying well. I don’t control that I will die, but I can control how to die well.
I had my wife and daughter accompany me to the Oncologist, Dr. Tetreault’s office for the results of my tests. I wanted them to know what I know and not begin conjecturing or playing the “what if” game. It worked out well, in terms of them knowing what I know. In terms of the type of lymphoma, it was CLL type and there were a bunch o these cells in my liver the size of a football. I had to have a liver biopsy to see what was going on. Like most non-medical types, I had no idea what that meant, although I did know a little about liver functioning. Modern research in oncology is fantastic and I was given a newly approved drug.
Lesson 3: Be realistic. You know you are going to die, but you have the opportunity to die well.
In the next installment, I will discuss the impact of using Cistercian contemplative spirituality as a way for me to gain control of my life. I cannot control my death.