My Possible Death as an Occasion to Consider What Life Has Meant
Our bodies start trying to murder us at some point. Eventually, they’ll succeed. If outside forces don’t get us first, the inside ones inevitably will. Mine has finally come for me, and my response is: “I’ve been waiting. What took you so long?”
There’s this “mass” in an unwelcome area of my body, and a lot of corresponding chaos suggesting its intentions are not friendly. We’ll take a closer look, to make sure it’s not a trick of the lens, but it sounds like I’m going under the knife. This is the first volley.
You’re better off facing the scalpel than not, of course, but even the instrument of deliverance can also kill you a few different ways. Even if we get this assassin from within, there’s no guarantee taking it out is enough, because it doesn’t just want a piece of me, it wants it all.
Like a saboteur on a submarine, our insidious mutineers try to throw a wrench in the works from stem to stern as fast as they can move. Yes, the ship itself and the sea it navigates will make multiple attempts on our lives. And if we’re smart captains, we’ll know it and be emotionally prepared to respond, win or lose.
I have no intention of going down at the hands of the first schoolyard bully, sent to test my resolve — testing to see if I’m some medical punching bag. “You will rue this,” I say to the mass. “You will not have me.”
Eventually, the lemming-like efforts of this mortal coil at concluding its own existence will prevail. But in the meantime, I cast scorn, wield bravado, swagger before its threats. I taunt death. I defy it. I will make it work very hard to take me down.
Also, there are a few things I want to have said before that happens — about what I cared about and tried to do and stand for. If everything turns out all right this time, it was no harm. We can raise a glass and regard this as first poetry mounted against the night.
On the other hand, I once saw a black belt “ranking” in which, after fighting off one person, then two, they put all the other black belts on one. The goal wasn’t to win against them— it was to lose well and with honor. If this first time we go all the way, and it’s like that, then I will have shared a little section of self-portrait as farewell. I’ll keep it to three things…
First: I Fought
Not just this. I grew up under the knife—it was just a different kind. Only a few people know the full extent of the hurdles I have faced and outlasted where most others have fallen. But I deny that I am a victim of anything, nor will be if I’m the one to fall this time. And I do not call myself a survivor, nor will if I beat it. What I have strived to be is a warrior (obligatory chuckle if you like) — not just for myself — but for anyone like me.
You who threatened that young woman on the subway know this, because I faced you. You who tried to beat a man to death in front of me, multiple times, turned and I was there, was I not? I called you out when you took that baseball bat to your lover, harassed that dog, jumped that homeless man, badgered that autistic woman, enticed that child. I didn’t back down. I faced you on the field. If I flinched, I didn’t waver. If I wavered, I didn’t wither. I stood.
They were all like me, because I have felt the things they felt. They were all mine. All my children, and colleagues, and friends, though I didn’t know any of their names.
So if I go down now, I hope it will have counted that I fought but, if not, it’s my intent at least to have fought — to have put it all in. I hope I will have left the shards of my life all over the field. I want to have been like Rommel, refusing to surrender the ground, no matter how overwhelming the opposition. I want to have made my enemy take it from me.
If I can have that. If I can keep that up ’til the end, I will have loved my life well. I will have ranked as I want to have ranked, by my standards.
Second: I Tried to Do My Duty
I have held myself by this standard: that I do what I say when I say. I trust those I serve have known to count on that — my family and those in my charge, my colleagues and clients, my business partners and those who’ve sought my counsel, my friends and those I love. I hope my opponents in life have felt it also, and have learned there’s a cost to malfeasance. Duty is sacred to me. Under its banner, I have done what I have done. I have made my word my actions, as much as I have had the strength, and tried to temper my words where I did not.
Those who’ve known me a long time, know it wasn’t always so. I have been an oath-breaker and faithless in my life. I have never forgotten it, and the effect of it doesn’t go away, but I have learned from the fact that I can’t go back and change those moments. They cannot be made right. And learning that, I’ve tried to be better. Only those who knew me then and know me still can say whether I’ve succeeded.
You to whom I’ve made promises. To the best my conscience can compel, I have sought to deliver on every representation I have made to you. I’ve sought to do right by you, deliver what I owe, and do all that falls within my duty. It gratifies me to hope you find the offering acceptable. If you find some truth in my description of this compact with others — that honesty has dominated, loyalty prevailed, and trust honored and fulfilled, then I have lived the life I wanted to live. Someone wants to have won a championship — you were my championship. And for your part of that bargain, thank you.
Third and Finally: I Was Free
There is one thing I have prized higher than my life. Sure, I live in a land that affords me freedom of opportunity, but it was always my own task to achieve freedom of condition. And I am proof, to myself at least, that all things are possible.
I started in circumstances those close to me could rightly characterize as ‘bondage’, and I carried those bonds well into my adult life. Yet, for a full decade at least, I have not known the scent of captivity or the touch of any chains. I am and have been the man I choose, not the child I was compelled to be or the shadow of him. I have chosen my profession, my home, my state of mind, and the life that I have, all with a view to maximizing freedom. I answer to no one — no one, except myself and my own honor.
When I hear gurus say if you just believe x or realize y, you’ll have a bountiful life, I think of it as a first world fallacy. It works if you’re white and someone paid for college, because where you start is everything, but if you offer that philosophy to the eight-year-old Thai girl who is fed candy and lies, abused to the point of brain damage, and sold into sex slavery I hope God slaps you.
To Hell with beliefs. I think they’re a pox on the human system. I don’t “believe” that all things are possible; I had to find it out by simply not quitting. That’s the difference between a successful anything— business, life, mission — and an unsuccessful one. In my experience, it’s not quitting. And through it, we discover that all things are possible.
So I have the life I wanted. I’m doing what I want, where I want — if anything, I’d merely like to have more of it—as much as I can get. But it’s a lot, and that’s freedom. This is something not even the wealthy or the well-prepared are guaranteed. It is so much the opposite of earlier years of suffering that it feels like Jubilee — which in the Christian meaning is the 8th Day of Creation — the joy and freedom of the Kingdom of God among men. Immanuel — God with us.
I am not ashamed to say that I attribute this freedom to my God, the Most Holy Trinity — the Father unbegotten, the Son begotten, and the Holy Spirit from the Father alone proceeding. The breaker of chains set me free, and I don’t mean Daenerys Targaryen. When I look at the life I had, most of those who shared it either threw down their own lives in frustration or their wills became mangled until, finally, we do what we do with outcasts — we blame them for their own condition—and our narrative of damnation became enmeshed with their own. My coming through intact is so improbable as to make Providence the most obvious bet.
Again, I don’t “believe” it any more than I believe Trump is a sociopath or that black holes exist — each draining everything into an abyss of primordial ego from which no truth or light escapes. I don’t need to believe. I see the effects and bet on the obvious, just like I bet and took money off of several progressives, that we’d elect a sociopath. Polls are beliefs. The historical moment is just how it is.
But regardless of anyone else’s beliefs to the contrary, this much is demonstrated every day of my life: I am free. Unconquerably so. If in the midst of this freedom, I am freed also from the constraints of the flesh, I can only think I’ll be laughing about it. “Even more, Lord?” There is so much more, I’ll bet.
In Closing: My Point
You see that I am making a point: It is not losing one’s life that is to be feared. I can’t fear it. I can’t imagine going through life recoiling at the possibility of Death. It is there all the time. How could you live?
The diagnosis that would ruin me isn’t medical. Instead, it’s entirely in my control. That I did not fight. That I did not try to do my duty. That I was not, at least in some small way, free. That would be a verdict I could neither live nor die with.
I think about the girl in Thailand when I think about that. They will try to use her up until she doesn’t know what freedom is—extracting whatever they can from a life they don’t regard as sacred, until she breathes her last serving a human black hole. I have nothing to offer her except the life I’ve lived which doesn’t help in the most direct way that she needs. I can’t even tell her to make a promise to herself and keep it: that this act is the essence of freedom. I’ve concluded only that by keeping these promises to myself, I make a world that is more likely to grant that opportunity to her, and when I meet her before the dreadful throne and she stands up to judge men like me, as is right, I intend her to find that, however imperfectly, I lived up to the opportunity I had when I had it.
There will be a day of vindication for all who mourn. The mighty who laugh will weep. The poor who call out to God, even blindly and in ignorance, will be comforted. It’s a bet, not a belief. Because a cosmos in which that does not occur makes no rational sense at all. It is simply an unthinkable world, an absurdity in which freedom, duty, and honor can’t exist. It’s a bet I have to make, because to otherwise diagnose the world would make every prognosis Hell. I can, therefore, lay down my part in it with some assurances.
So that’s it. If we eradicate this “mass” and I get a clean bill of health, this will have just been about the time I might have died. Or would have if we hadn’t gotten to the intruder in time. It’ll come up again, increasingly, as time goes by I suppose.
Otherwise, this has been what my life has meant to me. And it has been a privilege to get to ponder what it means.
Update: 45 days later (Oct 1, 2019)—The Knife
It was cancer, and I did go under the knife to cut it out. I am recovering quickly and without complications and, happily, no special equipment or significant lifestyle change. Today I got the news that my biopsy is clear; the thing had just made it into the layer of fat surrounding the organ but had not yet affected the lymph nodes, a few of which were inflamed for a related but relatively benign reason the surgery also resolved, and it has not made the journey to other systems. So, no chemotherapy—just routine testing for some years to surveil against recurrence. The intruder has, from what we can tell, been expelled, leaving me with scant wounds but essentially cured. God has been kind to me who has not deserved mercy. I am strong. I look and breathe strength. I am a flame out of a furnace.
I will endeavor to continue fighting where one ought to fight, doing my duty where it is owed, and insisting on my freedom and independence. I didn’t go down this time. Death—that bully—didn’t beat me on this attempt. Like Justice Ginsberg, I hope to spoil its day on the next several, as well.
These things please me immensely:
- I had a surgeon with a vision of winning. She rejects a one size fits all approach and who shares my view that the patient drives the process. Surgeon attitude was crucial. Paired with expertise, it was decisive.
- I had an early warning system. This thing is easily operable but often deadly because it’s found too late. It was getting on, but Ezra.AI alerted me to the problem before it got that far. Without Ezra, I might still be chasing false leads and putting off the correct tests, while the monster grows.
- I had an advocate. A friend and colleague encouraged me in multiple lengthy conversations to make good decisions, flew in and stayed in the room and stood up for me when it was needed, reminding me on the ground to maintain control of my care, which averted potentially serious complications.
- I had a companion. My girlfriend did anything needed—before, during, and after—including feeding me ice chips in post-op when they were trying to get the pain down. I couldn’t open my eyes but, half-aware, I asked for more “pain chips” and she was there. Her involvement was seminal.
- I had encouragement. In the mornings I was visited by a resident surgeon who let me know, when I was worried about recovering successfully, that they weren’t going to let go of me. It was the best part of my day.
- I had a stellar night nurse. She believed me, when three times another nurse dismissed what I was experiencing as “impossible”. All three times I was right, and I was glad for her experience.
I’m fully back to work. Over the next few weeks, I’ll gain an unrestricted diet, the ability to lift heavy objects, hike, bike, and return to the gym, and the scars will begin to fade. And there is more of this life and what it means to me.
Update: 120 days later (Dec 16, 2019) — There Will Be Other Fights
Genetic tests on the cancer are the final step, and I got the results today. I have a hereditary syndrome that predisposes me to cancer. It means a high likelihood of it occurring and perhaps recurring. In other words, it could hit me again any time, multiple times. Of course, isn’t that always true anyway? It’s not the end of the world—just continual surveillance in the form of more frequent testing.
Death is a bully. It comes back repeatedly, probing for weakness. It will try again one of these days. It will succeed eventually. And it will be my mission to beat it back repeatedly if need be, and not go down on the second try or the third, either. I will strive relentlessly to foil the enemy, depriving it of the high ground. And when it finally gets the better of me, having sniped at me from the shadows, I want to go with honor—fighting to the last inch and unafraid. When it hits me again, I’ll be waiting. Meanwhile, I’ll live fully just as I have done.
In God’s mercy, where imagination doesn’t have to bite and dreams don’t crawl out from under the bed in the daylight, probability isn’t real. Likelihood is nothing. What happens is the only reality. A thing that is more likely to happen isn’t real until it does. It’s unreal until it does. A less likely thing is just as real and unreal as one that’s more likely. The polls aren’t the truth. So I get to live and to die as who I am, with the triumph of being unmoved and the same. Therefore Death can never truly win.