There’s really nothing much to say. A while ago we worked with a collection of koans and stories by John Tarrant, (I don’t think Barry liked the book very much because it was kind of upbeat) The one that kept coming back to me during breakfast as I thought about what to say this morning focused on the koan from Blue Cliff in which Daowu and his student-- whose name I can’t recall now-- are making a condolence call during which the student bangs on the coffin lid and asks Daowu, “Alive or Dead?”, and Daowu helpfully replies, ”I won´t say, I won´t say.” That led me to the old Zen metaphor of a finger pointing at the moon How absurd: to point out the moon to somebody else, What a ridiculous gesture. The silliness of it, the ego of it, the necessity of it. Part of the problem of finding something worth saying is that so much has gotten so much simpler. Cancer, itself, seems like an abstraction that I manage to scare myself with, rather than the actual experience I’m going through.
But the diagnosis was real enough. My primary care Doc happens to be an old friend so it wasn´t easy for either of us. Because of a complication that prevented a standard chest biopsy, (that was more irony than I was up for: dying from a biopsy) it took forever to get an exact diagnosis, almost a month. In the meantime, I began to find out that I was going to die. I had known that about you guys, of course, but it had not been clear that I was included.
I got the final diagnosis and the next morning I was in the hospital starting chemo. There was no time to meditate. “There’s a fifty/fifty chance that this will work”, said the oncologist. “And if it doesn’t?” I asked. “You’ve got three or four months” said the oncologist, who must’ve thought he was appearing in some grade-B movie.
Chemo deserves its reputation. Some of it is hardly more precise than leeches and bloodletting but it is also the only game in town. Oncologists are often wonderful people. They saved my life for now. But they will also tell you that a treatment has this or that side effect-- loss of hearing, neuropathy, anemia -- and it will be good news if you get to live with it.
The side effects. At one time I traced them back, and what I was experiencing was a side effect of the side effect of a treatment for a side effect…. The nine centimeter, undifferentiated, metastatic, carcinoma in my chest was actually eight steps removed. One of the side effects is that you often get the shits. You wear diapers. One day when that first started, before the diapers, I woke up pretty well covered with shit and I said to myself, “ this is not nice.” I wanted to clean myself up a little before Julia, who was sleeping upstairs, had to deal with it. So I got up and tried to walk to the bathroom, but I couldn’t, and I fell onto the lamp and toppled it. It was summer, and right next to the lamp was a good-sized fan…. You know, I had always thought that was a metaphor.
So, that´s what you do. You get up and sometimes you first clean up some shit before brushing your teeth. That’s cancer. Sometimes, I’d think “I hope they find out this is not working because then they’ll stop it, and I’m gonna die anyway within a couple of months after going through all this. “ But mostly you just do it because it’s there to be done, maybe just because you’re too sick to resist. And that simplifies things quite a bit. That simplifying is, as I say, part of why there’s so little to be said about all this. The larger part has to do with the loss that is death starting to become something you can dance with, however haltingly and clumsily. There’s no Zen in any of this. There’s no such thing as Zen, anyway. Just the same situation we’re all in all the time that cancer makes harder to dodge. Somehow—I don’t know how—you learn a few steps.
Somehow we got through the chemo. “We,” I say. It felt strange how much it mattered to so many people. It’s wonderful of course. But it’s also scary to realize how much I matter to so many people. As a recovering Irish Catholic I feel a for-once appropriate shame about not responding to all you guys contacting me, getting me through. And Julia of course has been holding me up, often quite literally.
And then radiation: five days a week for eight weeks but less dramatic, easier to deal with.
Now, I´m moving into another sort of phase: living from one scan to the next while trying not to just live from one scan to the next. This particular lung cancer usually comes back and often very quickly. You beat it with a club and sooner or later it gets back up. Though not every time; it is possible that will not be case this time.
So, what am I doing before the next scan? Well, talking with people I want to be talking with here on 74th street. Certainly, no Zen here. Talking about all this also makes it seem normal, which is itself scary and unsettling. I don’t want this to be normal as if we were sitting here with a beer, telling stories about what went on over the weekend. But, well, it is normal now. Maybe it always was and I couldn’t see it.
I love stories-- they are what we live our lives out of--and I am also deeply suspicious of them when my efforts to construct them threaten to replace the living of my life. That seems a good reason why it’s time to end this story, but I was always told that you’re supposed to end with a quote, so here’s a final cautionary tale. I’m an English teacher so it’s a poem. Stephen Dunne is one of my favorite poets. One of his first collections was entitled Not Dancing--my ex-wife gave it to me decades ago because I couldn’t/wouldn’t dance. Anyway, Dunne lives down in Jersey and he calls the poem “The Parable of the Fictionist.”
He wanted to own his own past,
be able to manage it
more than it managed him.
He wanted all the unfair
advantages of the charmed.
He selected his childhood,
told only those stories
that mixed loneliness with
rebellion, a boy's locked heart
with the wildness
allowed inside a playing field.
And after he invented himself
and those he wished to know him
knew him as he wished to be known,
he turned toward the world
with the world that was within him
and shapes resulted, versions,
In his leisure he invented women,
then spoke to them about
his inventions, the wish just
slightly ahead of the truth,
making it possible.
All around him he heard
the unforgivable stories
of the sincere, the boring,
and knew his way was righteous,
though in the evenings, alone
with the world he'd created
he sometimes longed
for what he'd dare not alter,
or couldn't, something immutable
or so lovely he might be changed
by it, nameless but with a name
he feared waits until you're worthy,
then chooses you.
And I notice that I’m happy right now, here talking with you.