Facing death / valedictory

Time and life

Mary Campilongo

Time, the concept of it anyway, is constantly on my mind these days. My sense of time is profoundly changing. Duration is no longer quite the same for me as it is for most others as I see time not in terms of days or hours but in episodes of energy, bursts of attention. This is a highly personal clock and is somewhat isolating at times as people more or less agree on how time is paced, how a day is divided. That consensus is an aspect of what links people as time is part of our community. I’ve always been a somewhat logical person but now the central premise of my logic has been altered as it is no longer based on sequence–cause and effect unfolding over time. Now, my sense of logic is organized around patterns and recurrences.

Things happen–and happen again in the act of remembering. Old feelings are new in the moment they are recalled. Recollected sights are no less real than the images now before my eyes. Things lost long ago have been found once again. Broken things and fractured emotions are whole again. Nothing has faded. And this has brought a unique calm because for me there is no longer any tension between the past, present and the future. My entire life is available, compressed in every passing instant. I think as time loses its dominion over me, I am coming closer to reaching the goal of many religions and philosophies. That is, I am seeing things in their completeness, and accepting that everything that is, must be.

I’ve learned to loosen my grip on logic because there is nothing logical or fair about cancer. It just happened. I’ve had my fill of those who will continue to ‘blame’ me for having cancer because of supposedly holding on to this or that. It is always those that don’t know me at all. Those that know me well know I don’t hold onto anything any longer. It’s about non-attachment. I learned many years ago about not holding onto those things in my life that don’t serve me. Same goes for people in my life. If there is a cause, it’s likely too complex and subtle for me to understand, let alone repair. You can’t reason away cancer. So cancer has really been a double whammy of sorts for me as it has deprived me of my central tactic for dealing with life. And if logic got me nowhere, how then am I to understand this? Here’s the paradox of it which could drive a person mad: having spent much of my life trying to be logical, to make peace with an illogical disease, I’ve got to let go of logic. The ancients called it accepting fate. It all comes down to the same thing, and it’s really difficult. I have stopped groping for explanations or justifications or some tidy piece of insight that will make all this seem more fair and fitting.

The insights I have had, the kind of mysterious insight that trails serenity in its wake, has not been by way of logic. Logically though, I can’t conclude that all is well. Peace has come to me by way of faith. I made that leap a long time ago. In the meantime, I find I cannot resign myself that cancer will kill me.

Time is flattening out for me. Past, present, and future no longer line up in strict, unchanging order; there’s a looseness to them. On chemo days it is sometimes a struggle to feel fully awake. I rest a great deal but am seldom fully awake. Time can move backwards as well as forward. Or it can simply pause. I can suspend a thought, freeze a moment, hang a memory on the wall as though it were a picture–and come back to it whenever I’m ready. Odd? Yes. But maybe inevitable. Maybe this blending of past and present is something that has to happen when a person considers their life as a whole.

Most of us live our lives facing “forward” — toward the future. Goals and consequences stretch away before me and I reach them one by one, as if I was driving down the freeway. Occasionally I look back in the rearview mirror but none of us truly look back until the journey’s ended. And then it looks completely different. The road curved and rose and fell more than we had realized. Looking back, you will see something completed. This, I think is a big and quietly terrifying notion. And so people don’t think about it until they’re close to death.

At least I didn’t. My life complete? As in finished? No, thank you. I prefer to think in terms of ongoing progressions. Choices and reactions. One thing leading to another–to the future. But take away the future and what happens to the time line? It starts to seem like a convenient fiction. Like maybe it was never there after all.

I’m hardly the first person to notice that there is only the present, constantly. The present moment is lived, and relived; written and rewritten. Every previous version still inhabits it. However, if the past were really behind us, why would memories have such a stubborn hold? How could a smell remembered from childhood bring about a smile today? How is it that a song first heard 30 years ago can jumpstart our hearts?

Let me tell you about a day in March of this year:

March 22nd, to be more specific. It was a day of pivotal events and improbable coincidences. It was the day my future hit the wall, and past and present began piling up behind the wreckage like skidding cars in a chain collision.

In the morning of that day, I’d been to see the radiologist. It was purely routine. Or so I thought. I’d had scans and scopes every three months. I always passed with flying colors. Or so I thought. I’d stopped worrying about it.

In the later morning, I had a visit with my oncologist. Again, routine. Or so I thought. We would meet after every scan and scope, quickly confirm that it showed nothing, then move on to the happier subject of my growing strength, my full recuperation.

This time it did not go that way.

I was sitting in the consultation room, and an amazing, almost surreal, thing happened. When the doctor opened up his mouth to talk to me, his voice broke and he began to sob.

This was wildly out of keeping with the surroundings as these consultation rooms are designed to inspire an impersonal sort of confidence. A place for expertise, not emotion.

I sat there as the doctor wept. I was utterly confused. For a moment I actually imagined that we weren’t going to talk about me at all, that the doctor was going to confess some terrible problem of his own.

Then, sniffling, he told me about the scan. It wasn’t conclusive he tried to assure me. False positives do happen. But something had shown up–some shadow that did not belong there. He described the best case scenario, but it was very possible that my cancer had returned and spread. They wanted to look into it further. Literally. They wanted to open me up again.

I took the news quite calmly. Not because I’m brave; because I was numb and slow.

Being who I am, I tried to be rational. I considered the odds. The tests are imperfect. On the other hand, I wasn’t past the point when the return of cancer was a statistically improbable outcome. So that did not explain why my doctor broke down, why he appeared so entirely crestfallen. He talked to me about the latest test results and how much he had enjoyed having me as his patient. He said he had never had a patient like me, one that had faced this down with so much equanimity and courage. He said he admired my commitment to continue on with my normal life and how I had seen myself through this alone so much of the time. He said he knew that was how it had to be with me and so he wanted more for me than for any other patient to be the victor, and not to be sitting there with me with this news.

It’s strange the way bad news sinks in. And when I left the consultation room, I felt almost blase. Yes, there would be more tests. And there would be a little worry until we proved the tests wrong.

However, by the time I reached my car, I knew–knew–that my cancer was back.

Suddenly, it seemed like, in some dim way, I’d known it for a while. Hadn’t felt exactly right. Was beating back dread. Was smiling through while waiting for grim confirmation. The confirmation was almost a relief. I now knew where I stood.

I’ve said this was a day of odd coincidences, a day when many different layers of my life were squeezed onto a wafer of the present.

I went to work after leaving my doctor’s office. It so happened that I was due to have dinner that same evening in Laguna Beach with a man, Jim, I had recently met and was more than sufficiently attracted to to end my year-plus reign of celibacy. I had already decided that, for the moment, I would keep my day to myself. I did not want to ruin the evening. Especially since the news I had gotten had absolutely not ruined it for me.

Just the opposite in fact. I was jazzed. I felt intensely alive. Every pore was open; every sensation was heightened. The worst was happening and I was staring it down. I was scared but I was happy.

We met at his house and hugged. Despite his warm greeting, I initially sensed that something was different in his touch. It was stiff and seemed distant, almost cold. Between the time I arrived and the time we walked down the street a couple of blocks to the restaurant, the sky had turned gray and it was raining hard. That the weather could do such a 180 seemed congruent with the events of the day thus far.

During dinner I blinked back the tears that had not come when I was with the doctor. We talked about meditation and his father whose own cancer had recently returned. And then, as we sipped our wine, he casually asked me if I was feeling its effect and whether or not I would be able to drive home to San Diego. I was surprised at this and could only think to ask, “Oh, so you’re sending me home tonight?” And that is when he told me he had decided to become celibate. He stammered over an explanation as to the whys of this decision but never clearly articulated what had led to this decision. I recall thinking it very odd that, here was a high-powered businessman who was the president of a major title insurance company and so, I reasoned, he had to have great skills at communicating but he seemed completely incapable of clearly explaining his decision to become celibate. As well, it did not make sense to me at that time why someone who was such a self-proclaimed uber-heterosexual and who indicated he had enjoyed being with me, would make such a decision. We had not known each other very long, and despite our physical intimacy, we were in essence complete strangers. I suppose in hindsight, he simply did not trust me enough for full, honest and complete disclosure. There was no logic here it seemed. His decision did not make sense and neither could he explain his decision, so it left me puzzled and confused. As well, it struck me as odd when he proceeded to tell me there was “nothing wrong, we did nothing wrong” in reference our sexual trysts as I had not qualified them in any way thus far, as right, wrong or otherwise. Obviously he had.

I took the news quite calmly. Not because I was numb and slow but rather that it was one of those instances wherein I realized it was best to handle this with grace. As I sat there and listened to him, I felt almost blase. It would take me several weeks to realize the hurt of the double whammy of being rejected wholesale not only as a woman but as a person because he made no effort to cultivate a friendship with me in the subsequent weeks and months. I finally ‘got it’ though. I recall sitting at dinner and believing his statements that he wanted to get to know me on a “soul level” and to become friends. While I am an extremely intelligent woman, I am not wise. I still take people at their word. However, when someone’s actions do not match their words, only extreme denial can keep you from realizing the falseness of their statements. And in the subsequent weeks, this realization only added to the hurt and disappointment I experienced. As with cancer, I had to stop groping for explanations or justifications or some tidy piece of insight that would make this seem more fair and fitting. I could not find them on my own and he was either incapable or unwilling to offer one to me. His unwillingness to be honest and straightforward with me indicated to me complete disrespect and total lack of regard. All that was left was to accept this, to accept this man as he was, to embrace these circumstances that I did not understand and for which no explanation was being offered.

In a meditation group I had become involved with in Laguna Beach, and which is where I met Jim, who is also its co-founder, oftentimes it was dismissively discussed that the problems in your life, along with your ‘problematic’ emotions (those being the not so positive ones like anger, hurt, sadness, etc.) are simply ‘dramas in your head.’ The answer to these problematic emotions and difficult life circumstances always being to meditate. While I have a strong meditation practice, I do not use it as a form of escapism or self-indulgence. I don’t use it as a way of shirking my responsibilities, to myself or others. The continual urgings in this group towards getting “high” through meditation simply make this seem more so. If the answer to your problematic life issues is: meditate, I don’t see this as much different from the person who chooses to down a 12 pack in answer to their problematic life issues. Except as it affects your liver. Getting high, however you choose to do it, sitting meditating or through alcohol or drugs or food or relationships or whatever, is still not dealing. It’s a coping mechanism. We don’t have much time on this planet and I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste it not being IN my life. Conscious every possible moment. That is how I stay connected to the divine within me, by being conscious of it every possible moment.

I’m not sure I ever really believed that there would be a “last” this or that. That is a wild notion. But here it was, that process had started: the realization that the last time I would ever be with a man was with someone who did not love me. And I’ve felt such enormous sadness at that realization. It was meaningless, gratuitous sex. Nothing more. I had long harbored the hope that my next relationship would be one of openness. As well, I had long ago come to a place where I realized that even if I loved someone with all my heart, I did not depend on them, on that relationship, to complete me, to make me happy. For me, I don’t fall ‘in love’ right away as I don’t think that can truly happen until you get to know the person well. In this instance, I felt love for this man, but I was not ‘in love’ with him. My life is complete and full as it stands. I have a sense that this man is the polar opposite of me in this respect. That is, he is one that has spent his life looking towards his relationships and partners to make his life complete and happy. It surprising to me that one as spiritually studied as he is has failed to realize that you cannot look outside of yourself for happiness and satisfaction. Well, you can, but it will never satisfy and the apparent happiness will disappear in time. Could I tell him one thing it would be to share with him the enormous sense of peace and serenity, and the ‘security’ of these that is realized by staying truly connected to the divine within. As a spiritual seeker for many years, I’ve spent a great deal of time learning how to love more deeply, to know myself more truly, but first and most importantly, to connect with the divine more fully.

Life is finite. We all know that, and we conveniently forget about it almost every hour of every day. But now that fact is in my face. A granite monolith across my field of vision. With the future sealed off, what remains is the present.

But let me explain the crazy richness of this day, these experiences. Past and present captured in one heartbeat. My whole life was vibrant and precious before my eyes!

Is my story almost over? I hope it isn’t. In life, all story lines eventually converge. Death is the completion. Death is where the horizon finally stops receding. Not a separate thing from life, but life’s last resolving chord. That chord is coming close. I can almost hear it.

I always avoid talking about the physical details of cancer as they are highly unpleasant and not especially edifying. An interesting contradiction in this disease in that as the bulk of it increases, my already small frame grows smaller and thinner. But I fight that as well so as to keep this less obvious to all but the closest observer. People tend to think of disease as microscopic and abstract. The process, by this point, is largely mechanical. I refuse the narcotics they prescribe for pain as they just keep me in a state of humming discomfort. I don’t feel right, but I don’t feel terrible.

Now and then a spike of real agony breaks through. The aftermath of these spikes is far worse than the pain itself. I perceive it less as pain than as loss of balance, loss of orientation–loss of connection with the divine within myself. But enough, these are merely physical complaints, and the good news–the real news–is that my long quest to move beyond the physical has nearly been accomplished. My body is only a detail these days. My flesh has less and less to do with who I am.

I’ve been letting go. I’ll call it a surrender. And this surrender has been accompanied by something strange and wonderful. I’m not sure I can adequately describe it. A kind of singing quiet has been settling over me. It arrived uninvited. And I’ve had neither the inclination or strength to fight it off or question it. Maybe this quiet is what some people mean by acceptance. Or peace. Or grace. But there’s a richness to it, a texture, that I did not expect. It isn’t passive, only still.

For me this quiet is another form of music. It’s music without motion. Harmony frozen in time. I wish I could explain how I arrived at this amazing calm. Truthfully, I suspect that I did not achieve this quiet, or even find it. It found me when the time was right.

I think over the years of my entire life and I look at my efforts to find serenity. I chased it with logic, but at the same time used logic to fend it off. I sought it with yearning, with private rituals which were my own eccentric ways of praying, of moving closer to the divine.

Now I feel that these efforts/exercises, while necessary, were probably beside the point. Peace keeps its own schedule. You can’t hurry it. And when it comes, it’s a gift given freely, more than something earned. My theory is that it comes to saints and sinners equally. The only thing that disturbs the calm that has settled over me is the worry that my sister will be okay. She is my only sister and we survived together the battlefield that was our childhood and our parents marriage. I hope and trust that my family and friends will continue to feel love for me. I believe that love can reach past loss and make our lives richer. Absent, I can still be part of who they are. Grieving is part of loving. That’s just how it is.

As for the rest–I’ve poured myself into my life. I haven’t held back. And I’ve pretty well used myself up time and again. This calm I feel now–which in some ways is a more durable case of contented exhaustion I have felt after running for hours and/or days, or playing a beautiful violin sonata, or working on a drawing, or something else that seemed terribly important at the time. It’s a calm that comes from knowing that I’ve held nothing back.

I’ve worked hard at my life. I’m proud of that. None of it came easily, and sometimes I pursued it with more insistence than grace. But that’s who I’ve always been, and I’m proud of that as well.

If I had pushed a little less, relaxed a little more, might I have led a longer life? Who knows? However, I would not have had a life that suited me better, a life that was more my own. I’m very grateful.

There’s one final thing I want to say. I’ve always said I make no claim of being special; I’m just one more person who they tell me is dying, revisiting her life. I think my father would have said the same thing, in the same words, if he’d had the time.

It’s simply this: I loved you all with ALL of my heart. I really tried. I did my best.

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