Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love. Rilke
I have a little prayer I say each morning when I wake up. The last part of it is “thank you for this day, thank you for my life.” I remember that day after my diagnosis, waking up, saying the prayer, and feeling the shock of knowing that those words were more real to me than they ever had been. Still, I was thankful, realizing to the bottom of my toes how little time I might have left to say those same words; how much I wanted to say them again and again, into the future.
I feel, deep in my bones, that the reason I am still alive is that I confronted my own death and came to terms with it. Even if that’s not true, I don’t even have the words to tell you how freeing it became. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed the process or the opportunity (!), but that once I had accepted my death, I felt lighter and freer. How did that work? Well, there isn’t any quick fix as far as I know. I just ended up finally looking that sucker in the face and saying yeah, this is the face of my death (it is strange to me how I personified death, just like in the movies. I could see in my mind’s eye that grim reaper). I now know how I’m going to die. I have x amount of time to say goodbyes, to sort my stuff, to look at each cloud and see how beautiful it is, to be thankful each day that I’m breathing fresh air, that I can see the sunrise, feel the wind on my face. To sort my photos, to distribute my jewelry, to tell the family stories, to feel my inner core of life and give deep thanks for it. And say a gentle goodbye to it each night.
Cancer at least gives you time. It isn’t the time you wanted. I know, I wanted more. When my surgeon was counseling me I said (at 63) “boy, it seems a bit early to die.” And he smiled at me and said “It’s always too early.” Yeah, I guess so. There’s never a good time really, we are programmed to cling to life. But we all know that we WILL die. Most of us keep that very deeply filed somewhere in our mind, out of sight, out of thought. But. We all die. I will die. Everything that lives, dies. There is no way around it that I know. And now pancreatic cancer was looking me in the face and there was no way to forget it.
There are choices we all have for dealing with death. We can ignore it, take drugs to dull the painful reality, use magical thinking, be stoic and ignore the whole thing, say la-la-la while sticking your fingers in your ears. I don’t find that works really well. For me, it was just summoning courage, turning in death’s direction and saying “Yes, you’re here, I see you” When I did that, I felt it deep within my body. It was hard in my abdomen and pressure over my heart. Sometimes I got so scared that I thought I would pass out I was breathing so fast, panting almost, feeling immense fear (these times usually happened when no one was around, because I didn’t want to embarrass myself and I didn’t want to burden others. Sometimes people’s sympathy just undid me). The fear didn’t kill me, it was only fear, and I got through it.
But once death is faced, everything seems to become much easier. And truly, it has to be faced eventually. What I have learned is that by facing my death, I lost an immense amount of reactive fear which I didn’t even realize I was carrying around. Now, when bad news comes – as it always does – or when I just miss getting sideswiped, or when I realize big, awful changes may be ahead, I just don’t carry that fear around with me anymore. I can’t tell you how wonderfully light and freeing it is, how much easier it is to just live life; it seems that this lesson, once learned, stays with you and gives you breathing space. With this diagnosis, the field of choices narrows, breathing spaces are very small, yet – life can become much clearer and simpler when our choices are few. Small solace I suppose, but I took this one step at a time. For me, this was step one.
I’d also like to put in a plug for the movie Gravity. I was amazed at how Sandra Bullock”s story paralleled my experience of facing death. If I hadn’t been through this death process, it would have taught me how to face it. It brought me so close to how it worked for me, each of her steps, from fear & terror, whirling completely out of control, stabilizing herself, breathing, struggling to live and finally accepting death. As she finally says, “Either way, it’s been a hell of a ride.”
This entry is both in Facing Death and First Steps.