Death and the Paradox of Happiness

Recently reblogged as a follow on to Karin Sieger’s (karinsieger.com) moving and deeply honest discussion to losing a dear friend to metastatic breast cancer, was my post on hope even in times of grieving. Integrative Hope, a post I wrote back in February, touched on losing my best friend to AIDS at the age of 37 and to my father’s death as a result of a large mitochondrial brain tumor in 2013. When faced with the issues surrounding my own terminal illness and my attitude towards death, I noticed that even on such deep and weighty subjects my philosophy emotionally matured. Perhaps the processing of my evolving attitude towards death and dying came to me more quickly having been diagnosed with a currently incurable disease.

I believe this is in no small part how honest I’ve become inwardly with myself in facing the ultimate of uncertainties, what happens when we die?

I’ve had the honor of being by the side of my best friend and my father and my perspectives on death and dying were strengthened by these two life altering experiences. My mourning wasn’t so much a sad experience as it was a humbling one. Oh, I did cry for the loss of each of them in my life and occasionally still do. But I also laugh, smile, and feel lucky to have had them in my life for the time they were here. While thinking of them now during specific times of the year, hearing songs we shared a love for, or that especially reminds me of either of them, the scents and tastes of favorite foods or restaurants, or an experience in places we’ve visited together. Immediately, dear memories bring them both rushing back to my side as though they’d never died. They’re integrated into my soul in so many ways.

Time also heals and bends our perspectives. The mind protects itself by recalling happy experiences over sad ones. I think of my divorce to my first husband. It’s not the fights I recall but the great times we had, the places we traveled, and the wonderful ways in which he enriched my life. Divorce is a kind of death, too. As for those who I can no longer contact because I’ve lost them to diseases, my life in a sense extends their own, although neither is still alive. I’m grateful to have all of them integrated as part of what makes me, ‘me.’ I only hope when I die that there will be as positive an experience for the people I love in this life.

Unlike divorce, where we know what happens when a marriage dies, we just don’t know what happens when we die; the great mystery I believe humanizes all of us and is the only thing on which everyone can universally agree. No one can buy this knowledge either: what happens to all that energy we create while we are alive after our physical bodies have ceased living?

The paradox of happiness

I do believe this philosophical issue makes me more resilient in my own terminal illness and helps me survive with my disease: I’m not carrying any fear of dying. I focus instead on living. For instance, I’ve found peace and happiness where we recently moved and these feelings drive me to want to stay alive. The photo attached to this post is the view in our new home and where I will write my blogs and start writing my book. I want to live longer to see what a true state of happiness feels like. It frightens me to think it may change my philosophy of the dying process.

Therein lies the paradox. I’m grappling with this existential question now and some days it makes me quite angry and sad, which to me is counter intuitive. But that’s okay. It’s all a learning process. I suppose that’s one of the many beliefs as to why we are alive in the first place.

Well must attend to the rolling blackout here in California where the electric utility has determined its bankruptcy allows them to endanger people who need electricity to run medical devices or have air filters or heat on. Fortunately once we move to our new house we will have a generator that switches on and we are converting to solar in the next 3-6 months so as not to rely on such a horrible service. In fact it’s so costly some families have lost their homes or even their children to social services as a result of not being financially able to pay for their over expensive power bills. You legally must have power on to live inside. But bills can exceed $2000 a month and not for mansions, either.

Such a morbidly sad and strange time to live in. Yet all the same it’s still wondrous to wake up every morning with the opportunity to be grateful for another day.

Even if the powers gone out.

My Cancer Philosophy

Cancer doesn’t mean I’m broken or did anything to deserve it. It means nothing to me, actually.

And Karmic retribution isn’t something a person “deserves.”’I believe Karma represents an unclear conscience of one who’s so busy looking over their shoulder at what’s behind them, they therefore trip over what’s right in front of them. Karma doesn’t discern between either bad – falling flat on one’s face – or good – missing out on all the love and beauty that’s available in this world.

I know cancer will eventually kill me. But it won’t have made me a better or stronger person. Having a diagnosis of a terminal illness actually forced me to see the person who I always was. It’s through shear force of my own will that I gather together the very best of the essence of myself. And with that will for as long as I’m alive I’ll heal myself as best I can but not beat myself down when I cannot. Gratitude comes then through my healing in that I can help others.

Writing my experiences as plainly and as real as possible allows others to see my cobbled path and how I navigate the bumpy road ahead. In seeing what I could not see until I’ve passed those tests doesn’t mean that they’re cheating on their own but rather can provide a guide for making their road a bit smoother so they trip less often than I have. Why let anyone’s life be more difficult if it’s as simple as that. If my story is valuable enough to be shared in by others then I have an obligation to tell it as well as I can for as long as I can.

My strength wanes and waxes as my cancer does as well. If you’ve heard this quote as relating to metastatic cancer, there’s nothing said in my opinion that’s more accurate: “living with uncertainty.” Uncertainty paints a picture of my life before cancer. It’s not any different now, so my strength from my experience in dealing with change and not knowing what the future looks like, well equips me to handle this disease.

It’s called resilience.

When the gift of each new day comes in shining through my window I am grateful for the time I can pet my cat. Or hug my best friend. Or even mop the kitchen floor. I can sing while I mop. I can hear my cat purring. I can feel the love of my partner returned to me each time we embrace. And some days that’s maybe all that I can find to seek happiness within – but that’s a lot.

In fact it’s more than I can ask for because it means I have a roof over my head, clean water to mop the house with, enough money to have a loving cat as a constant companion, and love in my life that goes beyond just the requisite. I’m fortunate and richly rewarded by life in so many ways that description of these gifts seems lackluster upon review. Yet even for me, a chatterbox since birth, realizes that some things are so much bigger than me they evade my ability to describe them.

It’s true that certain famous (and not so well known) quotes by others can describe feelings and ideas far better than I. Yet certain universal ideas find their way into everyone’s mind sooner or later. Yet these ideas are informed by experience and influenced by authorities we respect, such as religion or poetry or science. Usually it’s a combination of things that create our personal philosophies.

For instance, a white supremacist believes they’re right to impose their thinking on people not like themselves. They impose their deeply held beliefs that certain religions, races, and ideologies should not be proliferated but stopped by their own hand. I won’t even kill a spider in my house. She has a right to be here as I do. And I’m not saying that if the white supremacist were in my house I wouldn’t put him out like the spider.

Here’s the three philosophical statements that describe where I’m at today. Yet my emotions change, sometimes on a daily basis, yet it’s stormy as it may have been in the past but a more gentle breeze that changes my weather. Cancer has this effect on me:
1. Forgive, and if I cannot forgive, forget.
2. Love is all that matters – in all life and the universe.
3. Death is the natural path of all life; I face my own death with curiosity and grace.

And just as that equalizing common denominator of life is death, the most curoius thing about it is not one of us truly knows what mystery lies beyond this reality or how many realities there are. We tend as a culture in the United States anyway, to dismiss alternate realities as we tend to dismiss death. We don’t discuss it much. People do love to talk though. Hearing someone say that cancer is some kind of Karma is not only ignorabt but dissmissive of alternate ways of being. By doing so we miss learning lessons about living life with grace in the face of our own deaths. Especially those with a stage four cancer diagnosis. It never leaves our bodies and turns our bodies into a machine with an invisible timer set for detonation at an unknown future time. Kind of like not having a stage four cancer disgnosis at least, well…philosophically.

And I know if you’re reading this post you probably will agree that no one deserves cancer. Not me not anyone and not anymore.

Cancer and Freedom, Lost and Found

When I think about it, anyone with cancer or who’s had cancer suffers from many losses. Can we boil it down to a loss of freedom? In a way we’ve lost many of the freedoms they once we took for granted.

We’ve lost the freedom to make plans long or short term. Gone is the freedom to have a week where we don’t have to worry about our ability to keep an appointment. Further, we’ve lost our freedom to plan on vacations too far out in advance. And in some cases we lose the freedom to make certain decisions for ourselves. And what I mean by decisions, I mean our cancer actually makes the decisions for us. 

For instance, can we really decide, as I am in the throes of right now, to move to a new house in a new city? Perhaps  cancer slows us down so much that we can’t even meet deadlines required to sell and buy a new home? The Many mornings when I can’t wake up to take the 2 1/2 hour drive to see the new city and to experience it that’s a freedom that I wish I had. Maybe we could’ve even moved even further but alas I don’t have the freedom to travel quite as far as I used to. I need to be close enough to a hospital and to a cancer center and find a good oncologist. I’d also like to be close enough to an integrative health center, but I know that’s asking for a lot.

Most people can enjoy freedom in their lives day today week to week month to month even year to year. With cancer one lives on 24 hour’s – or less – notice. Have you ever had plans for the following  day, waking to know  you had to make that call and say I’m sorry but… fill in your excuse here. The excuse of pain. The excuse of exhaustion and fatigue. The excuse of just not feeling up to it. That is not freedom that is prison. 

Cancer puts us in a prison behind the bars of our bodies. Ironically, our bodies become the thing that holds us behind bars shackled  to a disease that’s inside of us. A disease that’s using our own bodies try to kill us. 

Essentially were on death row.

Yet even people on death row sometimes receive a pardon with a state elected governor intervening in their impending execution. Sometimes I wish I were on death row instead of having metastatic cancer.  Frighteningly as it seems it may be a lot easier than living in this body that creates  this jail and causes this lack of freedom.

I suppose it’s not all that bad. Death in someways is the biggest jailer of all. We lose our freedom to be here with our family and friends. We lose our freedom, as far as we know anyway, to do anything wonderful and to be with the people that we love. Yet we are strong and beautiful no matter what has been cut off or cut out of our bodies, or how deep the  cuts go in such painful and violent surgeries and therapies.

But there’s an upside to all this. I must believe things aren’t so abysmal. And it’s not so much that freedom been taken from us. We also have freedom from certain things, too. We  have freedom from people walking all over us, people taking advantage of us, people being disingenuous to us. It’s sad that it took cancer for some of us to realize we didn’t have to put up at some of the crap we used to put up with. So we do have some new freedoms as well. We have the freedom to get in front of the line if you’re not feeling well. We have the freedom to ask for an upgrade on a flight. We have the freedom to ask for an extension on a bill since our financial freedom‘s have all but left us, taken away by the astronomically high price of cancer. We don’t have anymore financial leeway or the freedom to spend any money on items that it might just be small luxuries for ourselves. We’re too busy trying to figure out how to pay for our medications and our visit to the doctor and for chemotherapy and other types of therapy. 

But we do have the freedom every day to wake up the new day and say hello to the morning. And we do have the freedom to walk in the sunshine or in the rain, or in the dark or in the light. We also have the freedom to think for ourselves and that freedom is the most cherished one of all. We can be our own best advocate. We  reserve the right to say yes and we are liberated to say no to what’s being offered to us. So as we get near the first day of summer, which is also my birthday, and the longest day of the year which makes sense if you know me, and as we get closer to  independence day in the United States let’s think about how independent we can be from cancer and from the negative perspectives we may have had prior to our diagnoses. I think about how independence and freedom are absolutely and intrinsically connected in my heart and your mind.

Perhaps use your cancer card this summer to just take a break once in a while. Just relax and remember we all have the freedom to breathe in the air and to love without boundaries. How lucky we are to be alive and still enjoy that freedom.

Babe, in the woods

Wandering inside a rocky labyrinth
Whispering and asking myself for a complete and grand theory
A big punctuated unanswerable kind of question.
I’m answered by a softer voice in my head
I unheard it for the life of me I couldn’t tell you what it said.

The sounds of trees speaking to me
Voices melting together, humming a bee swarm choir.
All the creatures singing to my delicate sensibilities,
Breaking the crystal with those high pitched cries at
The octave of all deceptions.
Blindly sliding through an unshaped wood
Where all roads disappear
Maps drawn in night’s ink
On black cartography paper.
Long lines of highways and dashes of dirt roads,
Big blue bodies of water and brown paper mountains, all
Legendary and meaningless without any keys, locked
Inside the stomach of the night.

Between the packed rows of forestry teeth,
The pointed firs choked while biting me into pieces.
Swallowing me whole down
The throat of the past.
Disgusted by my taste
They spit me out, coughing from my flavor.
I fell outside the rows
Imagining a creation of myself from small
Fragments of past participles
Shards of who I once wanted to see
Sharply ahead of me.
In the onyx ink I know there’s a fire
Blazing outside the warm front door.
Red flares snap breaking sharp icicles
From yesterday’s storm, cold and incomplete.
Waiting for my mind to name it something simple, biblical perhaps
Like any new born.