This past week, in a conversation about my ongoing journey with Multiple Myeloma, a friend said, “If you hadn’t gotten this diagnosis . . . . ” I didn’t hear the rest of her question, because I was so startled by my immediate internal response: “I wouldn’t want to be without this diagnosis.”
It’s not that I want to be sick, to wrestle with intermittent severe pain, or to live with unreliable energy. It would be a relief not to be almost constantly aware that, in the Apostle Paul’s words, “death is at work in me.”
I’m in Huntington WV for the Moore Lectures at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church. On this beautiful fall afternoon, I walked alongside the Ohio River, as I nearly always do when I am here. The bright sunshine shimmered on the water. The cool air and a gentle breeze were invigorating. Children were squealing and playing on the riverside playground. A delighted puppy was walking his master. The moment was almost pure joy.
With the joy came a gnawingly visceral apprehension: “What if this is my last time to take this walk?” It’s not that I feel particularly bad and certainly not that I have any kind of premonitions. It’s simply that, with an incurable illness, no matter how good I feel at the moment, I never know when things might suddenly change.
I don’t dwell on this anxiety, but it dwells in me. It’s silent most of the time. Occasionally, though, as it did today, it whispers its uncertainty to me. I wouldn’t miss that anxiety if it moved out.
So, I didn’t think “I wouldn’t want to be without this diagnosis,” because I would prefer to have cancer than to be cured.
As I continue to ponder my initial response to my friend’s words, I’m realizing that what I wouldn’t want to be without are the lessons I am learning from keener awareness of my mortality. My experience convinces me that Psychiatrist Irvin Yalom was right to claim: “Full awareness of death ripens our wisdom and enriches our life . . . Though the fact, the physicality, of death destroys us, the idea of death saves us.”
Having cancer is, in some ways, like going to an Ash Wednesday service every week. Because it regularly rubs my face in death, I have more urgency about things that truly matter and less patience for triviality. I see more grandeur in ordinary things, because they all appear to be extraordinary against the background of sunset’s approach. How many more fall seasons to enjoy the bursting into color of leaves? How many more silly games of chase with the dog? When is the last racquetball match?
I hope I don’t sound morbid, because I don’t feel that way. Instead, I feel lighter, gladder, and more able to be present in the present. Soren Kierkegaard once suggested: "And so earnestness comes to consist in living each day as if it were the last, and at the same time the first in a long life.” Something like that kind of earnestness is what cancer is giving to me.
Psalm 90 invites us to pray: “Teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Knowing we do not have countless days helps us to make the days we do have count.