The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. (Samuel Johnson).
VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – All the indications are that my cancer surgery wasn’t successful. In the first place, there was more of it: the tumour wasn’t confined to the prostate itself; the seminal vesicles which (used to) be behind it were cancerous as well, as was some of the surrounding tissue. My doctor, who is young –almost Doogie Howser young – except VERY highly thought of and extremely good, and far better looking, did what he could. He took everything out that might be compromised or even at threat.
Three months after the surgery (and 2 months after the sacred day of my catheter removal) such, unfortunately was not to be to the case. My blood test showed a PSA level of .15 Two days later it was at .16. Worrisome, but .2 is considered a definitive diagnosis of recurrence.
One month later my PSA tested out at .31
Cancer. Or as the sanitary language of medical euphemisms would have it….BCR. Biochemical Recurrence.
So if I’m going to have any chance of living long enough to see my wife graduate from culinary school (where she is at the top of her class) or my four year-old graduate from elementary school, I’ve got to figure out some way that I can undergo a minimum of six weeks of radiotherapy in another city. And then survive the chemotherapy I might have to do for the rest of my earthly days. Thank goodness for the focus that immanent death brings or the logistics would be impossible to manage.
But as the logistics of treatment have to be among the least interesting subjects I could imagine…this post will be more of a meditation on life and death.
It probably doesn’t mean very much to most people, but the very fact that you were even born is probably the most astonishing coincidence you are even capable of imagining. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s face it. Your Dad whacked off. If he’s around to own up to it, he might even admit that he did it a lot. But the fact that your father was around to whack off during the last few decades of all the decades of human occupation of this planet by beings with the human genome is flat out amazing. Now his whacking off isn’t amazing; it’s anything but. But think for a moment how many spermatozoa that particular male in that particular generation wasted; on his palm, the ceiling, sheets, socks, watermelons, or beloved pets. Trillions would be a conservative estimate. YOU could have been any one of those. But you weren’t…you were the lucky one. And it gets even more unlikely that you won the sweepstakes. Somehow he met your mother…the possessor of the rest of the genetic material that will ultimately define you.
Then came all the social miracles that led to them having sex in a manner that permitted conception; whether it was rape, consensual, a prophylactic failure or anything beyond wishful thinking, somehow millions and millions of spermatozoa found themselves in your mother’s vagina heading for that month’s egg in a greatly expanded but microscopic scene from It’s a Mad. Mad, Mad, Mad World. And one of those obsessed fortune hunters, Phil Silvers or Mickey Rooney perhaps; maybe Buddy Hackett, got there first and breached the citadel, slamming the door after him.
And then came nine months of sheer luck. Most pregnancies are not even noticed and end spontaneously, many are aborted or end in miscarriage; yours was one of the unimaginably unlikely few that ended in a birth. You defied all the odds and made it to that wretched state we call “life”.
Like ‘em or loath ‘em, you’ve got to look in awe at your fellow humans (and yourself) with something akin to awe just for being here. They can be stupid, venal, brutal, tiresome, or they can be Albert Schweitzer rolled up in Ghandi and Einstein with the sexual appeal of a collage of Victoria Secret models crossbred with Rita Hayworth, and their individual characteristics would be only microscopically more amazing than the simple fact of their sheer existence. That’s life.
And then there’s death.
That, we don’t know shit about; except that in a few unsubstantiated cases, once the threshold’s been crossed, there ain’t no comin’ back. Hamlet was wrong in the first part of his big soliloquy: “To be or not to be?” Really short term thinking, for the Great Dane. NOT to be is where we’ll all end up. He had it right, though, when later he referred to “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. And we are all travellers with a one way ticket to that bourn.
Mark Twain occasionally spoke of death. (There was very little he didn’t occasionally speak of. More than writing, that’s what he did for a living.) Although his correction of mistaken news reports of his death (actually, it was his brother who was very ill, but alive in London at the time) he is often misquoted. What he actually wrote: ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’ was every bit as witty. He was somewhat more philosophical but no less witty when he also said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Twain was making an implicitly atheistic observation. The one quip dismissed the nonsense of the promised Christian afterlife, either the glory and eternal boredom of sitting at the right hand of god, the greatest underachiever and mass murderer the universe has ever spawned, or the sick theories concerning the conditions of eternal damnation. And speaking as one who can’t lower (despite years of trying) his intellectual standards to accept one jot, let alone a tittle, of the religious dogma force-fed to him by a succession of nuns, priests, and other bullies, anything resembling an afterlife holds no fear whatsoever…for much the same reason as expressed by Mark Twain.
That, of course says nothing about the other religions and their versions of the afterlife; but that means nothing either. Not one of their “theories” has the slightest evidence to support its contentions and there is no reason whatsoever for accepting their bald statements as anything more than delusion and wishful thinking. No, the truth is, the truth has to be that death is exactly like the other billions upon billions of years we spent NOT being alive. Oblivion. Nada. Niente. Rien. Kosong. And that is not to be feared.
For me, death, especially if it comes soon, is to be regretted. I have a four your old boy I love to distraction, and oblivion will rob me of the opportunity to see him grow; to graduate from school; to have his first girl or boyfriend; to marry and have a family and be successful. Moreover it will rob him of a father; a father’s support and guidance and love. I won’t be aware of this while its happening, of course, but as I shuffle off this mortal coil, you can be sure that it is those thoughts that will be the source of any tears I shed.
But before I leave this meditation having definitively concluded that oblivion, blessed nothingness, is the inevitable end of life, I should point out where my doubts lie. I have had a classic “near death experience”.
On a canoe trip, when I was about fourteen years old, I was turned over and caught in some rather treacherous rapids. Being a strong swimmer, I was at no time afraid. I even recall enjoying the underwater ride, looking through the surface and at the dim and filtered sunlight above as I followed the river at breakneck speed. Eventually I felt myself in need of a breath and calmly turned and swam steadily toward the surface. A little surprised, but not frightened to find that my efforts to climb to the surface produced absolutely no upward progression, I redoubled my efforts. Still nothing. I recall making one effort after another and continuing to find myself pulled inexorably downstream, several feet below the river’s surface. Oddly, I felt no fear at any time. Nevertheless, there came a definitive moment. I realised all at once that I was not going to survive. I knew, I knew with certainty that reaching the surface and life was no longer possible. With a more profound conviction than normal life is capable of providing, I knew and accepted that my life as I knew it was over. And I was right.
It was at the moment of acceptance of what appeared to be inevitable, that life as I knew it ended and I began my short-lived journey into another realm. I experienced all the characteristics of a near death experience; I left my body and could see my former shell sweeping downstream, I began to dissociate from common reality; I felt my second or astral body hurtling upwards; I saw the intense light and was just about to enter it. But this is the important aspect: it was the most joyful, peaceful, total happiness I can even imagine. The bliss included an absolute sense of certainty and anticipation of what was to come and that what was to come was good, positive beyond any possibility of description. Thus when my (physical) feet hit a rock and I stood up and inhaled earth’s atmosphere my first reaction was: “SHIT!” For several moments I experienced a wrenching, profound sense of unbearable loss. Friends tell me they held me up but had the sense that I was actually trying to dive back into the river. Then the fear hit. I realised how close I had come to dying and suffered the usual shock; in a few hours I was back to normal. But that other realm never left me…it’s still there and it’s always with me.
I have experienced that precise sense of otherworldliness, certainty, joy, and anticipation at other times at a somewhat more diluted level; this has almost always been under the influence of hallucinogens. Part of me insists that there’s something to this, and that there is a realm beyond this one, and that realm is characterised by spiritual beauty and joy.
That is anecdotal evidence. Others have experienced it and described it similarly. Still anecdotal. I have unquestionably experienced it and I can testify to it. Still anecdotal.
So let me leave this meditation at this….I will die. So will you. But I see my inevitable death as a rest, a dreamless sleep in which nothing happens. It is not specifically a good thing unless it relieves suffering. But it cannot be described as bad for the person who is dead.
On the other hand, there is the off chance that the anecdotal evidence is accurate (and I lean toward my anecdotal experience rather than that of others, only because I trust my memory of the experience more than other’s memories and then their descriptions). In which case: JACKPOT! Off chance, but who knows? Either way….no harm.
But before I go, let me offer the following: If there is such a thing as infinity, and we can expect to confront infinity when we die, let us remember that a working definition of infinity is “that amount of time during which everything that can possibly happen will happen”.
That means that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, you will be born as Casanova, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, or Mick Jagger. It’s just a question of a near infinite number of atoms randomly achieving that configuration. And in an infinite span of time that’s inevitably going to happen. With my luck I’ll be born as Stuart Sutcliffe.