This is one of several essays from my private cancer journal. It is not intended as anything than a record of my states of mind as I struggled with the disease and the effects of the treatment.
Van Gogh & Attitude: Semper fi
The front porch has become my Bodhi Tree. It is where I go to get away from the keyboard and sit quietly and reflect. If fortuitous, I have some marvelous insight that brings me back to the keyboard refreshed. But two days ago, I had one that changed my life again.
I was sitting there and thinking how much fun I am having with my life. I am working on my Web site and I am helping someone else with theirs and there is another site that I am going to build for a friend soon and there is so much about the technique that I keep learning and even more that I will be able to learn.
Then there is my Caren and what she is doing with her bead art and the plans she is making and sharing with me.
And that was when it hit me, that I want to live to see and do it all.
Until that moment, I hadn't realized that my efforts had been directed to making a legacy of sorts. I hadn't been working for something that could create a future for me that I could work on for years and years. Because I have been living with the prospect that I might not even live for another year, I hadn't been creating my future. I was creating what was to be my past. When I talked to Caren about a project she wants to do next year, I was silently (and secretly) thinking that I probably wouldn't be here to see it or share it. I didn't want to say that to her. What good does that do?
But I realized that I want to live to see it and do it all. There is more for me to do than I can possibly do in a few months and that is good. It is not good to work to create a past. It is better to work to create a future. It is good that one leaves with "more to be done." There should always be more than can be done.
It was on that same day that I coincidentally (I would prefer to say, synchronistically) found a quote from a letter written by the artist Vincent van Gogh that captures it. He wrote:
And the aim of my life is to make pictures and drawings, as many and as well as I can; then, at the end of my life, I hope to pass away, looking back with love and tender regret, and thinking, 'Oh, the pictures I might have made!' (11/19/83)
He understood. He knew that one doesn't create as much as one can and then die. One should leave in the midst of creativity and it shouldn't be a tragedy when it happens. The tragedy is when one has nothing else to do and then dies.
What I hadn't realized until that moment on the porch was that I had been creating for a past-to-be, a past that I would leave behind rather than a future I would want to see and experience. That isn't living. It is dying. Preparing for one's death doesn't mean that one should stop living. It means that one should start living. I've heard of some that said they would take off on a world cruise when they felt they didn't have long to live or go on party binges or maybe this is all just legend. Regardless, that isn't living. It is closing out one's life. It is trying to cram into life what one feels has been missed. Sure, there are things I would love to do but I would rather be creating something, as Van Gogh wanted to create pictures and drawings. I would rather leave as he described, thinking, ah, the things I could have written! The pages I could have built!
Yes, I would love to sail the Carib and walk on those warm, sandy beaches. It has been a dream for decades. But I don't want to do it because I am going to die. I would want to do it because I am going to live.
Does that mean that I am going to beat this cancer? I don't know. Probably not but it really doesn't matter. I might live a month, a year or 10 years. It doesn't matter. No one gets out of here alive. Any one of us could be dead a moment from now for any number of reasons, from an accident to some random act of violence or a tornado or earthquake or a high wind drops a tree where we are. Lives are constantly being "cut short." The difference with me is that I know it. I live with it in my body.
That may be the ONLY difference between me or anyone with a terminal illness and the rest of humanity. It is not that we are going to die. Everyone is going to die. And I might die from another cause before the cancer gets me. The difference is that we live with it and we know it daily.
Yes, there are innumerable side-effects that come with such diseases. There can be pain, loss of faculties and worse. But even that can come from an accident or disaster. Besides, it is not my point for the moment. It is realizing and breaking out and away from the attitude that I might not have a future, that I might not be here next month or next year, let alone tomorrow and so devoting myself to what I want to leave, rather than what I want to create. THAT is dying. THAT is giving up.
I have read about people with terminal diseases who advise to "live in the moment." I think now that is way too narrow. Live for tomorrow.
Oh, how I hated to hear that advice a few months back. I wrote about it in one of my journals. I know what it is like to be told that when this Beast has you by the throat. That attitude can't be found in the entries covering months of agony and I don't say it now lightly. But now I know what it means to me: Do something that will require tomorrow to finish it or to make another. Find a new way to do it that may take days or weeks to learn. Savor all of the time but not merely the time that is passing, but the time that is being created, the tomorrows that we are creating today. For where is "tomorrow"? Regardless of what one thinks, it is not "out there" like an ocean wave moving towards the beach.
"Tomorrow" never arrives. It is we who go meet it. That is what can make "today" so much fun. But if there is no hope for a "tomorrow," what worth is today?
If one is "wrapping up one's life," then that is exactly what they will do: wrap up their life.
What a waste.
So what has this to do with another facing this or any terminal disease? Frankly, I don't know. I have always detested the Pollyanna's who told me to "cheer up" or "have a positive attitude." I considered such advice to be worthless platitudes then and I still do now. I would never tell someone that. What's that old joke? "I was told to cheer up, things could get worse. So I cheered up and guess what? Things got worse!"
No, I won't give advice. All I can say is what I did and what it meant to me.
It meant hanging in there and fighting for my opinion and my view and my values, not with anyone else. With me.
It meant being with someone who let me be myself, to find my way, who didn't nag me or wring her hands or walk away, who was there for me when I had to talk and encouraged me at every agonizing step.
It meant working to find the ways to express myself and letting the emotions wash over me or pour from me.
It meant being honest with myself (and with her) and admitting that I was scared, nervous, weary, apathetic, excited and even happy.
It meant realizing that I had been excluding my companion and never realizing how this effected her and working to help her as best I could, but always talking and letting her talk.
It meant getting out of bed in the morning when I had no reason until one day I had a reason.
It meant sustaining what this Beast delivered and being too damned stubborn to give up, to take another punch and another and dragging myself off that floor one more time, sometimes so slowly I didn't think I'd make it.
It meant no longer being embarrassed or humiliated that this Beast can pound me down at times, maybe even tomorrow, but each time that I make it, I can remind myself that I am not beaten and I will not be beaten.
It meant coming to grips with the issue of my mortality, on my terms.
It meant facing what it means to be a man on my terms and no one else's, being able to separate my sexuality from my masculinity and struggling through this even though I had no idea what the resolution might be.
It meant making personal decisions and sticking by them and then not being afraid to change my mind and sticking by the new one.
It meant coming to realize that all of this is, for me, what it really means to be a man and having a woman who accepted it with all the love in her heart.
This wasn't easy. I can say it but it will be 11 months in a week since my diagnosis. It has been a long 11 months. When I reread early journal entries, I see that sometimes I was making it on a day-by-day and even an hour-by-hour basis. When it was the hardest, I fought for the next minute.
But I didn't fight for my "life." That wasn't the fight and I will never fight for it. I fought because I refused to be beaten. That's different. Call me stubborn (apparently I am a quintuple Taurus, whatever that implies) or stupid (no scarcity of that in my life) but I won't let the cancer beat me. It can kill me but it can't beat me.
There is another Marine in our local support group. (There is no such thing as an "ex-Marine.") Just last week we were talking outside afterwards about this. A few minutes earlier, I had tried to make the point in the group about not giving up and he was the only one to corner me afterwards, saying how he feels the same and can't understand why more men don't get it. We couldn't decide if it was what we took into the Corps or if the Corps gave it to us but it was nice to find another with the attitude. Our parting words were, "Semper fi," short for "Semper Fidelis" or "Always Faithful," the motto of the Corps.
But "Semper fi" means more than being faithful to the Corps and standing by another Marine. It means being faithful to yourself or true to yourself. It means to never give up on yourself.
So I don't talk about "attitude" lightly. I went through hell in the last 11 months and there may be more. My resolve was tested. I was tested. It is not a regimen I wish on anyone. But it was mine and that is where I take my pride.
It is why I will be able to get up tomorrow and do it all again because it is worth it.
I have some things to write and some pages to build.
[And if you haven't yet, look closely at the front of Van Gogh's hat above.]