I came to writing groups late in life because, although I’d written since my early teens, I never considered myself a writer. I was instead a person who wrote.
I shared frustration and joy, heartsickness and love, estrangement and a sense of belonging.
I wrote poems about people who died to give to their surviving loved ones. I wrote letters to friends about friendship, I wrote songs of political dissent and expressions of confusion.
I began novels and memoirs that I never finished. I didn’t know why then, but I do now. I hadn’t gone far enough into the situation to see the other side or even the present moment clearly. I got stuck on the face of it, and stayed there, with the same frames repeating.
Until life and death touched me in the same second, and I lived with opposites, side by side. Tears and laughter, jokes and serious discourse, pleasure and pain. I knew what was happening before I was able to admit it. And I struggled to coordinate and assimilate what I knew with what I did not want to know.
Moments were surreal.
I recently finished reading the beautiful and brutal memoir, When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The story of a brilliant man looking for meaning in literature, life, death, and medicine. He became a neurosurgeon and a neuroscientist, with a BA and MA in English Literature and a BA in Human Biology from Stanford. An MPhil in history and philosophy of science from Cambridge, and finally a graduation from the Yale School of Medicine. He was a surgeon with a conscience and a penchant for integrity. He wanted to understand his patients as people (what mattered to them), their brains (what was happening to them), and the science behind their conditions (how to heal them). He looked diligently for links connecting meaning with humanity and medicine.
This endeavor he faced with benevolence and curiosity. As I read, I became invested in this doctor who cared for his patients and exhibited an easy bedside manner. One must appreciate the difficulty inherent in dealing with major surgical concerns and disease and the willingness to remain open to these same patients who had as good a chance of death and disability as they did of recovery or survival.
In a cruel twist of fate, doctor became patient when diagnosed in his final year of residency with stage 4 lung cancer.
His ability to withstand pain, stay present, and choose what was important to him month by month, then week by week, and eventually minute by minute was a lesson in humility. Of course as his disease progressed, his goals and decisions had to change along with it.
If I have a year to live…..a month…..a day…..an hour. What matters? His honesty, vulnerability, reality, crashed in waves that washed him to the frothy surface that was his life and away from the one he had expected. Little can cleanse as quickly and thoroughly. Little can awaken us to the realm of what matters like the possibility of no longer existing.
When nonsense, even if we do not know it as such at the time, is stripped away, we are left with a core need, an essence, a purity that is hard to see in our big worlds, but which becomes exceedingly clear as that world shrinks.
That happened to me with my parents’ deaths. In the midst of excruciating emotional pain, I became a kinder, wiser person. The wrenching was also a morphing.
Why then, how then, are we a culture phobic about aging and death? Perhaps because we do not see the gratitude, compassion, and love that rest in the balance.