Contemplating endings

On the Wednesday before Christmas, I spent an hour or so visiting an old friend – well, maybe not that old, as he isn’t a pensioner yet, but we did go to the same schools from age 5 until I changed schools at 13, and after that we were members of the same organisation dealing in what might be called esoteric philosophy for some time, and also of several groups interested in the more arcane aspects of religion and spirituality. I’ve been making a point of calling round on him, or inviting him over, recently, as he was diagnosed with brain cancer last December, and had part of his brain removed on Christmas Eve 2016; he immediately had his driving licence recalled, and so has been feeling a bit trapped and isolated at home. After the surgery he started chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which finished fairly recently. He’s one of those friends who lives quite close to me, but before the cancer, we didn’t actually meet all that often. However, when we did it was as if we’d never had fairly long periods during which there was no contact. I was determined not to let him go without conversation, assuming he wanted it – and, apart from during the chemo weeks, it turned out he did. I’ve had too many friends and family members taken away by the big C in the last few years, and in at least a couple of cases we were going to get together for ages – and then it was too late.

I did mention to him, the first time I went round this year, Jason Michaeli’s book “Cancer is Funny” – I am firmly of the opinion that some things are so serious that it’s necessary to make jokes about them (much in the style of the M*A*S*H film and TV series, set in a field hospital in the Korean War), and commented that I thought I was aiming at collecting a “full set” – I’ve had friends die of lung, kidney, pancreas, bowel and lymphatic cancers, so adding brain cancer maybe made “Happy Families”… However, he regards my Christianity with some amusement – he moved from where we pretty much both were back in the 1970s to become a Practical Kabbalist with a sizeable dash of Buddhist practice, and his wife is a Buddhist/Wiccan, while I gently slid into Christianity. Jason’s subtitle is “Keeping Faith in Stage Serious Chemo”, and in conscience he wouldn’t resonate with the faith in question (I still think there might be commonalities, but he’d have to read through the strong Christian framework to find it. Actually, I was one of a group of three both at home in Selby and up in Durham who were involved with “the esoteric” during my late school and early university days; this friend ended up a Kabbalist, the other from home ended up Wiccan and the two others from Durham endede up Zen Buddhist and agnostic respectively, so I can understand his amusement!

In a spirit of radical honesty, I should say that my visit on Wednesday had an ulterior motive (or, at least, the timing of it did); we were just in the last week of having some work done to the house (so there were workmen with attendant random hammering and sawing in the house), and my wife had had the bright idea of getting in some cleaners to “bottom” the main part of the house, so that was full of cleaners (and random vaccuuming and talking). Or, at least, it seemed full to me. I have an anxiety disorder, and having people I don’t know really well in the house is one of the triggers for that; my wife had also just got out of hospital on Sunday after an operation the Friday before, and I was anxious about that (and, in particular, about what being knocked out after the operation would do to her mental stability – she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, otherwise known as Unstable Mood Disorder). That, of course, makes the timing of the cleaners visit typical – the idea was excellent (the results are splendid, and the house looks great for Christmas), but the timing was a bit “off” – particularly as, having cleaners coming, we had both felt the need to scurry around tidying the day before; she in particular was supposed to be taking it completely easy after the operation, and tying her to a chair seemed out of the question!

The result was that, on Wednesday, I craved getting away from home for a bit of time to get away from anxiety triggers.

Anyhow, our conversation was wide-ranging, but some of it revolved round commonalities between us – my depression, for instance, seems to have deleted some of my memories, or at least made them inaccessible (at its peak, I couldn’t understand any more what “happy” was; I’d forgotten – and when people suggested I recall times when I’d been happy, I couldn’t, possibly because the memory included the happiness and that wasn’t something my brain was doing any more). He has some memory holes arising out of the brain surgery – and in both our cases, in recovery, bits and pieces of memory are returning.

We also talked again about what for many people he meets is the “elephant in the room”. He is, deo gratias, beating the odds he was originally given both for recovery from the operation and for his survival, though the cancer is not completely gone, and the expectation is still that he has months rather than years. Brain cancer is different from all the others which friends have suffered from; there are no pain receptors in the brain, so he is in absolutely no pain (though, of course, chemo and radiation tended to make him feel sick, and he compains of much reduced energy levels, something which also afflicts me.

We’ve talked about the process of dying before, but this time I was thinking about the subject anyhow; I’ve recently seen my GP, having contracted a bad cold and that having interacted with my Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to make me really quite ill (colds or flu, for me, tend to become pneumonia and be life-threatening). He strongly suggested (as all my doctors have) that I give up smoking – I’m an asthmatic to start with, so smoking was a bad idea from day one, but now the almost inevitable consequence of COPD has arrived, it’s an even worse idea. He said that these days most men (in the UK, at least) live until 84, which would be another 20 years; unless I give up smoking, I’m unlikely to. Then again, it’s the time of the year when we tend to think of endings and beginnings in any event, as well as being the prime time for funerals at the church (my parents died in November and December, going for the popular option for perhaps the first times in their lives).

As it turns out, though as far as I’m aware he isn’t technically a mystic (though he’s well versed in meditation, and I will probably quiz him about his experiences in that direction the next time we get together), he shares my more or less complete lack of worry about the fact that I am going to die sometime. My initial peak experience (confirmed by several since) makes me entirely confident that, upon death, I will again be “one with God”, and that is something to be anticipated rather than feared. I’ve written about this before – I fail to understand those who (like Freud) think that fear of death is one of the huge motivators of human psychology – and if it’s a matter of the “control freak” fear of not being in control, I sleep every night – well, most nights, at least, and while asleep am most definitely not in control – and, indeed, being asleep is, as far as I can see, pretty much equivalent to being dead (aside Shakespeare’s worry in Hamlet “but in that sleep of death, what dreams may come – aye, there’s the rub” – I remember relatively few of my dreams anyhow, and as I still have lingering PTSD, that is an altogether good thing from my point of view).

There’s also the fact that I shouldn’t have been alive at any time after 3rd December 2006 to consider, that being the date when I mustered enough anger at my chronic depression to make my most serious attempt to put a permanent end to it. Although I researched the dose of pills which would be needed beforehand, it didn’t actually kill me. As a friend in the recovery community says, I’ve been “playing with house money” ever since then (I might suspect he has a gambling issue as well as one with several substances); I prefer to think of it as “extra time” or, maybe, “borrowed time”. There’s a particular quality to the experience of deciding entirely seriously to end your life, and then finding out that it is continuing anyhow which is unlike any other (much as the mystical experience is unlike any other, though that’s about the only thing the two share); if I hadn’t lost any fear of death I once had due to peak mystical experience, I think it would have vanished at that point. It gives a peculiar sensation of freedom, if only in that, having gone there once, you know the way and are not likely to be worried by the scenery.

My friend shares the rest of those points of view; as we agreed, we don’t fear death at all – though, on the whole (with Woody Allen) we don’t want to be there when it happens. Our mutual fear, it turns out, is living on with severely reduced mental capacities. His cancer is itself eating bits of his brain, albeit slowly, and if he has another surgery (which is definitely being suggested), that will take more instantly. I have already seen what a complex set of psychological disorders can do to my thinking, and I wouldn’t wish severe clinical depression on my worst enemy; also, as I very much “live in my head”, the idea of failing cognition really scares me. Perhaps it shouldn’t, as one might conclude that if the cognition has faded, you won’t realise the state you have degenerated into – but I have memories of my late father-in-law in the latter stages of multiple infarct dementia. Most of the time the Geoffrey we used to know just wasn’t there, but just occasionally he would have a lucid interval – and then, being a retired senior Naval surgeon, he knew completely what was happening, and watching that happen was soul destroying. It made him very angry, as well (not surprisingly), and that anger often carried forward to when the cognition had gone. In addition, the fact that his body was still present even though (for the most part) the personality aand memories had gone was agonising to those who knew and loved him; having now lost all four of our respective parents, Geoffrey’s passing was by far the most painful – the other three managed to avoid long periods of illness before they died, and in my mother’s case, she died halfway through eating her bowl of fruit at the end of a meal – one suspects that she didn’t know what hit her!

I don’t want to end up like Geoffrey. Neither does my friend. Far better to emulate my mother.

But not just yet…


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