It begins with a phone call from the doctor, and it is as I’ve often and unwillingly imagined: “I’ve got bad news.”
There is a silent, airless implosion. I force myself to breathe, pull myself together, and ask whatever I can manage. The call ends, and I feel like the world is pulling away. I am being left behind. I put down the phone and make some notes about the disease, the treatments, the calls I’ll need to make, then I burst into tears.
Outside the window there’s a bright sunset and dark, pine-covered mountains. There’s a cool evening breeze. How to tell my wife, my son, my family, my friends? I imagine how they are leading their lives assuming everything is going on as before. It’s inconceivable that so much love, so much intensity, can just end. But a door has just closed. Everything in the world will vanish, and I will vanish. It may not be immediate, but it’s now real. An innocuous little bump on my forehead has been diagnosed as nodular melanoma and mortality is no longer abstract. It’s strange I feel so well.
There is, suddenly, an almost painful intensity to everything. I think of how Trungpa Rinpoche used the phrase “genuine mind of sadness” to point to an essential part of our lives. Sorrow, love, and being alive are inextricable.
The next days are taken up with trying to understand this form of cancer—its development, treatments, prognosis. My wife Debbie and I, always close, grow closer as we face a newly tenuous future. I tell my son and my good friends. Without being overly pessimistic or optimistic, I try to put them at ease. I try to continue with my normal activities, which now seem frail and contrived. More tests are scheduled, and visits to surgeons and oncologists are set up.
I think back to years ago when an acquaintance, Carlo, was dying of liver cancer. He wanted to go out with some guys, but not ones he’d been so very close to. Three of us went to a restaurant. Pasta with bottarga and all kinds of special dishes emerged; wine too. Carlo would suddenly be happy; then, in almost the same moment, he’d be desolate and heartbroken. He’d look away. Although my condition is nowhere near as grave as his, I realize how extraordinary was Carlo’s willingness not to shrink from the overwhelming waves of love and sorrow.
As Naropa, the Indian mahasiddha, described it, living in conditioned existence is like “licking the honey on the razor’s edge.” Knowing we are close to the edge of it all, being lost brings to life a sudden intensity of love. Even if my mortality might be imminent, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for everything that comes my way. Dare I say it, this disease has made me feel more alive.
I write about this to a friend who endured a long siege with lymphoma. He replies, “I certainly hope your ‘mortality’ is not that ‘imminent.’ But as you imply, it could be. To feel that is a great thing. I’ve always, always looked at my cancer as a great gift.”
My sister-in-law enjoyed a long remission after grueling treatments for ovarian cancer. She was, as she acknowledged, utterly grateful for the transformation she experienced. She had no more time for the petty negativities that had previously undermined her. “I’ll never regret it,” she told me.
Relatives, friends, and acquaintances from all over begin to send me words of encouragement, prayers, and good wishes. Some I barely know: a local music critic, many friends of my wife’s, members of her mother’s church. The expanse of kindness is overwhelming and humbling. Many have been through similar experiences, and almost all know someone who has. What is happening to me is in no way unique.
When the test results indicate that my situation is rather less grave than it might have been, the congratulations from those around me convey a collective relief that I don’t yet feel, though the warmth of everyone’s embrace is palpable.
My surgery has been successful in removing all the melanoma that was detected. Nonetheless, I’m reluctant to view what I’ve been through as merely a scare or an unpleasant episode. I run into a friend who’d had a brain tumor. The surgery was risky, and many of the potential outcomes were terrifying. She tells me how, now that she’s recovered, people want to say it’s over and behind her. “I can’t tell them,” she admits, “but really, in a way, I don’t even want it to be.”
For me, a door has opened to living with less certainty, greater intensity, and far more gratitude. Fear of the cancer’s return, future treatments, pain, and dying bring an enduring sharpness. Buddhist practice in this context is, as always, simply not getting caught in discursive elaborations.
Thoughts and feelings come and go. We do not choose what we think or feel. Love and friendship, the scent of the summer air, the shadows by the stream are each so uniquely valuable. So deeply to be loved. Everything seems new, bright, strangely exhilarating. It is, I feel shy to say, something like falling in love.
A year or so later, I have lunch with my cousin Susan. She has weathered far greater medical trials than this. A lot of what she went through was so long ago that she no longer feels the same intensity of gratitude.
This may be so, but I hope she won’t mind if I say that I feel in her a depth of strength, humor, warmth, and vivacity that is greater than before. One does not, I think, encounter one’s mortality without something new emerging, and it is not just one thing.
Around the same time, I felt decisively that I was entering into old age. It was different than anything I had assumed. My son (29 years old at the time) said to me: “You’re only as old as you think you are.”
“Only young people think that,” I found myself snapping.
Nonetheless, it has become evident that people resent acknowledging sickness, aging, and the evidence of mortality in others. They are actually quite aggressive about it. Reflecting on this led me, by not the most direct of routes, to considering how a Prince who lived in sequestered luxury was shocked to discover the universality of old age, sickness, and death. These shocks then led this Prince directly to becoming the Buddha and opening a new path of liberation in the world.
Excerpted from The Age of Waiting: Heart Traces and Song Lines in The Anthropocene by Douglas J. Penick © 2020 Arrowsmith Press. Reprinted in arrangement with Arrowsmith Press. Bristol, United Kingdom.