Here’s what I’ve learned in the year or so since I found out I had metastatic tumors inside my body: that tumors do kill people; how to deal with the side effects of chemo, what cancer-related questions you should never google, the limits of knowledge of oncologists and people in general about cancer, and what will happen to me in particular. Unless you or someone you love has cancer, you probably don’t really care about any of this.
I’ve also thought a lot about lots of stuff you might be interested in: the meaning of life, priorities and goals, what matters when faced with death. But then again, you might as well not care what I think. We give importance to reflections around death because coming face to face with it is not nothing. But the weight of death also has the power to distort these reflections.
Publishing trends show that people love cancer journals, and dealing with death is thought-provoking, it’s true. However, I am not convinced that those who know they are at the end of their life have wise advice to give to the living. At best, it looks like we have some rather hollow advice you’ve seen somewhere. At worst, these are very poor recommendations for anyone who isn’t going to die in the short term.
Every day like the last
One of the lessons the dying are supposed to teach others is to live each day as if you were to die tomorrow. So I tried: I ordered my coffee as if I was going to die tomorrow, I went for a walk as if I was going to die tomorrow, I had discussions as if I was going to die tomorrow. Carpe diem, okay, but it’s hard to live like that.
If I really tried to live today as if it was my last day, tomorrow would be terrible: I would end up with piles of stuff to clean, a hangover and worried messages in my voicemail that I would have to answer. . And even if I took a darker approach, bringing my family together to share my last words, some final thoughts, and my passwords… so what? I’ll bring everyone back the next day?
At first, when I didn’t know if my diagnosis left me five years or five months to live, I had melancholy thoughts that gave each moment a seriousness, an importance. If this is the last time I see my son play baseball, there’s no way I’m missing a beat looking at my phone.
Appreciating the smallest moments in life makes them all feel important, and at the same time it’s impossible to savor them all. Both of these propositions are true. Appreciating even a single moment a day would already be a feat, which I have been trying to achieve for years. This message is displayed in all personal development books, on all mugs, pillows and posters that are supposed to boost morale. So yes, cancer did indeed remind me to live in the moment – but Ikea had already done that.
What’s different about dealing with death is the reason to enjoy this moment: there isn’t much left. Of course, it’s good to be aware of your own mortality, but I’m not 20 anymore. I already was. And I was still able to plan a vacation.
Those who are not dying should be just enough aware of the finiteness of life to understand that not everything can be done. It’s sad, of course, to think of all the books you won’t read and all those places you’ll never visit. But limitations are not enough to spoil our experiences. The length of the menu doesn’t affect how much I enjoy my meal, and I enjoy the book I’m reading without giving a single thought to anyone I’m missing.
Every day is a life
In fact, it is quite possible that I will value each of these books even more if I am aware that I will read relatively few of them in my life. But facing death gives too clear a vision of the finitude of life. Choose a new reading when death is stalking me, and all my knowledge will soon disappear? Okay, when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I fear no harm, but when the shadow is approaching so fast, it’s not easy to relax with a good book.
Prioritizing with death in mind is like working to a tight deadline where everything not of critical importance falls by the wayside. It works when you’re dying, but it’s not transferable. A busy life also has lower priorities: friends that are sweet to see but won’t be on your deathbed, cool hobbies, professional and personal projects, books to read, meals to eat and movies to see, nothing that individually would not gain in importance in the shadow of death, but things that, taken together, make life beautiful.
The only priority I had left after the shock of the diagnosis erased everything else was to help my son grow. Nothing else mattered in the light of impending death. And now, however cautiously optimistic my treatments lead me, I can’t forget that all my other priorities are, at best, secondary.
Even my main priority –help my son grow– turned out to be unfeasible. Achieving long-term priorities requires finding meaning in the mundane and boring routines of everyday life. Playing ball with my son is unremarkable, but it makes sense because it’s time spent together watching him develop and talk about what’s on his mind. It’s part of my approach to fatherhood: showing him that he can talk to me when he needs to, and that I just like spending time with him.
But no ball game, date night, Thanksgiving, or shared coffee with a particular friend is anything but special. Over time, it is the succession of these little nothings that becomes so. Taken individually, some activities may not even be defensible at all: Hundreds of things in my life are more important than playing ball this afternoon. Like long-term patterns that cease to exist when nothing is long-term, living as if we were to die tomorrow means losing entirely the ability to find meaning in the routines of everyday life.
The dead all have the same skin
Cancer showed me that I had one priority above all others, and it also robbed me of my habits; it forced me to interrupt my daily life to make room for operations, convalescence after operations, nausea from chemo, exhaustion. I had to invent excuses to explain to my son why I couldn’t play ball or even why I couldn’t put him to bed. So I guess so, I have one piece of advice from this whole experience: don’t get cancer.
Cancer diaries hint that there is a transcendent lesson to be learned from those who face death. That may be true, but the things I’ve learned are mostly irrelevant, or they’re cliches that only seem important because anything near death seems profound. (Read a list of “famous last words” and judge how ordinary they would sound if the person who said them hadn’t died immediately afterwards.)
This does not mean that the teachings of the dying are not valid, but they do not have any special meaning. Death simplifies things in a way that is of no use to those who are not dying and are looking to live a successful life that is not complicated or chaotic. Besides, the dying are – we are – just as likely to talk nonsense as anyone else.
I hope that despite the statistics, I will have years to forget what this experience has taught me, to remember again the priorities I let go, knowing – but not feeling the burden of this knowledge – that time is running out. I would especially like to succeed in not enjoying every moment, and playing ball just to play ball. Not feeling like you have to constantly enjoy life before it slips through your fingers is probably a sign of a successful life—exactly the kind of cliche that makes a lot of sense when it’s a dying who says so.