(1) 24 Apr 2012 – First Four Months
Although I am, by habit, what is known as a ‘private’ person, I’ve decided to add some personal information to this blog because it is relevant to the topic, and because it may serve as a kind of empirical study (although necessarily anecdotal), a test case of how theory interacts with real life. I have been diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, fast-growing and aggressive. Before it was surgically removed in February, just two months after I first noticed a ‘pimple’ on my left arm (it did not look like most melanomas, and even fooled the dermatologist) it metastasized to a nearby lymph node, causing a secondary tumour—also subsequently removed. As I write, I believe this puts me in AJCC Stage IIIC, which has a five-year survival rate of less than 30%. I am sixty-four years old, otherwise healthy, with no really bad habits. I feel healthy and strong. Thus I am either facing death much sooner than I expected (I come from long-lived stock), or a brush with death. “Brush” is probably not the right word, as it suggests a brief period of danger. This is more like being in a city under siege—a city in a forest that provides ample cover to a force of unknown strength. Within the walls there are still good supplies of food and water. Enemy combatants are occasionally spotted and picked off with a shot; but more may be out there. The enemy is well provisioned, and appears patient.
This sort of event is reputed to ‘concentrate the mind wonderfully,’ so with luck it will yield insights. Certainly I have felt my self-concern—that familiar, special concern about my personal future—stir, flap its wings, and dig its talons deeper into my back. (I don’t know why I’m drawn to metaphor to describe this.) I often imagine future outcomes, good and bad, and feel the hopes and fears that most people would expect to feel in a similar situation. I notice, though, that I am not terribly distressed. I do not feel panicky. I’ve felt much more anxious at various times in the past, in grim situations at work, when things were going badly and I was unable to turn them around with my best efforts. At those times—more than ten years ago—more was at stake. Our kids were still growing up, whereas now they’re independent; Claudia and I had less money, whereas now the mortgage is paid off and we are financially comfortable. In those days, a potentially lethal disease would have been a greater threat to my most urgently felt goals than it is now. It still threatens my goals; but the threat seems less urgent. Although there is much more I would like to do, perhaps I have accomplished what I need to accomplish.
One thing that does not bother me much is the idea that my consciousness will cease to be, that I will have no more experiences when I die. I must have become deeply convinced—not just cognitively, but emotionally—that that idea is, as Mark Johnston describes it, ‘busted.’ (I’ve been reading Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death, and working on the next Phantom Self post about his interesting, radical views on personal identity.) I’ve gotten so used to thinking of anticipation of future experience as something that I can optionally extend or withhold, that I don’t regard the loss of Gordon Cornwall’s future experiences as a huge loss—at least, not a loss to me. It’s not as though there will be no future experiences after I die. Other people, including people I love, will do the sorts of things I enjoy doing—go kayak-camping in Clayoquot Sound—and their experiences will not be inferior to mine. I find myself expecting, with pleasure, my kids’ future camping trips, and those of other like-minded people we have met on those paradisal crescents of golden beach. As I sit in my home office, typing this manuscript, I derive something of the same benefit from the thought of them in Clayoquot as from the thought of me in Clayoquot. Both are happy thoughts. My main concern is that, the way things are going with global warming (caused by rampant self-concern of the present generation, my generation), the beaches themselves are endangered. How long will they be available for anyone’s enjoyment?
I feel as though I’ve fairly thoroughly absorbed the attitude expressed by Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons:
There will later [after my death] be some memories about my life. And there may later be thoughts that are influenced by mine, or things done as the result of my advice. My death will break the more direct relationships between my present experiences and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations. That is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who wil be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad. (Parfit, 1984, p 281)
Other aspects of this threat of untimely death are more troubling. No one has a problem being dead; but one’s death can cause trouble for those who remain. I have no serious worries for my son and daughter, who are well launched in the world. They are upset, and would miss me, but in the long run would not be deeply damaged by my disappearance from the scene. They have their own active lives to carry them, and loving parthers. I am more concerned about Claudia. We love each other, I venture to say, deeply. If I put the shoe on the other foot, and imagine losing her, with twenty or thirty years of expected life remaining to me, I can better understand her present worry on my behalf. It would tear a great gash in her life. When our friend Curt died of cancer fourteen years ago, she said, “He left a big hole. A big raging hole.” So it is when people you love die before their time. Besides being a good friend, Curt was my business partner. Five months after his death, I wrote in my diary:
I miss Curt. I dreamed last night that he wasn’t dead. He had the tumour, but was alive and lucid and I could talk to him. So it wasn’t quite, as Bob [another of the four partners] said, just up to the three of us. I felt so relieved! And I thought maybe he won’t die. I woke up a bit, to the point where I realized it was a dream, but I still thought that Curt was alive, and I felt better. Then I woke up a bit more and realized he was dead. The weight fell back on my heart. In this time of great uncertainty and anxiety I miss him the most. I know that if I could talk to him, he’d have good ideas and some plan would come out of it and I’d feel better. But he is not. I can never talk to him again. I have this recurring fantasy that miraculously Curt comes back to life and I get to tell him everything that has happened. That would be such fun.
So it is for the survivors. I had known Curt for a dozen years when he died. Claudia and I have been together forty-one years. We raised two children to whom we were, and are, devoted. We rely on each other in countless ways, even as editors of each other’s work. Our lives are thoroughly interwoven. The hole left in our lives by Curt’s absence, which was raw and painful for a long time, was smaller than the hole that would be left in her life by my absence. Later, perhaps—if one of us died in our eighties, it seems that would be easier to bear. But maybe the impact of that loss is softened only by being twenty years off. Maybe, when it came, it would be as great.
Love, it seems, remains a problem. It’s not one I would wish to solve—I do not aspire to detachment. And where there is attachment, there is potential for suffering. That is the price we pay, for being engaged.
If either Claudia or I die soon, the suffering of the other will be real. I cannot do much to lessen her pain, other than encourage her not to be alone. The best I can do is not die—but that is not a choice entirely within my power. I’m doing what I can to stay alive—educating myself about melanoma, requesting earlier medical appointments in case of cancellations, seeking out the best expertise, wearing my hat and sunblock, staying alert to changes in my body. I’m determined to fight it—but success does not depend only on attitude and strength. Other factors are out of my control. So I engage in this campaign, expecting the best and preparing for the worst.
And a bit surprised by how calm I am. On my first visit to the Cancer Agency I had to fill out a form, one part of which consisted of psychological questions like, “Rate your level of anxiety” and “Have you been having trouble sleeping?” Each question asked for a rating of 0 to 5. I found myself honestly answering 0 or 1 to all these questions. Looking over my shoulder, Claudia said if she had to describe herself, it would be 5-5-5…
Why is that, I wonder? My death would be a big disruption of my life. Readers of this blog will know I have no expectation of an afterlife beyond any real traces I may leave on the minds of other living people. Although I am grateful for such traces, they do not amount to a life. They are a rather poor substitute for having a living, breathing body of one’s own to devote to one’s projects. Besides family and friends, I have as reasons for living a number of projects—some begun, some merely thought of—I want to carry out. The Phantom Self project is nearing an end, in its present form, but I also want to write a book on the subject. The blog has been a voyage of discovery; the book, if I can complete it, will try to make the same ideas more vivid and accessible, reorganizing them in a way that makes more sense, filling in gaps in the argument. The book will, perhaps, reach a wider audience than the six hundred or so blog readers per month reported by Google Analytics. And I have other projects on the go—a novel of which I’ve written eight chapters, perhaps a story collection, a photographic project I call ‘Surreal Animals’—animals in unexpected urban settings, out of scale, like this one:
This picture is titled, “Large Cat Stalking Pedestrians on Seawall.” (It’s our cat, Charlie.) I want to make a calendar out of these. And I want to take a trip to the Arctic and photograph the ice before it all melts. And campaign for a better government in the next federal election. There are also personal things I want very much to do.
Why, then, so calm? I may have only a few months. Is it because I feel healthy—my body is ‘telling me’ not to worry? Maybe—but I’m not in denial about the seriousness of this disease. I don’t fully understand my response.
Everyone faces death eventually. Whether this turns out to be merely a close encounter, or the final one for me, remains to be seen. Anyway, since it’s germane to the topic, I plan to post periodic updates here on The Phantom Self. Since they are personal, not theoretical, I will leave them out of the main Table of Contents, but I’ll create a separate TOC for these entries.