Saturday, November 19, 2011

What do you want to be doing when you die?

In the first few months of cancer, I was led to believe that this was not going to be a huge, permanent, life-changing thing. It was presented to me by several doctors as something that could be easily and quickly dealt with, with minimal long-term effects. I was told that "the tumour is small and localised" that it could be "removed easily with a small surgery," that I will be past it by mid-summer, that I would not have to have chemo, that permanently life-changing surgery would not be necessary.

One by one these assertions and assumptions have turned out to have been false. No one lied to me, exactly, but of course everyone wanted to put the best possible face on things. But in the last few months, each of these assurances have fallen by the wayside, opening up worse long-term prognoses, more radical interventions and fewer choices.

When it started, I was led to believe that I could leave it behind, that at some point I would be able to say, "It's over," and that life could carry on as it had before. But the core of the information we had from the doctors last week was that this is never going to be over. It is going to create a deeply altered life for me and my life will now never return to what it was.

For some years, of course, I have been looking at the things I am doing and thinking about how to live the second half of my life. This was just because I'm 45. But since the walls of cancer have closed slowly around me, narrowing my choices, my thoughts have become more acute, more immediate. There seems to be no doubt that the cancer and its treatment have greatly shortened my life expectancy.

So, now a new kind of question, a new set of questions, has been taking up my attention. No longer, "Is this what I should be doing?" but "What do I want to be doing when I die?" because whatever that is, I'd better be getting on with it right away. I think there is no more "some day" for me.

Medically, the more I learn, the worse it sounds. First, I will also have to undergo monitoring tests for many years, if not for the rest of my life to watch for the cancer coming back. The surgery (that I'll probably be having in the next couple of weeks) will greatly reduce the risk that the cancer I have now will recur, but not eliminate it. Nothing can do that. They can reduce the chances by removing all the organs that could now be affected, but there is no way to know if micrometasteses have spread into the surrounding organs and tissues. For that, we can only wait and watch carefully.

What they told me, in effect, was that there is no way to know, no way at all, to be certain, that cancer will not kill me some time in the next five years. All of the possible choices for treatment will render me permanently dependent on medical interventions and at significantly increased risk of a wide array of health threats.

Then, the surgery will render me sterile and induce premature menopause, symptoms of which are more sudden and more severe than it would be if it were natural. My Dorian Gray moment is at hand. The ovaries and uterus continue producing low levels of hormones throughout a woman's lifespan. Removing them all will produce a much more severe and abrupt cessation of normal functions and set of symptoms than anyone normally experiences. It seems that hormone replacement therapy can mitigate some but not all of these.

Further, the treatments to reduce these side effects, that I will have to undertake immediately and for at least ten to fifteen years, come themselves with a set of side effects and increased risks that, ironically, include cancer as well as nasty stuff like thrombosis, stroke and heart disease.

Put simply, I really cannot expect my life to be a long one. And between the new medical realities and the general circumstances of my life and background, I can't help but think that a short life would not entirely be a bad thing. I will leave behind a great many friends, but almost no family, and no one at all who is dependent on me.

I am a believing Catholic and that means that I look forward to the next life to be the better one. And as the medical condition worsens, I have no qualms about admitting that having less and less to lose as we go along is maybe also no bad thing. Releasing and relinquishing life and the things in it, including things long hoped-for but now unlikely ever to materialise, is something we all have to do eventually, and it's better to have less baggage to carry. John Muggeridge taught me that as I watched him let go of things in the last weeks of his life.

But that question, "What do I want to be doing when I die?" has begun to loom very large in my mind since they told me the news last week. It is obvious that I am not now doing it. Whatever I need to be doing when my life is over, I'm not doing now.

To be blunt, I am now extremely unlikely ever to be married. And I am incapable of ever being a mother. No religious order will take me, even if I still had the slightest spark of an idea I would want to be taken by them, which I don't. One of the things that cancer has finally put an end to, therefore, is the vocation question. I don't have one. And whether I ever did is now moot.

The "single life," never desired, always a repellent thought, is what I've got and will have. I have never believed this NewChurch drivel about the "single life" being a vocation in itself. The multiple catastrophes of universal divorce, the "sexual revolution," the ruin of the family and the abortion and contraceptive cultures have simply demolished the possibility of marriage for a huge number of us. I would venture to say that these things have ruined the hopes of marriage or the religious life for most of the people of my generation. We are simply so damaged as to be incapable of fulfilling the married or religious life. This kind of happiness and hope is something many of us simply cannot have, and all the blither about the glories of "the single life" falls upon our ears like a cruel jeer. I hope the fad dies out in the Church quickly.

If you can't choose it, if it is something that can be forced unwanted upon you by circumstances you can't control, it is not a state in life, but a mistake. I suffer from no delusions that a life lived without any sort of ontological connections can be inherently sanctifying, which is what a vocation to a particular state in life is for. If unmarried, unvowed people want to be holy, they have to do something else.

So the question remains, what, therefore, can be the next step down? No sanctifying state of life. No ontological context. Only me, and an "occupation," the doing of some thing that will not rule out a holy life. Of course, it could simply be that I can just carry on doing what I'm doing. I am set up now to live a fairly happy life, as long as it is likely to be short anyway. But it has become clear that I'm not now doing what I want to be doing when I die.

Lately I have been asking some priest friends, who I think have not really understood why the question is important, whether art can be taken as a sufficient substitute for a failed vocation. My question has mostly been dismissed with a terse answer. But I've been thinking about it a great deal.

What can I do with the second half of my life (or perhaps last third or fifth) that will give glory to God, that will occupy me and that is suited to a life that will largely be lived alone?

The only thing that makes me hesitate (apart from financial constraints) is time. I am looking very hard at the admissions page of the website of the Florence Academy of Art, which is the centre of the renewal of the arts of drawing, painting and sculpture. It is probably the best art school in the world. My current instructor, Andrea Smith, trained and taught there for several years. Nearly all of the leading classical realists studied there or studied with people who studied there. Most of the schools that are involved in the restoration of these traditions were founded as offshoots.

But it takes three years to complete the programme, and of course, years more to grow into maturity in this work. When I started studying nearly two years ago now, I thought I had time. Now I think I probably don't.

But that question is still in there: "What do I want to be doing when I die?"

Is the mere pursuit of this, without any guarantee I'll reach the goal, a worthy thing to die doing? I might very well die in the middle of the course. What would be the value in starting something I likely haven't the time to finish? Can I indulge in this pursuit, knowing I will likely not finish it, while the world comes crashing down around us? Is it selfish?

But there comes at time when you no longer have any room to fool about with life.

I'm thinking about it.