And when you feel afraid, love one another
When you’ve lost your way, love one another
When you’re all alone, love one another
When you’re far from home, love one another
When you’re down and out, love one another
When all your hopes ran out, love one another
When you need a friend, love one another
When you’re near the end, love one another
We got to love one another
Love is the Answer
Sometimes when people are dealing with serious illness, we describe them as brave or courageous. They seem to come more alive as they face the prospect of death. How is that possible? In early January, my wife, Nancy and I, attended Mercy’s Cancer Support Group and I was impressed with how genuinely optimistic and upbeat one member seemed to be. This wasn’t someone who had beaten cancer and was grateful. This was someone who was still undergoing serious, scary treatment and was grateful. Like glowing with gratitude as if she won a prize, grateful. I marveled at that. I was far from her evolved, spiritual state of acceptance and instead, felt like a sad, heavy stone, trying my best to look human.
I recall another woman turning her optimism onto me like a flashlight, shining into my dungeon of despair and confidently insisting I would be ok. I received her words with a wry smile, amused by her cheery disposition, but cynical inside as I thanked her for her kind forecast. I didn’t feel brave or courageous then but quietly non-partisan, accepting the unrequested gift of cancer as one might accept a storm of rain. Who doesn’t prefer the warm sun of spring and blue skies? But cancer whispers in your ear to tell you it has other plans. Deal with it or resist it but either way, it’s your cross and yours alone.
Within a few weeks of that meeting, I got the call from my radiation oncologist with the news the cancer had spread to my lungs, tongue and the back of my skull in a region called the clivus. I did not know I had a clivus and now I am learning it is hosting a party of squamous cancer cells that had traveled a few inches through my blood stream from my throat. “Well ok,” I thought, “that explains the headaches.”
They don’t normally biopsy the skull but the tongue and lung biopsies confirmed those areas were malignant, metastatic and, therefore, “incurable.” Two different doctors emphasized that word – as if to say, “pay attention, you might battle this beast but it will get you in the end.” And so there it was. More chemo on the menu, in the hopes of buying a few more months of life. Much stronger this time. Like Jack Daniels compared to my previous light beer. Sigh. Ok. Thy will be done.
I wasn’t overly sad or mad, not like most everyone else around me seemed to be. It has been hard from the beginning of all this to think I would be lucky. I liked hearing friends and loved ones tell me they were praying to “kick cancer’s ass” and tell me stories of others who had been through this and were years now in remission. And I felt showered with love and kind wishes through encouraging texts and cards in the mail with bible verses, cute pictures and hopeful messages from incredibly good people who took time to care about my continued existence and figuratively look me in the eyes and will me into that happiest of golden outcomes: a full and complete recovery. Again, the wry smile and me thinking maybe, maybe not, we shall see.
After the initial shock, I wasn’t overly surprised by the cancer. Like many of us, I’ve had my share of short straws in this life and am well practiced in dealing with tragedy and loss. Nancy’s breast cancer, my scooter crash, losing our home in the Carr Fire, deaths of friends and loved ones and the horror of client suicides.
If we live long enough, we run the risk of accumulating crateloads of trauma we learn to carry with as much grace as gravity allows. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I have always looked at life as more of a tough, expensive school than a carefree carnival. And too often, it’s been a heavy load I worried over like a debt I couldn’t pay, a mountainous burden of care for clients, my family, friends and once I discovered the climate crisis, the whole freaking planet.
As a result of all that, I’ve spent a chunk of my life in a state of ambivalence about the whole life and death thing. I’ve had my share of suicidal thoughts, like well-meaning friends on my bus, who say they know of ways to end my pain. I always thank them but deftly demur, “no thank you, no.”
And then recently, as I began my second round of chemo, there was this week from hell, when the full brunt of the toxic chemo-brew seemed to invade my mind and body in an all-out assault on my desire to carry on. The mouth sores returned with a vengeance, forcing me once again to give up solid food and rely exclusively on the feeding tube and meals of bland, vanilla gruel. Chronic headaches, a mouth like the Sahara; dry, bleeding lips, constant fatigue, insomnia, dysarthria and bottomless despair led me to seriously question the value and purpose of treatment that seemed much worse than the disease. Several times I asked Nancy if she would be ok with me ending chemo and letting the cancer run free.
And then, just as suddenly, something shifted. A new — and I would say delightful — shift in perspective. Perhaps it was the steroids they gave me with the chemo-poison that make the first few days of treatment smooth and peaceful like a rowing a small boat on a gentle stream. Or maybe it was the comforting Norco that my physician finally convinced me to take in place of the megadoses of acetaminophen that I’ve consumed over the last six months. Or maybe it is the accumulation of spiritual love and healing that so many prayers have brought me from the divine ethers and the collective mind.
Regardless of the cause, I found myself in a moment of mental clarity when I read a text message from one of my daughters of how “scary” my new diagnosis and prognosis were to her. “Scary,” I thought over and over as I pictured my daughter as sincerely frightened by my disease and likely death. Until that moment, no one had said the word that everyone felt. We are all terrified but something in us protects us from our fear and restricts us from revealing it. But there it was. Out in the open and undeniably real. What I carry is not just a threat to me but to the people I love the most.
And that is when it hit me. I am devoted to my girls. They are my life. Nothing – no one is more important. From their birth, I constantly reminded them how much I loved them until they got tired of hearing it. And more than once, when they were growing up, I lost my mind, thinking they were in danger, forcing me to yell their names and search for them frantically or call and text them repeatedly until I received confirmation they were safe.
And now, here it was, a clarion call to save my daughters once again from something more odious than I ever imagined; one that I might actually be able to control. All their life, I told myself I would die for them, if necessary. Of course, overpowering love leads us naturally to such obvious beliefs. It felt like an easy call, as many parents can attest.
But now a new demand seemed clear. If I was willing to die for them, was I willing to live for them? This was a new and disturbing thought. Was I willing to do everything within my power to choose life as diminished, dour and dead as it seemed? And that is when the shift happened. Of course, yes. If this scared them, I could not afford to be ambivalent or even secretly welcoming to an early death and the release it offered. No way. I would live for them. I will live for them. Dying is easy. We all get to do that eventually but living is hard. Genuine, authentic, fearless living in the face of persistent pain and suffering. That’s the brave and courageous stuff we hear about. The tough stuff.
And once we pull a purpose from our pain, it isn’t as hard. I love my daughters and my wife, my relatives and friends, my clients and in some sense, most humans I have the good fortune to know. I have the clarity now to understand that my cancer, the chemo and all the pain that goes with it are just the collective cost of being a father to my daughters, a husband to my wife, a therapist for my clients, a friend to my precious friends. A price that I pay willingly, happily, joyfully. Dying is easy. I will get around to it one day. But meanwhile, it is life that is hard and life that I choose because I choose love. I will always choose love. Get that straight and everything else falls into place.
Editor’s note: Click here to read Doug’s previous essay, Cancer is a Mirror
Cards and letters may be mailed to Doug Craig at 1650 Oregon St., Ste 110, Redding, CA 96001.