There is nothing so cleansing as illness. When Inge was in treatment for breast cancer eight years ago, she was free of worry in a way. She was focused on getting better, and other concerns fell by the wayside by comparison. She said she had never been more “happy.” I think she meant that she had never tapped into true joy so deeply as she did during those months when all of life was whittled down to pure bone. At the end of treatment, a subtle panic approached as she recognized that she wouldn’t be DOing anything to keep cancer at bay. She asked her doctor, What can I do to prevent this returning? He answered: Be happy.
I have a student named Ben who took last year off after fast-growing tumors were found in his chest. He had surgery to remove them, then chemo and radiation. Then in the spring, good as new, he came in with vigor and excitement to review his plan to finish. But, and my heart breaks to type it, yesterday he and his dad came in to tell me there is another fast-growing tumor, and he will have surgery Friday. They wanted to know how his plan will change if he takes this semester off? He will find out in the coming weeks if the tumor is benign or malignant. As we discussed contingencies, and what it means to his program in preparation for becoming a high school English teacher to take this term off, whether or not the lump is cancerous and requires treatment, I felt the weight of all life in my little office. The father sat soberly with worry on his brow. The son seemed nearly paralyzed, motionless, face stoic, as we went over a revised plan for spring, summer, fall, spring—every course and requirement a warm, golden biscuit of privilege for the living. He was clearly numbed by it, yet alive with the question: Will I be here for that?
How might I live—totally and intensely—without news that I could be dying? As Kerouac says in his writing tips, be in love with your life and accept loss forever. We are dying, whether we are conscious of it or not, and whether it is next week or next year or 50 years from now. Osho said, “Live totally, live intensely, so that each moment becomes golden and your whole life becomes a series of golden moments.” Our life does have a holy contour. O please, self, see it, feel its shape with your fingertips. Let your eyes adore it. Eat it with relish, this simple fare of what you are given.