this (end­ing) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Carol J. Steiner

IN the weeks since I learned I have an im­mi­nently ter­mi­nal ill­ness, I have had to re­visit my smug be­lief that I would em­brace death with­out re­gret or re­sis­tance. Thirty-five years ago, when I was suf­fer­ing from in­som­ni­ain­duc­ing fear of death, the phi­los­o­phy of Martin Hei­deg­ger put me at ease. He says there is only be­ing and noth­ing, and when we cease to be, there is noth­ing more for us. While we ex­ist, the world is there for us in all its beau­ti­ful rich­ness. When we die, that world is no longer there for us as we are no longer there ei­ther, to ap­pre­ci­ate it.

Hei­deg­ger made me re­alise that what I had feared about death was that I would go on be­ing aware — of the man­ner of my death, of the mourn­ing and grief (or lack of it) of friends and rel­a­tives, of events I could not par­tic­i­pate in or in­flu­ence, of in­sights I could form but not share. I feared not an end of life but a con­tin­u­a­tion of pow­er­less con­scious­ness, a coma of be­ing. Hei­deg­ger com­forted me with the sen­si­ble in­sight that death was the end of ex­pe­ri­ence, pos­si­bil­i­ties and op­por­tu­ni­ties. Death pulled the plug. Death brought noth­ing­ness.

Twenty years ago, when a close friend nearly lost her hus­band to a heart at­tack, we agreed we were ready for death, hav­ing lived rich, ful­filled lives of ad­ven­tures, achieve­ments and plea­sures. None of that has changed for me now that death looms nearer, but I also re­alise that be­cause I love and en­joy life as much as I do, I’m not all that keen to drop off the perch. Con­se­quently, I’m pre­pared to en­dure some mod­estly un­com­fort­able chemo, re­search ef­fec­tive med­i­cal ther­a­pies, dis­charge doc­tors who are too pes­simistic, and even let peo­ple pray for me or pro­vide ridicu­lous meta­phys­i­cal re­as­sur­ances. I’m not rag­ing against the dy­ing of the light, but nei­ther am I go­ing gen­tle into that good night. I’m still be­ing un­til I’m noth­ing.

I’m do­ing what comes nat­u­rally to me: learn­ing. Learn­ing more than I ever wanted to know about ade­no­car­ci­noma, on­col­ogy and our re­mark­ably good health sys­tem. Learn­ing to ask for and ac­cept help from car­ing oth­ers, even strangers and ca­sual ac­quain­tances. Learn­ing to let friends see my tears at hav­ing to leave my pets bereft. Learn­ing that out-of-touch friends and fam­ily mem­bers still want and need to ex­press love, com­pas­sion and ten­der­ness to­wards me af­ter many years of si­lence or only oc­ca­sional con­tact. Th­ese fi­nal lessons, es­pe­cially about the im­por­tance of in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships even to a proudly in­de­pen­dent loner such as me, are cre­at­ing valu­able fi­nal ex­pe­ri­ences. They pro­vide com­fort and, amaz­ingly, bless this end­ing life with mean­ing.

It is some weeks since I wrote that, and I have found chemo to be more than ‘‘mod­estly un­com­fort­able’’ and cancer’s lessons a lot less mean­ing­ful. I am ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the most dis­con­cert­ing of chemo’s side ef­fects: what doc­tors call ‘‘chemo brain’’. Chemo shrinks memory and plan­ning struc­tures of the brain. It makes you stupid, un­or­gan­ised, scatty. Chemo brain is di­min­ish­ing my es­sen­tial be­ing. I am fac­ing what I feared the most be­fore dis­cov­er­ing Hei­deg­ger — pow­er­less con­scious­ness, a near coma of be­ing that deep­ens with ev­ery round of chemo. How can I jus­tify do­ing more da­m­age to my es­sen­tial be­ing as a philoso­pher to avoid the noth­ing­ness I do not fear while nur­tur­ing the hor­ror of what I fear most — a di­min­ished ex­is­tence? Do I stop the chemo now and shorten my life, or re­de­fine my­self as pro­gres­sively less than I am? To be or not to be?

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