this (ending) life
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?