Yesterday was the best day I’ve had in a long, long time.
I woke early, walked to the market around the corner, stopped at Starbucks and brought breakfast back for Ginny, Patti and me. A short rest–and then I was up until 2 a.m. We went up to Lincoln Square for two movies, had a quick lunch between films, came back, watched tv, Patti got us dinner, we played board games, I read and I worked on my obituary. (More about that coming.)
Very few breathing problems. No need for cough or nausea medicine. Just one or two hits of morphine. It was invigorating. And it all came after three active days.
Today is starting off a little slower, but it’s not bad. I feel alive.
We talk about cancer as if we’re in a war. We salute those who are “bravely battling the disease.” Maybe that’s true for some people, but I’m nowhere near as macho as that. I’m not even sure how I would fight back. When the symptoms get bad, I retreat. I lie on my side on my bed or couch. If I seem brave, it’s only because I have no choice. I do try to push myself to do things sometimes when I’m not feeling great. The results are inconsistent, but good enough that I’ll keep doing it.
I don’t usually feel sorry for myself. I think that’s because I have an active imagination that doesn’t often focus on the cancer. To me the cancer is boring. The pills, the treatments, the routines, the scans, the numbers–I can’t concentrate on them any more than I can concentrate on the details of a legal contract or an insurance form. To me this is uninteresting stuff that’s best left to the technicians. (Thank God for Ginny: on my own I’d screw up the regimen at every juncture. )
Dying, on the other hand, is endlessly interesting. Partly because it’s scary and mysterious, of course, but it’s more than that. if nothing else, we are the heroes of our own lives, and we want our lives to have meaning. We want to know how the story turns out. De Gaulle is credited with saying that the cemeteries are full of irreplaceable men. There’s supposed to be irony in that thought, but I don’t think there should be. Men and women–you and i–are literally irreplaceable. Future generations may succeed us, but they won’t leave the same footprints. If Shakespeare had died young, would someone else have written Hamlet or Lear? Would the world be different today if there had been no Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin? Would advertising have been revolutionized without a handful of Doyle Dane Bernbach leaders in the ’60s? Would technology be different today without the singular contributions of Gates, Jobs, Paige and Zuckerberg? Most of our personal contributions to the world are played out on much smaller stages, but if we can imagine that the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil can give birth to a tornado in Texas, who knows what differences we make when we raise our voices, wave our arms and make our impact. For most of us, a tally of our arm-waving will be taken at our death. What will be said? What boxes will be checked? Was I a good father? A hard worker? A trustworthy friend? A joyful comic? A selfless caregiver? An encouraging mentor? A smart student? An inspiring teacher? A contributing citizen.
What will I leave behind? A happy family? A prosperous business? A work of art? An idea? A plan? Laughter? Tears?
I’ve often quoted a sentimental old Anthony Newley song:
... I long to live in someone’s memory…
And I long to live upon a hill…
And it doesn’t matter that I know I never will.
But I raise my glass to the good things in life.
We are not here for long but there’s time for a song and some wine.
And as time runs away…I will look back and say
That the good things in life were all mine.”
Back in ’98 when I first drove back from Johns Hopkins with my diagnosis, this was the song I thought of as I approached our driveway on the top of Hill Drive. I dreaded telling Ginny, whose mother was dying, whose son had AIDS, that her husband had an 86% chance of dying of lung cancer within five years. I reminded myself then how lucky I was that I lived on a hill–and that I’d had an abundance of the good things in life.
The big gift I’ve been given the past 15 years is the confirmation that I will definitely live in the memory of some wonderful people. (I’ve been tempted to compare the world after I die to the world before I was born: I’m clearly not needed either time. The world spins fine with or without me. But death isn’t the end of me. I’ll live in people’s hearts the very same way Preston and my dad live in my heart. It’s not all that different from living on the hill.
Maybe that’s why I’m actually enjoying writing my obituary. It’s the obituary Susan Lueke will post on this blog when I’ve died. Since the readers will have a little familiarity with me, I don’t feel a need to create a timeline or resume. I’ll just use the occasion of “the final posting” to clear up a few little things and to let you all know you won’t need to be checking back in here.
I’m hoping you won’t see that obituary for a long, long time.