My friend Susanne facilitates a circle of women, each of whom has experienced a cancer in her body. Last week Susanne read to them a poem I’d written recently, and it sparked the day’s conversation: how is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious when one is not “actively” dying?

 

I was immediately intrigued when Susanne brought that question back to me, and I was inspired to write a poem about it. But it seems that I have too many thoughts for a single poem to hold – my response is becoming a blog post instead. In fact, I’ve realized that the question is larger than just a single blog post. So I’m starting with the second part of the circle’s question, the part about “not actively dying.” Next month I’ll write about the idea of sustaining our awareness of precious moments. And in the meantime, I hope your comments, added below, will spark new thoughts and conversations as well.

 

So: beginning with the back end of the circle’s question, the part about not actively dying . . .

 

Probably the question for the women of this circle assumes a sequence of: cancer diagnosis and prognosis; then a chosen form of treatment; then revised prognosis, and the passage of time in some definition of “remission.”

 

But does any step of this sequence really determine whether or not one is “actively dying”? For all of the medical expertise behind it, all that “-gnosis” stuff is still just informed guesses. Treatment may slow the progress of a terminal disease – then there may be a revised prognosis, called a “remission.” However, the fact is that we have all been in a “terminal condition” since the second our father’s sperm pierced our mother’s egg. The real issue for us is that we have become a death-denying culture; we have forgotten that life is an STTD – “a sexually transmitted terminal disease.”

 

A terminal disease is one that is progressive and incurable. It is, by definition, irreversible. The “disease” called life may be more protracted, more like a chronic disease, but it is still progressive and incurable. We are mortal beings, and life is fatal.

 

With or without particular diagnoses, parts of us are dying continuously. The largest organ of the human body is the skin, an eight-pound organ that keeps us from evaporating. A skin cell lives two or three weeks, and then dies and is sloughed off as a new one takes its place. Cells of the colon live only about four days before they die and are replaced. White blood cells live about a year. The bottom line is this: there is no time when we are not “actively dying.”

 

For millennia religious monks, stoics, and philosophers have practiced meditating on impermanence. They have repeated, taught, and pondered the words “memento mori,” a Latin phrase meaning “remember death.” This phrase reminds us to be present to who we are and what we have in this moment. Live life fully, it says; don’t waste precious, limited time.

 

Which brings me to the first part of the cancer circle’s question: “how is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious?”

 

That will be next month’s blog post topic. I’d love to have you share with me your thoughts and questions between now and then.

candle photo

19 replies
  1. Mary Knight
    Mary Knight says:

    Well, as usual, I’m going the opposite direction from everyone else in the buffet line–that is, reading your latest blog post (and the subsequent conversations) about dying/living and working backwards. Sigh. Anyway, isn’t it both? Aren’t we actively dying and actively living simultaneously? What truly inspires awe in me is all that continual birth going on in me, even as other cells are dying and sloughing off. Is the precious present about holding both dear? And holding myself dearly in this perpetual flux? Maybe that’s what I’m seeking these days…and believe me, I am seeking.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      It’s so good to have you on the seeking journey – what an excellent companion! I imagine us as a contemporary band of story sharers traveling together, sort of like Canterbury Tales.

      Reply
  2. Christina B.
    Christina B. says:

    One of the things that brings my own mortality into focus is taking on a project that is likely to take me several years to complete! I become aware that living long enough to “finish the story” is a huge privilege, and I don’t know if I’ll have it, but I’m going for it. I find that after 70 the sense that “the end is near” never completely leaves me. It’s deep mid-winter and I’m ruminating on another version of this question for a Jauary blog post of my own.

    Keep on asking us unanswerable questions–in prose and poetry.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      It seems to be “that season” – of the year, of our individual lives, of our planet and its peoples – for contemplating mortality and what really matters. Odd, though, that such thoughts often are not depressing, but rich, nurturing, and sometimes downright humorous! Looking forward to your blog post, Christina.

      Reply
  3. Sue
    Sue says:

    I’m just now able to respond to your blog due to recent reminders by my body that my own mortality is smacking me right in the face. I’m at an age when “gnosis” is a regular part of visits to the doctor. Age is the great reminder to me how important it is to separate mind and body expectations for whatever lies ahead….for today, for the next ?? years. Thank you for planting the seeds.

    Reply
  4. Anna Trenshaw
    Anna Trenshaw says:

    Thank you, Grandma! I love that you are so willing to write about topics like death and dying – inevitable for all, but not discussed often (at least in my close circle of friends). A quote that came to mind after reading this post comes from Kurt Vonnegut: “And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

    Something I have tried to do is simply be aware of what it is I’m doing at any given moment, the emotions I’m experiencing – positive or negative – and feeling it for what it is. I find that I can get caught up sometimes in complaining about the bad things, and maybe not celebrating the good things as I should.

    So, to answer the question “how is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious?”, I would say that the key is awareness of actually experiencing the moments – good and bad.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Hey, folks, that’s MY granddaughter!

      Thanks, Anna – you’re “spot on” (as the Brits say). And . . . maybe it’s time to risk starting a conversation like this among your friends. What the hell, the worst that could happen is that they go on pretending they’re immortal, and that thoughts like this are irrelevant. But then maybe, just maybe, those 20-somethings are hoping someone else will start a conversation that they’ve wanted to have but don’t know how.

      Much love, Grandma.

      PS – I love the Vonnegut quote.

      Reply
    • Ann Medlock
      Ann Medlock says:

      That Vonnegut moment has stuck with me too, lo these many decades. And I do it. I just stop and register a Wow. “Cause if you don’t note the small stuff, you may have nothing to note. I can’t wait for Big Events to be grateful. They may never come.

      Reply
  5. Sarah MacDougall
    Sarah MacDougall says:

    Cynthia, thanks for bringing ‘actively dying’ into the light! Every time someone has the guts to address the topic of dying it helps to move our collective psyche to a new level. Love you for having guts!!

    Reply
  6. Christine
    Christine says:

    Thanks for the reminder that we are ALL on a journey that will end in the death of this body in this time and place and that one of the most important things we can do is be present in each moment. Looking forward to your next post.

    Reply
  7. Janice O'Mahony
    Janice O'Mahony says:

    It’s a choice about whether to hold the inevitability of one’s death as a means to fully appreciate the present — that one’s life won’t last forever and therefore is so precious. Alternatively, people can put death out of their minds, believing it casts too daunting a shadow for them to be able to fully appreciate the present. People seem to be drawn to one way or another in that choice. My experience is those who integrate and accept the idea of the inevitability of their deaths have an easier time with hard diagnoses. It feels less like an anomaly and more like a process that has been expected.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      The image of the “daunting shadow” is helpful in this conversation, Janice. As is the idea of our seeing death as “an anomaly” rather than an ongoing fact without which life itself could not be. What a fascinating discussion is emerging!

      Reply
  8. MARY NAUSADIS
    MARY NAUSADIS says:

    This could not have come at a more perfect time for me. I did have breast cancer 3 or 4 years ago and was fortunate enough to have caught it very early and I barely ever think of it. But, my husband is dealing with stage 4 prostate cancer and we recently found out that it is no longer in remission, so there is a new plan which he is to start next week.

    What I would like to comment on is that these last couple of years have been truly life-giving even while his body was going through chemo to kill the treacherous cells. He has moved into a space of such joy and thankfulness, even facing whatever is to come. He is realizing that he talks about God to just anyone he has a conversation with…..not in a preachy way, but with a sense of awe.

    How do we come to find each moment precious when we are not “actively dying”? I believe it comes bit by bit as we gain in experience and wisdom and perhaps God reserves that gift for those who are coming closer to their earthly end.

    I am learning from him (my husband) how to take all these moments and hold them in awe.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Mary, thanks so much for your thoughtful contribution to this conversation. You have taken it from the theoretical to the experiential, which is our greatest source of wisdom. I’ll add your thoughts to next month’s post. Blessings on your, and your husband’s, journey.

      Reply
  9. Diana Lindsay
    Diana Lindsay says:

    I love this, Cynthia! I love the “’-gnosis” stuff is still just informed guesses” which we know can be widely inaccurate or spot on. Research from 2010 said “In one study of terminally ill patients, just 20 percent of physician predictions were accurate. The majority, 63 percent, were overoptimistic.” And from the UK in 2016: “A review of more than 4,600 medical notes where doctors predicted survival showed a wide variation in errors, ranging from an underestimate of 86 days to an overestimate of 93 days.” My prognosis, so far, has been wrong by 11 years and 3 months.

    I love being reminded of the variable lifespans of the each cell in our body. I often ask myself as a result the question, what makes me me?

    We’ll take your blogpost back into circle and look forward to the next.
    Diana

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Here’s a toast to eleven years and three months! And especially to all the magic, pain, joy, delights, to all the curiosity and noticing and appreciating along the way! I’m so pleased to be in the same lifetime as you, whatEVER it is that makes you YOU!

      Reply

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