Will it surprise anyone that death and dying are fairly often in my thoughts? Not in a morbid way, but as an event I will soon attend, a fact of life, the next step. I’ve written several posts about it. My favorites are Living in an Undefined Space, It’s not death, it’s the dying, and One Advantage of Dying?
Perhaps that is why this cartoon spoke to me so loudly. Yes, people do say that to people with advanced cancer.
They are not mean-spirited people or cruel or pathologically self-involved people. Usually, they are people who love me, who don’t want me to be depressed or morbid, who are trying to cheer me up. It isn’t a horrid thing to say, but it is, I’m sorry to say, misguided and, however unknowingly, disrespectful of my situation and my feelings about it.
I don’t think anyone would seriously claim that the awareness of death experienced by a person of average health or a person who has a chronic, non-lethal disease is the same awareness as that of someone who has a disease that is fatal and cannot be cured. Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is “managed” but there is no medical cure. It will kill us. It will kill me.
So what does that mean to me? How does it affect my life, my decisions? I’m not talking here about limited ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL) or about quality of life impaired by pain, anxiety, treatment side effects, and so on. I’m talking about the awareness of the relative imminence of my death: what does that do to my inner world? How does it affect my life choices day by day?
The biggest effect, I think, is that more than ever I am striving to be kind to people. Kindness is greatly under-rated. I don’t think I’m much different from other people in finding it much easier to say “I love you with the love of the Lord” (or whatever) than to do something kind for someone who may have hurt me. Yet acts of kindness speak much louder than words.
A friend of mine gave up most of her free day today to accompany me on my first walk outside the house in months. That was kindness. Other friends take time to email or text me encouraging or funny little messages. That is kindness. Just “being nice” to people is kindness. It’s easy when it’s someone I like. When it’s someone about whom I feel indifferent or even dislike – whoopsy! That’s a whole ‘nother thing!
A couple of weeks ago, my then household help broke something, a pyrex bowl with cover that I use quite a bit. He told me about it, and my first reaction was frustration and even anger. I took a breath and decided to be kind instead of angry. He didn’t do it on purpose and he knew he shouldn’t break things. It was an accident and he didn’t need me to make him feel bad about it.
“Oh well,” I said. “Be sure to clean up all the little bits. Pyrex is a bear when it breaks.” And that was that. I chose kindness over anger. Neither option would change the reality of the broken bowl, but a kind response is a concrete way to show that I value people, value that young man, over a glass bowl.
Valuing people and letting them know I value them is another area of concentration for me since my MBC diagnosis. Being kind is part of that. So is being polite, not blaming people for things that are not their fault and not going overboard when they are at fault. It’s a question of priorities. Which is more precious: my late pizza delivery, a broken bowl, a mistake in my grocery order… or the person I am talking to?
Of course I get angry and frustrated; I’m not pretending that I don’t. All I’m saying is that I am learning to prioritize the more important over the less.
In a novel I read once, an old woman said, “I wish I knew when I was going to die.” The people around were a little shocked and asked her why. “Because then,” she replied, “I should know what book to read next.”