Saturday, November 8, 2008

I am of the nature to die.

It is the day eleven for the flu and day two for a fibromyalgia flareup. The barometer keeps falling as a major rotating windstorm passes by us, and I am easily annoyed. This morning I am annoyed by an admiring story about a woman who died "after a long, courageous battle with cancer."

It is not possible to talk about this without exposing yourself to the wrath of millions of sick people and their relatives. But you know, if Barack could take what McCain-Palin dished out, I can take that. Because I know what I'm talking about.

Over eleven years ago I was diagnosed with invasive ductile breast cancer. I was only 54 years old. Unnecessarily extensive surgery was done on me at a famous cancer center. Then I spent many weeks with a lymphatic infection that flourished under inept care. Once over that, I did the overly extensive radiation therapy prescribed at the time -- one of those treatments that is very, very expensive -- and then spent weeks recovering from the huge blisters the treatments caused. I did the five years of tamoxifen without dying of a blood clot. And I did the cancer support groups.

I came up with lymphedema in the arm they took the lymph glands out of, without warning me of the probable side effects of this step. The lymphedema was manageable, even when I had to wear huge compression bandages around the clock, until two years ago, when a hospital elevator door (there's irony) struck it. Since then the arm is much more swollen, and yes, I have a lymphedema therapist and I wear a sleeve, and I have a pump, and you know what? No one can fix what the surgeons did to me. The ordinary everyday frustrations of this include that I have had to go to Goodwill and buy a new wardrobe because almost nothing I owned will fit over this arm, including my coats. So maybe all this, and the endless flu, has something to do with my annoyance over this talk about fighting illness. Courageously.

How abstract to get on this? Well, as a credentialed student of language, and specifically of metaphor, I note that "battle" is a masculine metaphor. Generally, it is men who wage war; and physical courage is traditionally a masculine virtue, though many women cultivate it in the effort to prove they are people deserving of respect. (There is also an interesting admiration of ferocity in defense of one's children. I've known very dominated women who are proud to say "I'm a mother tiger," or "the mother from hell" in defense of their children. Or"a pitbull with lipstick.")

When I think about courage, I remember a scene from The Fellowship of the Ring. The King's best friend has just died in his arms. But the Orcs are steadily coming over the hill. He picks up his sword and begins to methodically kill them, one by one, in an endless line.

I was moved by this scene. It is a version of courage, almost a quiet kind of courage, to take a deep breath and do what you have to do to stay alive. None of us likes to be around its polar opposite for long, the person who wilts and whines; it is too much like begging us to somehow do it for them.

But somewhere between these poles of King and Coward is a vast gray territory containing what may be the right choice for a given individual. I am thinking of one who took it not long ago, the columnist Art Buchwald. He'd had acute kidney failure, apparently after a partial amputation, and been put on hemodialysis. After a dozen treatments he said, Enough. I'm going to die in peace.

It was big news to me, hovering as I was on the edge of the same cliff. Yes, I had been told that I didn't have to undergo these often-difficult treatments, I could choose to die when my kidneys finally let go. But nobody meant it. Not the first kidney doctor, not the second one. Only my minister gave me the dignity of choice.

I am still on the tx list, as we insiders call it. I am still suffering pain from the emergency surgery that had to be done when the short dialysis I did caused a rupture. I still wander the dialysis e-list now and then, observing the horrendous medical problems and asking myself, Do I want to revise my living will to say No dialysis, never?

But in trying to think for myself and live my own life, I am beset by a medical establishment that makes an enormous amount of money off these dangerous and often inadequate treatments. And more than that, I am discouraged by a culture that sees death as one more thing to fight. That believes in fighting. Fighting the inevitable. Standing up to death. When I think of that, I think of the dialogue in the film The Seventh Seal, where the knight looks up from the chessboard and says to Death, "You're going to win, aren't you?"

"I always do," Death says calmly.
note: The text of The Five Remembrances is included in my post of November 6, 2008, titled "I am of the nature to grow old."

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