When I was in middle school I was obsessed with the One Last Wish book series by Lurlene McDaniel. With such dubious titles as Let Him Live, and Sixteen and Dying, they were basically romance novels except with terminal illness. Even at ten I was exhausted by life and harbored a secret longing to be really sick so there would be a reason for how poorly I felt. Every time I got a bruise on the playground (which was most of the time, I bruise like a peach), I was convinced I had cancer. But then the bruise would fade and other than fatigue, bloody noses, and migraines, I’d be just fine.
Except I wasn’t.
The thing about chronic illness is that it can bump you up against, if not your own mortality, your values.
A day or so after deciding to take on death meditation as a Lenten discipline, I heard an interview on NPR with Kate Bowler. Kate is a professor at Duke Divinity who is roughly my age, has a toddler, and wrote a book called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved which chronicles the diagnosis and treatment of her terminal colon cancer. It’s funny and poignant and sad. She’s still undergoing treatment, and in addition to writing, hosts the Everything Happens Podcast. Ever the romantic, I listened to the episode, “Costly Love” first, in which she interviews Lucy Kalanithi, wife of Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who wrote the stunning memoir When Breath Becomes Air. Paul died from cancer before completing the book, and Lucy finished the manuscript. I wept for the last twenty pages.
The intriguing thing about my experience with death meditation thus far is that has been so lighthearted. Far from the somber, dour, difficult task I was expecting, I simply feel bolstered.
Most of my experience with death has been tangential. Meditating on death amidst my pristine, white privilege of safety and good health feels like a betrayal of friends who’ve endured big losses, and of strangers who live with day to day violence. But, these are my circumstances and I follow where I’m led.
Spurred by the questions raised in Everything Happens for a Reason and When Breath Becomes Air, I asked myself, “What would I do if I knew I had one day left to live?” Answer: I would take Cole to the Life and Science Museum in Durham and ride the train with him for as long as he wants. And when he’s sick of it, I’d do whatever else he wants to do. If I knew I had just one day, I would spend it all with him. But I don’t know that. And I can’t spend all day every day doing whatever Cole wants. It’s not practical, healthy, or possible.
What I can do, what we can all do, is choose to live the moments we live with purpose and intention. Living with purpose involves the risk of hope that somewhere, somehow, someway, life has meaning. In When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi writes that as humans we are meaning makers, and most of that meaning comes from our relationships. After his diagnosis, he and Lucy talk about having a child.
Lucy says, “Wouldn’t having a child make your death so much harder?”
Paul replies, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
Lucy gave birth to their daughter eight months before Paul died.
As sappy and outrageous as the One Last Wish books of my youth were, they, like the cancer memoirs of today, include the risk and cost of love. I pray that when I take the time to look into Cole’s eyes, when I organize my calendar, when I take up a challenge, when I rest, when I am with my community, that I am worthy of their pages.
In meditating on how to spend my days in harmony with my deeper aspirations and values I have decided to shift the blog to every other week, or possibly twice a month. I need the space in my schedule to breathe and to create room for other writing projects. I also want to make sure you are getting top quality work. You’ll hear from me again during Holy Week.
Thank you for holding this space, your space, and for bringing meaning and purpose to my life.
Photo © Melinda Thomas