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January 20, 2006

5 Years

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm pleased --

OK, scratch that, and let me begin again. I'm far beyond pleased -- I'm downright exhilarated -- to let you know that my blood-test results have come back from the lab, and that the numbers are (drumroll) excellent.

Explanation: Back in early 2001, I was operated on for cancer. This year's blood test was a big one, if only symbolically -- I've now made it over the five-year hump without a recurrence. With my particular form of cancer, that doesn't mean I'm home-free, darn it. A few poor souls fall victim even 15 years after being operated on. Given my stats and numbers, though, it's unlikely that I'll be one of them. Even so, I'll continue being tested until 15 years have passed, and I'll continue spending a few days after each test awaiting the results.

A few anxious days, as you'd imagine. The image that comes to mind is this: I'm on a stage in a theater, milling about with 99 other guys as part of a big crowd scene. Up in the theater's balcony, in the dark, is a guy with a rifle. The arrangement is that, once a year, the guy with the rifle gets to shoot one or two of us crowd-scene people dead. I know the odds are strongly against me being a victim. But, y'know, odds, schmodds: The nerves still tense and the sweat still runs when the time comes for Mr. Fate to gun one of us down.

But I don't want to make too much of what I've been through. Many people have endured more dramatic, painful, and wrenching cancer trials than mine. I didn't have to go through chemo, for instance; I had surgery and, as far as treatment goes, that was it. But it has certainly been an interesting ride, and I hope no one will find it too much of a downer if I take advantage of the occasion to muse out loud about my experience.

I'd been tipped off that going through cancer would be interesting, come to think of it. A couple of friends who'd been through their own cancer scares had told me that, given survival, living through cancer is fascinating. And how true. Still, "given survival"... What a phrase, eh?

My own cancer episode wasn't supposed to be as horrifying as it turned out to be. My stats and numbers were good, my cancer was small, and the procedure should have been routine. The docs were telling me that my odds -- there's that word again -- were terrific. The situation was scary enough, of course. There's nothing quite like a phone conversation when your doctor says, "I'm sorry to let you know that we found some cancer in there" -- unless it's sitting in a doctor's office having a conversation about your "odds of survival." Sleepless nights, life passing before your eyes, etc.

Still: Although The Wife and I had switched into emergency mode, everything seemed reasonably under control, and reasonably endurable. The real trial started a few days later, when I was put through the preliminaries: scans, probes, etc. Dutifully I trooped from office to office, meeting docs and techies, being strapped into one sci-fi-seeming machine after another. I'd pulled my manliness together by now. I was strutting. A week after being diagnosed, I was ready to be cut. Scalpels? Bring 'em on!

Then the fun started. I was sitting in some bad hospital chairs with The Wife and my sister awaiting test results. We were a little giddy, to be honest -- goofing and laughing about me going under the knife. The doctor came out of the lab to meet us, images and readouts in hand. And ... and he wasn't wearing anything like the kind of expression you want your doctor to be wearing. "I don't like what we're seeing here," he said. We asked for an explanation. He held out his images and charts. There they were: shadows and hot spots. "These aren't supposed to be there, right?" I asked. "Right," he said.

What the pictures were showing was that the cancer -- my small, routine, and unthreatening cancer -- had spread. With my particular cancer, that came as very bad news: No one survives the spreading of my kind of cancer for long. We caromed among my many doctors. Surely there was a chance that the cancer hadn't spread? Well, yes, there was a chance. Stranger things do sometimes happen. But it was a very tiny chance. Could the charts and scans just be wrong? Nope.

It seemed mere minutes, and then I was among doctors who were discussing terminal care. Or was I asking them about it? As the news went from bad to worse, my head started to swim, and my heartrate took off at a gallop. I was above myself looking down ... I was watching it all on TV ... Could that really be me to whom a doctor was talking about "two-year survival rates," about radical treatments, and about making the end of life a less-awful thing than it might otherwise be? How could this be? Just a week before, everything in my life had been fine. Now I was apparently well along my way to the hospice.

Why did everything in my visual field have such clarity? Why did every sound seem so heightened and precise? As the orderly wheeled me down the corridor to the lab where they'd take bone-plugs from the my hips (long, sturdy needles and a hammer -- a hammer! -- were involved), my gallant Wife and my gallant sister waved good-luck after me. Rubber wheels on hospital linoleum ... As the guys in white started pushing their needles through my buttocks, I felt like I was saying goodbye to my whole life.

Then the waiting began. It would be five days until we knew the results. Five days? That seemed unncessarily cruel. Couldn't anything be done to get our results faster? Nope, impossible: The bone plugs needed to be immersed in a chemical solution, and there was no hurrying the process along. The chemicals had their own timetable.

We were in the Midwest at my sister's. No matter how good the doctors in NYC are, I'd decided that I didn't want to risk the hospitals in Manhattan. They're huge, they're congested, they're confusing, and they're often surprisingly dirty. I also didn't want to risk the Manhattan nurses, who are often harsh and rough, and prone to mix-ups. Images of Andy Warhol dying unnecessarily were running wild through my head. So I'd dialed my sister and made arrangements to have surgery in her city.

I'm not entirely sure how my wife and sister spent the five days after my bone tests. Tending me, of course. But how else? I have no idea. As for me, I lay on the bed. I took a few walks. I managed a few phone conversations.

Mostly, though, I kept still and burned like a white-hot flame. I was in a very weird state -- a skinless state. There seemed to be an eternity between every tick of the clock. I giggled when I realized what it felt like: I felt like I was trapped in one of the more agonizing scenes in one of the more agonizing Ingmar Bergman films. Some strange microscope/telescope was passing over my soul. A birdcall from a tree outside the window seemed to have the stature of a symphony-orchestra performance. A fleeting speck of sunlight illuminated my entire life. The clock ticked again. Had it really been only one second since its last tick?

Whatever control I normally have over my mental processes was no longer available to me. My thoughts squirmed and twisted, looking for any kind of escape. They arc'd through cosmoses of reflection, speculation, and fantasy. Yet no matter where they shot off to, they richocheted back within seconds.

So this is what it's like to stare death in the face, I marveled. I pictured friends talking among themselves about me after my death -- and realized that I wouldn't be there to take part in the conversation. I mused about how there's always one or two people in your group who die young -- but you never imagine you'll be one of the missing, do you? I slept little. I didn't eat. I became wraithlike, losing ten pounds in a couple of days. High Anxiety is good for weight loss!

By Day Three, I was a gaunt thing with feverish eyes. I'd imploded. My thoughts weren't even struggling to escape any longer. My death simply wasn't going to matter -- in the long run, or much at all. I realized something else, too: that what I'd regret most about dying -- and there I was, projecting again into a future I didn't have -- would be not being able to be of more service to the people I care about. Did anything else really matter much? I'd hoped to give them some help as we moved through life together. Now I wouldn't be able to; by dying, I would betray the people I loved most.

Everything was so raw, so clear ... At one point I found myself wondering if the Infinite that I was encountering in between clock-ticks was anything like the ego-lessness that's supposed to be the goal of Buddhism. If so, why would anyone wish such a thing on anyone else? What kind of sense does it make to shed the ego? Who on earth is capable of wrestling with Infinity on such a moment-by-moment basis? It's too much. We need some ego just to contend.

Daily life, on the other hand, looked blessed. I watched cars pause at stop signs and people carry bags of groceries, and I marveled at the spectacle. How moving it is that we have rituals, chores, and routines. How wonderful it is that we can take so much for granted. Enlightenment might be great -- assuming that what I was seeing in my fevered state was anything like The Truth of It All, which I doubt. But daily life -- normal life -- in all its imperfection and annoyingness was every bit as marvelous. Dogs, trees, heaters that work, running water, unspoiled food, a few people who put up with you ... Can anyone really ask for more in this life?

What struck me most was how great it is that there are people in the world who care about you. No one has to, after all. It's all voluntary. So how amazing it is that people do care about each other. I wondered: Have I ever really done anything to deserve such love, or such luck?

We were in the kitchen leafing through newspapers and mail when the call came with the good news. The doctor couldn't believe it himself. Despite the shadows and hotspots on the scans and the x-rays, there was no trace of cancer in my bones or my liver.

Was he sure? He was. How could it be? My doc explained that computers and scanners are improving so quickly these days that they're turning up details that the doctors have never seen before. How can the docs know what's normal and what's scary when they don't know what normal is at this granularity? But by this point in the conversation the bunch of us in the kitchen weren't listening any longer. We were yelling, whooping, and jumping up and down like ecstatic children. Reprieved!

By comparison to my days in Purgatory, the operation itself was a breeze. By now, I really was ready for anything. What fascinated me most was the anaesthesia. You go under, and then you surface. What becomes of you in between those two events? Going under isn't like going to sleep, and coming out isn't like waking up. With sleep, you're unconscious but aware of yourself. When you awaken, you know that time has passed; you've been unconscious, but you've never lost track of yourself. Under anaesthesia, it's different. It's like your life skips a track. Something goes missing. A section of time has been removed. What became of you during that absence? What does it mean that time, and that "you," can be chemically erased?

My first night after surgery was a bit of a challenge. I was on morphine; I was hooked into innumerable tubes and machines; my oozing, gutted-fish carcass was surrounded by pillows to prevent me from moving. Kisses with Wife and sister were exchanged, doctors loomed overhead and vanished. Nurses fussed, and the daylight outside dimmed. Alone, I dozed off ... And woke up with a terrified start. I drifted off, then woke up terrified again.

What was going on? Something at the back of my mouth ...

What was happening was that my uvula and my soft palate were slack from the morphine. Every time I lost consciousness, the soft flesh in the back of my mouth fell back against my throat. In other words, going to sleep meant choking. In my morphine dreamworld, going to sleep meant choking to death.

I buzzed the nurses. How to contend? I couldn't roll onto my side or my guts would spill out. The nurses couldn't figure out how to keep my soft palate from falling against my throat, and I couldn't keep myself from falling asleep. So I nodded off, I gagged, I had a vivid flash of nightmare, I awoke choking -- and then repeated the cycle, over and over, hour after hour, through one very long night. With my brain, my emotions, and my imagination hot and addled on morphine, I felt like I was going insane.

The night made quite an impression on my imagination. I've been prone to nightmares about going insane ever since. And sleeping with any kind of breathing blockage -- with even a slight amount of congestion -- makes me awaken in a sweaty panic. These days, I always keep a strong nasal spray by the side of the bed.

With that awful night out of the way, recovery at my sister's was gruesome but straightforward. Life with zero energy was fascinating too. At first, it was all I could do walk to the stairs and back. When I wasn't taking these micro-walks or managing a few bites of food, I was either sleeping or totally passive in a way that I'd never been passive before. Birds chirped, squirrels scurried, days came and went, and no thoughts or plans whatsoever took shape in my brain. My system didn't have the energy or will. I sat there, completely receptive, and nothing but receptive. I registered what was around me. It was all I could do.

The Wife was an heroic trouper, running interference, driving me around, attending to everything that needed attending-to. She tells me now that I was a good patient, but I think she's being generous and kind. I'm afraid that I was completely absorbed in myself and in my recovery.

Most nights I awoke at about three o'clock and teetered into the living room to sit by myself in the dark for an hour or two. I didn't do anything in the living room but watch the cat, who seemed perplexed by my presence. Didn't I know that, during the night hours, the house belonged to him?

Sitting there, I may not have been doing anything physical, but I was aware of something happening inside -- inside me, I mean. Something emotional, something mental ... I didn't know what it was, but it seemed entirely out of my control. A few times I tried to monitor what was happening, but it was as hopeless a challenge as trying to ride a bull.

After a few weeks passed, I developed an inkling of what was happening. The strata of my being had been shaken loose as though by an earthquake, and they were now rearranging themselves. What could I do but step aside and endure -- or, maybe better, try to be open to the process? And, of course, hope that whatever order emerged from the chaos would prove workable. But who said order even had to emerge? I was curious. Would this tectonic upheaval ever come to an end? Or was my unsettled state the state I'd spend the rest of my years in?

Meanwhile, everyday life went on: food, phone calls, checkups, body maintenance. I was horrified by how my body looked in the mirror: it had turned into something out of a David Cronenberg movie. But slowly, slowly, my body functions started to return to normal. Slowly, slowly, my energy level crept upwards.

Friends pitched in with phone calls, books, videos, and presents, but they often weren't the friends I expected to hear from. It turns out that people react in surprising ways to cancer. It's understandable: "Cancer" is a word that makes many people run away shrieking in fear. Still, it was fascinating the way that some friends were steadfast and menschy while others simply evaporated. The Wife and I emerged from our cancer year with a markedly different friends-list than we went into it with.

I'll show some mercy now and switch off the you-were-there, play-by-play approach. Instead, on to the observations, confessions, and generalizations.

How to say this in a not-ridiculous way? Well, perhaps no such thing is possible. Anyway: For me, having cancer was transformative. There was me B.C. (before cancer), and now there's me A.C. (after cancer). I feel foolish making such a statement -- who am I to say such a thing, after all? Yet who else? I feel ashamed making the confession, in fact. Prior to the cancer, I'd lived through plenty of trials and crises: the deaths of both my parents, a fair amount of life-frustration. Am I, or was I, such a self-centered clod that it was only the specter of my own extinction that could put an end to my pathetic personal drama?

Small explanatory note about this "personal drama." Sigh: how tedious. I'd been raised by an iron-willed (but loving) mother to be a Smart Kid, and I'd hated it. I've got some spare mental horsepower, but I don't have the temperament of a Smart Kid. I dislike intellectual debate and competitiveness, and spending too much time alone in my head makes me miserable.

I played along, though, because I thought that the alternative was winding up in the gutter. I was perfectly clear about the fact that I was playing along from a young age. Even as a pre-adolescent, I had a strategy; I would outrace the unstoppable locomotive that was my mom's ambition. If I could do that, I'd have myself a little freedom. And, eventually, when I finished school and was out on my own, I'd really be free.

Things didn't work out as I planned. I was still in school when my mom died, for instance. As saddened as I was -- she'd loved me and I'd loved her -- one part of my reaction to her death was also the thought: "Well, that's all over. Now I get to make my own choices. Now I get to be myself."

No such luck. The challenge -- the unexpected challenge -- was that life was already well underway. When had that happened? I was no longer a kid, biding my time. Instead, I was on a conveyor belt, and much farther down the line than I wanted to be. I wanted it to go backwards, but it had already steered me into the Smart Kid wing (liberal-arts division) of grownup life. Bills needed paying.

I may have been free, but I was still playing along. I hadn't anticipated not knowing what to do with myself once I was free. I thought everything would become instantly clear. It didn't.

What would suit me better than the grown-up Smart Kid life I was already deep inside? And given how demanding grownup life is, how would I ever have the chance to find out? I listened to my inner voices and heard nothing. A scary thought occurred to me: I started to wonder if I'd simply missed out on some essential stage of development. Perhaps there's only a small window of opportunity, and perhaps I'd missed it. I shivered, recalling the fact that if you fail to acquire language during the acquiring-language years, you'll never be able to speak.

In fear and not a little desperation, I thought, "Well, maybe the Smart-Kid life will pan out OK for me." I'd done well-enough at school, after all. Why shouldn't I prevail or at least prosper among the professional Smart Kids? Maybe I could be a winner and use that wherewithal to get the hell out. It was not to be. The wind had gone out of my sails. I had talent, I was acquiring skills -- but I had no desire.

As I learned more about the world, it seemed clear that success was a matter of 10% talent, 30% luck, and 60% determination. And my mom's death had left me with zero determination to succeed -- or even to give it much of a try -- in the world she'd steered me into. Even when I focused, bore down, and did well, I still wound up on my bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking, "Why am I bothering? I hate this." My real energies and dreams were invested in the hope that I might one day be able to leave all the Smart Kid baloney behind.

I was drifting. Where to turn for guidance? Shrinks were no help; they thought I ought to embrace being a professional Smart Kid. Who was I kidding? And what might suit me better anyway? I had no answer to that question. I wondered: Perhaps I never should have left my sweet life in my sweet hometown in the first place. Some of my childhood friends were still happy there, after all. Perhaps, deep inside, I was one of them. But, while I love normal smalltown life, something is missing for me there too. It moves me, but it doesn't spark me to life. If my spirit recoils from Smart Kid life, in small-townville my spirit slumbers.

I was flailing. I liked animals, so I looked into vet school. Damn: Lots of pre-med classes required! Maybe I should just drop out. But where was I to go to start my new life as a marginal person? Nearly all my friends were in New York, and I loved my friends, and life in New York ain't cheap.

Time was passing; I was ever-further-along the conveyor belt. Perhaps if I was unhappy among the intellectuals, it was because ... I was an artist! Perhaps the reason I was so unhappy as a Smart Kid was that I was, deep inside, a Creative Kid! I pitched myself into arts classes. I learned a lot and had wonderful experiences. Nothing clicked.

Was there in fact anything in me that was dying to burst out? It sure felt like the case -- or so I thought. I noticed that I was going from girlfriend to girlfriend; I was dating a lot. Maybe that meant that love and sex were my true calling. Gals enchant me, I enjoy being physical, and I love sex. So I pitched myself headlong into the girls-and-sex thing. Fun! Rewarding! Some exalting experiences! In the morning, though, I returned to work, wiping the asses of the grownup Smart Kids I'd once gone to school with. The girls I dallied with got whatever it was they got out of me and moved along.

Such was my personal drama: the whole being-pushed-to-be-a-Smart-Kid and being-clueless-about-what-to-do-instead-once-it-was-up-to-me thing. The agonies! The waste! The baloney I subjected friends and (worse) The Wife to! And how did a tormented drama queen like me land such a classy and inspiring babe anyway?

In the months following my cancer surgery, I woke up -- very slowly -- to the fact that my tedious drama had come to an end. The credits had rolled and the screen was now dark. I was a newborn bird emerging from its shell, a baby plant uncurling through the dirt towards the sun. Looking back now, I think that the week we spent convinced that my cancer had spread burned the armor off me. The anxiety, the intensity ... The armor had turned to cinders. Once it crumbled away, my entire system finally really was free to arrange itself in the way that it had always craved. My life -- my life as myself -- was finally able to begin.

Even after I was physically semi-normal again, 3 a.m. often found me at the window, looking outside, letting the whole soul-rearranging-thing continue to happen. I was mulling over a seriously scary thought. Maybe there never had been a Deeper Inside deep inside me. Perhaps my attachment to the "depth" fantasy was what had gotten in my way all along. I was nothing special, and I had no one to blame for my agonies but myself.

When I think about my old "Magnificent Ambersons"-esque melodrama these days, I look at it from the outside. It's not only not part of me any longer, it seems to belong to another life entirely. I feel pity for the kid who endured it. Why was such a Gothic mountain put in that poor kid's way? Why did he have to wait until the age of 50 to take step one as himself? Anger and bitterness tempt -- but I don't have it in me to be angry or bitter any longer. I'm cheery and grateful instead. However tedious and goofy that particular part of my karma was, I'm happy that I've had the opportunity to face it and move past it.

  • On the physical side ... I went into my cancer episode a young man and emerged from it a middle-aged one. I break down the story of my energy level this way: I was a kid; I was a teen; I was in my 20s; and then there was life since 30. Eager to hear hear how others have experienced their own energy levels!

    In each one of these stages, my energy level (and my experience of my body and my energy) was distinct. At the age of 45, pre-operation, I didn't feel the slightest bit different than I had at 31. I had the same pep, the same resilience, the same mental agility, and the same physical drive. Wow: adult life didn't seem so bad. After my operation, though, my energy never came back up to the same level. It inched back up, it inched back up some more ... And then it stopped inching.

    Before the cancer, I felt like I had 120% of the energy I needed; the challenge was to blow enough off so that I could live sane and content. Since the cancer, I have about 80% of the energy I need. I simply can't push myself the way I once did.

    Before the surgery, for instance, I'd been a regular gym-goer. When, post-surgery, I went back to the gym, I found it a completely different experience. I wasn't glorying in sweat, drive, and oopmh. Intead, I felt small and resentful, like a slave or a hamster in a cage. After exercising, I didn't feel better either. I didn't feel relaxed, relieved, and returned-to-myself. I felt beaten-up and bruised.

  • On the mental/emotional/spiritual side ... A lot that I'd thought was important to me fell away. Success, impressing people, realizing my genius (ha ha) -- none of it matters to me anymore. To be honest, I hadn't even realized that such ego-nonsense had been important to me. But I guess it was; I sense its absence quite clearly. At the same time, much that's simple and basic -- love, friendship, loyalty, health -- is far more important. It's all-important, in fact, and I don't take it for granted. I'm more pliant, helpful, and available than I used to be. More modest, grateful, and humble too -- and watch me brag about this, eh?

    Funnily enough, I'm also more prone to nightmares, panics, and mood swings than I once was. This is a drag in some obvious ways. But I take it cheerily. I think it's part of the new package. If I'm going to be human, humble, and kind in a way that I never was before, then it makes sense that the fears and anxieties that never used to bug me are going to bug me now too.

    In a word: I'm no longer singing the me-me-me ego-aria as loudly as I fear I once did. My opinions, demands, and tastes -- well, there they are, and maybe they're of some interest, fun, or use. But I have no trouble setting them aside.

I've become straightforwardly religious, if in an offbeat way. I'd always been religious in some vague sense, I guess. What was it that I'd responded to in the art I loved, after all? What is beauty if not a revelation of the divine? What do I find in The Wife's eyes if it isn't her essential god-nature? But the religions I'd once looked into -- Christianity and Buddhism -- no longer spoke to me at all. Christianity had never moved me on an instinctive level anyway, and Buddhism doesn't make space for the divine. What's that about? How convenient -- how magically convenient -- that Vedanta and yoga fell into my lap. I read Vedanta and I do yoga thinking, Yes, this is what I've always been feeling, thinking, and looking for. And it's what I've always known, however cluelessly and inarticulately. I listen to a good Vedanta swami-talk marveling at how much better he knows his way around my innermost thoughts and intuitions than I do. I walk out of yoga class -- out of my beginning yoga classes -- thinking, Thank God!

For the first time in my life, I have some genuine ease in my soul. I'm surprised how much difference it makes. I know what I know, and I'm open to what I don't know. Did I miss a stage in my development? Well then, I missed a stage in my development. That's interesting, it's where I am, it's what I'm working with, and so be it. Who cares, anyway? Our apartment is little, but it's a wonderful thing. I'm beyond-lucky to have The Wife, a few loving relatives, and some excellent friends.

At work, and with considerable coaching from The Wife, I bailed out of my clinging-to-the-limelight job and into a less-glamorous but far more tolerable position. As far as writing goes, I abandoned my half-hearted professional efforts. I'd always done OK as a freelance critical-opinion writer, but I had always hated the criticism game. So I put those efforts aside and, with FvBlowhard, started this blog. (Great line from that great swami, Delbert McClinton: "You got to give it away!") I love the simplicity of writing and publishing a blog. But far more important is the chance to interact with people directly. I feel immense gratitude to my fellow Blowhards and to our blog's visitors. As for creative writing: I get to collaborate with The Wife on naughty fiction. Beat that for good luck.

What a year 2001 was for The Wife and me. It began with my cancer. Then an older woman who had been my best friend, mentor, and second mother -- and who had introduced The Wife to me -- died. When the 9/11 attacks happened, The Wife and I were on vacation in Canada. Watching the events on the CBC, we were as horrifed as anyone else at what was happening. But I confess that one little brain cell in me was also thinking, "OK, Lord. I give up, and I lie down before You. What more can You have in store? Whatever it is, I vow that I'm going to do my best to be open to it." It's not as though I've ever had any real choice in the matter, after all.

In any case: How blessed I am that, with every year that passes, my odds of surviving this particular bout with cancer get better and better. And there's something about "5" (as in "5 years after") that makes today seems like an especially big anniverary. So line 'em up. The drinks are on me.

What kinds of transformative experiences have you gone through?



posted by Michael at January 20, 2006


On they have what is called the "first poster" phenomena. The person lucky enough to make the first comment usually gets better moderation/karma points on slashdot.

Wow, I am lucky enough to be the first to say thank you for this sobering, insightful and moving essay. I don't have much to add, except to say that each individual has his or her own trial to undergo, and no one can predict what it will be.

The obvious fact is that almost everybody experiences personal drama once or twice in their life. Everyone experiences the joy of sexual contentment and the agony of unmitigated pain. Disappointment, joy, fear, love etc. Who can predict how events will stack up for you? And isn't it a blessing that you are in fact alive to write about it now? (would others be so lucky?)

When you have a sense of an ending, you count time differently. I am 40 years old and rarely think in terms of "how much time I have left." But my father (who is elderly and sick) has a different perspective. He sees his age not in terms of how long he's lived but how much time remaining. He is not 74; he is "2 years or less remaining." I'm sorry but I cannot really have that perspective right now although intellectually I know it makes more sense.

As a person in my teens and twenties, I used to think of death in terms of sudden surprising events (car acccidents, nuclear war). With a cancer verdict, you suddenly have a way to imagine your mortality in a plausible fashion--a really disturbing thought. The journey--the process --seems formidable, and to be honest I'd like to avoid thinking about it for as long as possible although eventually I'll have a different mind about that (and hopefully be able to change and grow because of it).

Isn't it interesting how the age of your blog is rapidly hitting the 5 year mark as well? (and one has to wonder whether your sense of determination from life events might have focused the mind more solidly on making this blog/community what it is).

Writers peak just as their bodies begin their downward turn . Older people have more to write about to be sure (even about their own aging!), but who wouldn't deny that the act of writing invigorates a person, brings them to a new fountain of youth.

I recently wrote a memoir-like essay about childhood and discovered to my amazement that the act of writing brought back to me raw feelings and sensations I experienced at the age of 8 or 9. It was astonishing. Maybe these were not "genuine memories" but an adult's affixing of recent perceptions into a childlike persona; still these "re-creations" were beguiling and had the smell of authenticity. Yes, the present is always a bore, except of course when the prospects of the future seem so cloudy--in which case the present becomes of electrifying importance.

Sidenote: reading your essay makes me fondly recall the incredible story by Thom Jones, "I want to live!" (about a woman faced with cancer).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on January 20, 2006 09:38 PM

Came from "Pugilist at Rest" short story collection. Published first in New Yorker.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on January 20, 2006 09:39 PM

Congratulations and hope you take your wife into your arms vigorously each day.

Posted by: DarkoV on January 20, 2006 10:32 PM

Michael, I glad that, after mulling things over, you decided to write this post. It'll go down as a Blogosphere classic -- or damn well should!

Now I haven't had any cancer aside from the mild skin stuff and the other part of my life has been pretty tame. But...

The mental/emotional/philosophical state you occupy now at age 51 or so isn't, in a general sense (details, including religiosity differ) all that much different from mine at 66. Hypothesis...

You fast-forwarded about 15 years of aging and middle-aged maturation in the space of maybe a couple years or less. From being a (self-described, if I interpreted what you said right) slightly immature 45-year-old, you became physically (partway) and mind-wise a 60-year-old.

Putting it succinctly, I think you have become wise.

And there's nuthin' wrong with that.

At all.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 20, 2006 10:58 PM

Wonderfully well written, and I thank you for the sharing of this huge yet small part of your life--for there's so much more to go.

Posted by: susan on January 20, 2006 11:18 PM

Michael, this is precious testimony. Thank you.

When I was in high school, I made two rules for myself:
1. Given a choice between security and adventure, I'd take the adventure.
2. Given a choice between money and education, I'd take the education.

(They tried making me a "smart kid," too, but I evaded them by being eccentric and funny.)

So here I am, right where I want to be, 66 and in debt but owning my own home and surrounded by books I know and love. They've invented the computer and the Internet -- hellooooo, World! My pickiup is about to die and I'm in a tiny village, so wheels are vital, but I can't afford gas anyway. So that keeps my butt in this chair.

In 1961 I promised Bob Scriver, a "cowboy sculptor" I loved and married, that I'd write his biography. He died in 1999. I'm waiting now for the third academic press to which I've submitted to make a decision. The first press told me the story was beneath them ("merely local" -- well, what isn't?), the second one tried to turn it in devious ways (You're not paranoid if they're really after you) so I took it away from them, and the third may be the "charm." If they accepted it at their board meeting today, it will take 14 months to develop and distribute it. The compensation will be 5% of the net profit. This is not what I expected, but I didn't know what to expect.

In the meantime I've finished my second book, about Blackfeet. So many have died since I came in '61. Not just old-timers. Not any one kind of death. But the book is about life and land.

Yesterday I went to see about my "tired eyes" and discovered that the retinas have developed little hemorrhages so now it's pretty clear I have diabetes and must live a disciplined life from here on. (I'm 66.) In this I'm joining a LOT of Blackfeet. Some doctors suggest (behind the scenes) that diabetes is NOT due to bad genes, bad diet, bad TV, etc. but may be a virus. It may be an auto-immune disease. There's no diabetes in my family. I feel as though I'm being made to serve detention for something I didn't do. I don't smoke, I don't drink, I eat right, I brush my teeth, etc. I had to make a little list to tape to the mirror or I forget something until after I've gotten into bed and the cat is all arranged. (Cats as witnesses.)

But of course, my first thought is who can I get to be my literary executor? (For one book, mind you.) Think grandiose. But all my friends and relatives are my age -- where did the young people go?

When I was in the ministry, my job was walking along with people as they came close to crossing that deep river. The main thing I learned is that you can't predict. There is very little way to see around the curve of the earth into the next event.

Why write a book if you can just LIVE it, as you're doing, Michael? And why NOT write a book if you can be this honest about things this important?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 20, 2006 11:39 PM

As I said a few years ago after another post, it is a privilege to blog with you.

Thanks for writing this post.

I have no idea why I find this surprising, but it is very surprising to me that it is in middle age that the real marvels of the world first become available to us.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 21, 2006 01:13 AM

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I don't know if I would have coped so well as you in those circumstances. Oddly enough, your theme is the same as that of today's "Daily Om":

You asked about transformative moments: I can think of a couple. One was singing in the St Matthew Passion while I was in college. I don't know if it made me into a Christian, but it certainly made me believe in God (it didn't hurt that I was in love with the first violinist, who had the key solo about Peter's denial of the Lord 3 times). Strange you should make me think of it because it's 29 years ago to the day: 1/21/77.
Next revelation, in the year 2000, made me a believer in life after death. My friend's son committed suicide and began to communicate with me thereafter. I tried to impart the messages to his father, who was not a believer in the numinous and ended the friendship, I'm sad to say. But the posthumous communications continued for quite some time and had a profound effect upon me.
Then there was a more mundane realization which hit me just the other night. You'll appreciate it, MB, because of your love of semiotics. All of the red "don't walk" signs in NYC are LEFT hands; all of the "go" signs show the pedestrian walking to the RIGHT. That's how deeply ingrained attitudes and prejudices about left and right, sinister and dexter, are within our culture. I suspect the designer was wholly unconscious of the implications. It would be a fascinating experiment to reverse the signs and see if people were ever so subtly disoriented and couldn't understand why.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on January 21, 2006 01:37 AM

Thanks for writing this post.And thank you for sharing your life to us.

Posted by: casting on January 21, 2006 02:21 AM

I am quite a bit younger than you Michael, but I have had my share of moments. And each time, I think, "well this is really going to change me," and I look at life differently and behave differently. For a while. But then I find my self regressing towards the mean of me. Each time there is a meaningless death around me, or I find myself looking at the ceiling of an ambulance, or in that weird place coming back into my body from anasthesia, I think "now I really know what is important," and I smile at my children differently, and enjoy my time at the breakfast table more. But then a few weeks or months later I find myself forgetting what I thought I knew. And I think to myself "Am I forgetting what I once knew, or did I never really know it?"

I know these things don't happen just for the rest of us to keep perspective, and I know that I am not alone in my inability to keep the right perspective.

Or maybe I just need to get closer to death for it to burn itself into me, indelibly.

Anyway, good for you Michael, if that is an appropriate sentiment.

I hope that I can get where you are, without taking the same path. But, for me, anyway, it may not be possible.

Posted by: koa/neandertal/oak on January 21, 2006 02:25 AM

Dear Michael: I read your website every day, most of the articles I don't understand esp since they are so much an American perspective. I am from India, but I still do enjoy the cultural insight from your writings.

Ofcourse today was an opportune moment not to learn of culture, but to understand the HUMAN factor that eggs us on.

Hyderabad, India

Posted by: cecilia on January 21, 2006 02:29 AM

I'm so happy to hear that your numbers are excellent. And thank you for sharing your story with us.

Posted by: Neil on January 21, 2006 02:54 AM

I turned 50 last month. I am a guy who grew up in rust-belt upstate New York and who was also pushed-to-be-a-Smart-Kid-but-was-clueless-about-what-to-do-when-it-was-up-to-me.

So I dabbled at this and that, and always moved on when the renown I deserved did not come as quickly as it was supposed to. The dabbling resulted in two failed marriages, two magnificent children, and a spotty professional record.

Today I am more content than ever. But I can't point to any single, transformative experience. I never beat cancer. And I never went to war. None of the transcendent things that were supposed to happen ever happened either.

But true, daily satisfaction does comes from my kids and my friends. Also from the relief that I am not a "promising young man" anymore.

Posted by: heron543 on January 21, 2006 09:39 AM

Thanks to everyone for the nice comments. Thanks even more for stopping by and giving this a read in the first place. That's a big chunk 'o' reading for anyone to do. I'm hyper-tickled you took the trouble.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 21, 2006 12:12 PM

Thank you. Your moving post, together with Terry Teachout's tale of his own encounter with death, have given this increasingly jaded, weary, wary and cynical 48 year old the hope that it's not too late, it's not over, it's possible to be born again and see the world all new. Donald was right, Michael. As mercurial as you are and I hope will remain, you have nonetheless become wise.

My two favourite culture blogs have taught me a great deal these last few weeks. I feel privileged to be able to read you.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 21, 2006 04:06 PM

Congrats on 5 years. I was really struck by your post since I just wrote about my mom's cancer experience a couple days ago as we wait to hear her results this year. If good, she'll have made it 5 years since her diagnosis, 4 years cancer-free.

Posted by: claire on January 21, 2006 04:52 PM

What a strange experience...

You read someone for four years, you think you've gotten to know them, and then one day they decide to share something old-new with you, and it turns out to be at the root of so much, so much you never knew, yet so much you've known all along, and you realize something else you've always known: how lucky you've been to read this. All of it.

Congradulations, and here's to the next five, and the next, and the next.

Posted by: Nate on January 21, 2006 09:42 PM

Thanks for sharing. I'm glad you're still with us.

Posted by: Jonathan on January 21, 2006 10:53 PM

Man, can you WRITE! Like William Styron.

I want to take this to my psychologist and show him all the highlighted passages -- tell him "this is what I've been trying to explain abut myself -- here, here, and here! NOW do you understand?"

You have really captured a human experience. I'm a first time visitor (via Marginal Revolution) but I'll be back.

Thank you.

Posted by: Ted on January 22, 2006 01:38 AM

Thinking about your post and myself today, I realized that this whole five year thing, or ten year thing or whatever may be a key. All of my experiences have been things that I have recovered from, or when there have been deaths, they have not been mine, obviously. And that is what has allowed me move backwards, afterwards.

Now if someone told me that I had a 75% chance of dying within say five years, it might have been different for me. It would not be something that I could wake up from one day and put it in my past, becuase it would always be in my future. Even if I outlived that five years. So that would frame my world.

I can't say that is much of a blessing though. I hope you get to the point where your doctors tell you that you are 100% beyond worry about the cancer, even if it means that you forget how fragile we humans are.

Posted by: oak on January 22, 2006 03:49 AM

I don't know you, but I am in your debt. What a wonderful gift you have given. What more can I say?

Posted by: Rich Berger on January 22, 2006 06:50 PM

Great Stuff. I am a 38 year old doing my internship for my masters in social work at a Gilda's Club, a place where people with cancer and their friends and family come to give one another mutual support. Part of what I have been doing is going through our library and organizing a section for parents and children. So I've been reading all this material about people's experiences with cancer; a lot of stories. And there are just so many of them.

The problem is that so few people access this material. But as I read your blog (I'm a new blowhard fan!) I see the storying of a cancer experience in a more "real time" and episodic way. I find this a much more accessible, digestible format. It’s safe, short, and dialogic.

Gilda's Club encourages the sharing of experiences. But when a person gets a cancer diagnosis, it's difficult to get them to come in and interact with other members. It's no easier to get them to pick up a 200+ page book. It's just not on their radar.

I guess this blog post is just another reminder of the power of this new medium we are dancing in and around. There’s so much potential to reach people and it’s clear that you have here. Thanks for your candor.

Posted by: chril on January 22, 2006 11:20 PM

MvB: Wow. I had no idea. I'm a cancer survivor, too. My treatment ended about 14 months ago (I read 2Blowhards throughout the treatment).

I've actually not felt the "life change" that you've eloquently described. Life is back to normal. The cancer treatment was a painful plod but after the first two/three months, there was little that was emotional about it. But part of my lack of a reaction was that I had a highly treatable form of cancer and was confident about my ultimate cure -- nix that -- "disease-free scans".

About energy levels, I feel about the same as before. I'm a couple of years older, obviously, so that has something to with it. I realize that certain chemo treatments, esp. for breast cancer, can have big physical and mental effects, so the form of cancer changes a lot.

Best of luck to you and thanks for the post.

Posted by: jult52 on January 23, 2006 09:55 AM


Thank you for letting us know something of the man behind the blogger persona. I suspect that most of us who read your postings regularly sensed that they were the product of hard-won maturity.

Doubtless there is plenty more that you can accomplish if you choose to, but it seems that you have found an ideal format for your talents in 2 Blowhards -- not to mention having created a satisfying personal life, which is even more important. It's interesting that things seem to have sorted out once you let go of the "drama," acknowledged the limits of your lower mind, and began attuning to spirit through Vedanta and yoga.

Thanks for being part of one of the best blogs around. And your good news about your health is good news for all of us.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 23, 2006 10:17 AM

Congratulations on your continued health, both physical and emotional. As a person with sick parent, it's helpful to read stories as inspirational as yours. Sometimes I think there's no light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks for the illumination.


Posted by: Trix on January 23, 2006 11:49 AM

A simply magnificent post, one the most thoughtful and moving I've seen on the web. You have a gift for expressing depth of emotion while still maintaining an observational distance on your own experience. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

The older I get, the more I think that life is about some kind of vital energy level -- what it demands of us when the energy tides are running high (youth), and then the perspective we can get as we weaken.

Posted by: MQ on January 23, 2006 03:47 PM

This may too personal a thing to ask, but most I've known who've been through a transformative experience find it affects everything.

Since your blog centers around your impressions of art, movies, and such, I'd be interested to know which things (pieces, works, songs) you loved before, and then what took those places in your personal pantheon after, and if you know why, why?

Again, if this is just none of my (our) business, that's fair. But, if you'd care to opine...

Posted by: Yahmdallah on January 23, 2006 05:03 PM

Dude, the drinks should totally be on us, your readers! Because of your generous writing, your friendliness and blog-warmth, for your varied interests (high and low, as it were) and for the genuine, unaffected way you share them in lengthy, link-filled, creative, musing, what's going on in my head posts. Yeah, the drinks should definitely be on us :)

(Oh, and I'm so glad to hear this good news.)

Posted by: MD on January 23, 2006 09:55 PM

Stunning, just simply stunning.


Posted by: Terry on January 24, 2006 12:28 AM

I followed a link here from Marginal Revolution. Thank you so much for your account. Thank you. Thank you. It hits me with particular intensity because I would say so many of the same things—though I couldn't when it first happened to me.

I was 12 when I was diagnosed with a somewhat uncommon form of leukemia, and had about a 60% chance of surviving the 6 months of chemotherapy required. I was a fragile, self-loathing kid, a tomboy who hid beneath big plaid shirts and gloomy doodling.

Cancer did to me so much of what you describe, though my writing from the time is far less eloquent. Quarantined in a hospital room with a half-dozen toxic chemicals on IVs while facing organ failure, I had more time to think about the Big Picture than most preadolescents. I read a lot of geography and history and broke most of the hospital rules about what you could have (flowers, fruit, wine, riding the IV machine like a skateboard) because...I was free. My parents were very supportive, but none of my friends wanted to see me, not even my brother would visit. I was in a character vacuum. This sometimes happens when you're alone in a foreign country. When you lose your context, you have to somehow find your moorings. But if you're also facing death, you have nothing to lose by being reckless in pursuit of yourself.

Recovery was long and hard (it took four years to get my real energy levels back). It's almost ten years later now, and there is a bold line separating Before Cancer and After Cancer for me, because it's only AC that I finally stopped living as if I deserved nothing.
Suddenly that 60% determination factor kicked in, and it's funny—the 30% luck factor doesn't come until you have the determination. I went to an Ivy League school, dated (and learned) a lot, made some high-up connections, began traveling the world, and am about to test for my black belt in a martial art. I plan to have another 60-80 years of this, and it thrills me.

I cannot give cancer the credit for such a blossoming—how you use the experience matters more. But without that complete loss of myself, I wouldn't have reached myself in full.

Posted by: Dusky on January 24, 2006 08:47 AM

Great post.

I had non-Hodgkins lymphoma in '02, went through radiation and extensive chemo (which gave me osteoporosis of the backbone resulting in involved lumbar fractures). Your post is the most real and genuine thing I have ever read about the experience of cancer. It is the rawest truth. I felt uncomfortable reading it.

I, too, let go of practically everything that had tortured me for the fifteen years previous. Screw it.

Especially like the description of how this decision is not a conscious decision. It isn't a lightbulb moment where you say (as a character in a TV-movie might say): "I now see that life is precious and I resolve to change my ways because of this experience, blah, blah, blah." No, it happens without your willing it (at least it did in our cases, I think). It all just...drops away. As in a shifting of continental plates on the earth, you find that the familiar prairie is no longer there, it has moved to some other place, and good luck to it. (Or in some cases, to hell with it.)

Here is a disturbing thought. Might we will such an illness to happen to us, or at least permit a latent, subsurface illness simply to surface? This sounds like blaming the victim, and I don't intend that. Obviously in many (most?) cases, the cancer victim is just that. However, the kind of transformative experience you write about...the relief of pressure from your drama...maybe the body seeks solutions, exits, or changes that the mind knows not of.

I remember being desperately unhappy before I "caught" cancer. Just general psychological frustration with life. The funny thing is, I specifically recall thinking, in clear formed words: "If death were to come to me now, it would be a relief." Not in a black humor way. In a real way. I appreciated for the first time that there might be an "up side" to dying. At least I wouldn't have to worry about anything, anymore. (This recalls Nietzsche's quote about the thought of suicide carrying one through a rough night.)

My cancer may have been a manifestation of a "soul-sickness" (to put it no better) - a healthy reaction to it. Not a manifestation of a death wish, but a desire to shake it off instead. It's as if an inner person (God?) were saying: "You want to die? I'll take you right up to the edge of real, normal, everyday death and we'll see how you find it." Or "You're unhappy and want to break free and find an excuse to stop torturing yourself? I'll give you the freedom. I'll provide a genuine change. You want your head turned around - well, boy, you're going to get what you want, only you're not going to want it twice."

Hope this idea doesn't offend cancer survivors. Obviously it would only apply (if it has any merit at all) to people who survived and who underwent a real change for the better (on balance) from their experience. It wouldn't apply to victims who didn't have the psychological characteristics that I described, or who wanted to live, and tragically died.

Posted by: David on January 24, 2006 10:33 AM

As you know, Michael, my wife did not win the battle. She was diagnosed and died within two months.

Thanks for telling me what you thought as you faced death. Myrna and I just never had time to talk about those things. I often wonder what she thought as she faced her end.

I don't know if I'll ever emerge from the shadow of her death. Guilt is the overwhelming fate of a surviving spouse. My girlfriend is also a widow and she suffers the same syndrome. I wonder endlessly if I might have extended Myrna's life by a week, even a day, by doing... something... anything. But there are no answers.

I start every day by praying for... praying to Myrna... just hoping somehow to hear her voice again.

I often tell people that "all people are equal in the eyes of God, but not all people are of the same stature on this earth," when I tell them about Myrna. In the 16 months since her death, I've asked God a thousand times why he wasted her just as she was reaching her prime.

There are no answers. A huge corner of my life has fallen into silence, and apparently will always be silent.

I try to put a brave face on it and remain happy, but it is a struggle every day to want to live without her.

And, you know, one of the most difficult things to struggle with is jealousy. When I hear a story about somebody dying at the age of 64, my reaction is: "Jesus, what a stroke of luck! My Myrna died at the age of 49. What I would have given for another five years."

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 24, 2006 10:37 AM

I went through several nervous days about 5 years ago, when a bone scan caused the doctor to ask me if I'd had a mammogram recently---there was a "nudge" (her word, really) in my left breast. I then got the mammogram, and then got the letter about a week later saying...we'd like you to come back in so we can look at the left breast more closely. That word--"left"--again. It was a week til they could work me in and it was a long and nerve-wracking week. I'm not good at that waiting thing. Ultimately, it was nothing...just a tissue mass that it normal. But the part about the ticks of the clock taking forever...its excruciating. So glad your news is good.

Posted by: annette on January 24, 2006 11:45 AM

What an amazing account. Sorry if this isn't much of a comment, I really wish I had something more substantive to add.

Posted by: Peter on January 24, 2006 12:22 PM

Shouting Thomas: Thanks for the poignant post.

Posted by: jult52 on January 24, 2006 01:23 PM

I'm crying as I write this. Thank you so much for this wonderful post and this wonderful site.

Posted by: ricpic on January 24, 2006 02:50 PM

Your essay was both emotionally moving and thought provoking.
Thanks, Michael.

Posted by: Paul Worthington on January 24, 2006 03:19 PM

A friend pointed me this way and I can see why... Cancer, for all its faults has a sweet bitterness about it...

A wonderful, life affirming post...

Thank you,


Posted by: Minerva on January 25, 2006 06:26 PM


What a lovely post. I sent it on to a bloggy friend of mine who is currently battling breast cancer.

Thank you so much for your story.

Posted by: chelsea girl on January 25, 2006 06:44 PM

Thank you for the great post. The 'smart kid' alientation material hit home.

Posted by: Jeff the Poustman on January 25, 2006 06:56 PM

Here's to survival. I am grateful for yours; participating in another soul's educated passions does enrich the day.

Posted by: Colby Cosh on January 25, 2006 08:39 PM

A very inspirational account. We all need a break from our pasts in order to regain some perspective. All the best, Michael.

Posted by: Step2 on January 26, 2006 06:19 PM

Michael -

This is the first time I've read your blog and what you've written resonated with me. I spent four days in the hospital when I was diagnosed with diabetes at age 16, during which time I found out that I'd been walking around scarily near death for weeks - during those weeks I had even travelled abroad and very well could have died. That first night in the hospital, I didn't sleep: my mother and I curled up in my tiny hospital bed together and cried. all. night. long. In those first 24 hours, I was convinced that my life was over, I would never live to see myself finish school, pursue my career goals...I would lose my eyesight to diabetes and never be able to pursue art and music, my two passions. I would never find anyone who would want to marry me. I would never be able to have children.

Of course, since then, my view of the whole thing has become slightly more nuanced. I have finished school and married, I will likely be able to have kids, my eyes are fine thus far, I continue to play the piano and fiddle and I'm on my way to becoming a designer.

But it's amazing, truly amazing, to have your life - even if only for a few months - "taken away from you." It has given me such an honest appreciation for tiny, tiny things in my everyday life. I feel older than I am. I can no longer relate in the same way to others my age (in their 20s). It is a blessing and a curse.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Posted by: Gianna on January 27, 2006 11:40 AM

Stories of "how surviving changed my life" are often so full of clichés that they are impossible to believe or identify with. I think this might be a vicious cycle: we read badly written stories of other people's very emotional and dramatic experiences, and if we ever experience something similar, the only words we have to describe our feelings are the clichés we have previously made fun of. Sometimes there are no words that match our thoughts because (fortunately) most people never have to think them.

Your story, however, doesn't suffer from any of these problems. Somehow you have managed to put your experiences into words very well - I suppose I have come as close to identifying with you as I can without having gone through anything as life-changing as you have. So thank you!

Posted by: Julie on January 29, 2006 08:47 AM

I've been blogging through leukemia for some time now -- never missed a day during chemotherapy. I have not experienced anything like the changes you remark. Indeed I have been more impressed by the continuity and inevitability of everything that has happened.

I'm very glad you are past the five-year mark. You get to live a normal life. That's what I miss the most -- the lost sense of possibility.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on January 31, 2006 07:31 PM

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