There were several options available to us when Diana’s tumor started growing again in April 2009. For the first time, surgery was on the table with curative intent. As attractive as that sounded, it made no sense to go through such an invasive procedure with possibly debilitating life-long implications if there were still microscopic outposts of cancer elsewhere in her body. With metastatic cancer like Diana’s, that is always a possibility for the patient and a near-certainty according to the oncologist. On the other hand, another round of targeted radiation was minimally invasive, yet far from definitive and certainly not curative. The Seattle Cancer Care tumor board could make no clear recommendation about treatment because there was nothing clear about Diana’s extraordinary case: “Your guess is as good as ours.”
Diana wasn’t content to guess, and we also had a third option available to us that wasn’t among the considerations of the tumor board: the return to full immersion in everything Eastern. Diana plugged into her incomparable brain all the available data on her tumor, the assumptions and caveats about her condition, and the projections and probabilities of the treatments. Instead of a convoluted hypothesis, she posed a simple question to the trillions of cells that make up who she is: What do all of you want me to do? Then she descended into herself to dance with goddesses and mitochondria, to negotiate the interstitial spaces and allegorical voids, and to consult and console the errant cells in the upper lobe of her left lung and the surrounding tissues that harbored them.
She did this several times over several days and finally got her answer: Surgery. That scared her. It scared me. But she was unequivocal about her intuition and trusted it completely. And that was fine by me because as it happens, my intuition was simply to trust hers.
This was not an easy surgery to contemplate. No one had ever removed a lobe of a lung that had been irradiated with such intensity. There was a long list of things that could go amiss. Uncontrollable bleeding from a brittle artery that might disintegrate under the scalpel was mentioned. So was death. Only a very slim chance of that, of course. Probably about the same as Diana being alive three years after diagnosis. For me, that particular margin didn’t carry the weight it used to. The surgery could be a beginning of days, or it could be the end of days.
Live each day as if it were your last. As if it was your last. Whatever. Whichever. Don’t waste any of it worrying about grammar. That classic last-day sentiment is something I heard often throughout Diana’s treatment. I almost certainly paid it lip service more than once, and likely passed it along, too—but alarms kept going off in my head every time I thought about it.
I think it was the frenetic urgency that made it unattractive. And the pressure! If I indeed had just the one day to live, or in this context, the one last day that Diana and I would be together, what would I do differently, really? That my mind automatically went to either 1) regret about what I might’ve done that requires amends, or 2) regret about what I haven’t yet done (but want to) that might require amends generated an artificial desperation in which I found myself with one foot firmly in an unlikeable past and the other in an unlikely future. I wouldn’t want to spend my last day like that. I wouldn’t want to spend any day like that.
Diana and I had been more interested in making a day last than making a last day. The question for us was not so much about ticking off items on a bucket list, but rather how can we move a moment into the eternal, the realm where time has no meaning, where in fact meaning has no meaning.
By the time Diana’s surgery rolled around, I had already discovered that I had neither the experience nor the imagination to adequately anticipate the marvels of this universe—or any parallel, intersecting, intertwining, or diverging universe, for that matter. I had historically shortchanged them all. I still do. So I try to be careful about what I wish for. I hate being limited by my own imagination.
When Diana was getting her initial chest x-ray in April 2006, I had hoped it wasn’t pneumonia—that, to me at the time, would’ve been bad news. I got my wish. It was Stage IV hopeless Lung Cancer, instead. But I can’t even say that result was bad news. We’ve loved the life we’ve been living since then. While each time the tumor grew would seem an obvious turn for the worse, some opportunity would simultaneously appear that would bring us closer to actually getting rid of it altogether. The prospect of the lobectomy surgery seemed to be good news. That the surgeon may be unable to complete it sounded like bad news. Neither was either.
Of all the books I’ve read in the past seven years, the one that has stuck with me the most was ostensibly written for children by Jon Muth. In Zen Shorts a giant panda named Stillwater relates a different tale to each of three children. Each of the tales is short, provocative, appealing, and likely appears in traditions other than Zen. In one, a Chinese farmer loses a horse. His neighbors offer condolences: “What bad luck!” to which the farmer replies, “Maybe.” The horse returns the next day with a wild horse in tow. What good luck! Maybe. The farmer’s son tries to break the wild horse, but is thrown and breaks his leg. What bad luck! Maybe. The Chinese army sweeps into the village and conscripts all able-bodied young men, ignoring the farmer’s son. What good luck! Maybe.
“Maybe” had never reached such heights for me. Its previously record was the top of the fence, the epitome of indecisiveness, procrastination, or an outright dodge on its way to becoming a lie: “Can we go to Santa’s Village someday, Dad?” “Uhhh, sure, maybe.”
These days I’m a big believer in “maybe”. The Chinese farmer wasn’t avoiding a decision or withholding an opinion; he was simply acknowledging that he lacked the information to fill in the long view. I certainly don’t have it. I’m not even convinced it’s available. But openness to possibility is.
Diana’s surgery was extremely difficult, prolonged, and…successful. For the first time in three years, there was no visible cancer in her body. It is now four years later and there is still “no evidence of disease”. Is she completely cured or is it still possible there is microscopic cancer somewhere, somehow, sometime? Maybe.
Does it matter? Not really. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past seven years, it’s that nothing is the end of the world. That’s not exactly right. Nothing has to be the end of the world. If it seems like the end of the world, then I usually find I’m looking at it too narrowly. I’ve confined it. That’s not the world ending; that’s me ending the world.