Writing in the face of death

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My pre-death announcement over the weekend turned into a monster: a huge spike in my regular number of daily website visitors, dozens and dozens of comments (I didn't even know that Movable Type breaks them into pages of 50 until now), similar numbers of Twitter links and Facebook "likes" (my friends Bill and Darren mocked up a preferable "un-fucking-like" button instead), and quite a few emails and phone calls. It looks like I'll be on CBC Radio with Stephen Quinn again this week too.

Thank you to everyone who wrote. It's overwhelming. I joked on Twitter:

Social Media Guru Tip of the Week™: Need traffic/comments? Simply develop a terminal disease and announce it on your blog! Ask me how!

If you find that in poor taste, sorry, but I think you'll have to get used to it. As my wife Air says, either we laugh or we cry.

Anyway, I'll admit, this is exactly what I hoped would happen. I've been a compulsive writer all my life. Like Tim Bray, I can't not write, but I've never been able to keep a diary, because I've always wanted an audience. I write my blog for myself, of course, and as something for my family and friends, as a record of my thoughts. But deep down, selfishly, I also want an audience of strangers, people who know me because of my writing, and who find some value in what I publish on its own merits, not because they are my friend or my relative.

Sometimes I've found such an audience in magazines, or on television or radio, or even among people who never knew I was the one who'd written the instructions for their wireless modem. And I've genuinely found it here on my blog, more so than I could have imagined back in 2000 when I started it.

So, instead of getting paid, it's largely for the boost to my ego—and because I'm glad readers find value in my stuff—that I put together long series of posts on why cameras work the way they do, or on my opinions about religion and science, or about music and podcasting, and other topics. That's why I try to write something every day, on average (though I haven't managed it recently). It also keeps me in practice both writing and editing my own work.

What is comforting?

My most important legacy is with my wife and my two daughters, but that is a personal one, in the real world, a legacy that is quite peripheral to my writing, quite local, quite private. In public, it's what I write and say that might have an impact.

Yesterday, I received two especially moving emails. One was from someone who's been reading my blog for several years, but who'd never commented or written to me before. She told me that her father almost died last year, and that some of my posts about death had helped her handle the ordeal.

Like me, she doesn't believe in spirits, souls, or an afterlife, so she appreciated my take on thinking about death without them, while considering the joy that trying to understand life on its own terms can bring to the human mind and heart. To try to see the Universe as it really is, to understand how it works—and, so often, to succeed!—how can mere myths compete with that?

What, I wondered after reading her message, do I find comforting? To know that we are all made of star stuff (in Carl Sagan's phrase, or Moby's), and will be again; to know that every other living thing on Earth is our cousin; to see a blob in the sky and know it's the Andromeda Galaxy, as it was 2 million years ago; not to worry that life is some sort of perverse final exam, and to know instead that when it is over, that really is the end for each of us. Those things comfort me, not sadden me. Some find that hard to understand, but I hope what I write can help explain my feelings about it.

Not to fight

The second email was from someone I do know, whose brother died of cancer about a decade ago. She recalled when he concluded that the treatments weren't working, and how he decided to live after that, for however short a time. (It was a few months.) She wrote that "he may have stopped taking treatments, but he did not stop fighting."

I agree with her sentiment, but I would change one word now, after four years: "fight." I've used that word a lot too, but Christopher Hitchens made me think of it differently after he got cancer this year. It will probably kill him too. He wrote:

People don't have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.

He's right. Why must it be a fight, a war, a battle? (And Hitchens is no stranger to battles.) Those are stressful, soul-draining nouns, with images of violence and winners and losers.

I think less personally about my cancer than I used to. I fought it hard, I used to tell it to fuck off, I used to imagine the chemo snuffing it out like carpet bombing over Cambodia. More recently I've thought instead, no, cancer has no mind, no evil intent, no demon driving it. It is my own cells, my own tissue, malfunctioning, not able to stop growing when they're supposed to, not capable of doing their job of making body parts that keep me alive.

My cancer is a random, unthinking, physiological mistake. Some mutations cause cancer, some lead to new and wonderful forms of life. I got the bad one. For me now, my cancer is no more malevolent than bad weather, or an earthquake, or a rock I stub my toe on, or the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. There's no point getting angry at a rock, nor at my cancer, especially now.

I hate that it will kill me, and what that will do to my family. It's sad and unfair. But there's no one and nothing to blame. It's a pure example of "shit happens." (Oh, does it ever.) Like my correspondent's brother, my time has come to win the battle by not fighting anymore, by pushing back against the desire to treat the end of my life as a war and myself as a soldier. We all deserve better than war, whether in the mountains of Afghanistan or in the brain of a cancer patient like me.

I'll live my life, and when it's time to stop, I hope I can accept that when face-to-face with it. In some ways I have it easy: the hardest part is for everyone else, after I'm dead. By then I'll be gone, with not a care (or a thought, or a feeling) in the world. Lucky me?

14 Comments

Hey Derek,

I really appreciate the fact that you're still writing about this. Your blog (and tweets) often make me think. It seems too early to start talking about the end, but at least you've given us all fair warning.

Whether they cause spikes in traffic or not, I take comfort in your posts. It's good to hear you, still out there, still writing. I hope you can keep them up as long as possible.

Derek,
Right, I agree, no angels, no heavenly gates, no flames either. It just ends. Same as anything else you see in nature that is no longer alive. The energy remains in some form I understand. Well, that's just the nuts and bolts of it. In the meantime there is the heart of it all, the sadness and grief, the fear. The good-bye. You are a brave man, please keep writing. Talk to us, we will all face this on some level, some of us already have. In the meantime, I will keep a good thought for you and your family. I'm sure you give them strength. It's gonna suck no matter what, but the insight and understanding you leave behind will be valuable to so many. I get that you are a real guy, your humanity comes through, that's important. I don't just feel like I'm reading a story. I know you are really there. You are coming through loud and clear, we hear you. There will be a void when you are gone. I'm thankful to have bumped into you.
cg

Is not enough to say that I'm so sorry. I've lost friends and relatives for the same reason. Just to tell you that, as I live in Venice, Italy, I'll be glad to have you and your family as guests for some day here, if you should feel strong enough to travel. My house is small, I'm not rich, but if you want to see Venice before the ends come (or the beginning of a completely new thing), just write me. We'll arrange.
ciao

When I had AML (leukemia) 10 years ago I was never comfortable with the fighting/battling metaphor either. I think it is only comforting for the people who don't have cancer. Then they can believe that if it happened to them they would have some control over it. For myself, accepting what was happening as you have done and working through the treatments and the side effects was the only thing I could control. I began to realize that I was more than my body and life became very simple then: love my family, take care of myself and look at the world (drink it in). Take good care, Derek.

I had the opportunity(gift) to accompany my mother in her relationship with the same type of cancer. It was very intense and the most enriching i´ve ever lived. I appreciate your courage and bravery not only to face this true, but also to communicate, to teach, to show that death is also part of life! We all will die! The only difference is... what will we do until then?! That´s why I consider you a master!!YOU ARE MAKING A BIG BIG DIFFERENCE!!
I deeply appreciate your words and from Argentina I say .... I AM WITH YOU IN THIS TRIP! Be happy, love deeply and FLY VERY HIGH. A big hug!

Like my correspondent's brother, my time has come to win the battle by not fighting anymore, by pushing back against the desire to treat the end of my life as a war and myself as a soldier. We all deserve better than war, whether in the mountains of Afghanistan or in the brain of a cancer patient like me.

This is a beautiful thought. I can understand why you would want to find peace rather than go out in a state of mental warfare.

Susan Sontag wrote very eloquently about the "fight against cancer" in Illness as Metaphor.

It's empowering for some people to visualize their illness as a battle, but when the cancer is terminal does that mean the battle has been lost? Does that mean people who die of cancer did not fight hard enough? Are they weak? No. They're not weak, and the last thing we want is for terminal cancer patients to feel that they are cowardly or have "surrendered." Metaphors about illness are complicated and pervasive, and cancer (like depression and AIDS) seems to be one of those illnesses that people insist on mythologizing, for better or worse.


Hello Derek.

I just sent you an email. Hope you'll get it.

Derek,
I found out about your writing from Sharon Brown. Today, she wrote about you on her blog, The Silver Bowl.
I understand now why she wrote me in a separate email to tell me that she thought you were great when she met you and that everything you've written since has proven to her that her feelings were right.
I too, agree with your careful choice of words in dealing with your life and your dying.
Words create our reality; the War on Cancer, the War on Drugs...they're ugly connotations.
As well,in a war there must always be Losers and Winners but dying is NOT losing. Dying is a part of living.
Thank you sharing your experience so eloquently.
Thank you for letting us come along and learn and ponder with you.
I agree that we are all 'star stuff'. Who knows what we will all transform into or be a part of one day...the stars or the ocean or a tree.
Meanwhile, please keep writing. It is such a gift.

Derek - It's been over 20 years since we last met. I'm sorry that I've not known you better until recently. Your life has been rich and wonderful. You can be comforted by the famous movie quote: "no man is a failure who has friends". You have many, many friends. You are not alone.

Derek

I found your blog in January of this year. Tomorrow is the one year "cancerversary" of my diagnosis of colon cancer. My circumstances are somewhat similar to yours, I am 40, and live in Vancouver. However, my cancer is (was) stage 2. Following my surgery and prior to my chemo I searched for everything and anything I could find to educate myself and I was grateful to find your blog. I read through your archives to follow your progress through treatment and to try and get a sense what I was in for. There are a lot of varying references out there, but I found your first hand account particularly valuable to help me make some sense of my situation. For now my follow up with my oncologist at the BC Cancer agency has been good and it looks like I am clear of cancer 5 months following my completion of chemo.

I haven't commented or written you before but after reading this post I just wanted to let you know that I am one of your audience of strangers. I only know you from your writing and it has been particularly valuable to me.

Derek,
Angelyna and I love you, Airdrie, Marina and Lauren and we are here for anything you need! I am quite upset about your news, however we are going to have a wonderful happy Christmas together and we are so looking forward to this time with you. We love you more than the whole world!
Love always Jasmine

Hi Derek - I've been wanting to write for days, and every time I sit down to do so, the baby wakes up and cries. Seems about right. Your blog entry came on the same day I learned of the deaths of two of my climbing partners and friends - one in a climbing accident, the other from lung cancer. I'm not feeling too philosophical - mostly in a fucking fuck death kind of mood. But that's my usual go-to emotion in these cases. I still feel that way about my Dad, who I think about every day, 2 1/2 years after his death. And my beloved dog, who I lost last summer. And now your news. As a fellow atheist, I can't take comfort in the thought that there is some greater meaning in our passing, or that we will all see each other again in some great heavenly jamboree. And if I'm wrong and there is a God (my very religious mother-in-law tells me I'll be in for a hell of a surprise - she means this in a comforting way), well, I can't say I'm a fan.

I wanted to tell you, though, that your writing about cancer, and death, while not exactly comforting, has helped. It is always very smart, and very wise, even if it does sometimes make me cry. And, just seeing you in my facebook feed has been really great. It somehow made me feel better about the universe (weird I know) that you were still hanging in there (even if a lot of the posts were about puking). Even though I haven't seen you in almost two decades, there are a lot of good memories from the early days, and you have been a welcome presence on my facebook feed. In fact, you're one of the few people who ever posts anything interesting (myself included). All this to say that I'm really sorry, although not surprised, to hear your news, and even though you haven't been part of my life in a physically proximate way for a long time, I'm feeling like my world will be emptier without you. Fuck.

You and Airdrie are two of the wisest, deepest, and bravest people I know. I only wish you'd both had no particular need for courage.

I'm another cancer survivor, and well know the aggressive fight metaphor. It weird, the need that healthy people have to know that someone with cancer is going to "beat this." They're not just well-wishing; it's as if they are praying. It's as if you're fighting mortality itself on their behalf, like some David vs Goliath, and if you win, nobody else has to die. It's their fear, that produces their need for patients to "fight." That's what the rest of society asks from cancer patients, and that's an unbearable, understandable burden. We're all afraid, sometimes.

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