Earlier this year, I turned 60. I didn’t mark the day much, other than a long soak at a lovely spa in Port Townsend—a gift from my three sisters. But the year is being marked in other ways as each month brings reminders that yes, I’m getting older, that this gift of health we’re given is indeed fleeting.
This summer a beloved writing mentor was diagnosed with breast cancer, though she is doing well as we all send her our prayers and hold her close in our hearts. A week ago, another Alaska friend and writer who I greatly admire, whose honest, eloquent posts I’ve followed closely on Caring Bridge, made the hard decision to stop treatment for breast cancer. I’ve been weeping ever since, sometimes in sorrow, sometimes in frustration at the unfairness of life, always in admiration of her strength and courage, and I’m still weeping as I write this.
In the meantime, I’ve been undergoing tests for my own health issue—not cancer and nothing conclusive—and so for the past three months I’ve been dancing with uncertainty. Of course, I’ve been writing, but not much I’m ready to share; and, of course, I’ve been reading. What’s been sustaining me this fall is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. I’ve not yet finished it, but even half-way through, I’m reassured by his refreshingly honest tone and courage in addressing end-of-life issues that doctors so often avoid. So I wanted to share it with you, dear readers, along with a few other writings that give me hope and are reminders that as we each inevitably encounter our own mortality—in whatever form that takes—writing can be a valuable companion.
Some of you may have been following the writing of Suleika Jaquad “Life, Interrupted” in The New York Times. She was diagnosed with leukemia in her early 20s and turned to writing to help get her through, beginning by promising herself that she’d keep a journal for 100 days. That lead to another 100 days, and another 100 days, and four years later her cancer is in remission and she’s beginning a 100 Day Healing Road trip.
Closer to home, Beverly Faxon, a friend and colleague at Edmonds Community College, just sent me this short essay, describing her recent journey through uncertainty. She’s the one who told me to read Being Mortal. I enjoyed her essay so much I asked if I could share it with you, too, and she graciously agreed, so here it is, below:
I was driving to some follow-up medical tests, the kind that can lead to another set of follow-up medical tests, and then a procedure, and then, sometimes, a long tunnel of feeling like your life has been derailed, when it has really been re-railed, and you’re not used to the new train. Or, they lead to a smile, and an open door, through which you can step out, and the sun suddenly seems quite bright, and you have an urge for a cookie, or a new pair of earrings, or something else you can buy to celebrate the feeling that you get to step right up onto your regular train.
But I wanted to short circuit all that before I even got to the tests, to be willing to just appreciate, to see whatever was in front of me. I’d been listening to the book, Being Mortal by Atul Gawande on tape. It is about our approach to the end of life, through terminal illness or aging, and how our reluctance to acknowledge our mortality often leads to choices that cause more suffering rather than more life.
So . . . sitting in my car at a red light, I opened my eyes and really drank in the soft mist rising off the burgundy roof of the car ahead of me—it reminded me of the mist on my own farm field, earlier that morning. Just rising clean, and September-silver in small swirls. And then the picture shifted, and I saw the driver’s arm out the window, and I realized that the mist was cigarette smoke drifting up and over the car. So, of course, my perception shifted, too, and for a moment, it wasn’t beautiful or clean or fall-felt anymore. Yet, as I watched I could see that the smoke was as beautiful as the mist had been, maybe more so, because it was more intricate in its twists and twirls, and I felt confused, but also entertained by this challenge to my appreciation.
At the doctor’s, I had a test, and was told with a smile that all was well, and I could go home. I stepped out lightly into the sunshine, and considered a cookie or earrings. I decided I really needed neither, but I’d like some office supplies. I drove for five minutes, and then got a call on my cell phone, asking me to come back. They had changed their minds and wanted to do another test just to be sure. It was still sunny outside, but not as light. So I drove back, unsure about whether I was railed, de-railed, or re-railed. I waited, then had another test. And it was just fine, and I headed out the door into the sun again, but decided I didn’t need the office supplies.
In the car, I reached the end of my book on tape, and the narrator’s voice came on clear and bright, saying, “We hope you’ve enjoyed being mortal.”
I kept rewinding that part, playing the sentence back again and again.
This morning, the fall winds blow the last of the shimmering leaves off the poplar trees as we head deeper into fall, the time of transition. We need only to look out the window to be reminded that this cycle of life is all part of the natural order. Today, take a few minutes to reflect on the transitions fall brings. Even better, take a walk outside and mindfully kick a few leaves to fully get in the spirit. Then write down what that felt like, letting the description of fall carry you into your inner landscape and the changes you’re sensing may be ahead. Whatever you encounter in the months ahead, know that mindfulness and writing will be good companions if you, too, are navigating the waters of uncertainty.
Yours in being mortal,