December 11, 2013

"Teach us to number our days"

Michael Gerson writes about Seeing mortality in the near distance

In my mid-20s, I had a new bride, a plum job on Capitol Hill and, apparently, the beginnings of a cancerous tumor on my right kidney. For 20 or 25 years — the best estimate of my doctors — it accompanied me at birthdays and on holidays and at the delivery of my children. It was quiet and kept to itself. Undiscovered, it would have donned camouflage and killed me in the end.
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I was fortunate to see mortality in the near distance. Stepping outside that experience, as writers tend to do, it had elements of a physics experiment. As I awaited to learn my fate, I noticed an effect on matter — an odd intensification of physical experience. Things around you offer more friction and hold your attention longer. Commonplace things like the bumps on tree bark. The light filtering through floating dust. The wetness of water. A contrast knob is turned, revealing the vivid pleasures of merely existing.

This heightened awareness applies to strangers in the street, who suddenly have faces. An unsolicited smile, the obvious creases of worry or pain, engage your emotions. There is nothing more democratic than mortality. Even if we are insects, we are insects (said Dickens) on the same leaf.

All of this is a function of a shifting perception of time. When the days seem limited, we more fully inhabit them. The arrow of time makes decay inevitable — and each moment unrecoverable. So we gain in appreciation for things as they are when we realize they will eventually be otherwise.

I’m sorry to report these effects are temporary. Perhaps they fade when you stop taking the Percocet. But I don’t think the impressions are illusions. The healthy (rather than morbid) recognition of our mortality is realism. Cancer is a horror, but it is also a metaphor. Each of us is conceived with a seed of mortality that can’t be surgically removed. It grows until it kills us, hopefully after a long life that honors the incredible, temporary privilege of living. We are, as W.B. Yeats harshly put it, “fastened to a dying animal.”

That, but not only that. At every stage, even in the manner of their dying, people can demonstrate they are something more. I recall my Italian, New Yorker grandmother — full of years and full of cancer (the result of a lifelong smoking habit) — telling me through some of her last, gasping breaths: “You have made me so very happy.” Such are the gifts human beings can give each other, even when there is nothing else to give.

It was not my time, thank God, to demonstrate such generosity. I’m left, for the moment, to experience some additional moments and to hope there is a plot behind random and witless events. But I’ve gained — along with many given a cancer diagnosis — a greater appreciation for the familiar words of the psalmist: “Teach us to number our days.”

Posted by Jill Fallon at December 11, 2013 11:48 AM | Permalink