My brother in law died a couple of weeks ago, after a long battle with a brain tumour. It took him by inches, eventually leaving him so weak that it was all he could do to get out of bed and into a chair. The time was his choice, for we have medically assisted dying laws here in Canada now, which were only enacted last year. The writing has been on the wall for months now, and he and my sister wished to be prepared. Everything was set out and agreed to months in advance. My sister asked me if I would help with the obituary. I gave him the best words I could.
This is my first real experience with a situation that has, up to now, been only theoretical. As the law has been argued over for many years, I’ve believed that it was necessary and just, a boon to people whose illnesses could not be treated or assuaged any longer. It’s a moral position that has been there in my life as long as I can remember. My parents often spoke of the fairness of medically assisted dying rules and strategies. They were both fiercely independent people who would have balked at being any sort of burden to us or to the world. There was no law in place when my mother developed lymphoma 12 years ago, but my father knew better than any of us what she would have wanted when she began to drift away from us. And her doctor agreed with his instructions: make her comfortable, and if what makes her comfortable hastens the end, that’s fine. The time from her diagnosis to her initial surgery to her death was mercifully short.
Another of my sisters is fighting a cancer battle of her own. A longer, slower one that has a good chance of taking her life eventually. She responded well to her initial treatment regimen, until she didn’t any more. She’s now on a new immunotherapy and is living her life as fully and thoroughly as she can, working through her bucket list as her future is uncertain. But I’m not one to tell you odds can’t be beaten, and if there’s one thing I believe in, it’s the power people have to overcome.
But really, is her situation any different than the rest of us?
Life threatening illness brings a lot of things into focus fast, under a harsh, bright glare that leaves not much hidden. And it takes away the luxury of complacency. But, I’ve always maintained that the membrane holding us in this world is a fragile one, and it takes so very little to push us through it from this world to the next. People who don’t face severe illnesses don’t often see this fact, or really let it under their skin and into the deepest parts of their hearts.
“I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Often, when you have this special, secret knowledge, it feels like a burden, a secret that you want to tell, but to people that don’t often have the ability to understand the language of it. Like it’s ancient Sumerian or quantum physics. I once described it as being like Kevin McCarthy at the end of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, raving at the side of the highway, trying to convince people of the danger posed by those sinister alien pods.
One of the early memories from that time between my synovial sarcoma diagnosis and the surgery that would rewrite the map of my leg is the pre-admission session. I was handed a form to sign and it was explained to me that, while everyone was super capable and anaesthesia is pretty advanced, sometimes shit happens.
Every time I went into surgery after that, I made peace with the albeit remote possibility that I wasn’t going to wake up. And, though I’ve had almost 14 cancer-free years, that awareness of that eye-blink possibility of suddenly no longer being in this world is always present.
One of the first people I met in the hospital that first time was a woman whose 19-year-old daughter died within a year. A friend I met after being discharged, when my favourite nurse introduced us, died several years later.
I can’t help but wonder, with a compulsion that I still haven’t figured out how to fight, why I am alive and others, like my brother in law, like my friend, Mike, like that 19-year-old girl didn’t. Survivor’s guilt is a powerful thing that’s hard to escape. If I’m not careful, it’s so easy to spiral down into “Why me?” “Why am I still here when they aren’t?” “What grand purpose was I saved for, and am I living up to it?” But the thing about survivor’s guilt is that, if you can manage to look at it objectively, without your still raw, turbulent emotions clouding your judgement, you can see that doesn’t hold up. My survival has no connection to someone else’s death. They are unrelated events based on a thousand possible factors, almost all of which are out of our control.
I’m here. I’m full of spare parts and missing some of my factory originals, but I’m here. And I’m doing my best with what I have. But I’m aware, all too aware, of that membrane against my skin. Of that barrier that holds me here in this time and this place. And I’m doing my best to endure the bad moments, because I’ve been though so much worse. And I’m doing my best to soak up joy like a sponge and share it whenever I can.
Because these moments, even the ones that hurt like a son of a bitch, however many there are left, are sweet.
Born on the prairies, Stephen Graham King has since traded the big sky for the big city and now lives in Toronto. His first book, Just Breathe, tells the blunt, funny, and uncompromising story of his three-year battle with metastatic synovial sarcoma. Since then, his short fiction has appeared in the anthologies North of Infinity II (Pas de Deux), Desolate Places(Nor Winter’s Cold) and Ruins Metropolis (Burning Stone). His first space opera novel, Chasing Cold, was released in 2012, and the first book in the Maverick Heart series, Soul’s Blood, came out in 2016. The second, Gatecrasher, was released in 2017. He is currently working on the next in the series, A Congress of Ships.
(Image: “Digital Lens Flare In Black Background Horizontal Frame” by vvadyab)