I caught up with a close friend and neighbor over the weekend. Conversations with childhood friends now revolve around our ageing parents and maturing children, changing lifestyles to acknowledge our deteriorating health, and our own aspirations after working for most of our lives.
When I was younger, the future was a distant horizon at which I would glance occasionally, in between hurtling headlong into one experience after another. The hinterland has shortened now; without realizing it, I have been steadily advancing closer and closer to the horizon, but it has not moved with me, as it does in the lands familiar and strange that I have known. It is the past, the path I took to get to this moment, that I glance at; looking back, I see the valleys, peaks and ditches of my life as it has been.
“Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” wrote author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, having been told that the cancer he had lived with for nine years had become terminal.
I was diagnosed with cancer at a thankfully early stage when I was 45. Nevertheless, it is a life-threatening disease and I was forced to confront the inevitable end of things. “This does not mean I am finished with life,” Sacks continues. “This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world,” he wrote in 2015, six months before he died as it turned out.
Life is not merely a preparation for death, but I have found a serenity and ease to decision-making that I didn’t have before I properly realized that death is not a distant stranger. I think of it much more as a companion nowadays, not the iconic hooded, sickle-bearing giant in Ingmar Bergman’s film “The Seventh Seal.” Rather he (yes masculine in my mind – an ender of things, not a female creator) is always there, lurking around and ready to step in with a friendly word of advice when things become confusing. As Sacks pointed out, once I got over the shock of realizing that things really do come to an end, I preferred to deal with even the most simple things clearly and simply.
My friend and I sat under a too-small umbrella in the grey London drizzle, we talked about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. I listened as he spoke. He didn’t say it in words but what I heard was someone trying to come to terms with the possibility that life as he knows it, with his amazing powerhouse wife, mother and friend, might soon end.
It reminded me of a similar conversation I had on the other side of the world in Malaysia. Almost the exact opposite of London, Kuala Lumpur is fantastically verdant in comparison. Rain falls like it does in the Philippines, like water pouring from a bottomless jug, heavy and warm, drenching everything in its path. Trees, flowers, fruit and crops leap out of the earth, insects find their way into everything, there were snakes in the garden and monkeys on the roof.
Another friend told me about her father’s final days. He’d been told he had two weeks left and spent them apologizing to friends and colleagues. She had made up her mind that this is not how she wants for her own future end.
Coming to terms with cancer, I remembered what she’d said. I don’t want that either. The end is coming, we just don’t know when. I am not going to wait for it so what does that mean for what I do now? As a result, the unnecessary has fallen away. In confronting death, life becomes more intense colorful and essential.
“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight,” as Sacks put it. Thought and emotion are freed, time slows and focus is sharpened.
I find no comfort in the ideas I’ve heard around the world of what happens after death. I once heard a joke about how you don’t want to have a Filipino for a bodyguard because we believe in an afterlife, at which I could only roll my eyes. All cultures and religions have their own concepts and because I’ve lived in Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and secular societies, it doesn’t seem obvious to me that any one religion is necessarily better than another. I don’t know if I’m going to hell because of that but the very fact I know I don’t know has provided the inspiration to behave exactly like I don’t know: with humility and clarity, to try to do the right thing as far as I can know it to be now.
Credit belongs to : www.philstar.com