Yesterday I got a reprieve.
To be more specific, a couple of months ago, in preparation for my first physical with my new Kaiser Permanente primary care doctor I submitted a stool sample. It was a minor icky inconvenience, and I thought little of it at the time. But then I got a note on my phone's Kaiser app that there was a message for me: a new test result. Opening the message, I learned that there was blood in the sample.
I saw the doctor and talked with her about the test. I'd had a colonoscopy less than two years ago, and while some polyps were removed, they were benign, so she thought there was very little chance I had anything to worry about. Even so, she thought I'd better play it safe, and have another colonoscopy.
So the day after Christmas, I did my prep: a liquid diet, massive doses of laxative, and I'll spare you the obvious details of what happened then. Friday morning, Amy drove me to the hospital, and I was speedily checked in, undressed, hooked up to a variety of devices, and wheeled into the room where the procedure would take place. A sedative was added to my IV and the next thing I knew, I was being told the result was fine, there was only one small polyp, no sign of cancer, I could relax.
So yes, I got a reprieve. Soon after I got the message about blood in the sample, I was finding out what that meant for me. The chance that I had cancer was very low, but even so, it was hanging over me for the entire period between the receipt of the message and waking up to the result.
My own mortality is rarely on my mind. Certainly there are times when it enters my awareness: being thrown from a raft going over a Class IV Rapid; passing a semi on I-84 in the dark on a windy, rainy morning; feeling the plane I'm on hit some major turbulence; riding my bicycle on a country road and almost being clipped by a large truck; tripping and falling on a path at the Grand Canyon--there have been many times I've been just a few feet from death. Like most people, I don't let it dominate my thoughts, though, because if I did, I'd never be able to go anywhere.
This period has been, however, the first time I've been aware of a condition in myself that could be terminal. Colon cancer takes many lives each year. For two months, I thought I might be one of them. As I said, I knew it was only a small chance, especially since this would be a case of early detection, and treatments are far more effective now. Even so, the reality was inescapable: I am going to die.
This is true for every living being. None of us is immortal. We all die. And yet, somehow most of us are able to push this knowledge to a remote place in our minds and to operate from day to day as if it were not true. Hospitals battle to keep every patient alive, even when it means prolonging agony, postponing death by only days, perhaps hours. Every minute is precious.
And yet we fritter away those minutes with abandon. This morning I spent an hour mastering a single level of Angry Birds. Every day, I sacrifice between ten and thirty minutes on the New York Times crossword. I watch television that does not inspire, go to movies that do not satisfy, listen to podcasts that do not inform, eat meals that do not nourish. I spend 70-80 minutes a day during the week driving to and from my workplace.
Most of the time, I don't let myself focus on how unproductive these activities are, how little they do for me, or how little I'm doing for the world when I engage in them. Even with this imagined death sentence hanging over my head, I've gone on squandering my precious time. Now that the sentence is lifted, I expect I'll continue squandering--though not, perhaps, as unconsciously as I have in the past.
I did become more aware during this time of one thing: more precious than these minutes I live and breathe are the people I share them with. If I were to die tomorrow, there are things that would be left unsaid. Some people would go unforgiven; others would miss their chance to reconcile with me; some would find themselves wondering whatever happened to me, and might never know I was gone. I've had the experience of thinking about someone significant I haven't seen in awhile, then finding out that he or she had been gone for months, even years. It's an upsetting feeling, and I don't relish the probability that some who have been close to me will have it around my own death.
All these things I can, again, set aside, just as I did before I had these test results. I can go back to pretending I am immortal, to partitioning off that part of my consciousness that knows I can and will die. But what if, instead, I go out into the world to live in the face of death, to interact with others in such a way as to ensure that if this is my last encounter with them, they will look back on it and smile? What if all my days are informed by my mortality?
What if we all live this way? For Ebenezer Scrooge, the shock of seeing his name on a gravestone was not that he was mortal; he'd recently buried his business partner, after all, and he was not a young man himself. No, the jolt was realizing he could end his life a bitter, lonely miser no one would miss. This awareness was the stimulus he needed to change his life, to begin keeping Christmas with gusto, investing in his legacy with every fiber of his being.
Yes, we will all die. There will be an end to every one of our stories. Today, with my reprieve in hand, I commit to living as one who will not be alive forever, and wishes to leave this world a better place than he found it.
God bless us, every one.