The level of cancer fell just a little bit more according to my oncologist but the celebration is somewhat subdued. I lost two friends this week, within days of each other. Yes, cancer. Worse, neither had cancer when I was diagnosed. One has been very ill for the last couple of years, the other had just turned 50. Neither was supposed to be terminal.
And that’s how it happens sometimes. You might get lucky; you might not. Living with incurable cancer, not in remission but stabilised for some indefinite period, might be as lucky as you’re gonna get. But that might be just lucky enough.
I’m not knocking it. Back when I got the Diagnosis of Doom, I decided I was going to make the best of the time I had left. Making the best of things is an old family tradition; Old Eternal (my late mother, for those who may be new) used to be an expert at it. Now here I am with what looks like a lot more time than my oncologist expected. As I’ve said many times before in this blog, I never actually believed on a gut level that I was going to check out in January 2017.
At the same time, however, it’s a little spooky to think that, had my cancer followed its standard course––had I not gotten so extremely lucky––I wouldn’t be here now. And the two friends I lost were supposed to be living their lives as usual. John Lennon once pointed out that life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Truer words were never spoken.
A few days ago, I had started writing a post about survivor guilt. There have been a few posts I found very difficult and uncomfortable to write but this one was impossible. I have seldom written nonfiction; it’s really not my metier. I did write two nonfiction books in the late 1990s, one about the making of Lost In Space and another a year later about the making of The Mummy; they were assignments I lucked into and I think they turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. But I digress.
Survivor guilt is one of those things easier felt than explained––easier done than said, if you will. You can’t write about it without sounding like you’re fishing for comfort: Please forgive me for still being alive. You know people are going to tell you that you have nothing to feel guilty about. Except for the few whom you secretly suspect don’t forgive you.
Personally, I’ve always thought of survivor guilt as something suffered by people who have been through terrible catastrophes––natural disasters, mass transit crashes, explosions, wars. These people have been through extreme trauma and injury themselves. So claiming I have survivor guilt sounds self-aggrandising. The truth is, I’ve never been in pain and thanks to my family and my ongoing support system of friends far and wide, I’ve never felt alone or like I had no one to talk to.
What I’m feeling is more like survivor embarrassment. It’s like this: you find out you’re terminal, and you make a big deal out of it, because what the hell, it is a big deal, to you anyway. Then, holy guacamole! Things take a completely unexpected swerve and it turns out you’re not as terminal as they thought. You’re not exactly well, not in remission, but you’re stable and you’re not leaving any time soon unless someone drops a house on you. (And even then, it would probably depend on the house.)
Well, I’m not the only person this has ever happened to. One example I’ve mentioned before is Stephen Jay Gould, who was given eight months when he was diagnosed with cancer and died twenty years later of something else. I never knew Stephen Jay Gould but I doubt he spent much time being embarrassed. But then, Stephen Jay Gould was a wiser, busier, more learned person than I am, with a lot more to think about. Dammit, I really did want to be a theoretical physicist/mathematician. But I digress.
This, too, is life. Life is a messy, unruly, smelly, chaotic crap-shoot and all roads lead to entropy. And, old reprobate that I am, it’s my idea of a good time. Green bananas all round!