Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Anniversaries, Horses, and Seasons

Today is our 14th wedding anniversary. Once upon a time I did not think that I would see our ninth and certainly not our tenth. In July 2005 I was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma. Stage IV means the cancer has left the original site and moved into the rest of my body - gone metastatic. For melanoma at stage IV, the median survival time was quoted as seven to nine months. So far I'm at five and half years and counting.

It's been tough. I've done my time in hell. The first treatment was called bio-chemotherapy. First get a heart scan first to see if you're up to it. Then go into the intensive care unit for 5 days, receiving a cocktail of three different chemotherapy drugs and two immune-system drugs. Get really good at projectile vomiting. Come home and recover for two weeks; repeat six times total. Something like one third of the patients can't finish the full course. I finished all six.

That treatment worked, but the cancer came back. I did radiation; the cancer came back. I did another chemo drug; the cancer came back. I'm on a new wonder drug, which has made the cancer retreat, but it's still there, just smaller.

When I was first diagnosed as stage IV, I had several reactions.

One was how to think about the struggle with cancer. Melanoma is aggressive without any good treatments. So how do you mentally approach going through these treatment? There is a story I know, sometimes attributed to the Greek historian Herodotus, but also told by writer Idries Shah. Here is one version.
Once there was a thief who was to be executed. As he was taken away he made a bargain with the king: in one year he would teach the king's favorite horse to sing hymns. The other prisoners watched the thief singing to the horse and laughed.

"You will not succeed," they told him. "No one can."

To which the thief replied, "I have a year, and who knows what might happen in that time. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die.

"Or, perhaps the horse will learn to sing." 
Another reaction is to look back on your life. What lessons or stories might you want to pass on to someone else? The first, and my favorite, story that I wrote is about my Grandmother teaching me to knit.

Another perspective comes from Ecclesiastes. It is worth reading the whole first three chapters; I include some here. Chapter 1 starts off in despair.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
   Everything is meaningless.”
What do people gain from all their labors
   at which they toil under the sun? ….
No one remembers the former generations,
   and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
   by those who follow them.
In chapter 2, he tells how he turns to wisdom and folly, pleasure and toil.  All are meaningless.  But in chapter 3, the writer moves into a more philosophical vein:

There is a time for everything,
   and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
   a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
   a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
   a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
   a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
   a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
   a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
   a time for war and a time for peace.
So that's my combination: there is a time for everything; tell your stories; and maybe the horse will learn to sing.

My wife says we don't just walk in the Valley of the Shadow of Death - we go camping there.

Some may talk about doing battle with the Angel of Death. Movie buffs might instead depict a person playing chess with with Death (or perhaps badminton.) But in the real world I think the best game to play with Death is hide and seek.

The horse hasn't learned to sing, but sometimes I think maybe I can hear him humming along with me.


  1. Hello Tom,

    I know you through your perfect mother-n-law Betty. :) I am so grateful for the sharing of your inner life. The questions and answers that you offer as you remain vulnerable are enlightening to me. So I say, the answer is in the doing not in the expectation. By living this life you are doing, you are actively performing spiritual feats of existence that we humans will always struggle with because we have a difficult time of letting go. I am encouraged by your writings as I continue to struggle with letting go. Your intentions of spirit are very visible to me, so I thank you. Yours truly, Vanessa

  2. Dear Tom,
    This characteristically thoughtful, fresh, and brave view into your life has filled me with a deeper peace today. What a gift.
    Mahalo, Deborah