Nothing is more certain than death — so why does the approach of death always surprise me?
People die of cancer every day. The disease is so common that most of us don’t even think much about it. I certainly don’t. Even though I had breast cancer more than 10 years ago, I still don’t think about getting cancer and dying from it. And I don’t think about it happening to my friends.
I have a friend who had a routine cancer screening — a lung scan — about a year ago. He was a smoker, so it was supposed to give an early warning if there was anything wrong.
The scan showed what could be a couple of small tumors on his lung. After a biopsy confirmed it was cancer, those two small nodules were removed through surgery. Then he went through months of chemotherapy. And now he’s had another scan to see whether it worked.
He found out this evening that the cancer has metastasized — to his lymph nodes and his liver. And now that I fear death might be coming for him, I don’t know what to feel. In the end, nobody cheats death.
I’ve understood since I was a child that everybody will eventually die. I was a very small boy — maybe 4 or 5 years old — when my mother’s father died. At the funeral home where his body lay cold and still, my mother brought me close to his casket and talked to me about death.
I felt his cold skin and saw how lifeless the body felt. Mother explained that this was natural and that it eventually happened to everyone. I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t traumatized. But I felt in her grief that it was painful to lose someone you love in this way.
As I grew older, death became a routine and clinical thing. I got accustomed to the idea that old people died. I learned about accidents killing people early. I saw death on television and read about it in newspapers and books. I grew numb to death in all of its forms, especially since I never unexpectedly lost anyone who was close to me.
I’ve always known — in the theoretical sense — that anybody could die at a moment’s notice. You can get hit by a bus. You can be a victim of a crime. Or you can develop some disease in your body that our medicine can’t yet cure.
But even though I went through my brush with death — when I had surgery for breast cancer — it’s remained something that happens to old people and to people I don’t know.
I act as though I’ll never die. And I act as though my friends won’t die.
I hide death from myself, as though looking at it would keep me from living. I don’t consciously acknowledge that the people I care about are all going to die. I act as though we are all going to be here forever. And I’m really good at hiding the truth about that from myself.
But I can’t hide from death tonight. Even though I don’t know how long my friend has left, I feel as though a curtain has been pulled back — at least briefly — to force me to see a truth that I avoid. And I don’t like the way it makes me feel.
I don’t believe death is the end for the human soul. I think I’d have serious trouble living — and feeling as though life had meaning — if death were the end of the soul’s existence. But I do believe we carry on in another world, one which I don’t pretend to fully understand.
But despite that, this is the world I know. This is the place I know how to exist. Despite how much this world hurts and how difficult it sometimes seems, I don’t want to die. And I don’t want to lose those who I care about.
I guess that’s why I don’t know how to feel tonight. I can make plans to deal with problems that arise in life. I know how to do that.
But I don’t know how to accept that death is going to take my friends away from me. And that forces me to think about — at least briefly — the sobering reality that death is one day coming for me, too.