One of the "gifts" of cancer -- and yes, as terrible as it is, cancer does come with certain gifts -- is that it forces you to reconsider your notions about time, in particular, your place in time, in the world, in the universe. Sounds like heady stuff, I know, but my first reaction to the news that I not only had cancer, but stage 4 cancer, with (statistically speaking) the likelihood of a much more abbreviated lifespan, well, let's just say, to borrow that old saying, it focuses the mind very effectively.
I will never forget the quaking feeling I felt when, sitting across from my oncologist during our first consultation, and after reviewing the facts of my case, and the extent to which my cancer had spread, he said, "...so, at least this won't kill you right away." Just what "right away" means remains to be seen. We keep telling ourselves that statistics are statistics, and people are people, and every case is different.
But still, that question, how much time? Will there be a point of no return, when the horizon shrinks and the hard choices step forward and demand to be reckoned with? I guess that point will come, and we'll know when we get there.
So over the last two months I've thought a lot about what time now means to me. I can't not think about it. It means a huge shift in values. It means making choices and meditating on things I never had to consider before.
A few days ago I had the honor of meeting former President Jimmy Carter. He was in town signing copies of his new book, A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety. (Okay, "meet" might be too generous a word; he looked up at me, flashed that famous smile, and said, as he did to everyone else in line, "Thank you for coming" as he quickly inscribed the title page and turned to face his next admirer.) Carter has always been a hero of mine. But now I find myself envious of him too: Nine decades of what has indeed been a very full life.
And there are more mundane considerations. Friends have been recommending movies and shows I just must see, trips we should make, etc. I've never watched an episode of Mad Men, The Wire, House of Cards, or Game of Thrones. I've never read a Harry Potter book or Hunger Games. It's not snobbery on my part; I'm sure I'd enjoy most of those recommendations. But I can barely get through the pile of The New York Review of Books and other magazines that have been stacking up.
There are shelves of books I want to read, many of which I had always put off for later, since they seem so daunting. But now "later"might get here sooner than I think. So what to do about Montaigne's Essays, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Boswell's Life of Johnson? Each one of those is a doorstop of a book. And then there's Proust, the Shakespeare plays I haven't read...and on. Lately people are urging me to dive into Knausgaard's My Struggle, a multi-volume monument to the details of daily life. I'm sure reading it would be transcendent experience, but, sorry Karl, I just can't give you that much time. There are others in line ahead of you. If I can get to them in time.
Much as I love having my nose in a book, there's life to be lived. And I want to do it right. That means saying no to a lot of things I'd rather not give up. But being forced into this corner has made the experience of each day so much richer, and so much more precious. It's a gift I wouldn't have been given otherwise.