I escaped death -- and now I want to live!

Should I try to return to life as it was before, or should I set out on adventures?

Published August 19, 2008 10:01AM (EDT)

Dear reader,

Just a quick note to say that sometime next week I will be taking off a few days to attend the Burning Man festival. I will let you know the exact days the column will pause and when it will resume once plans are firmed up. -- C.T.

Dear Cary,

I am a woman in her early 30s who recently survived cancer. I have always been somewhat of a restless/adventurous person, but for the most part my life before the diagnosis was pretty routine -- I got into a good college and a great grad school, cultivated a successful career, had a steady group of friends, got married to a great guy, paid my taxes on time, you get the idea.

Last year, when my doctor told me that my long-term odds for survival weren't clear, I went into a panic. I reflected on all the decisions I had made throughout my life, and came to the conclusion that I would have lived my life differently had I thought I would die at such a young age. I'm not a religious person, but I even bargained with God a little: "If you will just make this go away, I will make better choices. I will live my life to the fullest. I will not take life or its many opportunities for granted."

The cancer is gone (for now), and I am ready to tackle challenges, to take on bold new adventures, to live my dreams. I want to travel all over the world, get plastic surgery, quit my hopelessly boring job and go back to school to pursue a new career. I want to take up skydiving and get a couple of tattoos. I want to quit wasting time on friendships that have stagnated, and get out of the people-pleasing mode that has dominated my world since my teenage years.

The problem? My friends and family do not like this new outlook. They don't understand why I can't just pick up my life where I left off; they were comfortable with having me as a rock-steady and dependable presence in their lives. My husband, who understands the ordeal I've lived through more than anyone, has tried to be supportive yet ultimately thinks I am impractical and unwise for wanting to expand my horizons a little. I love him more than anything and I want to share my new feelings and experiences with him, but I fear that he will ultimately not accept the changes I want to make in my life. I am tired of having to confront my loved ones' sarcasm and disapproval on a daily basis. If my cancer comes back (it likely will), I will regret not having made changes in my life. I feel like time is running out for me.

Am I a total whack job? How do other survivors deal with these types of feelings?

The Lonely Adventurer

Dear Lonely Adventurer,

This is a question more suited to a serious and erudite philosopher schooled in navigating the many ancient suburbs surrounding the great city of death. But I will do my best.

You have taken up residence in this suburb outside the ancient city of death. Like most, you had not intended to live here. You were transferred here, as it were, unexpectedly, like many of your fellow residents, by some fiat of management. It is full of transients. Some continue on to the city proper and drift out of touch. Others move on to other suburbs and cities only to return years later. Still others remain right here, as if waiting for their official call.

Those who receive their official appointment cards must summon the courage to begin the journey into the city, where as they go they will gradually lose strength and consciousness, forgetting why they set out for this city of death in the first place, forgetting even that they were summoned and could not refuse. They will awaken often on the journey and shout out, Driver! Turn around! This is not the right way! They will rattle the locked doors of the antique carriage (why this horse-drawn carriage and not a modern automobile?). They will marvel how much this journey resembles a dream they used to have of jumping off a bridge, that terrible recognition of the irreversible, the approach of the singular event, the cold, dark water rushing up toward their feet.

But you are not one of those who has received her official invitation. You were, in fact, rejected by the city of death and have awakened from its remorseless, dreamlike pull to see that you still have choices. You could, as some do, continue to live in close proximity in case they call you. Or you could try to get as far away from it as possible before it summons you again, hoping it will not be able to locate you.

There is indeed a grim magnetism peculiar to the city of death. You certainly would not be the first to find it difficult to leave its orbit. Like an old boyfriend, it is clearly to be avoided but hard to shake off. If you stay, you might keep thoughts of the city at bay with certain habits of mind. You might assemble a collection of dark, grim jokes about it, as we do about the government (which, too, sometimes seems like a remorseless death we can neither shake off nor abandon). You might try to shrug it off, saying there's nothing you can do, really, when your number is called in the waiting room and a strangely hairy functionary with narrow-set eyes shoves some paperwork across to you under bulletproof glass. "This is a temporary permit," the functionary says. What? you think to yourself? What does it even matter? Temporary permit? What? Through the somewhat hazy bulletproof glass, you cannot discern the gender or ethnicity -- or even the species! -- of this functionary. The experience is all quite baffling and strange, but you hear such stories from other survivors, and you might be able to live with it like a resigned resident of Soviet Moscow. You might find a certain depressing satisfaction in living so close to the city of death. It might become one of your distinctions, your reference points, like living close to the Seattle Space Needle or the Golden Gate Bridge.

But enough of these speculations. There is much living to be done yet. Those who have narrowly escaped death know this well.

It is more likely that after your brush with it you would want to get away as far as possible from this city of death. In fact, that is what you seem to want. Yet you are concerned about the effect your flight will have on others. So consider, for a moment, the effect your death would have on them. I say this to provide some perspective. If you were to die today having done none of the things you dream of doing, would those around you be any happier?

It may seem that these speculations are not really getting to the point. You are asking how to deal with these other people in a concrete way. And I am being a little obtuse, I admit. I am not Borges. The point I would like to get across is that they are not going to understand no matter what you do. There will be a gulf of understanding no matter what. It cannot possibly be a joint decision. It will be yours alone because the experience that informs it was yours alone. You were the only one faced with dying. It placed you in a unique position. You are not going to be able to convey to your family and friends exactly what this means. They are never going to completely "get it."

To "get it" in this case would mean that they, too, had visited those remorseless bureaus of early taking, those bleak pain-production centers that are the employers of last resort for artists of diabolical purpose, and those obscure tumor bureaus where underpaid anatomy students who never finished their degrees work ceaselessly at antique bicycle pumps. They have never seen any of this nor experienced the terror it induces. So they cannot know why you would with seeming suddenness book a trip to Cape Horn or the Galapagos Islands. Nor is it your job to expend priceless breath trying to explain. This is something you must undertake on your own. Your friends and family rallied, surely, when you seemed to be at risk, but in the final stages, you are going to be on your own, and so, in a sense, as you have realized, you are on your own already. So you might as well do what you are driven to do.

After trauma comes routine. Routine competes with trauma's memory, drawing you into a seductive slumber of the familiar. You are now in effect two people. One of you has had a shattering moment of insight, and wishes for the courage to live always in accordance with it. For that you, life is now blindingly clear. You saw in an instant how it could be, how it is supposed to be, and how easily that could slip away.

The other of you would like nothing more than to slip back into the routine embrace of family and marriage. But the lure of the familiar is exactly that: a lure, a mirage. As much as you might want to return to your former life, you cannot. That life is gone. You have crossed a bridge. You have seen your life from a new perspective. You cannot go back.

You could of course outwardly take the actions of a person who has returned to her "normal life." But you would find it hard to live that way, emotionally speaking, spiritually speaking. Living in such a way throws our singularity into constant relief. We feel utterly alone with who we really are.

For myself, I see life as a vast journey not limited to this one incarnation. In this I am somewhat superstitious, mystical, perhaps daft as the atheists would insist. But I am also just one more inhabitant of this suburb close to the ancient city of death. There are millions of us here; each one has a story of our brush with it. And in fact, I have not taken off to the Galapagos! I spend my days in these impassioned conversations with others, rocking in my chair, musing, never moving. So that vast city has its obvious pull.

But you: You can go!

So you must choose. You have been given the gift of present-day hindsight. As you look back on the present from the future, you see what you have to do. You just need the courage to do it. Where does that come from? It comes from keeping close to your heart that blinding original insight. Our time here is indeed brief. We are falling through the air toward a shattering impact even as I write these words.

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