On my Fiftieth Birthday, I really felt elated. I thought, Jesus Christ, you've reached half a hundred years. That's remarkable. I felt I should receive a citation, and I put signs all around the house saying, Happy Fiftieth Birthday.
I think I was pleased to have reached fifty because I got there without encountering anything I couldn't surmount. Along the way I was besieged by a series of tragedies. I lost my entire family and had numerous disappointments and reverses, so I felt rather good that I had risen to the occasion, that I had been able to keep going. I was scarred, but I wasn't bowed, and I wasn't emotionally crippled.
My friends have taken an attitude of denial toward my lung cancer. I suppose it's because if they can't bestow longevity on me, they can't bestow it on themselves. They say such things as, It's got to be a mistaken diagnosis, or, More than likely you're going to be cured, or, You can still live to be the oldest person in the world. I've learned to go along with all of these diverse opinions and not to pursue them to the place where it makes my friends uncomfortable.
I have always found my friends to be unselfishly supportive, especially now. Some of them may find it difficult to accept that I have lung cancer because they prefer not to think of me as having such drastic emotional or physical needs. They have always known me to be self-sufficient, leading a somewhat solitary life, even when I was married. Therefore, they have rarely taken my problems seriously.
The decline in my strength and ability has led me to neglect my volunteer activities.
I have written poetry for many years, and I find it interesting to observe how, in different ways, I expressed the same philosophy at eighteen that I do now. I was amazed then as I am now at how human beings, ravaged by circumstances beyond all belief, can manage to stand up despite the unmitigated tragedies that press down upon them. I'm talking about mankind and about people like myself -- the survivors and the contributors, people who have become successful human beings.
Trace the affinity
Of the will to be
with the ability
to be no longer
Ah...such a narrow way divides
And yet, in the precarious clime
of this most eccentric inch
a world of men have lived
I never thought much about a right way to live. I don't think there is one. And I don't think you always have to look good to be a successful human being. A person can look good on the surface and have as much humanity as a snake. Another person may be a bastard to get along with, but his basic response is full of integrity.
People run the whole gamut-they're nice, they're good, they're bad, they're different. They fail, they falter, they succeed. And they need help. Everyone needs help at some time, regardless of their age or stage of maturity. It's normal, the human condition. It's like saying someone needs love, a meal, or a favor.
It's hard for me to discuss my cancer. I'm not intensely interested in the mechanics of it. All I want to know is the outcome. How long is the cancer going to give me to live, and what is it going to do to my physical and mental abilities? I just want to know my limits so I can work around them.
I know that you can learn to live above and through pain. You may not have the most comfortable life, but you can learn how to harvest those few moments when you aren't in as much pain as you were before. You also learn how to transcend difficulties and how to move across the room, even if it's painful. Pretty soon you can do a great number of things, the pain notwithstanding. Like my knees. I need joint replacements, but I don't know whether I want to be crippled for a month or two from the operation. I don't even know if the replacements would work. My knees hurt a great deal, but I don't notice them as much as I did at first. I just keep moving and creep down the stairs if I have to.
This is not because I'm particularly valiant or strong. That's not my thing. I'm not one of those great heroic personalities. I just think pain is awfully overrated. It's a thing we all fear. But when we eventually face it, we do what we have to do, and we aren't quite as disabled as we thought we would be. Great numbers of people move around everyday in tremendous pain.
One thing that concerns me is money. I've held a rather responsible position, but who cares about that? I couldn't afford to quit, because I didn't have any particular skills or formal education. Now I understand I can go on disability and receive forty percent of my salary. I'll probably do that.
I just don't want to end up on the dole. If I'm invited to dinner, I want to be glad to go because of the joy of sharing dinner, not because I wouldn't otherwise have been able to eat. I don't want it to come to that.
Other than the fact that I've lived half a hundred years, time has never impressed me. It's what you do with your life. It's the same with money. It's what kind of mileage you're able to get out of your money or your life, You need money for more than food or rent. Money is needed in order to give presents or to lend a friend five dollars. If you're not able to do that, you won't feel good, so what's the point?
One of my joys of being in the hospital was having time to think. I don't mean I had time to be profound. I wasn't trying to change the world or even change myself. It was just a matter of having the leisure, the luxury, to think anything at all.
It's like what the artist Juan Gris once said to Gertrude Stein, The little painter has all the things the great painter has. He just isn't great. He's just as meticulous, just as intense a craftsman, tries just as hard, puts as much passion and pain into it. He just isn't a great painter. But all the other externals? He does everything Picasso did -- suffers, enjoys, works, is dissatisfied. I'm not a great philosopher, but I have had time to think in my life.
I'm not afraid of dying, but I've been afraid of being a living dead person. What concerns me is the quality of life. A good six months is better than sixteen frightened years. You can pack a hell of a lot of living into six months if you do it right.
The kind of thing I am afraid of is having no interests anymore or losing my mind, becoming a vegetable. Those are the only circumstances under which I might condone suicide when all the chips are down and nothing can be done and no one is going to be harmed by it. When your life-support machine does not allow you to involve yourself in the business of living, then I think you should pull the plug. You shouldn't have to endure the debasement of never again making a contribution and only being an object of pity.
I think such cases are rare, however. There are few states of disability in which it is impossible to become involved, because as long as you have your mind, or even some vestiges of will and speech, you can still be a great listener. You can still be a person who people call, even if you're on a respirator. People can come and unburden themselves to you. There are still contributions you can make.
I've contemplated suicide and even attempted it once, but I couldn't go through with it. One of the things that prevented me was the thought of how dreadful it would be for my friends. It would be a terrible letdown after they had put so much into their friendship and love for me. It seemed like a rotten repayment for the comfort and solace they had given me.
I feel I'm still in the ball game if a friend comes to me with a big problem and upsets me or if he comes to me with a great happiness and makes me feel glad. Either way, it means I have a sincere friend who wants to share a real part of his experience, good or bad, tears or laughter.
I'm looking for the same answers I looked for when I was eighteen. I haven't changed much, but I do know that even with the odds tremendously against you, you can manage somehow to make it.
The vulgar splendor of a noise
Contents the appetite of ears
Insensitive to subtleties.
The really loud occurrence falls
without the benefit of sound
How silently are these:
The awakening of love,
The audacity to dream,
The will to live.