It’s for You

Sometimes after a phone call, nothing is ever the same. But if you let it, says Douglas Penick, the bad news can come to feel a little like falling in love.

Douglas Penick
1 May 2014

It begins with a phone call from the doctor, and it is, as I’ve often and unwillingly imagined: “I’ve got bad news.”

There is a silent, airless implosion. I force myself to breathe, pull myself together, and ask whatever I can manage. The call ends and I feel like the world is pulling away, and I am being left behind. I put down the phone and make some notes about the disease, the treatments, the calls I’ll need to make, then I burst into tears.

Outside the window, there’s a bright sunset and dark pine-covered mountains. There’s a cool evening breeze. How to tell my wife, my son, my family, my friends? I imagine how they are leading their lives assuming everything is going on as before. It’s inconceivable that so much love, so much intensity, can just end. But a door has just closed. Everything in the world will vanish, and I will vanish. Though it may not be immediate, it’s now real. An innocuous little bump on my forehead has been diagnosed as nodular melanoma, and mortality is no longer abstract. It’s strange that I feel so well.

There is, suddenly, an almost painful intensity to everything. I think of how Trungpa Rinpoche used the phrase “genuine mind of sadness” to point to an essential part of our lives. Sorrow and the love of being alive are inextricable.

The next days are taken up with trying to understand this form of cancer—its development, treatments, prognosis. My wife, Debbie, and I, always close, grow closer as we face a newly tenuous future. I tell my son and my good friends. Without being overly pessimistic or optimistic, I try to put them at ease. I try to continue with my normal activities, which now seem frail and contrived. More tests are scheduled and visits to surgeons and oncologists set up.

I think back to years ago when an acquaintance, Carlo, was dying of liver cancer. He wanted to go out with some guys, but not ones he’d been so very close to. Three of us went to a restaurant. Pasta with bottarga and all kinds of special dished emerged; wine too. Carlo would suddenly be happy. Then in almost the same moment, he’d be desolate and heartbroken. He’d look away. Although my condition now is nowhere near as grave as his, I realize how extraordinary was Carlo’s willingness not to shrink from the overwhelming waves of love and sorrow.

As the Indian mahasiddha Naropa described it, living in conditioned existence is like “licking the honey on the razor’s edge.” Knowing that we are close to the edge of it all being lost brings to life a sudden intensity of love. Even if my mortality might be imminent, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for everything that comes my way. Dare I say it, this disease has made me feel more alive.

I write about this to a friend who endured a long siege with lymphoma. He replies, “I certainly hope your ‘mortality’ is not that ‘imminent.’ But as you imply, it could be. To feel that is a great thing. I’ve always, always looked at my cancer as a great gift.”

My sister-in-law enjoyed a long remission after grueling treatments for ovarian cancer. She was, as she acknowledged, utterly grateful for the transformation she experienced. She had no more time for the petty negativities that had previously undermined her. “I’ll never regret it,” she tells me.

Relatives, friends, and acquaintances from all over begin to send me words of encouragement, prayers, and good wishes. Some I barely know: a local music critic, many friends of my wife, members of her mother’s church. The expanse of kindness is overwhelming and humbling. Many have been through a similar experience and almost all at least know someone who has. What is happening to me is in no way unique.

When the test results indicate that my situation is less grave than it might have been, the congratulations from those around me convey a collective relief that I don’t yet feel, though the warmth of everyone’s embrace is palpable.

My surgery has been successful in removing all the melanoma that was detected. My prospects are good. Nonetheless, I’m reluctant to view what I’ve been through as merely a scare or an unpleasant episode. I run into a friend who had a brain tumor. The surgery was risky, and many of the potential outcomes were terrifying. She told me how, now that she’s recovered, people want to say it’s over and behind her. “I can’t tell them,” she admits, “but really, in a way, I don’t even want it to be.”

For me, a door has opened to living with less certainty, greater intensity, and far more gratitude. Fear of the cancer’s return, future treatments, pain, and dying bring an enduring sharpness. Buddhist practice in this context is, as always, simply not getting caught in discursive elaborations.

Thoughts and feelings come and go. We do not choose what we think or feel. Love and friendship, the scent of the summer air, the shadows by the stream are each uniquely valuable. So deeply to be loved. Everything seems new, bright, strangely exhilarating. It is, I feel shy to say, something like falling in love.