"Experience is what you get when you don't get what you wanted." I don't know who said it, but the Carnegie-Mellon professor, Dr. Randy Pausch, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, quotes it as one of his favorites in the video below. His experiences of not getting what he wanted seem to be very positive.
My father died of pancreatic cancer 18 years ago. My memory of what he went through isn't remotely like Pausch's report. My dad lasted five months after diagnosis, which is a long time for this kind of cancer; in those days, the prognosis was two months. He wanted very much to live, and he tried to make the best of it, even driving his car until two weeks before he died; but he didn't have physical strength, and the side effects of the chemo treatments that shrank his tumor and bought him some time were very debilitating. My mother and I watched him go from a robust working man, with a zest for life and a raunchy sense of humor, to someone frail, spirit broken and looking much older than his 69 years, who spent his final months in pain.
Looking at Pausch, it appears they've made incredible strides in the treatment of pancreatic cancer since then. Pancreatic cancer is still a death sentence, yet one can't help but see that this man's fabulous attitude and courage are healing. Watching him certainly is healing to me.
Many years ago, I visited a friend on her deathbed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, a hospice. She'd had breast cancer, received invasive treatment for it, yet eventually the disease spread to her bones and throughout her body. When she first got the diagnosis, she did everything she could to keep working, and to take care of her health, even taking on a controversial regimen of organic food, gallons of carrot juice, coffee enemas, and handfuls of supplements. It was time consuming, prohibitively expensive (really beyond her means), sometimes painful and exhausting, but she handled it all with good humor...and this was a woman who was not known for her good humor in the best of times. She also made time to do some things she'd always wanted to do, which included traveling to Europe, and attending the kalachakra initiation with the Dalai Lama in New York.
Everyone at Calvary seemed happy and pain-free (they keep the patients on pain-killers); not a bad way to go. I walked around the place and everyone who was conscious had a wide-eyed expression of peace like Ramana Maharshi. The hospital made sure these folks lived full lives until their last; they offered art classes, "museum walks" (consisting of wheeling the beds around the building to look at a fine collection of donated artwork), hair stylists, concerts, any movie they wanted right in their rooms. Friends and families are allowed and even encouraged to come spend the night with patients in their rooms, read to them, sing with them, and bring them their favorite foods if they still have an appetite.
My friend described her "slumber party" the night before; she and her best friend had shared their preferred brand of vanilla bean ice cream (I brought her some more), seen a first-run movie, and enjoyed lots of laughs. "We had a wonderful time," my friend gushed; a wonderful time on her deathbed. She passed away a week later.
It's easier to "love what is" when all is going well in our world. What about those of us with problems, like a terminal illness, that are not going to go away? It may not be easy, but it is indeed possible to live well in the meantime, as this happy professor illustrates. Unless he's a ridiculously good actor, Pausch seems to be one of those people for whom all is going well—even or perhaps especially with a virulent and painful form of cancer—as he lives his life one day at a time, with gratitude for all that has been good and for all that continues to be good.
This may be one of those videos that everyone but me has seen already. In case you haven't yet, I hope you'll enjoy it and find healing in it. If he can do it, we can too.
©2008 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.