Shambhala Sun | May 2014
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Photo by Martin Fritter.