A friend whose husband had recently passed away once quoted someone as asserting that, unlike women, men face fate at age fifty-nine. Whereas women generally keep on going till they’re done, men generally hit a wall at fifty-nine. If they make it past that wall to sixty, then, presumably like women, they too keep on going till they’re done. Anecdotal evidence: Two of my best teachers—both men—died at 59 of one disease each. My greatest teacher—a woman—died at 91 having lived her last decades with four or five major diseases.
I don’t know whether or not this observation is true, but it’s been on my mind. I feel pretty good about having made it past the half-way point in my sixtieth year. But today I’m sitting in the waiting room of my dermatologist because I’ve hit not a wall but a little bump in the form of a squamous cell carcinoma, a minor skin cancer that is being removed in a procedure called Mohs, named for its inventor, in which the doctor examines and maps the removed section of skin—while you wait—to determine whether all the bad cells have been captured. If so, you’re done and the doctor sews you up. If not, he takes some more of you from precisely mapped spots, and then there’s more while-you-wait microscopy and mapping. (I can’t help thinking of the battle in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail
: “It’s only a flesh wound.”)
So here I am waiting for the first mapping of my first (God willing, my last) cancer of any kind. The cause is the sun I ran around in fifty years ago, so there’s no occasion for guilt; people develop these and have them removed all the time with no bad effects; metastasis is extremely rare; I’m generally healthy; the down-to-earth nurse says my blood pressure is ideal; the smart young doctor is very matter-of-fact. So why am I driven to asking the receptionist for some blank paper in order to write all this down for you?
Because there are still several months to get through before I make it to sixty, and I have to sit here for an hour before I know whether the doctor will have to dig deeper or wider, and writing is my way of trying to get a grip.
On what? Can I by writing influence my squamous fate? Or prolong life by even a minute? No. It’s not that. What I can do, or hope to do, is to use words to remind myself, by reminding you, of what the awareness of mortality is meant
to remind us of: immortality.
We human beings live in paradox, whether we think about it much or not: Why is there something rather than nothing? Are we predestined or do we have free will? Our natures being a mixture of good and bad, why are we expected to be good? And most pressing: We are souls imagining immortality in bodies doomed to mortality having minds aware of both. What are we to do?
Mostly, of course, we forget. We get busy sustaining, imagining, building, loving, reproducing, educating, and entertaining. But the waiting room, when that first squamous cell goes bad, commands, or at least invites, acknowledgment of the down side of the paradox.
So here I am writing about this enforced opportunity to think about mortality and its flipside, immortality. And it feels as if, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlow in his battle with a much more imminent death, I probably have nothing important to say (see Heart of Darkness
). Even a good idea about immortality, let alone immortality itself, is not easily imagined when one is sitting in a doctor’s office worrying about mortality. Perhaps the doctor is achieving some immortality as I write. He’s doing
something (helping to heal me
!). But all I can do is to find a piece of paper and to write that all I can do is to find a piece of paper and to write.
Let’s be fair. I know immortality is there. I’m not doubting the meaning of life, the mercy of God, the goodness and love within the mystery of our existence. But right now those convictions seem unavailable to me in the form of inspiring words.
So I decide to engage in cheerful, uninspired waiting—waiting cheered by the distraction of writing, which is a form of sharing with you my imaginative impoverishment.
Sharing. Maybe now I’m onto something. Sharing the experience while I’m living it seems to be an avenue of meaning in itself. Its virtue lies not in my thinking but in the act of relating the emptiness of my waiting-room thought to you. (Generally I disapprove of this self-conscious form of art. Who really cares what you’re doing while you’re doing it? Tell us the story
of it in a meaningful way and then we may get something worth the sharing. Well, keep reading. I think I’m trying to do both.)
Martin Buber is right: all real life is meeting (see The Way of Man
, or I and Thou
.) I have no revelatory formulations to offer, no powerful insights, except perhaps this: In sharing this experience with you, I fly out of the waiting room and into the embrace of the human community of shared thought. And there, for now, I seem to take solace, at least while I’m writing. Not for any real danger I am in at the moment—there probably isn’t much of that. But for the spiritual emptiness—apparent and temporary—that seems to settle upon my pondering of mortality in a waiting room. You are there for me in my desire to write for you; we meet; I’m alive! I hope at this moment of reading you are alive too. If not, I thank you anyway for being there to be shared with.
Maybe this meditation will console you a little in some future waiting room—if so, there’s a precious bit of immortality for both of us. If it’s been a bore, at least you have done the virtuous deed of visiting (in imagination) the sick. May every blog you read be more entertaining and mark a bigger step toward that immortality we all long for even in the spiritual dryness of the waiting room.
P.S. The nurse just appeared to say, “You’re done. Come in and we’ll sew you up.” On to sixty.