Saturday, January 06, 2007

An Unwanted Journey: Day 0409 - "Pick up shirt Monday"

"Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas" - "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." - Ecclesiastes 1:2

Vanity, pride, hubris - it's been on my mind this past month. As has cancer and its concomitant - death. I have had occasion to feel wounded, not just physically, as I've coped with the omnipresent neuropathy in my hands and feet; not just psychologically, as I've undergone diagnostic tests and medical procedures to determine whether or not I have recurrent rectal cancer; but emotionally, as I've dealt with my own and other people's perceptions of me, my capabilities, and my future.

Feeling wounded leads one to thoughts about the end of life, prospects for an uncertain future, and, I suppose, reflections about vulnerability and the appropriateness of assuming a defensive posture. I guess it's just part of our animal nature - this fight-or-flight response - but what sets us apart from other animals (this is pure anthropomorphic bias, I suppose) is that we are capable of transforming fear and uncertainty into vanity.

Someone recently told me, "You're not a doormat. You have nothing to apologize for. This past year you've worked at the most important thing of all, battling for your life. Never apologize for that." There is truth in that advice, to be sure. But there is another dimension that I can't quite articulate yet that has been hounding me lately. When does self-preservation and bravery become vanity?

The preacher says all is vanity. Is that true?

I've just watched a DVD video from the 1990s television series Northern Exposure. The episode is about Mr. Unknown Person, someone who dies in Cicely, Alaska in Dr. Joel Fleishman's office without any identification and before Joel can even examine him (first aired 22-Apr-1991). Nobody in town knows who he is, but they adopt his dead body, protect it from wolves, and hold a town-wide funeral for him. The other threads of the episode all deal with human vanity, but all of that is put into relief by the death and funeral of Mr. Unknown Person.

I couldn't help but think how pertinent this episode is to my current situation. We are all unknown persons who leave behind us artifacts of our sojourn - things like a slip of paper in our pocket which reads only "Pick up shirt Monday."

This coming Monday, I will undergo yet another diagnostic imaging session in the Grand River Hospital, an MRI to help my medical oncologist determine whether or not the possibility of recurrent rectal cancer is significant. That MRI will be an artifact of my existence, a piece of evidence of my time here and of those who provided medical care for me. But what I've discovered over the past year or so is that I am responsible for providing the context for these medical artifacts to anyone interested. That goes for all the members of my medical team. Each time I go to an appointment, each time I discuss an issue with someone on the phone - I am the only one who can provide the complete context for all those artifacts.

"Pick up shirt Monday." Ultimately, we are all, each and every one of us, Mr. Unknown Person. Only we can weave the meaning and purpose of our journey here. I don't think that is vanity. That's our obligation to ourselves and to those we touch every day of our lives. Our ability to help one another, to care for and provide worthwhile artifacts for each other, depends on a solid sense of our own worth and the importance of the journey we travel.

All I know for sure, as I've thought about this over the past month, is that the artifacts which truly matter are the ones in which we've both preserved our self worth and enhanced that of others. Ultimately, that medical image which will survive me is nothing compared to the memory of a hug and kiss, freely given and freely accepted, along with words like, "I love you, son." Those moments may leave no external record, but they preserve the meaning of life.

Finally, a couple quotes from the TV episode:
Maurice: "A man should not leave this earth with unfinished business. He should live each day as if it was a pre-flight check. He should ask each morning, am I prepared to lift-off?"

Chris: "You've been listening to The Adagio from Beethoven's 7th Symphony. I think Ludwig pretty much summed up death in this one. You know, he had lost just about all his hearing when he wrote it, and I've often wondered if that didn't help him tune into the final silence of the great beyond."

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