Here is what I have learned about in the year since I found out I had metastatic tumors inside of me: how tumors actually kill people; how to deal with chemo side effects; what cancer-related questions shouldn’t be Googled; the limitations of what oncologists and everyone else knows about cancer in general, and about what will happen to me in particular. Unless you or a loved one also has cancer, you probably won’t care about any of those things.
I’ve also reflected plenty about things that you might care about: the meaning of life, priorities and purpose, things that are important when facing death. But you probably shouldn’t care what I think about those either. Memento mori reflections feel significant because facing death is significant. But the weightiness of death also skews those reflections. Publishing trends suggest that people love cancer memoirs, and facing death does make a person reflective. I’m skeptical, though, that the dying have good advice for the living. We seem to have, at best, pretty empty advice that you’ve seen elsewhere already. At worst, it’s actively bad advice for anyone who isn’t dying soon.
One lesson that the dying are supposed to teach is to live every day like you’re dying. But I’ve tried it: I’ve ordered coffee like I’m dying, gone for a walk like I’m dying, had conversations like I’m dying. Carpe diem, sure, but this attitude is hard to maintain. If I seriously tried to live today as my last, it would make tomorrow awful. I would have messes to clean up, a hangover, and concerned voicemails to respond to. Even if I approached it somberly, would I assemble my family for some last words, final reflections, and my passwords? And then, what? Make everyone show up again tomorrow?
Early on, when I didn’t know if my diagnosis gave me five years or five months, melancholy thoughts made each moment feel heavy, important. If this is the last time I’m going to watch my son play baseball, I’m sure not going to miss any of it by looking at my phone.
Appreciating the smallest moments makes them feel important, and it’s impossible to appreciate them all. Both things are true. Even to appreciate one moment a day would be an achievement, one I’ve been prompted toward for years. The message is in every self-help book, and on inspirational mugs and pillows and signs. So cancer did remind me to live in the moment—so does Pottery Barn.
What’s different when facing death is the reason to appreciate this moment: there aren’t many left. It’s good to be aware of one’s mortality, but I’m middle-aged. I was already aware. I also used to be able to plan a vacation.
Those who aren’t dying should only be aware enough of the finitude of life to know you can’t do everything. It’s sad, of course, to think about all the books you’ll never read and the places you’ll never visit. But limitations alone don’t ruin our experiences. The length of the menu doesn’t affect whether I savor my meal, and I enjoy the book I’m reading without a thought to the ones I’m not. In fact, I might even value each book more if I know how relatively few of them I’ll read in my life. But facing death makes life’s finitude too vivid. Picking a book when death is looming, and all my knowledge will be gone soon? Yea, I might fear no evil in the shadow of death, but looming shadows make it very hard to relax into a good book.
Prioritizing with death in mind is like working under a deadline, where all but the most important things fall away. That’s good when you’re dying, but it’s non-transferable. A full life has less important priorities in it, too: friends who are good to see but who wouldn’t be at one’s deathbed, casual hobbies, work projects and home projects and books to read and meals to eat and movies to watch, none of which individually would grow in that shadow of death, but all of which, together, make a life good.
The sole priority that I found left over after the diagnosis shock cleared everything else away was to help my son grow up. Nothing else was deathbed-important. And now, no matter what cautious optimism treatment leads to, I can never forget that all those other priorities are, at best, in a second tier.
Even my one top priority—helping my son grow up—was impossible to pursue. Pursuing long-term priorities requires finding meaning in life’s boring, mundane patterns. Playing catch with my son isn’t awe-inspiring, but it’s meaningful because it’s time together, seeing him develop, talking about what’s on his mind. It’s part of how I understand being a dad: showing that he can talk to me when he needs to, and that I love simply being with him.
Yet no one catch, or date night, or Thanksgiving, or coffee with a friend is anything special. Over time, the patterns are. The activities, considered individually, might not even be defensible: hundreds of things in my life are each more important than playing catch this afternoon. Because long-term patterns stop when nothing is long term, living like you’re dying means losing patterns entirely as a source of meaning.
Cancer showed me that I had one top priority, and also took away my routines, made me interrupt my daily life with surgery, recovery from surgery, nausea from chemo, exhaustion. I had to make excuses to my son about why I couldn’t play catch, or even put him to bed. So I suppose I do have advice to draw from this: Don’t get cancer.
Cancer memoirs presume something bigger to learn from those facing death. Maybe there is, but the things I’ve learned are mostly irrelevant, or they’re clichés that feel important because everything with death nearby feels deep. (Read a list of “famous last words” and think how mundane they would be if the person didn’t die immediately afterwards.)
That doesn’t mean that the lessons of the dying are wrong, but they don’t have any special significance. Death simplifies things in a way that isn’t conducive to living a good, complicated, messy life for those who aren’t dying. Plus, dying people can be just as wrong in their—or our—reflections as everyone else.
I hope, despite the statistics, I will have years to forget what I’ve learned in this experience, remember again the priorities I used to balance, knowing—but not feeling the weight of knowing—that time is limited. I’d like mostly to fail to appreciate each moment, to play catch just to play catch. Not feeling that life has to be constantly appreciated before it slips away is probably a sign of a good life—which is exactly the kind of cliché that feels important when said by someone dying.