No Cure for Being Human

A book about facing death, which we all do to varying degrees, where colon cancer sharpens the focus.

Before when I was earnest and clever and ignorant, I thought, life is a series of choices. I curated my own life until, one day, I couldn’t. I had accepted the burden of limitless choices only to find that I had few to make. I was stuck in this body, this house, this life. (page xiii)

Our parents die before we know them, and our kids forget our love. We lose people before we can learn to live without them. (page xv)

“Based on the information we have about people with Stage Four colon cancer, the survival rate is fourteen percent,” he said and began to scan the room as if looking for a window to climb out of. (page 7)

“Wait!. Wait. Before you go. What does survival mean in this context?” He paused, his expression softening. “Two years,” he said. (page 8)

I am among the 3 percent of patients with magical cancer….Most cancer patients receive a cocktail of chemotherapies which fight cancer cells with blunt and terrible force. I am eligible to receive chemotherapy with an additional immunotherapy drug called Keytruda, but the medicine is still in the “trial phase” so I can only access it through a “clinical trial” in Atlanta, Georgia, a six-hour drive south. I feel unbearably happy. (page 34)

After a physician’s assistant at the hospital casually informs me that “the sooner you get used to the idea of dying the better,” I make plans for a photographer to come to the house to take family portraits to remember me by. (page 47)

Bureaucracies are automated systems made up of people who must choose each and every day whether their job will require any of their humanity. (page 48)

“Henry the First. And then there was an acre, the area that a man and an ox could plough in a single day.” (page 54)

My precarious diagnosis has triggered a series of mental health assessments at the cancer clinic during which lovely and well-meaning counselors , all seemingly named Caitlin, are telling me to “find my meaning.” They wonder if I should consider making a “Bucket List,” as many other patients have found the process to be clarifying…But I resolve to try to follow the lead of The Caitlins nonetheless. After all, what do I know about dying? I’ve never done it before. (page 55)

A few years ago, my student’s dad discovered that he was in the last months of life. Much to everyone’s astonishment, his father didn’t have a wish list. In fact, his father didn’t wish for anything at all. Not a trip. Not a meal. He sat contentedly in his overstuffed recliner in the living room humming about how much he loved his family. I think back on this story and wonder: Do people age into acceptance? Is this personality or maturity or a natural realism? Had he already accomplished what the wanted to do? Did he see his kids get married, reach an anniversary, or hit a milestone? What amounted to enough? (pages 60-1)

It’s true that when you deal in abstractions, you save yourself the trouble of having to learn the particulars, but, as in the geography of France, what is meaningful gets replaced by what is merely rational. (page 64)

“So, you have colon cancer,” he begins. This is how it always starts, with emotional tourism. (page 71)

To so many people, I am no longer just myself. I am a reminder of a thought that is difficult for the rational brain to accept: our bodies might fail at any moment. (page 72)

After a long pause he asks, “Would you agree that true happiness is the ability to enjoy the present without anxious dependence of the future?” – Lucius Seneca (page 77)

I took my dad’s advice: the key to ambition was being willing to keep your bum in a chair for an extremely long period of time. (page 97)

There is always another scan, because this is my reality. But the people I know are often busy contending with mildly painful ambition and the possibility of reward. I try to begrudge them nothing, except I’m not alongside them anymore. (page 147)

“I’m constantly confused because aging isn’t the enemy. I am really hoping to age.” (page 168)

“It’s so weird that working so hard to stay alive makes you feel less human.” (page 173)

I reserve a pub to host a high school reunion, and I have rallied a team to participate in a five-kilometer race to benefit colon cancer research, complete with T-shirts that read WE’VE GOT THE RUNS. (page 179)

It became clearer than ever that life is not a series of choices. So often the experiences that define us are the ones we didn’t pick. Cancer. Betrayal. Miscarriage. Job loss. Mental illness. A novel coronavirus. (page 183)

We try to outsmart our limitations and our bad, bad luck, but here we are, shouting the truth into the abyss. There is no cure for being human….We all live like this, without assurances, without formulas, desperate for the secret to carrying on. (page 188)

There are such small decisions, really. But aren’t they all? Trying again. Getting back up. Trusting someone new. Loving extravagantly inside these numbered days. (page 191)

All of our masterpieces, ridiculous. All of our striving, unnecessary. All of our work, unfinished, unfinishable. We do too much, never enough, and are done before we’ve even started. It’s better this way. (page 198)

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