Just a few months ago now, a long-time colleague left our place of employment, having exhausted her tolerance for corporate life after a long tenure. Ann wasn’t a close friend, but we were cordial colleagues for a decade. She had an ironic view of life that is much like my own, and we might have been better friends if circumstances had allowed more than sporadic interaction. A good gal, all around.
In one of the those strange and cruel quirks of fate, it was just three weeks after leaving the company that Ann went in for a routine annual physical exam, which, having turned 50, included her first ever colonoscopy.
That exam, 12 weeks ago, was abruptly halted midway through the colonoscopy, and before Ann left the office that day, the follow-up meeting with an oncologist was already scheduled. It turned out that Ann’s colon cancer was already well-advanced—the estimate was that the disease had already been festering for 6 years— by the time it was spotted. Until that precise moment, she had no idea she was ill.
Immediate surgery followed, but with cancer already entrenched in the liver and lungs, the prognosis wasn’t good.
On Saturday, just weeks after diagnosis, Ann died. She was at her home in the care of family members and hospice workers. She was two years younger than I am today. Ann had never married, and had no children. It was almost like something in her know that her life wouldn’t be a long one and prevented her from establishing bonds that would be painful to break.
Ann had no pronounced unhealthy habits to speak of. She wasn’t a heavy smoker or drinker. She wasn’t overweight, and you wouldn’t have looked at her and thought to yourself that here was a woman who deserved whatever health problems befell her. This is a fate that fell out of the sky, completely unexpected.
Which is the nature of things, I guess. Although we all like to imagine we’re in control of our own fate, the very definition of fate is that it just happens to us without really listening to our wishes. Cars have accidents, genes mutate and cells go wild, trees fall in storms, levees collapse.
A sober mood has settled over me today. Having recently heard that Ann was fading quickly, there is some part of me that is relieved her suffering is already over. But I’m also somewhat selfishly thinking of my own life, and wondering what fate has in store for me and my family members.
There are also a number of ‘why’ questions I ask myself. Why, knowing that certain things are unhealthy, do I routinely grab a bagel or a slice of pie or a cheeseburger at lunch? At my routine colonoscopy two years ago, two or three precancerous polyps were spotted and removed, yet this wasn’t enough to make me give up all those tasty yet deadly foods. Like most every American, I very routinely eat things that I’m fully aware are bad for me. You don’t have to be all that perceptive to see something of a death wish in the behavior of the species. We all tempt fate, knowingly.
And why, knowing that life is so very short, do I sometimes choose to fill it with suffering? Why do I sometimes still entertain myself with worry and greed and hostility and anxiety? Is life so long, with so much free time, that I’ve nothing better to do than fill it with this kind of waste?
I’m a good deal better about this than I used to be, but still, when you get right down to it I have to acknowledge that my moments of unhappiness are the products of my own imagination and ego. Unhappiness isn’t a condition of the world. It’s something we each construct for ourselves, to fill the space we're afraid to confront.
Why do we do this? I suppose it's because we don't want to hear the ticking of the clock. That's the appeal of unhappiness, I think: you can't hear much else.