Chapter 5 | Part 2: An Existential Journey

Christopher Graham

by Christopher Graham

The single worst thing about being a patient, the part that sucks more than anything else, is that you can never get away from it. It’s never not with you. You can’t put it out of your mind for even one day, once you get diagnosed. You’ll worry constantly about the future, even though you can’t do anything about it. You’ll go through all the scenarios in your head. One of the most painful parts of it for me is what might happen to Nicole. I might die when she’s very young, maybe even before we have children. She might end up marrying someone else, eventually. And maybe even having a more meaningful life with them than with me. And on the one hand, I truly want nothing else than for her to be happy in life. I’ve already told her that she needs to find someone to be happy with, if I end up kicking the bucket early.

But I’m nonetheless devastated by the idea that she might, one day, have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with someone else. A family with someone else. That, at the end of her life, I may be but a brief footnote in the narrative of her days on this earth. And then I feel guilty for wanting her all to myself. I actually get mad at myself when I think like that. I yell at myself in my head: “Jesus, Graham, you selfish piece of s**t. You’ll be dead. You won’t care. She deserves to be happy. Stop worrying about it.” But you just can’t. Your illness, and all those terrible thoughts –  the ones you’re ashamed to even admit you have, like my unfounded jealousy and despair regarding a hypothetical scenario – are always with you. You can never take a break from being sick.

And of course, all of this stuff makes you really think about what happens after you die, if anything. I was raised Catholic but during college and the years after that, my faith lapsed. I suppose you could even say that it was gone entirely. I, at one point in my life, described myself as an atheist. But as I got older, that position seemed a little too definitive, and the reality is that no one actually knows if there’s an afterlife or not. I was essentially an agnostic before all of this started. I was definitely questioning my existential beliefs before this, too, but it was always something that was on the back-burner. I had a life to live, and my faith or lack thereof just wasn’t important to me one way or the other, before this happened. After all, I had the rest of my life to figure it out, right?

Then I got diagnosed, and all of the existential questions that we all have to answer for ourselves came right back to the forefront. Death was no longer some abstract thing to think about during my retirement years, it was now a constant companion on my life’s journey. Even after everything – finishing treatment, going back to work, trying to get my life back on track – I still think about my inevitable death just about every day. And so, in a move that surprised even myself, I started praying. Not even necessarily because I believed it, but because I didn’t know what else to do. What do you do, when the control you think you have in your life is completely removed? I often thought, “you’re just talking to yourself in your head.” Most of the time, I just talked to God like I’ve been talking to you throughout this book. Conversationally. But I also felt like I had to say some real prayers, if I was gonna pray. So I picked ones that were less about the specific beliefs of any religion, and more like mantras on how to live your life. One in particular, the serenity prayer, was very helpful for me, especially the first part:

> God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

That’s the line that’s always quoted and printed on those clichéd paintings and such. Nothing particularly objectionable there, even for an atheist if you swap out “God” and put “Universe” instead. But there’s also a second part of the prayer which often gets overlooked:

> Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

Okay, that part was a bit more “out there,” right? I didn’t know about all that God stuff still, but the carpe diem message was also useful to me, so I’d mentally recite this part too. And in the back of my head, I did begin to think more about the mystical parts of that prayer.

It also occurred to me that all of the events in my life had led me, inexorably, here. When you really look at it, I was more prepared and equipped than just about any patient, ever, to undergo this sort of crucible. I was an otherwise healthy 32-year-old man and so I could tolerate a very rough surgery. I was a physician with the medical knowledge to understand everything. I had the peritoneal surface oncology team – who apparently have quite the reputation for being aggressive in their approach – dropped right into my lap at my home institution. I had my mom and dad, who came up for the surgeries, and who both came back multiple times to help out throughout this whole process (PS, I love you guys more than you’ll ever know!). I had Nicole, the love of my life, to help me through it. I had her amazing parents, now my in-laws, who are basically a second set of parents to me. I had an incredibly helpful and understanding residency program here going to bat for me with everyone they needed to on my behalf. I had friends to depend on, unbelievably fantastic friends like Mina. I had Mr. Tim, someone I loved like an uncle, as a role model to look up to with all of this cancer stuff. And there have been many times in my life when things happened which, at the time, I thought were total disasters. But after things played out a bit, and I had the benefit of hindsight, every single one of them turned out to be a good thing for me. Maybe, just maybe, this would turn out like one of those other times in my life, when an apparent catastrophe turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

And so, even though I felt vaguely ridiculous every time I spoke to God, I kept praying. It wasn’t going to hurt, at least. My mom sent me a book called Proof of Heaven by a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who had a very unique experience. He developed spontaneous bacterial meningitis, an infection of the lining of his brain and spinal cord. That’s more than ten times less likely than being struck by lightning, with the odds of that happening estimated at 1 in 10 million. We’re talking Powerball-winner-type rarity over here. Anyway, while in a coma, Dr. Alexander had a near-death experience and was in or experienced heaven or the afterlife.

It was his description of God that really caught my attention more than anything else. He describes God as a being of, essentially, perfect understanding, empathy, and love. In fact, he refers to “God” as “Ohm” or “source” or other words not usually associated with God. As in, God is the source of everything that is, and ever will be. But, this very high level, conceptual, and abstract type of God and afterlife is precisely what I’ve always thought it “would” be like, if a truly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God existed. And the single biggest message of God, recounted by Dr. Alexander in his book, was this: all that matters is love. God wants us, more than anything else, to love each other. To me, that was how a being worthy of the title God would be: nearly incomprehensible to us. An unceasingly compassionate being of pure love, with total understanding of all that is and ever will be.

And here was a guy, like me, who before this believed that that the physical/material world was all that existed. And who in many important ways, was like me – rational. Logical. Skeptical. Those are all virtues in the liberal-as-in-the-founding-fathers type of liberalism, right up there with free speech and other enlightenment ideas with which I completely agree. After reading his book, I also looked into a lot of people’s published near-death experiences. I found a remarkable similarity in both the description of the afterlife, and the true concern of God – whether we love our fellow human beings – in nearly all of those works.

And if this man, an academic neurosurgeon, could not only have this very personal experience, but also have the courage to write about it and stick his name on the by-line, he must believe that it’s true, even if he’s ultimately wrong. Maybe there really was something to this whole “God” thing. I still didn’t buy it, hook line and sinker, but I opened myself up to the possibility that a higher power might legitimately exist. I actually emailed him to thank him for sharing his experience, and told him a bit about my story, and he wrote back a very personal reply that I still read from time to time because I find wisdom and strength in his words. And so began the first part of my existential journey.

Continue reading in the next installment by Christopher Graham here: Chapter 5 | Part 3: Knowing When to be Your Own Advocate

Read the previous installment by Christopher Graham here: Chapter 5 | Part 1: The Nature of Patienthood

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