I did not know who Warren Zevon was until last year, when his impending death from lung cancer made the news. He was a singer-songwriter, and it turned out that I was very familiar with one of his pieces--the famous werewolf song that blares from the jukebox while Tom Cruise prances victoriously around the pool table in "The Color of Money." It has always been one of my favorite movie scenes.
Zevon's illness provoked a seemingly heartfelt show of support from others in the entertainment business. David Letterman featured him for an entire show, and at one point asked him if his illness had given him any wisdom. Zevon's response: "Enjoy every sandwich."
To characterize this message as inspirational is probably over the top, but grant me this much--it stands in refreshing contrast to the stories of other victims of life-threatening illnesses that are intended to be inspirational but end up sounding superhuman. The protagonists in these tales meet any challenge, climb any mountain and draw their last breath with optimism and grace.
I admire the take-charge attitude and energy of such people, but I have nothing in common with them and they bear little resemblance to anyone I know. Zevon, however, I can relate to.
In February of 2002 I was diagnosed with lymphoma. Since that time I have become increasingly aware that the world-beater stories are simply part of a larger conspiracy to get everyone in the country to live life to the fullest--travel more, learn to play the tuba, teach our grandchildren about the fall of the Roman Empire, build our own lathes and turn that cherry tree in the front yard into salad bowls for the whole neighborhood.
Each of these ventures is fine when considered by itself (except maybe for the salad-bowl thing), but I am suspicious of the cultural imperative that whether we are sick or well, more is better. I have no quarrel with those who, faced with a catastrophic health event, want to put more pins in their maps, but there are some of us who simply find renewed meaning in our already existing worlds.
Since my chemotherapy treatment, I have experienced small "Zen" rushes--an arresting sense of tranquility coupled with the heightened awareness that what I am doing at that moment is exactly what I want to be doing--whether I'm sitting in a restaurant with a newspaper, reading a book in bed, cooking a meal or watching a movie with my wife. I had these moments before my diagnosis, but not as often or as easily.
This sense of well-being is a welcome change, but I can't say that it is due to a major shift in my priorities. The changes here have been small ones. I did not consider myself particularly materialistic before cancer, but I am definitely less so now. I used to be hungry to see live performances--plays, symphonies, singers--but I am more easily satisfied these days, and I don't feel as much that I am missing something if I don't go. Family and friends have always been important to me, but cancer has a way of separating those who are closest to you from those who are not.
During chemo I lost my hair, my appetite and a ton of weight. My color was lousy and my voice was weak. I had trouble carrying on complicated conversations. Outside of that I thought I made a pretty good impression, but to my surprise some people avoided me. Others were relentlessly faithful.
The cliches about sickness and marriage are (unsurprisingly) true--the tested relationship does not stay the same. I was fortunate. Gene was steadfast in her love and support. In the ground war that is cancer, I knew she'd be there on the toughest days.
All this is to the good, of course, but I have to acknowledge a downside as well. I think about cancer every day, and a mild sense of anxiety is a familiar backdrop to my routine. This is to be expected, I suppose. What really bothers me is my quicker tendency to irritation.
I have always been annoyed by people who won't wait their turn or who want more than their share, but I'm afraid I'm turning into the Dirty Harry of line crashing. Everyday examples of rudeness and blatant inconsideration can light my fuse if I don't see them coming and prepare myself to roll with the punches. I've not lost my temper in any of these situations, but I've had to bite my tongue a lot. The same immediacy that is so comforting during my Zen moments can undo me in these situations.
Maybe this is just a case of the moment-by-moment living some say is the natural sequela of any protracted battle for health. Maybe I need a new philosophy of life. Or maybe it's something else altogether. I may never find out, but in the meantime, I'll have a Reuben on rye. Hold the dressing.