I have good news! My son-in-law, Don, who, as you may know from my last blog, was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer in August. Recently, we found out that he has a genetic marker that is associated with better treatment outcomes. We learned that his tumor did not originate in his brain tissue, but grew on top of a tumor of a different, more benign type. This gives him a better chance. His December MRI was very good—no cancer and we have renewed hope. He has also been cleared to go back to work in March, but must still have MRIs every eight weeks for….we don’t know how long. Nobody in the cancer business will commit to anything much (as I wrote in the set of blogs called “Cancerland” which set me to blogging in the first place). but we are cautiously optimistic.
I have finished my project for Oxford University press, the bibliography in Adult Development. What a nightmare. It consists of annotated entries for the 100 most important articles in my field. This is the 2nd edition, so it was a little easier, but keeping track of 100 references while I sent the manuscript back and forth to my co-author, Steve Page (a Fielding grad), but us in revision hell a couple of times. Revision hell arises when you can no longer figure out which version is most recent.
I have also finished a first draft of my book on death and dying. I wish the title could be “The book I wish I had when my Mother died,” but I fear it is both too long and too narrow. But, that’s the idea I want to convey. I haven’t shared it with you because it has taken me a long time to get the voice right. And, it is also connected to an amazing string of circumstances that have driven me along this path, including my cancer and Don’s cancer, and Alice in Wonderland. The recent part of the story began when I wrote a first chapter that had to be thrown out because it was way over-intellectualized. It was a history of attitudes toward death and dying over the course of civilization, beginning in Sumeria. As my editor said, “This is not a good place to begin.” I knew he was right, but I was confounded by the idea of starting all over again.
I had realized dimly (even before I sent the first chapter to him), that it was the wrong approach. It was the way I approach everything—first from the mind. I needed to start far away and creep on the thing. When that approach failed, I felt completely out of gas. In desperation I contacted the Universe. “Hey,” I said. “If I am going to do this book, you have to give me something. I need inspiration.” This is where Alice comes in. Alice in Wonderland was one of my favorite stories as a child. I briefly considered changing my name to Alice, though I never got the nerve to tell my Mother that. What came to mind, finally, was Alice asking the Mad Hatter “Are we dead yet?” Mind you, Alice never really says that in the book, so I was off on a search for what she did say. I sure remembered something about being dead.
So, it turns out that the first thing Google brought up was a set of articles by literary critics who argued that Alice in Wonderland was a story about dying—down the rabbit hole we go. How surprising! Alice came back to me just when I needed her. It also explained my fascination with Alice as a child. I have been thinking about death and dying for a long time indeed. Then, just about the time that I was writing about how people learn to cope with a terminal diagnosis, we learned that Don had brain cancer. I was beginning to wonder why this was happening to me. Six years ago, when my friend’s daughter committed suicide at the age of 12, this journey began when I went to Hospice of Santa Barbara for help in supporting my friend. Two years later, I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. Two years later, Don was diagnosed. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, somehow, I was stuck in a weird place.
I began to worry that people around me would die in traumatic ways because I was writing the book. As a developmental psychologist, I know that this kind of thinking is typical of four year olds, but I couldn’t stop feeling that I had somehow been appointed as the Angel of Death. In fact, I was worried that someone I knew would be murdered when I wrote the chapter on the subject. And, believe it or not, a friend of mine called to say that someone had tried to murder him. He had spent 36 hours in a coma, but, thank God, he had survived and was going to be okay.
You may want to steer a wide path around me these days, though I have finished the first draft of the book now and don’t expect more weirdness. I’m polishing it chapter by chapter and taking it with me on my vacation this month. We are going to Indonesia on a diving trip that Larry is planning. After the diving, we travel to Bali where I do know that a favorite tourist activity is participating in a funeral. That sounds like a perfect capstone to the story. I’m hoping the Universe will leave it at that for the time being. We return on the 5th of March and we leave on Monday.
I think I’ve said before that Carl Jung felt life should be lived mythologically and we should take advantage of the strange coincidences that mark our journey through this world. I’ve been taking his advice as best I can, so here I am, trying to make sense of it all, bumbling along, crafting my narrative and calling upon the Universe to make it worthwhile.