Thoughts on Life, Breast Cancer, and The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Many, many years ago I read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Despite the dark, intricate storyline, for a long time I only remembered isolated scenes and the seemingly fragmented lives of the characters. Over my years, time and circumstances caused scars, each reminding me of the victory of conquering the impossible, but of losing something valuable in the process. It wasn’t until 35 years later, after my second bout with cancer, that I realized how well Paul Bowles conveyed the brevity of life and how most of us waste our seconds on earth. After that bout with breast cancer, I thought I knew exactly what he meant. But just last week, after learning that I might have lost my husband to a foolish accident, I finally understand.

“One never took the time to savor the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and fatal, that there never would be a return, another time."

As humans, we are well adapted to wasting time. Our lives are crammed with “shoulds and have-tos.” Our days are full of urgent responsibilities that we either self-assign or are thrust upon us. We live as if there will always be tomorrow. But do we just wander through the day begging a cricket to call so that once again we can steal back into our dreams? 

Even when circumstances paint a picture, we continue to delude ourselves with excuses and needs. Such as the time I was frustrated while driving to work in a horrible traffic jam only to hear the highway was closed because of a fatal accident. I made the requisite excuse for being late to a meeting but someone else never made their destination. There was the time I was having difficulty with my children when a distant relative was t-boned one winter morning losing her two small children in the crash. How does one survive that anguish? Or the day I was dealing badly with my second cancer diagnosis and could no longer bear to see my friend dying of cancer, so I failed to visit her and she died before I was “able” to return. Sometimes there are no tomorrows.

“Because neither she nor Port had ever lived a life of any kind of regularity, they had both made the fatal error of coming hazily to regard time as non-existent. One year was like another year. Eventually everything would happen.” 

Why is anger more compelling than calm, war more important than peace, rivalry more captivating than beauty, fear more motivating than rationality… are all of those more real than a touch? I don’t paint in fear or anger. But unless I paint every day, I lose grip on that “reality.” Will the sun ever set like that again? Will the clouds ever again filter the light to create such colors and shapes? Will the night sky ever display “falling stars” like that again? Responsibilities crowd out everything else as the moments slip into a mountain of mist and are gone.

“And it occurred to him that a walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself. One never took the time to savor the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, that there never would be a return, another time.” 

Those of us who have survived cancer are not unlike soldiers who survive combat. In our dimensionless state nothing is more important than whatever fuels our need for self-preservation so that we might live to fight another day. We all pretend to be tough and strong but we are all at times afraid. We survive scarred, desperately trying to patch the rip in our universe.

“Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed.” 

But reality is that every day will be someone’s last. It’s the conundrum of being mortal.

"Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” 

As 2014 closes, 2015 stretches before us full of possibilities, opportunities for great accomplishments, discoveries, and health. But there is also looming war, failure, and illness. Now is the time to do exactly what we unceasingly feel the need to postpone - make every day count… or when it’s too late, be left to wonder why we didn’t. Carpe diem.