What's Your Story?

The science of narrative: Everyone loves to spin a yarn, but how do you tell a killer tale?

"My Doctor Isn't God!"

One woman's fight with cancer reveals lessons about living with dying.

Her face is creased and hard, her eyes small, her voice, though, is strong and determined, confident. I am sitting with her as she eats her pasta dinner, something my wife and I, along with friends of ours, have prepared for the cancer patients and family members who are staying here. My new friend explains that she has been in cancer treatment for over eight years. Just a few days before our meeting she had yet another surgery. I am about to ask how she is doing when she clarifies that there is no cure; just treatment at this point. “It’s going to kill me,” she says matter-of-factly. She takes another bite of her meal. She tells me that one of her daughters, barely in her twenties, died of the same disease.

She is eager to talk about the many doctors she’s had along the way. Back home, after the original diagnosis, her first doctor told her to go home and get her “things in order” because she was going to die. She tells me this as if her physician were a scoundrel. She points at me, her eyes narrow and she says, “I learned that you don’t accept the first opinion; and not the second; maybe the third.” Another told her that she had approximately ten months to live. “Never tell someone how long they have to live. It takes their hope away.” Another insisted on a particular chemotherapy. She told him that her heart had stopped when it was used before. When he explained that it probably had been administered incorrectly, she waved him off, fired him, in fact, and walked out. She puts her fork down and summarizes her view of the doctors she has depended on for so long: “They aren’t God!” It is clear that fighting anything (and anyone) associated with her disease has been part of why she has survived this long.

Other patients and family members around the dinner table agree that knowing as much as possible gives them a sense of being in control or, at least, not losing control. It helps to know the diagnosis, to know there are treatment options, that there are many paths to follow, that cancer isn’t a death sentence.

But for some there comes a time when knowing and the wisps of certainty it provides no longer hold promise; when, in fact, not knowing and greater degrees of uncertainty may be more comforting. That is where this woman is. She is open (and certain) about the fact that she will die from her disease, but she also revels in not knowing, not predicting, not assigning any certainty to when her end-time will come.

She relishes each day and lets each tomorrow take care of itself.

My friend talks about death. “When I was in Catholic school, the priest tried to teach us about dying. I was eight years old. He wound a little alarm clock and put it on the table while we did our work. Pretty soon that alarm clock went off and we all jumped. All he said was, ‘Now you’re all dead.’” Everyone around the table laughed at what seemed to me a uniquely bizarre object lesson. “You never know when it’s going to happen; you just know it is going to happen sometime.”

I realize as I sit there that I am pretending to be an outsider to this conversation; that I am just a visitor in a world where death is ever-present. I don’t have cancer. They do. As if this makes me immune to the same realities and eventualities. It does not.

She talks about faith in God as the one thing that has held her together, and others around the table shake their heads in agreement. One woman, who cannot open her mouth, hugs herself and then points skyward. No one questions their circumstance; no one asks “why?” At least not around the table. Their faith isn’t a matter of answers to questions; it is a matter of comfort, connection; it is an incarnational God (“God with us”) that they lean on.

My friend shakes her head and grimaces as she wonders how people who don’t believe in anything cope when death is near. When I was a medical family therapist I often asked people who were terminally ill what sense they made of their situation; what meaning they gave to their lives. I think this is the same question that my friend is asking.

I think we are tasked with creating meaning in life, contributing in some small way to something that is larger, something that is more long lasting than we are. I worry less about whether someone “believes” than I do about whether someone feels he or she has lived meaningfully.

As I listen to all the stories being told around the table, I can feel a fabric of meaning being woven, a fabric that clothes and comforts each of these storytellers.

To learn more about Seaburn's novels and other writings, click on his picture above.



What's Your Story?