In this excerpt from his book Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapped in Life’s Hells, Arnold relates the story of Carole Neal, a close friend who died of cancer.
To be gripped by eternity while still in the clutch of time; to live for heaven in a world that often seems more like hell; to live for love and humility in a culture that rewards selfishness, greed, and self-aggrandizement – this clearly demands a daily fight. It may be a spiritual one, but that does not make it any less real; for the irreconcilable forces of life and death often clash in painful, concrete ways. That truth is illustrated well enough by the stories in this book, but it was driven home for me by Carole Neal, a close friend who died of cancer. I’ll quote her directly, from an interview she gave a few months before her death:
When I found out that I had cancer, I felt somehow relieved – I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I had always been afraid of dying, and all of a sudden there it was, and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. Sure, I’ve gone to pieces over it since then. After the first bout of chemo, I felt this lump under my arm, and I just fell apart.
On the other hand, I’ve been almost frantically afraid of cancer all my life, but then when it came, right there, square in my face, I wasn’t afraid.… My husband, Dale, even joked that it would be a terrible shame if I died of something else, since I had worried so much about cancer all my life.
Still, you can’t just lie down and accept it, because it’s a deadly disease. You can’t just fold up and crash. You have to fight with everything you have. That’s why I went for chemotherapy. I felt it was the answer, because with chemo you’re really fighting the disease with everything you have. I was going to take the most explosive kind, you know – whatever it took.
Then I found out that the survival rate for my type of cancer was basically nil, one to ninety-nine. But I hadn’t asked, and I didn’t care. I already knew from my sister’s death [of the same disease] that the statistics were pretty bleak. So I said, “Forget the numbers. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life in bed, sick and vomiting and everything else. I’m going to live with everything I’ve got.”
What does it mean to fight for your life? Well, Dale and I start each day by reading the Gospels, and it absolutely blows my mind every time I read those words. Jesus did and said just what he felt, straight out. He loved everyone without reservation – the rich and the poor. And at the same time he tackled people when they sinned: with compassion, but straightforwardly. Not that I could ever do that. But that’s how I’ve wanted to live my life, with that kind of fervor.
You know, we spend so much of our time dealing with petty problems and thinking petty thoughts, and I’ve come to see that that just has to go. We hurt one another, and get hurt over little things. But it’s stupid – just plain stupid – to spend time on those things.
With cancer you begin to realize that you have to make use of every day; each minute becomes precious. Dale and I have talked about how we’ve probably wasted years of our lives carrying little grudges and things that we couldn’t work out, or struggling to find enough humility to confront a problem, or apologize, or whatever. So you’re going to think this is weird, but to me having cancer has been like an adventure, the adventure of my life.
The present moment – the time we have right now – is the same for you as it is for me or for anyone. It’s all we have. We tend to think, “I’ll do that tomorrow,” or, “I’ll wait till I have time to follow through on that.” But we actually don’t have tomorrow. None of us does. We only have today and we only have each other – the person next to us, the person we live with or work with. Seeing this has been a tremendous challenge to me.
I’m not saying we all have to be intense or energetic. But each of us has a life to live – and once we’ve found it, we ought to live for it. We need to be ready to give up everything else that distracts us from that – our plans, absolutely everything, in order to go after what we’ve found. To really live demands all your fire.
Statistically speaking, few of us are destined to share Carole’s fate; by the same token only a fraction of us will ever know the emotional burden of a conspicuous medical condition. Still, their lives, like that of every person whose story I have related in this book, carry a meaning that is greater than the sum of their suffering. Simply put, it is the truth that even if they are denied the worldly happiness bought by popularity, attractiveness, or personal charisma, they radiate a deeper, more lasting happiness – the happiness that comes from loving and being loved. This happiness is neither based on “quality of life” nor limited by circumstances or genetic makeup. In its light even the strongest feelings of self-hatred yield. In it, even the most wretched person can find his or her God-given purpose, and the deep satisfaction that comes from seeking to fulfill it.