Scared to/by Death

That slightly numbing feeling in the pit of your stomach. The vacuous place your mind slips into. The despair that comes out of nowhere and washes over you like a tidal wave. The utter lack of hope. The lack of anything good in what you see around you.

That’s the fear that scares me.

Not the reactive fear. You know, the fear that braces you as you realize something is wrong. Something that has happened that is out of your control. Spur-of-the moment. No time to really react. Instantaneous fear. That kind of fear doesn’t scare me as much. When that happens, it’s out of your control anyway, so why worry about it?

The slow, dreading, foreboding fear. That’s the kind I’m talking about.

After a pretty full morning of coding and refactoring Friday, I sat down with my iPad right before lunch to catch up on my Twitter feed. I came upon messages that Christopher Hitchens, the Vanity Fair writer infamous for his book ‘God Is Not Great”, had died after a battle with esophageal cancer. Initial gut reaction? Not surprise. Brief sadness, actually, as I did enjoy his guest appearances on Bill Maher’s HBO show Real Time. Come to think of it now, that was 4-5 years ago. Hmm. I do remember, however, reading an essay of his when he was first diagnosed. Full of wit and honesty, his head-long plunge into life with cancer was appropriately analyzed as being “bullshit”.

Even that didn’t get to me, though. It was when I clicked on one of the links that led to an article about his death. Its main story picture was a photograph of Mr. Hitchens from November 2010. I was shocked. This was not the man I remember. Here’s an image of the person I remember. Not young, mind you, but still healthy-looking. Normal, you could almost say. To be blunt, what I saw now was a shriveled, aged, sickly man. It scared me. It still scares me. (It’s why I didn’t embed the image here.)

It also aroused the still-fresh memories of Steve Jobs’ last months. Before this death in early October, there were rumors, spurred on by pictures, spurred on by other rumors. The one that made me physically blanche was a video of Steve and his wife going out to lunch one afternoon. He was so weak that he could barely make the short walk to his car, much less drive it. It was stunning. Paralyzing, even. This titan of an industry, this charismatic leader of a company, had been reduced to a sickly figure. Heartbreaking, to be sure.

What do both of these cases have in common, though?


Such a small word that implies so much sadness, so much pain. Growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s, the big-bad wolf was AIDS. It was the disease that was an instant death sentence, feared above all others. I mean, who didn’t sit there in stunned silence when you heard Magic Johnson announce that he had acquired HIV and not think he’d be dead in 1-2 years. I know I did. I know my dad did as well.

But HIV and AIDS are different than cancer. AIDS is acquired (right there in the name) and can therefore be prevented. Cancer is not acquired. You can’t “get it” by sharing spit or receiving a tainted blood transfusion (at least as far as I know). It just comes. No warning. No heads-up.

Also, the medical community has also come a LONG way in the treatment of HIV and AIDS. There are drug regimens that can make it livable (as much as it can be). Magic Johnson is still around, right?Q And that was, what, 1991. That’s 20 years living with HIV. That would have been absurd to hear in 1991.

Hence, AIDS has lost its title as the the dreaded disease, at least to me. We have now come back to cancer.

With cancer, it’s a timing thing. If you catch it early enough, they can theoretically get rid of it through surgery. Even that’s not a certainty, though. Imagine the roller-coaster ride through your emotions if you think you’ve beaten it, only to learn 3 years later that it’s back. Gut-wrenching is the only emotion that comes to mind.

The Fear

As I sat in stunned silence looking at the image of Mr. Hitchens, one topic kept circling my mind. My family. What would the kids think if Daddy turned into someone they couldn’t even recognize? What if they were scared? What if they didn’t know what to say? How to approach me? What if they did that awkward say-hello-to-the-relatives-you-don’t-know-but-know-you kind of thing? That breaks my heart just to think about.

And what about Jayme? I know how much of a handful the kids are, much less me. Now, imagine me with cancer. What an unbelievable nightmare. How would she cope? In reality, I know she would, because that’s the kind of woman she is. But it pains to think that she could be put in that position.

And what about me? What if I couldn’t stand to look at myself? What if I wasn’t strong enough? What would my mental fortitude be when faced with this disease?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are unknowable right now. But these are the questions that eat at you, even though there’s no reason for them to. These are the things that keep you up that extra 45-60 minutes at night. They terrify you, yet at the same time make you remember you don’t have to worry about them right now. I’m fine. Jayme’s fine. The kids are fine. Even the dog’s fine. But they still haunt you. Even if they’re not hitting you in the face right this minute, they’re still background processing (to use a geeky tech phrase) all the time.

Shining Light

Amid all of this doom and gloom is the presence of the human spirit. Or should I say the utterly remarkable presence of the human spirit. Time and time again, when faced with unpleasant (and mostly unwanted) circumstances, the human spirit takes over. It propels an individual to adopt an appropriate mindset that will help them face their predicament with dignity and grace.

Case in point: Liana Bowman. Liana and I went to middle and high school together in Columbus. On July 14th of this year, Liana learned that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Instead of wallowing in self-pity and self-doubt (as anyone has the right to do, to be honest), she came out of the gate with a renewed spirit and vigor. On various Facebook posts since that time, she uses the phrase “kick cancer’s butt!” over and over again. She’s determined.

Even apart from all of the cancer-related activities and doctor visits and so on since then, the thing that impresses me the most about her is her unwillingness to let her normal life suffer in any way. She is still the same wonderful wife and mother she was before the cancer diagnosis came. That, in and of itself, has instilled in me a sense of optimism. Seeing her strength as she tackles this gives me hope.

Since middle and high school, we have become distant friends (as life tends to do), communicating only through Facebook. But I do consider myself lucky to know her. And I admire her greatly.

She is the shining light.


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